To some campers, “Boondocking” might be a foreign and intimidating concept, but with a little planning and preparation, it doesn’t need to be!
First off, what is boondocking??? Boondocking is essentially off-grid camping—without hookups like water, sewer, and electric that you would find at a typical campground or RV park. It’s camping without the bells and whistles, but it’s also camping without the crowds, fees, reservations, and campground restrictions. Since 2016, Chad and I (and Frankie) have been fulltime trailer dwellers and while we are on the road, we have only stayed at paid campgrounds a handful of times. Not only has it saved us money we’ve been able to later pour into our gas tank, but it has also afforded us the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful and pristine parts of North America. Below, I will be sharing some of our experiences including our boondocking setup, how we find our sites, groovy camping apps, and some helpful RV tips…..so pull up a log and sit for a while.
Is Boondocking Safe?
With everything seemingly ‘Doom & Gloom’ in the news, it’s easy to be scared of camping in remote or unfamiliar places. However, we’ve found being far away from civilization to be much safer than popular and busy spots. After all, there’s a much bigger chance of experiencing a crime while camping closer to cities and populated areas, like a beach or county park than deep in the forest or in the middle of the desert. The places we go, we are lucky to run into anybody! With this being said, it’s always a good idea to come prepared and be aware of your surroundings….
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Before we move to a new campsite, we research the area. If the place has a bad reputation, we move along and pick a different spot— this is where reviews come in handy! Always trust your intuition, if a place rubs you the wrong way, there’s probably a good reason for that. If you need extra assurance, call your local Ranger Station for advice. While traveling, we always hide our valuables or keep them on us when the trailer is unattended. We also lock up our generator, solar panel, and trailer hitch when we leave camp to explore.
If the fear of lions, tigers, and bears are keeping you from camping remotely, consider keeping some form of protection on you, especially bear spray which has been proven more effective in thwarting animal attacks than anything else. Chad and I had the unfortunate experience of accidentally spraying ourselves with bear spray last year…..we can attest to it’s effectiveness!! To help avoid unwanted visitors, we make sure to put away our food and not leave it outside where it can attract critters.
WATCH THE WEATHER
When it comes to Mother Nature, we carefully monitor the weather forecast so we can avoid hairy situations like getting stuck in the mud or caught in severe weather. Sometimes, freak storms happen that aren’t predicted so make sure you have a plan in place in case the weather takes a turn for the worst.
“Whatever it takes to make you feel safe, just do it. Never let fear keep you from enjoying the outdoors.”
Getting Setup for Boondocking
Before you hit the road, you will want to make sure you’re prepared for off-grid camping. Power, water, and sewer are some important things that need to be considered ahead of time. Though some rigs are already equipped for off-grid camping, many RVs aren’t- including our 1976 Airstream Argosy.
First off, let’s talk about power. Most fulltime RVers have at least two 12 volt deep cycle batteries (or gel cells). For those new to camping or electronics, the batteries power DC (direct current) accessories and appliances, like your lights, water pump, and fans. However, appliances that require considerably more power like an air conditioner or a microwave are powered with AC (alternating current). Basically, anything you would plug into a typical electric socket is powered by AC. The two electrical systems are connected through a converter so when you are hooked up to power, it is charging up the batteries for the DC system. When you are boondocking, you will need an inverter, which turns DC power into AC power, allowing you to run your household appliances from the battery bank. In order to keep the battery charged, a generator and/or solar kit is needed.
Generators and solar kits can cost a pretty penny, so for RVers on a tight budget like Chad and I, we gradually add to, and upgrade our power system. We might not have the fanciest or newest products on the market- but that hasn’t kept us from enjoying our camping trips. For the past couple years, we’ve been using our off-brand 3400 watt generator, but at some point, we’ll upgrade to something smaller, quieter, and more efficient like a Honda EU3000iS. We primarily use the generator to run our A/C unit, charge the battery, and run the occasional household appliance. Along with the generator, our Renogy solar panel helps charge our battery. Unlike our generator, solar is only good for charging batteries- not on-demand power or for large appliances like an air conditioner. On the plus side, it gives you a renewable source of power off-the-grid and is constantly charging the battery as long as there is sunlight. To help save battery life, make the switch to LED lights and consider solar string lights for outside.
While boondocking, you will want to make sure you are setup with plenty of water for your stay— especially if you plan on being somewhere hot like the desert. Depending on your RV, water tanks range from 10-90 gallons, with our Argosy’s being around 30 gallons. If your tank is smaller like ours, water doesn’t last very long, so we try to be very conservative with our water consumption. Here are some ideas to extending your water supply as long as possible along with other helpful water tips for the road.
- Water Jugs….. This is what we primarily use while we are boondocking, whether it’s for drinking, washing hands, or cooking. Most grocery stores have a water jug refill station. These save you a lot of money and reduce waste. Also we regularly mark a jug or two as flushing water and fill from nearby creeks or lakes to flush the toilet.
- While you are traveling, keep the weight down and help your gas mileage by filling up closer to your destination.
- When it comes to cooking, after you are done boiling your pasta, dump the water somewhere outside rather than down the drain, this will allow more time for your grey water tank to fill up.
- You can fill up your water at many rest stops, gas stations, and campgrounds that offer “Potable” water. The fee is anywhere from $0-$10 and often includes the dump. You can find these spots on the Sani-Dump website.
- Unless you have a bigger rig, get used to the idea of not showering as much. If you are not using your trailer shower or an outdoor shower, wet wipes will do the trick. While we are on the road, we will go to gyms or campgrounds that offer showers for a minimal fee, sometimes you get the added bonus of using their laundry room too!
In the immortal words of Cousin Eddie, “The Shitter’s Full”, is a basic and unglamorous reality of RV life, especially if you are not hooked up at an RV park. Depending on your rig, the black water tank ranges in size, ours being a smaller one (about 12 gallons) up to 90 gallons for many 5thwheels. Even with a small black tank like ours, typically we get by dumping it every couple of weeks, which works out perfectly since most boondocking locations have a 14-day limit anyway.
When it comes time to dump it- unlike Cousin Eddie- DO NOT dump it down a drain or on public land- that’s super illegal (and gross). Instead, find a rest stop, gas station, or campground that offers free or affordable dumping fees (generally between $5-$10). Sani-Dumps is a great website for finding a local dump station or you can call a nearby rv park that offers dumps for non-guests. Another alternative to traditionally rv plumbing is using a compost toilet, learn more about it here!
STOCK UP ON PROPANE, BEER, FOOD, and OTHER SUPPLIES
To save you time and gas, make sure you are all stocked up on supplies before you reach your destination. Here are some helpful tips…
- All rigs are different, but we have a propane heater, stove, and combination water heater, so it’s important to keep the propane tank full.
- While grocery shopping for extended boondocking stays, we love going to the bulk section so we can get exactly the amount of ingredients needed which saves us money and space.
- To save on energy, we buy a couple blocks of ice that we keep in aluminum pans in the refrigerator.
- When you are traveling in the middle of nowhere, don’t expect to find a decent grocery store. Grab your produce ahead of time in a major town. Many places we go, you’re lucky to even find a Dollar General.
- Consider having a backup tank of gas, incase you can’t find a gas station. You’ll want gas anyways for the generator.
How We Score Awesome Free Camping Spots
Did you know that there are 245 million acres of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) along with 154 National Forests that offer free dispersed camping around the country? In general, camping is legal anywhere that isn’t posted otherwise— as long as you stay 100ft off the road, trail, or water source. Though we occasionally boondock on other agency land, 99% of the time our spots are on BLM and NF land.
So how can you tell if you are on BLM or National Forest land?
One of our favorite camping apps is the Dyrt Pro App, which offers campers an off-line database with thousands of reviewed camping spots. In fact, the Dyrt has the largest US campsite database on the Internet! One of the best features of the app is their recently released “Map Layers” which shows the boundary lines of National Forest and BLM land— so you know exactly whether the land you’re on is fair game. Like most of the places we’re exploring, cell service is nonexistent, so it’s helpful to be able to access these maps and campsites without needing reception.
Some other neat features included with The Dyrt Pro App….
- The “Trip Planner” feature helps plan your road trip. Just plug in your start and end point along with any filters you’d like to add, and let it do the work for you! It will also help you estimate fuel costs and plan gas stops!
- The “Pro Discounts” feature allows you to save up to 40% off on outdoor gear and select campgrounds.
Here are some additional tips while searching for boondocking spots….
- Always have a Plan A, B, and even C. Even though you might think you’ve found the most amazing camping site online, we have arrived at places only to find them full. Camping without reservations leaves you no guarantees but that’s part of the game.
- Try to arrive mid week, especially if you are going to a popular place like nearby National Parks. We’ve had much better luck finding spots Monday-Thursday.
- If you are unsure of an area’s accessibility, find a safe spot to unhitch your trailer while scouting out a road. After all, it’s never fun having to back up a long dirt road with a trailer— take it from us! (and make sure to leave a note with the date, time, and a phone number just in case there are issues)
- Call or drop by the local Ranger Station for advice. They will be able to give you a current assessment of the land, like whether it’s muddy, still snow covered, or has had recent bear activity. They might also have some good pointers for campsites and local hikes.
- Get there early and give yourself plenty of time to get to the spot before the sun goes down. It’s hard to assess the land when it’s dark. You don’t want to get stuck in a tough place and get beached. What might look like a dirt road, might actually be a dry creek bed…yes, that actually happened to us in Death Valley!
- Plan around the seasons. In general, during the winter, head South, and during the summer, escape the heat by going somewhere cooler. This way, you’ll rarely have to worry about running the A/C or heater.
- Always carry an air pump and plug kit for the off-chance you get a flat. Not much is worse than being stranded miles away from civilization, and don’t forget you can always use your trailer battery in the event of a dead tow vehicle battery (been there, done that)
- Besides the Dyrt app, we use Campendium, www.freecampsites.net , and Allstays to find these free camping spots.
After traveling 50,000 miles around North America, boondocking is the only way we roll. We love the freedom it affords us while exploring beautiful areas of the country. We hope you enjoy it too!
Cate, Chad, and Frankie Battles
This blog post was written in Partnership with The Dyrt. The Dyrt is the #1 Ranked Camping App Online