What if I told you it was possible to travel in your cushy RV, outfitted with a queen bed and indoor plumbing, without giving up the feeling of freedom that comes from setting up camp in a free, secluded, picturesque campsite out in the boonies?
Sounds great, doesn’t it? This practice is commonly called boondocking, and it’s loosely defined as camping outside of an established campground on public lands with no utility hookups. Not only is it a rewarding way to RV camp, but after learning a few simple boondocking lessons, it’s really simple.
Boondocking is a skill that improves over time. Eventually, you go from overflowing your grey tank and running down your batteries on the second day, to having your water and electric needs so dialed in that it requires no more thought than staying at a campground with full hookups.
But to get there, you need to know a few things.
My husband and I recently hit a milestone of 70 days of consecutive boondocking. Seventy days of free camping, incredible views, complete solitude, and a diminishing desire to ever set foot in a campground again. During that time, I started thinking about the most important boondocking lessons that we’ve learned over the years.
From power needs to learning from others, here are five boondocking lessons to help you camp for free like a pro.
1. Make a plan
Sure, you could simply hop in your rig and head for the nearest patch of public land. As romantic as that sounds, the hard truth is that the most rewarding boondocking adventures are usually the result of a little planning and forethought. Before you even start looking for potential sites, give some thought to your wants and needs.
Are you in search of complete isolation or a more social scene where multiple RVs converge? What kind of roads are you comfortable driving on with your RV? Are your priorities a wide-open view, trees to provide shade, or easy access to hiking trails?
It’s also important to learn the limitations of your RV. Things like knowing the ground clearance and height limit of your rig are essential when heading off the main road. Thinking about these wants and needs ahead of time will not only improve your boondocking experience, but it will reduce the chance of potential problems.
2. Learn from others
The best way to learn the ins and outs of boondocking is by following in the footsteps of those who have come before you. When we first started out, I poured over travel blogs and websites trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible.
There is an impressive amount of information out there about boondocking. I like to utilize a variety of sources.
- Travel bloggers who write about boondocking experiences and locations: Wheeling It, Aluminarium, Technomadia, Road Less Traveled, Van-Tramp, Gone With The Wynns.
- Websites that list boondocking locations along with reviews from people who have camped there: Campground Reviews, Campendium, FreeCampsites.net.
- Online resources: BLM, US Forest Service, Frugal-RV-Travel Boondocking Guides.
Another great way to learn from others is to camp with them. Spend any amount of time in the Southwest during the winter months and you’re bound to run into other boondockers. Seek out the more popular boondocking areas like Quartzsite, Yuma and Borrego Springs to increase your chance of running into other people.
While it’s not wise to park right next to the RV with 6 tilted solar panels on top and start firing away questions, if you park a respectful distance away and wander over for a conversation you might be surprised how willing most people are to share their boondocking knowledge.
3. Bring extra water (and learn how to get it in your tank)
Water conservation is an absolute must when boondocking, but if you want to stay out for an extended period of time, it’s always a good idea to bring extra water.
How much you bring is up to you, but if you’re going somewhere far from a water source—more is always better.
Our RV only has a 39 gallon fresh water tank, and we use on average eight gallons of water a day for two people (that includes drinking water). If you do the math that means we only have enough water in the tank to last about four and half days.
Since we almost always stay somewhere for at least a full week, we solve the water shortage by carrying three 6-gallon rigid plastic jugs and one 5-gallon collapsible water container giving us more than enough for a whole week.
Of course, bringing the water with you is only the first step. Next you need to get it into your RV water tank. I will confess that I used to think this was a non-issue. Our RV has a simple gravity fill water port where we can pour the water directly from the jug with a funnel.
However, it came to my attention this winter while boondocking with a group of other RVers that some rigs either have the water fill location too close to the ground to pour into with a funnel, or even worse, require water pressure to open a valve inside the tank to allow the water in.
Getting around these obstacles requires a bit of ingenuity (and maybe a homemade water pump), but it’s probably best to figure it out ahead of time before you end up in the middle of nowhere with an extra 20 gallons of water and no way to get it in your tank.
4. Battery capacity matters
Solar panels for RVs are all the rage these days. While it used to be that only full-time RVers or hardcore environmentalists powered their RVs with solar, as the price of panels has decreased, and the knowledge about using them to power RVs has increased, more and more RV owners are choosing this route.
It’s important to remember though that the panels are only part of the overall power equation. Without a set of good quality batteries to store the power, you may find yourselves firing up the generator on every cloudy day.
Our first year of boondocking, we had two generic batteries and three 100 watt solar panels. On sunny days the amount of energy coming in from the panels was more than enough for our needs, but as soon as the clouds rolled in, out came the generator.
This winter we have four AGM batteries and the same 300 watts of solar panels. The extra battery capacity means that we can store far more power than before. Now we can easily survive several days of cloud cover using the reserve power stored in the batteries.
5. Know the rules
It’s important to know the rules and regulations when camping on public land. Honestly, it’s not terribly complicated. Usually, if you follow the 14 day limit, use only existing sites, and leave the area in the same or better condition than when you arrived, all should be good.
In some instances, there is more to know, though. For example, public land is often interspersed with private land and you need to know what areas are off-limits.
Some areas allow camping for shorter or longer periods than the normal 14 days, and some allow grey water to be dispersed, while in others this practice could incur a serious fine.
The easiest way to learn the regulations is by checking with the local rangers. All national forests and BLM lands are split into districts managed by rangers.
A quick Internet search will tell you where the district office is located, or how to get in touch with them. These offices are often stocked with land use maps and the rangers can tell you which roads and sites are okay for camping.
Learning the rules ahead of time not only ensures you don’t camp in prohibited areas, but it might also let you know about new spots.
This winter our favorite boondocking site to date was inside a national preserve. In most cases, RV boondocking is not allowed in nationally designated areas, but when researching the rules we found that the Mojave National Preserve does in fact allow Roadside Camping in some locations.
If we hadn’t bothered to research the rules we would have never even known that this was possible.