Boondocking: Escape to the Wild Side
While state park campgrounds and RV resorts offer amenities that many people prefer, there’s another way to camp. It gives you a front row camp chair to the great outdoors. You can step away from crowds, away from road noise, away from the rest of the world. What is it?
Boondocking. Welcome to the wild side of camping. Here are a few things you need to know about boondocking in order to get started.
What is boondocking?
Boondocking, also called dry camping or wild camping, refers to camping without power, water or sewer hookups. It’s just you, your RV and the land. In most cases, boondocking is free or very cheap, making it appealing to anyone looking for ways to stretch a dollar.
Where can you go boondocking?
There are many different resources for finding boondocking locations, but the ones we find most helpful are:
These areas are government operated lands and are free for campers to stay on. BLM land is available to use without a reservation, but you can only stay for 14 days. Some water or wildlife management areas require a permit (which you can obtain online). Others require a small fee or stamp. Each site has its own rules for the length of your stay. Be sure to research and know the requirements for any land you want to park on.
Not all boondocking is free.
But even when there’s a fee, as in some underdeveloped parks where there aren’t hookups available, there’s typically an inexpensive nightly rate.
We primarily use Campendium as our go-to resource for finding boondocking locations. Campendium has useful information like address and GPS coordinates, cell coverage and reviews that are helpful in determining whether or not your RV can fit in a particular location. It has a variety of campgrounds and RV parks, but you can filter your search to show only public lands. We also use Google Maps to scout out the location, measure how far it is from a certain point of interest and see the terrain around the area.
Other resources for finding boondocking are:
Do you need to have a certain kind of RV to boondock?
No. For the most part, any type of self-contained RV can boondock. However, there are certain features that make a better set up for dry camping. If you are looking for an RV well-suited for boondocking, you’ll want to consider tank sizes, options or generators or solar power, ground clearance and refrigerator types.
We bought our Heartland Cyclone 4007 toy hauler because of the large tank capacities, knowing that we would spend a lot of time boondocking. Our fresh water tank is 100 gallons, and we also have three grey water tanks totaling 100+ gallons, as well as 2 40-gallon black tanks. Having large tanks means that we can go longer periods of time without needing to dump them. Our toy hauler also has a higher ground clearance, making it easier to drive off the beaten path. It also came with an onboard generator and a fueling station which is meant for motorized toys, but we used it to fuel our generator. Last but not least, our favorite part of boondocking with our toy hauler is folding down the back deck to enjoy the our amazing views.
What do you need to start boondocking?
The Conservation Mindset
First and foremost, for successful boondocking, the most important thing on your mind should always be conservation. When you’re used to camping at RV parks, you might not think about your electric, water or waste usage. But if you don’t pay attention to conserving your resources, you’re going to have a bad time boondocking. Every small way you can conserve water, battery power and tank capacity will help you boondock a little longer.
A Power Source
The trickiest part of boondocking is making sure you have some sort of power setup to keep your batteries charged. You absolutely need batteries to keep the essentials running, like the lights, furnace, water pump and the few electrical items you may need to live life. (For us, that’s a coffee maker.) Your options are a generator, a solar panels or both.
We mentioned looking at fridge types when you’re shopping for a good boondocking RV. And that’s because refrigerators can run off of different power sources. Standard RV fridges have dual sources, so they can run off of AC electric or propane. Propane is what you use to save electric power when you’re boondocking. Many rigs come with residential refrigerators these days, but they require constant AC power from an inverter. An inverter converts battery power to AC without using a generator, but this eats up battery power quickly when you’re off-grid.
A generator is a great, budget-friendly option for charging batteries on the RV. However, it does require gas, generators are loud and many places do not allow the generator to run in the evenings or overnight. You’ll need to have save enough battery power to keep the essentials running through the night.
Some RVs come with a generator onboard. You can also purchase your own. When purchasing a generator, I recommend getting an inverter generator. Without getting too technical, a basic generator is less expensive, but tends to be less consistent (“dirty”) with the power output, whereas an inverter generator provides cleaner energy. Many RVs and electronics have an issue with the dirtier power from a basic generator because it isn’t a constant 120v/60Hz. The price for an inverter generator can range from about $600 for 2500W to over $1200 for 3500W or more.
Some RVs come pre-wired for solar power. You can buy portable solar panels, which may or may not be enough to power your RV. If you live simply, only using appliances or air conditioning, etc., as needed, portable panels may be enough for you. But if you’re a power hog or want to live off-grid comfortably with no backup source, you’ll need something more.
To use only solar power for off-grid camping, the main idea is to run your appliances off your batteries, and then use the solar energy to recharge the batteries.
To understand how much solar you need to power your entire rig, you can follow a general rule of thumb using these simple steps. (If you don’t know a lot about electricity, you may want someone to help.)
How to calculate your power needs
- All devices have an input power rating (number of watts usually found on the power cord) and that is the number of watts it uses in an hour. Take that watt rating and multiply it by the number of hours per day it is used. Do this for EVERY device or charger in your RV.
- Add together all the watts from step 1. This is your average daily total watthour (Wh) of power you need. Add a 10% buffer.
- Watts = Volts x Amps. RV batteries are typically 12 volts. Therefore, take your watts calculated in step 1 and divide by 12. This gives you the total usable amp hours (Ah) you need for your battery bank. This number is all you need for a lithium battery bank, but you need to double it for a lead battery because you never want to discharge a lead battery lower than 50%.
- Finally, take the usable Ah you calculated in step 3 and double it. This will be the total watts of solar required for the system to recharge your batteries.
This is a general calculation that considers 5-6 hours of good summer sun at lower latitudes. If you want great solar power in the winter or plan on being further north, you need to factor for those variables.
It’s quiet. Do you love the idea of listening to a babbling mountain stream from your camp chair as you boondock in some secluded location? We do too. With a generator, it’s pretty much all you’ll hear. But solar is silent.
The cost to install solar panels can range from a couple hundred dollars for portable panels to $30,000+ for large off-grid solar setups with big lithium battery banks. So a generator is a great way to start out boondocking, or to supplement a smaller solar setup.
Tips for Saving Power
- Open the windows for a breeze to cool off the RV instead of running the air conditioning.
- Use as few lights as possible in the RV, and only when necessary. Use LED llights instead of incandescent.
- Pre-plan your meals to use a grill or gas cooktop rather than electric appliances like a toaster or microwave.
- Only turn on the water heater before showering. Otherwise, keep it off. Use only the propane water heater, if you can.
Make sure you fill up your fresh water tank before you arrive at your boondocking site. You can do this at a campground, RV park, RV service center, or even some gas stations, sometimes for a small fee. Always call and make sure before you visit.
It’s easy to buy jugs of drinking water to take on your trip, or purchase a small water filter pitcher to store in the fridge. However, for the long term, we highly recommend installing an onboard water filtration system so you never have to worry about what is in your water, no matter where you fill up your tank. We have a ClearSource Ultra Water Filter that filters water down to .02 microns and even filters out viruses.
If you plan to dry camp for longer than a few days and don’t want to move your rig every time you need more fresh water, you may want to consider purchasing a portable water bladder and pump. We use a 60 gallon water bladder laid in our truck bed. It folds to the size of a book for storage, and we can fill it at any of the aforementioned sources. We simply transport it back to the rig and use a 12 volt water pump to transfer it into the RV.
Tips for Conserving Water
You don’t want to have to refill your water tank every day, so it’s a good idea to practice some water conservation techniques while boondocking.
- Take military style showers. Limit the shower to 2 minutes or less if you can. Get a shower head that has a water off button and only use the water spray when washing off.
- Pre-wash your dishes by removing any food stuck on the dish. Use a wet rag or paper towel to clean it off. Wash dishes in a basin or plastic tub inside the sink. When you run the water for washing dishes, it should be at a small trickle.
- Use the strained dish water to flush toilets. We’ll put the water in a bucket and use a small cup to put water in the toilet to flush. Turn off the water pump right before flushing and turn it back on after you are done.
When you are in an RV park, it’s easy to empty your waste tanks and keep on camping. But what do you do when there are no sewer hookups? On some land, depending on local, state, and federal laws, you can dump non-sewage waste water on the ground. Check with the local agency for more information. If you do dump grey water on the ground, make sure you are using an environmentally-safe dish soap and laundry detergent. You can NEVER dump black waste on the ground.
Whether you can dump grey water or not, you should always be looking for ways to create less waste water.
Tips for creating less waste water
- Collect wash water in a basin that can be used for toilet flushing, watering plants or extinguishing a campfire.
- Reduce the length and frequency of showering. (Come on, you’re camping, not going to a formal dinner–no one’s judging.)
- Use disposable/biodegradable plates and utensils to reduce dish-washing if you are doing a short camping trip.
- Look for boondocking locations that have bath/shower houses.
If you are out on a boondocking trip, you are probably hiking or going to the beach or doing something outdoorsy. There are usually bathrooms wherever you are going. Using bathrooms while you’re out and about will greatly reduce the amount you fill up your black tank. It’s easy to make a habit out of using public restrooms once more before you leave a location, and it adds up.
When all else fails and you’ve filled a tank that you can’t dump, there are a number of portable waste tanks on the market. You can dump your black water into these tanks and either tow them or carry them in your truck bed to a nearby dump site for emptying. It’s a more convenient option than packing up your rig and moving just to dump, only to find that someone has snagged your awesome boondocking spot.
Our Best Boondocking Tips:
- Use apps like Campendium or call around to local places to find out where the closest water fill up and dump station are located so you know where to go when you need to.
- If you are unsure about whether or not a site can accommodate your rig size, scout it out beforehand. Find a safe place to drop the rig and take the truck to drive to the site, keeping a lookout for road conditions and overhanging tree branches. Better safe than sorry!
- Always leave the site better than you found it. Pick up your trash, put out fires, respect wild life, etc.
- Reiterating this point: Have a conservation mindset. When your mind is focused on conserving power and water, you’ll set yourself up well for a good camping trip.
- Be sure to empty waste tanks and fill up on fresh water and propane before arriving to your camping spot.
This article was written by Chris and Molly Henard, also known as, The Flying Hens.