RV Boondocking for Beginners
Want to know how to travel extensively with your RV, staying in gorgeous places with all the space in the world? And did I mention you can do this for FREE?
The key is stepping away from the campgrounds, and moving into the alternate world of camping – boondocking. This is my favorite way to travel, and if you want to get in on these wonderful opportunities, here are some tips on RV boondocking for beginners.
If you’re currently “campground bound,” don’t worry. That used to be me, too! I never liked RV parks much – paying a bunch of money to camp a few feet from each neighbor isn’t really my style. But I regularly stayed at other campgrounds – national parks, state parks, etc. and I was always looking for the next campground.
You see, that’s what I thought camping WAS! I didn’t know anything else. But there’s a whole other world out there once you get into boondocking. It’s like a shadow world – this vast set of camping places existed right there all around me, and all those years I never even knew. 😉
What is boondocking?
- The term “boondocking” comes from being out in the “boondocks” – rural areas without many people, isolated from cities and towns. The term “boondocks” came from a Filipino word used for remote, mountainous terrain in the American-Philippine War. Today there are various shades of meaning, but the foundation of “boondocking” is that you’re out in the “boonies”.
- Boondocking is also called “dispersed camping” (especially by government agencies), since you’re spread out over the land, rather than concentrated with other people in a designated campground.
- Picture yourself camped somewhere out in the middle of the forest, with not another soul in sight. It’s just you and your rig, living on the land. That’s a perfect image for boondocking! 😊
- It doesn’t have to be RV boondocking, although that’s what I do. You could be boondocking in a van, truck camper, travel trailer, or fancy overland expedition rig. You could be traveling by car and tent camping.
- It doesn’t always need to be that far away, either. You can sometimes find boondocking sites close to a town, so you don’t always need to be super isolated.
- The key thing is that you don’t have facilities. You’re not at an RV resort with full hookups and wifi. You’re not even at a national park campground with pit toilets and water spigots. It’s just you and what you have with you.
Boondocking vs. campground camping
- Boondocking takes you out into the wide open spaces, where there could be a mile between you and your nearest neighbor. It’s not always that spread out but it can be, and can give you all the privacy and room to roam that you’ve ever wanted.
- Campgrounds vary in how much space you get, but they typically try to pack quite a few campers into a limited area. You usually have various other campers visible from your site, all just a short walk away.
- Boondocking means freedom. You have millions of square miles to roam, and you’re free to go anywhere legal that your vehicle will take you. You can drive into a large area of desert, and just pick out a spot that looks good to you. It’s up to you whether you want to be way out by yourself, or in an area with other campers around. There are usually few rules, although certain standards of behavior are expected and appreciated.
- Campgrounds are more restrictive. First you’re limited to finding an existing campground, and then to camping in a designated space within it. There tend to be posted rules that you have to follow like check-out times or quiet hours.
- Boondocking is usually free. There are exceptions such as long-term permits if you want to stay somewhere for months, but normally you’re free to just pull in and set up camp without paying anybody anything.
- Campgrounds usually charge a fee, although there are some free ones. Costs vary anywhere from a few dollars to $60+ for RV parks with full services.
- Campgrounds provide something in the way of facilities. At the more basic end of the spectrum, this might include a pit toilet, picnic table, and fire ring. At the other end of the scale you might find flush toilets, hot showers, hookups for electricity, water and sewer, a swimming pool, laundry room, and wifi.
- Boondocking doesn’t give you any facilities. If there’s water it will be in the form of a lake or creek, and any shade will come from the trees. You need to be self-sufficient for food, water, electricity and everything else. It may take some adjustments to your rig and routine to be ready for this, but once you do, a new world is open to you. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing you can just take off into the wild blue yonder, pick a place, and hang out for a week or two!
Where to boondock
The western US has a TON of public lands that are officially OK for you to boondock. The eastern part of the country is more limited, but it’s still possible in places. Here are some top sources for RV boondocking beginners to get started:
- Bureau of Land Management – The BLM manages over 200 million acres of public land in the western US, almost all open for boondocking (aka dispersed camping) unless otherwise specified. Normally camping on BLM land is free, and for a particular location you are limited to 14 days out of any 28-day period. There are also a few Long Term Visitor Areas, like those around Quartzite, where you can stay for months if you pay for the appropriate LTVA permit. Rules vary by location, and contacting the local BLM office can get you all the info you need.
- BLM boondocking info
- US National Forests – The Forest Service manages another 180 million acres, opening up vast areas of public land for you. You’re not allowed to camp just anywhere, but there are tons of places available, generally within a certain distance of the forest roads, and not too close to campgrounds, trailheads or other developed areas. You can get a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) from the forest service that shows where you’re allowed to camp. Typically there’s a 16-day limit in any one spot. Check online or with the appropriate Forest Service office for details on the area you want to visit.
- US Forest Service boondocking info
- Other public lands – Wildlife management areas, state land, county land, and regional parks may provide more RV boondocking opportunities. Check out the area you’re considering on the internet or call the responsible agency, and you can find out what’s allowed.
- Mexico boondocking – It’s not as official as it is in the US, and it’s not always obvious where you’re on public vs. private vs. communally owned (ejido) land. In Mexico, whenever possible I like to verify with locals or other campers that my boondocking location is OK before I just set up camp. That said, there’s a lot of wide open land, especially in Baja, and I’ve boondocked at some stellar locations in Mexico!
Preparing for boondocking
The key principle for RV boondocking is self-reliance. There’s nobody else providing services for you, and you could be hours from the nearest store. You need to be prepared to fend for yourself. The more you do this, the more your sense of self-confidence grows, and the easier it gets.
For RV boondocking beginners, here are some considerations for for your preparations.
- This all depends on the type of roads you’re planning to drive. Some people don’t want to take their RV on a washboard road. Boondocking like this is possible, though they can’t venture far afield, staying near the paved road. Others drive hard core 4WD rigs with winches and extraction gear, and they can cover much more territory exploring unmaintained back roads.
- Personally I’m in the middle. With Zennie I drive on an awful lot of bumpy dirt roads, but if it gets too rough, sandy, steep, or muddy, we’ll backtrack and change our plans.
- Just make sure you know your limitations and have what’s needed for the level of roads you’re going to drive. The main thing I worry about is a flat tire, but your needs may vary.
- You need water for drinking, cooking, and washing, and you can carry a limited amount with you. Unless you’re camping near a water source like a river or lake, you need to make your current supply last.
- This means different things to different people. I met some campers with an RV twice the size of Zennie, who told me they carried 100 gallons of water and could make that last 5 days. That much would last me a year! (Well, not quite, but weeks and weeks!).
- The key is to find ways to economize on water. For instance, instead of taking a regular shower I have a little sun shower I can use, and I don’t cook pasta unless I’ve got ample water available.
- As your RV water tank empties, you’ve got the waste tank filling up. This is often a limiting factor for people – how long can they boondock before they have to find a dump station?
- One thing you can do to change this is to swap your standard RV toilet for a composting model. I installed a Nature’s Head composting toilet and have been very happy with the change. It saves water since you don’t need to flush it, and I never need to worry about dumping a blank tank ever again! Oh happy day! 😎
- Aside from this, think about how you can avoid filling your tanks (like using that sun shower outside).
- When you’re away from plug-ins, you need to get power somewhere to keep the lights on and devices charged.
- If you want to run an air conditioner or a microwave, you’ll need to have a generator. Personally, I got rid of my generator because I don’t like the noise, the smell, the hassle, or paying for gas, and I can live without AC or a microwave.
- Solar power is the way to go, at least if you camp in sunny areas (my favorite kind)! It’s quiet, easy, doesn’t burn gas or give off fumes, and if you have it mounted on your roof, you don’t need to do anything. It just sits up there day after day giving you free energy. What could be more perfect?
- Of course, conservation plays a role here, too. Changing your lights to low-usage LED lights can help a lot, as can keeping everything turned off when you’re not actively using it.
- You may be a few hours drive from the nearest supermarket, so make sure you’re stocked up before you head out to the boonies. How much do you have, and how long will it last? And what about cold beer (a camping essential)?
- If you need to keep things cold, then you need a refrigerator or a cooler, both of which have their own needs. Coolers need ice, supplied regularly depending on cooler design and ambient temps. I used to do this, but always hated having to leave a wonderful spot just so I could drive into town and buy ice.
- RV refrigerators can run on 12V or propane when you’re off grid. I haven’t had great success with propane, but other people use it all the time without a problem, so if you go this way, just top up your propane before heading out. I have a small, super-efficient Engel 12V refrigerator, which gets all the power it needs from the solar panels.
First aid kit
- Hopefully you have one of these already, but it’s even more important when you’re boondocking. If something happens, it could be awhile before you can get back to civilization, so basic first aid supplies are wise to have.
- I rely entirely on my cell phone for communication and internet. When I’m somewhere without cell service, then I’m just out of touch for awhile. But if you want to ensure you can get connected even in the middle of nowhere, you can consider a SPOT device or satellite phone.
Rules and etiquette for boondocking beginners
While RV boondocking is all about freedom, there are some official and unofficial rules that are good to follow. If you’re at a well-used location, you may see a sign posted with the camping rules. In other less-visited spots there won’t be a sign, but you’re still expected to know the rules based on land ownership and location.
Here are the basics. Check with the appropriate agency to get specific rules for the area where you want to camp.
- Where you can camp. If you’re in a National Forest, the MVUM (Motor Vehicle Use Map) is your go-to resource to determine where camping is allowed or not. For BLM land, you can usually camp anywhere unless otherwise posted.
- Length of stay. BLM land is usually limited to a 14-day stay out of any 28-day period, then you need to move 25 miles away. National forests generally allow 16 days out of the year, then you need to move at least 5 miles away. Specifics do vary, so check on the rules for your area.
- Drive on the roads. Don’t damage the ecosystem with a lot of cross-country driving. Stay on an existing road until you’re near your camp, and then camp within the designated distance from the road.
- Don’t leave garbage. Pack it in, pack it out. Try to leave the area as nice or nicer than you found it, so future visitors can have the same enjoyment you did.
- Campfires. If you’re making a fire, use only dead and downed wood, or bring your own. If there’s an existing fire ring, use it. Always check for fire restrictions, which can vary seasonally. If you have a fire, make sure it’s always attended until you put it completely out.
- Preserve the place. Don’t destroy natural or man-made features. Don’t cut down trees, deface rock formations, or shoot holes in the signs. It shouldn’t be necessary to even mention this, but some people out there do things like this (shaking my head…).
- Be considerate. People come out here to enjoy nature, peace and quiet. Keep your noise down, especially at night and when there are other campers nearby.
- Fishing. Check on fishing permit rules for your location.
These public lands are a fabulous gift that we can all make use of in a responsible way. So get out there and enjoy your RV boondocking time. Savor those starry nights with the coyotes howling, and help to protect and conserve these lands for future generations.
What do you do out here?
- Boondocking beginners sometimes wonder what there is to do, once you’re away from the campground, the town, and the activities.
- For me, RV boondocking is a “back to nature” experience, reconnecting me with my natural surroundings. Whether you’re camped out in the forest, the desert, or on a secluded beach, there are no restaurants, no shops, and no nightlife. Aside from the occasional airplane overhead, there’s little impact from the modern developed world.
- This style of camping isn’t for everyone, but if you enjoy fresh air and simple pleasures, you’ll love it.
- In the daytime, you can spend your time hiking, fishing, reading, bird watching, meditating, taking pictures, identifying wildflowers, writing, or just having a siesta in your hammock.
- Nighttime in the boondocks brings stargazing, campfires, snuggling, reading, watching DVD’s, and enjoying the kind of peace and stillness you can never find in the city.
How long can you boondock?
- Experience = knowledge. With more boondocking experience, you’ll figure out where your limits are, and how long you can stay off grid.
- Typical limits? For me, a couple of weeks is usually quite doable if I’ve planned ahead for food and supplies. Other people find their limit is shorter or longer.
- Standard factors. Some elements are fairly predictable, like knowing your minimum fresh water consumption (when you don’t take long showers or cook pasta)!
- Variables. Other elements are more variable. The fridge will need to work harder in hot weather, and the solar panels won’t be worth much in the rain.
- Boondock for months? There are deserts in the US and beaches in Mexico where people boondock all winter. Some places there are vendors that come around with water, produce, fresh fish and more – what service! 😊
- Always learning! As you do this more, you’ll discover more tricks and techniques that will let you expand your stay at that perfect boondocking site you found.
If you’re an RV boondocking beginner, are there any questions you’d like to ask? If you’re an experienced boondocker, do you have any tips or suggestions to share with others? Please leave your thoughts in the Reply section below, and thank you!
PHOTO CREDITS: Desert camp – Mike McGreevy, Others – Deanna Keahey
Hi! I’m Deanna, creator of Uphill Zen. I’m currently yondering around North America with my 1986 Toyota motorhome, Zennie. What makes my heart sing is travel, adventure, and the awe-inspiring wonders of nature. Finding ways to share that joyous spirit is what this is all about.
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