Just the Facts, Please
To boondock is to take your RV or trailer to camp in wilderness areas or unconventional campsites where you can’t rely on amenities, hookups–or even, in some cases, neighbors. Boondockers can choose to camp in remote areas, National Forests, or even Walmart parking lots–aka Wallydocking. And whether you camp overnight or for an extended period, once you learn the basics, you’ll find that boondocking is a popular and inexpensive alternative to camping at established RV parks and campgrounds. Boondocking, dry Camping, and dispersed Camping: three different terms for the same practice. We’ll use all three terms in this post.
Think of Boondocking as Acoustic v. Electric
Life on the road is as varied as any other way of life. You will find everything from long and short-term RV parks and campgrounds with plenty of community, to programs like Harvesthosts, which offers seasonal overnight camping at farms and wineries, complete with tours and participation. (Grape-harvesting, anyone?)
Boondocking invites campers to take it down a notch and return to camping basics. Most often, dispersed camping is an opportunity to go “off-grid” and spend time in nature. But there are plenty of RVers who take advantage of the convenience of commercial parking lots adjacent to highway exits. There they can rest and then conveniently stock up on supplies and RV accessories before heading out for the next adventure. So dust off your lanterns and leave your hairdryer in the drawer. For dry camping, just think of your rig as a king-sized tent on wheels.
To be clear, successful boondocking requires a little knowledge and planning. Boondocking, or dispersed camping, is inexpensive and often free, but guidelines still apply for the safety of associated businesses, campers, wildlife, and the preservation of natural resources. Read on for a list of essential tips and you’ll soon be winding your way off the beaten path.
- We’ll help you access sites for guidelines and reservations
- Water is critical: we’ll offer advice on planning ahead
- Are campers safe in remote areas? Yes! And we’ll discuss smart safety tips
Boondocking in commercial parking lots offers the obvious safety of fellow travelers, well-lit areas, and easy terrain. Access to police, medical facilities and drugstores, and RV mechanical support are all usually available.
When it comes to dry camping in nature, experienced boondockers are vocal in their support of camper safety in remote terrain. “Bad guys” are highly unlikely to tromp out to unpopulated areas to frighten campers. It’s the stuff of folklore and horror movies. Practically speaking–it’s just too much trouble.
Wildlife is another matter, yet on this subject, dry campers are just as vocal. Animals are likely to be small and unthreatening, and if you respect them, they’ll respect you. The Boondocker’s Bible, a great resource for camping advice in general, notes that wildlife is likely to visit established RV campgrounds, too, and in far greater numbers because more people means more food.
Live with mutual respect wherever you are and life tends to run more smoothly: in the wilderness, don’t frighten animals with lots of noise (exception: bears. Alert them to your presence); don’t poison animals or terrain with trash and refuse; don’t stomp off-trail and disturb natural habitats that support wildlife; pitch camp at a respectful 200 ft. distance from water sources. Keep in mind that many animals are most active at night, so keep close to camp after dark.
And whether you’re overnighting at a Walmart or enjoying the solitude of a National Forest site, whatever you pack in, pack out.
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics offers a list of principles for living in harmony with nature. Consider reading through their thoughtful tips for newbie naturalists before you travel. You’ll find smart advice and ingenious tips from fire safety to how to dig a cat hole. Read and learn!
Is Boondocking Free?
The answer is yes–sometimes, often, and not always. Homework is required!
- The Boondockers Bible, linked above, offers a substantial list of free boondocking sites in parks and public lands in the Western United States.
- thedyrt.com offers a subscription-based membership guide to free boondocking “almost anywhere” including –wow!– national businesses like Walmart, Target, Denny’s, Cabella’s, IHOP, Holiday Inn, and more.
- National Forests and BLM lands (Bureau of Land Management) offer extensive camping. Check ahead for fees and permits as well as camping limitations.
- Free camping apps are available from Walmart and US Public Lands.
- hipcamp.com is one of the new trends of online reservation sites that function as clearinghouses for individuals with space of all kinds to rent. Hipcamp offers cabins, tiny houses, and even treehouse getaways, but also glamping and scenic RV camping spots on private land. Much like airb&b, hipcamp takes reservations, puts you in direct contact with owners, and offers reviews of both campsites and campers. In fact, if you’d like to rent out your own RV when it’s not in use, hipcamp is your destination.
- Campendium is a fantastic site organized by state and includes tabs for camper-voted best free camping, National Parks, National Forests, and State parks. Of current concern in 2021, Co-vid related park closures are listed and updated regularly.
- A quick online search will make it clear how popular boondocking has become. Honestly, like every road adventure, the most important takeaway is to plan ahead. A basic list of must-have equipment, for example, includes permits (if applicable), camp chairs and a table for comfort, toilet paper, a small shovel, air-tight containers to store food, garbage bags to secure and pack out trash, and water for both washing and drinking.
Access to Water
Now that you know what boondocking is, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty:
Water is critical, and RVs hold water tanks that must be emptied and cleaned, over and over. Separate tanks hold greywater (wastewater from shower and sinks) and black water (wastewater from toilets: human waste).
Before every dispersed camping adventure, make sure to clean and fill grey water tanks with fresh, non-potable water, which is available from spigots at homes, gas stations, rest areas, or businesses (ask permission first). Carry additional jugs of potable (drinking) water. Empty black water tanks safely and legally.
Traveler’s tip: empty black water tanks at RV parks for a small fee, even when you’re not a resident.
Dry camping requires that you conserve water, and with experience, you’ll learn to conserve without thinking about it.
- Keep back up water in jugs.
Tip: collapsible, reusable jugs fold away easily when empty
- After meals, wipe food debris from pans and dishes before washing and consider using plain white paper plates if you’re able to pack out trash safely.
- Shower less frequently! Consider using body wipes as an alternative.
Tip: several companies offer towel-sized disposable wipes.
- Hand sanitizer is a great alternative to hand washing; wipe down surfaces with rubbing alcohol.
- Long-term boondockers often make use of gym memberships for showering.
You’ve Got This!
Life on the road brings the world to your doorstep, and industries have sprung up to support every aspect of RV travel, from RV awning installation to camper and RV supplies, to seasonal family travel destinations and luxury parks for snowbirds. But it’s also incredibly exciting to take the road less traveled in search of nature, tranquility, and even unanticipated adventure. Give boondocking a chance. We think you’ll be glad you did.