An RV Boondocking Quick-Start Guide

Boondocking is camping anywhere allowed without using electricity, water, or sewer hookups. Essentially, it’s RV camping without utilities.

Fun fact: Boondocking is the verb form of the word “boondocks,” which is derived from a Filipino word for “mountain.”

In casual conversation, “the boondocks” is somewhere rural, kinda backward, and geographically isolated. Not exactly a compliment.

But thankfully, RVers co-opted the term for anywhere remote, undeveloped and – most importantly – stunningly beautiful.

Synonyms include dry camping, primitive camping and dispersed camping.

(Don’t forget that last term! When you’re looking for boondocking sites on federally owned land, approved undeveloped areas are usually called “dispersed camping areas.” You’ll learn more about that soon).

Who Boondocks? What’s Wrong with a KOA?

Adventure Awaits!

Boondocking is like the next Level of Consciousness for many RVers. After conquering their local KOAs and state park campgrounds, they start itching. They want more. They want meat, not milk.

Many people boondock to find adventure. When you can camp self-sufficiently, you can explore the country by Interstate, highway, backroad, gravel path, or 4WD-recommended forest logging road.

You can boondock anywhere in the country. Even if you live in SoCal or the Eastern Seaboard, you’re only an hour or two away from prime primitive camping opportunities in the Mohave desert or Catskills mountains.

And as you’ll find out, boondocking also means stealthy urban camping, too.

Affordable, Accessible

Most boondocking happens on public lands, such as national monuments, BLM land, state game lands, wildlife protected areas, state parks, etc.

But if you know where to look, you can dry camp almost anywhere – and that includes in the middle of almost any city in the country!

Boondocking is accessible, especially if you’re Wallydocking (more on that later). You can drive into the horizon, not knowing where your wheels will take you, and (usually) assume there’s a boondocking area within a reasonable distance.

Best of all – most boondocking is free, darn cheap or close to it! Would you rather pay $350 in campground fees for one week’s road trip, or would you rather keep the cash and, hmm, maybe go white-water rafting instead?

Is Boondocking Safe?

Yes, boondocking is safe. You have far more to fear in your own household than camping under the stars or in a Walmart parking lot. It’s arguably one of the safest ways to get a night’s sleep.

But whether boondocking is safe is a reasonable and common question. Let us allay your fears.

Other boondockers are there for the same reason you are: To enjoy their travels. If you’re urban camping, then take solace in the fact that you’re surrounded by bright city lights. If you’re backcountry camping – well, there’s hardly anyone else out here, anyway!

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Follow these rules to keep yourself safe while dry camping in an RV:

  • Where possible, choose camping locations with cell phone service.
  • Identify your location by GPS coordinates, address, milepost or another landmark.
  • Keep your keys and a flashlight close by while you sleep.
  • Upgrade your RV with deadbolt security locks and motion-sensing porch lights.
  • Have pepper spray, mace, or a firearm – and know how to use it!

Boondocking FAQs for Newbies

Does Size Matter?

Anyone can boondock. Any RV can boondock. But some are more suited for it than others.

On the one hand, nothing is more versatile than a hardshell slide-in truck camper on the back of a one-ton pickup truck.

On the other hand, you’ll find it difficult to drive a Class A motorhome through tight city streets or sandy desert roads.

So be sure to boondock within your means. Rig length, height and weight matters.

  • Tall RVs may lack sufficient clearance to duck underneath trees, rock tunnels, low bridges and low-hanging power lines.
  • Heavy RVs may sink in gravel, dirt or sandy forest service roads. Small bridges may be limited to 10,000-26,000 pounds, as well.
  • Long RVs may not be permitted on steep or twisty mountain and canyon roads.

Plan ahead to ensure your RV and tow vehicle can reach its destination!

Where to Use the Bathroom?

This is the number one question every boondocker gets asked: “Where do you use the bathroom?”

First rule: Never pass up a public bathroom. And crass as it may sound, get yourself on a schedule. No one wants to feel the call of nature at 10:30 p.m.

Second rule: Carry a portable waste container. These tote tanks have two advantages:

  • You can dump your waste without having to relocate your RV
  • You can extend the capacity of your RV waste tanks

Tote tanks must be dumped into approved RV dump stations or public restrooms. If you have a cartridge/cassette toilet in your RV, then the principle is similar.

If you’re a serious boondocker, look into composting toilets. These toilets transform human waste into compost. Well, actually, there’s a lot more to it than that, which is why we wrote this in-depth article on Composting Toilets over at AskTheRVEngineer.com.

If your only option is a cat hole, do it right.

  • Dig a hole 6-8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water sources, trails and other campsites.
  • If allowed, bury your toilet paper. If not, place it in a ziploc bag and pack it out.

If you have trouble with the full squat, find a log to sit on or a tree trunk to hang onto.

Watch the Weather

Weather isn’t just an inconvenience when boondocking. It’s the judge, jury and executioner.

  • That beautiful campsite on the high ridge becomes a homing signal for danger during a lightning storm.
  • That sandy wash crossing can become a 3-ft mud flood after an afternoon thunderstorm.
  • Rocky desert floors can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit during the middle of the afternoon.
  • Hypothermia can strike campers when it’s just 50 or 60 degrees outside and rainy!

Plan ahead. Check the weather. Have a Plan B. Know (and practice!) basic survival skills in case Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.

How to Conserve Water

Dry camping means doing more with less. That means using less water.

How much water will you need every day? At a minimum, plan on 3-5 gallons of water per person:

  • 1 gallon to drink
  • 1 gallon to clean dishes
  • 2-3 gallons for Navy-style soap n’ scrub shower.

Fill up your freshwater tank first! If you still need more, bring along portable water tanks. If the total capacity of your freshwater is greater than your holding tanks, you’ll need to bring along a portable holding tank as well.

Here are some simple but effective water conservation tips:

  1. Fill the sink to wash dishes; don’t use running water.
  2. Wipe dishes with paper towels before washing. This is especially true for anything greasy!
  3. Take hair-only showers! Use cleaning wipes to spot-clean other areas. Or, just take a sun bath.
  4. Never pass up a flush toilet at a public restroom.
  5. Catch and reuse gray water.

Always bring along a collapsible 5-gallon water container full of freshwater, just in case. Better yet, bring along a pump-operated water filter so you can harvest fresh water from local groundwater or rainwater sources.

How to Get Power

All RVs have dual power systems: 12VDC (battery) power, and 120VAC (shore) power.

When boondocking, without a generator or inverter, you can only use 12VDC power from your battery. That means you can run your lights, ceiling fans, TV and water pump, but none of your larger appliances.

Truth is, very few OEM RVs are set up to dry camp longer than 1-2 nights. You’ll deplete your battery too quickly. If you plan to boondock regularly, particularly in cold or warm weather, you’ll need to do the following:

  • Upgrade your battery bank to minimum 220-Ah of capacity
  • Invest in a generator (preferably 3,500W rated)

Serious “lifer” boondockers will typically add even more battery capacity and lots of solar panels (usually 400+ watts), along with a 3,000W inverter. However, this setup will cost at least several thousand dollars.

Recreational boondockers normally get by with an inverter generator. 2000W is the minimum size; 3500W is recommended in order to run your air conditioner.

If you want to run multiple large appliances at once, you’ll need an even larger generator (5000-10,000 watts). This are not portable and are usually installed in the “basement” of luxury fifth-wheels and motorhomes.

You can also run your generator to charge your onboard batteries. However, this is noisy, inefficient, and pollutes the environment.

How to Get Internet

First of all, take advantage of the software and apps on this list to check signal strength ahead of time!

If there’s no information on your chosen website on your favorite app, at least look at the coverage maps from your cell signal provider.

If you’re a recreational boondocker, you can get away with using your smartphone as a mobile hotspot.

If that’s not good enough, sign up for a MiFi device through one of the Big Three carriers (Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile) with unlimited data (although data speed will normally be capped after so many gigs).

You might need a cell signal booster/amplifier to get 4G or 5G reception.

Full-time remote workers often splurge on multiple MiFi devices through multiple carriers, or they sign up for satellite internet. While satellite internet works just about anywhere, it’s prohibitively expensive for casual RVers.

One of our recommended options is SkyRoam. It’s like a MiFi device on steroids. SkyRoam WiFi devices switch between cellular providers so you get internet signal almost anywhere. You can pay per gig or per month, and you can either buy or rent your SkyRoam device.

Boondocking with Pets

Many RVers love traveling with their beloved furbaby! You can take Fido or Princess to the boonies, too, but follow a few rules to keep them safe.

  • Let them enjoy the outdoors! – but don’t let pets run around unattended. And never leave pets unsecured if you’re away from your site.
  • All pets should have collars and ID tags! Keep a current photograph.
  • Clean up after them! Poop from domestic animals doesn’t biodegrade like waste from wild animals.
  • Maintain records of all vaccinations and medications.
  • Bring along sweaters, portable fans or cooling blanks to keep pets cool. This is especially important for snub-nosed dogs, who can overheat very quickly.

Long-Term Boondocking

With the growing popularity of boondocking, the BLM has begun to establish areas for longer stays, particularly in Arizona. These are called Long-Term Visitor Areas (LTVAs). The permit fee is around $140 now, but this allows you to stay up to six months, and you’ll have pump stations, dumpsters and water available. That’s cheaper than paying property taxes or rent for a lot to park on.

Ask around when you are in the desert southwest, and you’ll find there are whole RV communities that form every winter. There are temporary towns like “Slab City” in California, complete with bookstores, grocery vendors, and other businesses run by RVers. When summer returns, these boondock communities disappear, and reappear again the following winter.

Perhaps the largest gathering of RV boondockers is in Quartzite, Arizona. Up to several hundred thousand people spend at least part of the year boondocking here. Quartzite is near the California border, on Interstate 10, only 20 miles from the Colorado River. It’s surrounded by BLM lands, and it’s famous for gem shows and swap meets, and the multiplying of its population each winter.

Look around, and you’ll find “hidden” places where you can park your RV for a week or a month in the desert southwest. Some are free, and others just inexpensive. For example, the Hot Well Dunes Recreation Area, north of Bowie, Arizona, costs $3 per night, but has nice hot springs and plenty of wildlife. You can get an annual permit for $30, but you’re limited to two weeks per month (permits are sold at the BLM office in Safford). Outside of the fenced area you can stay free, but then you don’t get the hot springs and shaded picnic tables.

There are many other areas like the Hot Well Dunes for cheap or free RV boondocking. The Bureau of Land Management can tell you what’s available under their jurisdiction. The Woodall’s campground guide lists campgrounds that are free. Also, just keep your eyes open for other RVs parked out in the desert or forest, and ask around.

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