“Boondocking.” Ask 5 RVers familiar with the term and you will get 5 variations of what the word means and probably a few arguments. One thing they all have in common, however, is no plugging into site provided electrical power, water or sewer. For the purposes of this boondocking beginner discussion, that’s the basic definition we will use, regardless of location or onboard battery charging e.g.: solar or generator.
We took a month-long RV trip from Southern California to West Yellowstone, Montana and wanted to see just how long we would be comfortable boondocking while on the road. To true boondockers, a month is child’s play, but for a beginner, it can be an awesome challenge. Before this time, we had only gone a couple of nights without hookups, so although beginners, we knew the basics. Read about our first Wal-docking experience prior to this trip. On this journey, we went 17 days before a medical emergency made it critical for us to connect to power, more on that later.
First things first, here is how our RV, “Homie” is equipped. RV setups will vary and it could make a difference in the duration of a stay – longer or shorter.
- 42-gallon grey tank
- 42-gallon black tank
- 60-gallon fresh water tank
- 2 12-volt AGM batteries = approx. 280 total amp hours
- 400 watts of solar panels (have only needed 200 so far)
- 600-watt pure sine inverter
- 2 20lb propane tanks
- 3500-watt generator
Here are a few things to consider as a boondocking beginner that most likely would be less of a factor or no issue at all in a campground with amenities and hookups. This is a very basic list of what we personally encountered, there are better (and worse) ways of doing things.
You need to conserve water to minimize the need to refill, here are some suggestions:
Take fewer showers – try baby wipes and dry shampoo
Take short quick showers with a shower head that has a flow control button
Setup an outdoor rinse area with a portable solar shower bag
Purchase showers at gyms, RV parks or truck stops
For the dishes – use spray bottles for quick clean-ups, one soapy and one clean water
Minimize the amount of time you run the water while washing dishes
Use disposable dishes – caution, this creates more trash for you and the environment
- CONSERVE ELECTRICITY
Learn how all your electrical items work, what runs on DC and what needs AC. Here are some ways to conserve electricity:
Spend more time outside and keep powered items off while away
Camp where the temperature is comfortable to avoid running air conditioning or heat
Be aware of all electrical draws – water pump, heater, indicator lights, etc.
Monitor your batteries, if they are completely depleted, they may not come back
- EMPTYING GREY AND BLACK TANKS
While conserving water and charging batteries can be done in place, disposing of waste requires a solution that takes a little more effort. For smaller trailers, there are portable holding tanks so you can dump the black tank waste into it and transport it to a dump station in a separate vehicle. However, with our relatively large built-in tank, it makes more sense to hitch-up and take Homie to a dump station at an RV park or gas station. There are other solutions, such as composting, that we have not personally explored yet.
- MINIMIZE TRASH
While boondocking there is typically not a dumpster conveniently located down the drive. You need to save your trash created from food, paper products, etc and dispose of properly. It is difficult to find a place to legally dump a large garbage bag full of waste, so we try to dump small bags more often, usually a gas station trash can.
Oh, dirty laundry, how you haunt me. Probably the one thing I dislike most is taking a few hours out of my day to do laundry. When boondocking in remote locations – the task can become a day-long event.
If you are boondocking off a small solar setup like us, the microwave is not an option. We have our propane stovetop, oven and refrigerator built-in and a small propane grill for outside. Many people don’t use their propane oven, but ours gets weekly use, even when we have full-hook-ups. I also started using a cast iron skillet, heats up fast and even and cleans up with no soap and water – the perfect boondocker’s cookware!
I have 3 weather apps on my phone and am constantly checking conditions. This one is pretty important to RVers whether boondocking or in an RV park, but it is slightly more vital while boondocking due to the remote locations. Even if you think you know the climate, the daily weather can surprise you. Our first season in the desert was plagued with heavy rains and flash floods.
- CELLULAR, INTERNET, TV
Just because you are boondocking in a remote location, doesn’t mean you want to be totally disconnected. We try to keep a connection for emergencies, work and entertainment when we are not out exploring. Several of the apps for finding campsites will list which cellular providers can actually be reached from the area, the cell provider maps are not accurate, and they know it. For our laptops, phones and smart TV, we have 3 hot spots (AT&T, Verizon, TMobile) and a cell booster. On rare occasions, we can also pick up over-the-air TV stations. Something we didn’t realize was that you can still be charged for roaming while in the US, so watch your phone carefully.
The old scout motto rings true, be prepared. Keep a well-stocked first-aid kit and plenty of your required meds while camping in remote areas. I also bring a small first-aid kit with me whenever I hike, bike or motorcycle ride. Before settling into an RV spot, take mental note of the nearest town and medical facilities. Have a plan for how you would get there if needed. Listen to your body and beware of phone-in doctors. Get health insurance, because when it’s needed, it’s well worth it. Here’s my personal experience with our first medical emergency:
While we were boondocking on BLM land in at Escalante, Utah I (Katie) began feeling sick, I used a tele-doctor/phone-in doctor to get an antibiotic then continued with normal activities for a couple of days. While riding the motorcycle on the 3rd day on the antibiotics, I didn't feel right and by that evening I was doubled-up in pain on the floor. I knew there was a clinic just 10 minutes away in the small town so, at daylight, we were at their door. They weren't sure what to do with me, and I didn't want to take any chances, so we all agreed it was best for me to go to the larger clinic in Panquitch, UT, 90 mins away. The clinic was attached to a small hospital and they sent me directly to the ER, who didn't even put me in a bed but instead, sent me directly to a room for check-in. I ended up spending 5 days in the hospital on IV fluids and antibiotics for sepsis. The antibiotics prescribed by the tele-doc were not strong enough and the infection spread throughout my body.
While I was admitted Jason slept in the hospital room and took a few 3 hours round trips to the RV. The hospital did have a space we could have brought the RV over, but I wanted Jason with me, not loading motorcycles, packing and hitching up the rig alone.
Once released, the fun wasn't over - the initial IV fluids were administered so quickly that I got fluid in my lungs, which prolonged my recovery and required I rent an oxygen machine. This ended our boondocking adventure since I needed reliable electrical power. We stayed in RV parks for the rest of our trip northward to Yellowstone. Jason stayed by side and helped me through the weeks of recovery like a champ, I am now fully recovered and healthy.
Where to RV Boondock
There are countless places to stay, the trick is finding them. The western half of the U.S. has more options than the east. When boondocking on public land look for established, previously used sites, don’t tread on undisturbed areas, practice Leave No Trace principles.
- Public land (BLM, Forest Service and more)
- Business parking lots
- Rest stops
- Private property
Resources for Finding Campsites
Our favorite resources for finding free or low-cost camping and dump stations:
- UC Public Campground
- Forest Service Visitor Map
- Free Campsites.net
- All Stays
- Google Maps
- Local knowledge and word of mouth
- Gaia GPS, Park Advisor, iOverlander, BoonDockers Welcome
Pros and Cons of Boondocking
CONS While we thought we were prepared to go off-grid, a few things were more challenging than we expected.
- Sites may be hard to find, even with great phone apps.
- Sites may be hard to access depending on rig size, height and drivability.
- Not everyone cares for the land as much as you, we removed lots of litter from some sites.
- Conserving is hard. We really did take water, power and waste disposal for granted.
- Emergencies happen, even if there are medical services nearby, they may not be equipped to handle your issue.
PROS Taking all that into consideration, why in the world would anyone want to boondock?
- RV Parks are expensive, most boondocking sites are free or under $20 per night.
- You have the freedom to choose where you park. Spread-out, away from other campers.
- Experience beautiful remote locations you may otherwise never see.
- Take a quick no-fuss, overnight between destinations.
We learned a lot during our first extended boondocking experience, and we still have so much to learn. We are already making a few changes to our set up including adding lithium batteries, a wind turbine, an outdoor shower, a larger inverter and remote control for our generator. For us, boondocking is an adventure, a necessity, a luxury, a privilege and a right as we travel around our beautiful country. If you decide to give it shot, just be sure to take care of the land you are on even better than you take care of yourself.
RV boondocking, dry camping, lot docking, wild camping, mooch docking