The modern RV is a wonderful thing. It combines the mobility of an automobile with the comforts of home in one small, convenient package. Where you take your home on wheels and where you set up camp is entirely up to you. Many RV owners like to camp at RV Parks and campgrounds, yet some owners, like me, find the cost, crowds, and noise of most of these establishments to be a big turn-off. Fortunately, there’s a great alternative to campgrounds and RV parks and that alternative is known as boondocking.
What is boondocking? What does it mean to boondock? A simple definition of boondocking is RV camping in a remote location without water, sewer, and electrical hookups. Synonyms of boondocking include dispersed camping, primitive camping, and wilderness camping. Unfortunately, the term boondocking is sometimes misused by some RV owners. A stop at a campground without hookups isn’t really boondocking, rather this is known as “dry camping.” Moreover, staying overnight at a Walmart, Cracker Barrel, or a Flying J’s parking lot isn’t boondocking either, though you’ll sometimes hear people refer to it as such. This type of “camping” is often called “overnighting” or “Wally-docking.”
A poll taken in 2012 revealed that solitude and peace were the most popular reasons RV’ers preferred to boondock rather than stay at a campground. If you’ve been to a campground lately, you know why. Campgrounds aren’t only crowded and lack privacy, but they’re also noisy with generators, drunken neighbors, and barking dogs being the most common culprits. On the other hand, boondocking offers the solitude and peace most of us desire when we camp. Just how much depends on where you camp and how isolated you are, of course, but as a general rule you’ll enjoy much more if you boondock.
Boondocking has other benefits, too. Getting out in the “boonies” often means you’ll be closer to nature. Whether it’s deer feeding on grass near your campsite or a pair of eagles roosting in a nearby tree you’ll have limitless opportunities to view wildlife in their natural habitat when you’re camping in the wild. Indeed, if you’re an avid bird watcher, boondocking is the best way to camp if you’re trying to spot rare or hard to find species. And if you’re into stargazing and night photography, boondocking offers perfect, high altitude locations where you can get away from light pollution. Indeed, the best observatories can be found atop mountains and in many national forests where you can boondock.
Another great thing about boondocking is that it’s light on the wallet. As you know, RV parks, resorts, and campgrounds can be quite expensive, often setting you back $25 to $60 a night, and in some states, like California and Florida, even more. In contrast, boondocking is generally free. Some public lands may require a permit, but even if one is required, you’ll usually pay little or nothing for a two-week stay. There’s no doubt about it, boondocking saves you money, and in these tough economic times, that’s always a good thing.
And if all of these reasons for choosing to boondock aren’t enough, how about another? No reservations are required! This allows you to get up anytime you get the itch. You can’t be this spontaneous when you’re tied to campgrounds and RV parks because the best ones are usually full on weekends. Indeed, the better ones are often booked months in advance, especially during three-day holiday weekends. That problem doesn’t exist with boondocking. Just find a good-looking spot in the wilderness or on the beach and set up camp. Plus, there’s usually no one to check-in or out with! What’s not to like about that?
Where to Boondock?
At this point you may be wondering, where can I boondock? Where are the best places to go? The best boondocking in the United States can be found west of the Mississippi on federal land managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM oversees 258 million acres of federal land, about 13 percent of the U.S., while the USFS manages national forests and grasslands totaling 193 million acres, equal in size to the state of Texas. Generally, all of these areas are open to camping within 150 feet of roads as long as there are no signs that prohibit overnight camping (note that state and federal agencies don’t use the term boondocking on their websites, they use the terms primitive or dispersed camping instead). Unfortunately, U.S. national parks typically don’t allow boondocking (Death Valley and Big Bend National Parks being the most notable exceptions), camping is restricted to designated campgrounds only.
While the most plentiful boondocking can be found on USFS and BLM property, there are excellent opportunities worth exploring elsewhere. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land, state forests, and state wildlife reserves are often overlooked, yet offer terrific places where you can boondock. The Appalachian states and upper New England are loaded with state and federal lands and the state of Florida maintains several Wildlife Management Areas. Be aware that some states are more restrictive where you can boondock than others, and some don’t allow boondocking at all, so do a little research before embarking on your trip. Obviously, great boondocking locations aren’t restricted to the United States. Plentiful boondocking opportunities can be found in both Canada and Mexico and are too simply numerous to list here.
To aid you in your search for prime boondocking locations, pick up a recreational atlas or use Google Earth on the Internet. Official maps of federal public lands and state forests are also highly recommended. These detailed maps show longitude and latitude and terrain features such as lakes, streams, and rivers. They also show you where logging and forest maintenance roads are located. These roads are the key to locating the best places to boondock, especially in national forests. For the most part forest maintenance roads which are open to the public have numbered signs. And if you happen to see a gate open that usually means the road is open for public use, too.
If you’re headed into an unfamiliar area, here are a few tips to help you locate level campsites. One is to “stealth camp” in an inconspicuous location like at a trail head parking area to or stay overnight at a campground and scout out promising locations in a tow vehicle, motorcycle, or quad. You can document these locations using either a map or a GPS. If you’re willing to camp on private land, try talking to locals in small rural towns. Deals can sometimes be arranged with owners to stay on their land–all you have to do is ask. The same goes for timber and paper corporations. You can find them primarily in the Northwest, but they can also be found in the Southwest, South, and even in Ohio. A few noteworthy timber companies worth talking to include Weyerhauser, Plum Creek Timber, and Potlach.
One final thing to consider when looking for a boondocking location is the terrain and how your RV will handle that terrain. Generally, large RVs, like Class A motor homes and fifth wheels, require firm and level terrain like the BLM areas found in the Southwest including the boondocking capital or the world, Quartzsite, AZ. Whereas, highly maneuverable, two-axle RVs with short wheel bases, like truck campers and small Class C motorhomes, are almost unlimited where they can go. Also, if you have to travel down a forest road be mindful of low-hanging tree branches that can scratch or severely damage the top of your RV. The bottom line is to use common sense where you boondock. The last thing you want to do is get stranded and have to call for help, or worse yet, kill yourself falling off an embankment. For an in-depth look at the best RVs for boondocking, click here.
Other Boondocking Considerations
Since you’ll be camping off-grid, boondocking implies a level of conservation and self-sufficiency that can’t be obtained in an RV park. This means reliance on your RV’s 12 volt battery system for power, on your RV’s fresh water holding tank for potable water, on your RV’s black and gray holding tanks to collect waste water, and on your RV’s propane tanks to fuel your refrigerator and furnace and to cook your food. This also means you won’t be able to take “Hollywood showers” or leave the lights on when they’re not being used. You can certainly do these things, of course, but you’ll quickly run out of fresh water and you’ll rapidly drain your 12 volt batteries. For additional boondocking tips, check out my article, The Eight Habits for Highly Successful Boondocking.
Boondocking in comfort is important. The best way to do this is to find a place where temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold. For most people, this means camping in a place where daytime temperatures range between 50 and 80 degrees. During the winter this is done by camping in southern latitudes at elevations below 3,000 feet like in the Southwest, in the deep South, and in Mexico, while during the summer this is accomplished by boondocking in northern latitudes and at higher elevations, generally above 6,500 ft. To find locations at these elevations refer to the aforementioned atlases or download an elevation app on your smart phone. I recommend Altimeter+ by Sichtwerk AG.
A few simple modifications to your RV will make your boondocking more enjoyable, too. Things like installing at least two deep cycle batteries, swapping out the incandescent lights with LEDs to conserve energy, and installing a battery monitor system like the Xantrex Link Lite or the Trimetric. Additional boondocking mods include installing solar panels to keep your batteries charged, additional 12 volt and USB charging outlets, and an Oxygenics shower head to help conserve water during showers. To see my top five boondocking mods, click here.
In conclusion, if you find the idea of boondocking appealing, I recommend a few practice runs. You can do this either in your driveway or at a campground without hookups. It’s a great way to “get your feet wet” by using some conservation techniques. Then you can try the real thing when you feel that you’re ready. You may fumble and stumble the first time or two until you get the hang of it, but boondocking will eventually open up a whole new world to you and more opportunities to enjoy the mobility and comforts of your RV.
A special thanks to Dave Rogers, Dan Schechter, and Don Kingfield for permission to use their photos.