Boondocking Basics

Work desk inside RV with scenic view of mountains and lake.

Ask the next 10 RVers you meet what they think about boondocking and you will get 10 different answers. To some it would be indistinguishable from camping on the moon, to others no different than moving to a new campground. Even the term “boondocking” varies from spending a night in a busy Wal-Mart parking lot to snuggling into a secluded desert canyon with nothing more than saguaros and coyotes as neighbors.

So exactly what is boondocking and why is it growing among RVers? The dictionary definition, “rural country, the back woods” or “a remote or undeveloped area” is derived from the Tagalog bundok, or mountain. But to RVers, boondocking not only refers to where you do it, but also how you do it— without hookups.

There are two other relative terms that are similar yet different. Overnighting means spending the night in a highway rest area, roadside picnic area, shopping-center parking lot, Wal-Mart, Flying J truck stop or church lot for a night’s sleep during a multi-day trip. Not really what you would call “camping.” Dry-camping also means without hookups — sewer, water or electric — and is usually in a designated campground with designated sites such as provided by the United States Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Corps of Engineers (COE) or in regional, state and national parks.

Boondocking is always dry-camping, but dry-camping is not always in the boondocks. So in this article, boondocking refers to dry-camping outside of regular designated campgrounds. The USFS and BLM refer to these camping areas as “dispersed.” Some are established camping areas, but without designated campsites. You find a spot you like, whether you sidle up to a mountain stream or squeeze onto the fringe of a wildflower-covered mountain meadow, and orient your rig however you wish — door facing east Navajo style, or with your awning shading your bedroom from early-morning light.

Why Boondock?
If you have never camped outside a full hook-up RV resort, you may wonder why anyone would want to camp without electrical, sewer and water connections, probably outside cell-phone range, on the unpaved desert or forest floor, and with no television reception.

One would assume that you bought your RV to venture into nature to some degree, to “camp” in campgrounds rather than stay in hotels and motels. Boondocking takes the enjoyment of nature and the outdoors to the next level. It allows you to be a Thoreau-like hermit if you wish, or to camp with a caravan of friends in a large dispersed camping area, circling the wagons (Quartzsite, Arizona, comes to mind) and enjoying potlucks around a communal campfire. It can also inspire the explorer in you, searching out your own secret campsite, where it’s just you, the forest critters and wonderful silence and solitude. And need I mention how much money you will save each night you boondock?

Trying It Out
You can overcome the uncertainty of appendage-free living by learning to use the built-in features of your rig, all of which have been designed for a certain degree of off-grid camping. Other than nonessential campground amenities such as cable TV, laundry, snack bar and store, newspaper and pizza delivery or trash pickup (boondockers pack it out), the three built-in features that permit boondocking are a drinking-water supply, black- and gray-water waste storage and electrical power — 12-volts DC rather than the 120-volt AC power of campground hookups — supplied by the house batteries.

To start, try dry-camping for a night or two in a designated public campground, where help and advice are as close as your nearest neighbor (don’t forget that we RVers are a friendly, helpful lot) — and a dump station isn’t too far away. Determine your drinking-water usage and remaining supply as well as the remaining waste-water tank capacities simply by reading the appropriate gauges and estimating how much longer before you need to dump and fill.

Once you get comfortable using the 12-volt DC electrical system and learn to survive comfortably without your 120-volt AC electric blanket, air-conditioner, ice maker, espresso machine and microwave oven, you can calculate how many more nights you can camp before needing to recharge the batteries. A simple way to determine the remaining battery capacity is with an inexpensive voltmeter from Radio Shack or an auto-supply store.

A fully charged battery reads 12.6+ volts, a discharged battery 11.6 volts. The deeper you discharge the battery, the shorter its life, so recharging at about 40 percent (11.9 volts) is preferable. You recharge the batteries by plugging in at a campground, driving a considerable distance or running the generator for hours — which could upset the neighbors.

Extended-Stay Tips
Once you become comfortable with dry-camping, it’s time for the big plunge — a real boondocking spot. Find a friend to boondock with; it will add a level of confidence your first time out. The secret to successful boondocking has also become the mantra of our time: Reduce and Conserve.

With experience, you will discover your own clever ideas on how to reduce and conserve. Northern-states RVers and Canadian snowbirds have perfected the art of boondocking, many for the entire winter season, with just infrequent trips to dump and fill, and spending occasional nights in a campground to restore systems. If you find that you enjoy boondocking, consider the following ways to extend your boondocking time even further.

Getting Serious
Three cheers for renewable energy! By installing a solar and/or wind-power system, you will take a giant step toward freedom from appendages. When utilizing solar or wind power, you have a free source of electricity to recharge your batteries from nighttime depletion and to run your laptop. A good solar store can help you figure out your electrical usage and suggest the right system (also, check out the article, “The Solar RV-Lution,” in the August 2008 issue of Trailer Life for more information). And the good news with solar is that it is perfectly quiet with no moving parts to maintain or break.

Add deep-cycle house batteries to increase your electrical storage capacity. Talk to a battery expert who can advise you on whether flooded (wet), gelled or absorbed glass mat (AGM), 12-volt or 6-volt golf-cart batteries will best fit your needs.

Buy a Blue Boy tote on wheels. Empty your RV’s waste tanks into it and then haul it to the nearest dump station, avoiding the necessity of hitching up and moving the whole rig. While you are out, remember to fill the jerry jug and water jugs to replenish your water supply.

Install an inverter, which converts 12-volt DC to 120-volt AC electricity, to run small AC appliances. Realize, though, that running a 120-volt appliance takes much more electricity out of your batteries than 12-volt DC, so running a microwave or blender for brief periods is OK, but an air-conditioner cannot be run on typical inveter setups. A smaller inverter into which you can plug low-wattage appliances, like a laptop or coffee grinder, is sometimes all you need.

How to Find Dispersed-Camping Areas
You won’t find many signs pointing to dispersed-camping areas. That’s part of the fun, exploring to find just the right spot. But there are several ways to cut some time from your search. An Internet search of “free campgrounds” will produce Web sites offering overnighting and dry-camping locations, which will be good places to begin and at least cut down on campground fees. These Web sites usually also offer books of free or cheap campgrounds.

To find true boondocking spots, talk to rangers in USFS and BLM regional offices. They can point you in the direction of the best — and easiest to get to — spots in their district. Consider staying in a campground the first night or two while you explore backwoods and desert roads (pick up a map from the USFS or BLM office) in your tow vehicle for just the right spot, then go retrieve your RV and move to it if you find a better location. On BLM land, look for Long-Term Visitor Areas (LTVAs), where, for a one-time fee, you can stay the entire season or explore other desert roads for dispersed campsites. Be sure to save your secret campsite’s GPS coordinates or mark it on a map so you will be able to find it again. And lastly, talk to other boondockers and see if you can weasel their secret campsites out of them.

Tricks of the Trade

Drinking Water

  • Turn off the faucet when washing hands and dishes and while brushing your teeth, then turn on only briefly to rinse.
  • Carry additional one-gallon water jugs or jerry jugs to dump in the tank when needed.
  • Shower with a Sun Shower bag filled from a stream to conserve your water supply.

Gray-Water Tank

  • The less water you use, the longer it will take to fill your gray-water tank.
  • Wipe food scraps from dishes to use less water to wash and rinse.
  • Wash dishes in a plastic dishpan and dispose of the water properly.

Black-Water Tank

  • When filled, leave the campsite to find a dump station or use a Blue Boy.
  • The black-tank capacity is large
    enough to not be a major limiting factor on how long you can stay
    camped. However, keep in mind that some RVs have shared black- and
    gray-water tanks.

Battery Charge

  • Turn off all unneeded lights.
  • Go to bed early; rise with the sun.
  • Use battery-operated reading lights.
  • Turn off the television.
  • Run the generator while using
    high-amperage appliances to offset electrical drain from the batteries,
    such as the water pump (showering, washing dishes), microwave, and
    furnace.

For More Information, log on to www.rv.net,
click the Forums tab, then Jump to Forums box and scroll down to the
Public Lands, Boondocking and Dry Camping category. Also at RV.net,
click on the Blog tab and scroll down the right side to the categories
of Boondocking & Dry-camping, Public Lands, and Desert Camping.

The Rally (www.therally.com),
held every year in different locations (the next one in Albuquerque,
New Mexico, April 17-20, 2009), also presents classes in boondocking,
batteries, renewable energy and more.

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