RV Boondocking, Guide to Camping Without Campground Hookups

The essence of RV Boondocking is camping in a wilderness setting and enjoying the magic of mother nature...

...while leaving the campgrounds (and the distractions) behind. What you haven't left behind are the comforts of home: your kitchen, bed, sofa, and bathroom are all right at your fingertips. Ahh...roughing it never felt so good. Once you try it you'll soon realize that boondocking truly is the pinnacle of RVing.

Okay, ready to cut the RV umbilical cords and be free? Here we go!

Topics I'll cover in this article include:

  • RV Boondocking Defined
  • Why Go Boondock RVing?
  • Boondocking Locations
  • How to Find a Site
  • RV Boondocking Tips
  • Boondocking For the Environment
RV boondocking at the LTVA near Quartzsite, ArizonaBoondocking near Quartzsite, Arizona

RV Boondocking Defined

Is it Dry Camping, or is it Boondocking? You'll often hear these two terms used interchangeably. There is a subtle difference though. Dry camping is camping without campground hookups, regardless of where your RV is parked. Could be Milwaukee, could be a mountain top. The name "dry camping" is misleading. As long as you've got water in your freshwater tank, it certainly won't be "dry camping", but somehow that name stuck.

RV boondocking near Oak Creek, ArizonaBoondocking near Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona
Boondocking is a form of dry camping, only it specifies the environment one is camping in, i.e., the boonies. The essence of boondocking is camping off the grid, in a wilderness environment, and being totally self sufficient. You are relying solely on your RV's systems, and the supplies which you've brought along.

RV boondocking is a way to experience nature up close and personal -perhaps not as up close and personal as sleeping on bare ground - however, that's always an option! You can rough it as much as you'd like, and if you get tired of roughing it, there's a comfy couch and a fridge stocked with goodies, just a few steps away.

You'll also hear the term "dispersed camping", which is used by federal agencies like the BLM and Forest Service. It means camping outside of developed recreation facilities - where no hookups or services are available. Most BLM and Forest Service land is open to dispersed camping.

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Why Go Boondock RVing?

Camping without campground hookups is what RVs were originally designed to do. Before the invention of the campground, everyone who camped went boondocking. The first RVs were quite barebones, without many of the features found today, and they happily boondocked with them. Today's RVs are much better equipped for boondocking, and much more comfortable.

Features and available equipment like large battery banks, RV solar panels, wind generators, engine generators, large freshwater and wastewater holding tanks, microwave ovens, refrigerators that run off propane, giant storage areas, catalytic heaters, swamp coolers, and other gadgets make RV boondocking as comfortable as a full service campground.

RV boondocking with a truck camperWith a truck camper you can practically boondock anywhere

Reasons to Go RV Boondocking

  • It's Fun - Enjoy the freedom! Pick your own campsite in a pine forest, sunny desert, or along a beautiful beach.
  • Save Money - RV Boondocking on public lands is free, or very low cost.
  • Discover Nature - You'll have a first row seat to the nature show, instead of a back row seat when staying in a crowded campground.
  • Convenience - Sometimes finding a campground is not so convenient. Perhaps there are no campgrounds in the area. What do you do? Make your own. If you are on public land and there are no signs that forbid camping, go for it.
  • Leave the Crowds - You left the city to escape the city, right? So why camp in a crowded and noisy campground?
  • It's Relaxing - You'll never know the meaning of the word "relaxing" until you try RV boondocking.
  • It's Healthy - Clean fresh air, the sounds of nature, and plenty of room to roam can do wonders for your health.
  • More Space - Some campgrounds box the campers in like sardines. When you're boondocking, your "campsite" can go on for miles.
  • Better for the Environment - RV camping with hookups uses less resources than life in a fixed dwelling. RV boondocking uses even less. You will use less water and create less wastewater, you can use solar and wind for electricity, an efficient propane heater for heat, and an energy efficient vent fan or swamp cooler for cooling.
RV boondocking near Montezuma Well, ArizonaBoondocking near Montezuma Well, Arizona

RV Boondocking Locations

From mountain meadows, to vast deserts, to picturesque lakes and streams, there are countless campsites waiting to be discovered on our public lands. And best of all, these sites aren't developed - they come just the way mother nature made them.

When searching for RV boondocking campsites, always stick to roads. There is no such thing as "off-road". When driving down a dirt or gravel road you will often see turnouts, where others have camped before. It's best to stick to these established sites.

Here's your guide to parking in paradise.

Bureau of Land Management

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees about 245 million acres of land. Taken from the BLM website, "Most of the public lands are located in the Western United States, including Alaska, and are characterized predominantly by extensive grassland, forest, high mountain, arctic tundra, and desert landscapes."

BLM land makes for some of the best RV boondocking. Much of it is open country where you'll have an excellent view of the scenery. Finding a place to camp is usually very easy, once off the highway and onto a gravel or dirt road.

Most BLM land is open to dispersed camping and RV boondocking. Usually the camping limit is 14 days within a 28 day period. After 14 days you must move outside of a 25 miles radius.

RV Boondocking: Entrance to the La Posa South LTVA near Quartzsite, AZ Entrance to the La Posa South LTVA near Quartzsite, AZ (The Boondocking Mecca)

Long Term Visitor Areas (LTVAs) are located in Arizona and California. In these areas you are allowed to camp for the entire winter season, from September 15th to April 15th. The fee is $180. Services vary depending on the LTVA site and may include drinking water, dump station, restrooms, and trash service. You can boondock anywhere you wish on the LTVA. You are allowed to camp in the same spot for the whole 7 months - or you can move between LTVAs as often as you like.

US Forest Service

The US Forest Service manages our National Forests and Grasslands which total 193 million acres. There are some excellent RV boondocking sites to be found on these lands and recreational opportunities abound.

RV boondocking on the Anderson Mesa near Flagstaff, ArizonaBoondocking on Anderson Mesa, Arizona

Typically there is a dispersed camping limit of 14 days within a 28 day period, however this can vary depending on the forest or grassland.

Finding a place to camp in a national forest can be more challenging than on BLM land. Forest service roads usually meander through mountainous terrain making them more difficult to navigate. Also, trees and overhanging branches on some roads can be a problem for larger rigs. If you are using satellite TV or RV satellite internet you'll need a clear view of the southern sky, which can be hard to come by in a dense forest.

It may be more work, however the rewards of finding a picture perfect campsite along an alpine meadow, mountain overlook, or just amidst a beautiful forest can make it all worthwhile.

US Fish & Wildlife Service

Over 550 National Wildlife Refuges and thousands of wetlands are managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Many refuges allow dispersed camping. Hunting is often permitted on these lands so you may want to avoid RV boondocking during hunting season.

US Army Corps of Engineers

The Corps of Engineers oversee 12 million acres of land and water in over 2,500 recreation areas. Fishing, boating, and swimming are popular activities. Many locations have campgrounds and dry camping or boondocking is often permitted. A camping fee may be required.

US Bureau of Reclamation

The Bureau of Reclamation operates dams, power plants, and canals in the western states. There are 289 recreation areas, totaling 6.5 million acres of land and water.

Popular activities include boating, fishing, hunting, wind-surfing, sailing, picnicking, wildlife viewing, swimming, and sightseeing. There are 350 developed campgrounds and RV boondocking opportunities are available at some locations.

State Land

Your state may own land which is open to the public and where dispersed camping is allowed.

State Forests can be great for RV boondocking and dry camping. Some have rustic campgrounds with no RV hookups. A quick online search by state can show you if state forests are available for camping.

State Game & Fish Areas may also allow camping. A state atlas may show these sites. You can also do an online search for your state's game & fish areas.

Local Parks

There are city parks that have dry camping available. I have dry camped at Ruddick Park in Colorado City, Texas which has free RV camping. It's a pretty area and they even have a disc golf course. County parks are another possibility for dry camping.

Private Property

There are ranches and country farms in beautiful settings that would make for great RV boondocking. Always ask permission first. Tell the property owner that you like the area and ask if there is a place you can park for the night.

RV boondocking near West Clear Creek in ArizonaBoondocking near West Clear Creek Wilderness, Arizona

How to Find a Site

You won't find RV boondocking campsites labeled on any map. In some parts of the country, it's very easy to find a site. I once pulled off the interstate near Flagstaff, Arizona, jumped on my mountain bike, and found a good RV boondocking campsite down a forest service road within 10 minutes. In other places it may take several days to find a suitable boondocking campsite.

Small RVs, like truck campers, pop-up campers, and 4x4 motorhomes are great for getting into the most remote backcountry campsites - these RVs can go down roads a large motorhome or travel trailer cannot. Many roads on public land can be treacherous - so if in doubt, get out and scout.

Here are some tips for locating great RV boondocking campsites:

    Forest Service and BLM mapsGood maps are essential
  • Map out the area - State atlases from Benchmark and DeLorme are great to start with as these usually show public lands. BLM and Forest Service maps will show you more detail, along with some back roads. USGS topo maps or topo mapping software is great for zeroing in on a location and getting a lay of the land. And lastly, I wouldn't go anywhere without using Google Earth to view satellite images of the area. This computer program can show you roads that may not be on your map. You can also view terrain features like mountains and canyons in 3D - it's like getting a bird's eye view of the landscape! Google Earth will also show latitude and longitude, which can then be entered into your GPS (Global Positioning System), making navigation a breeze. 
  • Contact the public land office near where you plan to visit for information on RV dry camping or dispersed camping in that area. Many federal agencies will have this information on their websites as well.
  • Choose a "base camp" where you can begin further exploration of the land. This could be an easy to find campground, used until you find the perfect boondocking campsite.
  • Explore the area, preferably with your tow vehicle or toad (dinghy vehicle) for potential RV boondocking sites. Keep an eye out for "side roads" (some may be very faint). These often dead end at a spot where others have camped in the past.

If you think you've found a suitable RV boondocking campsite, here are some things to consider before bringing in the big rig:

  • Are there any trees or low hanging branches in the way?
  • Is the site reasonably level?
  • Do you notice any dead branches that might fall during high winds?
  • Does the site have good drainage? Is there a possibility of flooding?
  • Will dense tree cover hinder your RV solar panels, wind generator, satellite TV, or satellite internet service?
  • Will you be able to orientate your RV in relation to the sun for optimal heating, cooling, or solar panel output?
  • If using a cell phone or mobile broadband internet, do you have service at the proposed site? Finding out you can't call Uncle Ed after setting up camp is no fun.
  • And lastly, is the view drop dead gorgeous? Not essential - and those kind of sites are hard to come by!

RV Boondocking Tips

Before boondocking in "the boonies" you'll want to be prepared. At the very least, charge up your RV's house batteries, fill up your freshwater tank and propane tanks, and make sure your grey water and black water holding tanks are empty. You should be good for a few days of RV boondocking, as long as you conserve battery power.

If you really want to "go the distance" there are a few things you can do to maximize your camping fun and lengthen your vacation.

Battery Power

The greatest challenge when RV boondocking is keeping your batteries charged. The cheapest solution is to conserve battery power. Here's how:

Replacing incandescent light bulbs with highly efficient LED lights for RV boondockingUpgrading to highly efficient LED lights
  • Turn off or unplug all devices that create phantom loads - these are appliances that draw current 24/7 and can include TVs, DVD players, stereos, satellite receivers, microwave ovens, clocks, and security systems.
  • Limit your usage of lights and appliances. Only keep a light on if you're using it, and preferably only one light at a time. You can also replace incandescent lights with fluorescent or LED lights which are far more efficient.
  • Avoid using your RV's forced air furnace, which will quickly drain your batteries. A catalytic propane heater uses no electricity and is much more efficient in it's use of propane - however, be sure to crack open a window for ventilation.
100 watt RV solar panel from AM Solar used for RV boondocking 100 watt RV solar panel from AM Solar used for RV boondocking

Methods for recharging your batteries while boondocking are:

  • RV Solar Panels - The best way to charge your batteries. It's silent, safe, fully automatic, and great for your batteries. The initial cost is high, but well worth it in the long run.
  • Wind Generator - Use wind power to charge your batteries. A great supplement to solar power. One downside is the noise created from the spinning blades.
  • RV Generator - It can supply power to your converter/charger for battery charging. The many drawbacks include noise, fuel expenses, harmful exhaust fumes, risk of fire, & it ruins the "wilderness experience".
  • Your Tow Vehicle or Motorhome's Engine Alternator - By far the least efficient method, as you may have to run your engine for several hours to get a full charge.

Freshwater

7 gallon jug to carry extra water when RV boondocking7 gallon jug for extra water
The average city dweller uses around 70 gallons of water a day! Considering RVs only hold between 30-90 gallons, your going to have to rethink water usage. You can bring along extra water in water coolers, 7 gallon jugs (like the one pictured here), and water bladders. Thankfully, RV showers and toilets don't use oceans of water like residential units and this will help to some extent. However, there are ways to conserve even more.

  • Never let water go unused. Don't let the faucet run the entire time while washing hands or brushing teeth. When waiting for water to get hot, use a container to capture the cold water for other uses.
  • Take "Navy Showers" - Turn the shower on to get wet, turn off while you soap up, then turn on again to rinse. An on/off valve can be installed at the showerhead to make this easier. You can also replace your showerhead with a low flow model to conserve even more H2O. I've done both as shown in the picture here.
  • Low flow showerhead and on/off switch installed to conserve waterLow flow showerhead and on/off switch installed
  • Mark each hot & cold knob on your shower so you won't have to play around to get the right temperature next time.
  • Shower with a solar camp shower, filled from a lake or stream.
  • It doesn't take much water to flush the toilet. Use a spray bottle (the type used for gardening) for a final rinse of the toilet bowl.
  • Use a hand sanitizer instead of water to wash hands.
  • Dishwashing - Use paper towels to wipe dishes off before washing. Then, heat up a little water in a pan on the stovetop, and wash the dishes out of this pan. Rinse in another pan or bowl of cold water. Pour water outside, on a plant, when done.
  • Use paper plates and bowls to cut down on dishwashing.

Wastewater

A few boondocking trips will give you an idea how quickly your grey and black water holding tanks fill up.

Jug of water for washing up when RV boondockingJug of water for washing up
Conserving water with the tips above will cut down on the amount of water going down your drains and into your tanks. There are other things you can do to avoid having to break camp too soon for a run to the dump station.

  • Keep a jug of water outside for washing your hands & face.
  • Shower outside with a solar camp shower.
  • Pour excess water used in cooking (like that for spaghetti) outside on a plant.
  • Use public restrooms whenever possible.
  • Put used toilet paper in a paper bag, that can be burned later. This will reduce the amount of waste going into your black water tank.

Propane

Catalytic heater used when RV boondockingCatalytic heater

This marvelous gas makes several of your RV's creature comforts possible. Cooking, baking, heating, refrigeration, and hot showers wouldn't be so easy without it. How do you avoid running out? The quickest way to deplete your tanks is to run your RV's furnace for heating.

The forced-air furnace is not very efficient in it's use of propane. When the mercury drops, using a catalytic heater (pictured on left) or an open-flame propane heater will be much more efficient. Also, these heaters won't run down your batteries like a forced-air furnace, as they use no electricity. These heaters are ventless, so you will need to crack open a window for ventilation.

If you have a travel trailer or fifth wheel, you can bring an extra propane cylinder along. That's not possible with a motorhome, however they typically have large propane tanks so running out shouldn't be an issue.

Turn water heater to pilot mode to conserve propaneWater heater on pilot mode to conserve LP
With experience, you'll soon learn how long your propane supply will last. You can conserve propane by barbecuing, cooking over a campfire with cast-iron cookware, and setting your water heater to pilot mode (which still keeps my water plenty hot) or turn the water heater on 10 minutes before you shower, then leave it off the rest of the day.

Boondocking For the Environment

Not only is RV Boondocking a fun and low cost activity, it's also easy on the environment. You're using a fraction of the water a typical household uses, creating far less wastewater, and using much less electricity - and that electricity can come from solar or wind power. Talk about green RVing.

There are other ways you can minimize your impact on the environment as well.

  • Practice "Stealth Camping" - When you find the perfect RV boondocking campsite, keep it that way. Before you leave, make it appear you never arrived. Remove all traces of trash, camping equipment, campfires, etc.
  • Camp at least 100 feet away from a water source, like a river or lake.
  • Do not wash anything in a water source, or dump dishwater near a water source.
  • Use biodegradable soap, and at least 100 feet from a water source.
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  • If you create a campfire ring, scatter the rocks and ashes afterwards and return the site to it's natural state.
  • Only use downed and dead wood for campfires. Obviously, don't cut down trees or limbs.
  • Pick up any trash left by previous "clueless campers".

By taking care of the environment we can give RV boondocking a good name and keep our cherished public lands open for the enjoyment of future generations.

RV boondocking at the LTVA near Quartzsite, ArizonaBoondocking at the LTVA near Quartzsite, Arizona

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What Sort of RV Boondocking Tricks Have You Got Up Your Sleeve?

Have some boondocking tips for finding a campsite, extending your stay, or making the experience more enjoyable? Go ahead and share them here! This is your time to shine some light on the wonderful world of boondocking!

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