Ready to ditch the campground and head for a more carefree camping adventure? It doesn’t need to be daunting. We’ve put together this guide with answers to common boondocking questions to help you choose where to stay, how to have fun, and how to be safe in your camper.
What is boondocking?
Boondocking, also known as wilderness camping, dispersed camping and off-grid camping, is defined by BLM.gov as “Camping on public lands away from developed recreation facilities.” The term boondocking in recent years has been expanded to include any off-grid style living, meaning no access to hookups such as electricity, water, or waste facilities (yep, toilet).
Where should I boondock?
This is where you need to decide which type of non-hookup camping is best for you.
Tame boondocking ideas include:
- Non-hookup areas of campgrounds
- Bare land near cities or neighborhoods
- Parking lots
- City Streets
Medium-adventure boondocking could include:
- Near off-roading vehicle trails
- Oceanside / Sand camping
- BLM land (Bureau of Land Management)
Serious off-grid options include:
- Deep forest
- Mountains and streams
- Alaskan wilderness
- High desert areas
- Non-road spaces in the wilderness (such as power line easements and old railroad track areas)
How long can I RV off-grid comfortably?
Choosing how long you can comfortably boondock is based on your preferences and your tolerance levels. 2 days of disposing of human waste by digging holes or dumping a canister toilet may be enough for you, and for some, a week of showering from a bottled water jug is no big deal.
Here are some things to consider:
- How long are you comfortable with having no running water nearby? How much water can your rig carry?
- Are you OK with no electricity? What may you need to “plug in” to keep you comfortably connected?
- No electric lights or switch-operated heat and air conditioning is a factor. Can you tolerate extreme temperatures if you had to?
- Do you have pets? If so, you may need to find other sources of electricity to keep them comfortable – especially in hot areas, as this can be critical for your fur-coated pets.
- Do you have access to solar equipment to power devices and batteries? This option can be costly.
- Are you OK not being around groups of people to feel safe?
- Do you have basic survival skills, if you are planning on being far from 911 services?
Where is it legal to boondock?
Here are the laws for many common boondocking types.
National Parks. You can camp only in designated campgrounds in National Parks. Luckily, there are 135 to choose from.
National Forests. The U.S. Forest Service manages 154 national forests and 20 grasslands in 44 states (as well as Puerto Rico) across the United States, and in almost all of these, visitors are welcome to set up their camp outside of designated areas—provided camping is not expressly prohibited.
According to the Forest Service, all National Forest lands are open to camping unless otherwise posted, which provide certain advantages over the designated campgrounds set up in many national forests including “peace, solitude, and adventure.” However, the Forest Service also advises that there are a few drawbacks to wilderness camping including fire permit requirements, the need to bring or purify water, the possibility of floods, and having to properly dispose of human waste while in the forest.
State Parks. Similar to National parks, RV camping is allowed where designated. Recreation.gov is a great place to search for state parks with RV camping. Although there will be very few boondocking areas, there may be “dry” camping spots that allow RV parking for less money than a camp ”site.” You may have to search on their websites to find them or call the ones you like. Some allow overnight van or car parking in designated parking lots, with access to state park bath facilities.
BLM Land. BLM land is federal land operated by the Bureau of Land Management and is popular amongst wilderness RV enthusiasts, as it is free and easily accessible in most cases. BLM land has both camping facilities and dispersed camping (boondocking) options across most states.
According to BLM.org, “Dispersed camping is allowed on public land for a period not to exceed 14 days within a 28 consecutive day period. The 28 day period begins when a camper initially occupies a specific location on public lands. The 14 day limit may be reached either through a number of separate visits or through 14 days of continuous overnight occupation during the 28 day period. After the 14th day of occupation, the camper must move outside of a 25 mile radius of the previous location until the 29th day since the initial occupation.
The purpose of this special rule is to prevent damage to sensitive resources caused by continual use of any particular areas. In addition, campers must not leave any personal property unattended for more than 10 days (12 months in Alaska).”
Parking Lots. Popular with road warriors and those simply traveling from one place to the next, parking lots can offer an overnight rest and respite for free. Be sure to choose one that is friendly to RVs and make your presence known. “It is inadvisable to park in a parking lot of a business unannounced.” said Fred Winster of the BBB. “We advise all overnight campers to be respectful of the property of the business they are visiting.”
Some businesses that are known to be friendly to overnight RV parking according to Boondocker’s Bible (varies by location):
- Bass Pro Shops
- Camping World
- Cracker Barrel Restaurants
- Sam’s Club
- Anytime Fitness
If you want to park in a parking lot be sure to introduce yourself to the manager on duty and alert them to your presence and ask permission. Be sure to not “set up camp” in the parking lot, and if you are able, make a purchase at the store as a thank you.
Farms, Fairgrounds and Casinos. Many farms welcome overnight visitors, as well as wineries and vineyards. An easy way to find them is to use the HarvestHosts app (for a fee). Many casinos have RV-only designated parking, sometimes for a small fee, with hopes that you will visit the casino. Similarly, fairgrounds tend to allow RV parking during events, so be sure to ask about that option if a festival is your destination.
City Streets. This varies widely by city, and for many, a large RV will be conspicuous and cause concern for residents and law enforcement. Look for no parking signs, avoid tight streets, and for your own safety, remain aware of your surroundings.
How do I find places to boondock?
Many apps and websites exist to help you do exactly this. Here are a few popular choices:
- iOverlander app
- FreeRoam app
- US Public Lands app
- Allstays App
- Boondocking App
- The Dyrt App
In addition, there are several Facebook groups set up just for members seeking places to park and camp off-grid.
How do I prepare for an off-grid camping trip?
You will need a great list of items to help you with the big six: Shelter, water, food, safety, electric and clothing. In addition to normal camping gear, you will need:
- Extra water. At least a gallon per person per day for drinking and another gallon for bathing. Be sure your RV or tow vehicle can carry the extra weight of the water plus occupants! A gallon of water is 8.34 pounds.
- Power sources. A generator or solar bank and batteries are the most popular options. Here is a good list of both with explanations. Whether you need to power devices or your camper, you will want to be certain you have what you need.
- Clothes for the elements. The odds of you being wet, cold, and hot are increased without power and a non-RV structure nearby. Bring extras of anything you can, especially socks and boots.
- First Aid kit. Get a comprehensive kit that may cover whatever you may need off-site, snake bites and tourniquets.
- Radio for communication and weather radio.
- GPS. If you don’t have cell service a GPS can guide you to the nearest destination – including hospitals and shelter – should you run into trouble, better than a paper map.
- Preparedness items for your RV. Extra spare tire, battery, fluids can help.
- Items to dig you out, get you unstuck, or fix your tow vehicle or RV. A shovel, traction mats, and tow ropes are mandatory when off grid.
What do I do for water and electricity? If you plan to be off grid for a day or more, you will certainly need to plan for and bring along gallons of water, and a power source. Sometimes, you can travel every few days to a place nearby to “plug in” or refill and drain tanks (if your camper is equipped). Otherwise, we suggest you learn about RV off grid power needs as well as how much water you must have for yourself and others.
There are a few things you can do to prepare ahead, such as replacing your lights with low-watt LED’s and filling all of your RV’s tanks. Ice can be your friend, as well as fire starting sticks to help combat weather issues.
How do I use the bathroom while boondocking?
There are several options:
- Cassette toilet. You can get a small pop up changing tent and put it over the cassette toilet for privacy. When you reach your next rest area or campground or when you are back home, you can dump the cassette into a regular toilet.
- Use your RV toilet with holding tanks.
- Use a bucket with a trash bag, or “squat.” Per USGA.gov, bury human waste in a cat-hole: Dig a hole six to eight inches into the humus layer with the heel of your boot, a shovel, or a trowel. This should be at least 100 feet from all sources of water to protect water quality. After depositing waste, cover the hole with loose dirt.
What if I need medical attention while dispersed camping?
Bring a radio, a cell charger, a GPS to find the nearest medical facility and use your (of course you packed it, right?) First Aid Kit.
Some campers do not camp far from others they may see along the route for this reason. While it is important to keep a respectable space between you and other boon dockers, be sure to be in walking distance (about a mile) if possible from others.
What else do I need to prepare for?
- Roads that become impassable after rains. If you are traveling down dirt roads, they will inevitably turn to mud in a downpour. Can you safely go back the way you came when it is time to leave? Conversely – if you set up camp near a riverbank or tidal waters, be prepared for wet ground. Bring a shovel, and some rubber mats to help with traction. These items are also necessary if you are planning to travel over sand. Note: Do not attempt sand or deep mud without a solid 4×4 setup on your vehicle.
- Wild animals. Be prepared for anything.
- Wild humans. Bring a whistle, a knife or other protection, and let someone back home know where you are headed and when you plan to be back.
- Unexpected weather or fires. Never travel down a road that traps you in a fire-prone area if possible, and try to not set up camp in areas where a mudslide is possible.
Is camping off-grid alone safe?
Just like any type of camping and RV’ing, your own skills determine how safe your adventure can be. Be prepared and use good judgement! When alone, it may be best to give the appearance of having others around. For example, set up two camping chairs instead of one.
What emergency supplies do I need?
First aid kit is paramount, and be prepared for anything. Bring extra headlamps, food, and store an extra battery bank in case you need to charge devices or lights in case of emergency with your RV’s power. Otherwise, in addition to the items above, most items you bring on a typical camping adventure in your RV should do. Where you are going will determine the level of preparedness you should take.
What if I have no cell service?
It is very likely if you decide to off-grid camp vs boondock in a rural area, you will lose cell service. Plan ahead with GPS, maps, and radios.
What types of campers are suited for off-grid camping?
Smaller RVs such as Class B’s are used for off-grid and wilderness camping, as are camper vans. Some Class C’s can handle dirt and gravel roads as well. Many tow-behinds are made for boondocking and off road adventures too. Here are a few to take a look at:
Phoenix Cruiser USA – This Class C has a 4×4 option on some models.
Opus Travel Trailer – built for the Outback.
A-Liner Offroad – A folding travel trailer with lifted axles and off road tires.
Hopefully these tips give you a good idea of what is Boondocking, How to prepare to RV while off-grid, and staying safe in the wilderness. If you are looking for your own off-grid ready rig, take a look at our RVs for sale at RVT.com.
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