Every camper needs a boondocking how-to guide. Boondocking is so underrated! Even among ardent campers, boondocking is often viewed as a last resort—an overnight stop when there is nowhere else to stay.
When I am talking with friends and family about my love of boondocking, I find that they generally underrate it. My sister and brother-in-law have heard me rave about Quartzsite, Arizona, so often that they decided to stop and look around on their way to California. The short drive-through certainly turned them off!
Boondocking has many definitions
Loosely speaking, boondocking is free camping without hookups, usually on federal or state land. The Bureau of Land Management has set aside areas where people can camp for free or at a minimal charge (use this wonderful book as your boondocking guide). Some places require registration and have a specific time limitation, usually 14 days. There are areas in the southwest that have long-term camping for a minimal seasonal fee and have fresh water fill and dump stations. Many National Forest areas are also available for free camping. They, too, have a time limit and can have size restrictions.
While pavement parking, “mooch camping,” rest areas and Walmart overnighting is free and without hookups, it is not boondocking in its purest sense.
We just returned from a short four-night stay on a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) open space near Quartzsite, Arizona. It was a “vacation” from our full-hook-up campsite at a regional park. Beyond FREE and available, there is a romance and sense of strength to being unplugged and independent. It has been difficult, if not impossible, to explain to my husband why I like it so much. In general, boondocking is underrated.
Not a sewer hose in sight!
For anyone who has spent much time in private campgrounds, squeezed in like a proverbial sardine, they know that the neighbor’s sewer hose was not the view anticipated when booking a camping trip. No sewer hoses anywhere to be seen when boondocking. No water hoses or electric pedestals either. Hardly a road.
While boondocking in an RV is a far cry from the Conestoga wagon days, there is still a strong sense of self-sufficiency. It does take a bit more planning. But when well-prepared, we can usually manage to stay out—isolated, comfortable and at peace—for at least a week or more. Water, fuel, and power (plus large holding tanks) are all that are needed for an enjoyable trip.
It is important to really think through a few things first, such as how long you are planning to be out, what the weather will be like, how far from a source of fresh water, food and fuel you are, etc. These are a few of the preparations we make:
- Fill up: fuel, fresh water, propane.
- Dump holding tanks.
- Check that the water pump works.
- If having been hooked up to city water for a while, it might be good to flush and sanitize your fresh water tank. I ran our pump before we left and the not-so-fresh water stunk!
- If relying on solar, make sure everything is operational.
- If planning to use the generator, start and exercise it before going.
- Charge up everything! Phones, computer, tablets, flashlights, car starters, small solar chargers, CPAP batteries—all should be fully charged before leaving.
- Freeze a few gallon or half-gallon jugs of water. Put a couple in the refrigerator to keep it cooler and leave a couple in the freezer. The fridge won’t run as much and will be able to have nice cool water as they melt. Note: Don’t fill jugs all the way to the top—leave expansion room.
- Freeze food items and put them in the fridge to defrost. This helps keep the fridge cool, too. Try to only open the refrigerator door when absolutely necessary and try to take everything out at once.
- Carry an extra 3-5 gallon clean jug to get water in if needed.
- Let someone know your plans.
- Bring firewood if a fire is allowed. Most places don’t allow scavenging wood.
- A Big Buddy indoor propane heater can be the difference between misery and warmth. They use small propane bottles approved for inside use. Never ever use a 20# propane tank inside unless you’re willing to explode and make the evening news!
Finding a site
There are several ways to find places to boondock, for just one night or many nights. We have a 40′ RV so it takes more research for us to find the right place than if we had a smaller motorhome, van or trailer. I have directed my husband into more tight and rough areas than he or I wish to rehash. Suffice it to say, when all the cabinets opened up and poured the contents on him and the floor, the path was too rough…
- Several apps provide information and reviews of places to boondock. AllStays and Campendium are my top ones. It is especially helpful to read the reviews showing the accessibility and size of potential sites. These are the best RV trip planner apps and tools.
- Bureau of Land Management camping website is a good resource to provide places and information.
- Local BLM offices have detailed maps for purchase that show terrain, location and more. When we first started out I invested heavily in the maps imagining my future life boondocking. Those stacks of maps really made good fire starters in the end.
- USDA Forest Service also has a vast array of info.
- Googling “Boondocking in ______ ” is a great resource, too. Be aware that not all websites will have both firsthand knowledge or accurate information.
- Check out Google Earth. How is the terrain? Are there too many trees, narrow roads or switchbacks? It is helpful, particularly with a big rig, to look at the road beforehand to see if there is a place to turn around. You don’t want to get stuck on a narrow dead-end road. I sincerely apologize to the farmer where we had to turn around in his field…
A boondocking guide
Find your spot and park it
- The easiest way to pick your site is to unhitch a tow car or truck and explore. Be aware of the rocks, brush, trees, dips and washes with your RV in mind. If you can’t or don’t want to unhook, take it slow!
- Scout and leave a bright chair or even an umbrella to mark the site. It is amazing how hard it is to find that perfect place again!
- Do not park right next to someone. Most folks are there to have some space and peace. Don’t crowd. If there is a lot of room, leave a lot of room between sites.
- Try to park the RV with the refrigerator on the side that won’t get the hot afternoon sun. In strong winds, park nose or tail to the prevailing winds.
- Pack it in and pack it out. More and more reports are of BLM lands being trashed. Some places have shut down due to trash and misuse. Cans, plastic and glass do not burn! Diapers and used toilet paper are just plain nasty.
- Absolutely do not dump your holding tanks while boondocking. When they are full, it is time to leave.
- Be respectful of others with generator noise. One nice thing is that there are no generator hours. But be considerate when crowded, particularly if the generator is loud.
- Run your generator in the evening to charge your batteries up.
- Solar chargers are not just great for keeping the RV batteries charged, but small ones can charge phones and tablets too.
- Catch water from washing hands and washing dishes to use to flush the toilet and put out fires. The idea is to preserve water and have water in the holding tanks minimal.
- Heat water for washing. Because it takes so much water to get hot water to the bathroom in our RV, we boil water and then add enough cold to cool down for a “shower.” In a few days, using a whole gallon of water for a shower feels like a luxury!
- I have to have my morning coffee while I watch the sunrise and my husband still wants more sleep. I just set up our electric Mr. Coffee pot just like normal, heat the water on stove and gradually pour through the grounds.
- If you have a campfire, keep it small and watch it. Use some leftover dish water to put it out before leaving or retiring. A wildfire can sweep through an area in minutes.
- Be aware. Everyone may not be as kindhearted and honest as expected of fellow campers. Lock your storage doors, lock the entrance door when you’re gone and at night, and put away anything that you don’t want to lose.
- Move! If you feel uncomfortable, pack up and leave.
- To carry or not to carry? It’s a personal choice, just make sure you know the laws. We carry bear spray, but the only time it has been used was when my husband tested it. He was downwind. I was sympathetic … after I stopped laughing.
- Mark your spot when going for the day but do so with something you don’t care about losing. We have an old camp chair that just won’t die and I clip a note to it saying we will be back.
- Close the windows if you’re leaving or if it’s really windy. We had an unexpected dust storm rush through the RV leaving a good 1/4 inch of fine dirt on everything!
Slow down, stop, look and listen
The amazing part of boondocking can be the silence. No cars, no trucks, no airplanes… only nature. I try to slow down, and appreciate the sunrise and sunset in all its glory. Step out into the dark night skies with brilliant stars from horizon to horizon. While on the last trip we watched the full moon rise on one side while the sun was settling in brilliant hues of orange and pink on the other. It is creation at its best.
I boondock a lot more than stay at a campground. I just love the peace and serenity of being in nature.
Nanci, your sister and brother-in-law sound like OUR friends who think we’re crazy for LOVING the Quartzsite area. Forest lovers wouldn’t stay here for a minute. “Where’s the trees?” is what we hear from our Tahoe friends. Our answer? “Where’s your cactus?”
After having read many of your adventures I have come to one conclusion for sure. Your husband is a Saint….with a lot of patience….lol.
Good article with lots of good tips.
Every summer, for three decades, my retired parents would head to the Bighorn mountains with their small 5th wheel and boondock for four to six weeks. All they needed was their 1000 watt Honda generator to charge up the battery from time to time and make coffee in the morning. They said they rarely saw anyone else and if they did it was usually a rancher or herder and not another camper. They loved the wide open spaces and freedom vs using campgrounds.
Use a 20 pound propane tank inside will explode is a dumb statement. You think a thin wall between your 2 seven gallon propane main tanks make a big difference in the potential explosion?
If an outdoor tank leaks, it will vent to the atmosphere and there’s no ignition source.
If it leaks indoors, the propane will be concentrated in your living quarters with the possibility of ignition from sparks and flames.
Thanks for the interesting and helpful article, Nanci. It seems there are not as many opportunities for boondocking in the East or Midwest as there are in the Southwest, but maybe with the help of the resources you mentioned we can find a place and give it a try.
I had all the boondocking I ever want in the U.S.Marine Corps, I’ll take every comfort I can get now.
Sounds like a typical Marine, Just Kidding LOL – I was Army myself. – Anyway, Thanks for your service Bob.
Retired Army myself however I love hooking up the camper and taking off to explore the fruited plains! Heading out again for a couple of months!