Boondocking in our National Forests: It’s not just about saving money


By Bob Difley

Deeper into the thick pine forest I followed the narrow dirt road to the edge of the rim – and the small campsite that overlooked the forests in the Tonto Basin 2,000 dizzying vertical feet below, with not a road, light, or house in sight.

Our campsite was snuggled under the tall Ponderosas heavy with the fresh, sweet smell of pine in the morning dew. The twittering of tiny Juncos and the whispering of the gentle afternoon breeze through the trees were the only sounds breaking the stillness of our boondocking campsite.

Boon what?
The term “boondocking” means different things to different people. It could simply mean camping without hook-ups, which would include many campgrounds managed by the state and national parks, Forest Service, Corps of Engineers and BLM.

But many RVers, like us, look beyond even the designated primitive camping areas for our own version of what a boondocking campsite should be.

We discovered early in our RVing life that we not only enjoyed hiking into the forests and backcountry, but we wanted to camp there also, right in the middle of nature, surrounded by trees, with only the wild critters of the forest as company. We like leaving the curtains open at night to look out at the stars and moon, and to spot the occasional curious nocturnal visitor, without our night vision dimmed or intruded upon by streetlights, vehicle headlights, porch lights, or lit-up restrooms. And I like wearing my favorite shorts that Lynn won’t let me wear in public.

I’m not really a curmudgeonly hermit. I like people. I’m friendly. I like regular campgrounds (some), especially in those areas where there are no boondocking possibilities or when we need to satisfy our motorhome’s requirements, like dumping, filling the water tank, charging the batteries, and catching up with my email.

But most of all we like to get out and explore. It’s fun to travel a new backroad looking for a nesty place in the forest or along a lake, river or stream

How do you find boondocking spots?

I’m glad you asked. Some find this a tedious aspect of boondocking. Others find it the most exciting part, searching for a spot with just the right surroundings and features and then setting up camp.

Camping is not permitted just anywhere in the National Forests anymore (like in the good ‘ol days). The Forest Service has, instead, designated certain unimproved areas as “dispersed camping” areas within the national forests where boondocking is permitted. You can find maps and directions in any Forest Service website or at any ranger station.

The next step is to investigate and this again is up to you, how you want to do it. We unhitch the toad and leave the motorhome by the side of the road while we explore the back roads. I look not only for the perfect spot, but also at the access road to make sure that I can get the motorhome in, that we will be able to level, and eventually turn around and get out again.

Sometimes we will spend an hour driving and checking out numerous spots. It’s hardest when we find one good spot after another and want to stay in all of them. Once we decide, we drive back and collect the motorhome and head for our new camp.

The Rules

  • Camp only where you can get completely off the road.
  • Carry out all your trash, do not bury it (animals will dig it up).
  • Clear the area around your campfire, burn within a fire ring of rocks, and make sure all fires are out when you leave the area. The Forest Service requires you to have a shovel and bucket of water handy near the fire area.
  • Walk your site and pick up all trash both when you arrive and before you leave. Leave the site cleaner than you found it.

Now comes the good part. Grab your binoculars and take a walk, ride your bike, arrange your camp, set up your barbecue, and place your chairs facing the best view. At night listen to the silence, unbroken by generators, traffic or conversations. Look up at the stars – you might even see the Milky Way – before falling asleep. Wake up to the chirping of birds and the rich smells of the forest. That’s what boondocking is all about.


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Cat Majiv
1 year ago

The article above about boondocking, while accurate and though short, was one of the most beautiful I’ve read in a very long time. As an older adult who regretfully hasn’t had many chances to enjoy the outdoors, this evoked the sites, sounds, and especially feelings of my childhood. I don’t want to move on to the next article or website. I just want to sit here remembering how Lake Of The Woods Ontario looked and smelled, how it felt.

I envy so much those who have the ability and the chances to go to those places and experience those things, especially with the people they love. Please take full advantage of every chance you get. You never know when it might be the last.

Brad Teubner
1 year ago

Camping in the Black Hills National Forest
I was at this site:
And noted this: “Camp 100 feet away from any road, stream, or trail and 1/2 mile away from developed sites.”
Which is difficult with a motorhome.