Get started in boondocking with these essentials

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By Greg Illes
Have you been thinking about going “off the grid” but are unsure how to get started? Like most of us, you don’t want to hazard your family’s safety or comforts, but you’d really like to try a few nights away from an RV park (especially now that so many are closed or restricted), perhaps out under the desert stars or next to a mountain stream. And with parks and campgrounds closed for who-knows-how-long, maybe you’ll find a boondocking area nearby to hole up in for awhile until we’re again allowed to roam around this great country of ours.

You need only a few “tools” to boondock successfully, and some of those tools are mental rather than physical. Proper knowledge and preparation will take you a long way – and back.

Being unplugged means you rely on your own power, water and sewage resources. You must become very familiar with these elements so that you can know how long they will last.

Photo: Finetooth / wikipedia

Mental tools: When you can answer these questions, you (and your infrastructure) will be ready for an excursion into the great unpowered wildernesses:

• What is your fresh-water capacity, and how much do you use each day?
• What is your holding tank capacity, and how fast do your tanks fill up?
• Do your holding tanks fill up unevenly, so that you run out of holding before you run out of fresh water?
• What is your propane capacity, and how much is used each day (baseline cooking and fridge operation)?
• What is your battery capacity (amp-hours) and how many amp-hours do you use each day?

The best way to find out the answers to some of these questions is to park in a full-hookup site but stay unhooked. Run that way for as long as you can – watch your resource consumption, take notes, and if you get in trouble (water, battery, etc.) you can just hook back up again.

Physical tools: The best single hardware tool for boondock preparation and strategy is the clamp-on ammeter. This handy device lets you measure the current that is actually coming out of your battery pack. With it, you can assess what power you are using, understand all of your battery loads and make adjustments if necessary. Another tool is a low-power 12V-120V inverter. This will let you power up small 120V devices like cellphone chargers, or even a laptop, without using that noisy generator. The 12V-socket cellphone chargers are even better.

You will find that the gating (deciding) factors for boondocking endurance are almost always water and battery capacities, and water will usually outlast the batteries. In a “stock” RV, batteries will quickly be used up by incandescent lights, and most battery packs will be brought to their knees by running the forced-air heater. If you have used your ammeter, you will know how long you can operate these and other 12V devices.

Remember that your consumption of resources may vary significantly with season and/or locale. You will need to increase and maintain your awareness of resource levels and use rates to avoid surprises.

A word of advice from a dedicated boondocker — Please try diligently NOT to use your generator to make up for excessive power consumption. People go to the boondocks for peace and quiet, not to listen to their neighbor’s generator howling. If you must use the gen, try to limit it to just operating the microwave or the hair dryer, and don’t run it for hours to recharge your batteries. Remember, your batteries will be recharging as soon as you drive to your next campsite.

There are literally hundreds of boondocking tips available here at RVtravel.com, at other online resources, and in published books — how to make your resources last longer, how to increase comfort without overloading your RV, how to find great places to stay and so forth. Being self-reliant is incredibly rewarding. Once you get the hang of it all, you may never want to go back to a park.

Editor’s note: Here are some helpful RV boondocking books at Amazon.

Greg Illes is a retired systems engineer who loves thinking up RV upgrades and modifications. When he’s not working on his motorhome, he’s traveling in it. You can follow his blog at www.divver-city.com/blog.

##RVDT1314

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Dan L
6 months ago

After seeing what’s coming available commercially,we built out an off the grid cargo trailer.Now we have exactly what we need.12v,solar, batteries.40 gal fresh,23 gray,nice galley with propane cooktop,real indoor rv flush toilet,full size memory foam mattress,all of it in a 14ft trailer for a fraction of the cost of a store bought.
Coming soon,a bigger,custom order gray tank,and a microwave.. Love boondocking!

Jeanne McKenzie
6 months ago

As to recharging your batteries as you travel to the next site, you need to make a longer trip than we do from site to site to recharge. Because of this, It is necessary for us to use our generator at times to recharge the batteries. Many boondocking spots have time limits for using the generator which we always follow. We also use solar panels for recharging batteries. Generator usage seems to be the biggest complaint and or argument between boondockers.

Keith Nichols
6 months ago

Best thing I ever did was to trade out all interior incandescent bubs for LEDs. Doubled my boondockability.

Robbie
6 months ago

The best tool is knowledge. Knowing your consumption rates is the key. Today is our 128th day of boondocking on LTVA near Quartzsite.

Will
6 months ago

For years RV manufacturers have hoodwinked buyers into desiring larger and larger rigs with home-like features that waste power, water, and fuel. There are alternatives today. Solar panels and lithium batteries combined with 12 volt powered appliances will set you free of a generator. A composting toilet will set you free from your black water tank. Small changes in the way you shower and wash dishes will free you from having to hook up to city water. Diesel fired 12-volt cook tops and air/water heaters will free you of propane use.

If you want to get away from the mini-city that is most RV parks and get into the country, look for a rig that conserves energy, water, and sewer. And a hint…it probably won’t be made in Indiana. We found a US manufactured rig that we can spend 7 comfortable days boondocking and use only 40 gallons of water and no generator. Try it, you might like it.

Keith Nichols
6 months ago
Reply to  Will

What’s the “US manufactured rig” that you found?

Scott R. Ellis
6 months ago

A clamp-on ammeter is fine and dandy, but if you get serious about this you’re going to want an actual battery monitor, such as those sold by Victron. You get not only continuous real-time amp draw info, but also cumulative usage, state of charge, and much, much more. Not cheap, but well worth it.