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.
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.