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So you’ve heard others throwing around the words “boondocking”, “self-sustaining”, and “dispersed camping”, and you’re confused about what these terms are and want to learn more? Don’t worry, most people new to RVing don’t fully understand what types of camping and adventures you can have when first starting out, and I hope some of my articles will help you in making some decisions about what will best work for you when RVing either full-time or part-time.
What exactly is boondocking?
Boondocking or dispersed camping can best be described as taking your RV to places where self-sustained “off-grid” living is required. In other words, you will have no water, electric, or sewer hook-ups and you will need to be creative on how best to conserve water and power to make your boondocking stay as comfortable as possible.
When you are dry camping (yes, another word for boondocking) you don’t necessarily have to be out in the middle of some national forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property (although that would be my first choice), because boondocking can take on other forms such as spending the night in a store parking lot or even in a friend or relatives driveway or backyard.
What should I do to prepare for boondocking?
There are several factors you should consider before taking a boondocking trip, and in this list below, I outlined the most important things to I do when I head out to boondock. You may find some of these ideas will work for you and others may not. But you will also find that the more comfortable you become with boondocking the easier it becomes to prepare for these trips.
Water is essential for survival as well as cleaning yourself and things like clothes and dishes. For all of those activities for two people, you should expect to use about 5-8 gallons of water per day (not including drinking water). The first I do when heading out to boondock is to fill my fresh water tanks to make sure I have enough to last while I am off the grid. Just to be on the safe side, I also have a three gallon refillable jug that I keep in a storage bin in case I do run low.
Make sure you have an ample supply of food for your stay. Often times if you are in a remote area, an affordable grocery store may be a long way off and taking an all-day drive to get something you should have brought with you in the first place can really spoil a good trip. I like to buy fresh food whenever possible so I will usually bring enough fresh vegetables and fruit to last the length of my stay. I eat healthier and I minimize the amount of packaging that I have to store and discard later. However, I do also have a few items such as canned tuna and vegetables in case I run out of fresh food before I have time to replenish my supplies. Check out my RV kitchen and grocery departure checklist for my typical list of supplies.
Most people are accustomed to having an ample supply of electricity, but you will find that when boondocking you are going to need to manufacture your own power by using a generator or solar panels. I personally dislike generators because they a noisy, use gas (now you have to carry full gas cans around with you), and unless they are built into your RV, you will be lifting that heavy thing in and out of your unit more than you want to. For me, I decided that solar power was the way to go and I installed an 800 watt system on my roof to cover my needs. Installing your own power source may seem too overwhelming for you, but if I can do it so can you. If you’d like to learn more about installing solar power, take a look at Lindsey’s article on how to install solar panels on your van.
More than likely you are not going to be someplace where there is a trash receptacle and you will need to pack that out with you. I like to use food grade buckets (these are the ones with the rubber “O” ring in the lid) that seal well. I recycle plastic grocery bags and every time one fills up, I tie it off and put in the bucket and then stow the bucket in one of storage compartments until I am some place where I can properly dispose of the bags. I also use these buckets for storage and to keep my dirty laundry. Whatever you do, don’t leave them outside, there’s all sorts of critters out there looking for a free meal and you don’t need them coming around your campsite.
Gray and black water tanks
This should go without saying, but you should always have your black and grey water tanks empty going into a boondocking stay. Since it’s illegal to just dump these anywhere, do you really to pack up camp and drive someplace to do this? No, neither would I.
Get a good first aid kit
Some boondocking sites can be a long way from emergency medical facilities and first responders. Help may be hours away, so don’t buy a cheap $5 first aid kit from a discount dollar store. Make sure yours has a tourniquet, scissors, and several types of bandages.
Plan on conserving
There are a lot of ways to conserve on things like space, water, and electricity and in a future article I will expand on this further. However, for now I will give an example of how I found a solution to draining my battery power for refrigeration. I replaced the factory installed refrigerator/freezer with a slightly smaller 12 volt model that used far less electricity and worked better with solar power source. I also switched my lighting to LED which also saved a considerable amount of battery drain.
Is boondocking safe and what can I do to insure my safety?
I get asked this question quite frequently and yes, boondocking is safe, but ultimately it is up for you to decide your comfort level and whether a spot you find to boondock is within that comfort level. I recently saw a video on YouTube that was posted by a middle-aged Asian immigrant couple that is traveling the U.S. in their RV while documenting their journey. I have watched a few of their videos and the wife has always struck me as a bit of a worry wart, and in the latest video they were driving through a small county park in Alabama that I recognized because I have stayed there myself.
In their video, the camera pans back and forth to reveal a totally empty park without a single person or RV in sight and the wife can be heard saying to husband that since there was no one there she felt uncomfortable so they moved on to a pay campground where a bunch of other people were staying. As I said above, I have stayed at the little park they were driving through and one of the reasons I stayed there for three days was because there wasn’t any other people around. As you can see, it’s really all about how comfortable you feel in a boondocking site. I don’t have any probable with isolation, but for others it may be out of their comfort zone. The bottom line is this, if you don’t feel comfortable in a particular boondocking site, move on and find something that suits your needs.
As far as some tips for safety, I have compiled a short list of some things that work for me and some other fellow boondockers that I have encountered along my travels. Some of these suggestions may work for you and others may not, it really just depends upon your own personal preferences. Lindsey also wrote a great column on how she stays safe as a solo female van lifer.
Park your RV strategically
This works well for motorhomes and vans, but may not work so easily if you are traveling with a towable RV. The idea here is that if you are being harassed or someone is trying to break into your RV, you can quickly evacuate the site without having to confront the aggressor be it a bear or a person.
Stow away your gear at night
Keep a clean campsite, especially at night. Take your lawn furniture, generator, camping, and fishing gear inside or stow them away in a locked compartment to avoid tempting would be thieves.
Get some personal protection
Disclaimer – this totally depends on your comfort level and preference. If you are a U.S. citizen with no felony convictions you are allowed to own a firearm and defend yourself with it if need be. However, you need to be aware that different states have different laws regarding the type of firearm and how you carry it, so you should be aware of those laws so you don’t break any of them. Furthermore, if you have never owned a gun and decide to take this route, it would be in your best interest to get some formal training on how to use your gun. Personally, I like to hike, and because of that I always have a can or two of bear spray around. Believe me, a good blast of that in the face will have most people doing the 100 yard dash away from you.
Get a dog
If you’re like me and love dogs, this is a no-brainer! Would be thieves or other intruders are often deterred by the sound of a barking dog, especially if it’s a large dog like mine. Make sure to read my column on RVing with your pet too.
Install a motion activated light or camera by your entrance
These items can be another good way to dissuade unwanted visitors, but just be aware that motion sensor lights have a tendency to activate by the smallest of movement, so it’s likely that a small animal like a rabbit or raccoon can set them off several times a night.
Also be sure to read my full guide on RV security.
What are a few of the do’s and don’ts for boondocking?
There aren’t any specific rules for boondocking, as most of it is common sense and courtesy. However, some of these suggestions may help you in the future when boondocking at various locations.
Pack it in and pack it out
Don’t leave a mess at a campsite. This should go without saying, but all too often I have found a spot to camp and have found everything from dirty diapers to beer and soda cans spread all over. I can’t tell you how many times I have packed other people’s garbage up and removed it. Don’t be that person!
Make sure your campfire is out
Just because your campfire appears out, it may not be. Stir it up and pour water on it. Also, don’t throw oversize pieces of wood on a campfire. They may appear to have burned themselves out, but if they are hollow, there’s a good chance there’s still some embers inside that four foot log that pouring water on the outside won’t extinguish. And don’t throw food scraps into a campfire pit whether it’s burning or not. Too often I have caught my dog rooting around in an old fire pit and coming up with some old steak or chicken bone. Remember, if my dog can smell them so can a lot of other animals.
Yes, you may be on vacation and having a good time, but be mindful of others. Some people, such as me, work remotely from their RVs and while you may be having a good time around the fire listening to loud music at 10 PM, others may be trying to get some sleep around you. And don’t run your generator all day and all night. They’re loud and no one wants to hear them running all the time.
Don’t overstay your welcome
If you’re on public land, stay as long as you are allowed and then move on. This goes for overnight boondocking in store parking lots, rest areas, and truck stops. Don’t be that guy that extends their slide-outs, sets up a BBQ grill, their awning, and yard furniture. This a Walmart parking lot for crying out loud, you can make it night or two without setting up a camp there.
Give people their space
If you’re in a dispersed camping area with plenty of space and few other RVers, don’t park right next to someone. This has happened to me numerous times. I have even been the only RVer in a paid campground and have had someone pull into the site right next to mine. If you feel the need to be that close to others they go to a Yellowstone National Park campground in July, you’ll feel right at home. This is a big part of my rules around RV campground etiquette.
Clean up after your pets
Another no-brainer but many people don’t do it and they should. Enough said.
These are a few of the things I do when I plan on boondocking. In my next article I will share some tips for finding good places to boondock, some of the resources I use to find those places, and even some of my favorite individual spots. Until then, see you out there and remember, home is where you make, so make it best it can be.
Also be sure to read Lindsey’s article on the best free camping and boondocking spots near national parks.