Boondocking in an RV
Before we started RVing fulltime, we had no idea what our camping style was like. I mean we knew what our tent camping style was like, but we had zero RV experience. Would we prefer staying in RV parks, state parks, or doing this thing called “boondocking” we’d never even heard of before? Well, it turns out, we like it all! But, boondocking has definitely become the most special and memorable way to camp.
Boondocking, or dry camping, is basically RV camping without hookups. That’s electric, water, or sewer hookups. So why in the world would you want to RV without hookups? Isn’t having those amenities available the beauty of an RV? Well, yes, having the comforts of a traditional house is great, but boondocking allows you to get off the beaten path. It allows you to get away from the crowds of an RV park and really spend time in nature. Also, maybe the best thing about it, it’s usually free! If not free, dry camping at a campground is drastically less expensive than camping at an RV park will full hookups.
Boondocking was intimidating at first and we weren’t sure exactly how to go about finding places to park or how to live for days at a time without being hooked up. Well, I’m happy to say, I think we’ve figured it out! We now spend about half of our time boondocking and we can go multiple weeks at a time. Here is our guide to boondocking in an RV.
Finding a Spot
Since driving aimlessly for hours on end isn’t really a possibility, we try to have an idea of where we are going when headed to our next boondocking spot. Yes, we have driven by multiple places at a time looking for a spot to call home for a night, but we always have a gameplan before arriving at our next destination. Quite a bit of planning goes into finding our next spot as we need to make sure we don’t get ourselves and our 35 foot home stuck in a situation we can’t easily get ourselves out of. And, we need cell service in order to work. We use maps and apps to help with the planning.
Campendium offers user-generated information on camping sites and so much more. You are able to find boondocking spots, campgrounds, dump stations, etc. Users are able to provide detailed information for spots they’ve found such as photos, cell coverage, the size of the spot, and other interesting tips. Because we need cell service to work, having that information is vital. We honestly don’t know how we’d be able to camp for free as much as we do without this app!
Another fantastic app we use to find our next camping destination, similar to the one above. We are able to find detailed information about spots anywhere and everywhere in North America. iOverlander is completely user-generated content that has a combination of overnight parking spots, boondocking or dry camping spots, and traditional campgrounds. It also includes useful resources for those living on the road, including laundry, locations, dump stations, and restaurants. While some of the sites are often only suited for smaller units or require 4WD to access, there are definitely some hidden gems in there, like the one we found at Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve.
Google Maps is one of my favorite apps. For everything. When it comes to boondocking though, there are a number of ways to use it. First off, some of the other apps that we use to find potential boondocking locations can often lack information about the size of rig that the spots can accomodate or conditions of access roads. This is where you can cross-reference these spots with Google Maps Satellite view to see more details about where you are going. Google Maps also has most businesses so you can see what will be close by.
I also like to use Google Maps when route planning, to make sure that any potential tight turns are negotiable, or if there is a better route we should take.
Before You Go
To “live off the grid” for any amount of time requires some preparation. Whether we are dry camping for two days or two weeks, we take certain steps to get us ready. Here is our before we boondock checklist:
Dump tanks. Gray and black tanks are emptied to ensure we have plenty of space for filling them back up. We will either dump at our campsite if we have a sewer hookup before boondocking or we will find a dump station. Apps like ParkAdvisor (Formerly AllStays), iOverlander, and RV Dump Sites are all great for finding nearby dump stations. RV Dump Sites, which just redirects you to RVDumpSites.net is probably the most comprehensive.
Fill fresh water tank. We don’t like to travel far distances with a full fresh water tank as it adds about 400 lbs. to our load, so we will search for potable water close by where we will be boondocking. We also have a five gallon folding water cube that we use for drinking water so we can save fresh water in the RV tank for dishes, flushing the toilet, and the occasional shower.
Fill propane. Propane is extra important when boondocking because it powers items we generally run off electricity when hooked up. We use propane for our fridge/freezer, stove/oven, hot water heater, and the furnace on cold nights.
Food. We aren’t always close to a grocery store when boondocking, so I make sure we are stocked up on goodies to get us through up to a week.
Paper plates. Washing dishes will eat up the fresh water like nothing else. So, we use paper plates and bowls while boondocking.
Once we have everything we need, it’s time to head to our next camping spot. Once there we need to be mindful of how we use electricity and water.
There is no getting around the fact that using electricity is different when boondocking vs. being fully hooked up. We try to use as little as possible and really only use electricity for lights in the evening and to charge devices. We need our phones and computers to work while living this fulltime RV life, so having them charged is a must.
When the weather and tree coverage allow it, we use solar power as much as possible. When we bought our rig it came with a 100W panel, small charge controller, and regular lead-acid batteries. After killing the batteries by letting them drain 100% (whoops!), we upgraded to Renogy 100ah Gel Batteries, and a UXCell MPPT 20A Charge Controller. The battery upgrade reduced maintenance since they are sealed, and they aren’t going to get completely ruined if you accidentally discharge them below 50%. The upgrade to an MPPT charge controller is way more efficient than the PWM controller that came with our unit. We will pull energy even on the days when you can’t see the sun. The solar works great for light loads such as charging devices, using the TV, and switching on the lights as needed. Our TV and stereo run off of 12V power, but we also use a Pure Sine Wave inverter to convert to 120V for other devices.
We have a great generator that we use in the evening or as needed if we aren’t getting enough energy off the solar panels. Going against most of what we read on the internet, we went with a cheaper brand, WEN, which has worked great! The WEN 56200i Super Quiet 2000-Watt Portable Inverter Generator is a quiet, efficient generator that is designed to power most of your household appliances, except for the A/C and microwave. It is very similar to the Honda and Yamaha generators that are talked about so much, only at less than half the price! We have no problem powering lights, the coffeemaker, 120V outlets, and even the microwave (when nothing else is plugged in!).
We try to conserve our battery life at night so try not to use lights once the kids go to bed. When boondocking we use our lantern and reading lights for reading in bed or late night working and the kids each have a rechargeable night light in their bunk in case they wake up during the night.
Conserving fresh water may be the most challenging thing about dry camping. We didn’t realize how much fresh water we go through until we had a limited amount to work with! But, conserving water is always important to do, whether we are hooked up or not, so having ways to conserve has been a great learning experience for all of us.
We quickly learned where we waste the most water: doing dishes. Doing the dinner dishes will not only eat up a ton of our fresh water, but it also fills the gray tank super quickly. We now use collapsible dish tubs in each side of the kitchen sink. We will fill one side with a small amount of soapy water for washing, then use a small amount of clean water in the other side for rinsing. Using biodegradable dish soap allows us to then dump the used water outside rather than down the drain into the gray tank. This saves water by not keeping the faucet running while doing dishes and keeps water out of the gray tank. Boom! Water conserved.
Another area of the rig that can eat up a lot of our fresh water while boondocking is the shower. We definitely do not shower everyday while dry camping but when we do, we take military style showers to use the least amount of water as possible. We have an on/off shower head that allows us to pause water flow while shampooing or soaping which saves water and keeps our shower temperature as is. On days where we skip the shower altogether, we use body wipes to keep us clean and fresh.
Another thing we need to think about when boondocking is conserving room in our sewage tanks. This includes our black tank and our two gray tanks (we have one for the bathroom and one for the galley). As I mentioned earlier, we use dish tubs in the kitchen sink to keep water out of that tank. Well, we also use a tub in our bathroom sink to keep as much water out of that gray tank as possible. We want to save room in that tank for a shower or two!
As for the black tank, we have never really had an issue filling that one to capacity while boondocking. If we are at a dry campground that has pit toilets, we will use those as much as possible. The boys of the Baker family use the great outdoors for “sneaky pees”, as we call them. The ladies of the Baker family throw toilet paper in the bathroom trash can vs. the toilet when going #1. That means the only paper going into the black tank is for #2s if there isn’t another toilet option available to us. That saves a TON of room in the black tank! To keep our tanks gunk free, thereby giving us more room, we use Piranha Holding Tank Cleaner on a regular basis. It also keeps our tank sensors in working order and helps with odor.
We never in a million years thought we’d be regular boondockers when we started living this fulltime RV life. Now it is one of our favorite ways to live and camp. Boondocking forces us to disconnect more and enjoy our surroundings. Honestly, boondocking takes a little bit more effort than camping with full hookups and the experiences can be 100 times better. We are looking forward to our next drive down the road less traveled to another beautiful boondocking location!