Camping beneath the stars surrounded by rustling pines, hooting owls, and crashing waves is the stuff RV dreams are made of. It’s also the stuff of RV images we fall in love with. What you don’t see in these picture-perfect set-ups are the surrounds of a crowded campground, like a power pedestal and sewer hose running to your dumpsite.
If you’ve fallen in love with the off-the-grid kind of camping that skips these campground sites, you’re in love with the idyllic RV experience called “boondocking.”
But, boondocking, also known as “dry camping,” can be intimidating for beginner RVers. It can also feel a bit daunting for more experienced RVers who are used to having the conveniences of a campground with full-hookups. The good news is, like many things in life, all you need is a little bit of practice to boondock comfortably and confidently. Take boondocking one small step at a time and you’ll find you’ll want to do it again and again.
Let’s go through some tips to help you get comfortable with boondocking little by little. In no time, you’ll be ready to camp off-grid in your new or used motorhome, whether that’s nestled among mountains or following your favorite college football team around the country.
1. Check the Weather
Avoid boondocking for the first time in frigid or sweltering conditions. Extreme weather just complicates matters. If it’s sticky and hot you’re going to need to rely on your AC to stay comfortable. Being mindful of your power consumption is key to boondocking. Needing to run your AC adds an extra challenge you don’t need when you’re learning. Likewise, if it’s cold, you need to run your furnace. Although your furnace likely runs on LP, the fan draws power. When you’re first learning about power consumption, this rookie mistake could put you in a position where you wake up to find your battery is drained.
Try boondocking for the first time in temperatures where the highs are in the 70s and the lows don’t dip below the 50s. In this weather, you won’t need temperature control to keep you comfortable. Of course, you can boondock in other weather conditions, it’s just not as easy and may require a generator. Stack the odds in your favor when you’re starting out by learning to boondock in mild weather.
2. Cover Your RV Basics
Before setting out on your first boondocking adventure be sure to check off some RV basics. Fill your freshwater tank. Empty your gray and black water tanks. Refill your propane and make sure your batteries are fully charged. If you’re in a towable travel trailer, pack your portable generator. Many motorized RVs will have an onboard generator, but not always. Make sure you know how to operate it (it may need to be primed if you’re in a high altitude, like the Rockies).
Last, be sure to stock your fridge and pack some extra drinking water. Yes, you can drink water being pumped from your freshwater tank, but packing drinking water will leave room for error. If you find you underestimated how much water you use for dishes or showers, you can always switch to drinking and cooking with the extra water you packed.
3. Plan a Partial Hook-Up Stay
Why cut all your hook-ups at once? Try starting out by camping with just partial hook-ups at a campground. If you’re used to full hook-ups with sewer, try going without the sewer hook-up at first. After that, try camping at a campground that offers just one hook-up. A state park might offer electric-only, but make water available at spigots located throughout the campground. You can practice your water management without having to worry about your power too.
4. Boondock With a Built-In Back-Up Plan
What better way to learn than with a safety net? Try a short, two to three-day boondocking stay at any of these sites.
Campsites with Hook-Ups
Wait. A campsite with hookups? Yes. A great way to practice is to camp at a campsite with hook-ups without actually hooking up your RV. This is a great way to practice because you have the hook-ups there if you need them. You can even extend the stay to five or seven days, and closely monitor your power and water consumption per day or week. You may find you can boondock for longer than you thought.
Friends’ and Family’s Driveways
A friend or relative’s driveway, or even your own, is a great place to practice boondocking. You are able to practice camping without hook-ups, but should anything not turn out right, there is a house nearby for modern conveniences. At the least, you could hook up to a house’s power or water to charge up or refill your tank if you needed to.
RV shows are a great place to begin dry camping if they allow onsite camping. Many RV shows do allow onsite camping but without any hook-ups. You’ll be camping with other RV enthusiasts who are also boondocking for the weekend. That being the case, there’s plenty of help should you need it. You may also be able to pick up some tips from your fellow RVers.
You may only want to become proficient at boondocking to attend your favorite sporting events, like tailgating at football games or NASCAR races. If that’s the case they’re great for practice (barring poor weather) as they make for a nice short stay. Like an RV show, you’ll be among fellow RVers who are also boondocking, so help isn’t too far away should you need it.
Some casinos will allow RVers to park overnight, as long as they spend money inside the casino. This can be a fun way to practice! At just one night, you’re not pushing your limits. And, should you change your mind, or find yourself unprepared, you can always book a room instead.
Some RVers refer to boondocking at Walmart as “Wallydocking.” If you travel long distances in your RV, chances are high you’ll be spending the night at a Walmart at some point along your travels. Walmart parking lots make a good place to practice your overnight boondocking. Always check with a manager before setting your RV up for an overnight stay. Wallydocking is an approachable form of boondocking because if you forget anything, there are supplies or a bathroom inside. If you’re at one along a popular travel route, like the Walmart in Page, AZ, you’ll also be surrounded by fellow RVers doing the same thing.
6. Boondock at a USFS or NPS campground
U.S. Forest Service (USFS) campgrounds will often offer the opportunity to camp with more privacy and more nature. The catch?–there aren’t always hook-ups. Plan a short 2–3 day stay to practice. Some of the USFS campgrounds are developed and have a camp host, which are ideal to start off your boondocking experience. The same is true of National Park Service (NPS) campgrounds. Some don’t have hook-ups so you can practice your boondocking in beautiful surrounds. Most likely, there will be other RVers there boondocking too giving you a chance to see a wide-range of RVs from bigger Class As to smaller Happier Campers.
7. Boondock on BLM Land
Once you feel you have the hang of it, boondock on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property. BLM land offers the opportunity to have complete privacy, depending on where you are. You can plan a lovely escape surrounded by nature and nothing else. Once you’re comfortable with longer stays you can also set up base camp for other activities you might enjoy like backpacking, fishing, or mountain biking. The possibilities at this point are nearly endless.
As far as longer stays go, great places to gain more confidence are Moab, Sedona, and Flagstaff. Boondocking in these areas is popular because the weather can be mild at different times of the year, and you’ll certainly run into other RVers which may give you some comfort as a beginner.
Boondocking can be a very rewarding RV experience. Overnight boondocking is also a regular part of RVing, especially if you RV across long distances on extended road trips in your new or used travel trailer.
Have any good boondocking tips? Leave a comment below!
I want to find a chunk of land where my family can stretch out and not be cramped at a campground. We would like to stay within 100 mile radius of Elgin, Illinois. Please let me know if you can help find some spots.
I remember boondocking for the first time. It was scarey and exciting all at once. When we made it through to the next day it was a sense of accomplishment. We boondocked mostly when traveling one place to another. We full timed two and a half years. We went all over the US. Now we are in an apartment staying by our moms to help, but we long for the road. I can see it in our future.
my gosh this is awesome information thanks!!
Gerald, it really depends on how much space you’re looking for to “stretch out.”
I left California permanently as a full time RVer June 28, 2021. I’ve stayed only one night in a campground… and that was to learn HOW to use my shorepower! Hahaha! I LOVE boondocking. Don’t be afraid; if you have A/C to cool down in the heat and heavy clothes or a furnace to warm up in the cold, the weather won’t be much of an issue. I traveled the 10 across to AZ, NM, and TX, went up through OK, AR to MO, back to Cali along the 40, and now am traveling Route 66.
Travel Stops are a newbie boondocker’s best friend. I prefer Love’s because many have small dog parks; but Pilot, TA, 66… there all great. If your battery dies, you can turn on your generator pretty much without bothering anyone. If you run out of food, you can go inside, they’re open 24/7. If you want a great shower, it’s only $13ish; and many of them now have laundry facilities on site. RVs can park back with the truckers, but I’m in a 24foot Class C and generally park in the auto lot; sometimes they have stalls marked for RVs. Love’s has an app, so does Pilot; the apps are helpful.
Rest Areas are great. Some have vending machines, most have restrooms; they often have picnic areas — and out here the tables are generally under a lientu for shade. Since rest areas are used by truckers, you can usually run your generator if you need to and it won’t bother anyone.
Of course parking with truckers means noise — they have reefers that need to run all night, and most run their engines all night to keep their diesel fuel warm.
Boondocking is free on national land – so BLM land and National Forests. You can download a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) from the National Forest webpage (each forests has their own webpage and map) These are the only updated maps that SHOW boondocking sites. It’s a learning curve on how to read them, but you’ll figure it out. MVUM’s are a boondockers lifeline; an absolute must have.
Boondockersbible.com lists a few sites in a few states; I’m using it when I can. Plus, they give you the rules on state rest areas which is nice.
I’m in Arkansas right now… HUGE rest area, three separate grass areas for my dogs, each about 300 yards long; dogs must be leashed but at least there’s nice areas to walk them. Rest areas are bigger and nicer than in Cali, like along the 5.
RVdump.com will show you where to empty your tanks; and lists several places that are free. TX even has some rest areas with free dump stations (one is just below Dallas). The Midwest is very RV friendly.
My generator is linked directly to my coach/van, so I run it a couple hours in the morning if I need to charge my laptop, and a couple of hours at night if I want to watch a movie. I only have one battery for the coach – so I need to charge it in the morning then top it off before bed so it will last throughout the night for my fridge (which runs on propane but still uses battery power.)
I have a 12 gallon propane tank, and the most it’s ever been down was 2/3s after 10 days in the Coconino National Forest outside of Flagstaff (beautiful boondocking, and free!) Never let anyone try to fill your propane tank more than 80% full; I’ve been told they can explode if overfilled (from the gas expanding when it’s hot.)
First piece of advice I was given – The grey water tank will fill up WAY faster than the black tank; so go easy on it. If you wash dishes in a dishpan, consider emptying the water down the toilet instead of down the sink; or use the water to wash the bugs off your vehicle’s front grill. If you are able (summer, mostly) use a sun shower outside.
My first set of rules for myself – 1) It’s just as easy to fill the top half of the gas tank as it is to fill the bottom. .. Keep ‘er full. 2) Walk the rig before driving off… awning rolled in, storage doors closed and locked, gas cap on, water cap on, shorepower cord and waterline disconnected and put away (if you’ve been using them.) 3) Try never to put NonPotable water in your fresh water tank (if you must, add a teaspoon of bleach.)
Good Luck! Hope I’ve given you some tools to get started with. It’s a learning curve, but not hard. It just takes practice.
Regina Hi. I love the idea of RVing/camping and traveling across the country. My wife and I are retired and basically have the time and means to travel in our trailer but our BIG question/concern is when and which direction. We live in Southern California and are very concern about the horrible weather, hurricanes in the east and northeast and now fires in the west. Do you have any specific plan or direction when RVing through the country? Any help from you will be very welcome. Thank you.