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In the summer of 2019 – the last “normal” summer before covid-19 changed everything – we explored national parks in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. On this dream trip, we took our RV to the Badlands, Wind Cave, Theodore Roosevelt, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier National Parks over the course of about 2 months. Total cost for lodging: $0. How did we manage to visit these iconic locations during peak season without spending a dime on lodging costs? Boondocking!
Before you think that we sacrificed anything in location or experience, let me explain that we were usually within a few miles of the national park entrances, in quiet locations with both amazing views and great cell phone service. Maybe this sounds too good to be true, but the truth is that you can do it too! Read on to learn more about how you can boondock to save money and gain some incredible experiences at the same time!
What is Boondocking?
Boondocking – or dry camping – is RV camping without water, electricity, or sewer hookups. Boondocking is self-contained, using the resources that you have with you. While boondocking, RVers use water from their fresh-water tanks (filled ahead of time) and contain all wastewater in their grey and black waste tanks. Without access to shore power, boondockers run off of their batteries for short stays. Longer periods of boondocking require a means to recharge batteries, such as solar panels or a generator.
While the terms “boondocking” and “dry camping” are sometimes used interchangeably, “boondocking” has a connotation of being off-grid and staying for free. Paid campgrounds that do not offer any hookups, such as many national park campgrounds, often choose the term “dry camping”.
Boondocking often refers to free camping on public lands or other areas that allow dispersed camping. Sometimes there are designated campsites that may provide amenities such as fire rings or picnic tables. You can also boondock for a night in some store parking lots and rest stops when you simply need a place to sleep on your way from one place to another.
Read our full guide on how to find the best RV’s for Boondocking.
Advantages of Boondocking
One of the biggest advantages of boondocking is saving money. Campground fees average $50 per night or more, so avoiding these fees quickly adds up to hundreds of dollars in savings. On a long road trip, it can be especially frustrating to pay these rates when all you need is a place to sleep for the night and you aren’t using most of the amenities.
We first started boondocking to save money, but what keeps us coming back to it is the amazing locations we’ve discovered all around the country. Often the land surrounding a national park is also public land, including Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and national forests, where dispersed camping is permitted.
Some of the most beautiful places we’ve ever stayed in have been boondocking areas, where we enjoyed peaceful, spacious natural areas for free. When choosing between these locations and an expensive campground with another RV just a few feet away, it’s usually a no-brainer.
Disadvantages of Boondocking
There are some disadvantages to be aware of when boondocking. Whether a single night in a store parking lot or an extended stay on public lands, you should always be aware of security. When you’re in an unfamiliar area, skipping the campground leaves you without some of the security procedures that campgrounds offer. Never spend the night in an area that makes you uncomfortable.
Online boondocking forums can be very helpful for avoiding unsafe areas, as you can read this feedback from other boondockers ahead of time. We have spent a lot of time boondocking in both store parking lots and public lands and we are rarely the only RVers in these areas. The presence of other RVs is always positive when it comes to security.
Another disadvantage is the initial investment in supplies needed for boondocking. For a night or two here and there, you don’t need very much. For longer stays, you will either need solar panels or a generator to charge your batteries. Some people also like to invest in larger water bladders to help refill their fresh-water tanks, but we haven’t found this to be necessary for us.
You’ll also need to conserve waste tank space and have a plan for finding dump stations to empty tanks regularly. Frequent showers are discouraged while boondocking since they use up so much fresh water and create so much wastewater.
Finding Places to Boondock with your RV
One of the most important skills to learn for boondocking is how to find locations where you can (legally!) boondock with your RV. You can always ask for tips in general RVing forums, but this can be hit or miss and often makes planning difficult.
There are several boondocking RV forums available that can make it much easier to discover your next boondocking site. Our favorite forums allow you to search by location but also include a map feature to help you find great locations along your route. There are both free and paid forums out there, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these.
Remember that most of the information in these forums is user-generated. You should always double-check important details and look for consistent feedback from multiple users to get an accurate picture of the location. Look for information such as how long ago the reviewer stayed there, what kind and size of rig they had, and any other issues that might be important to be aware of.
I’ll share some of the most popular forums, both free and paid, focusing on the favorites that have allowed us to explore the country without paying campground fees for months at a time.
Campendium is not a boondocking-specific site, but it has a “Free Camping” category that filters out all but the free camping options. You can also choose to show paid camping options on the map, and filter by how much you’re willing to pay.
On Campendium you can search by state, or by proximity to landmarks such as state and national parks. The map search is easy to use and automatically updates as you drag to new areas. Investigate specific locations by clicking and you’ll find reviews, links to any official websites, and exact GPS coordinates (which are especially helpful for spots that are a little off the beaten path). Campendium is a popular forum, which means there are plenty of reviews and most of them are recent.
The pins on the map clearly indicate what type of camping the location is, whether it’s a private RV park, public land (such as national forest or state park), or just a parking lot that allows overnight parking. The map also marks dump stations, which can be very helpful to plan when boondocking.
As a full-time RVer who works remotely, my favorite Campendium feature is that reviewers are asked to share how the cell phone coverage is for their provider. It’s never a guarantee that I will have service, but it is usually an accurate indication that helps make sure we’re connected when we need to be.
Free Campsites offers a lot of the same information as Campendium. There is a map search feature, and clicking on a location gives you all the vital information, such as an address, GPS coordinates, website, and even elevation. It lists any amenities that are available, and it also has a cellular availability report based on recent reviews.
The map pins are sorted into 4 colors: green indicates free, red means pay, blue shows that a permit is required, and yellow encourages you to research it yourself. In general, I find this system to be less helpful because a Walmart parking lot appears the same on the map as a national forest.
Sometimes I’m just looking for someplace to pull off the highway and sleep for a night, which means a parking lot is ideal. When I want someplace I can stay for a while, unhitch and explore the area, I’m looking for public lands. It takes longer to click on every location on the map to see which type it is.
That said, the system of clearly marking sites that require a permit is very helpful. Just last week, I chose a boondocking site on Campendium that was in a great location and had great reviews. I planned that stop into my route, but when I checked Free Campsites I saw that it was marked with a blue “permit-required” symbol.
It turned out that all the permits were fully booked for the dates I wanted to be there. I’m thankful to Free Campsites for helping me discover this in time to make a new plan and avoid showing up to a full camping area without a permit.
One drawback to this forum is that it is not as widely used, meaning there are fewer reviews available and many of them are outdated. Conditions on public lands are subject to change, and cellular availability has improved a lot in the last few years. Finding more recent reviews for a location gives me a lot more confidence when choosing a boondocking site.
Allstays (Free Version)
Allstays is not boondocking specific but it has many different filter options that make it a helpful choice in some circumstances.
On the free version of the site, you can use filters to find a variety of types of locations or search by a variety of types of amenities. In the context of boondocking, the most helpful feature is being able to search specifically for Walmart stores, truck stops, or casinos that allow RV parking. You can filter “All Public Lands” or by specific types of public lands, such as state parks, forests, or Army Corps of Engineers.
Recently, many RVers have abandoned this once popular tool. There are disadvantages to Allstays that are no issues with other sites. The free version of Allstays does not allow you to filter by price. When you see many different public land locations on the map, you need to click to discover whether they are free boondocking sites or paid campgrounds. Many of the most popular and useful features are no longer available in the free version and Allstays is clearly focused on selling subscriptions to Allstays Pro.
The Allstays mobile apps (there are 8 different versions) are only available for iOS and not for Android or other devices. Unless you are an iPhone user, Allstays can only be used in a web browser.
Allstays Pro is the paid version of Allstays. It has all the features of the free version, plus more listings and more filter options. One of the most useful filters is the ability to sort by price or only show free sites. The Pro version can also add layers for traffic and weather. The current annual fee is $34.95, but a rate increase is on the horizon.
Allstays Pro states clearly that this forum is specifically designed for computers. It will work in web browsers on phones and tablets, but not all of the formatting will adjust well to smaller screen sizes.
None of the 8 Allstays apps (iOS only) can be linked with an Allstays Pro subscription, so none of the additional listings, filters, and features can be used in the mobile apps. For a service designed specifically for travelers, this is a significant drawback.
The features of Allstays Pro may be convenient to have all in one place, but none of them is unique and all are available for free from other sources. If you plan to spend money on paid boondocking forums, it is better invested elsewhere.
Boondockers Welcome is a unique forum that helps connect RVers with hosts who welcome boondockers to their private property. Sometimes the space is as simple as a driveway and other times hosts can offer an RV pad (with hookups!) in their yard. Every host is different, just like every RVer is different. The ingenious system is based on mutual respect within the RVing community.
Hosts register their property with Boondockers Welcome, receiving perks such as free or reduced-cost use of the forum as guests. Many enjoy the opportunity to meet new people and to offer something back to the community.
Hosts specify what size rigs they can accommodate and any restrictions or amenities that guests should be aware of. They can always approve or deny any request for hosting that comes through the site.
Guests can search the available hosts on a map to see if there are places to stay along their intended route. They then contact the hosts through the site to arrange the details. The expectation is that guests will typically stay 1-3 nights, though many hosts are open to other arrangements. The site does not restrict or regulate the agreements between hosts and guests. It merely helps them connect with each other.
While we are not currently members of Boondockers Welcome, we have been in the past. We let our membership lapse because it does not fit our needs in this season, not due to any kind of dissatisfaction with the service.
The most common uses for Boondockers Welcome are either as a stop to break up a long drive or as a temporary base to visit a specific attraction for a day. Friends of ours used the service to stay near a hospital where a family member was having a medical procedure and when complications arose, the hosts graciously invited them to stay for several weeks. This is a wonderful community to be a part of!
Membership for Boondockers Welcome guests is $50 per year. For those who are able, registered hosts receive guest privileges for $25 per year. Every time a host welcomes a guest, they receive 3 free months of guest membership as a thank you.
Harvest Hosts is a very popular boondocking forum that has recently experienced explosive growth. The concept is simple. Many farms, vineyards and wineries, breweries and distilleries, and other types of attractions (museums, etc) have plenty of lands that would be suitable for RV parking. These businesses register themselves with Harvest Hosts, and RVers who are members of Harvest Hosts can find these locations through the online platform.
Harvest Hosts offers some truly spectacular locations. Many are found in rural areas where other options might be difficult to find. They also offer a unique experience in an environment that is very different from most RV parks and campgrounds. Some hosts will even give guests opportunities to witness or participate in the behind-the-scenes workings of the farm. Each host is unique but all guests agree to some basic rules as conditions of membership.
Stays at Harvest Hosts sites are limited to 24 hours. Think of these as unique locations to experience along the way, not as destinations in themselves or as home bases from which to explore local attractions. Guests are also expected to support the business through a purchase or donation of at least $20. Purchasing something from the farm store or enjoying a meal in the restaurant, when available, are common ways to do this.
The Harvest Hosts website has great search features that allow you to browse on the map, search in a specific region, or search along your route with a specified radius. Filters allow you to choose specific types of properties, select your rig length so you only see properties that can accommodate you, and/or only show pet-friendly properties.
A Classic membership with Harvest Hosts is $99 per year. There is also a Harvest hosts + Golf membership that adds about 400 locations nationwide on golf courses or country clubs. This membership is $139 per year. (Pro-tip: If you join with a classic membership they will offer you to upgrade to a +Golf membership for just $20, so you can save a little money by completing a classic membership first, even if you plan to get a +Golf membership.)
Best Boondocking RV Forums
My favorite boondocking forum, hands down, is Campendium. In my experience, Campendium has the most complete listings of locations, the most up-to-date reviews, and the most reliable information. We have boondocked all over the country with this as our primary resource.
After choosing a location on Campendium, I will often double-check it on Free Campsites to see a few more reviews and check for things like permit requirements that don’t always show up in Campendium reviews. We have rarely needed more than these two sites to find great places to stay for a week or more.
As more and more RVers are on the road, some store chains and other parking areas have started to restrict overnight parking. This makes paid forums such as Boondockers Welcome and Harvest Hosts even more attractive.
Knowing you have a free, legal, and safe place to pull off the road for the night without unexpected issues is increasingly valuable. We anticipate we’ll start using sites like this more frequently for overnight stops.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: Where can I find boondocking RV sites?
Answer: For one night, you can find parking at many store chains (including Walmart, Cabela’s, and Camping World), truck stops, and casinos. Be sure to call or ask in the store to get permission. In some states, overnight parking is allowed at highway rest areas as well. Members of sites such as Boondockers Welcome and Harvest Hosts can also find places to stay overnight on private property. For longer stays, dispersed camping is often allowed on public lands provided you are self-contained and practice “Leave No Trace” camping principles. Forums such as Campendium and Free Campsites are great resources for finding these locations.
Question: How long can you boondock in an RV?
Answer: The length of time you can boondock is limited by several factors. Many locations have time limits. If you are boondocking in a parking lot, the limit is usually just one night. If you are on public lands, many locations limit your stay to 2 weeks at a time. Each site is different, so follow the posted rules. Otherwise, your time limits will be based on how long your water lasts (and how easily you can refill it), how much waste tank space you have (and how easily you can empty them), and how long your batteries last. If you have solar panels or a generator to recharge your batteries, then battery limits should not be an issue.
Question: Is RV boondocking safe?
Answer: RV boondocking is generally safe, but you should always be cautious and follow your gut instinct when choosing locations. If there are other RVers in the area, this increases the security. If you’re in a public area such as a parking lot, there may be security cameras or security guards on duty. Reading reviews in boondocking forums can help you know if other RVers have felt unsafe or had issues at a site you’re considering. If you get there and the situation makes you feel uncomfortable, leave and find somewhere else.
These resources will give you the tools you need to explore the wonderful world of boondocking with your RV! Learning to boondock is an incredible feeling of freedom, independence, and self-sufficiency. Discovering amazing places while also saving a ton of money is a pretty powerful motivation, so jump online and start planning your next boondocking adventure!