My wife and I get this question a lot. To be fair, we asked it a lot in the beginning, too. We had absolutely no clue what boondocking was, and people outside of the RV community don’t either.
It’s a chance to get off the grid and be in the quiet. You’ll find plenty of beautiful destinations with epic scenery, outside of the confines and rules of a traditional campground.
Not to mention, without having to pay for hookups, you’re living dirt cheap for days, weeks, or months at a time.
It might sound like you’re getting closer to nature, but there are a lot of implications here that you might not think about.
Behind the Term
So, why is it called boondocking? Great question. I honestly don’t know.
The term ‘boondocks’ has been used in colloquial English since the 20th century to refer to a location that is far away from the city. It can also refer to the country or other less remote locations like truck stops or car parks.
Other similar terms include the country or the boonies.
Boondocking refers to living in the boondocks and a boondocker is someone who lives there. When the term boondocking came about, I’m not really sure, but here we are.
Boondocking refers to not only where you camp, but how. Some people call it dry camping. Another, less common term I’ve heard is wild camping.
You can describe the ‘how’ of boondocking in a couple of ways. Not only are you far away from hookups like the water, sewer, and electricity that you’d find in a well-developed campground, but you also won’t find picnic tables, water spigots, or bathrooms at all.
You’ll hang out with your camper and a bare piece of ground you can call your own for however long you want to stay. It’s usually free, but sometimes you have to have a permit.
The ‘where’ of boondocking includes not only what it is, but what it is not. Both are equally as important to understand.
Dispersed camping is a fancy term for boondocking. You’re camping on public land outside of a designated campground. These public lands are managed specifically for this purpose. They offer durable spots to park your camper or set up your tent, but not much else.
There are several agencies that manage public land for dispersed camping. The Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Forest Service are just a few.
There are plenty of places online where you can find these dispersed camping lands, including the websites for these organizations. Make sure that if you decide you want to boondock on any of these public sites, you understand the Leave No Trace principles and are prepared to adhere to them.
Designated Dispersed Camping
Unfortunately, because many people don’t understand the Leave No Trace principles and don’t adhere to them, they leave dirty campsites behind. This irresponsible campsite creation has led to many issues much more serious than just overcrowding and littering.
So, while some of these dispersed camping sites allow campers free reign, designated dispersed camping sites were created by the Forest Service in some locations to monitor them more closely.
These campsites are numbered or lettered to designated spots. They usually have occupancy limits and stay limits. You can’t pull in and camp wherever you want on these sites, which helps keep the land under better control. It’s much easier to manage and keep clean.
Stay limits are typically fourteen days, but some are as short as only one night. Make sure you confirm with the agency before you plan your stay.
Dry Camping in Developed Campgrounds
You may feel like you’re roughing it, but this isn’t boondocking. You have access to facilities like bathrooms and showers that eliminate these grounds from the definition of boondocking. More power to you if you enjoy pitching your tent in a state park. No judgment here. But you technically can’t call it boondocking.
Your first clues that you’re in a developed campground are the picnic tables, the bathrooms, the camp hosts, and the fee you pay to stay.
Camping in a Parking Lot
Hey, sometimes if you just need a quick and dirty set up for the night, a Walmart parking lot does the trick just fine. But again, it’s not boondocking. You can’t just park at the casino or the truck stop and call it boondocking. It is a form of dry camping though.
These aren’t public lands, and you still have access to facilities if you need them. Plus, the benefit to this is that you could actually go in and buy full meals, drinks, snacks, clothes, toilet paper, or anything else you might need to stock up on. You literally have everything you need at your disposal. It’s hardly boondocking.
This isn’t a technical term, but it’s a thing. Seriously. There are websites where you can find locations to driveway hop if you need a place to stay. Many people welcome boondockers for no reason at all other than wanting to meet interesting people.
Websites like Harvest Hosts and Boondockers Welcome charge an annual fee for RVers who need simple overnight stays with no hookups. Hosts include wineries, museums, and individuals.
Typically, you can only stay one night, and it’s not technically boondocking because it’s private land, but it’s still pretty cool, huh?
While you do pay an annual membership fee to the site, you don’t pay for the overnight stay where you park, so it’s fun to call it mooch-docking. However, you’re always welcome with these hosts as long as there’s room.
Tips for Boondocking
Taking the leap to boondocking can be scary. I mean, imagine being out in the middle of nowhere with no facilities, and having something go wrong. An experienced boondocker would know just how to handle it, but if you’ve never done it before, you might panic.
If you’re always cool, calm, and collected, I applaud you. Maybe you’re ready.
If you’re not so sure, dry camping is a great way to test it out. Not all dry camping is boondocking, but it’s a great way to practice. You can do it at a campground with facilities or even in your own driveway.
Tuck away your power cables and seal up those water hoses. Let’s see how long you can go. At least you have back up amenities if you need them with the comforts of an organized campground and a well-marked road.
After you’re well-seasoned, you’ll be ready to hit the road.
The first step when finding a good place to boondock is doing the research. Sure, you could just park any old place, but you really don’t want to. There are certain things you’ll want to look for, because while the point is to get away from civilization, you’ll still want access in case of an emergency.
Read. The. Reviews. Seriously. Take it from the people who have been there. Read about the road conditions to make sure it’s easily accessible. The last thing you want to do is get your rig stuck.
Learn as much as you can about the spot before you arrive so you’re prepared, and make sure you arrive early enough in the day that you have plenty of daylight to get to your campground and set up before dark.
2. Choose your camper wisely.
You can boondock in anything. It doesn’t matter how big or small, and it really doesn’t matter what facilities you have, either. Unless it matters to you. If you want a bathroom, buy an RV with a bathroom. Just because you won’t have hookups doesn’t mean you can’t relieve yourself with dignity.
Just make sure that if you choose something with a bathroom, you also have a larger black and gray water capacity, since, again, you won’t have a place to dump it.
It’s also important to consider getting a camper with a roof vent fan or installing one yourself. It can move air quite effectively, keeping it fresh and getting rid of odors.
3. Scout ahead.
This is especially handy if you drive a big rig. Let’s reiterate. Any size rig can go boondocking. But to avoid some serious issues, send someone ahead in a vehicle with 4-wheel drive to look around and figure out where you’re going.
4. Save water.
This is so hard. When you have hookups, you’re used to being able to use as much water as you need. You can stay off the grid for longer if you conserve your water, but it can be hard to do.
Scrape leftover food into the trash and wipe your dishes down with a paper towel before rinsing them. You’ll use much less water this way. You can also fill up a dish pan with water to rinse multiple dishes without letting the water run. If you dump the dishpan outside when you’re done, this will also save space in your gray tank.
Shower less frequently. When you do shower, turn the water off while you lather instead of letting it run.
Reuse your gray water. Rather than dumping your gray water, save it to flush the toilet. You can save your dishwater and your shower water for this purpose.
Composting toilets can be pricey, but they don’t use any water at all. You’ll save freshwater and, because they compost all of your waste, you won’t even need a black tank at all.
5. Use your manners.
Make sure you’re allowed to stay wherever you decide to park. That’s just basic common sense. Always be courteous of any neighbors you have. Keep quiet late at night and early in the morning. Stay free of their space and give them room to camp.
Leave your site cleaner than you found it, put out your campfires, and don’t dump your tanks onto the ground. These should all seem like reasonable requests, but it’s amazing how many people leave campsites in terrible conditions.
6. Know how much power you need.
If you’ve done some practice runs, you already know how much power you use. Be aware of the appliances you run on battery power. If you’re using a generator, understand how much it powers, and remember not to operate it during quiet hours.
Solar panels are a worthwhile investment if you boondock a lot, so consider installing some, or build a bigger battery bank if you need more power.
7. Respect wildlife.
If you want to be in nature, you’re going to have to contend with the locals. A healthy respect for wildlife means understanding that they can be dangerous. Don’t leave food or trash out, avoid disturbing them, and avoid them if you can.
8. Protect your belongings.
It’s not likely that someone will bother your things while you’re camping, but you still want to make sure you don’t tempt anyone. Put your things away and lock your doors. You can always carry personal protection as well.
9. Prepare for emergencies.
You’ll be off the beaten path, and in some cases that means farther away from medical attention. Make sure you have a way to communicate, whether you have good cell service, a nearby landline, or a CB radio.
Pack an emergency kit with first aid items, a weather radio, water, snacks, and something to keep your warm and dry without electricity. Extra fuel never hurts. Keep your tools handy, in case something breaks and you have to fix it yourself.
10. Always be willing to learn.
Other boondockers can teach you a lot. If they offer up help or their knowledge on a subject, be willing to listen and learn. You won’t always know how to do everything, so set your pride aside and learn something new. Next time, you’ll be the one to help a newbie with their problem.
Where to Boondock
We’ve already talked a little about where you can boondock, but here’s a more conclusive list of places you can park. Whether you choose to call it boondocking or not, parking without hookups, and possibly for free, can get you from A to B without too much stress a lot of the time.
There are a lot of places you can legally park and stay overnight. Just make sure it’s allowed before you do it.
BLM land is one of your best options. The Bureau of Land Management designates these lands for camping, so you’re always allowed, but don’t overstay your welcome. You are generally limited to 14 days.
Developed campsites charge a fee while others are occupied for free on a first come first serve basis.
Many businesses will let you park overnight in their parking lot. It’s usually only for 24 hours at a time, but sometimes, if you speak to the manager, they will make exceptions if it’s needed. This includes Walmart, grocery stores, and sometimes hotels.
One of the benefits of staying in a place like this is that the parking lots are monitored by security cameras 24/7. However, because businesses like this are tightening the ropes on boondocking, always check with management first.
Truck stops and rest areas
Most truck stops and rest areas are fine with RVers staying overnight. After all, truckers do. Keep in mind that there’s usually very little supervision in these places and traffic can be loud.
The good news is you’ll be close to the restroom and if you’re in a rural area, it can feel a lot like a campground.
Many states have visitors centers at the state line. Sometimes they allow access to restrooms after hours but always check with the staff before you boondock.
Hikers often use trailhead for overnight stays while backpacking. If you’re tent camping or van camping, this can be a great place for it. However, it’s not likely that trailhead is going to be large enough to accommodate anything bigger than that.
Hotels or motels
This can be a gamble, but sometimes you’ll find a hotel that doesn’t mind if you park overnight. In fact, if a major hotel has a pretty empty lot, you can generally talk the manager into letting you park at the back, out of the way.
Scope out the parking lot first. If it’s full, don’t take a chance. You’ll just be in the way. You also want to avoid getting towed in the middle of the night.
This is the riskiest of these options. It’s possible that you may find an apartment complex willing to comply. If they have night time security, they may call a tow truck. Use patience and discernment when looking for a place like this to park.
Start paying attention and you’ll see RVs everywhere. People park them at big box stores and all along the highway. Here are some of the places you can look into:
- Bass Pro Shops
- Holiday Inn
If you still have concerns about boondocking, here are some frequently asked questions to put you at ease.
Boondocking is generally safe. As with anything, you’ll want to take whatever makes you feel comfortable. Some people like pepper spray and a baseball bat while others prefer to carry a firearm.
As a matter of fact, you’re more likely to be a victim of violent crime in a more densely populated area than you are boondocking in the wilderness. That’s because if you’re boondocking where no one can find you…no one will find you.
Sometimes people use the terms interchangeably, but there is a bit of a difference if you want to get technical. Both dry camping and boondocking are camping without any hookups. However, boondocking typically takes place, well, in the boondocks.
You boondock outside of developed campgrounds, in the wilderness, and off the grid. Dry camping can take place almost anywhere.
While you can technically boondock in anything you want, toy haulers are excellent choices, because they’re built with heavier axles and designed to carry more weight. You can carry everything you might need in a toy hauler to make boondocking more comfortable.
The downside is that toy haulers are large and can be tough to get in and out of tight, undeveloped spaces. Some people prefer to boondock with smaller vehicles or no vehicles at all.
If you’re thinking about boondocking, it can take some trial and error on several different counts. Figuring out how to do it is one thing without worrying about where you’re allowed to. Take your time and get it right.
It’ll be worth it in the end for all the money you’ll save and all the sites you’ll see.