Boondocking 101: Get Started Free Camping

Apr 23, 2017 |

Boondocking 101: Get Started Free Camping

By Nathan Paul Swartz

Just as RVing transports the comforts of home to your weekend camping trip and can provide the life-changing ability to live full-time on the road, so can boondocking open your world up to an entirely new type of freedom while traveling.

The benefits of boondocking are numerous. The spots you’ll camp are typically more wild, secluded, and beautiful. It’s often free. There won’t be a guy on a golf cart driving by every five minutes to make sure Fido’s on his six-foot leash. Not to mention that nine out of ten boondockers look better holding an axe while wearing a flannel shirt than your average American.

While many an adventurous RV dweller understands the vast differences between boondocking and paid camping (and find the experience preferable), there’s definitely more to it than just driving out into the desert and setting up shop. For boondocking to remain enjoyable and an available experience for all of us, it’s important to live by a few guidelines.

While there’s no official definition, what we’re talking about in this article is dry camping (i.e., no electric, water or sewer hookups), typically outside of a developed campground. That definition is key here because while you can find national forest campgrounds or other places where you can camp without hookups, these are usually easier to access and have some sort of oversight that boondocking doesn’t.

Our goal today is to help you stay safe and understand our impact on the places we choose to camp in the boondocks.

Rules of Boondocking

Stay Safe

Just because you’ve found a place to boondock doesn’t mean you can. Common sense should apply – for example, simply because an open field or fire ring exists doesn’t mean you’re legally allowed to stay there. Nothing spoils a good old fashioned campout like a double-barrel shotgun tapping on your door at 3am.

Even if you have found a place where you’re sure you can boondock, that still doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do so. Factors to keep in mind include:

  1. The size of your rig. Some places are big rig friendly, others are more suitable to smaller RVs or vans, and plenty of the “in-between” exists. Check reviews to get a general idea, then always scout ahead by foot or in a suitable truck or car before taking your precious RV down some unknown road. As our fearless founders say, “Just because it’s listed doesn’t make it accessible, and just because it was accessible to a big rig last week doesn’t mean it’s still accessible.”
  2. Weather conditions. An easy drive near the end of summer might be a nightmare come snowfall or the rainy season. Especially in the mountains and areas with dry washes, changing weather can quickly alter conditions, making a previously easy-to-navigate route impassible. This doesn’t just mean you might not get to the place you want to go, but that the place you want to go might not have a road back out should the rains start falling heavy and a dry riverbed you crossed is now a raging flow or muddy sinkhole. You should also take care not to park in a wash itself or too near a low creek that might turn into significantly more than a babbling brook.
  3. Turning around. Regardless of why a place doesn’t end up working out, you’ll want to consider your comfort with getting out of what might be a sticky situation. For example, you drive 18 miles back a thin dirt road only to find you can’t fit in one of the available campsites…or turn around. Keep potential exit strategies in mind as you drive, and if you’re not comfortable backing up or turning around in tight quarters, think twice before venturing down an unknown road.
  4. You’re alone. Or you very well might be. Note other conditions, such as forest fires, for example. While a ranger will likely come to the local campgrounds and maybe stop in known boondocking spots, there’s no guarantee. You may be far from cell service or other means of communication. Keep your wits about you and choose your location wisely.
  5. Cougars. Don’t get eaten by one, we hear it’s a terrible experience.
Washington Gulch Road, Gunnison National Forest, CO by WatsonsWander

Leave No Trace

When you’re boondocking in wild, natural habitats, you should hold yourself accountable to the same rules that backcountry backpackers and tenters do. Thanks to provisions like the Bureau of Land Management land and our national forests, we’re actually quite lucky that our government permits the ability for us to camp in such raw and beautiful places. Likewise, it’s our responsibility to take care of those places in order to help ensure we continue to have this privilege.

You’ll often see “Leave No Trace” signs in our national public lands. In general, that means:

  1. Pack it in, pack it out. Unless some type of dumpster or specific trash disposal is available, you’re responsible for taking whatever trash you generate back out with you. Even better? Take a few minutes or so to fill up a bag full of trash others have left behind. Your spot may be free, but we all pay for litter.
  2. Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints. Or, light tire tracks I suppose. Don’t collect pine cones, drag out stones, cut down trees, or clear brush. In most cases, you shouldn’t really move rocks or logs in general, and do your best to leave everything just as you found it. Find a spot where your rig can fit comfortably and try not to alter the landscape otherwise. Some places will allow you to gather and burn firewood, others do not. Check with the local authority, sometimes a posted sign or sometimes a nearby ranger station, to see what you’re allowed to do.
  3. Stick to existing roads. Just as hikers are encouraged to stay on the trail, boondockers should avoid “blazing trails” or going off-road unless it’s specifically permitted in the area you’re camping.
  4. Use established spots. This is a tricky one but a good general rule of thumb is to use established campsites (where the grass is clearly worn out, fire pits are built, and so on); it’s a good idea to reuse those rather than destroy a new slice of nature.
  5. Camp on durable surfaces. Try not to leave behind excessive evidence that you got stuck in the mud, and avoid the hassle of digging yourself back out.
  6. Don’t dump your tanks on the ground. You should plan to be completely self-sustainable for the duration of your trip or know where you can drive to dump your tanks if they become full. Looking for a dump station? Sometimes private RV parks or gas stations will allow you to pay a fee to dump into their sewage, and many public lands have a similar service. Campendium lists dump stations, too; just use the filters when searching in your area.
  7. Only you can prevent forest fires. Smokey is not joking, it’s up to each and every one of us. Some eight million acres of our nation’s forests succumb to forest fires every year, and while some fire is natural and beneficial to our forests, those caused by careless campers almost always result in tragedy…and sometimes major fines or jail time for the people who start them. Best practices with campfires include keeping them small and completely dousing them with water or burying them with dirt. A “small” fire can generally be considered one that you start with sticks you break by hand, use logs no larger than those you’d commonly find in a bundle of wood for sale, and keep the fire contained to an existing pit around two feet in diameter.

    When you’re finished, make certain to drown the fire with water, and cover it in the dirt. Never leave smoldering coals or fire unattended. The very nature of an unattended fire sometimes feels like a virus, with the sole desire to grow and grow for as long as there’s something to host it. Don’t let your campsite, the forest, and possibly your life be destroyed over careless fire tending.

  8. Respect the wildlife. Finally, remember that you are a guest in nature’s home, and many other creatures will be sharing this area with you. Don’t leave trash out for raccoons and bears to find, one of them will make a huge mess and the other can do significantly worse. Don’t feed the deer and squirrels, they need to do these things on their own when you’re gone. Keep an eye on your pets, they can frighten or alter the habitats of the creatures that actually live here and could even be significantly injured or killed by anything from coyotes to elk.
boondocking rv and a vanagon
Willow Springs Trail, Moab, UT by Road it up

Obey the Rules

We mentioned some of these above but check any posted signage or with a local ranger station. Rules on maximum stay, campfires, 4-wheelers, and ATV use vary greatly. Just find out what they are, respect them, and enjoy!

RV boondocking beneath a rainbow in the desert
Indian Bread Rocks, Bowie, AZ by Nomadic Neighbors

Be a Good Neighbor

You may not be the only one out here trying to enjoy a little serenity. While we all have our personal notions of what being a good neighbor means, in general there are a few things to keep in mind.

Firstly, don’t go crazy with the generator. If you’re going to use one, you might consider moving away from the more primitive campers and certainly limit the number of hours you use it.

Don’t park excessively close to another camper, especially if ample additional space is available. It seems some people enjoy or find safety in being close to others, but this isn’t the case for everyone. If you’re uncertain, often a simple wave and a “Mind if I camp here?” will do the trick. Of course, it’s not really anyone’s right to tell you, “No,” but do you really want to camp right beside someone who’s not going to be happy to see your awning every time they open their door, anyway?

Keep it down, would ya? Few people go boondocking to party like it’s 1999, and you should respect that. Keeping your music and raucous late-night laughter to a minimum makes for happy neighbors and increases your chances of seeing some nifty wildlife, too!

Say hi! This isn’t really a rule or anything, or even expected…but why not?

free rv camping
Quincy Lake, Quincy WA

Boondocking Tips

While you can simply park your RV and use it as a tent with better walls, if you really want to take on boondocking as something you do regularly, you might want to come prepared. To that effect…

  1. Come prepared, literally. Some spots will be far from stores and other conveniences, so bringing enough groceries, toiletries and cold drinks to last your stay is probably step one of any successful boondocking escapade.
  2. Conserve water. You’re unlikely to find a place to refill your fresh water tank, and you also may not be interested in filling up your holding tanks, either. How you conserve water is completely up to you, but skimping on showers, not completely filling your sink when you do dishes, and having a proper low flow RV toilet are a few ideas you might want to chew on. You’re camping, anyway, relax on the hygiene a little and let that fresh campfire musk lead you to your newfound desire to grow a wicked beard full of twigs.
  3. Conserve power. If you need power and are going to rely on a generator, or even if you’re setup with solar, having the best battery bank possible, or at least one that can get you through your regular usage, is going to be key. Solar panels beat a generator any day, of course, simply because you don’t have to buy gas, you won’t be sending stinky fumes around the forest, and you won’t have to worry about annoying other campers. Still, if it’s not part of your boondocking kit just yet, conserve the power you use so you can run your generator as little as possible. Keeping your batteries charged will make everyone a little happier.
  4. Watch those waste-water tanks. It’s easy enough to bring extra jugs of water along for a trip, so that even if your freshwater tank runs out, you’ve got backups. What isn’t necessarily as simple is preventing your grey and black tanks from filling up. Unless you have a composting toilet, this will not only make it stink in your RV, but prevent you from using any more water without sending that gross stuff back up your drains and into your shower. Not filling your sink up to do the dishes, taking “navy showers” (where you get wet, turn off the water, soap up, then turn the water back on to rinse off), and generally just minimizing the amount of water you use for everyday tasks will have a huge impact on how quickly your grey water tanks fill.
boondockers in national forest in Florida
Little Lake Bryant, Ocala National Forest, FL

Follow along with these general guidelines and you’ll be living in rent-free, blissful boondocking heaven in no time!