For some, dispersed camping on public land, known as boondocking, is their default camping style. For others, it’s new and sometimes intimidating territory. Campendium’s community includes many experienced boondockers, and we asked a few of them to share what they wish they’d known when they got started.
1. Do a Dry Run
Our very first RV camping trip was in a newly restored Airstream. We went to the Cinder Hills OHV (Off Highway Vehicle) area in Flagstaff, Arizona, and had to leave after one night because our batteries were wired wrong and our generator couldn’t recharge them.
I recommend doing a dry run of your systems while you’re close to amenities. If you’re nervous about boondocking, unplugging your RV at a full-hookup campsite is a great way to test the waters. This way, you’ll know what to expect from your rig when you finally head out to the boonies.
2. Maximize Your Solar and Battery Bank
You need more solar and battery capacity than you think. Like many RV boondockers, I underestimated the amount of power I would need to boondock, and my RV electrical system today is the result of a patchwork of improvements made over time as I gained experience. Fortunately, prices for solar electric components have come down significantly in recent years. My advice to newbies setting up their rig for boondocking is to go big on solar, battery, and inverter at the outset: It’s much easier and cheaper in the long run.
My all-time favorite boondocking spot is Abraham Lake in Alberta, Canada, off the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper national parks. Offering gorgeous turquoise water, a strong cell phone signal, and excellent river kayaking, it’s super popular and crowded in summer. Instead, go in the shoulder season (May to June and September to October), and you’ll likely have this gem entirely to yourself.
3. Choose the Right RV
Post-retirement, my spouse and I travel in a 37-foot fifth wheel. Our passion is affordable RV travel and adventure, and free camping and boondocking without hookups is our favorite way to enjoy some of the best camping destinations in the U.S. In our opinion, RV selection is the most important factor in meeting your camping needs. Everything is a trade-off in selecting and then outfitting your RV.
We spent 3 years carefully tallying what was important to us. An 80-gallon fresh water tank, a professional 680-watt solar install with an inverter coupled with a 300-amp-hour lithium battery bank, and high ground clearance allows us to stay comfortably at big rig friendly, off-grid destinations. Add in two portable power generators, a cell phone signal booster, and a 4×4 tow vehicle, and we’re set for extended travel away from home.
King Road Dispersed Camping, located just outside the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, is one of our favorite free boondocking locations.
4. Prioritize Security
Not all boondocking locations are created equal, and when I consider staying overnight in any spot, I always ask myself: Am I going to get a good night’s sleep here and feel relaxed, or am I likely to feel uncomfortable or worried in this location? If it’s the latter, sometimes it’s just a matter of repositioning my rig so that it faces a different direction or occupies a new spot in the same general location. Sometimes it’s a matter of moving on to a different place altogether—even if it’s late. Pay close attention to what your intuition tells you and make sure to prioritize your feelings of security and comfort. You’ll never go wrong when you do.
My favorite place to boondock is Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming. The Porcupine Falls area is my favorite, and I love to be there in late fall. Porcupine Campground is right next to the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, and it becomes an “upscale” boondocking spot late in the season—there are no hookups or services, but it’s free, and you can find yourself a designated site and a picnic table under the tall, beautiful spruces.
5. Tow With a Four-Wheel Drive Truck
For all the newbies out there: If you’re towing, you really want to have a four-wheel drive truck. And don’t push your towing capacity. If you have a lift on your trailer, even better. You need traction and clearance when you’re towing down dirt roads. The more, the better. I started off with a two-wheel drive truck, and I did get stuck once. There were a few places I couldn’t get to, either. If I had four-wheel drive those times, I would’ve made it.
Favorite spot? Las Cienegas.
6. Have a Plan B
We’ve come a long way from our first boondocking experience (when there were no cell phones, GPS, or the internet) to our boondocking experiences of today.
I’m a planner, so here are my steps in the search for a plausible boondocking site. I always first consult Campendium, read reviews, and rely on satellite views of the area. I like to know if there are trees versus wide open areas, if there are turnaround places, if it’s suitable for a big rig, and the road conditions.
Although I usually trust reviews, I always have alternative plans. I check the weather forecast, and we arrive before dark to scout the location. I suggest downloading or taking screenshots of maps, reviews, and directions in advance in case you lose cell phone service.
Be prepared, and have the proper equipment. We always carry tire deflators, tire inflators, and traction boards if there’s a chance of getting stuck in soft sand. Sometimes we take a chance on an unreviewed area and have found some awesome places.
My favorite boondocking site is currently Forest Road 611.
7. Connect With Other Campers
The thought of boondocking both excited me and made me a little apprehensive when I thought about being alone, in the middle of nowhere. As a single traveler, I often consider security first, even when the view, skyline, or water draws me to that non-campground location.
I traveled to the Bureau of Land Management land north of Moab in Southern Utah (what is now under development as Utahraptor State Park); this is where I realized I didn’t have to be alone. Boondocking doesn’t mean you have to sequester yourself; it means being free and disconnected from the strict areas of campgrounds.
I discovered I liked the comfort of having others nearby while staying in a more private location. I enjoyed the first “potluck” dinner our group had, and I was surprised by how kind and generous other campers were. Moab will always be my favorite boondocking location because that’s where I discovered the beauty of boondocking without having to be concerned about being “too” alone.
Editor’s note: Some quotes have been slightly edited for clarity.