It’s easy to enjoy RVing off the grid for a rewarding motorhome experience.
Among the joys of owning a motorhome is being able to go anywhere while keeping the comforts of home with you. And, while full- or partial-hookup campgrounds are convenient and occasionally necessary, some of the most beautiful and serene places to camp are completely off the grid. The motorhome you own is able to support you in those places with the right preparation and planning.
Boondocking, or dry camping, is simply RVing without any water, electric, or sewer hookups. It can be for a night at the Flying J en route to a destination, or for weeks or even months at a time. Many new RVers get into the habit of visiting only campgrounds with hookups when they travel, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the journey is a big part of the vacation experience, and dry camping opens up a whole bunch of possibilities.
Where to Go
One of the most common questions about boondocking is, Where can I go? People who are new to the lifestyle or hail from a part of the country with limited dry-camping choices may have a hard time picturing the virtues of just parking it. For recreational camping, many local, state and national parks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service, Corps of Engineers and even some private or corporate lands offer RVers dry camping opportunities for a low nightly price, or even free. Often, the no-hookup RV camping destinations are the nicest of natural environments, and the lands have been set aside for that very reason. Many of them will have water and a dump station available somewhere on the premises (or they can be sourced on the way). Most of these facilities will offer hiking trails, lakes, ponds, streams and some activities of an educational nature. Some, including beaches and national forests, may require a bit of off-roading, or even 4WD to access them. If you’re looking for a nature getaway, these types of parks are for you.
Multi-day drives require sleepovers for safety and sanity. If you’re bound for a distant destination, a place to park and sleep is often all you’re looking for. However, stopping in the wrong place can result in problems from the local authorities, to property owners and even to the occasional criminal.
Some states allow overnight parking at select rest areas. Some, like on the Ohio Turnpike, offer electric sites. For decades, Flying J travel centers have welcomed RVers for overnight stops. Most provide full RV services, including freshwater, a dump station, propane and dedicated RV fuel lanes and parking. The stores have what RVers need to make the journey more pleasurable. Good Sam members can sign up for a Pilot Flying J fuel card that offers nice discounts on fuel and services. Some Walmart, Cracker Barrel, Camping World RV & Outdoors, Gander RV & Outdoors, Cabela’s and other stores offer overnight parking for one night when space is available. Always check with store management for permission, and be sure to support the business to show your appreciation.
Many commercial campgrounds, especially those along interstate highway corridors, offer lower-cost stopover sites with limited amenities.
Another great boondocking activity is tailgating. There’s nothing better than having the galley ready for action with friends at a sporting event, fair or RV show. It adds to the fun and gives you a place to relax during a long day.
What about snowbirding? Many RVers travel to the BLM lands in Arizona, as well as other warmer Sunbelt states, for a comfortable place to park for the winter, at little or no cost. To be fair, it’s little more than a parking spot in the desert, but destinations like Quartzsite, Arizona, have developed a following, and a whole RV city springs up in the winter with water, dump, detailing and propane services. As many as 2 million people visit this middle-of-nowhere destination each winter.
There are many opportunities for RVers to spend shorter amounts of time away from hookups, with the occasional stay in a full-hookup site to dump tanks, fill the water and get everything recharged. From state parks and beaches to Flying J’s and Harvest Host locations, not to mention bumming some space at a friend’s or kid’s place, the flexibility of dry camping is great. Overnight or short-term boondocking requires almost no preparation in average conditions, aside from making sure you have the supplies you need. If camping in below-freezing conditions, make certain your water system is well heated (including tanks) and keep your energy supplies full.
Getting Ready for the Long Haul
Your motorhome comes right from the factory with a lot of the equipment you need to boondock for a short period of time. But there are things you can do to your rig and equipment to bring along that will make dry camping for extended periods easier.
Most motorhomes come with a fuel-powered generator, which is fine, except that you don’t have an endless supply of fuel, and it doesn’t really fit into the “make do with less” mantra of longer-term boondocking. (That’s not a rule, but when you’re out away from civilization, returning for supplies like fuel can be daunting and a waste of camping time.)
Instead, consider installing a renewable energy system. Today’s systems have evolved to include solar and wind power, inverter technology, lithium battery technology and more. While these systems have come down in price, they’re still a big investment, but well worth the expense if frequent boondocking is in your plans.
Remember, motorhomes have two household electrical systems: 12-volt DC, which powers lighting, HVAC and appliance circuit boards, awnings, entertainment systems and the like; and the 120-volt AC system, which powers major appliances, air conditioning, receptacles and so on. (Note: some systems require both DC and AC.) The DC system and its batteries are the foundation of your system, and without them, most motorhomes would simply be boxes on wheels. The DC system frequently starts the operation sequence for the systems in the rig. So, your renewable energy system charges the battery banks, which allow you to start your generator, and/or operate the inverter system to power AC loads.
Efficiency is key, not only from an environmental standpoint but, when way off-grid, from a practicality standpoint. Many appliances and systems can be improved upon to make them less resource-intensive, and as you become more experienced with boondocking, you will come up with your own conservation strategies.
There are also some products available to minimize water use. For instance, using water-saving technology can help make a tank of freshwater last much longer. The Shower Miser from Aqua View saves water by running shower water from the hot tap back into the freshwater tank until it gets hot, saving up to 40% of wasted water, according to the company. Showerheads and faucets are available that reduce water use. It may even be possible to modify your rig to recycle gray water.
Try to use waterless or low-water cleaning products. A new product we found, Dawn Ultra Platinum Powerwash, is a spray, wipe and rinse dish cleaner that works great and uses a fraction of the water as regular dish soap.
Completely fuel the motorhome just before arriving. Fill the potable water and use as little as you can. Dump the holding tanks completely prior to arrival, then be sure to add a few gallons of water and chemical to the black tank.
Go shopping for supplies before you arrive. Try to have as many of your supplies on board as you can before going to a remote location. Make sure you have plenty of necessities like medication and toilet paper. You’re carrying a full tank of freshwater, but you might want to add some bottled drinking water in the rig as well.
Even when you’re off-grid, keeping certain electronics connected is important, especially in the event of an emergency or if you’re working remotely. Make sure you know your location (GPS) and have a way to communicate that. Your RV will help keep cellular devices powered up, but if you don’t have cellular service (and let’s face it, that’s sometimes the idea) what’s your backup plan? Satellite communications equipment, whether for internet or voice communication, is costly but available.
You may want to think about alternative ways of disposing of waste. Composting toilets are an environmentally friendly choice. To make a long story short, these toilets take human waste and convert it to peat. Not super-efficient, but very eco-friendly, with little or no water usage.
Boondocking in below-freezing weather? Think before you take the plunge. Motorhomes are not all built the same and, in any case, require a lot of energy to stay warm in frigid conditions. Plumbing systems must be protected from freezing weather if they’re to be used. Even if your rig has an enclosed and heated basement, it may need some upgrading to put up with sustained freezing.
RVing in freezing temperatures requires energy, and a lot of it. Tanks need to be heated and, because of their design, will likely need to have tank heaters installed if they don’t have them. All plumbing has to be above freezing at all times. This will mean running the heating system constantly. Having a space heater inside the living space isn’t sufficient because the warm air doesn’t get to confined spaces throughout the rig. The types of energy required vary on the motorhome, but electrical power needs to be plentiful, as does heating fuel (diesel or propane) to keep the RV where it needs to be. Of course, if the plumbing system is winterized, heating demands are far less.
Boondocking can be a very rewarding experience, and your motorhome helps you bring along all the comforts of home to some of the most remote places on the continent. Now, just imagine those great views from your motorhome’s living room window.