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Boondocking Basics

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

The sight of grazing elk, the faint vanilla smell of Ponderosa pines and the whispering of their boughs in a soft afternoon breeze are among the sights, smells and sounds of my boondocking memories. They stay with me long after I have left, and serve as constant and pleasurable reminders of why I love the RV lifestyle – and boondocking on our nation’s public lands.

What better way to explore the country’s open lands and scenic vistas; desert backroads and the forest primeval; and lake, river, and bay shorelines than in the comfort of a motorhome, complete with indoor plumbing, grid-free electricity, ample cooking facilities and a comfortable, dry bed?

Living Off the Grid

Motorhome manufacturers have included all the systems, appliances, gizmos and doodads that enable us to vacation in style. But they also allow us to live off the grid and be self-sufficient in our RVs – to boondock.

In a general sense, boondocking is simply camping without water, sewer and electrical hookups. It is also sometimes called dry camping. In more specific terms, boondocking usually refers to camping in a remote area, rather than in a no-hookup campground (such as a national park or forest) or in a Wal-Mart parking lot, Flying J truck stop, or rest area while traveling. Boondocking requires a dependence on your motorhome’s on-board systems. After you have learned how to maximize the fresh water, wastewater, and electrical systems, you will have conquered the barriers to boondocking.

Success in mastering these systems will start a chain reaction of positive benefits. By reducing your water use, it takes longer to fill up your wastewater tanks. By turning off lights and limiting use of electrical appliances, the electrical power in your batteries will last longer. Overall, it’s a win-win scenario.

Many of the following tips for achieving these goals are simply a matter of adapting or changing already-existing habits. Once you give it a try, you might be surprised at how easy boondocking really is.

Drinking-Water Tips

  •  Run the water faucet only when wetting or rinsing while washing dishes and hands, or when showering.
  •  Wipe food from plates and utensils with a paper towel (post-consumer recycled towel, of course) before washing, reducing wash water and rinse water usage.
  •  Carry drinking water and a back-up water supply in gallon jugs, jerry jugs, or collapsible bladders (available at Camping World). Dump the back-up supply into your water tank as supply diminishes.

Wastewater-Tank Tips

  • Be miserly in your use of water so the waste tanks take longer to fill before requiring dumping.
  • While waiting for the shower water to get hot, save the cold water in a plastic dishpan and use for rinsing dishes.
  • If you partially fill the black and gray tanks en route to your destination, empty them at a public dump station before you reach camp. Top off the fresh water as well.
  • The black tank will take longer to fill than the gray-water tank, so limiting filling of the gray-water tank takes precedence.
  • When your black tank fills up, the only option is to find a dump station if you’re not using a portable “blue” tank. Maximize your visit by filling up your freshwater tanks while you’re there, as long as the water is potable.

Electrical Tips

  •  Turn off lights, TVs and radios when not in use. Follow the sun’s schedule for rising and sleeping to minimize the use of lights.
  •  Use rechargeable battery-operated reading lights for reading in bed, and for flashlights and lanterns outside. Keep a supply of extra batteries on hand.
  •  Read your house battery’s state-of-charge with a voltmeter from an auto supply store or RadioShack (12.6+ volts = fully charged, 11.6 volts = discharged. Recharge  your batteries at or before reaching 80 percent discharged, or 11.8 volts, for better battery life).
  •  Run your AC generator to operate high-amperage appliances (use only those that run for brief periods, such as a microwave and blender), and group their use when possible – i.e. microwave while showering, wash dishes while showering, use the coffeemaker while running the furnace on chilly mornings – to minimize electricity pulled from storage batteries and reduce AC generator run time. Reduce AC generator time by running the air-conditioner as little as possible.
  • An inverter is a device that changes DC (12-volt) battery power into AC (120-volt) power so that you can plug in small 120-volt AC appliances while operating on battery power. Remember that AC appliances pull 10 times as much power as DC out of your batteries, so use AC devices conservatively.
  • Install additional or upgraded (such as six-volt golf cart) house batteries to increase your storage capacity of electricity.
  •  Install solar panels or a wind generator to recharge your house batteries with free electricity. Even on cloudy days solar panels will still charge your battery bank, though not at peak power when under direct sun. Because energy needs vary, contact a solar company with experience in RV installations, like AM Solar (www.amsolar.com), that can analyze your motorhome lifestyle and suggest a system to fit your needs.

Getting Started

The easiest transition into boondocking is to try dry-camping in a non-hookup (primitive) campground (such as in a national park or national forest), but one with a drinking water supply and dump station readily available. Then, if you underestimate your water usage or the rate at which your holding tanks fill up, you won’t have to drive far to dump and fill. And if you have any problems or questions, you will still have neighbors on whom you can rely. Once you adjust to using your on-board systems, it’s time to take the plunge and venture out into the world of boondocking.

Finding Boondocking Spots

There are far more primitive public lands campgrounds administered by federal agencies such as the National Forest Service (NFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE), Bureau of Reclamation, Public Utilities, State Forests and the National Park Service (NPS) than you could possibly visit in your lifetime. You may find that many public lands-developed campgrounds are perfect for your personal boondocking enjoyment, and you need not venture farther into the backcountry. Most of these campsites are spaced farther apart than they would be in private campgrounds, usually have some trees or bushes surrounding the sites for privacy and are less crowded than state parks or those with hookups. Though not free, as more remote, undesignated boondocking campsites usually are, rates are considerably lower than developed campgrounds, and they are often quite scenic and remote. If you are age 62 or older you are eligible to purchase a lifetime “America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass – Senior Pass,” which provides a 50 percent discount on camping fees on public lands.

If, however, you want even more privacy, solitude and a remote nature experience, the next step is to look for what the NFS and BLM refer to as “dispersed” camping. These can be designated as dispersed camping areas, or they may simply be an open patch of space anywhere large enough for a campsite, set back from a paved or unpaved forest or desert road. You are permitted by law to camp anywhere in a national forest or on BLM land so long as you do not block any roads, there is an ample camping spot (don’t drive over existing foliage), and there are no signs prohibiting camping.

These dispersed campsites are the hardest to find, and sometimes the most rewarding, and can be the essence of the boondocking experience. There won’t be any signs pointing to dispersed campsites and very few will be indicated on maps.

In some cases, finding a great site is simply a matter of looking at a map and heading to a remote spot. The DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer state map series includes wonderfully detailed maps. Looking for the smaller roads that lead to remote lakefront spots, riverside locations and the like can also clue you in to some terrific campsites.

Eventually you’ll accumulate your own collection of boondocking sites, but you have to begin somewhere. A good starting point is to visit the public lands office (NFS, BLM, etc.) in the area where you wish to camp. The office staff will be able to provide you with locations and maps to the district’s developed campgrounds and, if you get lucky, a couple of designated dispersed camping areas as well. If you get even luckier, a ranger who actually patrols the district will be available – this is the person you want to talk to. Rangers can answer specific questions, like “Can I get into this dispersed camping area with my motorhome?” and “Where can I find a private dispersed campsite without other campers?” as well as any other questions that define your camping requirements.

With this information you can find a suitable developed campground or dispersed campsite to spend the night. Then go exploring. If you have a dinghy vehicle, drive a couple miles down the road searching for additional campsites. If you find one you like better, go back and retrieve your motorhome and move it to the new site. While driving back to your rig, check that you can return safely to the site with your coach: look for muffler-crunching rocks, low hanging branches and tight turns.

If you don’t have a dinghy vehicle, be careful not to get yourself into a difficult situation. Scout unpaved roads and potential campsites to determine whether you can continue safely as well as turn around. Owning a large rig does limit the places you can fit into.

As in life, be respectful of others’ privacy when boondocking by camping far enough away from others so that you don’t disturb their camping experience (camping too close when more distant, desirable spots are available is sometimes known as “clustering”). Also, limit your generator use to only when necessary and pick up all unnatural matter (trash) from your campsite before you leave – even if you didn’t deposit it there. As stated in the “boondocker’s motto,” Leave No Trace is always a good camping rule to follow.


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