After fulltime RVing for almost three years, Santa Claus brought us a brand new generator and it was time for us to pluck up the courage and do some dry camping! It was an aspect of RV living that we both wanted to try but I have to admit I was a bit terrified. We had a ton of questions about how to boondock in an RV. Some campgrounds might not be the best but for the most part, you feel safe and are surrounded by people if ever there is an issue!
When you’re boondocking that is not the case, or at least that’s what I thought. If it was just Frank and me I’d be a little more adventurous, but now that we have kids I was having visions of us being eaten by bears or hacked up by an ax murder. When it comes to boondocking in an RV, my concern couldn’t have been further from the truth.
What Is RV Boondocking And What Are The Basics?
RV boondocking or dry camping is camping without any RV hookups, so no water and no electric. You need to supply your own. People boondock because you can get closer to nature and the magnificent views this country has to offer and save a lot of money doing this. Trying to find dry camping sites is not very difficult. There are great websites out there to help you. Compendium and FreeCampsites are a couple of the best. They usually have really good directions, GPS coordinates, and reviews from others who have stayed there.
Many of the best boondocking RV sites are found on federally owned land. National Forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and other public lands are all great boondocking locations. Many have campsites already marked out and some will even offer picnic tables, fire pits, and pit toilets. There are usually rules about the length of time you can stay, so you should always check with the local offices to make sure you stay within the rules.
Short term or overnight RV parking is often ok at rest areas, truck stops or parking lots of places like Walmart. A lot of RVers do this instead of paying $20 – $40 to stay at a campground for the night.
Our Experience With Boondocking In An RV
We tried boondocking for the first time in May. Our first dry camping location was near Zion National Park. Frank had found a spot that was 15 minutes outside of Springdale, UT. We got to the road into the Federal land and parked just off the corner. Frank took a bike off the back and headed back to take a look and see what the spots were like and if we could get our rig up there. He’s the one who does all of the research on camping spots and now boondocking.
About 10 minutes later he appeared and we set off to find a spot. We had to drive in further than we wanted on a rough road, however, the view was SO worth it. The first place we wanted had someone already in it, he very nicely offered that we share his spot. Kindness and generosity from fellow campers when dry camping is something we would become familiar with. We moved onto another spot because we like to spread out and we have kids, they did not. The second we pulled into our spot, I immediately understood why people boondock.
When you drive towards Zion National Park and you have these amazing views surrounding you on either side, that was the view we had all day every day. We were set on top of a bluff overlooking a large desert landscape with mountains on 2 sides. Just stunning!
What Surprised Me The Most About Dry Camping?
The biggest thing that surprised us about RV dry camping is just how many people there are doing it. Everywhere we have been there are a lot of folks out there. Many are younger -20 something types in vans or cars tent camping, but there are also a ton of RV’s of all kinds with families of all kinds. Our kids have made some great friends and because the areas tend to be quite large, they have plenty of space to explore and play.
Space, of course, is the other thing. Boondocking sites in dispersed camping areas tend to be just that- dispersed. So having a neighbor right outside your door will just not happen very often. Sites tend to vary in size so you can get as much privacy as you like. We like to have some neighbors around so we aim for larger spaces that can hold a few rigs, tents etc.
At Arches National Park, we stayed in a fairly large site just up the hill from a VERY large space. So while there were quite a few neighbors down the hill, our space was only inhabited by us for a couple of weeks.
Is RV Boondocking Safe With Kids?
Like anything else these days, you have to keep an eye on your kids. But while we had envisioned staying up late nights watching the door, the reality is that the people we have met have been very friendly, helpful and kind. When our generator wouldn’t start (a story for another day) one very nice gentleman came over when he heard Frank working on it and not only helped him work on it but also loaned us his own generator to charge up our batteries that night. He really saved us that night.
With the large spaces, we have felt very safe with the kiddos. They play in wide open spaces so we can see them all of the time. We have more concern in large crowded RV parks where they can disappear behind all of the RV’s of people that we just don’t know.
Do You Take Showers? HOW?
Some of the major questions about how to boondock in an RV typically revolve around showers and water usage. Yes, we take showers when dry camping, we have kids so many showers are necessary. But water conservation is a big deal when out in the wilds. By watching our consumption and trying to conserve water we have found that we can get a solid week out of our 85-gallon freshwater tank before having to pack up, leave our boondocking spot, and dump/ refill.
We have one black water tank and 2 grey water tanks and among them, they hold more than 85 gallons so we have not had any of them fill up all of the way yet. Showers are the biggest users of water so we limit ourselves to 2 full showers each per week depending on our level of activity. With 2 very active kids, this can be difficult but we use a sink full of soapy water and a washcloth to scrub down the other days.
For dishes, we just try to use as little water as possible. Only filling the sink about a 3rd of the way. For rinsing the dishes, we just trickle the water out of the faucet and move a little slower to make sure the dishes are clean. This usually does the trick.
Your water storage will be one of your biggest concerns. Make sure you have the capacity to carry all of the water you need, or at least camp close enough to a good water source to refill when you need.
What About Electricity When You Are RV Dry Camping?
We did A LOT of research on our boondocking power set up when we decided to go this route. With a residential refrigerator, we need to have a lot of power to keep it going so we had to ask a lot of questions. Our rig came with 2 12v batteries designed just to keep it alive for travel. In a very silly design, they split the system so that one battery runs the inverter for the refrigerator and one battery runs the 12v system which is basically all of the lights. When we upgraded the batteries, we got (6) 6v batteries and wired pairs of them in series to create in effect, (3) 12v batteries.
Who knew that deep cycle golf cart batteries are much better for RV’s that dry camp than 12v batteries are. They tend to hold more power for longer and are designed for repeated power cycles and longer life.
Once we had the batteries wired in pairs, we then used one set to replace the 12v system battery and the other 2 sets to power the inverter and refrigerator. There are a lot of people who are able to use solar power to charge their batteries and that is something we would love to do, but for our needs, a generator was required.
In order to run the whole system, Frank bought a Westinghouse 4500 watt Inverter Generator. Inverter Generators are a newer type of generator that comes in a more enclosed case. The power they supply tends to be cleaner and they are also much smaller, lighter and quieter than the traditional rack-mounted generator. They are also quite a bit more expensive. This one was just under $1000. At 4500 max watts and 3700 running watts, this generator had enough power to run the whole rig. We could run the refrigerator full time and run the microwave as needed for dinnertime. It ran the converter/ charger as well which powers the 12v system and charges the batteries while on shore power (or generator). We could also run the A/C although I usually unplugged the fridge for an hour when we did. The huge load from the A/C in addition to the fridge could cause the generator to overload. A solar panel would be a nice addition, but that is not in the budget yet.
The First Generator We Bought
Frank, calculated that he needed to run the generator for a minimum of 6-8 hours per day which leaves us 16-18 hours per day for overnight power and trips out to parks etc. So far this has worked pretty well. Our batteries seem to do the job and the generator was fine…until it was not. After about 2 months of boondocking our brand new generator decided to stop working. Frank tried in vain to get it going again but it would not cooperate.
The people at Westinghouse could not have been any less help. They refused to support the unit even though I had a clear sale history because I had not registered the unit with them. In order to register the unit, I would need the serial number which had been printed on a paper label and conveniently placed on the bottom of the unit between the wheels where it had been scraped off from the movement of the “portable” generator. Thank the stars for Amazon.com. I had bought the generator through Amazon so I called them to see if they had a record of the serial number. While they did not have it, THEY offered to cover the manufacturer’s warranty and refunded my purchase less the cost of shipping the unit back! What a HUGE relief.
The Second Generator We Bought and This One Worked!
About a week later we had gotten a new generator. This time I found a brand new design from Champion. A 4000 watt Hybrid generator. While this gene has an inverter generator, the engine is rack mounted like a traditional gene. It is smaller and lighter than a traditional unit and the inverter plus some very careful mounting allows this open unit to run at only 64dB in “ECO mode” which is WAY quieter than a traditional gene of this size which would be at around 95dB. Best of all this generator ran only $598. WOOHOO! It does get pretty loud when the microwave is running, but that is not a lot and I love how easy it is to move around. It does not have an electric start, but the pull starter works first pull almost every time.
How Long Can You Stay When Boondocking In An RV?
All places are different, depending on whether you are staying on BLM land, Forest Service, etc. The general rule of thumb is 14 days although I have yet to see that enforced. Usually, even if it is 14 days, you can just move to a different site and many places do not really enforce if you do not look like you are LIVING there. You can always check with the local office of BLM, FS, or whoever oversees the land to ask about local rules and best places to go. They will usually have the guidance you need.
Dumping The Tanks
Finding out where to dump tanks is a very good idea before you choose a spot to boondock. Gas stations, campgrounds, state parks are all good candidates to have a dump station. Freecampsites.com or Campendium are great resources for information on finding free camping and usually, the comments on a given location will mention where to dump. There will always be SOMETHING around. The cost will vary depending on where you are- usually around $5 to $10 will cover the cost of dumping and filling with fresh water. Some places are free. Many Maverick Gas Stations in Utah, for instance, have free dumping.
Getting rid of trash is always an interesting thing to do. Usually, your dump station will have a dumpster for your garbage but many times you need to dispense more often than that. We separate our trash into what can be burned and will use more paper plates etc when boondocking. That way our campfires can dispense with much of the waste leaving just food boogers, cans, etc. We will take that stuff into the local town and look around for a handy place to drop it into a dumpster. We always look for public recycling bins as well to recycle if possible. Most towns we are visiting out west cater to campers and tourists so they tend to have ample trash bins around the town.
Our Favorite Things About Boondocking
Number one– IT’S FREE!! With the price of campgrounds skyrocketing everywhere, it is nice to find that there is ample space for us to explore nature without having to go broke. We have traditionally stayed in a given area for a month at a time. For one it gives us time to explore without feeling rushed. For another, it is usually more cost effective. But even at a relatively cost-effective monthly rate, we can still spend $600 to $900 per month to camp. Compare that to around $100 in gas and we have a clear winner.
Number two– It’s closer! To find affordable campgrounds near places like Yosemite or Yellowstone, you may have to camp 30 minutes or more from the park. We are finding free camping within 10-15 minutes from the parks. This saves us TONS of time and cost traveling to and from our favorite destinations.
Number three– the views. Considering all of the federal lands out there, you almost can’t go wrong finding a beautiful place to camp. The views we have experienced in just a few months of boondocking have so far surpassed anything we had in campgrounds. There is just no contest! Unlike most campgrounds, you are right out there- in nature! Just walk out your door to experience the full-scale beauty that our country has to offer. And if you want a new view- just MOVE! No deposit or prepaid fees to worry about. It’s just you and your choices- come and go as you please!
What Do You Need To Boondock?
We are pretty new to dry camping so we do not intend this section to be all-encompassing, but there are a few things to consider if you want to boondock. There are a few RV mods for boondocking that may be required depending on your water and power situation:
POWER: Electricity is a necessity for most people. How much you need and how you supply it will depend on your own circumstances and budget. We use a generator– a fairly large one as explained earlier. Solar is very popular and we see a lot of folks using it. We would love to go that way at some point down the road but for now, the generator does the job just fine.
FUEL: If you do use a generator, you will need fuel for it. A good sized gas can is a necessity. There are generators that use propane as well, so if that is your way you will need propane tanks. We found our gas can at a hardware store on sale.
BATTERIES: There are many types of batteries to use depending on your needs and budget. Most likely the battery(s) you got with your unit will not be good for boondocking. There are a ton of helpful YouTube videos to help you size your battery bank and keep your batteries charged.
WATER: Depending on the size of your freshwater tank you may need some supplemental water storage to save you trips to the refill station. We make it a week on ours by conserving carefully. We also buy bottled water by the case for drinking so we are not drinking water out of the tank.
Boondocking can be a great way to see America and save a ton of money doing it. Your tax dollars pay for the upkeep of this land so it is yours- use it! We will certainly bring more information your way as we continue to get better and learn more.
Have you boondocked and have great tips to share? Do you have questions about how to boondock in an RV? Please feel free to ask them here.
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