Some people see the RV life as a crazy lifestyle change. I mean, to be fair, we essentially gave up having a stationary home in a nice neighborhood for an impermanent home on wheels and no land of our own to park it on. Imagine these same people’s surprise when they hear that instead of opting for the full-time campground life, we’ve opted for the full-time off-grid life. Yup, we are out of our minds.
All jokes aside, dispersed camping (also known as boondocking) is truly our preferred method of RV travel. For those who do not know, this refers to free camping, typically on public lands, with no hookups. Essentially, when you are boondocking, you must provide your own utilities entirely, including water, sewer, electric, power, Internet, and trash disposal.
We have many reasons for our love of boondocking, but the main ones are that it is quieter than campgrounds, more private, closer to nature, more beautiful, and completely free. (Read more about WHY we love boondocking). Typically, you can find us boondocking on public land about 98% of the time (as opposed to staying in campgrounds). In this post, I am going to address how we make the no hook-up life work as our method of full-time travel.
As mentioned above, while boondocking, we typically stay on public lands. To choose the best public lands for camping, we rely on a variety of apps and information resources, including Campendium, freecampsites.net, AllStays, and the iOverlander app. We choose our sites based mainly on location and closeness to a nearby town, ease of access, internet accessibility, busyness (or lack thereof), and aesthetic (views). I recommend reading our blog post “WHERE to boondock” for more information on the sources we use to choose our boondocking sites, as well as my post “6 Factors we Use to Determine Where to Boondock.”
One of the first challenges that comes with boondocking is leveling your site. When you stay in a campground, you are typically camping on pavement or gravel that is very level, and obtaining rig stability is pretty easy. When boondocking, you are almost always staying on dirt or sand, and the sites are not nearly as level as the sites you’d find in a campground.
Since we travel in a motorhome, we have very powerful, automatic leveling jacks, and leveling our rig is never that tricky. We try to choose the most level spot we can, which also fulfills all of our other requirements (read more about our boondocking site requirements). If we end up staying in a less-than-ideal, sloped or slanted site, we utilize a combination of wood boards and plastic jack pads to level ourselves. This makes cooking and walking easier, but is also very important for the longevity of a propane-powered refrigerator.
This is probably the trickiest element of boondocking. Without water hook-up access, we must limit the amount of water we use while boondocking, especially if we are planning a longer stay (10-14 days is typical for us). Our RV has an 85-gallon water tank, which may not sound like a lot, but it is significantly more than many other types of RVs that often average 30-40 gallon capacity tanks. That being said, it is still not that much water, and we have to be very conservative with it to make off-grid living possible.
Ways that we conserve water are by washing and rinsing dishes under a trickle and taking short “military” showers. This is where you turn the water off in between wetting your hair and body, soaping up, and rinsing. It takes a little getting used to, but after a few weeks of living this way, we were able to get the hang of it. For us, limiting our water usage is a small price to pay for the solitude and beauty offered at many of our favorite sites.
Another challenge that comes with boondocking and water supply is filling our water tank. Since we often move from boondocking site to boondocking site, we must find places to fill our tank before moving on to a new location. Since we have been out West for the past eighteen months, we have never had trouble finding places to fill water, and we rarely even have to pay for it. Many places offer free, potable water (and sometimes dump stations), and it’s never too difficult to find a spot to fill up. Free places we’ve filled include gas stations, travel centers, rest areas, fairgrounds, and state parks. Occasionally, if all else fails, we will pay a fee at a private campground (sometimes $5 but up to $10) to fill our tank.
**Our favorite places to fill are Love’s, Flying J, or Pilot Travel Centers. These places are a magical one-stop shop for boondocking RVers, typically providing free water and a dump station in the same lane as a single gas pump designated for RVs. In this same line, they often have propane. We love finding these on the way from one destination to another.
*** We carry three 6-gallon water jugs with us at all times, in case we are to run out of water. In this instance, we fill our tank with our extra water, and this buys us another 5-7 days in the wild. If we need even more water, we can fill these jugs at one of the above-mentioned fill-up stations for free, or even at a Glacier water station for $1.25 per jug and use these jugs to refill our water tank. This essentially gives us an “unlimited” water supply while boondocking, or at least one that is easily replenished. Do keep in mind that you still have a limited gray water tank capacity, so you still can’t use that much water.
Another boondocking hassle is dealing with gray and black water. (Gray water is wastewater from showers, dishes, hand-washing, etc., and black water is toilet water). When you are at a campground, you typically have a sewer hook-up, and your waste goes directly into the sewer. When boondocking, all waste and wastewater goes directly into your respective gray and black water tanks. This means that when you are a leaving a boondocking site, you must find a dump station to empty and reset your tanks.
Similar to finding places to fill water, finding dump stations is not too difficult. Sometimes dump stations are marked on campendium, and, in a pinch, we have also used the Sanidumps website/app for dump station scouting. Typically, however, we use gas stations and travel centers for dumping, and this is often free (or at most $5). As mentioned above, Love’s, Pilot, and Flying J are our favorite places to go before boondocking, because they have literally everything available in an easy-access lane. If all else fails, you can always pay to dump at a private campground or state park.
Finally, I’ll mention that many boondockers keep their standard, flushable toilet and regularly empty their black tank at dump stations. Knowing that we planned to do a lot of dispersed camping, we decided to swap our RV toilet for a composting toilet prior to beginning our travels.
A composting toilet is a dry toilet that separates liquid and solid waste. This keeps a potentially full black tank from holding us back from staying longer in a desirable boondocking spot and lessens the urgency of finding a dump station. A full gray tank is not necessarily a desperate situation, but a full black tank should be emptied STAT. Composting toilets can be a bit pricey and are definitely not necessary for boondocking. In fact, if you plan to do a mix of boondocking and campground camping, it may not even be the right choice for you. However, it is definitely something to consider if you plan to do a lot of boondocking throughout your travels.
One of the biggest boondocking conundrums is the power situation! How does one acquire power when not hooked up to residential or RV park electric? There are two main methods we use for power while boondocking.
The first is a generator, and this seems to be the most accessible off-grid power source. Our motorhome came equipped with an excellent ONAN-brand generator, which we use on rainy or cloudy days. However, we know that most travel trailers, fifth wheels, and older motorhomes do not come with a generator, and these can cost anywhere from $150-500+ for a decent one. They also require gas fill-ups and some regular maintenance, but this is still significantly off-set by the money saved at campgrounds and RV parks.
The second way one can garner electric while boondocking is through solar power. We have 800 watts of solar on our roof, and these 5 panels bring in a ton of power. This power is stored in four 6-volt golf cart batteries that we purchased at Sam’s Club. With this solar setup, we have more than enough power at all times. We use said power to charge our devices (phones and laptops), turn on lights in the evening, watch TV, run our fans and water pump, and even vacuum.
Our entire set-up (including our inverter and charge controller) cost us around $1,000, but when you factor in that this is 1-2 months of campground stays, you can see that it is a worthy investment. Again, this is not a boondocking necessity, but something to really consider if you do plan to do lots of off-grid camping.
Some of our appliances run on propane, so we are sure to top off our propane tank before we head out to boondock. Since we are not plugged in at a campground, we run our hot water heater and refrigerator off of propane almost exclusively. (We only turn on the hot water heater about thirty minutes before a shower and turn it off immediately after). If we are plugged in, we can run the fridge and hot water heater on electric, but our current solar situation does not have enough juice to run these power-hungry appliances. However, propane is an extremely efficient power source, and we only need to fill our eighteen-gallon tank every 6-8 weeks.
We also use propane for our stove, oven, and heat. Our stove and oven only run on propane, so even in campgrounds, we are always using some propane. We also only use our heat in the winter, and since we tend to avoid colder temperatures, we do not run our heat often.
As is the case for many RVers, we rely on the Internet for work, so we must be connected at all times. Since campground WiFi tends to be slow, spotty, or even nonexistent, many RVers need to rely on their own sources of WiFi, whether they are boondocking or not. However, being further removed from populated towns and cities while boondocking, reception can be even more of a challenge. We have a few methods for ensuring connection in boondocking locations which have served us well over the past eighteen months on the road.
The first is to be aware of the coverage provided before showing up to a site. We rely on sources such as campendium, Open Signal, and the Coverage? app to check for cell data connection before we head to a boondocking location. Campendium pools information from reviews to give basic connection info, and Coverage? and Open Signal tell you the average reception coverage for various carriers in certain locations.
The second method is to diversify carriers. We have unlimited cell data on AT&T and a Verizon unlimited hotspot and having the two carriers usually ensures that we will have enough coverage to work. Many locations have service for each carrier, but we also encountered many areas that are a dead zone for one carrier but not for the other. Having both will open up your options for sites..
Our third tactic is to always have our booster handy. This device cannot create reception where there is none, but it can turn a weak connection into a strong one. Again, this is not a boondocking necessity, but it is certainly useful for boondocking in places with suspect reception.
This is just a rough breakdown of what helps our connection situation while boondocking. Check out our blog post “Maintaining Connection While Full-Time RVing” for much more extensive information, which could be useful to you if you plan to spend a lot of time in the wild.
Disposing of trash is another boondocking challenge. At campgrounds, there are nice, handy dumpsters provided, which allow for convenient waste disposal. While boondocking, you must drive your trash to another area to get rid of it. We typically throw away our trash at gas stations while we are filling or grocery stores where we are shopping. If you are unsure, it is best to check with the business and make sure it is okay to toss your trash. We have found, in most cases, that businesses are fine with this, especially if you are spending money at their location.
Another tip we have is to try to minimize trash as much as you can. Removing excess packaging at the grocery store, burning cardboard or paper when possible, and eating mostly fresh foods help to minimize our trash disposal, requiring less trash drop-off while boondocking. This certainly helps with less disposal but does not eliminate the need to find a place to toss our trash once in a while.
As with everything else, mail while boondocking can be a bit of a challenge. At a campground, you can often (but not always) have mail shipped to the front office for you, where they will either deliver it directly to your site or hold it for you at the office. Unfortunately, there is no mail delivery in the wilderness, but we have a few methods for receiving mail while boondocking.
Our first method is to only shop online when absolutely necessary. Before traveling, Amazon was our go-to, but since we began this lifestyle, we have begun to buy more products in-store to avoid dealing with the hassle of receiving mail on the road.
That being said, sometimes there is no other option to buy an item in need online, as we are often in remote areas with no access to stores that would carry necessary items. These items have been things such as a car part, a new 12V light bulb, or dog food that we cannot find in local stores. In this case, we ship the item to a nearby USPS or UPS location to hold for pickup. Typically, we call ahead of time to ensure that this is okay with the location. We have had items shipped back on us a few times, but this generally works out in our favor.
***If you plan to have something held for pickup at a mailing service location, it helps to know what carrier is shipping the item. This way, you can match the shipper with the pickup location for ease of receipt. UPS does not typically like to hold items shipped FedEx and vice versa. However, if you are shipping an item from Amazon and do not know how it will be shipped, you may not be able to send it to the “correct” location. This situation will still usually work out in your favor, but you may end up dealing with a grumpy post office attendant.
The final boondocking hassle is laundry. At campgrounds, you can often expect to have an on-site laundromat, where you can wash your clothing and bedding for a set price per load. While boondocking, you will have to rely on laundromats in cities and towns to wash your garments.
However, we actually almost never visit laundromats because we were blessed with an awesome combo washer-dryer machine that came with our RV. If we have extra water, we run a load before leaving a campsite, and we can then fire up our generator to dry it or dry it on a clothesline. In a pinch, we have even laid our clothes out in the RV to air dry if we’re in a spot with neighbors who don’t want to see our laundry. If you want to go really rustic, you can also handwash your clothing (there are several tools that you can use in conjunction with a bucket) and line-dry it outside.
All of this may sound a bit overwhelming, but we were honestly able to get the hang of living this way in just a few short weeks. Maybe it sounds crazy to some, but for the incredible views and extreme closeness to nature, we make the boondocking lifestyle work quite well. In fact, we have met many others who also make full-time boondocking work for them. If this is the way you want to full-time travel, then this post is a great launching point. Boondocking is truly our favorite form of camping, and we encourage all other RVers (weekenders or full-timers) to try it at some point. Perhaps, you, too, will become addicted. 😀
Have you boondocked before? Any tips that we missed to make it a little easier?! Feel free to share in the comments below!