The Ultimate Guide to Boondocking in an RV

RV Boondocking in the Desert

The boondocking craze is sweeping the nation.

Despite the somewhat funny name, boondocking is a great way to hit the road and go camping in your RV whether you stay close to home, go on a cross-country summer road trip, or even make the jump to full-time RV living.

Today, I’ll break down boondocking in detail to help you decide if this type of simple RV camping is right for you.

What Is Boondocking?

Dispersed Campsite in Desert

Let’s start off by discussing what “boondocking” actually means.

In its simplest sense, boondocking is RV camping without water, electric, or sewer hookups.

While RVing without utility hookups is completely possible at a developed campground, boondocking typically describes camping at a dispersed campsite without any amenities.

To take it one step further, many RV boondockers only use the term to describe free camping at these wild campsites rather than areas that require some sort of camping fee.

All of this makes boondocking a popular choice for those that prefer quiet, private, and remote campsites often in beautiful natural settings with few if any neighbors – all free of charge!

Where to Go Boondocking

Dirt Road Through Forest

You have a nearly unlimited number of options for places to go boondocking in the United States.

Personally, I prefer off-grid exploring at dispersed campsites in national forests, BLM land, wildlife management areas and the like, but dry camping in a Walmart or casino parking lot also technically counts as boondocking if you’re in a pinch.

Here’s a breakdown of where to go RV boondocking:

  • National Forests – This is the gold standard of boondocking. Most National Forests offer free camping (usually for up to 14 days) in dispersed campsites with no amenities.
  • National Grasslands – Similarly to National Forests, most National Grasslands offer free dispersed camping for up to 14 days. The majority of National Grasslands are located in the Great Plains.
  • BLM Land – My favorite place for boondocking is on BLM-managed lands. Dispersed camping on these public lands follows many of the same rules as National Forests and Grasslands, including a two week stay limit.
  • National Recreation Area – Some, but not all, National Recreation Areas allow free boondocking and dispersed camping.
  • National Monuments – A handful of National Monuments allow free dispersed camping, although I never count on this option unless I know for sure boondocking is allowed before planning a trip.
  • Wildlife Management Areas – Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), Wildlife Habitat Management Areas (WHMA), and Water Management Areas (WMA) sometimes offer free dispersed camping and boondocking on their grounds.
  • Hunt Camps – Look for hunting camps, often in National Forests and other land, for primitive campgrounds that are something of a mix between dispersed camping and a developed campground.
  • Equestrian Areas – Horse camps and equestrian areas sometimes let campers (even those without horses) camp for free.
  • Sno Parks – Set up for hunting, snowmobiling, and other winter activities, many sno-parks (basically just large dirt parking lots cleared of snow in the winter) are open for boondocking year-round.
  • Trailheads – It’s sometimes possible to boondock at hiking trailheads as long as you’re completely self-contained but doublecheck for the specific area you’re in.
  • City Parks – Some small town city parks, especially those in the Midwest, provide free or cheap RV camping. Usually this is boondocking, although sometimes water and electric hookups are available.
  • Parking Lots – Walmart, Cabela’s, and Bass Pro Shops are just a handful of chain businesses that sometimes allow overnight parking in their parking lots. Make sure to double check with each specific branch as the legality of this depends on the area they’re located in.
  • Casinos – Many casinos offer free overnight camping for RV campers in their parking lots to encourage overnight guests to eat or gamble at their facilities.
  • Truck Stops & Rest Areas – Many truck stops have dedicated sections for overnight RV campers. Some rest areas allow overnight guests (sometimes limited to 8 hours) but rules regarding overnight use varies from state to state.
  • Boondockers Welcome – For $50 per year, Boondockers Welcome gives RVers access to hundreds of free boondocking campsites across the country offered by private hosts on their own land.
  • Stealth Camping – Although probably my last choice for boondocking, some RV campers swear by stealth camping. This is basically just parking on a city street in a residential, commercial, or industrial area and laying low for the night. Naturally, RVs are quite noticeable and look out of place, so stealth camping is much easier and more common when van camping.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of places to look for overnight boondocking, although these are by far the most common options.

How to Find Free Campsites

RVs Boondocking in the Desert

Knowing where to look is the key to finding free campsites for boondocking.

Start with the types of public land outlined above. National Forests, BLM land, and Wildlife Management Areas are all great boondocking locations for beginners.

Tools like Campendium, The Dyrt, and FreeCampsites.net all let you search for free campsites with a convenient map tool. Many campsites are reviewed by other boondockers like you and some even have photos.

Another trick is to search “boondocking in _____,” “free camping in _____,” “dispersed camping in _____,” or something similar for the area you hope to stay. So many boondockers now keep personal blogs that this method is quite effective at digging up great places to camp that not everyone else knows about.

But, really, you’ll quickly develop a sort of sixth sense for boondocking. After a few trips, you’ll know where to look for potential dispersed campsites. You’ll know how to look at a map (paper or online) to identify possible boondocking areas.

Finally, don’t be shy. Talk to other boondockers. Most are happy to share their favorite RV boondocking locations with you. In fact, in my experience, this has been the most effective way to find beautiful and private free camping in the United States.

Boondock Safely and Responsibly

Trailer Boondocking in Desert Until Full Moon

Boondocking is quite a bit different than RVing at a developed campground so it’s just natural that it comes with its own set of safety concerns.

  • Size of Rig – Smaller RVs and trailers as well as vans are better suited to boondocking, especially dispersed camping. Many campsites – not to mention the access roads – are quite small and confined. That said, there is plenty of boondocking well suited for big rigs. Just know what you’re getting into first.
  • Scout Ahead – Don’t be afraid to park your RV and scout ahead, especially in a new area. Many access roads to dispersed campsites are narrow, rough, and have nowhere to turn around. Heck, even if you make it to a campsite, there might not be enough room to turn a larger rig around, especially if the campsite is already full.
  • Exit Strategy – Always have an exit strategy in mind. This is where scouting ahead comes into play. You don’t want to get stuck miles upon miles up a dirt road with no way of turning around.
  • Consider Weather – Most dirt access roads to boondocking campsites are minimally maintained. Many traverse dry washes, steep embankments, and other features that can change drastically with the weather. For instance, a dry or trickling creek crossing might now be a raging river after a heavy rain.
  • No Cell Reception – Many remote boondocking campsites have no cell reception. So, it’s important to consider what’s going on around you – including any nearby forest fires – since you likely won’t receive any communication about changes or events.
  • Tell Someone Where You Are – Just like any camping or hiking trip, it’s important to leave your plans with a friend or family member. Let them know where you expect to camp (or as close to it as possible) and for how long. You can also leave this information with the nearest ranger station. If you boondock on a regular basis, a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon is invaluable.
  • Trust Your Judgement – Use your common sense in terms of roads to traverse and places to camp. Trust your gut feeling involving other campers. Because they’re free, remote, and let you stay for several weeks at a time, some boondocking locations can attract a sketchier crowd. Since you’re all alone, it’s better to leave a potentially uncomfortable situation before it becomes necessary. There’s always another spot down the road.

Just as important as boondocking safely is boondocking responsibly. It’s important to treat dispersed camping areas, especially public lands, with respect. Not only do other people use these lands, but they’re the natural, wild habitats to countless plant and animal species.

  • Pack It Out – Most important is to pack out all your trash. This includes food waste and anything else you bring in. Most boondocking locations don’t have dumpsters or trash cans.
  • Pick It Up – Unfortunately, left behind trash is becoming a major problem in our public lands. Go above and beyond and pick up any trash others have left behind at your campsite.
  • Pack Out Human Waste – Toilets, including vault toilets, are uncommon at dispersed campsites. Luckily, most RV campers are self-contained so this isn’t an issue. That said, if you’re in a van, trailer, or other vehicle without an onboard toilet, we suggest investing in a portable toilet (the Luggable Loo is a great budget option). Otherwise, you’ll need to pack out your waste or bury your waste in a cat hole (although burying waste is discouraged in a growing number of areas).  
  • Stick to Existing Roads, Trails, Campsites – Stay on established roads and trailers to minimize your impact. Select existing campsites rather than making your own. Many dispersed campsites are just pullouts off a Forest Service road. You can identify these by DIY fire rings, worn-down grass, and areas free of vegetation.
  • Fire Safety – Smoking is no joke in the wilderness. Exercise extreme caution with smoking, cooking, and campfires. Follow all current campfire regulations. Make certain to put all fires dead out. Drown the campfire with water and then stir the embers into the dirt before adding more water. If the fire is still warm to touch, it’s too hot to leave.
  • Wildlife Safety – Respect all wildlife while boondocking. Don’t leave food or waste outside, especially in bear country. Don’t feed or approach any animals however harmless they might seem. Keep control of your pets at all times.
  • Follow the Rules – Check local rules and regulations before leaving. Obey any signage in the area you’re boondocking, including maximum stay lengths. Double check with a ranger if you have any questions.
  • Respect Other Campers – It might feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but chances are there are other campers nearby. Be respectful of them by limiting generator use at night, maintaining space between campsites, and staying quiet after dark. Some popular boondocking locations are also popular party spots – but not everyone likes to listen to thumping music and drunken shouting all night long!

It’s up to us to protect our public lands as well as the plants and animals that call these wilderness areas home. The Leave No Trace principles are the gold standard of outdoor ethics to follow while boondocking.

Essential Gear You Need for Boondocking

RV with Solar Panels

Boondocking requires a little more in the way of preparation than RVing at a developed campground or RV park.

Most importantly, you need to plan around the lack of RV hookups and any amenities like trash service, bathrooms, potable water, and showers.

Here’s a quick list of the essential gear you need for RV boondocking:

  • Water Storage – Every drop of water is precious when you’re boondocking. Fill your tanks up before leaving if you have them, but bring along extra water in extra water storage containers, like the Reliance 7 Gallon Water Container. Personally, I like to bring separate drinking water for RV boondocking and conserve my onboard water for the toilet, showers, and washing dishes.
  • Portable Power – An RV generator is essential to keep all of your onboard systems fully charged and operating. Select a generator that matches your needs in terms of power output and what you need to power. An alternative is a portable power station. Pair this with a portable solar panel.
  • Solar Panel – Go big with a full-blown RV solar setup with solar panels installed on the roof of your RV. Not only does solar power save on gas, it’s also quieter, doesn’t produce fumes, and is better for the environment. Better yet, you’ll stay fully recharged indefinitely.
  • Heating & Cooling – Take note of the expected weather conditions and consider bringing auxiliary heating or cooling devices. Of course, you can run a generator, but oftentimes a portable fan, electric space heater, or propane tent heater does the job just as good.

It’s essential to come prepared when boondocking, especially for longer stays. In addition to packing the right gear, it’s necessary to camp with conservation in mind. Without hookups, you’ll need to conserve water and conserve power (especially without an RV solar setup). Likewise, you should keep an eye on your wastewater tanks so they don’t get too full while you’re off-grid RVing.

Go Boondocking Today! 

RV Camping on the Ocean Coast

I hope you found our ultimate guide to RV boondocking informative.

Now, I’d love to hear from you. What’s your favorite place to go boondocking? What type of vehicle do you use? Let me know in the comments below.

And, like always, don’t hesitate to reach out with your questions!  

Check out our additional RV camping resources like our RV rental guide and RV buying guide as well as our RV rental tool.

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