What Is Boondocking? Plus Tips On How To Find Free Camping

...and assuming you like the idea of boondocking, you'll also learn how to find beautiful, safe, and legal places to do it in your RV or camper van.

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You may have heard of, or read about RVers and van campers preferring to go boondocking over regular campsite camping.

But what is boondocking, exactly, and (assuming you like the sound of it), how do you find good, safe, and legal places to do it?

I’m Helen from trailandkale.com and today I’m delighted to be a guest on the Sprinter Campervans blog to answer all those questions for you, and more in this post all about Boondocking!

What Is Boondocking?

Boondocking in an RV or camper van is essentially camping without any amenities that you would expect in regular developed campgrounds or RV parks.

This is also referred to as ‘dry camping’, or – if you’re planning to go boondocking on public land, ‘dispersed camping’.

The term ‘dry camping’ refers to the fact you don’t have any facilities.

If you enjoy this post, you’ll also love reading all about ‘Stealth Camping’ in your camper van next.

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That’s me over on the left, walking our border collie pup, Kepler.

There is no water supply or hookups, so you need your camper van or RV to be fully self-contained, with enough water and electricity to meet your needs, and the ability to store wastewater and use the bathroom until you can go to a dump station to empty the tanks.

If you’re planning to buy or build a camper van, it’s important to know how you’re going to use it, because if you have your sights on boondocking, then it’s very helpful (and sometimes necessary) to have a self-contained vehicle.

Where can you go boondocking?

Boondocking is specifically something you do on public land, where overnight parking and dispersed camping, for free, is permitted.

The US government agencies responsible for the most boondocking-friendly lands are the Bureau of Land Management (BLM land) and the National Forest Service (National Forest land).

Why do they call it Boondocking?

If you find other places to park your vehicle overnight without facilities, and for free, this is really just free camping, or free overnight RV parking.

For overnight camping to be considered boondocking, you really have to be wild camping in a rural area, which often means you’ll be in some fairly remote areas – hence why it’s called boondocking… because you’re camping in ‘the boondocks’!

Fun fact about the term boondocking: According to Wikipedia, “‘boondocks’ is an American expression from the Tagalog (Filipino) word bundók (“mountain”). It originally referred to a remote rural area”. So now you know!

What to Know Before You Go On A Boondocking Trip

Going boondocking requires some planning to make sure your RV or campervan is prepared for you to head onto public lands in search of boondocking sites.

It also helps to research some options within your targeted National Forest or BLM land, so you know where you’re heading.

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Note that dispersed camping areas are different from established campgrounds, and many BLM and National Forest areas also have rustic campgrounds that can be great places to stay (but not free!).

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Assuming you do it in areas where dispersed camping is permitted, then yes, boondocking is legal!

Check local rules, but typically you are permitted to stay and camp overnight for up to 14 days at a time in a 28 day period.

Also note you may need a permit to visit the area, even if you don’t need to specifically pay for camping.

What Is Designated Dispersed Camping?

Before you head out on your boondocking trip, look up the area and do some research to see whether you need to camp in specific areas.

Many national forests and BLM land areas now require you to camp in designated dispersed camping areas, to avoid unnecessarily disturbing previously untouched natural areas.

Designated dispersed camping areas are not RV sites, developed campgrounds or anything like that.

They’re basically boondocking sites, which are typically spaces that many people have spent time boondocking on already, so they’re usually easy to spot because you can see flattened areas and tire tracks where vehicles have previously been parked.

It’s worth noting that, unlike many designated campgrounds, you can’t normally make a reservation for boondocking areas. You just have to show up and hope there’s a suitable space available for you.

Some people love this aspect of boondocking because, unlike RV parks, developed campgrounds and campsites in areas such as state parks and national parks, you don’t have to book months in advance to secure a camping spot.

On the other hand, there’s of course the disadvantage to boondocking in that you never really know until you show up to the area if there’s going to be available space in your targeted boondocking spot.

FAQs about bookdocking

Read on for some helpful boondocking tips and answers to commonly asked questions about boondocking.

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A quick pit stop in the beautiful Monument Valley, on one of our van life road trips

Is boondocking safe?

While there’s always the possibility of unsavory encounters wherever you go, most of those characters are unlikely to be hanging around in a dry camping area in the wilderness – you’re more likely to come across them in a town or city setting.

So, from that perspective, boondocking is generally safe, and other people enjoying primitive camping in their van or RV out in the area are more likely to want to look out for you or simply keep to themselves.

After all, the remoteness and peace are one of the big attractions of boondocking to many people!

How do you find Boondocking locations?

Unless you already know the area well, it pays to do some research to learn where you’re most likely to be successful in finding a suitable boondocking site.

Websites such as campendium.com are searchable by location or using the map, and list a variety of camping options including developed campgrounds and overnight parking spots that you can filter out to narrow down to just show boondocking sites (free camping) on public lands.

Other users often post reviews and photos of the area, which can be extremely helpful if you need to know about the condition of the forest service roads you’ll likely need to drive down, as well as whether inclement weather has made any roads dangerous or impassable as a result of flooding, for example.

Because internet and cell service can be poor or non-existent once you get closer to your desired dry camping spot, we strongly recommend you research a variety of options, access routes, and alternatives for your trip, and save the details offline before you hit the road.

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Water while boondocking

For most campers, how much water you’re able to store on board your camper van or RV, combined with how good you are at conserving that water supply will be the key factors that determine how long you can comfortably go dry camping for.

Before you head out on your trip, be sure to top off your freshwater tank, and consider bringing water jugs of extra (spare or emergency) water.

Where do you shower when Boondocking?

Because showers can use up a lot of water that could otherwise be used for cooking, washing up or drinking, many people skip having a full shower in favor of quick body-washes, especially if you’re planning on boondocking for more than a few days and need to stretch out your water reserves as long as possible.

Of course, if you have a shower on board your RV or camper van, are carrying plenty of water and aren’t planning on camping for very long, then go for it!

To truly leave no trace, be sure not to drain any soapy or dirty water into natural spaces while you’re dry camping (that wouldn’t really be dry camping then, would it :-)).

Do you need solar panels?

Because you won’t have full hookups (ok – any hookups, including shore power), you’ll need a means of storing enough electricity to meet your power needs while boondocking.

To charge your batteries, the quickest method is to start your engine and charge off your van or vehicle’s alternator. However, if you’re not planning on driving anywhere and staying in one spot then solar panels are a good idea.

If you are camping somewhere with enough sunlight (think desert and open spaces, rather than in the woods), then a sizeable bank of solar panels can offset your everyday electricity consumption, although if it does this fully really depends on your usage as well as your panel and power setup.

Free and cheap camping alternatives to boondocking

If you’re looking to save money by finding somewhere free (or at least, cheap) to park overnight then you have a few options.

Some are definitely in the realm of being purely convenience or utility-focused, rather than places that will offer you a peaceful or enjoyable ‘wild camping’ experience.

However, some van lifers and RVers swear by some of these places, especially when you just need to stop somewhere and stay overnight while you’re in town or on the road getting supplies or en route to your actual camping destination.

Dry Camping in a Developed Campground

Probably the best alternative to boondocking where you don’t need full hookups but your RV or camper van doesn’t have amenities such as a toilet, shower or black and gray tanks to store wastewater, is seeing if you can do some dry camping in a developed campground.

Check with the individual campground to see if they have any spots, often referred to as camper van or tent camping spots, where you can stay overnight. This is more likely if you have a small RV or camper van. It will cost money but not usually as much as a site with full hook ups.

A great thing about staying in a developed campground is you’ll have access to their amenities such as vault toilets, dump stations and faucets to fill up your fresh water tank.

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Our van in one of our favorite minimal camp grounds in California! Look at that view!

Parking Lot Camping

Staying overnight in a parking lot is obviously not usually scenic or as peaceful as camping on public lands such as national forests. Plus, you’re usually contained to your vehicle and can’t set up your camp chairs and firepit or grill!

However, it serves a purpose and is usually free.

This includes places such as Walmarts and truck stops. They can be noisy, but convenient given the proximity to highways and main routes.

For shorter periods during long drives, you can usually stay in highway rest areas for a few hours at a time, which can help you catch up on vital rest so you can safely continue your drive more refreshed.

Boondockers Welcome or Harvest Hosts

Boondockers Welcome is a community which you pay a small annual fee to be part of (currently $79), and opens up thousands options across the US where you can stay on peoples’ private land.

This can range from ‘driveway camping’ – parking up on someone’s driveway for the night, to something altogether more delightful like the beautiful setting pictured on Boondockers Welcome’s website homepage. Depending on the host, you can stay between one and five days at a time.

Harvest Hosts is similar, costing from $99 per year, and the venues are more likely to be wineries, farms and golf courses.

You’re usually limited to camping overnight one night at a time in each place, but it’s another great option if you’re traveling around and don’t fancy sleeping in a parking lot or truck stop.

For both, note that you do have to have an entirely self-contained vehicle.

In summary – boondocking

I hope you’ve found our boondocking guide and tips helpful and they give you the knowledge and confidence to take your camper out on a boondocking adventure very soon!


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