There is nothing like the feeling of freedom of setting up camp an ideal, secluded, picturesque campsite out in the hinterlands somewhere. Not in a campground, and not in an RV park, but camping somewhere on the gorgeous public lands that have been set aside by the government for recreational purposes.
“Boondocking” refers to this kind of camping (also known as “dispersed camping”).
Some people call it “free camping” or even “wild camping” because it doesn’t cost anything and many sites are far out in nature somewhere.
Whatever name you give it, it falls under the category of “dry camping” because you are living in your RV without hooking it up to city water, sewer or electricity.
This post describes the different kinds of boondocking spots that are available and how to locate them.
If you are interested in tips for how to live off the grid in an RV (i.e., tips for how to save electricity, how to conserve water & propane, how to boondock safely, etc.), see this page: RV Boondocking – Tips for Living Off the Grid in an RV
WHAT IS BOONDOCKING ALL ABOUT?
Generally, boondocking is a very different way of traveling than staying in RV parks and campgrounds, because it is very free spirited and spontaneous. Nothing can be reserved in advance, and often you have no idea what kind of site you might find.
Many days we have no idea where we will be staying until late in the afternoon.
Learning to be this flexible takes time, especially after years spent in structured, workaday routines, and not everyone ends up liking it.
We find the freedom from rules and restrictions and the beauty of the public lands is intoxicating, and we wouldn’t travel in our RV any other way.
We have been camping this way every night since we started full-timing, and as of January, 2016, we have boondocked a total of over 2,000 nights.
The US Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other government agencies (Army Corps of Engineers among others) all manage vast tracts of public land.
Each agency or bureau has a different mission, but most allow “dispersed camping” (known to RVers as “boondocking”) on their land. That is, you can camp wherever you find a spot that seems suitable and is accessible.
In general, the rules for boondocking are usually very simple:
- Stay in a site that already has a campfire ring or other evidence of being a campsite, and don’t build a new one
- Observe fire restrictions (sometimes fires are not allowed due to the ease of starting a wildfire)
- Pack out the trash you pack in
- Bury any human waste under at least 6″ of dirt
- Enjoy a stay of 14 days or less (sometimes 16 days) and then move on
Some ranger districts within these agencies don’t allow dispersed camping. If overnight camping is not allowed, a “No Overnight Camping” sign will be posted at the site or in an otherwise obvious place.
The idea behind dispersed camping is to allow people to enjoy the beauty of nature without the ordinary restrictions of a campground. However, campers have a responsibility not to harm the site and to leave it in good condition for the next person.
That is why there are rules about packing trash out, burying human waste deeply, and not making new campfire rings.
The reason behind the 14 day stay limit for dispersed camping is that the government agencies don’t want people moving onto public land and making it their home. The idea is: get in, enjoy the place, and get out. The idea is not to turn public land into little RV homesteads.
In some places the rangers will monitor the campers on their land and will ensure campers leave when their 14 days are up. Even when no one is monitoring how long campers stay, it is important to respect the rules and leave when you’ve reached the time limit.
There is a ranger’s office for each district within each of these agencies, and a stop at the ranger’s office is often worthwhile to pick up maps and to ask about dispersed camping opportunities, local rules and regulations.
Each public land agency or bureau has a mission and a purpose, and they report to different branches of the government.
The USFS (National Forests) is part of the Department of Agriculture, while the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) is part of the Department of the Interior.
Both have a mission “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
As a result, both of these entities manage two kinds of activities on their land: recreational use (camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, biking) and productive use (cattle grazing, mining, logging, etc.).
In stark contrast to the USFS and BLM, the mission of the National Park Service is to preserve America’s natural and historical treasures. For this reason, the whole notion of dispersed camping runs contrary to their charter, which is preservation (i.e., “don’t touch”).
America’s National Parks do not allow dispersed camping (boondocking)
The one exception for boondocking in the National Park system is at Big Bend National Park in Texas where a very controlled kind of boondocking is possible, as explained here: Boondocking at Big Bend National Park – Tips & Tricks.
Many National Parks are located near National Forests. If you don’t mind a 10 mile or more drive to get to the National Park you are visiting, you can boondock in the National Forest and drive in.
The management of public land in America is changing its focus, and dispersed camping and camping in general is undergoing a shift in many places to be more costly (in the case of developed campgrounds) or prohibited all together (in the case of dispersed camping).
We recommend that all current boondockers as well as future boondockers take an interest in the changes to our public land management. Two developments on public land in Arizona have caught our attention and we describe what is going on in these posts:
- What is Happening to our Public Land? – Changes at the Grand Canyon
- Copper Mining (NOT CAMPING!) at Tonto National Forest
Usually you can’t stay on public land longer than 14 days, and they ask you to “pack it in and pack it out,” meaning: don’t leave the place a mess. Generally an RV won’t leave a footprint behind, but sometimes we arrive at a site and end up filling several grocery bags with trash, some of it 20 years old or more (rusted tin cans with flip tops!).
Picking Up Other People’s Trash!
I’d rather pack out someone else’s trash than leave that legacy for our grandchildren to find when they go camping with their RVs decades from now. Sadly, there is LOTS of trash on our public land and we pack out bags of other people’s trash all the time.
Our feeling is that if we can stay for free for two weeks on a gorgeous piece of property, surrounded by hundreds of acres of natural beauty, with a multi-million dollar view out our windows, the least we can do is to pick up a little trash.
This makes the campsite nice for the next visitor!
We also want to keep the USFS, BLM and other land management agencies happy with RVers so they continue to allow boondocking on their land.
In Arizona, many Tonto National Forest boondocking areas have been closed because it was too expensive for the USFS to clean up after winter RVers and others who trashed the places. What a shame that those thoughtless people ruined it for everyone else.
Many conservation oriented people who plan to do a lot of boondocking ask us if they should get a composting toilet for their RV. Keeping campsite cleanliness etiquette in mind and remembering the public land managers’ important and common sense rule about burying human waste under at least 6″ of dirt, these are our thoughts: Is a composting toilet a good idea in an RV?
Respect The Neighbors – Keep The Noise Down!
In addition to picking up whatever garbage is around your site, it’s important to respect the neighbors, if there are any. Most people boondock to get away from it all, and respecting that quest for peace and quiet is simply common courtesy.
Whether it’s loud music or a loud generator, nature is not nearly as tranquil when a neighbor is making a lot of noise.
HOW TO LOCATE BOONDOCKING SITES
The Delorme State Atlas Books and the Benchmark Atlas Books show where the public lands are in each state, and we have one for every state we travel in (and for a few states we have two, one from each publisher!).
These atlases also have a section in the front that describes the various outings, scenic drives, historic spots and unusual natural landmarks that can be found within the state, and with those attractions in mind, we have an idea of where we want to go and which secondary roads will get us there.
Each state also produces a free paper road map, and visitors centers usually stock them for all the states in the region, so it’s easy to get your hands on a road map when you arrive (and sometimes even before you arrive) in a new state.
We like these paper road maps because they give an overview of the layout of the state and they usually show where the scenic drives are too.
You see, where there are scenic roads, there are beautiful things to see, and sometimes there are nice places to boondock too!
That’s why, between the atlas map books and the road maps, we are always on the lookout for scenic areas.
Another super resource is the wonderfully detailed National Geographic maps of America’s public lands. These take the atlas books one step further, giving finer detail (but covering less area). We turn to these when we want to zero in on a particular national forest or BLM area. These maps are especially useful for:
They are also handy in these states:
We usually aim for a particular, area and once we arrive, we find a place to park the rig temporarily so we can get our bearings and do some scouting in person. Then we unhitch our truck or unload the bikes, and we go scouting to see if there are any good campsites.
Usually, the first night or two we are in a temporary spot that is okay but is not somewhere we’d want to spend a long time. If we like the area and want to stay longer, we then do an all out search to find a better place. Sometimes we get lucky and find a great campsite. Sometimes it’s impossible and we just move on.
We incorporate our search for boondocking spots into our overall travels and sightseeing in each area we visit.
Because of this, unlike most RV campers, for us boondocking is the very fabric of our life.
Our biggest concern in scouting out a boondocking campsite is whether or not our rig will fit, both on the road getting there, and also once we are in the campsite.
Overhanging branches and insufficient room to turn around can make a great spot impossible for us to use.
Secondary concerns are the potential that the place will get really muddy if it rains, or really dusty if it gets windy. We also debate how long a drive it is from the campsite to wherever we want to visit. Sometimes it’s not worth staying if we’re going to be driving excessively to see whatever we came to see.
It may sound funny, but we frequently don’t unhitch our trailer when we stay somewhere, especially if we know we won’t be staying more than a few days. If the area is bike friendly, and we’re caught up on our chores (laundry and grocery shopping), we won’t be using the truck anyways. So, we save ourselves a few minutes while setting up and breaking down camp by keeping the truck and trailer attached.
There are listings of boondocking sites on various websites and some folks sell books with boondocking locations in them.
However, in all our years of living off the grid and boondocking, we have found that scouting like this is the best way to find the most awesome places to stay.
Ultimately, RV boondocking is all about adventure, and for us, the true joy of boondocking is exploring the wonderful public lands in America and discovering special campsites that are relatively unknown.
Besides the thrill of discovery, another reason we like to find our campsites on our own rather than relying on lists of boondocking locations given by other people is that, in general, the quality of the reports in those lists is unreliable.
If the person reporting the site is traveling in a van, or in a car with a tent, and has never driven a big RV, their “fabulous” campsite that is “good for any size RV” may be totally inappropriate for a truly big rig. In addition, not only is one person’s definition of a “good dirt road” different than another’s, the site may have become unusable since the report was made.
PARKING OVERNIGHT AT COMMERCIAL PARKING LOTS, TRUCK STOPS and CASINOS
PARKING OVERNIGHT AT COMMERCIAL PARKING LOTS, TRUCK STOPS and CASINOS
Walmart is famous for being very RV-friendly, and they sell a Rand McNally Atlas that lists all the addresses of every Walmart in the US as well as its interstate exit number, if it is near one. However Walmart is not always in control of their land, so staying overnight in their lot is not always legal.
Although most Walmarts would allow RV overnight parking if they could, when the building is on leased land with a landlord that forbids it, or when it is located within city limits that have an ordinance against overnight parking, then you can’t stay there.
Usually there are signs in the parking lot if overnight parking is not allowed. It is advisable to check with the store’s security department to find out whether or not they allow overnight parking.
Here is a list of No Overnight Parking Walmarts. Of course, sometimes rules are flagrantly ignored, and we have arrived at Walmarts where RVs and semi-tractor trailers were lined up between the signs prohibiting overnight parking!
Even more-so than on public land, the boondocking etiquette at a commercial parking lot like Walmart is really important.
We try to keep a low profile, usually remaining hitched to the truck and often not even putting the slides out. Obviously, camp chairs, patio mats, grills and other outdoor paraphernalia is strictly forbidden.
We have seen people treat a Walmart parking lot like a campground, grilling steaks, enjoying cocktails in their camp chairs, and playing ball with their kids in the parking lot (and hitting car windshields with the ball!).
No wonder city ordinances against overnight parking in commercial lots are on the rise!
How serious is this business of proper overnight parking etiquette?
While walking around the lot at sunset, we saw a lot of RVers setting up a big circle of camping chairs right in the parking lot. These more experienced RVers told us “it was fine” to have cocktail hour in the parking lot and that they did it whenever they came through.
“The casino management doesn’t care if we do this…” these RVers told us. So we accepted their invitation to join them. It looked like fun! Well, apparently management did care, because now overnight parking is prohibited, not only at that casino but at most of the others in town.
Along with this casino, we have seen quite a few other commercial parking lots that were once popular overnight spots close their lots to RVers. So again, be respectful of the special places that still allow it so others can enjoy it in the future!
Cracker Barrel allows overnight parking at many locations, and they have a map that lists the addresses of their stores.
However, we have yet to see a Cracker Barrel with a parking space big enough for our rig!
Camping World allows overnight parking in some of their lots.
They list their store locations online and you can give them a call to find out which ones allow it.
Casino Camper gives descriptions of casinos that offer overnight RV parking, either in RV parks for a fee, or in a back lot for free.
Truck stops are another option in a pinch, although that rarely makes for a good night’s sleep.
Small businesses will sometimes allow an RV to stay in a back lot if you patronize them and ask permission. Some visitors centers allow it too, but generally only the ones in less busy areas.
GETTING A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP in a COMMERCIAL LOT
Most commercial lots are very well lit, so it’s almost impossible to find a spot in the parking lot where the street lights won’t be shining in the windows or down the bedroom hatch.
Using a vent hatch insulator in the bedroom roof hatch and putting Reflectix in the windows will block the light and make it easier to sleep. Choosing a spot that is far away from any trucks is important too, as they tend to come and go all night long. Refrigerated trucks run loud generators to keep their contents cold. Parking next to one overnight is no fun at all!
REST AREAS and PULL-OUTS
Some Interstate rest areas allow overnighting and some don’t. Generally, if it is not allowed, then there are signs that say so. Like truck stops, finding a spot away from the trucks is vital.
Vermont doesn’t allow sleeping in their rest areas between 7 pm and 7 am (what are they thinking?), while Texas offers free wifi at all of theirs! One rest area in Mississippi is set up like a campground with individual campsites and a water spigot at each site!
Many secondary roads have large pull-outs where you can be far off the highway and get a good night’s sleep.
The best boondocking resources are often fellow RVers and other people we meet in our travels. However, as with the online and printed reports of campsites, it helps to verify that the person has actually been there and done it.
Many forest rangers will say there is dispersed camping in their district, yet despite being “legal,” it is totally impractical. Find out if the ranger you are talking to is an RVer with a rig your size.
Also, whoever you talk to, find out what kind of rig they actually took to the campsite they are describing and when they last went. They may own a big rig now, but if they took a Jeep and a tent to this site twenty years ago, it doesn’t count.
Lastly, size up the person and their thirst for adventure as compared to your own. We have several RVing friends who happily take their big motorhomes to places we’d hesitate to go.
Most of all — have fun with it. For us, half of the excitement of boondocking is in the searching. We always have an eye out for prospective camping sites as we drive around, and when we find a really good one it’s a total thrill.
WHY DON’T WE SHARE OUR BOONDOCKING LOCATIONS ON THIS BLOG?
Many people ask us why we don’t give directions to the boondocking locations we find. Very simply, we keep this information to ourselves because it takes a tremendous amount of effort to find good spots, and we don’t want to give that info away. We also don’t feel it is right to sell it, as some people do.
More important, one of the greatest thrills of boondocking is poking your head around a corner and finding a new place that is truly awesome. If you simply drive to the GPS coordinates someone has given you, you are missing out on some of the most exciting aspects of boondocking: exploration and discovery.
When we cruised in our sailboat, a popular cruising guide had just been published. It gave the GPS coordinates where the authors had anchored for every anchorage. Everywhere we went, boats were crammed around those coordinates. Even if the anchorage was a mile wide, 20 boats would be on top of each other where the authors of the book had dropped their anchor.
That kind of “paint-by-numbers” cruising (or boondocking) is easy, but I think all those sailors were missing out on something priceless: exploring and finding a little corner of their own that was away from it all and that was “theirs” for a few nights.
Also, like everything on the Internet, this blog is read worldwide. I love corresponding with American service people who are stationed overseas in the war-torn parts of the world, and finding out that this blog is a source of inspiration for them as they begin to plan for a different life after their service is over. However, there is little reason for most people on the other side of the planet to get detailed directions or GPS coordinates for priceless camping spots on America’s public land.
If boondocking and anchoring out all these years have taught us anything, it is that these places are precious. Anchorages are disappearing as they are turned into mooring fields and then get built up into marinas. Public land boondocking locations are disappearing because the various federal agencies are having their budgets cut and they find it easier to prohibit dispersed camping than to figure out how to pay to pick up the trash that careless campers and partiers have left behind.
We love our life in an RV off the grid, and we hope others with a similar passion for the natural world will approach it with the same kind of adventurous spirit, and will find it as thrilling and fulfilling as we have.
Public Land Agencies and Bureaus
- US Forest Service – The USFS manages America’s many National Forests
- Bureau of Land Management – The BLM manages vast tracts of land, mostly in the west
- US Army Corps of Engineers – Among many other things, manages America’s watershed areas, largely in the east
- National Park Service – Oversees and protects America’s natural and historic treasures
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