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.
Many of the ranger districts allow “dispersed camping,” that is, camping wherever a spot seems suitable.
Usually they prefer that you stay in a site that already has a campfire ring, rather than clearing a new site, and there are also districts and areas where dispersed camping is not allowed.
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, rules and regulations.
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 (in the case of dispersed camping).
We recommend that all current boondockers and future boondockers that dream of freedom stay abreast of 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 them to clean up after winter RVers. What a shame that those thoughtless people ruined it for the rest of us.
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 best way to find beautiful places to stay on the public lands is to scout around in person. We use our bicycles to ride down the roads and sometimes hop in our truck to check out the options as well.
There are various resources that list boondocking sites, but we have found that using our own eyes and doing our own research is the best method.
These map books show where the public lands are, and we have one for every state we travel in (and for a few states we have two, one from each publisher!).
Sometimes it is hard to get the precise detail of the smaller forest roads in these map books, but it gets you close.
For us, the most important thing is that a site is “big rig friendly” (which is usually notated in the description) and that it is not too far down a rough road.
Each state 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 before arriving in a new state.
These are great for finding out where the scenic roads are in the state.
Usually, where there are scenic roads, there are beautiful things to see, and sometimes there are nice places to boondock.
Once we arrive in the neighborhood of where we want to camp, we pull over somewhere nearby, unhitch the truck or grab the bikes, and scout it out to see if we’ll fit in the spot and whether we want to stay there.
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 beautiful places to stay.
For us, the true joy of RV boondocking is exploring the wonderful public lands in America and discovering sites that are relatively unknown.
The 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 biggest limitation to any list of boondocking spots is the quality of the reports.
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 campsites may be totally inappropriate for a 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.
Get their store locations online and 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 when we share our travel adventure stories on this blog.
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.
The “boondocking life” appeals to many people when they see our photos and read about it. However, we have met only one couple, besides ourselves, who has boondocked exclusively for a period of time. They did it for two and a half years and then bought a house and moved out of their motorhome permanently.
This is not to say that life in an RV off the grid is not possible. We have been living this way for years, and have no plans of changing our lifestyle. However, it is not a lifestyle that many people find works for them for more than a few weeks or months at a time.
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