“Wild Camping” & RV Boondocking Tips – Escapees Magazine

The winter RV boondocking scene was well underway in Arizona when we flew halfway around the world to explore Thailand for a month. But even though we weren’t a part of the groovy RV gathering in Quartzsite this season, an article of ours offering a few tips we’ve learned about how to boondock in comfort and style appeared in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Escapees Magazine.

Wild Camping in Comfort and Style in Escapees Magazine by Emily Fagan

Escapees Magazine – Jan/Feb 2017 Issue
Article by Emily & Mark Fagan

Whenever we find a gorgeous campsite, we’ve gotta take pics. There’s something very satisfying about seeing our beloved buggy in really picturesque locations!! Writing this post seemed like a great excuse to share some pics from our favorite campsites during our travels in 2016. We don’t get to have views like these every day, but when we do, the cameras come out!

Many years ago, we started our RVing lives by dry camping in public campgrounds in a popup tent trailer. When we moved into our first big trailer to RV full-time nearly ten years ago, we assumed we would be dry camping most of the time.

So, we put a solar power system on our trailer and quickly learned the art of boondocking.

This is a really fun way to travel in an RV if you are into nature and solitude and quiet nights.

It’s not something that appeals to everyone, but we enjoy it immensely and have written about it on this blog:

For us, half the fun of boondocking is finding really great campsites, and that is a treasure hunt we undertake every day (we even caught ourselves pointing out to each other an “ideal boondocking spot” while on a tour in Thailand!!!).

Many people assume that “boondocking” means “roughing it,” but that doesn’t have to be the case. I had to laugh when I invited a new RVer into our rig last summer and, as she followed me up the stairs, she said, “I can’t believe you boondock all the time and you have shaved legs!!” Well, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, whether camping in the wilds of nature or staying at the Four Seasons!

If your RV is outfitted well and you are willing to conserve your water and electricity a little bit, boondocking can be very comfortable, and of course, you can shower every day and shave your legs too!

Since we began living in our RV and boondocking every night all those years ago, the term “wild camping” has become popular, although I’m not sure that living in a luxury RV can be considered either “wild” or truly “camping.”

But the term does have a really sexy ring to it, so the Escapees Magazine editors used it in the title of our article. They posted the article on their website and you can read it here:

Wild Camping in Comfort and Style – Escapees Magazine

The Escapees RV Club has always encouraged its members to try boondocking, as it is the way the Club’s founders, Kay and Joe Peterson, liked to camp in their Airstream when they were full-timing as young working adults in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Escapees offers super cheap dry camping sites at most of their RV parks ($5/night for members) and they provide dry camping options at all of their rallies and functions too.

The Advocacy arm of Escapees RV Club also keeps tabs on changes in public land management and goes to bat for RVers when our camping options on public land are threatened in a big way.

Escapees RV Club has many other facets to support and educate RVers, from bootcamp programs for new RVers to rallies offered by various chapters nationwide that bring both inexperienced and seasoned RVers together socially.

On March 19-24, 2017, Escapees will be holding its 57th Escapade rally in Tucson, Arizona. This is a big rally and the schedule is absolutely chock full of informative seminars, social gatherings and fun entertainment.

Before Escapade begins next month, there will also be a 3 day Escapees Bootcamp training program for new RVers, March 16-18.

The schedule of Bootcamp seminars is eye-popping, covering everything from RV systems to Safe Driving to Specifics on Towable RVs to Specifics on Motorhomes to RV Weight and Load Management and Fire Safety.

They’ll also have their professional SmartWeigh Weighmasters available to weigh your RV. Our rig was weighed by a Smartweigh Weighmaster, and it was a very helpful and informative process.

Unlike most truck scales that weigh each axle of the rig individually, this weighing system weighs each wheel. This helps you figure out where the heavy spots are (all on one side or on opposite corners or in one particular corner) and find out whether your rig is limping a bit as it goes down the road.

This 57th Escapade in Tucson will also have a two-day program specifically for kids so parents or grandparents can drop their kids off while they attend seminars.

For folks that love to ham it up and perform, there is also an event called Escapade’s Got Talent where members can entertain their fellow RVers with whatever singing, dancing, music, skits or poetry they’ve got up their sleeve. For cowboy poets, there will also be a Cowboy Poetry contest.

There will be lots of great food too, including a chili cook-off, and on the last day there will be a 90th birthday party for Escapees Club Founder Kay Peterson.

We discovered Escapees RV Club back in 2008 through our love of boondocking when some fellow boondockers outside Death Valley National Park showed us the Days End Directory of boondocking locations and encouraged us to join.

If you are interested in joining, you can call 888-757-2582 or use the link below. If you mention that you heard about Escapees through our website, Roads Less Traveled, they will put a little something in our tip jar. We’ve been recommending Escapees to RVers for years, tip-free, so that is not our motivation at all. We simply believe in the Club and all the work they do to make RVing easier and more fun for everyone.

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RV Boondocking – Tips for Living Off the Grid in an RV

Camping out in nature on beautiful public lands and living off the grid in our RV are the very foundation of our lives today. Other than the weeks we spent transitioning on and off of our sailboat during the years we sailed Mexico’s west coast, we have lived exclusively on solar power and self-contained plumbing in our trailers and sailboat since we started this crazy full-time traveling lifestyle in 2007.

Free camping in an RV in Utah

Enjoying nature out in the boondocks

Since we started in 2007, as of May 2017, we have spent over 3,200 nights living off the grid in our RV and sailboat. We’ve lived within the electrical constraints of a house battery bank and dealt with funky RV and marine toilets that flush into holding tanks.

In the process, we have learned a lot about “dry camping” (or “boondocking” or “wild camping” or “free camping” or “dispersed camping”) as well as “anchoring out.”  And we’ve figured out how to do it comfortably.

Is it fun to live this way, even though there are limits on electricity and water consumption? OMG – yes! We have no plans to return to a life on the grid anytime soon.

Is it hard or primitive? Not at all. We don’t feel we have to compromise any aspect of our lives to live this way.

This page explains the techniques behind we live this very independent and free spirited lifestyle.

For tips on how to find free camping spots, see our page: Boondocking – How to find Free RV Campsites.

This is a long post and you can use the following links to skip further down the page:

1. Electricity Basics
2. How to Conserve Electricity
3. Water Capacity and How to Conserve Water
4. Waste Water Tanks, Propane and Communications
5. Safety

ELECTRICITY BASICS

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Solar Power – The Foundation of RV Boondocking

In order to boondock efficiently, you need to equip your rig to supply its own electrical power for extended periods. A generator is okay if your stay is going to be just a few days or even a week or two once in a while. However, generators require fuel, and it won’t take long to run up a big fuel bill. They are also noisy, they require maintenance, and they insist that you stay home when you operate them. We carry a Yamaha 2400i portable gas generator, but we use it only 5-10 times a year, if that.

00 601 Motorhome with four solar panels on the roog

Solar power makes it easy to life off the grid in comfort.

A solar power system is silent, doesn’t need expensive or messy fuel to run, doesn’t need any kind of maintenance, and works all day long, whether you are out sightseeing or shopping or hiking or at home taking a nap. Solar power is also very affordable, and for the same approximate cost as a similarly sized generator, you can put solar power on your rig.

 

We have lots of pages on this site that explain the components and parts that make up a solar power system. We show you how to design a system to suit your needs, and offer pointers on installation. These pages are all accessible at this link:

Solar Power Articles for RVs and Boats.

For an easy-to-read overview of how to install solar power on an RV, visit this link:

RV Solar Power Made Simple!

Understanding Electricity – Counting Amps

Before we get into the details of how to conserve electricity, it helps to understand just a little about terms like “amps” and “bulk charge state.” This section and the next cover that. You don’t have to know anything about electricity or weird terms like these to conserve and live off the grid. However, I reference them a few times in this post, and I don’t want to lose you, so here are some quickie notes.

  • An “amp” is a measure of electrical current flow
  • An “amp-hour” is one amp of current flowing for one hour
MacBook Pro at the RV window

Picture in a picture on the laptop!

As a reference, here are the approximate amps required to run some common appliances.  For more specific numbers, check your owner’s manual spec sheet for the number of watts an appliance uses and divide by 10 to get the approximate number of amps the batteries will have to deliver to run the appliance.

Some of these appliances fluctuate or turn on and off as they operate, so these numbers are very rough.  Multiply the amps by how many hours you use each item to find out how many amp-hours the batteries will have to provide for them each day:

  • Laptop running => 3 to 6 amps
  • 36″ LED TV => 5 to 7
  • RV furnace blower => 10
  • Coffee maker => 10
  • Microwave (small) => 10

But who wants to do all that math? Here are two more little facts:

  • Most full-time RV off-the-grid households use 80-200 amp-hours per day
  • It is possible to live on much less (we lived on 30 amp-hours per day for a year)

Understanding Batteries – Battery Charging Stages

When living off the grid, it helps to know a little about the stages the batteries go through as they get charged.

Starting with tired, worn out, “discharged” batteries, a solar charge controller (or a generator or a converter or an inverter/charger or an alternator) gets things rolling by putting the batteries into a Bulk charging state. In the Bulk state, the charge controller allows a maximum amount of current to flow into the batteries (from whatever source — from the solar panels, from shore power, from the motorhome engine).

This slowly raises the battery voltage up to 14.4 – 14.8 volts (the amount depends on the type of battery; more sophisticated charge controllers let you program the value, otherwise a default of 14.4 is typical).

Once the batteries reach that voltage, they enter the Absorption charging state, and the charge controller changes its charging strategy. Rather than allowing a maximum amount of current to flow into the batteries, it allows just enough current to flow to keep the batteries at the Absorption voltage for a specified amount of time (usually 3 hours by factory default — again, sometimes programmable).

During this Absorption period, as the voltage is held constant, less and less current needs to flow into the batteries to keep them there while they slowly get charged.

At the end of the specified Absorption time, the charge controller enters the Float charging state. Now it holds the batteries at a lower voltage (13.3 – 13.8 volts, depending on battery type), gradually reducing the amount of current flowing from the panels into the batteries even further. When the batteries are in the “Float” stage, they are considered to have become fully charged.

For more details on battery charging, click here:

RV and MARINE BATTERY CHARGING BASICS

Free camping in Utah

Enjoying the views in Utah

 

HOW TO CONSERVE ELECTRICITY

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If your battery bank and solar power array are big enough, you don’t have to scale back at all in your use of electricity. However, there may be times when you need to conserve a little if you don’t have a generator for backup, or if you don’t want to drag it out and set it up. When a big storm rolls in and darkens the skies for a few days, or in January when the days are short and the sun is low in the sky, you may decide to conserve a bit for a day or two.

Monitor Your Batteries

There are many ways to stay on top of how your batteries are doing, and there are all kinds of price tags for getting this info. At the cheap end, for a few dollars, you can get a simple car battery volt meter that plugs into a cigarette lighter in the coach. We have one of these and it’s a good quick-and-dirty way to see what’s going on. Ours reads a consistent 0.1 volts low, compared to a better quality meter, so we just keep that in mind when we use it.

Outback FlexMax FM60 MPPT Charge Controller Display

Outback FlexMax FM60 MPPT charge controller on our RV
Batteries at 14.5 volts with 28.7 amps going to them.

Another method is to look at the battery voltage being reported on your solar charge controller, if the display shows it.

Our Outback FlexMax FM60 MPPT charge controller in our trailer has a four line LCD display that shows the battery voltage and current going to the batteries from the panels.

Our Xantrex XW-MPPT60-150 charge controller in our boat has a one line display you can scroll through.

The Morningstar TriStar TS-60 solar charge controller doesn’t have an LCD display on it. However, you can purchase an additional display module for it which has 2 lines of text.

Xantrex XW MPPT 60-150 Solar Charge Controller in a sailboat

Our Xantrex XW MPPT60-150 charge controller on our sailboat

Another method is to get a clamp-on current meter. We use ours from Sperry Instruments all the time.

The most elaborate method is to install a dedicated battery monitor in the coach somewhere so you can see what’s going on without making too much effort.

[As a side note, although some folks consider a battery monitor mandatory equipment for boondocking or anchoring out without shore power, we have never installed a battery monitor in any of our rolling or floating homes.]

All of these are valid methods that get you an approximation of what’s going on with your batteries. But none are scientifically “perfect,” because the “real” state of charge of the batteries is not indicated by its current voltage.

Sperry Clamp-on current meter

Checking the DC current flow on our new LED light bulbs.

For instance, when the panels are charging the batteries, they are held at an artificially high voltage of 14.4 to 14.8 volts during the Absorption stage. Even after the sun goes down, if there’s nothing using electricity in the motorhome or trailer, they have a “surface charge” that keeps them at an elevated voltage. Likewise, at night, when the TV is blaring, the computers are going and a bunch of lights are on, the voltage will be drawn down artificially low because of the temporary load from all these appliances.

If you really care about the exact status of the batteries, and you have wet cell batteries, monitor them with a battery hydrometer.

But scientific precision doesn’t really matter. You just need to know if you’re okay or not.

We simply check the batteries in the morning before the solar panels start raising the voltage. If they are on the low side (12.2 – 12.3 volts or less), then we check again in the afternoon to see if they are in the Float stage.

If they are really low in the morning and clouds are predicted, or if they don’t reach the Float stage for a few days in a row, then we think about using the generator to get them fully charged up again.

Can a Generator Work with Solar?

Utah camping in an RV

A summer storm rolls in

We have used solar power in conjunction with both our generator and our boat’s engine 100 amp alternator, and in both cases, the two charging systems worked fine together and shared the load.

On our boat, we used our clamp-on current meter to measure the current going from both the solar charge controller to the batteries and from the alternator to the batteries. As soon as we turned on the engine, the current from the solar charge controller dropped from 20 amps to 6, while the current from the alternator jumped from 0 amps to 14. So a total of 20 amps was still going to the batteries, but the solar system backed off and let the alternator do the lion’s share of the work.

Similarly, on our trailer we have seen the generator and solar panels trade off the load as heavy clouds came and went..

Bottom line: They work it out between themselves.

For a detailed explanation of how a solar charge controller works in conjunction with shore power, see this link:

Solar Power and Shore Power Combined – What Happens?

Pick the Best Time to give the Solar Panels a Generator Boost

When the solar panels aren’t quite keeping up with their task of charging the batteries, you’ll have to use a generator to get the batteries back into a fully charged state (or go to an RV park or campground to plug in). You can run the generator at any time, but if you are looking to run it as little as possible, running it in the morning is best.

Why? Because first thing in the morning the sun is very low in the sky, greatly limiting the panels’ ability to produce power. So, even though the charge controller puts the batteries in a Bulk charge state at dawn, the panels just can’t deliver.

A generator, however, can. It will produce maximum current flow to the batteries as soon as it is plugged in. In our case, we’ll see 20 amps going from the generator to the batteries at sunrise. After a little while, sun will be higher in the sky and the solar panels can take over and bring the batteries all the way through the Absorption stage to the Float stage by afternoon.

If you wait to use the generator until the end of the day, however, the batteries will already be fairly well charged from the panels working all day. When you turn on the generator, it will quickly switch from the Bulk stage to the Absorption stage and begin reducing the amount of current it puts into the batteries.

In our case, it will drop from 20 amps to 10 or less in about 5 minutes, and it will then slowly drop (and “trickle charge”) for hours as it wraps up the Absorption stage and goes into Float.

RV camping in Utah

Beautiful afternoon light

To make this clearer, say the ticket to getting the batteries fully charged on a given day is about 20 amp-hours.

If you run the genny at dawn, they’ll get that in an hour. If you run it in the evening, it may take two or three hours. That’s wasted fuel — not a huge amount, but it’s still wasted.

How do you know you need another 20 amp-hours to get to full charge? It doesn’t take long to get a feel for what your daily consumption is. On the days the batteries reach full charge, you’ll see how much the solar panels delivered for the day. Then you’ll be able to compare one day to the next as you use your favorite appliances more or less.

We have an entire series of articles that covers every aspect of BATTERIES and BATTERY CHARGING:

Replace incandescent and halogen bulbs with LED bulbs or fluorescent lights

New rigs are being built with LED lighting, however in older rigs, it is helpful to swap out the most frequently used bulbs for modern, efficient ones. Both fluorescent and LED lights are energy efficient. Fluorescent lights are cheap. LED bulbs can run from $6 to $18 apiece, so pick and choose which ones to replace.

Fluorescent overhead light in a fifth wheel RV

We use our fluorescent lights overhead lights the most.

Our 2007 Hitchhiker fifth wheel came with three very large fluorescent lights in our kitchen and living area, so we did not replace any incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs for the first six years we owned it. We boondocked all that time with no problem.

We did replace a few 120 volt AC sconce bulbs with LED bulbs early on, but the light was so dim and cold that we ended up never using those lights!

The technology has come a very long way since then, however, and we recently swapped out those old LED sconce bulbs for new ones that cast a wonderful warm light. Now we use those sconce lights a lot for soft evening lighting!

So, think about which lights you want to use and where it makes sense to spend money on LED bulbs. There’s no no need to drain your bank account replacing every bulb in your RV with LEDs!
.

Choosing the Right LED Bulb

There are a gazillion LED lightbulbs on the market, and it is dizzying to figure out what to buy. In the end, there are just 3 things to consider:

LED lights

Different types of 12v LED bulbs

1. The style and base of the bulb
2. The brightness
3. The color (warmth or coolness)

A great resource for buying LED lights is superbrightleds.com, but you may be happiest buying from a place where you can take your old bulbs in for comparison and keep trying different bulbs until you get the exact kind of lighting in your RV that you want.

Bulb Base Type and Shape

120 volt AC bulbs have either a standard screw on base or a narrow one like you find in chandelier and sconce bulbs.

12 volt DC bulbs come in more shapes and sizes. There may be two long prongs, or a bayonet mount with two nubs sticking out of a cylindrical base, or there may be a “wedge” base.  Most incandescent DC bulbs have a number on them, and you look for an equivalent replacement LED bulb that references that number.

Besides the base, the other consideration is the overall shape of the bulb. If the light fixture casts light 360 degrees around it, then a cylindrical shape is good. If it is an overhead light that only casts light downwards, then a flat panel with LED pads only on one side makes more sense.

Brightness

Historically, light bulbs have been rated in terms of watts, and we all have a “feel” for what kind of light a 25 watt, 40 watt or 60 watt bulb produces. LED bulbs are rated in terms of lumens, which is a measure of brightness. Where it gets confusing is that both incadescent bulbs and LED bulbs require a certain amount of watts (power) to run. The difference is that incandescent bulbs require many more watts than LED bulbs for the same degree of brightness.

So, for a given amount of brightness (lumens) how many watts does an LED bulb require versus an incandescent bulb? We haven’t found a strict mathematical relationship given anywhere.

Ceiling Fan LED Lightbulbs

We put LED bulbs in our AC (120v) ceiling fan.

The Department of Energy has a Lumens and Lighting Fact Sheet that shows:

Incandescent -> LED
60 watts -> 800 lumens
40 watts -> 450 lumens

Manufacturers put widely varying claims on their packaging about incandescent bulb watts and their own LED bulb equivalent. But all that really matters in an RV is how much light you get per amp of drain on the batteries.

In terms of brightness, we have found:

  • A single 300-350 lumen bulb is “mood lighting” or “accent lighting”
  • A pair of 300-350 lumens bulbs generates enough to “see well”
  • A total of 800 lumens or more is what we want for bright overhead lighting.
Double 12 volt light fixture

For overhead lighting, two 400+ lumen LED bulbs (or one 800 lumen bulb) works well
in this fixture.

We measured the amps used by both the DC and AC LED bulbs we have installed in our trailer. The very rough relationship we found between lumens and amps turned out to be:

It takes ~1 amp DC to get ~1000 lumens of light

So, a 300 lumen bulb will use roughly 0.3 amps DC, and a pair of bulbs totaling 700 lumens will use approximately 0.7 amps DC.

Color (Warmth)

Perhaps the most important factor with LED bulbs is the color, or warmth, of the light they produce. There is nothing worse than that harsh blue-white light so many LED bulbs generate.

The warmth is is given in degrees Kelvin. Higher numbers are cooler. We’ve found the following:

  • 2700-3200K is a good number for a bulb that will match the warmth, or yellowness, of an incandescent bulb
  • 4,000 is just a little too white for our personal taste (although we have a few)
  • >4,500 starts getting into the glaring blue-white range

Use LED Rope Lights

Another fun lighting idea is to use LED rope lights. A bright white variety can be strung across the ceiling for overhead lighting. A warm white variety can be strung behind the crown molding on the slide-outs to create indirect mood lighting (great for watching TV).

More Mood Lighting Ideas that don’t use the House Batteries

There are several ways to get wonderfully romantic mood lighting at night. During our first year of minimal solar power in our travel trailer, we relied on hurricane oil lamps at night. We hung them from the slide-out trim molding using long decorative s-hooks. I loved those!

A sailing friend of ours introduced us to an even better idea using LED Pillar Candles that are flame free. These are made of wax and they flicker, so they look and feel like a real candle.  She places them in teak drink holders that gave her boat’s cabin a fantastically nautical flare.  I’ve used mine every night in our boat and trailer for five years! The batteries in them last about two years.

I place them on the tops of our window valences and carry them around. If one of us goes to bed before the other, we leave this flameless LED candle flickering in the bedroom to make it easier for the other person to find their way into bed without tripping in the dark! They also work really nicely as background lighting when we’re watching TV/videos or are on our computers at night.

Use lights only where you need them

The more lights you have running, the more juice you’re using. The pesky ones are the ones in places you can’t see. Make sure you turn off the lights in the basement areas and closets. We’ve accidentally left lights on overnight. It’s not a big deal, but it is wasted electricity!

Operate laptops on their own battery power. Charge them when not in use.

We each have a 13″ Macbook Pro laptop that uses about 1.6 amps when turned off and charging. However, these laptops use anywhere from 3 to 8 amps apiece when they are turned on and running, depending on what applications we are using and whether we are accessing large, powered external hard drives.

Laptop

Run laptops on their own batteries.

They average about 5 amps or so when in use, and they can run for 3-5 hours on battery power before they need to be charged up again.

It takes the same length of time to charge up the laptops whether they are closed and turned off or turned on and actively in use. So, it is more energy efficient to charge them when they are turned off and to run them on their own batteries.

For instance: if one laptop runs on battery power for 3 hours and is charged later, it uses a total of 4.8 amp-hours for that 3 hours of use (3 hours x 1.6 amps).

However, if it is plugged in for 3 hours as we use it, it gobbles up around 15 amp-hours (3 hours x 5 amps)!

Multiply that computer activity by two people using their laptops for 3 hours, and the consumption can be as low as 10 amp-hours if we’re conservative, or 30 amp-hours if we’re not. That’s a huge difference!

Make coffee manually

Making coffee by hand with a Melitta coffee filter

Great coffee without a coffee maker.
(Mug: “Home is where the Heart is!”)

Rather than using an electric coffee maker, which can draw 10 amps or more, we use a plastic Melitta coffee filter with cone filter inserts to brew coffee. Coffee aficionados actually consider this method to be the best way to make coffee!

The overall process is similar to a coffee maker, but you manually pour near-boiling water over the grounds to make drip coffee rather than relying on a machine to do the work for you. There is no mess, and it is very easy and quick.

If you are patient, the best method is to moisten the grounds with the hot water first, and let them soak up the water for a minute. Then pour the rest of the water over the grounds slowly. A lot of times, though, I’m not that patient, and I just pour and go!

Mark doesn’t drink coffee, so I use a single-cup Melitta coffee filter (and paper cone insert) to pour my own drip coffee, one fresh cup at a time.

A bigger version of this filter (and cone inserts) is perfect for brewing two cups of coffee at once.

Another non-electric alternative is a French Press. This method has the advantage of preserving the bean oils in the coffee. The only difficulty in the RV lifestyle is that you have to dispose of the grounds before washing the French press so they don’t go down the drain. It can be a challenge to get all those tiny grounds out with limited water. I used a French press when I lived on a boat at a dock in New England years ago, and it was easy to rinse out the grounds over the side of the boat in the ocean (brrrrr in January!). But that’s not possible in an RV. I find it’s much easier to lift out the paper cone filter and toss it.

Keep the volume down on the TV/DVD and stereo

We don’t watch much TV, but we’ve found that the volume makes a huge difference in the amount of current it draws. We measured a difference of 1.5-2.0 amps on a 19″ LCD TV if we turned the volume way up. A TV attached to a large sub-woofer and a four speaker surround-sound system is going to have an even bigger difference at high versus low volume.

Free camping on the beach in Floria

Life’s a Beach in Florida

Of course, you’ve gotta be happy too, and watching an action flick at low volume just doesn’t cut it. That’s where more batteries and more solar power makes life better.

Use small inverters, and charge more than one item when you turn an inverter on

150 watt inverter

150 watt portable inverter

Inverters convert 12 volt DC power (battery power) to 120 volt AC power (like the power in a house). They come in all sizes. Most RV boondockers have one big inverter that supplies power to all the AC outlets in the rig. We also have a few small portable inverters.

All inverters use battery power just to run. This is noted as the “no load draw” on the specs. A few examples of small portable inverters we’ve measured:

Our Exeltech XP 1100 watt pure sine wave inverter that powers all our AC outlets in our RV uses 2 amps to run!

Some of the larger pure sine wave inverters, like the Exeltech XP 2000 and Xantrex ProWatt 2000 have a “no load” draw of less than an amp. This must be due to an increased efficiency in the design of the larger size inverters. Check your specs!

As long as any inverter is on, you might as well make the most of it and charge everything up at once, from toothbrushes to power tools to cameras and phones, so you don’t have to keep it turned on for as long.

For an amusing tale of inverter use gone awry, check out our post, How Much Inverter Is Enough?

Charge laptops and other devices in the car or truck when you do errands

If you really want to conserve, another option is to plug a cheap, small inverter into the cigarette lighter of your car or truck and to charge everything up as you drive around town doing errands or going on sightseeing excursions.

We don’t do this any more, because we don’t have to be that frugal with our electricity, but during our first year in our travel trailer we had a small solar power system — 130 watts of solar power and 220 amp-hours of battery capacity — and we frequently chauffeured our electronic devices around town as we did errands so they could get charged up! (See our page RV Solar Power Made Simple to learn more about the solar power installations we have done on our RVs).

 

WATER CAPACITY and HOW TO CONSERVE WATER

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Holding Tank Capacities

Larger rigs can carry bigger holding tanks, making boondocking easier. Our fifth wheel trailer’s tank capacities are the following:

Holding tanks in a 5th wheel RV frame

Holding tanks in a 5th wheel frame at the factory.

Fresh Water: 70 gallons of water, including the 10 gallon hot water heater
Gray Water: 78 gallons
Black Water: 50 gallons

Plus:

4 6-gallon jugs of fresh water in the bed of the truck.
10 1-gallon bottles of filtered drinking water under the kitchen sink.

This gives us a total of 106 gallons of fresh water capacity.

How Much Do You Have To Conserve Your Water?

The thing to keep in mind with water conservation is that you can be as conservative or wasteful as you want, depending entirely on when you next plan to dump/refill. The day before a dump/refill run is a great time to take a long shower. If we arrive somewhere and stay for two days days and then decide to leave (and dump/refill) in two more days, we no longer need to conserve. Bring on the long showers and truck washing project! We typically dump/refill about once every 7-10 days, but we’ve been known to do it after just 2 or 3 days too.

Driving – Tanks Full or Empty?

Camping in an RV in Utah

We love camping in the red rocks.

We like to arrive at a new location with everything ready to go so we can enjoy our stay and not have to look for water right away.

When we leave a place, we dump the waste water tanks and fill the fresh water tanks. We do all our towing to new locations with full fresh water tanks and empty waste tanks.

At 8.3 lbs per gallon, that is about 900 lbs of water — quite a drag on our gas mileage! But that is one of the trade-offs we are happy to make, as it means we can always begin enjoying our new location without worrying about the status of the tanks.

Topping off the Water Tanks

If we stay in one spot for a while, we top off the fresh water tanks using the 6-gallon jerry jugs. We keep a drinking water hose in the back seat of the pickup so we can refill our water jugs any time we find a spigot, if we need to. We refill our fresh water tanks whenever we go to an RV dump station, which is usually once every 3 days to 3 weeks (we don’t drink the water from our fresh water holding tanks).

Pouring water into the RV

Adding water to the trailer is a good upper body workout!

We used the Reliance water bottles for years. Other water jerry jugs are made by Igloo and Scepter.

We replaced these bottles every other year because they deteriorated from the sun’s UV rays as they sat in the bed of the truck. The plastic seams would split.

In February, 2016, we switched to Reliance Rhino 5.5 gallon Bottles. The spout is the same, but the plastic on the body is thicker, so they are much more rugged and should last longer. They have a better air hole for breathing as they pour, and they lock together when standing side by side.

Some people get a huge 55-gallon water tank (or even larger) that they keep in the bed of the pickup. They use a12 volt water pump to pump the water from the tank to the fresh water intake on the trailer.

The positioning of the fresh water intake on your rig may make it impossible to pour jugs of water into the tanks, so the water pump system may be the best option in that case. For us, so far we don’t mind getting a bit of an upper body workout using our individual water jugs and manual pouring system!

Drinking Water

We fill our 1-gallon drinking water bottles at reverse-osmosis water kiosks or water stores. These are usually found outside supermarkets, and the cost is typically 15 to 40 cents a gallon. When we are in areas that don’t have these filtered water stations, we use an inline water filter to filter the water at a regular water spigot.

Deset camping in an RV

Reverse osmosis water has been stripped of the trace minerals that drinking water usually contains. We often add trace minerals to our 1 gallon water jugs of drinking water to put those minerals back into the water to be healthy.

Some people drink the water from their fresh water holding tanks. They may install a water filtration system on the kitchen faucet, and/or use either an inline filter or larger water filter (with cartridges) to filter all the water they put into the trailer’s holding tanks from wherever they get their water (RV dump station, RV park, or city park water spigot).

For a few years we carried two 7-gallon plastic water jugs to carry filtered drinking water in the bed of the truck. Eventually we stopped using that method, as it was easier just to load up the individual gallon jugs we keep under the kitchen sink.

Water Usage – Conserving Water

We use a total of about 9-11 gallons of water a day. The rough breakdown is:

  • Drinking water: 1-2 gallons (I cook with it too)
  • Showers: 4-5 gallons
  • Washing dishes: 2-3 gallons
  • Bathroom vanity: 1 gallon
  • Toilet: 1 gallon
Rinsing dishes with low water flow while dry camping

Wash dishes in a thin stream of water!

Some folks are concerned that flushing the toilet wastes a lot of water, and some even install a composting toilet to save water. We find that our toilet uses too small a percentage of our fresh water capacity (~10%) to warrant such a big expense and installation project. Here are a few more things to consider when installing a composting toilet in an RV.

Our biggest trick to conserving water is not to run the faucets at full blast and not to leave them running unless we are actively using the water.

Washing Dishes

Rather than filling the whole sink with water, fill a bowl or small washtub with water. Make sure the dish detergent is well mixed with the water so no soapy residue is left on the dishes that requires a lot of water to rinse off. Use just a fine trickle of water to rinse.

We often leave a little sudsy water in the sink so we can wash our hands easily later in the day without turning on the faucet, except to rinse.

13-03-27

If you think showering in an RV is tough, try Showering on a Boat…

Showering

This may sound silly, but if you’re wondering how to live for years on 2 gallon showers, here’s what we do:

Since the water comes out cold at first, start by washing your feet and lower legs which can handle the cold. If you and your spouse can shower back to back, the second person gets warm water right away. Then go from the top down, shampooing first. Use the button on the shower wand to turn off the water when you lather up.

Again, like the other faucets. we keep the water pressure low in the shower. We can hear the surges of the water pump as it cycles on and off, and that gives us a sense of how much water we’re using. If the water pump starts going non-stop, then we know we’re using water up too quickly.

There are special shower wands that claim to use less water because they infuse the water with air. We tried one and found that it didn’t work well at the low water pressures we use, so it actually forced us to use more water for showering than we usually do.

Friends of ours who use hookups all the time love that shower wand, so we gave it to them. We use the simple shower wand that came with the rig because it has a nice flow that works well at low pressure.

If you need a laugh, check out our post on what it’s like to shower on a sailboat at sea!!

Washing the Rig

Just like learning to shower in 2 gallons of water, we’ve learned to wash the truck and trailer in about 10 gallons each. We go into a little detail about that in this post: How to wash your RV in the boondocks.

For a giggle, check out this post: What To Do in the Rain While Boondocking? Wash the Rig!

Washing your RV while boondocking

Chores in the boonies! See our posts: How to Wash your RV in the Boondocks and Wash with Rain Water!

 

WASTE WATER TANK MANAGEMENT

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If you are dry camping continuously, without going to an RV park in between that has sewer hookups, then you’ll need to empty the holding tanks at an RV dump station. There are RV dump stations in many different kinds of places: state and regional parks, rest areas, truck stops, gas stations and RV parks. Some are free, some cost anywhere from $5 to $10. We find RV dump stations using sanidumps.com and rvdumps.com.

To learn our secrets for easy and painless RV dumping, click on this link RV Dump Station Procedures and Waste Tank Tips. For hints on what the Wifey can do while the Hubby is fighting with the sewer hose, see our post: What’s A Girl To Do at the RV Dump Stataion?

Many people ask us about composting toilets. Here are our thoughts about whether you should install a composting toilet in your RV.

 

PROPANE

Many things in an RV run on propane, although it varies a lot from rig to rig. The more you boondock, the more you will appreciate the appliances that run on propane, because if those appliances ran on electricity, you would burn through your battery capacity far faster than you could replenish it with solar power.

Electric refrigerators are the most challenging culprits, because they have to run 24/7. We had an electric fridge on our boat, and at just 3.75 cubic feet, it consumed as much as half of our solar charging capacity each day.

Propane appliances in a 5th wheel trailer RV

Propane appliances: fridge, stove/oven & vent-free heater.
RV furnace and hot water heater not shown!

The propane appliances in our rig are:

  • Refrigerator
  • Hot water heater
  • Stove/oven
  • RV furnace
  • Vent-free propane heater

Our fifth wheel has two 7 gallon (30 lb.) propane tanks that are connected to each other with a valve that automatically switches from one tank to the other when one tank is empty. This way the fridge doesn’t quit working whenever a propane tank is empty. We monitor the tanks each day, so we see when one tank is empty and needs to be filled.

We generally find that in the summertime we have to refill one of the propane tanks every three weeks. In the coldest part of winter, we have to refill a tank once every 7-10 days.

Install a Vent-Free Propane Heater

Long-term boondockers usually install some kind of vent-free propane heater because they use propane so much more efficiently than a conventional RV furnace. For more information, visit the page: Vent-Free Propane Heater Installation.

Insulate the Hot Water Heater

Cover the hot water heater with insulation and wrap all the hot water pipes with pipe foam (wherever you can reach). This helps keep the water in the hot water tank warmer for longer.

Turn on the hot water heater only once a day

Heat up the water in the hot water tank right before you shower. Depending on how hot you like your water, you can turn the hot water heater off before it turns off on its own. We shower in the afternoon which gives us hot water for washing the dinner dishes. When the overnight lows stay above about 40 degrees, we still have warm water in the morning for breakfast dishes.

Heat Water on the Stove

If you need to heat water just to wash dishes, rather than heating the whole hot water tank, put a quart or half gallon of water on the stove and heat it for a minute until it’s the right temperature for you. If you use the hot water faucet to fill the pot and there is still warm water in the hot water tank, doing this will skim off the cold water that was in the RVs pipes. You’ll then have warm water from the tank to rinse the dishes without having to let it run first.

When cooking, put a lid on the pot. Things cook faster when covered. Of course if the recipe says to simmer uncovered, it’s more important to put food on the table that’s cooked right than to mess it up just to save some propane!

 

COMMUNICATIONS – INTERNET and PHONE ACCESS

There are many techniques for maintaining contact via internet and phone when you are out in the boonies. For more info, visit our page: RV Communications – internet and phone access on the road.

 

SAFETY

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Camping on your own without the company of other RVers or a camp host may seem like it might be fraught with danger. From theft to bears, questions about the safety of boondocking are among the most frequent queries we receive.

5th wheel RV camping in Arizona

I dunno, does this look safe to you?

Crime

People in this world are nicer than they get credit for, and we have not had any bad encounters.

That being said, we weren’t born yesterday, and we are cautious. For starters, we travel to places that are not crime-ridden, and we seek out places to stay overnight that feel safe. We follow our hunches, and if a place doesn’t have a good vibe, we don’t stay.

Once we set up camp, we pay attention to our surroundings. Mark, in particular, is very attuned to the goings-on around us, and he is quick to notice a car that has driven by twice or to recognize a person that he saw in the area three days ago.

Theft

Everything in the bed of our truck is locked to the truck with a cable lock. The bikes are covered and locked to the bike rack on our trailer. The bike rack itself is locked to the trailer as well. (Learn more about our bike rack here).

King pin hitch lock

A king pin lock prevents the trailer from being stolen.

We also use a king pin lock so no one can tow the trailer away while we’re gone.

When we leave our campsite, if we have the barbecue out, we lock it to a fifth wheel leg with a cable lock. The bikes are covered and locked to the bike rack. If we need to use the generator in an area where there are other people around, we lock it to a fifth wheel landing leg with a cable lock.

However, if we are out on our own with no one around, which is usually the case, we are much more relaxed about these things.

 

Guns

We have not been trained to use firearms instinctively against people, so we don’t carry a gun. We’ve never felt remotely threatened by anything. Most people we meet are very friendly.

RV Camping in Arizona

Bears

We have camped in bear country quite a bit, but we have never seen or heard a bear while boondocking. In general, if you keep your campsite clean (no tempting food scraps lying around), bears will leave you alone.

The Good Stuff

We find that living off the grid — boondocking and free camping in our RV — is the most fulfilling, beautiful and satisfying lifestyle we have ever tried.

Rather than being frightened in our rig, we have been enchanted.

We have been woken up in the middle of the night by the sounds of elks bugling as they ran past, by coyotes howling, owls hooting, wild horses whinnying, cattle mooing, and on our boat, by whales singing.

To us, that is the beauty of living out in nature, and that is why we choose to live this way.

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Boondocking (“free camping”) – How to find free RV campsites

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.

RV boondocking with a fifth wheel trailer in Wyoming

Boondocking in Wyoming

RV boondocking camping in a trailer in Idaho

Boondocking in Idaho

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.

RV boondocking in Montana

At the end of a rainbow in Montana

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 in 2007, and as of May, 2017, we have boondocked in our RV for a total of over 2,400 nights.

PUBLIC LAND

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
Fifth wheel trailer camping in Oregon

Sunset in Oregon

Note added May, 2017: A reader recently emailed me to express her distress that when I discussed “our” public land, I referred to it as “their” land, meaning land “belonging to” the federal agencies that manage it (USFS, BLM, etc.). For anyone that is puzzled or put off by this reference, please read my post Copper Mining, Not Camping, In Tonto National Forest which explains in detail one way (of many) in which these land management agencies control the public land that we, the people, always thought was “ours” and that many Ameriacns mistakenly believe they have personal rights to. It takes just a few hours for any land management agency to erect a permanent “Road Closed” sign on any tract of public land to keep the public out — indefinitely — until the road grows over with weeds and fades into oblivion. We’ve seen it happen many times.

Some ranger districts within these public land 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.

Camping in a fifth wheel RV in utah

Lakeside in Utah

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)

RV boondocking dispersed camping in Arizona

Arizona

This means places like Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, etc., are off limits to 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.

 

If you are interested in boondocking, or simply camping in National Forest and BLM campgrounds, it is important to be aware that America’s public land management is changing rapidly. Camping sites are closing, “Road Closed” signs are going up, and public land is being sold off to private entities at an alarming rate. Why?

There is currently an enormous push by America’s leaders to change the country’s public land management from federal control to state control.

The eventual effect of this change will likely be that much, if not most, of the public land in America will no longer be accessible to the public. Why? It is predicted that the states will not have the funds to afford basic land management, like wildfire control, road maintenance, etc., so they will sell off the land to private (likely foreign) corporations who want to extract the natural resources.

In every western state, we’ve seen both recently closed campgrounds and dispersed camping areas on public land.

We are not hunters or fishermen, but conflict makes for strange bedfellows. Hunters and anglers are much better organized around this issue than RVers, and they are gathering resources to stop this tragic change.

Have a look at this website and mull it over: SportsmensAccess.org

If the spirit moves you, sign their petition.

Shocking public land changes we have seen in our years of RVing full-time are described in these two blog posts:

If all this sounds too weird to be true, here is an article from a mainstream magazine that discusses it as well:

BOONDOCKING ETIQUETTE

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.

View from RV window in Utah

View from our window in Utah

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.

So the first thing we do when we set up camp anywhere (both on public land AND in commercial parking lots) is to grab a grocery bag and fill it with whatever trash is strewn around our rig. There is ALWAYS some! I usually throw on a pair of rubber gloves.

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.

boondocking with a fifth wheel trailer in Idaho

Camping under a big open sky in Idaho

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.

RV camping in the Oregon woods

Tucked into the woods in Oregon

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:

Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming

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.

Camping under a rainbow in Wyoming

A rainbow crosses the sky in Wyoming

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.

Camping in an RV in Arizona

Full moon at dusk in Arizona

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.

Overnight at a scenic lookou at Washington Pass in the North Cascades

One of our earliest boondocking experiences in Washington

If the person reporting the site is traveling in a van, or in a car with a tent, or small RV, 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.

Boondocking locations are being closed all the time.

As communities grow in areas next to tracts of public land, residents don’t want to look out their windows to see RVs camping, and they get the public land management agencies to close the sites. Nearby RV parks and other fee based campgrounds also don’t like the competition from free campsites nearby, so they campaign to close dispersed camping sites to encourage RVers to stay in their campgrounds instead.

Also, the public land management agencies close roads to former boondocking sites every day for various reasons, frequently converting them to “Day Use Only.” All it takes to eliminate a stunning dispersed camping location is a “Road Closed” or “No Camping” sign on the road leading to it. These are becoming more and more common on America’s public lands. Many places we stayed early in our travels are now off limits.

PARKING OVERNIGHT AT COMMERCIAL PARKING LOTS, TRUCK STOPS and CASINOS

RV camping in the boondocks in Oregon

Exotic skies in Oregon

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.

5th wheel trailer Boondocking in Colorado

Surrounded by gold in Colorado

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?

Years ago, when we first started full-timing, we stayed at a casino that was very popular among snowbird RVers migrating down I-15 to Arizona for the winter.

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.

Free camping with a fifth wheel trailer in Wyoming

Camping on a lake in Wyoming

“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!

Fifth wheel trailer RV boondocking in Arizona

Camping amid the cactus in Arizona

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!

Camping by a brook in Idaho

Our own private Idaho

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.

ASK AROUND

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.

RV boondocking in Arizona

Beach camping in Arizona

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.

RV camping and boondocking in Arizona

Red rock camping in Utah

WHY DON’T WE SHARE OUR BOONDOCKING LOCATIONS?

Many people ask us why we don’t give directions to the boondocking locations we find. Very simply, boondocking is all about adventure — not knowing what might lie around the corner or where you might sleep tonight. We don’t want to spoil that adventure for you!

More importantly, the essence of boondocking is being able to experience true independence, freedom and self-reliance, things that are rare in today’s world.

One of the greatest thrills of boondocking is suddenly coming across a campsite that is ideal for you, somewhere you would just LOVE to stay for a few days. If you simply drive to the GPS coordinates somebody else has given you, you are missing out on the most exciting aspects of boondocking: exploration and discovery.

Our boondocking locations work well for us, but they might not work for you. Our trailer is well pin-striped along its sides from scraping against tree branches when we’ve squeezed down a narrow road, and our truck already has a dent in the side from a tree branch falling on it.

We are willing to commute as much as 50 miles between our campsite and the areas where we sightsee. So, many of the stunning photos of our rig on this blog are not anywhere near the areas we were visiting at the time.

We also spend many hours each week searching for good campsites by driving our truck or riding our bikes down tiny dirt roads to see what’s there. This is an integral part of our daily lives and is not only a fundamental part of our travels but is something we really enjoy doing.

For those that are willing to make this kind of effort, all of the beautiful places you see in this blog are waiting for you to find. Relish the search — we do!

When we cruised in our sailboat, a popular cruising guide had just been published. It gave the GPS coordinates where the authors had anchored in 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.

RV boondocking in a 5th wheel trailer

A classic sunset

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 knowing 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 largely because the various federal agencies are having their budgets cut and it’s 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.

Articles on this website will help you put solar power on your rig, and learn how to live off the grid with limited water and power, and how to stay warm in winter with a non-electric heater and how to stay cool in summer without hookups for air conditioning.

However, going out and having a thrilling adventure of your own is an exercise we leave up to the reader!!

Public Land Agencies and Bureaus

  • US Forest Service – The USFS manages America’s many National Forests under the Department of Agriculture
  • Bureau of Land Management – The BLM manages vast tracts of land, mostly in the west, under the Department of the Interior
  • 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, under the Department of the Interior

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RV Heater – How to Install a Vent-Free Propane Heater in Your RV

Installing a vent-free propane heater is one of the best upgrades you can do for your RV if you plan to be spending a lot of time in chilly places. This page reviews how ventless propane heaters operate in comparison to traditional RV furnaces, it discusses the different technologies used in the design of various types of vent-free gas heaters on the market today — including catalytic heaters, ceramic brick and plaque heaters, and blue flame heaters — and it presents a step-by-step guide for installing a vent-free propane heater in your RV or camper.

You can jump to the various sections of this page here:

 

This post was first written in January, 2009, but was completely overhauled and rewritten in October, 2014.

INTRODUCTION

 

Warming my hands over a vent-free blue flame propane heater in my 5th wheel camper RV

Happiness is… a vent-free propane heater!

We froze in our trailer during our first winter in Arizona. Morning temperatures in the kitchen were often 40+ degrees F, and although daytime temps could get as high as 70, as soon as evening came, the temps in our trailer dropped into the the 50’s.

Brrr! It’s hard to sit around in the evening in those kinds of temperatures. All modern motorhomes and campers (ours included) come equipped with a propane furnace. However, these loud, inefficient beasts use a lot of electricity, and can drain the batteries in one night.

During that first winter (2007-08) in our 27′ Fleetwood Travel Trailer, we discovered that the more experienced winter desert boondockers (both snowbird RVers and those living the full-time RV lifestyle) installed vent-free propane heaters in their rigs. These are wonderful little appliances that use far less propane than a furnace and no electricity at all. When we upgraded to our 36′ Hitchhiker 34.5 RLTG fifth wheel in May, 2008, we decided we would install one. All summer long we thought about the project, but never found ourselves in a town where there was a good selection of heaters to look at or anyone knowledgeable about installing them in RVs. So we dawdled.

As the nights got colder in late November, 2008, and we relied more and more on our trailer’s electricity-eating furnace, we found ourselves in the warm company of our good friends Bob and Donna Lea Jensen and their vent-free, electricity-free propane heater. Bob has installed quite a few of these little devils over the years, and he gave us some hints and loaned us two critical tools for the project: a pipe cutter and a flaring tool. We learned a lot through this process, and I thought it might be helpful, along with our other RV tips and tricks pages to include some notes here about our project.

There are several types of vent-free heaters on the market, and each has its pros and cons. In the end, we opted to buy a 20,000 BTU thermostatically controlled blue flame heater made by Vanguard. The night before the installation we laughed as we bundled ourselves into our recliners wearing multiple layers, buried under blankets for the last time. Mark’s face peaked out from under his hood as he read. The night after the installation, in shorts and t-shirt, I had to poke my nose out the window to get some cool air. In our excitement, we had inadvertently heated the bedroom to 85 degrees.

We have used and loved this heater year-round ever since, running it near sea-level in the southern states in the winter months and using in the cool mountains during the summer months!

 

COMPARISON OF RV FURNACES AND VENT-FREE HEATERS

RV PROPANE FURNACES

Propane uses oxygen as it burns and gives off moisture as a by-product. Therefore it has the potential to use up all the oxygen in an enclosed space and kill any living, breathing occupants while creating a layer of condensation on the insides of windows. Yikes! To accommodate these unpleasant aspects of propane heating, conventional RV propane furnaces use a large blower system to bring in outside, oxygen-rich air. In turn, they vent the moist, oxygen-depleted air from inside the rig to the outside. Circulating the air this way keeps the oxygen level in the air fairly constant and significantly reduces the build-up of condensation on the insides of the windows, as the moisture gets blown outside along with the exhausted air.

Atwood RV furnace
However, by blowing all this warm air outside, the furnace is effectively heating the outdoors. If you stand outside an RV next to the furnace vent on a really cold day, you can warm your hands and body quite nicely. Also, this blower requires electricity to run. RV furnaces are DC, so they do not require an inverter or generator in order to operate. However, the amount of power they use is astronomical (our 40,000 BTU furnace uses 11 amps DC). If you are boondocking, or dry camping in the desert as many winter Snowbird RVers do, you are then faced with a choice of either keeping the RV unacceptably cold, or using a generator to keep the batteries charged (even our big solar power installation on the Hitchhiker 5th wheel was not enough to keep up with the furnace blower during the winter).

Besides heating the outside air and running the batteries down, a major disadvantage of a standard RV propane furnaces is that the blower is really loud. There is nothing like being deeply absorbed in a really great movie and listening to some very profound dialog being exchanged in whispers, and having the furnace suddenly roar to life and drown out everything being said. Our furnace blower often woke us up out of a sound sleep too.

VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATERS

In contrast, vent-free propane heaters are silent and provide heat without using any battery power. This is because they rely on you to give them fresh air: you have to crack open a window while they run. All US-made vent-free heaters are built with an internal oxygen sensor that shuts off the heater if the oxygen level in the room becomes too depleted. In addition, most RVs come equipped with an LP gas detector that will sound alarms if the oxygen in the air drops too low or if an LP gas leak is detected. You may also need (or choose) to run a small fan to circulate the air. This will use some battery power, but you can decide how much or how little to use the fan.

Living without heat in an RV

Brrr… This was what life was like before we installed our vent-free propane heater!

So, in essence, when using a vent-free heater, you must find a happy balance between several variables. Determine which kind of heater will best suit your needs (see descriptions below), figure out where to place it in the RV, which window(s) to crack open, and how often to run a fan (if at all), and if so, which kind of fan to use (a little DC fan, like one used in a computer, a large AC ceiling fan that will require an inverter or generator to run, or an optional blower fan that can be purchased with the heater).

Heat rises, so in 5th wheel campers the heat tends to gather in the bedroom. Simply close the door to the bedroom, or crack it slightly open to control the movement of the warm air into that space. Likewise, if you use a ceiling fan, you can experiment with running it forward or backward, either to draw air up and move it out along the ceiling or to push the warm air down towards the floor.

Propane has a fixed capacity for providing heat. One gallon of propane contains 92,000 BTUs of potential heat, which means a 40,000 BTU RV furnace running full blast will burn through nearly a gallon of propane every two hours or so. During the coldest periods, it is a real pain in the neck to keep having to refill the propane tanks as you fly through propane trying to heat your rig.

Our Lynx travel trailer came with a 30,000 BTU furnace, and our Hitchhiker 5th wheel came with a 40,000 BTU furnace, both installed at the factory. These were sized appropriately for the square footage of each camper. However, we have found we can easily heat our big fifth wheel to higher temperatures in less time using our 20,000 BTU vent-free propane heater instead of the factory-installed 40k BTU RV furnace. So, a smaller vent-free heater that burns less propane per hour can effectively heat a given space more quickly than a traditional RV furnace that is twice its size.

Because of the inefficiency of RV furnaces in terms of propane use and battery power consumption, when we use the RV furnace alone for heat in 30+ degree F overnight temps and 40+ degree daytime temps, we find we have to keep our trailer at 50 degrees while sleeping at night and at just 60+ degrees during the day. Cold as that sounds, this uses up almost a gallon of propane a day and we can barely keep the batteries topped off using our 490 watts of solar panels alone. Worst of all, living like this is really uncomfortable.

Using our vent-free blue flame heater in the same conditions and burning the same one gallon of propane per day in those conditions, we can easily keep the 5th wheel at 76 degrees all day long. And we use almost no electricity.

To clarify, we have two 30 lb (7 gallon) propane tanks, and when outside highs are in the 50’s and lows are in the 20’s, we go through a tank of propane each week. When outside highs drop below freezing 24/7, we can go through a tank in 3 days.

 

WHICH IS THE BEST TYPE OF VENT-FREE HEATER?

 

When choosing a vent-free propane heater, there are a lot of products on the market. Catalytic and ceramic heaters produce infrared radiant heat which heats objects situated nearby much the same way the sun does. They create a warm, baking sensation on your skin, but if you move away (like moving into the shade outdoors), that sensation goes away. The air in the room warms up over time as the objects in the room warm up.

In contrast, blue flame heaters heat the air, rather than the objects in the room, providing a more even, uniform warmth. Gradually, the objects in the room heat up as the overall temperature of the air in the room rises.

All of these heaters come in different sizes, ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 BTUs, which are good for heating 100 square feet up to 1,000 square feet. Small ones can be hung on the wall, out of the way, while big ones that appear modest-sized in the show room suddenly become monster heat sources that dominate the floor space when you get them home to your RV.

 

CATALYTIC INFRARED RADIANT HEATERS

Olympian Wave-8 Catalytic infrared radiant heater for use in an RV
Catalytic heaters were the original vent-free heaters. The major brand is the Olympian Wave, manufactured by Camco, and their primary models are the Wave-3, Wave-6 and Wave-8 heaters. These provide 3,000, 6,000 and 8,000 BTUs of heat respectively.

Catalytic heaters provide infrared radiant heat by way of a large pad on the surface of the heater. A chemical reaction in the pad causes heat to radiate off the entire pad. If you stand in front of a catalytic heater, your skin will feel a nice baking warmth on it. The closer you sit, the more you will bake. This is a great feeling when you are chilled.

These heaters have been in use for years, and have an enthusiastic following. They are also quite expensive ($300-$430), often as much as double the cost per BTU as the other types of vent-free heaters. They do not have thermostats, just a “high” setting and a “low” setting, so you must manually turn them on and off or to high or low to regulate the temperature in the RV.

If the pad on these heaters becomes dirty, it is possible to replace it for about $100. A friend of ours tried to clean his by vacuuming it, and inadvertently ended up destroying the pad. Because the pads had changed slightly since he bought his unit five years earlier, he could not replace the pad and had to replace the entire heater instead.

You will need a brass elbow fitting from Camco for the installation. You may also want leg stands so the heater can stand on its own two feet and a dust cover to protect the catalytic pads when it is not in use.

 

CERAMIC (BRICK or PLAQUE) INFRARED RADIANT HEATERS

Mr. Heater Ceramic infrared radiant heater for use in an RV
Ceramic infrared heaters are a slightly newer technology that has been warming RVs for quite a few years. The most popular brand on the market is Mr. Heater. Other brands include Kozy World, Empire and ProCom. These are generally offered in one, two, three and five brick configurations providing 5,000, 10,000, 15,000/20,000 and 25,000/30,000 BTUs of heat.

Ceramic heaters provide the same infrared radiant heat as catalytic heaters. Across the front of the heater there are small ceramic “bricks” or “plaques” that heat up to a glowing orange/red color. Like a catalytic heater, standing in front of a brick (or plaque) ceramic heater will toast your toes to your thighs on the front of your legs. The heat from the bricks interacts with your skin and you will feel a wonderful tingly warmth.

These are extremely popular units and can be quite inexpensive ($130-$350). Most can be purchased with or without a thermostat. One big disadvantage is that the area directly in front of the bricks gets hot enough to burn things. Any flammable items that come too close to the bricks could catch on fire. If a cat or dog wanders past and flicks its tail against the bricks, it might get singed. If a toddler sticks its fingers in there, a trip to the hospital might ensue.

 

BLUE FLAME HEATERS

Mr. Heater Blue Flame vent-free propane heater for use in an RV
Blue flame heaters are the newest technology and provide a different kind of heat than the catalytic and ceramic heaters. Rather than radiating heat, blue flame heaters operate via convection (the principal that heat rises), drawing cool air in through vents at the bottom of the heater and emitting warm air out the vents in the top. This is a heating method that is much like central heating in a house. Once the air temperature has risen sufficiently, the objects warm up as well. If you keep your RV at a warm temperature all the time (especially at night), the objects in the room will never get cold.

Blue flame heaters draw cool air in from floor level through a row of vents at the bottom, heat it up, and emit the warm air out of vents at the top, relying on convection (the fact that heat rises) to move this air instead of using a blower. You can warm your hands and body by standing in front of one, but it is more of a warming sensation than a baking one. The area in front of the blue flame is covered by fireproof glass (it’s actually a ceramic material) and it is not burning hot. So, there is no risk of items immediately in front of the heater catching fire. Blue flame heaters are a good idea for people with pets or children.

The most popular brand is Mr. Heater. A few others include Empire Heating Systems and ProCom, the same makers of the ceramic brick heaters. These manufacturers produce both blue flame and brick heaters in the same chassis, so other than the appearance of the bricks or the flame, the unit itself has the same look whether it is the brick or blue flame version. The typical BTU range on these heaters is 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000.

Blue flame heaters are as popular as the brick ceramic heaters, and are in the same price range of about $130-$350. They can also be purchased with or without a thermostat.

BLUE FLAME FIREPLACES !!

Pleasant Hearth Vent-Free Propane Fireplace 35 inch

.

There are some wonderful blue flame heaters that are designed to look like fireplaces, complete with logs, trim and beautiful wooden mantels. Manufacturers include Pleasant Hearth and ProCom.

These cost about $200-$300 more than the regular blue flame heaters, but what a beautiful addition to your RV. You can sit and watch the yellow flames dancing around the logs and warm your bones at the same time. I saw one of these units in an old travel trailer and was enchanted. The owner had built his own mantel out of an old coffee table, and it was lovely. I wanted one of those units so badly!!

The only place for a unit like that in our rig was along the backside of the “L” in the kitchen counter, which is just a few inches from the wall of the entertainment slide-out when it comes in. If we had the carpentry skills, we probably could have slipped a fireplace in there, recessed under the counter.

The only downside would have been that it might have gotten a little hot under the counter, and we would have had to be extra careful that the heater was fully cooled whenever we brought the slide-out in, or we would have cooked the gelcoat on the outer wall of the slide. Also, as it turned out, that particular location for the heater would not have provided the same warmth when we sat in our recliners as the heater does in its current spot in the kitchen in front of the oven (even though it would have been closer). It’s just the way the air flow circulates in our particular trailer.

PORTABLE HEATERS

Mr. Heater Buddy portable propane heater for your RV
If you don’t want to hassle with installing a dedicated gas line for a vent-free propane heater in your RV, you can opt to get a portable unit instead. The portable ventless heaters are all infrared radiant heaters with bricks (plaques) that have air intake vents in the bottom for convection as well. They have built-in blowers that run on a 6 volt a/c adapter (sold separately) or on 4D batteries. They are very popular.

They are manufactured by Mr. Heater (with the brand name “Big Buddy”), and they come in sizes from 4,000 to 18,000 BTU. They run on the small Coleman style portable propane canisters but can also be connected to a larger BBQ style propane tank.

If you plan to run the heater from a large propane tank instead of the little propane canisters, Mr. Heater sells a companion flexible gas hose with a regulator and quick release connector on it for just that purpose. Mr. Heater make nice carrying cases for these heaters as well.

 

OPTIONAL EQUIPMENT for VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATERS

Thermostat

Usually this option is just $30-$50, and it is well worth the cost if you plan to be in your RV for extended periods of time. A manually controlled heater will have several heat settings (usually three), but you will need to monitor the heat in the room and adjust the settings as you get warmer or cooler. A thermostatically controlled heater will cycle on and off as its sensor detects changes in temperature. Ours typically cycles on and off in 5-10 minute increments, keeping the temperature within 2 degrees.

On our unit, the thermostat has a simple analog dial that can spin from “1” to “5.” These are arbitrary numbers rather than fixed fahrenheit degree markers. However, once you figure out how “1 1/4” or “2 1/2” relates to temperature, you can keep the temperature in the room tightly controlled by turning the dial to the setting you want. This is especially nice if you plan to keep the heater on all night, as the temperature in the RV will remain constant while the outside temperature drops.

Feet

Most units are designed to be hung on a wall, however most also have an optional stand so they can be placed on the floor. Most smaller units include the feet as an option (about $25) while most larger units come with the feet at no extra charge. The great advantage to hanging a unit on the wall is that it is always there, ready for use. If you use your RV during all four seasons, it is nice to know that if you suddenly find yourself in a chilly spot, you can simply flip the switch and have your heater working for you, rather than digging it out of the back of the closet (a lesson we learned after the fact!).

The advantage of having the unit standing on its own two feet is that you can move it around the rig. This is especially true if you don’t use a fan of some kind to move the warm air around the rig. If you go this route, make sure you have plenty of flexible gas hose so you get maximum range for placing the heater in different spots in the rig.

Blower

Most ventless gas heaters can be purchased with an optional blower. As soon as you start blowing the air around the RV, you are signing up to use the batteries to keep the rig warm, something the vent-free solution was aiming to avoid. However, the power consumption should be less overall than a furnace. Some blowers are thermostatically controlled, allowing them to cycle on and off as needed. This is efficient, as the blower and batteries won’t be in use all the time the heater is on. Rather than a built-in blower, many people opt to install a small DC fan which uses very little power. If your rig has a ceiling fan, that can also be an option, although it will require the inverter or generator to be turned on. In our case, our inverter is turned on from the moment we wake up until we go to bed, so running the ceiling fan when the heater is on during the day is no big deal.

 

HEATER PLACEMENT

When we installed our ventless propane heater, we tried placing it in several locations. We also tried turning our ceiling fan both on and off and running the fan both forwards and backwards (blowing towards the floor and towards the ceiling) before we settled on a final arrangement.

Kozy World Vent-Free Propane Heater connected to flexible gas hose

This ceramic heater has a flexible gas hose that allows it
to be moved around the RV.

We found that the best setup was to place the heater directly below our ceiling fan (in front of the oven at the base of the stairs in the kitchen) and to set the fan to blow towards the ceiling, drawing the warm air up and distributing it outwards throughout the RV. It was astonishing to find what a difference it made as we moved the heater to various places in the trailer and tried each placement with or without the ceiling fan, and blowing up versus blowing down.

Our RV is a “rear lounge” fifth wheel
, and we found that the area around the recliners was a significant cold air pocket. Doesn’t it figure! That’s where we like to be on cold evenings!! There are large windows surrounding the recliners, which make that area cold, while the warm air in the rig congregates high up on the ceiling just in front of the stairs leading to the bedroom (that is, if the bedroom door is closed. Otherwise the warm air settles in the bedroom itself).

We assumed that facing the heater towards the recliners just 5 feet in front of them would warm up this cold pocket. Wrong! No matter how high we set the thermostat, and no matter what we did with the ceiling fan (which is located 10 feet away right in front of the stairs leading to the bedroom), the recliners were still cold.

When we moved the heater to the base of the stairs leading to the bedroom, and turned the ceiling fan on “high” and set it to blow towards the ceiling, we could immediately feel the warm air encircling us as we sat in the recliners. Who woulda thunk??!!

Heater Sizes and Capacities

Most manufacturers state the square footage their various heaters are designed to heat. We decided that we’d rather buy a slightly larger unit (that is, one rated for a larger space than the interior of our fifth wheel), and simply keep the heater on a lower setting than to find ourselves unable to heat the buggy adequately. Our rig is 360 square feet, which put us somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 BTUs. We ended up buying a 20,000 BTU heater, and we typically keep it set to 50% of maximum during the evenings/mornings and 25% of maximum at night when temps outside are in the 20’s and 30’s. If we had purchased a 10,000 BTU unit instead, I think it would have been cranking at max volume most of the time during the mornings and evenings and on stormy days. As a rough guide:

Vent-free heater BTU ratings and square footage
6,000 Up to 200 sf
10,000 Up to 300 sf
20,000 Up to 700 sf
30,000 Up to 1,000 sf

There are legal ratings for the sizes of vent-free heaters and the rooms they can be operated in. Less than 6,000 BTUs is okay for a bathroom, and less than 10,000 BTUs is okay for a bedroom. These are the ratings that are being referenced when you see a sticker on a larger unit saying “not designed to be used in a bedroom.” The idea is that a large unit operated at max volume in too small a space will use up too much oxygen in the room too quickly. Of course, such a scenario would have the occupants of the room running out the door because it would be way too hot for comfort.

 

SAFETY OF VENTLESS PROPANE HEATERS

Some people may worry that these kinds of ventless propane heaters aren’t safe, fearing that it might blow up the RV or suffocate them. These heaters are extraordinarily well regulated by various governing bodies, and designers have to meet stringent guidelines and submit their heaters to a battery of very challenging tests before they can be brought to market. Vent Free is the industry organization for all the vent-free gas heater manufacturers. Their website spells out all the testing, guidelines, state by state requirements, laws and safety record for these heaters. Through September 1, 2005, they claim that there had not been a documented death due to a vent-free propane heater (see that claim here). Visit their website at ventfree.org.

In addition, at the factory, RV manufacturers install a LP Gas Detector Alarm system (various brands are used) to detect LP gas leaks in the RV and alert anyone inside. These are installed because many RVs come equipped with propane-based appliances, including things like the stove, oven, hot water heater, refrigerator and RV furnace. All RV owners should be aware of where their LP gas detector is located. It is usually installed near the floor, as LP is a heavy gas that settles down low. Propane is found in highest concentrations near the floor.

Some RVers run their vent-free propane heater overnight as they sleep. We don’t do that. If the overnight low temps will be well below freezing (i.e., 25 degrees F or below), we run our RV furnace, set to 50 degrees, all night long to keep the plumbing from freezing, because the furnace is ducted throughout the basement.

 

OPERATION AT HIGH ELEVATION

Most of these heaters are sold with an official limit for operating altitude. The problem at higher altitudes is that there is not enough oxygen for the propane to burn properly. Some units are rated for use up to only 3,500 feet, while other manufacturers have a stated limit of as much as 5,000 feet.

Our blue flame vent-free propane heater is rated for use up to 4,500 feet, but we have used it extensively at altitudes up to 8,500 feet and have used three times for two week periods at 10,000 feet.

The key to operation at altitude is the Oxygen Detection Safety-pilot (ODS) sensor which has been standard equipment on all US-made vent-free heaters since the 1980’s. This sensor shuts off the gas to the heater when it detects the oxygen level has dropped to 18% (normal sea-level air is 21% oxygen). We find that whenever the ODS shuts our heater off, our stove and oven continue to run without a hitch. So, in reality, the stove and oven are actually more dangerous, as they do not have built-in ODS units to shut them off when the oxygen in the room gets too low.

5th wheel camper rv in the snow

A surprise autumn snowstorm at 10,000 feet elevation in Colorado during a two week stay taught us a lot
about how vent-free heaters function at high altitudes.

We use our heater all summer long as we travel through the western mountain states. We find that it works very well at 6,000 to 9,000 feet, taking the chill off cold mornings and raising the temperature inside the RV from a brisk low to mid-40’s to 75 degrees within an hour.

We have spent months at these altitudes. On occasion, if we have been running the stove and oven as well as the heater, the heater will unceremoniously turn itself off. This is no problem. We simply open the RV door to let some oxygen-rich air into the rig.

We have also spent several periods of 10 days to two or three weeks at 10,000 feet. Here we had more difficulty with our vent-free heater when the outdoor temps dropped into the high 20’s overnight (and we got two inches of snow on our roof!) and daytime highs were in the 40’s. The heater needed some coaxing to make it work. We tried two methods of combining the RV furnace and the ventless propane heater at this altitude. Neither was ideal, but this will give you a sense of what to expect and what to try:

1. Run the RV furnace all night long to keep the rig at 50 degrees overnight, and then use the RV furnace to raise the temp to about 60 in the morning. We found that this method used gobs of electricity and propane and didn’t make us very warm. What’s worse, when we tried to use the vent-free blue flame heater after running the furnace, the furnace would not have sufficiently replaced the interior air with exterior oxygenated air, so the vent-free heater could not run very long before it shut off due to having insufficient oxygen around it. So, in essence, using the RV furnace meant we couldn’t use the vent-free heater. We found we could run the RV furnace all day long but the temps in the rig would never exceed 61-62 degrees (the high temps outside were in the 40’s, lows in the mid-20’s).

2. Leave the furnace off overnight and run the ventless propane heater in the morning to warm up the rig. The temps inside our bedroom typically stay about 10 degrees above the outside temps if we don’t heat the RV overnight, so we woke up on some mornings to interior temps in the high 30’s. (We close our bedroom door at night to help keep the bedroom warm). The vent-free heater miraculously heated our indoor RV temps to 70 degrees within an hour of turning it on. At this point, around 70+ degrees, the heater would shut off. We could coax it to run a little more by opening the RV door and fanning the outside air into the rig, but it would shut off again after another 10 minutes or so. So then we would turn on the RV furnace.

Any sensible person would have gone and gotten electric hookups at a campground and run an electric ceramic heater, but we aren’t always very sensible. Camping at 10,000 feet in snowy weather is rather extreme. Most of the boondocking spots we stay at in the summer months are down around 6,000 to 9,000 feet, as I mentioned above, and the heater works beautiful at those altitudes. During the winter months we are typically at elevations of under 1,500 feet and the heater works like a champ without missing a beat.

Note: Since publishing this article, we have enjoyed yet another year of toasty warm heat from our blue flame vent-free heater in the mountains from spring through fall and at low desert elevations in the winter. We were also caught in another even bigger snowstorm on a mountaintop at 10,000 altitude once again and tried a different heating strategy that kept us warmer and dryer. Our article about that experience is here:

How to Heat an RV in Cold Weather and Winter Snowstorms

 

WHERE CAN YOU BUY A VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATER?

We had the worst time trying to find places to look at these heaters and find people knowledgeable about installing and using them in RVs. In some states it is illegal to sell these kinds of heaters (here’s a link to the state-by-state regulations for vent-free gas heaters from ventfree.org), and in mountain towns they are scarce because of their issues with operating at high altitudes. In four months of summer travel when we were looking to buy, we found just two propane gas companies selling vent-free heaters, one in Jackson, MS and one in Kanab, UT. We ended up learning the most from fellow desert boondockers in Arizona, Nevada and California during the winter months and from salespeople in mom-and-pop hardware and RV parts stores in Yuma and Quartzsite, Arizona.

If you know what you want, you can get a much better deal buying online, and Amazon sells all the major brands and accessories. We paid $290 plus $25 tax for our heater, a Vanguard 20,000 BTU blue flame with a thermostat and no blower (it came with feet). After buying, we found the same unit online with free shipping and no sales tax for $175 (Vanguard heaters are no longer made). Ace Hardware told us they could order a similar unit for us, shipped to their store in a week, for $215. So we paid a premium for our unit, but we did talk to a lot of sales people in the process and we saw a lot of the units (and warmed our hands over them), and knew exactly what we were buying.

Cost of installing a vent-free heater

Our entire project cost $385. The heater was $315 (including tax), and parts totaled $70. We were able to borrow the tools, but found they cost only about $15 to buy. We were quoted between $60 and $100 for the labor for the installation. As stated above, we also could have saved about $140 on the heater if we had purchased it online.

 

INSTALLATION OF A VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATER IN AN RV

Following is a pictorial step-by-step guide showing how we installed our vent-free propane heater in our RV.

Installing fIttings on the vent-free propane heater

The installation begins with work on the heater itself…

Working under the kitchen cabinets to install the new gas line for the heater

…however, the bulk of the installation involves tapping into an existing copper gas line to connect a new flexible gas line that goes to the heater.

The first step is to do a little work on the heater itself…

Installing the feet on our ventless blue flame propane heater

Attach the plastic feet so the unit can be freestanding and be moved around the trailer easily.

Installing the gas valve on the blue flame heater

Attach a brass elbow fitting at the base of the heater.
A flexible gas hose will eventually connect to this elbow.

Installing the thermometer on our ventless blue flame propane heater

Attach a thermistor (an electrical resistor type of thermometer) for the internal thermostat. This went on the lower back corner of the heater.

 

Our heater came with feet so it could be freestanding, and it also came with a thermistor, or resistor based thermometer, for the thermostat. These were attached before beginning the actual installation of the new gas line in our trailer.

The brass elbow did not come with our unit, but we found one with the right pitch, thread and diameter at the gas and electric supply store where we bought the other fittings for our project.

Second Step — Turn off the gas and tap into an existing copper gas line

The gas hose for the heater will tap into an existing copper line in a kitchen cabinet

The new flexible gas line for the heater will connect into the existing copper line.

We decided to tap into the copper gas pipe that runs between the refrigerator and the stove at the back of one of our lower kitchen cabinets. Mark measured the pipe and found it was 3/8″.

The goal was to cut the existing pipe and insert a series of fittings that would allow us to attach a flexible gas hose at that point, effectively creating a new leg of flexible gas line. This hose would then run out through a hole drilled at the base of the cabinet and attach to the heater. All of this is low-pressure pipe and fixtures.

Layout of all the gas fittings for installing the vent-free blue flame propane heater in our fifth wheel trailer RV

To create a new leg of flexible hose gas line requires a T-connector (to rejoin the severed pipe), F-F gender changer, On/Off valve and flexible gas hose with a stopper at the other end.

At a gas and electric supply store we picked up a male-male T-connector that would be inserted into the cut copper pipe.

The base of the T would connect to a female-female gender changing connector, and then to an on-off valve (which has male fittings at either end), and finally to a female connector on the end of the flexible gas hose.

Most of the year the heater would not be in use, so we bought a stopper for the end of the hose that goes to the heater.

pipe cutter for cutting gas pipe

Specialty tool #1: Pipe cutter

When the heater is disconnected, this stopper would be screwed into the end of the hose and the heater would be put in a closet.

However, we later discovered we wanted easy access to our heater during all four seasons, so the stopper never gets used!

 

The existing gas line is cut

The existing gas line is cut.

A universal gas appliance hookup kit manufactured by Mr. Heater includes all these parts except the T-connector!

Flaring tool showing both parts

Specialty tool #2: Flaring Tool.

The first step, after turning off the gas, was to cut the pipe. This requires a pipe-cutter, a small, inexpensive tool.

Once the pipe was cut, the next step was to connect the T-connector between the two severed ends of the copper pipe.

practice flare on scrap piece of copper pipe

Practice flare.

This would be done by first sliding a female connector onto each of the two pipe ends and then flaring the ends of the pipe with a flaring tool so the connectors couldn’t slide back off again.

The female connector is slid onto the pipe before the flare is done

The flare prevents the female connector from coming off the pipe.

The male-male T-connector would be screwed into this (and its companion) female fitting on either end of the pipe, rejoining the pipe and making a new connection available for the gas hose to go out to the heater.

flaring tool for flaring the end of a gas pipe

Flaring tool with scrap practice pipe in it.

Mark had never used a flaring tool to flare a pipe before, so he wanted to practice it first on a scrap piece of pipe.

Flaring the real pipe under the kitchen cabinet

Flaring the real pipe inside the cabinet.

He made the practice flare by inserting the scrap pipe into the appropriately sized hole in the tool and then screwing down both ends of the tool to snug the pipe into it — as if it were a bad guy in the old days having his head and hands put in the stocks in the town square!

One flare finished second flare beginning

One flare done, now do the other.

Then he inserted the pointed end of the flaring tool into the end of the pipe and twisted the crank, slowly flaring the end of the pipe as the point pressed further into it.

Two wrenches tighten T-connector in place

Tightening the T-connector with two wrenches

He slid the female connector onto a short piece of pipe and felt a snug fit between the pipe and the connector. The flare was just right. Now confident that he could flare a pipe properly, he contorted himself to get the flaring tool set up on the real copper pipe at the back of the cabinet.

T-connector with F-F gender changer

T-connector with F-F gender changer ready for the shut-off valve to be attached.

He began by sliding a female connector onto one end of the severed pipe under the cabinet and flaring the pipe’s end. Then he did the same thing to the other piece of the severed pipe. Then he screwed the male-male T-connector into the two female ends of the pipe to rejoin them, and he tightened the T-connector using two wrenches.

He attached a female-female connector to the base of the T, making it possible to screw the male-male valve into place. This valve would allow the gas to the heater to be turned on and off. After the valve, he attached the female end of the gas hose.

Connecting the flexible gas hose to the shut-off valve

The new flexible gas line connects to the shut-off valve.

Finally, he drilled a hole in the front base of the kitchen cabinet and ran the gas hose through the hole. The other end of the gas hose was attached to the elbow connector he had placed on the bottom of the heater.

Tightening all the connections with wrenches, and turning the gas to the trailer back on, the heater was now ready to be used.

Hole at base of the cabinet for the gas hose

The new flexible gas line will come through this hole and connect to the heater.

Mark checked for gas leaks using a tiny spritzer bottle filled with a few drops of Dawn dish soap and water. Spraying this mixture on each connection, he looked for bubbles to form which would indicate a gas leak.

To give us flexibility in moving the heater around the rig, we originally used two lengths of gas hose: a 3′ length for under the cabinet and a second 12′ length that attached to it with an inline male-male connector.

Vent-free blue flame propane heater installed in a 5th wheel trailer

What a great little heater!!

The idea was that the 12′ gas hose would give us lots of flexibility for moving the heater around the trailer. However, we found that it was too long and too bulky and the best position for the heater was close to the stove anyway. So we replaced the 12′ hose with a shorter 4′ one.

After the installation was finished, it didn’t seem like such a big project after all, and what a thrill it was to toast ourselves in our warm buggy. Our timing was perfect: the next week brought a big cold front, multiple days of rain, lows in the 30’s and highs in the fifties. We were snug as bugs in a rug while the winds howled outside.

 

There are tons of choices for installing a vent-free propane heater, but these four are among the most popular. If you buy a heater from Amazon, make sure it is PROPANE and not NATURAL GAS, as the pictures look the same. We receive a 4-6% commission for purchases made through any of our Amazon links (at no cost to you) which helps us maintain this site — thank you!

Good luck with your project, and stay warm!

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Disclaimer: This blog post describes our vent-free propane heater installation. We are not responsible for any installation other than the one in our own rig.

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RV Tips – Cleaning Tips for Washing your RV

RV in a car wash

The simplest method to wash the grime off your RV: take it to a car wash with a big bay!

The easiest way to clean your rig is to pull it into a car wash that has an RV bay and go for it. But sometimes car washes with RV bays are hard to find, and moving around on a ladder to get to the high spots is tricky. If you <strong>boondock all the time, like we do, and don’t stay in RV parks and don’t ever go home to a house with a driveway and hose, you also don’t have access to handy water spigots.

RV boondocking wash Foam Away

No water needed

So Mark has found some creative ways to keep our rig clean while boondocking.

For a quick job on the truck — if it’s just dusty and not dirty with caked-on mud — he likes to use Turtle Wax Foam Away, a dry wash that doesn’t require water.

Spray it on and wipe it off, and your truck is nice and clean. Sadly, this product isn’t available any more, but another great alternative is Dri Wash ‘n Guard Waterless Car Wash.

RV boondocking RV wash Zip Wax

Add a spritz to 2-3 gallons of water

RV boondocking wash and wax meguiars quik detailer

Shine up the rig

For more stubborn dirt and stains, like the bugs that splatter on the front cap of the fifth wheel and the hood of the truck, or for a more thorough wash, Mark makes up a bucket of sudsy water using a couple of gallons of water and Turtle Wax Zip Wax Ultra Concentrate

He washes down one area at a time and then wipes it dry. No rinsing necessary.

Mr Clean Magic Eraser Scrub Pads

Mr Clean Magic Eraser Scrub Pads

The neat thing about boondocking is that you have tons of space around your rig, so he drives the truck around the fifth wheel, lining it up to reach the highest spots on the trailer.

A ladder works too, but the truck gives him a much wider lateral reach as he walks along the side of the truck bed. It’s a little acrobatic, but that’s makes the job more exciting!

One awesome product Mark discovered is Mr. Clean Magic Eraser Pads. These things do an amazing job of getting rid of the scuff marks on the fiberglass front cap on our fifth wheel.

Boondocking RV wash use the truck

Better than a ladder…

RV boondocking uv protect all

Sunscreen for the plastic parts

For quick waxing he prefers Meguiar’s Quik Detailer (others like Mr. Clean’s Spray Wax work too). This is a polish detailer that gives the truck and trailer a nice shine and leaves the fifth wheel front cap and truck hood so smooth the bugs don’t stick (at least not for a while).

To get a little UV protection on rubber seals and plastic (like the translucent plexiglass hatch covers, a/c unit and fridge vent) he uses Protect All, a UV protectant. He has also used 303 Aerospace Protectant, which seems to work equally well. And of course the truck windshield gets a dose of Rainex every so often.  Rainex makes rain on the windshield bead up and slide off more easily so the wipers can be used a little less — although we’ve found it seems to be most effective at preventing rain from falling all together, that is, until the Rainex has worn off and the windshield needs another coat!

Boondocking RV wash Meguiars paste wax

For a more thorough wax job

Once a year Mark uses Meguiar’s Gold Class Paste Wax on the both the truck and trailer to give them a deeper finish and prevent oxidizing. If there is oxidation or stuck on bug pieces that just won’t come off, he uses Meguiar’s Cleaner Wax, a cleaner/polisher that has a mild abrasive in it.

Over the years Mark has tried lots of different cleaning and polishing products, and they all get the job done. Far more important than using a particular product is just getting out there and applying some elbow grease with whatever you have on hand. Doing a little bit more frequently is easier than doing a big job all at once…!

California Duster

California Duster

When the rig just needs a quick dusting (the truck especially), Mark turns to his trusty California Duster.

This thing is amazing because it picks up all the dust and can later be shaken out with a few quick twists of the wrist.

And that’s all there is to it. Easy peasy — especially for me, since on those rig washing days I always find I am suddenly very busy doing something else!!

And, ironically, after each of the photos of our buggy getting a bath on this page was taken — in a car wash in Montana and while boondocking in Colorado — it rained for 3 days in each place.  So go ahead — do the RV rain dance and help end the drought!!

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New to this site?  Check out the RVing Lifestyle and Tech Tips in the MENUS at the top of the page for detailed info about installing solar power, installing a vent-free propane heater, living the full-time RV lifestyle, how to go boondocking, how to find free campsites, the costs of full-time RVing and more.  Please visit our Home page and Welcome page for RVers to learn more about us and discover all the other good stuff available to you on this blog.

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