Boondocking 101 – Beginner tips for RV Camping Off-Grid

When I was looking at RVs, I knew I wanted something that could go off-road.  We had been boondocking in the back of the 4Runner and loved it.  So, our new home in an RV had to be capable of boondocking as well.  I looked at the Airstream Basecamp for the full-size tires, rear departure angle, and smaller length for easier maneuvering.  But the one thing I never thought of was fresh and gray/black tank size!

The first time I tried to stay in the Basecamp without hookups, I ran out of water and filled my gray/black tank up within a day or two.  Running electricity on just my batteries was daunting and I never seemed to be able to get enough solar to charge back up.  As I ventured to new places, I also had no idea how to find boondocking sites, how to make sure I could safely drive into them, and make sure they were safe for us to stay overnight.

With all of these seemingly complicated logistics, I ended up spending my first few months in RV parks.

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One of our first RV parks in Ouray, Colorado

Luckily I met Kelly (RV Chickadee) at an event just a few months into my full-time RV life.  She came over and introduced herself as another solo female traveler.  As we were talking she asked if I boondocked much.  I told her with a 22-gallon fresh tank and 29-gallon black/gray combined, it just wasn’t possible.  The look on her face was priceless.  She went on to tell me her tanks are a similar size, and she can go for 2 weeks.
Mind. Blown.

I’m not one to back down from a challenge, and am also one who would turn something like this into a challenge.  I picked up a few tips from Kelly and others at the event.  Then decided to spend the next week boondocking in the panhandle of Texas to figure this out.

There were quite a few simple things I learned over that week which became the basis of my boondocking career.  Now we spend most of our time off-grid, and I can proudly say I can go 2 weeks between dumping my tanks as well!  (Although some of the water-saving tips required for that will come in the more advanced boondocking post).

So if you are brand new to boondocking but aren’t sure where to start, keep on reading for some great Boondocking 101 tips.  We’ll cover three main categories:  How to find a boondocking spot as well as how to conserve both water and electricity so you can stay out there longer.

How to Find a Boondocking Spot

This is still the #1 most intimidating thing for me, even today!  If I’m in a new area, how will I know if the spot is safe?  If I can easily drive to it?  If I’ll have signal to work?  Luckily there are a variety of apps out there.  I list out all of the ones I use here.

But for your first time out, start simple.  I recommend my go-to app, Campendium.  I find 90% of my overnight spots using this app.  Search in the area you are looking to visit, and then use the filters to look for “Free” locations.  You’ll find a variety of places, from town parks and parking lots, to BLM land and National Forests.  And there’s free camping in almost every part of the country.

Now that you have so many options to choose from, how do you narrow it down?

1. Start Simple and Close to Civilization

I would not recommend driving miles down dirt roads, hours away from civilization for your first boondocking trip.  Although these types of trips make great memories, it’s not easy to run out for quick supplies.  Start somewhere with easy access.

IMG_0772My first few locations were town parks in the Texas panhandle.  These are great little parks which are free, and you just pull in to a spot for the evening.  Some even offer electric hookups (but that’s not boondocking!).  Since I was still testing out my limits, I wouldn’t hook anything up.  But this gave me peace of mind during work that worst-case scenario if I ran out of power, I could just run outside and plug in.  I’ve also heard of others who try “boondocking” at an RV park.  They’ll park in a campsite and just not hook anything up to see how long they can go.  For me, this would have been too easy to just take a long shower and then dump the tanks right there, so I preferred spots with fewer utilities.

Also, if you are close to a town, any issues you may run in to can most likely be easily solved.  Maybe you forgot to fill the propane and have no heat?  What if you take a longer shower than expected and need some water?  Or in your excitement to give this a try, you forgot to bring the wine? Being close to town is the perfect solution.

2. Look at Aerial View

I’ve started doing this not only for boondocking, but for Walmarts, truck stops, Cracker Barrels, and just about any place I’m going to be spending the night.  Pull up the location you are heading to on Google Maps.  Click on the satellite view, and zoom in.  You’ll be able to see if there is a spot to easily turn around as well as where the entrances and exits are.  For many boondocking spots, you’ll even be able to see RVs that were parked there when the photo was taken, so it gives you an idea of how large the area is.

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Google Aerial View of Walnut Canyon, AZ

What this doesn’t help with is the condition of the roads.  But there’s a solution for that!  You can either read reviews, or go scout out the location (scouting in the more advanced boondocking post).

3. Read Other Users’ Reviews

Campendium has a lot of reviews on it.  Before I pick a spot, I always spend time reading through each one.  Many times users will outline what the roads are like getting in, and give you details if there are places to turn around.  This is important, especially with larger RVs, as you don’t want to get yourself stuck in a situation where you have to attempt to back a trailer back down a dirt road to the entrance.

There are also user reviews on cell data, so you can see what type of speeds and service recent campers have encountered.  Other RVers will also write about their experiences.  If they had any crime or safety issues, they will be sure to make a note.  It always makes me feel better when several people have left reviews of how quiet and enjoyable their stay was.

How to Conserve Water

The next big dilemma I had was trying to make my water last more than 2 days.  Living in AirBnBs, water has an endless source.  Turn on the tap and it will run for days.  So this took some major adapting to and really ended up coming down to some basic water-saving tips:

1. Turn the faucet off when washing hands

Yes, it is weird wetting your hands, turning off the water, soaping up and then trying to turn on the water with soapy hands.  But give this a try:  Plug your sink so the water can’t drain and wash your hands like normal.  Look at all that water!

Now do it with only running the water when you are wetting your hands and rinsing.  Less than half!  Now try this experiment again, with turning the faucet on at only half-power each time.  Even less!  I’ve come to the point where I can wet my hands with just a few drops of water, soap up and rinse off in no time.  For the number of times we wash our hands each day, this will save you a ton of water.

2. Wash your dishes with a towel or in a bowl

This is the water conservation tip I feel varies the most between RVers.  I’ve tried a few different ways, and what I end up using depends on where I’m parked and how dirty my dishes are.

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He’s ready to lick some dishes!

One method I use is just dripping the water, washing with a sponge, rinsing most of the way, and then drying with a towel.  This works well, but still uses a surprising amount of water.  So to cut down even more I pre-clean and rinse less.  How do I pre-clean without water?  Well, I do travel with a dog and a cat!  A few licks from them and dishes are much easier to clean!  Lots of soap and scrubbing, a few drops of water to rinse, and then I clean the rest of the soap off when I dry the dishes with a clean towel.

Another method I tried, but have since retired, is using paper bowls and then recycling them.  However, after three meals a day this can really start to add up, both in your grocery bill but also in waste.  And recycling is very hard to find on the road so these oftentimes would end up in the garbage.

The final method I use, and that conserves the most water, is washing dishes in a bowl.  I purchased a large bowl that fits perfectly in my sink.  I now use the first method above

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My dish towel, ready for duty!

(drip water, clean with soap and sponge, and rinse as best as possible) and let all the water drip into the bowl.  When this is full, I dump the water outside so it doesn’t fill the tanks.  However, dumping dirty water on the ground does come with some extra things to think about.  First, I make sure to always use natural and biodegradable soap.  Second, you need to pay attention to where you are dumping. Even though it is not a lot of water, it can still impact the environment via erosion.  For example, in a parking lot, it won’t change the ground at all.  But in a very dry desert that hasn’t seen rain in months?  Even just a gallon of water dumped in the same place can cause significant erosion. In these types of areas, I stick to the clean with a dog and towel method.

3. Shower less often

Yes, it has come to this.  When I hit the road I showered and washed my hair every single day.  If you told me I would eventually stop doing that, I would have called you crazy.  But honestly, once your body adapts to a new routine, you truly don’t need to shower as often.  Especially when you spend most of your time in the dry climate of the western US.  And I promise I don’t smell. (Or at least no one has told me yet!)

To help me through this transition, I purchased shower wipes.  There are some really refreshing ones out there, and it does make you feel very clean before crawling into bed.  Others I have met will boil water on the stove and then take a sponge bath.  Even just moving to an every other day shower will save you a lot of water.

How to Conserve Power

The final boondocking item I was most nervous about was power.  Although I have solar on my roof, the Airstream Basecamp only had 160amp batteries and 180W solar.  On the weekends when I wasn’t working this was plenty, but during the week while charging my laptop and second monitor, it could get a little tight.  Therefore I had to use little tricks to conserve power.

1. Turn off lights & unplug electronics when not in use

Turning off the lights when I wasn’t home or in a certain part of the RV helped, but it wasn’t enough.  That’s when I started paying more attention to what was plugged in.  I had been leaving my wifi and laptop plugged in all the time, even when I wasn’t working.  By just unplugging this, turning off the laptop and wifi, I could save a lot of power.  I also started charging my phone during the day instead of at night.  This drops the amount of time it is plugged in from over 8 hours (yes I get that much sleep) to just under a few.

2. Take advantage of 12V outlets

The Basecamp did not come with an inverter.  So all those great regular household outlets?  Useless when I was not hooked into shore power.  Thankfully when I was at my parent’s, my Dad helped install two 12v outlets in the Basecamp. I then purchased a 12v laptop charger for my work laptop, as well as a small inverter that plugged into the 12v.

The inverters take power just to run, plus the power to charge your laptop.  I ended up retiring the small inverter and just sticking with the 12V charger for my laptop.  This used much less power.  Between these few easy items, I was able to boondock with fewer power worries.  If I had more than a day without any sun thou, my full-time job would still use enough power that I would have to go off in search of shore power.  But my lithium battery upgrade has since solved that issue!

Conclusion

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Our first Xscapers Convergence – 9 days of boondocking!

If you’ve been wanting to try off-grid camping, hopefully these few tips and tricks will help you get out there and give boondocking a try.  I was truly intimidated by the thought at first, but in the end it’s our preferred way to camp.  The beauty and freedom you’ll encounter out in nature is incredible.  It will also open up so many opportunities for you, such as festivals which quite often don’t have hookups.

Have any other boondocking tips or tricks?  Comment and share them below!  I would love to hear them and I’m sure others will find them useful as well!

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