Have you ever dreamed of setting up camp in places far away from the hustle and bustle of cities and RV parks? Have you ever wanted to have incredible experiences in more places, but had difficulty making reservations around your schedule? Or do you just want the freedom to explore nature, even uncharted territory, apart from expensive power and water hookups? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this Boondocking: Your Free Camping Guide is for you!
What is Boondocking?
Simply put, boondocking is setting up camp anywhere it is allowed without using power, water, and sewer hookups. It is the verb to the noun “boondocks,” and nickname, “boonies,” meaning rough, remote or isolated country.
Other names for boondocking include primitive camping, dry camping, and dispersed camping. In this boondocking guide, we’ll explore the reasons why people boondock, the many ways to boondock, how to find places, what you need for boondocking, etiquette, and more!
We’re confident you’ll find everything you need to start your boondocking journey, or greatly enhance your current knowledge.
Why Do People Boondock?
People boondock for many different reasons. For some, it is a more adventurous way to explore the country, since reservations are usually unnecessary. For others, it provides a cost-effective way to travel from place to place because boondocking is either free or low-cost.
Some places, such as public lands, offer picturesque views of nature with plenty of distance apart from other travelers. And of course, places like commercial parking lots offer a convenient way to stop for a night or two between travel destinations.
It took us a few months into full-time RVing to get comfortable with boondocking, but once we got a few nights under our belts we learned it’s a great way to get closer to nature, increase the flexibility of our travel schedule and reduce costs.
Is It Safe?
This is understandably a common question about boondocking. Fortunately, the answer is, “Yes,” boondocking is generally safe, especially when you consider you’re more likely to encounter trouble in your own sticks-and-bricks home than in an RV.
An internet search for significant RV-related crime incidents won’t produce many results because it just isn’t that common. Also, other boondockers are there for the same reason you are—to safely enjoy their travels. That doesn’t mean it’s a non-issue, or that one shouldn’t take precautions. Here are a few tips from RV Open Road to help you stay safe:
- Whenever possible, choose places that have cell phone service in case you need to make an emergency call. There are many apps available, such as OpenSignal, that can help you scope out places that have cell service before you go.
- Always know your location, including the milepost, road name, or landmarks that would help first responders find you. Use your GPS receiver to log your coordinates when you arrive.
- Talk with fellow RVers who boondock regularly. Most are happy to share what they know, and you’ll quickly find out there isn’t much to be afraid of.
- If available, keep your RV key fob close when camping. The flashing lights and honking horns from the panic alarm are a great criminal deterrent.
- Survey data shows more than 50% of RVers carry firearms, and most state laws provide the right to protect yourself in your residence (including RVs). The choice to carry is a personal one. If you chose to do so, always understand current federal, state, and local regulations. Some alternatives to firearms are pepper spray, mace, and bear spray.
Fortunately, in our years of full-time RV travel to almost all 50 states, we have not encountered any significant safety issues. It has enabled us to enjoy the travel lifestyle we envisioned, including visiting national parks and historic sites, experiencing the charm and uniqueness of communities all across the country, and enjoying activities in nature—including one of our favorites, find it here.
Boondocking: Your Free Camping Guide’s Places to Boondock
There’s a great variety of places to boondock—from scenic wilderness on public lands to commercial properties. We’ve created a list of the types of places where boondocking is available. As a quick tip for those last-minute plans, it never hurts to enter, “Boondocking Near Me” in the Google search field. There are also many apps and websites that can help you search for places to boondock which we cover in the following section.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and US Forest Service (USFS)
These are vast areas of Federal Government-owned lands managed for a variety of uses, like energy development, recreation, and timber harvesting. Federal lands are found in every state and encompass forests, mountains, rangelands, and deserts.
The BLM and USFS allow “dispersed camping” in areas where you can find a suitable, accessible spot. Keep in mind that the National Park Service’s (NPS) primary business is preserving land and does not allow boondocking, with a few exceptions such as Big Bend National Park in Texas (with a low-cost backcountry permit).
The good news is that national forests are often adjacent to national parks, making for a convenient way to visit these iconic places at a much lower cost and on your schedule.
While you’re enjoying these incredible wild places by day, don’t forget to enjoy both dark sky and full moon camping.
Boondocking at Walmart overnight is convenient when traveling between destinations. With around 4,000 stores in the United States, one is almost always close by. Walmart’s policy is to allow for overnight RV parking where possible, but some local ordinances prohibit overnight parking.
Parking permission is at the discretion of individual store managers, so it’s best to ask before setting up for the night. Several camping resources discussed later in this guide provide current information on individual Walmart store parking privileges.
According to the Sam’s Club website, “Parking policies may vary from Club to Club due to local zoning restrictions. You should verify with the Club Manager if it is permissible to use the parking lot for any overnight vehicle stays. Failure to notify club management in advance could result in unauthorized vehicles being towed at the expense of the vehicle owner.” Here’s a list of Sam’s Club locations.
In recent years, Home Depot has begun renting or selling parts of its parking lots to smaller businesses, decreasing the space available for overnight parking. It’s now at the discretion of each store’s management, so it’s important to verify this before arrival. Boondockersbible.com suggests leaving room for an easy exit first thing in the morning.
Many locations open at 5 AM and you don’t want to get boxed in by other vehicles. As with any commercial parking lot, try to be inconspicuous. Don’t put out your slides, roll out your awning or sit in your patio chairs in the parking lot.
Once again, not all locations allow overnight parking and checking with a manager or security beforehand will allow you to park in peace. A map of Lowe’s locations can be found here.
Overnight parking at this national restaurant chain with over 650 locations is more predictable than in other places because all locations are corporately owned and have consistent policies. Nearly all locations have designated parking spots marked specifically for RVs.
It doesn’t hurt that they offer warm, hearty meals after a long day of travel—including breakfast all day! They saved us when we couldn’t find an available campground or RV park in Georgia in the spring when everyone leaves Florida and heads north.
Some locations allow overnight parking, while others do not. As with some of the other locations, check with store management at each store to see if they allow it, or contact customer service at 1-888-626-7576. Check here for Camping World store locations.
Most Cabela’s outdoor outfitter stores have specific parking areas for RVs and may allow overnight RV stays. Some locations even have dump stations! Cabela’s is a great choice if you can find one along your route. Not to mention, they sell everything you might need for your next adventure. To find out which stores allow overnight RV parking, call the store manager of the location you wish to visit.
Many casinos have large parking lots and allow overnight RV parking. They are generally RV-friendly because they know their facility may get extra business because of your visit. However, you’re not required to gamble, and conveniently, they often have 24/7 security and reasonable dining options. For an up-to-date resource on casino camping, check out Casino Camper.
Truck Stops (Loves / TA / Pilot / Flying J)
Truck stops are usually noisy spots, but can be a good place to stop in a pinch—and they are located along all major interstates and highways. Try to arrive early and find a more quiet spot. If you’re trying to conserve water, their shower facilities can help and their convenience stores are nice to have available. Here’s a link to truck stop locations.
You guessed it, some states allow overnight RV parking and some don’t. The good news is that if it’s allowed, there will be signs that say so. As with truck stops, try to find a spot away from the noisy trucks. For a complete list of rest stops, check out this link.
Parking overnight on streets is generally for smaller RVs and campers. Park only on streets without “no parking” signs or other restrictions. Be aware of your surroundings and try to be as inconspicuous as possible. Also, be mindful of the amount of time you stay there, as it’s best suited for a quick overnight stay.
Also known as “driveway surfing,” moochdocking is camping in the driveway of friends or family. The only power available might be an extension cord run from the house to your rig, but it can be an easy way to get some rest along your travel route while connecting with loved ones.
If you don’t know anyone who has the space to allow this, there are resources to connect you with people who offer space on their property to RVers. As detailed below, Harvest Hosts and Boondockers Welcome are great resources for making those connections, and some even have full hookups.
Resources to Find Places to Boondock
With so many ways to find boondocking spots, you’re sure to use more than one. Below is a list of some of the more common apps and websites that help RVers find places to boondock. Have you found a good resource not listed here? Send an email and let us know!
Campendium is an ever-growing user-driven resource that includes reviews and photos from fellow RVers. A great feature that we rely on is the cell carrier signal strengths reported in campsite reviews. A rating system helps to standardize campsite reviews (rating categories include: access, location, cleanliness, site quality, and noise).
To find free camping on Campendium’s website, select ‘Free Camping’ on the top drop-down menu bar and select a state. A map will appear showing all identified free camping sites which you can zoom in on and select. Campendium’s advertiser-supported website and app (available only in the iOS app store) are free. An upgraded membership with additional features and no ads is available for $5 per month or $20 per year.
Allstays provides information for all types of camping locations, and its app (iOS devices only), is the #1 Camping App for over 8 years. Along with locations, the app provides color-coded information about nearby amenities (such as gas stations, truck/rest stops, dump stations, propane, stores, RV service, and low bridges), resources for road conditions, emergencies, and various state laws.
Harvest Hosts And Boondockers Welcome
Harvest Host has joined forces with Boondockers Welcome, and Golf Courses across the country bringing the number of locations to more than 8277+. Let’s break it down so you can find a plan that works for your RV’ing style.
With a network of wineries, breweries, farms, museums, and more, a Harvest Hosts Classic paid membership (plan starts at $99 per year) enables you to stay in your self-contained RV for no additional fee. Generally designed for an overnight dry camping stay, these unique locations are a fun experience.
The Boondockers Welcome membership is a combo plan with Harvest Hosts and is $169 a year. As their website states, “Locals invite travelers to spend the night, share their stories, and save their money for the real adventure.” Member guests in self-contained RVs and hosts connect and share free spaces, often with full hookups. Some hosts offer driveways, while others have actual RV sites with concrete or gravel pads and picturesque views on their land.
The All Access plan is $179 a year and covers Harvest Hosts, Boondockers Welcome, and the Golf Course package. Head over to the website to learn all about Harvest Host!
FreeCampsites.net is a browser-based site that is free on two levels. They provide crowdsourced free camping locations, and it is free to use. The site focuses on public lands (i.e. national forests, BLM, etc) providing a searchable map view that identifies free, pay, and permit campsites. It has some cool filters for access, amenities, and activities. It even has a trip planner you can use to find campsites near your route.
Free Roam is a non-profit organization providing free and paid camping listings at both public and private locations. Its website is easy to use and also contains campsite reviews from other RVers.
To find free boondocking sites, select the ‘price’ button on the dropdown menu and enter $0 in the field. Their map view includes several informative layers, especially for cell carrier coverages. Nearby amenities, such as dump stations, stores, and gas stations are also included on the maps. The companion app is free in the iOS app store and Google Play Store.
Avenza Maps and Google Maps Satellite View
Avenza Maps is an app (free in the iOS app store and Google Play Store) that enables you to download topographic maps with precise GPS coordinates for use offline. Its mapping features help you plan and enjoy outdoor activities in remote areas, allowing you to stay on track and out of restricted areas.
It can tell you where there are roads and potential camping spots, but not always whether dispersed camping is allowed. As a general rule, check for places where other RVers have obviously camped. Google Maps satellite view can be used in combination with Avenza to check out areas ahead of time.
With all these tools, you’re sure to find great places to boondock. From our friends at Drivin’ & Vibin’ here’s a video of their top 10 free boondocking campsites:
Key Considerations while Boondocking
The following are important boondocking tips and tricks we’ve learned through personal experience, or in talking with other experienced RVers.
One of the most basic, yet challenging topics to consider when boondocking is how to get power. Much of the challenge involves the myriad of options you have for using power in your off-the-grid RV. Most RVers who boondock for long periods choose to use solar power as their solution. However, we’ve never added solar power and have been able to comfortably boondock using our onboard Onan 7000 gas generator, charger/inverter, and 12-volt batteries.
We typically run our generator in the morning and evening for approximately 2 hours at a time to charge up our batteries. Noise and fuel consumption are the biggest drawbacks, and we also have to be intentional about charging up devices, such as our laptops, during our generator runs.
As mentioned, RVers who are serious about a boondocking lifestyle usually have a solar power solution. These can vary from using less-expensive ground-deployed solar panels all the way up to thousand-plus watt rooftop solar arrays which can be tilted to optimize power capture.
The benefits of solar power systems include no noisy power generation, no fuel consumption, and low maintenance. But too many cloudy days can limit your power, so it’s good to have a power generator (either onboard or portable) as a backup.
With so many videos available on this topic, we chose one that explains the basics from the YouTube channel All About RVs:
You realize just how much water you use when the hookups are gone! We fill up our fresh water tank before heading off to dry camp and often take along additional containers of drinking water. Once we’re dry camping, we shift into a conservation mindset that allows us to live for over a week on our freshwater tank (70-gallon capacity). We run out of fresh water before we fill our gray water (66-gallon capacity) and black water (50-gallon capacity) tanks.
Some of our most effective water-saving tips include: filling the sink to wash dishes rather than leaving the water on, using a low flow of water to rinse dishes, and “catching” and reusing gray water. Using public restrooms whenever possible is also helpful.
Some RVers use solar showers, low-flow showerheads, faucet aerators, and even wet wipes to conserve water. If you need to use the RV shower, turn the water off while shampooing and lathering up. We also catch and reuse the water while waiting for the hot water to arrive in the shower.
A collapsible water container, typically 5 gallons, is useful in the event your run low on water. With a built-in spout, you can empty the container into your freshwater holding tank. Also, if you’re near a stream or other clean water source, you can use a water filter to replenish your drinking water.
Keeping connected is vitally important for those who work remotely, and for keeping in touch with friends and family. Unless you’ve found a place to stay where WiFi is available (such as moochdocking), a cellular connection is typically the only option while boondocking.
While signal varies widely from place to place, there are ways to check which carriers are available in a particular spot. We like to use the cell signal reports from Campendium reviews, and carrier coverage maps to determine if a camping spot is viable.
Communication essentials for us include a primary cell and data plan with Verizon, a backup carrier (AT&T), a Verizon MiFi mobile hotspot device with unlimited data, and cell signal booster (optional but can be helpful).
We also have the OpenSignal coverage app on our phones to check its crowdsourced coverage map and test signal strength. It’s available free in the iOS app store and Google Play Store.
With recent technological advances, more and more people are living and working full-time on the road—and with spectacularly scenic office views while boondocking. If you’re interested in living a life of freedom and flexibility while working remotely, check out these Top 10 skills to be a successful remote worker.
Garbage and Recycling
We live by the adage of less is best when boondocking. When buying groceries, we try to buy items with less packaging or dispose of excess packaging in a receptacle before leaving the grocery store. While dry camping, we separate recyclable materials from other trash and take to a place that accepts recycled materials when we can.
Some RVers even compost food waste in small bins with airtight lids. You might need to get creative when disposing of your leftover trash. Nearby campgrounds and RV parks have dumpsters available for camper use.
Other public places usually have the capacity to handle reasonable volumes of trash, but you might need to be a little stealthy with the disposal. In a pinch, ask permission from restaurants or stores. Purchasing something from the business in exchange can be helpful.
Using the Bathroom
If you can find a dump station when needed, using your RV black tank while boondocking isn’t much different than any other trip. As mentioned previously, try to use public restrooms whenever possible.
Many RVers carry a portable waste container, often called a Blue Boy, that can be used to dispose of gray and black water without having to take your RV to the nearest dump station. Other RVers convert their toilet to composting or cassette toilets.
Both eliminate the need for a black tank. Composting toilets can allow you to go much longer before dumping, while cassette toilets can be dumped in public restroom facilities and outhouses.
If you are backpacking or boondocking for longer periods and need to “go” outside, follow the Leave No Trace method. Either dig a 6-8’ cathole and bury your toilet paper at the bottom if it’s allowed in your camping area, or pack out your toilet paper in a sturdy ziplock bag. Waste and toilet paper should usually be buried at least 200 feet from water sources, trails, and campsites.
Finding Dump Stations
Many of the apps and resources mentioned above include dump station locations (i.e. Campendium’s free edition and Allstays’ separate RV Dumps app for a cost) In addition, websites such as rvdumps.com and sanidumps.com offer free crowdsourced RV dump station locations finders with details on costs and location types (i.e. RV parks, campgrounds, gas stations, highway rest areas, etc).
Now that you know where to boondock, how to find spots, and key considerations while camping, it’s a good idea to be aware of expected behavior—especially in those coveted wild places. Just as backpackers and tent campers practice Leave No Trace Principles, RV boondockers should do the same.
As the name suggests, the main principle of etiquette is to preserve the land, leaving nothing behind. Considering others and being a good neighbor will also go a long way to ensuring you have a great experience.
Take only as much space as you need, keep a reasonable distance from other campers, keep the noise down, and limit your generator use as much as possible.
Here are some more practical ideas for environmentally friendly RVing.
And here are the details on Leave No Trace Principles:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare – ensures the safety and prepares you to Leave No Trace.
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces – helps to avoid damage to land and waterways, minimizes wear and tear, and avoids trampling surfaces beyond recovery.
- Dispose of Waste Properly – waste and trash disposal should minimize impacts on land, water, wildlife, and other people. Follow the principle of the pack in, pack out.
- Leave What You Find – allow others a sense of discovery by leaving rocks, plants, archaeological artifacts, and other objects of interest as you find them.
- Minimize Campfire Impacts – use a camp stove for cooking instead of building a campfire. When a campfire is necessary, consider the abundance of wood, and fire danger and use existing fire rings.
- Respect Wildlife – learn about wildlife through quiet observation, keep a reasonable distance, and do not disturb wildlife or plants just for a “better look.” Quick movements and loud noises are stressful for animals.
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors – maintain courtesy toward others by avoiding excessive noise, controlling pets, and minimizing the use of gadgets to foster a feeling of solitude and tranquility.
More Boondocking Tips
Traveling with Pets
Traveling with pets can be a fun and exciting adventure for both owners and pets. Many pets adapt well to exploring the great outdoors from their RV homes. Our cat, Parker, loves his regular supervised outdoor playtime. In addition, dogs can provide a sense of security and protection as they can be a natural deterrent for criminal activity. Here are some tips on traveling with pets from our friends at The Wandering RV:
- Temperature – 70°F temperatures outside can cause it to reach 100°F inside. If you plan to be away from your RV for extended periods of time, don’t rely on your A/C or furnace to keep temperatures in a safe range. Systems sometimes fail, so it’s important to have a temperature monitoring system that can be controlled from your smartphone (see below).
- Safety – always secure your pet while driving or towing your RV and never let them roam about. This ensures their protection as well as fewer distractions for the driver.
- Supplies – keep a “Pet Essentials List” so you don’t forget to bring anything they’ll need while you’re in the boonies (leash, litter, waste pick-up bags, toys, crate, brush, etc).
- Identification – keep ID tags and microchips up-to-date. Even if your pet doesn’t typically wander off, they can be unpredictable in new locations they aren’t used to.
- Records – keep vaccination records, proof of ownership, and photographs available at all times. Ensure you have adequate supplies of your pet’s medications before you travel and have all information pertaining to any allergies or medical conditions they may have.
- Exercise – try not to keep your pets cooped up for long periods of time as they can become quite bored and antsy. Take them on walks during the day when possible and make time for them to explore. Some places have designated areas for pets so you can play fetch or let them run free.
Rig Size Matters
Bigger isn’t always better, especially when trying to squeeze into secluded and hard-to-reach areas. While larger rigs provide bigger holding tanks, more roof space for solar power, and more luxurious living, they lack maneuverability, clearance (think trees and brush), and the ability to park where the ground is softer. In many of the apps shared earlier, you can read reviews from others on which size RVs can get into specific boondocking spots.
Stick to Roads
Don’t try to go off-roading in remote places, especially since finding a tow truck to get you unstuck is going to be difficult and expensive. Keep in mind that however you got in, is usually the way you’ll need to get out. Fortunately, most roadways are designed with this in mind. In addition, you don’t want to damage the landscape by blazing a trail where there shouldn’t be one.
Watch the Weather
Know the weather forecast before and during your trip. While this may seem self-explanatory, the excitement of travel can sometimes cloud judgment. Try to avoid areas with inclement weather during peak seasons.
Always have a plan for when you do encounter severe weather, such as a backup location where you can shelter indoors—we once had to huddle with our cat in a restroom building in Florida during a tornado warning. This is especially important in areas prone to hurricanes, tornadoes, and flooding.
Follow the Rules
Know the rules and regulations for the area where you’re camping. Observe and follow posted signs. Be sure to secure any needed use permits before you set up camp. And don’t overstay the length of time you’re allowed to camp in a particular place. From street camping (usually a night) to national forests (14 days), “know before you go.”
Final Thoughts On Boondocking: Your Free Camping Guide
Boondocking has become a very popular method of RV camping in recent years. Aside from the obvious benefit of cost savings, people are enjoying the solitude and natural beauty of camping in the wilds. With so many places to boondock and resources to find them, this type of camping has become easier than ever.
Being prepared and following the common sense codes to boondocking will help ensure you have an incredible experience on your next adventure. We hope this guide has provided many helpful tips and we welcome your comments.