This is Boondocking

a classic VW bus and Superbeetle parked, without any hookups, atop a cliff, camping in the wild, AKA boondocking

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When I first heard the term, “boondocking,” I couldn’t help but think it was just RVers forgetting that–before RVs came along–all camping meant you went without power, a kitchen sink and similar modern amenities.

As if somehow the entire world of people who owned and utilized RVs had never known that before there were recreational vehicles, when you went camping, you just pitched a tent and hung out in the woods. The word also held a different connotation where I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, basically a reference to living “out in the country”, something townsfolk might say about the farm where I was raised. And, it was typically used in a negative way.

Fast forward some time later and I am living in an RV. I plug it in everywhere I go. I plug the 30amp in and the water goes on and I can relieve myself to my heart’s content without ever worrying about digging a hole or finding some leaves. It’s my first year on the road, and it is invigorating. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t burst at the chest hairs with exuberance.

Until one day, that feeling stops.

I have grown complacent. Full-time RVing is just what I do. It’s not particularly exciting anymore.

Then I realize what the issue really is. It’s not that traveling around in an RV has become stale. I’m simply no longer fascinated with sitting in an RV park, watching my neighbors sewer hose drain. I want more. I want to be in nature. I want everything that my old tent camping trips gave me, but I want to bring along my home and my work and make a living in remote destinations my new every day exhilaration.

Sure, I could just park the RV in the middle of nowhere Friday through Sunday, but when you’re living in it, this proves more difficult than you might think. For example, if you leave your house for the weekend, you don’t turn the fridge off and hope everything inside stays kosher. Not to mention, if you want to get the best spots in places where lots of other people like to camp as well, showing up on Friday is like trying to get tickets to Bruce Springsteen on Broadway the night of.

No, if full-time RVing and boondocking are to live in harmony, equipping my home-on-the-road to continue to be so, even far from the power lines, is key.

Let There Be Light (And USB Ports)

So, I make it happen. I am a creature of minimal needs. I have a family, three children and their gorgeous, adventurous mother. They’re all willing to come along for the ride. The biggest piece of the puzzle is solved: the determination to just go out and do it.

It actually takes many years of traveling to fully achieve what we’re looking for, but eventually we all end up living in a VW Bus and some tents. Or when we’re too lazy to put up tents, we simply sleep on cots. We achieve something akin to being wild animals, except we have iPhones and personal hotspots and they still let us into restaurants despite the fact that we’re in no way certified service animals.

I mention all of this because we’re the perfect example of the family that starts out heavily reliant on RV parks and state parks, learns the ropes ourselves, and eventually evolves into the type of crew that manages to stay off the grid for months at a time, only occasionally wanting to stay at a paid RV park to enjoy the swimming pool while the laundry spins.

On what might be considered our first official night out in the wild, we’re running off of a generator. At this point we are still living and traveling around in our 1976 Airstream. A beast of a trailer at 31′, plus another 20′ or so of Ford F-350 to tow it along. When we bought it, the previous owners had replaced the RV toilet and 12v fridge with their regular old counterparts, such as you might find in a home. It was a lot of work–and money–away from being ready to camp just anywhere.

But here we are, parked in a dry lake bed, miles from a plug or spigot. We’ve “boondocked” before this night, in the sense that we just drove somewhere and went without power or running water. But this night, we have power, we have running water, we have the means to live for a long period of time without replenishing our stores.

three airstreams parked in a desert surrounded by mountains
Boondocking, aka dry camping, near Joshua Tree National Park with MaliMish and Where is Waypoint.

Well, as long as that generator could last. It cost about $1000 and could keep us going for a few days, longer if I won’t need to work on my laptop. We simply charge up the extra battery, and when it dies, we fire up the generator again.

Fellow campers occasionally cast harsh glares. They are, after all, camping in tents, weekending it for sure, but no less important was the fact that they have come out here to the desert for the peace and quiet, the fresh air one might associate with “real camping”–and here we are pitching a low hum in every direction and the smell of burning fuel into the air. I am keenly aware of how much weaksauce I am pouring onto the affair.

Not to mention, we’ve invested $1000 into a generator and need to continually replenish its gas stores.

“This isn’t really working,” we admit.

The reality of generator life is you’re constantly filling up and sucking dry your batteries. There’s no steady flow of energy into your life throughout the day, but a jolt of it here and there, every few hours, with limitations put on those times by places like national park campgrounds and further taxed by the feeling you’re ruining everyone else’s experience.

two airstreams parked near mono lake in eastern california, the sun rising beyond them.
Camping with Aluminarium at Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierras.

We ditch the generator and, for about half the cost (since we already had the spare battery, that helped), we set ourselves up with solar. At this time, we also ditch the Airstream to move back into our Volkswagen Bus. While it wasn’t the primary reason we make this choice, something about making a small van glow seems easier than trying to wire up an entire travel trailer.

The vanlife movement that would happen a couple of years later would seem to echo this concept, as you’ll often find an RV that still isn’t wired to the sun, but you’ll be a bit more hard-pressed to spot a Sprinter that doesn’t have at least a few panels resting on the roof.

Disclosure: There are Amazon affiliate links to stuff we actually bought below. We make some money if you click on them and buy something. You don’t pay any extra. We take a few hours putting this guide together and typically make a few bucks max. All opinions are our own, facts are borrowed. Enjoy!

To be specific:

  1. A 160 watt solar panel, affixed to our roof with 3M VHB tape. It sounds crazy. It is crazy. Crazy awesome.
  2. A solar charge controller. This helps the solar panel talk to the batteries.
  3. An RV battery or two. We’d later upgrade to two AGM batteries, but regular old RV / marine batteries can be sufficient.
  4. A simple blade fuse box.
  5. Wires to connect the solar panel to the charge controller, the charge controller to the batteries, the batteries to the fusebox, and the fusebox to our various appliances.

This is not an exhaustive article on how to prepare to do all of that. There is a plethora of information on the web that covers such a topic. It will show you charts on how to calculate watts and volts and amps. You can go further, purchasing a fancy inverter which will allow you to plug your laptop and XBox and blow dryer in so the system can handle whatever you throw at it. Those are details I don’t care to share, because they’re confusing.

a 1978 VW Bus
Our VW Bus.

All you need to know, really, is this (though remember, this setup is for a van, and minimal electrical devices in said van.)

Start with 150 or so watts of solar on your roof. You can screw the panels into your precious roof, or use the VHB tape I mentioned. We have used it on two occasions, driven thousands of miles, many on bumpy roads, and never had our solar panels fall off. When we needed to remove a broken panel, it came right off and we were able to add another one in its place.

a boy washing solar panels on a van roof
Our youngest son washing flexible solar panels on a later installation, on a different van. We have had a few.

Next, find a place in your RV or van to place the solar charge controller. Sometimes they will have USB ports installed right in them, in which case you may want to have it placed conveniently for utilizing those USB ports. In any case, you’ll want to be able to easily check the charge controller, because it’ll tell you useful things like how much sun you’re soaking up, the state of your batteries, and in some cases the load on those batteries, though I never quite figured that last part out, since it typically assumes you’ll go from the charge controller to the fusebox, which I don’t believe is the right way to go unless you only have one thing to plug into it.

Moving on, find a good place for your batteries. They may need proper insulation or ventilation. We just tossed ours in whatever space would fit, for example the additional space in our engine compartment.

Finally, as far as placement goes, find a spot for the fusebox. This can be more out of the way, as you’ll only need to access it when there’s a problem, and hopefully there won’t be many of those. Hopefully.

The trickiest part comes next, wiring everything together. Solar panels have specific cables in most cases, which are just plug and play on the solar panel end. You then follow the positive and negative wires to your charge controller. You can drill a hole in the roof. You can just route them through a window. Both work equally well, but the aesthetics change.

a diagram illustrating the concepts discussed in this article

Don’t put your positive into your negative or vice versa. Don’t let the wires touch. You may want to cover your solar panel, or attach the wires into it last, while you’re working, though in my experience the 12v electricity these panels produce will never actually shock you. Crossing your wires can burn your equipment out though. Making your $500 or so setup a $1000 one.

Side note: You could always have this done professionally, and though we never have, fellow campers have reported installations costing as little as $1500, as far up as $15,000.

From the charge controller, you run a positive and negative wire to the batteries, which have positive and negative terminals. While all RV batteries will have the large terminals like you’re used to seeing in your car, most will have small screw-like, thinner terminals too, which can be a little easier to work with. You then run wires from the battery to the fuse box. The fuse box then allows you to run many separate wires from various little terminals out to your appliances, outlets and so on.

The wires going into and out of the charge controller are usually 4 or 6 gauge. Gauge is a measurement as to how thick a wire is. The smaller, the thicker, for whatever reason. You can use 12 gauge wire from the batteries to the fuse box. The wires going from the fuse box to your appliances and outlets will have their gauge determined by the appliance, and when you buy those a manual of some sort will tell you what size they are.

We were looking to power a small, 2 cubic feet Engel 12v fridge, a couple of USB outlets to charge our phones, two 12v fans to make the summers more bearable, and one cigarette lighter style outlet which I could then plug a little inverter from Auto Zone into, a small camping light and my laptop into that.

If you plan to do that last bit, with any type of inverter, I would recommend at least two batteries and probably somewhere around 400 watts of solar panel intake. Laptops, and even iPads, take a good deal of power to charge.

It’s also worth noting that the more you keep your devices charged near full capacity, the easier it is for your new solar setup to charge them. For whatever reason, charging a device up from 0% is infinitely tougher on solar panels than doing so from 90%. It doesn’t just take longer, it takes more power. So if you think it takes 10 “units” to charge a laptop from 90% to 100%, and therefore it should take 100 to go from 0% to 100%, you’re absolutely wrong and I can’t fully explain why. But now, you can be right, too!

If you’re good with electrical stuff, you’ll likely get it the first time. It took me about 20 tries, and then regular maintenance over several months before everything just worked. Okay, a friend finally helped me out and that was what really did the trick. He is one of those people who “just gets it” and can fix everything. I try to drive toward him anytime I’m having problems. Find a friend like that, they’re priceless. But remember to show up with beer and dinner, as they’re the ultimate form of payment in the world of good friends. Actually, I think he drinks wine and made dinner that night. I need to work on my friendship skills…

Now we can camp anywhere, even atop this Mexican mountain. Well, as long as we can drive up the mountain to get to the spot anyway…

When all is said and done, you’ve completed what really amounts to the only thing you really need to be a modern day boondocker: electricity.

Everything else can be achieved with little to no additional setup, but of course we can always make things more complicated.

The Average RV is 75% Water

…or is that the human body? Or the surface of the earth? Mankind may never know, but what we can grasp with our feeble mortal minds is how to bring enough water along for the journey into the wilderness we’re calling boondocking.

The easiest thing to do is grab a couple of 5 gallon jugs, fill them up for around $0.30 / gallon at a grocery store, or for free at a national forest campground, and call it a day.

You could get a cooler for ice, some Hydroflasks or similar water bottles that keep things cold, and bam you’ve got drinking water and can do your dishes in a little plastic bin like you’d buy to store socks at your stick n’ bricks home.

We lived like this for years and honestly, it wasn’t a problem. We don’t have a shower in our Volkswagen, and we only shower once or twice a week anyway, typically at an RV park (they usually let you pay a few bucks to shower even if you’re not staying there) or a rec center.

If you have an RV, or have installed a freshwater holding tank in your van, you can take it a little further.

The existing freshwater tank on an RV will have a place to fill it up. Sometimes this is a separate intake where you just pour water in, sometimes it fills up when you plug your hose in. The tank is then plumbed to your shower and faucets. Somewhere in the mix is a water pump. We use the Shurflo brand. A hose goes into it from your tank, and out to the rest of your RV’s plumbing. They can then connect to your fusebox, the one you installed with your solar setup, which powers it. They don’t run all the time, only when the pressure is low such as when you open a faucet and let the wet stuff rain down like heaven. This will change your life, no doubt. It’s infinitely easier to wash dishes with a faucet than it is to rig up a way to dump water over the simple type of setup I describe above with 5 gallon jugs.

But it can also mean you use a lot more water, so you’ll learn over time how to conserve. Remember those public service announcements telling you not to leave the water running while you brush your teeth? Now you’ll learn not to leave it running anytime you’re not immediately using it, otherwise it’s a trip to fill up your tanks again. Which, if you’re catching on to the ingenuity aspects of this article, can be done with those 5 gallon jugs so you don’t have to drive your RV to the source of the water every time.

a VW Bus parked in a parking lot
Sometimes boondocking means you can just stay in the parking lot at a Belizean zoo for free.

How much water you can hold is not limited by your freshwater tank size. Water can be stored in the hot water tank, and all the lines running to your faucets. If you have a 10 gallon freshwater tank, a 5 gallon hot water tank and some amount of pipe, you may in actuality hold 20 gallons of water. So that’s fun.

If you don’t have a shower in your rig, you can always setup a solar shower, too. This is essentially a (typically black) piece of 4″ PVC pipe that you mount to your roof. You affix a way to put water in, usually with a connection that can easily attach to a hose, and at the other end a way to let the water flow out, preferably in a way you can somewhat control (so you don’t just dump the entire thing on your head in 3 seconds.) Some systems involve setting your solar shower up so that compressed air can be forced into it, allowing the water to come out more quickly I suppose, or you can just angle it so that the water runs downhill. Being able to attach a hose with some type of faucet, even a garden hose “gun,” will give you the ability to get a little wet, lather up, and then spray off without wasting much of the water.

This PVC method seems to be the most common, but there are bag varieties as well. Some people just wait for it to rain, and hope it keeps up long enough to wash the shampoo out of their hair. Some people don’t have hair. Lucky them.

It should be noted that if you love nature enough to want to live in it, you probably shouldn’t take a bar of soap down to the river. Then again, a good swim in the buff can get your crevices as clean as Mother Nature ever designed them to be.

What Goes in Must Come Out

Speaking of nature, and loving it, only a real bastard would poop in the woods without digging a hole, and only a really real bastard would leave toilet paper on the ground. It sucks. It ruins the most beautiful of campsites, and even those of us who go around picking up trash when we get to a place that has been less-than-loved hesitate to pick up someone else’s literally shitty toilet paper.

So please don’t do it.

You’re going to need to poop though.

If you have an RV, you no doubt have what’s called a blackwater tank, and a greywater tank to boot. Greywater is what comes from your shower and faucets, typically just soapy water, maybe a little food debris, and the gunk you washed out of your ears. Blackwater is what you put into your toilet, that sweet combination of brown, yellow and heavenly relief.

For those of you with this setup, you just keep those tanks closed and drive to a dump station when you’re moving on to the next location (or they fill up.) Most RV parks will let you dump for a fee. Many cities, national forest campgrounds and even gas stations will have the same. It’s relatively easy, just remember to dump the black first and the grey second, so the latter can help flush the former from your pipes.

If you don’t have a toilet, you have several options.

You can poop in a bag or a box, and then just throw that in a dumpster when you get back to civilization. This is probably the best option for the planet.

You can dig a cathole, which is just a hole you dig in the ground. It should be a solid 8″ deep and as wide as necessary to fit whatever comes out of your ass into it, plus all of the toilet paper you use. Almost everyone sucks at catholes, and that’s why there is so much toilet paper everywhere. Maybe people are just doomed to be jerks. Maybe by the time you really have to go, you don’t have time to get the full 8″ down or maybe the same type of people who love to come into nature to enjoy it, also think it would be an improvement should Charmin line every tree trunk’s base.

If you can’t dig 8″ deep though, you didn’t do it right, because some animal is just going to come along all, “Whoa, human poo! I gotta have some of that!” and dig it up, spread it around and ruin everything for everyone.

When you’re done, you need to thoroughly cover it back up.

Or, just use a bag and take your crap to the dumpster. That’s the best way.

The final option, aside from just waiting to poo until you get to a gas station or restaurant or something, is a portable toilet. There are essentially two kinds, those which simply drop the goods into a bag and “composting toilets,” but the latter are kind of stupid, too, at least for travelers who have no other home, because your human waste will not compost in the time it takes you to fill it up. So unless you are going home and have a larger composting bin you can then empty it into, maybe it’s time to start stocking up on bags.

As to peeing, well you’re in the woods, go pee up against a tree.

Soup’s On!

The last part of the puzzle is absolutely the easiest. You’re going to want to eat. Propane is your friend.

RVs almost always have propane stoves. Cook on it as you would hooked up at an RV park, or on your gas stove at home. Otherwise, if you don’t have a dedicated stove, just buy a cook stove.

Or cook over an open fire. That’s always a treat.

steaks on a coleman grill
You can get fancy like we used to with this Coleman grill and cooktop…
two boys roasting hotdogs on a campfire
…or let everyone join in over the campfire.

Boondocking is a Privilege

Most of the boondocking you’ll do is going to be on government land, specifically national forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. Given how rarely the government tends to give us free stuff, it’s amazing that here in the US we have such an abundance of this free camping available to us, especially–but not strictly–out West.

It’s our responsibility to take care of this land. Otherwise, the government may take it away, much like your mother might ground you should you leave a mess in the kitchen and stuff your skid-marked undies down behind your bed. It’s called just being a decent person.

a Ford E-350 parked near a yellow cottonwood tree
Eventually, we moved into this.

And it’s not that difficult, either.

Bring along a garbage bag or a few plastic grocery bags. Those things are terrible for the environment, so we might as well give them a second purpose in life. When you get to your campsite, fill up a bag or two with trash. If you can’t find any trash, bonus! The guy before you did his part. And if he didn’t, now you can be the hero.

When choosing a spot, don’t run down a bunch of vegetation, bust off branches or dig up new fire pits. Try and find a pre-established spot, so you’re not adding to the wear and tear, not diminishing from the natural experience we all come out here to enjoy.

aerial shot of a van camped in an oak forest
You don’t need to dig up a new spot to get away from it all.

There have already been instances of places once renowned for their free camping being closed to the public, almost always due to trash, trashing the environment, or something truly jackassical like spray-painting or carving names into ancient trees. Yes, Jason loves Jessica, but 9 out of 10 times that tree is going to last longer than the relationship. Don’t make it suffer a lifetime of scarring just because you don’t know how to post a romantic photo to Instagram.

Where to Find Boondocking

So once you’re all set, where is it cool to just go camping for free?

As mentioned above, national forest and BLM land is your go to. Websites like Campendium have nifty filters that let you specifically find free spots to camp. Or consult your local ranger station.

Here are a few of our favorites out West to get you started:

Washington | Money Creek

a bridge crosses a glacial-fed river, forested mountains surround

Some people say paying for a spot automatically means you’re not boondocking. This is a paid national forest campground, but the only amenities are a vault toilet, no hookups whatsoever, and it’s gorgeous, which means it counts. So there.

California | Alabama Hills

an airstream camping in the middle of rocks, the sierra nevadas in the distance

Easily a prerequisite to calling yourself a boondocker in the American West, the Alabama Hills are 360 degrees gorgeous.

Arizona | Loy Butte

a van parked amidst the sun setting on orange mountains

Endless free camping outside of Sedona, if you can stomach the toilet paper the legions of jacksticks left behind before you showed up.

Colorado – Twin Lakes

campers in the rockies

I mean, if you think that sort of thing is beautiful…

At the end of the day, the United States is too vast and wide open, too beautiful and too free (camping) a country not to at least give it a shot. Boondocking, especially when you do it longterm, is not always easy. If your batteries run low or you just run out of water too early, those can be a bummer. If you blow a flat dozens of miles from any hope of help or cell service, that can be a real bummer. And if you run out of beer 100 miles from the closest well…well.end of article

Questions about boondocking? You’re welcome to hit us up on Instagram!