Boondocking 101: How to Find Gorgeous, Free Campsites

Boondocking, or camping for free out in the wilderness, can be scary at first. We’ll go over the ins and outs of boondocking, where its legal, and whether it’s safe.

Sierra boondocking

So, you like to go camping in your campervan or RV, but do you really need to camp at a campground? 

Well, I can tell you from first-hand experience that you do not need to camp at campgrounds! Even with minimal amenities on board, you can enjoy the solitude of boondocking for days without paying for campgrounds or RV parks. 

You may have heard of boondocking, but what is boondocking? Is boondocking legal? How is boondocking different from dry camping? I’ve got all the answers to your questions, and they are all here in this blog post just for you! 

*This post may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclosure policy for more info.

So, What is Boondocking?

Man standing next to a campervan while boondocking amidst a Joshua Tree Forest
Campervan boondocking in the Mojave Desert

Basically, boondocking, sometimes called wild camping, is free camping, staying overnight in an RV or campervan on land without hookups or amenities. This means no electricity, no water, and no toilets. Typically, there is some “spot” where others have boondocked, often just a circle without vegetation and sometimes a campfire ring. 

It’s very important that although you “can” boondock anywhere on most public land, you understand Leave No Trace principles and never damage vegetation or any part of the land when you boondock. We’ll get into boondocking best practices later, but for now, let’s carry on with some more common questions about overnight parking for boondocking. 

Boondocking Vs. Dry Camping

Woman standing on bumper of Chevy Astro van in a free campsite with snow-capped mountains in the background
A boondocking site near the Alabama Hills

If you’ve heard people talking about dry camping and wondered what the difference is, there’s really only one difference: one can be in a developed campground, and the other cannot. 

You’ll see some campgrounds in state parks or national parks advertise “dry camping” spots you can rent per night for car camping, backpacking, or bike-packing. That means you get a guaranteed spot to camp within the campground, but there aren’t full hookups. You may have access to amenities like bathrooms, showers, and water, but it won’t be at your specific camp spot. 

Boondocking, however, is always referred to as camping on public lands without any amenities and without paying a fee to camp. Spots are generally more secluded, and you can’t reserve your spot ahead of time… you have to pick an area and drive around until you find an appropriate spot to boondock! 

Is Boondocking Legal?

van life of Sierra Eberly
Van lifer Sierra Eberly prefers boondocking

Although public lands are open to anyone to recreate on, there are still various rules and restrictions in place that you must abide by. Unfortunately, many people have taken advantage of our public lands, and some places have been shut down due to people violating rules that are there to protect the land. 

There are three main types of public land that you can boondock on: National Forests, BLM (Bureau of Land Management), and State Trust Land. All three have different laws that include how long you can stay, if permits are required, and how you can recreate (fire bans, no target shooting, no catholes, etc.). 

I have found that the easiest way to understand the laws surrounding public land you plan to stay on is to simply call the local Forest Service or BLM office and ask. You can also visit their website, but sometimes navigation is clunky, and it’s challenging to find the specific information you are looking for. You can also get boondocking spot suggestions and learn about local land use regulations at a visitor center. 

How Dispersed Camping Fits into the Boondocking Picture

Dispersed camping is still technically boondocking, but often there will be designated places for you to camp. This is common in National Forests where vegetation is protected, and there are concerns about campers overrunning an area and causing damage to the forest. 

Dispersed camp spots are always first-come, first-served, and have a limit to how long you can camp in the same location. They are also monitored more by Forest Rangers, and if you are caught violating a stay limit or camping in a non-designated area, they have the authority to ticket you. 

Urban Boondocking

rv with bike rack in walmart parking lot
Image Credit: T-Bone Sandwich via Flickr

Yep, you can even boondock in urban areas! This is a bit more tricky, but with proper planning and the right set up, “camping” in urban areas is totally possible. I don’t urban boondock very often, but when I do have to stay in or near a town, here are some places I’ve found to be safe and convenient. 

  • Wal-Mart: Probably the most common Uban camping spot is a Wal-Mart parking lot. It’s not glamorous, but it’s a convenient spot to sleep if you’re passing through town. Not all Wal-Marts allow overnight parking, so always call ahead and ask if it’s allowed. I’d also suggest some earplugs, as things can get rowdy in those parking lots at night!
  • Cracker Barrel: Much like Wal-Mart, Cracker Barrel is known for being RV-friendly, and many of them (but not all!) allow overnight parking. Always call ahead to ensure you can stay, and for good measure, I always try to order dinner or breakfast from them as a “thank you” for allowing the safe place to park. 
  • Cabela’s: Some of these stores allow overnight parking also – just follow the motto of calling ahead to ask before you go!
  • Camping World: Another common overnight parking spot is Camping World. What is the theme so far? Call ahead and ask!
  • 24-Hour Gyms: Gyms like Planet Fitness, 24-Hour Fitness, and Anytime Fitness technically allow overnight parking since they are open 24 hours… but alas, you should still call ahead to ask! It’s becoming widespread, and some locations prohibit sleeping in their parking lots, even if they are “open” 24 hours. 
  • Truck Stops: Most truck stops have an area where RVs, campervans, or cars can park overnight. Some locations have signs stating that only truck drivers can park overnight because their lots are smaller, so don’t assume you can stay at any of them. 
  • Rest Stops: Like truck stops, many rest stops allow overnight parking or have an 8-hour parking limit. In some states and counties, overnight parking is prohibited at rest stops (weird, right?), so always read the signage when you arrive to ensure you don’t get a knock when you’ve just fallen asleep! You can use an app like iExit to help you find rest stops along major interstates. 
  • Stealth Parking: You “can” park stealthily on some urban streets in select cities that allow overnight parking, but this is something you should never abuse. If you choose to stealth park on city streets, always abide by parking ordinances, arrive late, and leave early. Don’t set up your camp chair on the street to eat your breakfast… move along to a designated public space like a park to stretch your legs and walk your dog, and then go to a normal parking lot for whatever activities you plan to do in the city. 

Where to Go Boondocking?

campervan boondocking in arizona
Boondocking on public lands near Phoenix

Boondocking is typically allowed on any public land, including BLM, National Forest Land, and State Trust Land. You may need a permit to stay on the land, but they are typically easy to acquire and not expensive. For example, in Arizona, you can purchase an annual permit for $15 that allows you to recreate on State Trust Land for up to two weeks per area. 

Some National Forests require a permit, but if you have an America the Beautiful National Park Pass, that might cross over to the National Forest, depending on the area. BLM might have a recreation pass requirement in places like OHV parks or designated hunting areas. 

Many online maps show you where public land is (my favorite is Gaia GPS or OnX Offroad), or you can also use a good ol’ paper map. Many maps have established campground locations or other camping sites you can boondock on or near. 

Always be aware that road conditions are often unpredictable on public lands since they are not usually maintained. What looks like a great road on a map may, in fact, be washed out, muddy, or impassable due to erosion. Drivable roads the previous year may not be when you revisit them. 

There are various apps that you can use to help you find prime locations to camp, complete with photos and reviews. We’ll dive into all the apps later in this article. 

Preparing for Your First Boondocking Trip

woman sits with dog in a campervan
The Wayward Home writer Sierra Eberly boondocking

When boondocking, you need to be more prepared than if you’re going to a campground. Obviously, we’ve established that there are no amenities while boondocking, but there are other things to consider as well, including wildlife, water management, weather conditions, and general safety. 

Addressing Boondocking Safety Concerns

There are many safety concerns to be aware of when boondocking. First, always ensure a friend or family member knows where you are. Every traveler should have at least one emergency contact with whom you share their route plans and check-in. 

Most places you will boondock in are wild. There can be rattlesnakes, bears, skunks, mountain lions, coyotes… you get the idea. The good news is that most wildlife has no interest in human interaction but never encourages it by leaving food outside unattended or having a messy campsite. You’ll also encounter free-range livestock a lot, and although those little calves are cute, never approach livestock. 

If you travel with pets, you should keep them leashed to make sure they don’t get into a spat with a skunk or snake, unbeknownst to you, until it’s too late. 

I travel with a dog, and when I come to new places, I call the local forest service to ask what I need to know. Forest Rangers are always helpful and happy to help. I’ve learned about problem bears, mountain lion sightings, and even poisonous frogs that I otherwise would not have known about. 

Managing Water Resources While Off-the-Grid

Water is, quite literally, life. It’s also something that most people take for granted these days. Did you know a typical shower head has a water flow of 2.5 gallons a minute? That means the average American uses 25 gallons of water for a 10-minute shower. Your freshwater tank will get depleted in no time if you use water as frivolously as that! 

When I started boondocking, I was able to manage my water usage to 10 gallons per week! There are definitely some sacrifices to make, but you’d be surprised how much water you can save with just a few adjustments. 

Some of my water-saving techniques are: 

  • Use hand sanitizer instead of washing your hands with running water constantly
  • Botanical disinfectant wipes, like Seventh Generation, can be used to clean things like cutting boards, dog food bowls, or even silverware, mugs, and plates, depending on what was used in them. 
  • A spray bottle with a vinegar solution works great fr cleaning dishes! Simply spray, wipe out, and let dry. Vinegar is a natural disinfectant, and the smell dissipates as soon as it dries. This has saved me countless gallons of water from not having to do dishes traditionally. 
  • Cook food that doesn’t require a lot of water. I rarely cook things like pasta because you have to dump so much water.  

Staying Connected: Internet Solutions for Remote Areas

making money blogging
Van Lifer using Starlink internet while boondocking

In a world of wireless connectivity, the most common question I get is how I have internet while boondocking. Something you may have to come to terms with is that, on occasion, you might not have any way to be online. Cellular service could be bad or non-existent, and even new technologies like Starlink have their limitations. 

If you plan to be out in the boonies for long periods, I am a huge advocate of investing in a GPS communication device such as the Garmin InReach Mini. The initial investment may seem steep, but you can’t put a price on safety. In the event of an emergency where there is no service, with an active subscription, you can call for help or even text a friend if you find yourself in a pickle.

I once used it to text a friend and ask them to look up the weather forecast because I wasn’t sure if I should stay in the spot I’d parked. 

Here are some ways that I make sure I have connectivity when I need it: 

  • Use an app like FreeRoam that has a cell service layer to help you determine if there will be service where you are going. 
  • Have a cellular hot spot separate from your phone or tablet, as these tend to pull better signal than just a cell phone hot spot. 
  • If you have Starlink, remember that it uses a lot of power – up to 100AH per day! This can be problematic if your electrical system can’t keep up. You also have to have a clear view of the northern sky for it to pick up on satellite signal, so if you’re somewhere like the Pacific Northwest with lots of trees, you may not be able to receive a good signal. 
  • Always have a backup plan! Even if it’s just the rest stop you passed on the way to your destination, always know where you can go if you end up somewhere that doesn’t work for your connectivity needs and you have to move along. 

The Technical Side of Boondocking in a Campervan or RV

woman sitting at a table boondocking in her campervan
Sierra boondocking in her campervan

The whole point of boondocking is for the seclusion and its simplicity. However, there is a technical side to boondocking, such as monitoring your power supply and managing waste tanks and fresh water

Powering Your RV: Generators, Batteries, and Solar Options

There are various ways to power your RV or campervan without hookups. The important thing is to understand how much power you need and what your recharging capabilities are. 

I know people who travel with one little Jackary battery pack and a small set of solar panels, and that meets their needs. I also know people with 1,000 watts of solar on their roof paired with 900 amp-hours of battery capacity (that’s a LOT if you weren’t aware). 

Here are the most common options used to have power while boondocking: 

  • portable power bank can be recharged via solar panels, a 110 power outlet, or a 12v car plug. They come in many sizes and capacities and are great because they don’t require an installation process. Portable battery packs are perfect for the weekend warrior or someone who doesn’t need lots of power. 
  • Generators run on fuel and can give you power for as long as you have fuel. They are often used with larger RVs, but unfortunately, they are very noisy and often produce stinky exhaust fumes. Generators are frowned upon while boondocking because if you have neighbors, you will most likely interrupt their peaceful camping experience while you’re using your generator. They also are not eco-friendly. 
  • An in-house battery system paired with solar panels on your rooftop is the most popular way boondockers have electricity while camping. This system setup is eco-friendly, efficient, and silent. 

Needless to say, you don’t have to be plugged into an outlet to have electricity while boondocking. Many RV power systems are more efficient than a regular house and can continue to provide power for days on end, even without replenishment. 

The key is to understand how much power you will use and have your poster system build accordingly. 

Keeping Tanks and Appliances in Check

If you have an RV or campervan with black, gray, and freshwater tanks on board, you’ll need to monitor them and ensure you don’t overflow (or run out) during your stay. If you don’t have a gauge on your tanks to monitor levels, visually check your tanks daily if possible. You’d be surprised how quickly a gray water tank can fill up! 

Never dump your black tank on the ground! Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen all too many times… it’s not only disgusting and unsanitary, but the chemicals used to break down waste in your black tank are toxic and can be detrimental to the flora and fauna surrounding the dump area.

Your black tank should only be emptied into a designated dump station. You can use apps like Campendium to find them, or even call a local campground to ask if you can use theirs (usually for a fee). 

For freshwater, it’s incredibly important to understand how much water you use daily and monitor accordingly. I usually carry an “emergency gallon” if I run out of water and have to drive into town to refill unexpectedly. Always take into consideration warm weather conditions and elevation since you’ll be drinking more water to stay hydrated in the heat and high mountains. 

If you use propane for heat or cooking, you’ll also need to monitor this. It’s no fun to realize you don’t have a backup cooking method or that you can’t run your heater if you run out of propane unexpectedly. 

Considering RV Size and Mobility for Rugged Terrains

Sierra boondocking
The Wayward Home writer Sierra Eberly boondocking

Understanding what your vehicle is capable of navigating is essential when boondocking. Many tow companies won’t come to remote locations, and if you end up stuck, you might be at the mercy of a good samaritan to help you get moving again. 

If I’m unsure of road conditions, I always get out and walk the road before driving it. If the road starts narrowing and I’m not sure if I can turn around, I don’t continue down the road. If there are big boulders in the road and I’m not sure if I have clearance to drive over them, I turn around. It’s better to err on the side of caution than end up stuck in the boondocks where no one else can get to you either. 

Apps and Websites for Boondockers

There are many resources for boondockers to use, including boondocking apps, websites, and even forums or local networks. I’ve listed my top picks that have helped me the most in over three years of boondocking!

The Best Boondocking Apps to Guide Your Way

You have your phone with you 24/7. It’s your map, communication device, entertainment, and research guide. It makes sense that there are lots of apps available to use to help you find boondocking spots. Here are what’s on my iPhone’s home screen: 

  • iOverlander: the bible of van life, this app lists locations where other boondockers have stayed, and it includes reviews and photos to help you determine if it’s somewhere you’d like to explore. Keep in mind this is user-generated, and some locations are listed on private land and not actually legal to boondock on. Always double-check locations and ensure they’re on public land. 
  • Gaia GPS: I have found this app to be most helpful due to it’s map layering that includes public lands, cellular service, and even weather conditions. I’m also in the backcountry trail running or hiking a lot, so I use it for that purpose as well. 
  • Opensignal: this is a great resource once you arrive at a location to check the strength of your cell service. You might have 4 bars of 4G, but oddly sometimes that doesn’t mean anything, and the speed is still very slow and unusable. 
  • Windy.app: You’ll never check the weather more than when you’re boondocking, and this app is incredibly helpful. You can set up a custom view and see things like wind direction, precipitation, and more. Even Apple’s native weather app has made some recent updates, adding more options, so as long as you have a weather app that works for you, just learn how to read it and be aware that weather changes quickly in the wilderness!

Websites That Help You Find Prime Boondocking Sites

When I’m researching, I prefer to work off my laptop and look up websites instead of scrolling endlessly with my phone. A few websites that might be helpful to you are: 

  • Free Campsites.net: This is much like iOverlander, but there isn’t an app for it. It’s a good starting point if you’re curious about what’s in the area and you’re planning out a trip. 
  • US Forest Service: There is so much information here it can be overwhelming. However, you can search by state or forest and look up things like where dispersed camping is allowed, if there are fire warnings or weather restrictions, or even if accessibility is limited. 
  • Bureau of Land Management: Just like the Forest Service website, there is a plethora of information here for the curious wanderer. It’s just specific to BLM land. 
  • Harvest Hosts: This is a paid subscription that gives you access to farms, breweries, wineries, golf clubs, and even public attractions that you can boondock at in trade for supporting the business. You can opt to add “Boondockers Welcome” to your membership, a service where people allow you to park on their private property, sometimes free of charge. 

Networks That Offer Unique Boondocking Opportunities

If you’ve thought about it, there’s a forum or network for it. You can usually find a Facebook group for almost any region providing tips on boondocking or camping in general. There’s a sub-Reddit for everything. There are Instagram and TikTok accounts dedicated to every aspect of boondocking, type of camping, and road-tripping. 

I personally have had the best luck with Facebook groups and have utilized them for support when I broke down, as well as tips on where to camp in secluded areas. 

Boondocking Essentials: What You Can’t Do Without

Beyond fresh water, a power source, and some form of internet connectivity, you might be wondering what else you should bring on your boondocking adventure. Well, after three years of boondocking, here are my most-used items:

  • Camp chair: This may seem obvious, but investing in a comfortable, functional camp chair will make your boondocking experiences so much more enjoyable. Especially if you tend to enjoy your morning coffee outside in nature instead of inside an RV. 
  • Entry mat or rug: It’s dirty out there! Having a simple rug or mat in front of your RV door will help tremendously with keeping outside elements outside. 
  • Clothing layers: Temperatures fluctuate a lot in the wilderness, and weather can shift quickly. Having layers that you can use throughout the day will help you stay warm or cool as the day progresses. 
  • Axe or foldable saw: If you like to have campfires, you’ll appreciate having a small axe or even a foldable saw on hand to chop firewood into small pieces so they burn better. A saw also comes in handy if a small tree falls over the road blocking you in. I had this happen once, and I was lucky to have had a saw with me so I could cut the tree out of my way!
  • Recovery tracks: These are super helpful if you get stuck in sand or mud, and can mean the difference between having to call a dow truck or not. 
  • Shovel: A shovel also comes in handy for helping you get unstuck and can be used for things like dousing your fire or digging a cat hole if needed. 
  • First aid kit: Always carry a first aid kit equipped with basic items such as bandages and antibiotic ointment. They sell pre-made kits that are designed for different types of trips and how many people may need to use it. 

Leave No Trace Principles for Free Campsites

A boondocking site in Arizona

Leave No Trace principals go beyond packing out your own garbage. When boondocking on public land, your camp spot should look no different when you leave it than when you got there, unless you’ve cleaned up garbage someone else had left behind. 

Don’t drive over plants or rut up soft ground when parking. Don’t burn your garbage or wood with nails in it. Pick up your dog’s poop. 

This all might seem like common sense to you, but you’ll be surprised how much damage someone can do in just a few hours to a campsite that was otherwise clean and untouched. I’ve come up to spots with garbage all over the place, dog poop all around the campsite, ruts that tore up the land, and even small trees knocked over by someone trying to park a large rig where it doesn’t fit. These are the things that will ultimately shut down our public lands, so please be kind to the land and thoughtful toward the next person camping when boondocking. 

So, Are You Going to Try Boondocking?

Chevy Astro van with a chair next to it and mountains in the distance at a free campsite in Death Valley
A boondocking spot in Death Valley

Now that you understand what boondocking is, how to find spots to boondock in, and some tools to help you have a great experience, where will you be boondocking first? I personally love boondocking in Arizona in the winter months the best since there is so much public land, and it always feels like the spots are accessible and safe. 

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5 Comments

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  33. Your site is good reading for the uninformed. However everything on your site is an advertisement . Your knowledge of van conversions is limited to directing people to websites selling something. You provide no technical information nor do you direct people to websites that provide this type of information.
    The majority of van camping enthusist are doing it on limited revenue. Directing people to usefully free forums and sites is where the majority of best practices and useful information are found. Your site would be much better if this information was provided.

    1. Kristin Hanes says:

      Hi Ted! You are right, I don’t provide much technical instruction on van conversions yet because I haven’t done one! We are actually converting our first van now so I hope to be able to provide more insight to this in the future – although I am not a technical writer nor a builder so I’m not sure how in depth those articles will be. The products I direct people to are good products that I think help a great deal and I’ve heard this from my readers. I’ve also linked out to Parked in Paradise and Far Out Ride often, who have a wealth of free knowledge on their sites about building out a van. I’m glad you’re finding some of the other info on my site useful

  34. Hello Your information was very helpful to me. I’m just starting to read up on car camping because I really wanna try it so I can see as much of the world as possible. So thank you

    1. Kristin Hanes says:

      Awesome! glad to hear it!

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