We’ve all had those dreaded nights in a campground. Generators roaring. Music blaring. Noisy groups of people who don’t seem to understand the concept of “quiet hours.”
We struggle to cope, burying our heads under pillows and shoving plugs into the folds of our ears. Didn’t we come out here to find peace and tranquility? To get away from people? Sometimes, for those of us who want to commune with nature, campgrounds can suck.
That’s where RV boondocking, or free camping, comes into play. Boondocking is known by many names, including wild camping, dispersed camping, free camping and dry camping. Although dry camping refers to camping without hookups, which can be done in a campground.
Boondocking is also known as wild camping, dispersed camping and free camping.
Boondocking, on the other hand, is camping for free, and usually not in a campground. You can boondock in urban settings, such as in WalMart parking lots, or in the middle of nowhere on public lands. We definitely prefer the latter, but if you’re in travel mode, a parking lot may be your best bet.
Boondocking is an amazing way to find solitude in nature, to hear the wind in the trees and a babbling brook. You get far from other campers and noisy generators. Now that we’ve tried boondocking, we may never be able to go back to campgrounds again.
We’re going to explain how to boondock and what you’ll need to find free, beautiful campsites.
First of all, is boondocking even legal? Is it safe?
Boondocking sounds too good to be true to some people. I mean, if it’s free, there must be a catch, right? Some of the common questions we hear are these: is boondocking legal? Is boondocking safe?
So, before we get started into how to find free campsites, we’ll address these common concerns when it comes to free camping.
Is boondocking legal?
Yes, boondocking is legal in designated areas. You can’t just park on the side of the road anywhere and tell local law enforcement you’re boondocking. With urban boondocking, you can usually stay at Walmart, Cabellas, truck stops, rest stops, casinos, etcetera. Do your research. When you’re boondocking in nature, you’ll camp on land run by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or U.S. Forest Service.
When you’re on public lands, you typically can’t boondock near campgrounds, trailheads, picnic areas or on the side of just any well-traveled road. Boondocking is done in specific parts of public lands, and we’ll get into how to find those free campsites later.
Is boondocking safe?
Yes, boondocking is usually safe. You find more weirdos wandering around cities than you do down desolate forest service roads. That being said, it’s good to prepare yourself for any possible run-ins. One RVing couple carried bear spray and a foghorn to ward off any unwelcome people or animals.
If you’re boondocking in bear country, follow the guidelines offered in that region. And remember: your home is on wheels. If someone is giving you the creeps or you don’t feel comfortable, move your rig.
Boondocking Etiquette: Tips for successful free camping
Boondocking, aka free camping, means camping without hookups. That means you’ll need to supply your own electricity and water. Paid campgrounds come with a variety of amenities like flush toilets, running water, showers and WiFi. You won’t get any of that when you’re boondocking.
Whether you’re in an RV or a campervan, you’ll need to be self-sufficient. But that’s the fun of it all, right?
You can run out of water fast when boondocking.
Be sure to fill up your holding tanks before taking off for free camping. If you’re in a campervan, you may want to invest in foldable water containers. We have a 2-gallon foldable container that we always fill up before boondocking.
Or, if you’re camping near a water source like a river or stream, bring a water filter.
In an RV, it’s important to keep a close eye on your water consumption. Some RVers like to invest in low flow showerheads and aerators for faucets.
Use a solar shower for your evening rinse or keep wipes on hand. We love these Sea to Summit wipes from REI.
If you do need to use your RV shower, take a “navy style” shower, which means shutting the water off while you lather up.
Think about your power needs when you’re camping for free.
Power when boondocking means two things: solar or a generator. Many campervans and RVs have a solar system which powers internal house batteries. Those then provide power for refrigerators, microwaves, fans, heaters, and your devices.
If you don’t want to bother with a solar system, you can bring a gas-powered generator or a solar generator.
With gas, you’ll need to haul around a lot of spare gas to keep your systems running. A solar generator runs off a portable solar panel, or your cigarette lighter. See our review of the best solar generators here.
Have a plan for your trash.
Free camping means you usually won’t be near any sort of trash receptacle. It’s a good idea to plan your meals using the least amount of packaging as possible. That means a lot of good whole fruits and vegetables. When you drive into town or to a trailhead, you can toss your trash there. We try to use a reusable trash bag to cut down on plastic waste.
Bring plenty of propane when you head out for RV boondocking
When you’re boondocking, you’ll probably be using a propane camping stove to do your cooking. We use a single-burner Jet Boil camping stove which fits neatly inside the van. It’s a good idea to have some backup propane on hand. You don’t want to run out in the middle of a meal!
Going to the bathroom when you’re boondocking.
We are avid backpackers so we don’t mind going to the bathroom out in the wild. Just be sure to do your business far away from any stream or rivers – at least 200 feet. We carry a portable bidet which helps us stay clean using freshwater. Some RVers or van lifers opt for a composting toilet so they don’t have to deal with black water or dumping. Never heard of composting toilets? Check out our review of the best composting toilets.
The size of your rig matters when you’re looking for free campsites.
Not every rig can fit down every dirt road to find a pristine boondocking spot. It’s important to plan ahead, read reviews, and scout on food or on a bike if you need to. There’s nothing worse than driving down a rugged dirt road in a huge Class A RV and not being able to turn around.
Plenty of websites and apps you use to find boondocking sites will give you tips on if your rig will fit in that spot. We also highly recommend Marianne Edwards RV boondocking guides, which describe every campsite in amazing detail!
Be mindful of the weather.
We recently found a great free campsite in Death Valley National Park (see above photo). However, it was in the middle of a huge wash, which is not where you want to be during a rainstorm. Failure to check the local weather conditions could turn out to be deadly when you’re dispersed camping. You don’t want to be caught in a flash flood or a snowstorm when you’re out in the boonies.
Stick to roads and established free campsites.
There’s nothing worse than seeing a pristine meadow with huge RV tire tracks. Do everyone else a favor and stick to roads and established campsites when you’re out RV boondocking. You’ll be surprised at how many fire rings and large parking spots you’ll find in the middle of nowhere. Keeping to these established sites means less damage to the wilderness.
Be mindful of your neighbors.
If you see other people in a boondocking location, don’t camp right next to them. And don’t run your generator all night. You are all out there for the same reason: to get away from other people.
Respect the land.
I probably don’t have to say this, but it’s always good to have a reminder: respect the land where you camp. I’ve heard of some boondocking sites shut down because campers destroyed them. Don’t leave trash lying around or drive over sensitive vegetation. The land is welcoming us into it’s home, let’s treat it with respect.
How to find free boondocking campsites on public lands
Most of the boondocking sites you’ll find out in nature will be on public lands. These are public lands run by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and National Parks.
We recently discovered campers can boondock off any gravel road in Death Valley National Park, as long as it’s 1-mile from a day-use or paved road. Also, we found a stunning campsite on a forest service road on the edge of Sequoia and Kings Canyon. You never know where you’ll find awesome dispersed camping!
You never know where you’ll find amazing free campsites!
Regulations will be different in every public land you visit. Some forest services roads allow boondocking on one side of the road. Others allow boondocking on both sides. Sometimes, entire campgrounds run by the Bureau of Land Management are free. If you’re ever in doubt, you can always call the local ranger’s office.
We stumbled on our first boondocking site after we saw a sign that said: “dispersed camping allowed”.
There are a bunch of apps and websites out there to help you find free campsites. We recently used iOverlander to find boondocking sites in both Death Valley and the Alabama Hills.
These websites and apps often include reviews from other campers and sometimes, photos of the campsite. I love that iOverlander works without needing a cellular data connection!
The only problem with using websites and apps to find sites is that everyone else is doing it, too. You might drive down a long, gravel dirt road to find another RVer already parked there.
If you want to find secluded sites, you’ll need to use the interactive U.S. Forest Service Visitor’s Map and the official Motor Vehicle Use Maps. To read through an awesome tutorial on finding sites this way, check out this boondocking article by RV Hive. Eventually, I may try to find sites this way, but it’s much more in-depth and requires a lot of research.
Finding free campsites using boondocking guides
Since I don’t want to spend hours looking through interactive U.S. Forest Service Maps, I recently purchased several RV boondocking guides.
Purchasing all these books costs about the same as a night in a campground!
These guides are written by frugal RVer Marianne Edwards and are a wealth of information. Marianne and her husband have been traveling by RV for eighteen years, and have scouted out most of these boondocking locations themselves. What they didn’t scout themselves they depended on trusted reports from friends and family members. A footnote next to each campsite tells the size of rig Marianne thinks can fit into the site.
Marianne even tells you where dump stations are near the campsites and gives suggested itineraries. The books give details on the elevation, view, cell phone service and how to get there. Plus, they won’t cost you more than a single night in a campsite.
So far, Marianne has written six boondocking guides, which are all updated on a regular basis. I’ve purchased the guide to Southwest Utah as I want to camp there soon, and am planning on buying more guides.
Here are the boondocking guides you can get:
- RV Boondocking in Arizona
- California Boondocking: The Sierra Nevada Mountains and Coast
- California Boondocking: The Desert and Eastern Sierra
- Boondocking in Southern Utah
- RV Boondocking in Southern Texas
- Boondocking in New Mexico
Marianne offers an amazing 60-day guarantee, and you’ll also get a free 23-page ebook about boondocking to go along with your purchase. I just think these guides are treasure troves of information and I can’t recommend them enough if you want to try RV boondocking.
How to find urban free campsites
Urban boondocking sites aren’t as romantic and fun as camping in nature. But it is good to know how to find them if you’re on a long road trip and need to stop for the night.
You can find urban boondocking sites using the same apps as you would to find nature sites. Many of these apps are crowdsourced, meaning RVers update them with information. You’ll see big box stores, rest stops, casinos and random parking lots marked on the map.
Here are some of the private properties typically available to overnight camping:
- Cracker Barrell
- Camping World
- Truck Stops like Flying J and Pilot
- Sam’s Club
- Home Depot
Before spending the night in any particular parking lot, you might want to reach out to that store manager and ask if it’s okay to spend the night. That way, you’ll avoid the dreaded flashlight in your window at 2 am.
How to boondock using membership sites
If spending the night at noisy truck stops or rest areas isn’t your jam, there are two membership sites that offer forms of boondocking. For both of these websites, you’ll need to pay an annual fee for access to unlimited free campsites. It’s really not a bad deal if you think about how much a campsite normally costs!
Boondocker’s Welcome – free camping in driveways on private property
Boondocker’s Welcome requires a membership fee of $30 per year to use the service. Once you sign up, you can browse a huge range of privately owned land to park your RV. Much of this land is in someone’s driveway! This is a great way to camp for free across the United States, and you’ll meet some great people along the way.
Or read this in-depth article: How to find free RV camping using Boondocker’s Welcome
Harvest Hosts – free camping at wineries, golf courses and farms
Harvest Hosts is a membership program that gives you access to all sorts of interesting private properties to park your RV. These businesses are anything from wineries, to farms, to golf courses. The only catch with Harvest Hosts is you need a self-contained RV to participate in the program.
Conclusion on RV boondocking and free camping
Boondocking on public lands is a great way to find free, secluded campsites in nature. You’ll save money on campgrounds and will be far from noisy campers and generators. You can boondock in any length of RV as long as you scout out your location first. There are a variety of apps and websites available to guide you toward free sites, or you can use Forest Service maps or call the ranger’s office.
Urban boondocking is a great way to save money while traveling from park to park. You can usually find free overnight parking at big box stores like WalMart and Cabellas. Also, you can stay for free in many rest stops and casinos.
Boondocking will save you so much money over the long run! Just imagine how much extra you’ll have every month when you’re not paying for campsites. That’s more money for gas, food, books or even wine (my fave).
We hope you enjoy boondocking as much as we do. Good luck on your free campsite adventures!
Other posts you’ll like:
- How to find stunning campsites when you’re RVing
- 10 essentials you’ll need for boondocking
- The best off-road campers for going off the beaten path
Kristin Hanes is a journalist and writer who lives on a sailboat and in a Chevy Astro van in San Francisco. She worked in radio news for 15 years before a massive layoff in 2016. Kristin has written articles about alternative living published in Good Housekeeping, Business Insider, Marie Claire, SF Gate and The Bold Italic, among others.