Want to Camp for Free? Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Boondocking

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

If you’re a boondocking beginner or someone who’s heard the word before and wants to know what it means, you’ve come to the right place!

Boondocking or camping in the wilderness can seem daunting, but I can tell you from personal experience it isn’t. Once you’ve mastered it, you’ll have the adventures of a lifetime.

However, there’s a lot to learn before you get started. For example, what do you need to take with you? How do you find free campsites? And where can you legally and safely park?

We’ll tell you everything you need to know in this ultimate boondocking guide.

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

So, What is Boondocking?

Photo Credit: Sierra Eberly

Let’s start by explaining boondocking. Sometimes referred to as wild camping, boondocking is simply a form of free camping or staying overnight in a campervan or RV on land without amenities or hookups. 

That means you’ll have no water, electricity, or toilet connections. There aren’t any bathrooms, picnic tables, or water spigots. It’s just you, your camper, and the piece of land you’re calling home for the night. 

Generally, boondocking is free, but sometimes a permit is required.

What’s the Difference Between Boondocking and Dry Camping?

white campervan parked on a campground
Phoeo Credit: Mitchell Orr via Unsplash

If you’ve heard people mention dry camping and wondered how it differs from boondocking, there’s only one key difference: One can take place on a developed campground, and the other can’t.

In some national or state parks, you might see advertisements for “dry camping” pitches you can book for the night. In these instances, you’re guaranteed a spot to camp within the campground, but they don’t necessarily have hookups. 

On the other hand, boondocking is camping on public lands without paying for any amenities. Camping spots are usually more remote, and you can’t book a spot in advance. 

Is Boondocking Legal?

Photo Credit: The Wayward Home

Boondocking is legal on public lands in most places, but it’s still worth doing some research to ensure you comply with any rules, regulations, or restrictions in the area where you plan to camp.

Generally, there are three types of public land for boondocking. These are: 

  • National Forests
  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
  • State Trust Land

In my experience, the easiest way to learn the rules and restrictions regarding public land is to contact the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office for information. 

Where Does Dispersed Camping Fit Into the Picture?

badlands boondocking area
Photo Credit: Tucker Ballister

Dispersed camping is a form of boondocking, but there are usually designated places to park for the night. This is most common in National Forests, where large areas are protected.

However, dispersed camping spots cannot be reserved, and there is usually a limit to how long you can stay. Forest Rangers often monitor these camping spots to ensure everyone follows the rules and regulations.

You can be issued a ticket if you’re caught staying in non-designated areas or past the stay limit.

You Can Boondock in Urban Areas 

The TAB best teardrop trailer parked in the forest at sunset
Photo Credit: TAB Teardrop Trailers

Boondocking doesn’t just have to take place in the wilderness. It’s also possible in urban areas. However, this is more challenging because there are more laws to follow, requiring more planning.

I don’t usually boondock in urban areas, but I’ve found some great places to stay. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Cracker Barrel: While not every Cracker Barrel allows overnight parking, most restaurants are considered RV-friendly. Whenever I spend the night at Cracker Barrel, I buy dinner or breakfast to say thanks. Call ahead, though, before parking overnight.
  • Wal-Mart: Wal-Mart might be the most popular urban boondocking spot in the US. It might not be exciting, but it’s convenient. However, not all Wal-Mart parking lots permit overnight parking, so call ahead to ask if it’s okay.
  • Camping World: With a name like Camping World, it’s no surprise overnight parking is allowed in some locations. Again, though, call ahead before you arrive.
  • Truck Stops: A lot of truck stops allow overnight parking for RVs and campervans. 

Bear in mind that all of these locations are strictly for one overnight stay, and you should leave early the next morning. Always treat “lotdocking” as if you were urban stealth camping–don’t run generators or set up anything outside, limit your activity outside your camper, and don’t leave any trash behind. More and more of these locations are choosing not to allow overnight camping because people have abused the privilege.

Is Boondocking Safe?

Safety is the most important thing to consider when planning a boondocking trip. Make sure a family member or friend knows where you’re going and how long you’re planning to stay. Create a plan of action for them if they don’t hear from you within a certain time frame.

Wildlife is also something to consider when planning your trip. Mountain lions, bears, rattlesnakes, and coyotes can be found in some places in the wild, so it’s best to take the necessary precautions to avoid encounters.

Simple things like leaving food outside can attract wild animals, so avoid drawing attention this way. If you’re camping with your dog, you should always keep them on a lead so they’ll be safe, too.

What About Water?

Photo Credit: Tucker Ballister

Water is essential for life, so you must manage your water resources efficiently to enjoy a successful boondocking trip. I’ve reduced my water usage to 10 gallons a week. 

Admittedly, I had to make some sacrifices, like limiting showering time, but I was surprised by how much water I could save by making small changes. I’ve listed some of my best tips below!

  • Reduce your water usage by cleaning your hands with hand sanitizer instead.
  • You can use disinfectant wipes to clean surfaces instead of water.
  • A vinegar solution is excellent for cleaning dishes.
  • It’s even possible to save water by cooking meals that require less water. I don’t tend to cook dishes like pasta because they need too much water.

How to Get Internet when Free Camping

kristin and starlink working remotely on the road
Photo Credit: The Wayward Home

We live in a world where we need the internet almost daily, particularly if you’re a digital nomad. Without it, we can’t use Google Maps to direct us, stay in contact with friends and family, or work from remote locations.

Therefore, having a wireless connection on the road is crucial. If you plan to boondock frequently, invest in a GPS communication device or a Starlink system. 

These devices will help you stay in contact with the outside world from remote locations. A Starlink system is especially useful if you plan to stay in remote camping spots.

The Best Gear for Boondocking

campervan parked on the campground
Photo Credit: Tom Zittergruen @nomadxtom and Kaylin Zittergruen @katekeepswild

Beyond a power source, freshwater, and internet connectivity, you might wonder what else you need to take on a boondocking trip. After many years of boondocking, here are the things I think you can’t go without:

  • First aid kit
  • Recovery tracks
  • Extra clothing layers
  • Camp chairs
  • Cooking utensils
  • Kitchen silverware
  • Dining plates
  • A foldable saw or axe
  • An entry mat
  • A small shovel

How to Find Those Free Campsites

Photo Credit: The Wayward Home

You can’t start your boondocking adventure without first finding a good free campsite or campground. Luckily, there are many ways to find somewhere to stay.

One of the best ways to find free boondocking campsites is by making the most of your phone. We have our phones with us 24/7. It’s our communication device, map, and research guide, so it only makes sense to use it to find the best boondocking spots.

You can use your phone to research boondocking spots, contact the local Forest Service, and download boondocking apps.

You’ll find some of the best boondocking apps on the next slide!

The Best Boondocking Apps to Guide Your Way

campervan parked in arizona
Photo Credit: The Wayward Home

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. 
  • 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. 

There you have it–everything you need to know about boondocking. So, what do you think? Is boondocking for you? If it is, start planning your first adventure!

There you have it–everything you need to know about boondocking. So, what do you think? Is boondocking for you? If it is, start planning your first adventure!

Want to Live the Van Life? Here are the 16 Best Vans to Live In

white 2018 mercedes sprinter parked on a ranch during sunset
Photo Credit: VanCamper

If you’re considering living the van life, a lot goes into choosing the right type of van for your needs. If you want a campervan but don’t know where to start, we’ve got you covered! 

I’ve lived in a Toyota Prius, a Chevy Astro Van and now a self-converted Sprinter van. In this post, we’ll outline the best vans for van life so you can travel as a weekend warrior or full-time van lifer.

Van Life 101: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing and Living in a Campervan

campervan parked on the campground
Photo Credit: Tom Zittergruen @nomadxtom and Kaylin Zittergruen @katekeepswild

Have you dreamed of living in a van and waking up in stunning locations? With the increasing popularity among people diving into van life and sharing their experiences on social media, it is tempting to think of van life as an escape from corporate living into a dream world where everything is perfect.

However, if you talk to a van lifer who has lived, traveled, and worked in their van for any extended period, you will quickly learn that there are lows, too. Here is our ultimate guide to getting started with van life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Similar Posts