We’re only 2 months into the new year and multiple state and national parks have reported that their campgrounds are fully booked for the rest of 2021. This comes with little surprise as COVID cancels festivals and travel plans for the second summer in a row. Americans are desperate to get outside and have some socially distant fun with families and friends. If you’re like me, you might be a little frustrated with the surge of people looking to snag up all the best sites. It can be hard to commit to camping in a specific location in August when It’s only March. When it comes to roadtrips, I like to go where the wind blows me. If you’re new to the RV or tent life, primitive camping can be intimidating. There’s some knowledge and gear that you’ll need to ensure safety and success of your campground-less camping trip, which RVers also call “boondocking” or “dispersed camping”. Boondocking can mean camping in the middle of a national forest, or pulling over in a Wal-Mart parking lot to spend the night. Wherever you decide to boondock, the idea is that you’re camping in a place with no electric hook ups, water spigots or campground hosts. With that being said, primitive camping has tons of advantages. One of them is that there are <em>usually</em> no reservations required. If you’ve never tried boondocking, this summer might be a good time to get acquainted with this camping method. As an experienced boondocker – I’ve highlighted some things you might want to know before going off-grid.
The benefits of boondocking
Boondocking, or primitive camping, can be a great way to truly experience nature. Without the high traffic roads and constant noise of a popular campground, the wildlife comes alive right outside your RV. If you’re not looking to stick to a consistent schedule during your road trip, boondocking allows you the freedom to pull over and camp on a whim. The weeks I’ve spent boondocking have been some of the most peaceful camping trips of my life. With little to no human interaction to disturb the peaceful sounds of the mountains, it’s worth getting the extra gear needed to make primitive camping an option for your rig. If you’re traveling on a budget, boondocking is a great way to get away with a few free nights in between paying for campgrounds.
Where are you allowed to boondock?
National Forests and BLM land is where most RVers and Vanlifers find free, legal boondocking spots. National Forests are public lands managed by the <a href=”https://www.fs.usda.gov/”>USDA Forest Service</a> for timber, hunting, preservation and fishing. There are over a million more acres in the US that are reserved for National Forests than National Parks. BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management, which is a different but similar federal organization that manages over 27 million acres of public lands in the US. While both of these organizations serve many different purposes, both allow recreational access to public lands in the form of dispersed camping.
Gear to take boondocking:
- Packing in water: My favorite way to pack in water is with my Aquatainer – it never leaks in the car, holds 7 gallons and has two spigots to avoid air bubbles in your stream of water
- Filtering fresh water: There are several different water filtration systems on the market that you can use to filter water from a lake or stream into drinking water. I have this Platypus filter system which works great, but since it can takes about 1 minute per liter of water, you shouldn’t rely on these filters as your only source of drinking water
- Cooler with ice: Keep your perishables fresh in a cooler that is bear-proof to keep critters from breaking in
- Chopping wood: A saw or an axe will ensure that you’re able to break up downed logs into firewood. There’s a debate in the camping community about whether a saw or axe is better. If you have enough room, I’d pack both.
- Biodegradable toilet paper
- Trowel for burying solid waste – a regular shovel works, but it’s good to have a lightweight trowel you can bring hiking with you
- Grill or camp stove – remember to pack extra propane or charcoal
- Lighting – headlamps are best for cooking when it’s dark out, but it’s good to have some lanterns that can light up the campsite at night
- Biodegradable soap – for both your dishes and your personal hygiene, Dr. Bronner’s is always my go-to
- First Aid Kit – remember to restock any missing supplies before you head out to your boondocking location
- Pepper spray – or bear spray, or mace or any other kind of self-protection deterrent that can be used in cases of an animal attack such as a bear or mountain lion. Be sure to keep your pepper spray handy and know how to use it – pepper spray is useless in an emergency if you don’t know how to turn the safety lock off
Finding a campsite
- National Forests require all visitors to camp 100-200 ft away from roads, trails and water sources (rivers, lakes, streams, etc…)
- The best campsites are found, not made. Creating new campsites causes more damage to the native plants and species. Find a clearing that existed before you arrived
- It’s best to back into your primitive camping spot so that if you have to leave quickly in the middle of the night, you will have an unblocked route to pull out in a hurry. For this reason, it’s also good to park on an even surface that doesn’t require large leveling blocks
- Find a secluded spot – it’s better to find a tucked away campground that’s off the beaten path so you’re RV doesn’t attract the unwanted attention of a passerby who may see your unattended rig as an opportunity for theft
Venturing away from your campsite
If you leave camp for the day to go exploring, there are a few things you need to do before heading out:
- Secure all food – there likely won’t be any bear boxes at your primitive campsite. Make sure your food and other fragrant items are locked inside your car/RV, packed inside a bear-safe cooler or secured in a bear canister
- Take down any hammocks – if you’ve got your hammock strung up in between two trees, it’s best to take them down while not in use. Deer and buffalo can get caught in them and become injured.
- Write down where your campsite is – if you’re parked off a dirt road in the middle of a big national forest, it can be easy to lose track of where your campsite is. Write down the GPS coordinates or some natural landmarks so you can find your way back.
- Most importantly – lock your RV doors!
Cooking while boondocking
- Pack out all trash, waste and food scraps. Yes, even food scraps are considered litter (banana peels can take up to two years to decompose) and can harm animals whose digestive systems are not equipped to eat fruits and vegetables that aren’t native to the area.
- Make sure your cooler is locked up (some coolers come with locks, other don’t), this prevents bears, raccoons and insects from sneaking into your food
- Pack in enough ice to last your whole trip, the amount of ice you’ll need depends on the outside temperature, cooler rating and size
- Follow local guidelines on campfires and be cautious with your firewood. Only use fallen dead wood found near your campsite, never bring in outside firewood and never cut off branches from live trees
- The safest way to cook at your primitive campsite is with a propane camping stove
The bathroom situation
If you don’t have a toilet on your rig, the bathroom situation can deter many people from straying away from a campground. The truth is, if you have the right gear, the bathroom situation really isn’t so bad. There’s a couple different ways to “deal with your shit” without plumbing:
- The easiest and cheapest solution is to dig a 6inch deep cathole that is at least 200 ft away from the nearest water source and 200 ft away from your campsite. Bury your solids (human and animal waste) and cover up the hole when you’re done.
- Make sure you you pack out your used toilet paper or buy biodegradable TP that you can bury with your solid waste
- Don’t place any large rocks over the cathole as that can prevent the sun from properly breaking down the solid waste
- A pop-up toilet seat like this one makes everything a bit more comfortable
- If you’re in an area (like Yosemite National Park) where all waste needs to be packed out, or you think the ground is too hard to dig there are a few products on the market that are good for packing out waste. These Cleanwaste bags are one item that’s popular in the backpacking community.
Parking lot boondocking
- Boondocking in a national forest is my favorite way to camp for free, but there are other options out there. Lots of RVers will boondock in parking lots or in friends’ driveways when they need a break from the road. It’s a great free way to get some rest and save money on a long road trip.
- For a list of stores that allow overnight parking, check out this article from the Boondockers Bible
Safety tips for public parking lot boondocking:
- Stay aware of your surroundings, follow your instincts and leave if you feel unsafe while parked in a lot
- Block out all windows with reflectix – some cities don’t allow sleeping in your car, but law enforcement usually won’t bother you if they can’t see you through the window
- Keep a self-defense weapon in your RV and know how to use it
- Extend your slideouts in the parking lot
- Make a scene. The best way to boondock in a public parking lot is to stay quiet, so I would refrain from getting your BBQ pit out and playing loud music
Boondocking is a great way to stretch your budget on the road and find some unique places where no one else is camping. Be safe, lookout for your fellow campers and be sure to leave any campsite better than you found it – even if it is a Denny’s parking lot.
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