Boondocking or Dry Camping in an RV

Alternative Parking at $ Places

Even die-hard “boonie rats” sometimes use RV parks. Flush the tanks well. Do laundry. Do RV maintenance, on and on. Secret is to find cheap parks, not $25 a night resorts. There are lots of them without dance halls and such for less than $15. There are many that date back to the 50’s and 60’s, usually behind service stations or el-cheapo motels. They have primitive electric, water, sometimes a dump. Some are quite charming. Some, believe it or not, only charge $3 to $5.

Off season at RV parks can be cheap. A typical park in CO charges big bucks but closes much of the place down in winter (no water and no sewer unless you move the RV). Electricity, however, is left on. Parking on such a site (in this “storage” mode) is possible for about $1 a day. No snow removal so you have to be careful about selecting when to get stuff done. Electricity is about $1 a day and an extra $1 if you’re going to run an electric heater. Not bad. Especially since simple RV storage lots sometimes charge about the same with no electricity and won’t let you stay in the RV or work on it.

At some places, especially in the east, there is no such thing as “inexpensive” and the campgrounds are usually booked solid anyway ( RV hell). Go elsewhere is the easy answer. But if you can’t (working or selling a house or ?) check the Mobile Home Parks. County fair grounds can be nice. Many (but not all) charge far less than camp grounds for electric, water and dump — sometimes have full hook ups. They can be a real fun place to park. If you’ll be there a while, check for paid work or free camping for minimal work with management or jobs with vendors at special events. Parking amidst a bunch of carnival people can be a real treat (like the night the guy with all the lizards left the cage door open).

Military people (active and retired) can park at “Fam[ily] Camps” on many bases. This used to be a good deal (cheap or free) but isn’t anymore in most places. The Gov’t decided that recreational stuff had to pay its own way — no more taxpayer subsidies (which is fair enough). You’ll see this same thing at Corps of Engineer places, National Forests and Parks, etc. However, some military bases have rod and gun clubs and similar recreational facilities out in the maneuver (boonies) areas where you can park. These are usually not publicized. Some National Guard training bases also have recreational facilities. They can be VERY nice.

Native American [Indian] Lands can be great places. Some have full-fledged RV parks with reasonable fees, entertaining cultural programs and tours. It’s possible, if you know what you’re doing, to park on a Native American’s private turf.  This can be complicated but can be a great experience.

Equipment for Long Term Parking — is the big difference between that and overnights, weekends or rallies. Some of us have elaborate setups that cost so much we could pay campground fees for many years. But there’s more to it than that. There’s freedom! We decide where we’ll go and for how long.

You can boondock for extended periods with little more than standard RV equipment. Ways to transport water, dispose of sewage, beef up battery bank and charge batteries can be simple or elaborate. Below are some simple ones.

  • Water can be transported in simple jugs. But an extra water tank in your toad and an inexpensive pump is easy to add and a lot more convenient.
  • Sewage can be transferred in many ways, like the common blue tote tank on wheels (called “Blue Thunder” because of the peculiar noise it makes). But this can be quite inconvenient, as can carrying poop about in a bucket to sneak it into a pit toilet when the ranger’s not looking. Serious boondockers usually invest in a macerator pump and install a sewage transfer tank.
  • Pump the sewage out of the RV before going to town or wherever. Get rid of it…. someplace.
  • Fill the fresh tank before returning.
  • Don’t get the hoses mixed up.
  • Adding more batteries is relatively easy. But you’ve got to have a way of keeping them charged or they’ll die. Some people put the extra batteries in tow/toad and they get charged while driving. A simple cable allows connecting them to the RV when back “home.” Not a swell solution, but it can work. Best is to install “proper” batteries in the RV.
  • Generators are another way to charge batteries. It’s the most inefficient method of all. Most RV generators charge batteries through the RV converter. All you get that way is 3 to 4 amps of actual charge going to the batteries (NOT the huge capacity the generator is really capable of — contrary to what most people think). And the generator will need to run for long hours and thoroughly piss off your neighbors.
  • Some generators have a DC output that can charge batteries, directly, at over 30 amps DC, and get the job done a lot quicker. Better, but the maintenance, fuel, etc., makes it less than an attractive solution.
  • If you have a generator, keep it, because nobody will pay you much for it. It’s a good backup.
  • Using your automotive engine to charge batteries when parked isn’t smart. The military does it all the time, but they can just get new vehicles when they wear out prematurely, you can’t.

Sophisticated Long Term Parking — The High-Priced (sometimes) Spread

Some of this stuff doesn’t really cost much. Some of it can cost a bunch. Keep in mind that this ain’t like buying a pick-up truck — where you have to buy the whole thing at one time.

  • Electricity — Solar Photovoltaic Panels are the best solution. They’re expensive, but even one full-sized module can get you through a rally or a power outage. Some people, who are VERY conservative (or who just don’t use very much electricity) find only one is OK all the time. Most people find one per battery is adequate. It goes on from there. You’ll need a regulator (the best — and NOT the most expensive — is the “Solar Boost” Model 2000 or Model 50 from “RV Power Products”). The panels will need to be properly mounted and connected.
  • High-output alternators are available that allow quick charging from your vehicle engine. Most are high-priced junk with puny innards that soon crap out. “Wrangler Power Products” makes the best.
  • You need a quality battery bank, not just the cheap junk that comes with most RVs.
  • You need a good “digital” multimeter. They can be quite expensive, but what you need for an RV is available for only $40.
  • Converters, Inverters and Independent Battery Chargers. Standard RV converters are in almost all cases, absolute crap. Few serious boondockers use them.
  • You really need to install an independent battery charger (for use from commercial electricity or a generator). Inverters are VERY confusing because most RoVers don’t know how to evaluate them. Many RoVers just grab a piece of junk off the RV store shelf. A good inverter isn’t likely to be found in an RV store. The quality independent battery charger will cost you about $425. Quality Inverters will cost big bucks also, but will include an independent battery charger that’s worth over $425. (Do the math, it’s simple.)
  • Water and treating/filtering water can be expensive or can be inexpensive. It depends on where you get your water, how you store it, etc. Water is one of the LEAST understood aspects of RoVing and one that is treated most casually by boobs.
  • Sewage is another of the LEAST understood aspects. Most RoVers simply dump anything and everything in the tanks, toss in some toxic, RV big-name, “no smell” stuff and suffer a lot. Pathetic!
  • Water heaters and Space heaters (furnaces) that come with RVs simply aren’t very good. Serious RoVers either replace them altogether or augment them with better equipment. One heater not mentioned (it will be) is the so-called “Mexican” water heater. It looks like the typical, round, tall household water heater. But, it has a firebox in the bottom and will burn anything from charcoal to wood to corn cobs etc. Some serious boondockers use these and those who know a bit about plumbing have sometimes connected them to circulating pumps and heat exchangers (from industrial surplus places) for radiator-style space heating as well.
  • Refrigeration and Cooling can be better done than with standard RV junk.
  • Cell Phones work (most places but not all) and can be inexpensive.

Tools. Many of us carry an abundance of tools. Some boonie rats can weld things and rebuild engines in the middle of nowhere. You don’t need to do this, but you do need to do simple repairs and you need the tools to do it. Start with a simple set of sockets and combination open end/box end wrenches (“metwrench” is good and fits both U.S. and metric). Get a second set of standard U.S. combo wrenches up to about an inch or so. Get really good screwdrivers (as well as wrenches above) from Sears or similar and get offset and close quarter types as well. Get some decent pliers, a hammer, etc.

  • Get a half dozen or so “vice grip” type pliers (those new ones Sears sells that can be used as wrenches are superb and if something like your air conditioner compressor ever decides to fall off, you’ll need them.).
    Examine your vehicle. There will be at least one nut or bolt that you’ll need to remove some day that’s huge (maybe 1¼ or 1½”). Buy those wrenches as singles. You might need a “crazy” offset wrench to reach bolts in odd places.
  • Learn how to use a vacuum gauge. Get a simple trouble-shooting book.
  • Two tools most RoVers never consider are a suitable wheel-lug wrench and a good hydraulic jack (not the pieces of crap that came with the vehicle). Get a quality 12-ton hydraulic jack from an auto store. Get a ¾” socket handle/driver (they call them “breakaway bars”) from a good auto store and about a 6″ extension bar so the breakaway bar won’t be at an angle when you [try to] remove a lug nut. Buy a good socket (at same store) that fits your wheel lug nuts (you might need more than one size if you also tow a trailer or toad). Buy a slip-on extension handle for the breakaway bar (or get a piece of common galvanized pipe about 4 feet long that will fit over it from a hardware store a lot cheaper). Yes, you can buy special, RV lug nut wrenches (for about $200 – 400). Yikes!

Ideally, you’ll never use the tire changing tools. You’ll subscribe to a top-of-the-line Emergency Road Service (NO, not AAA, or some gasoline company — that’s just silly) as furnished by Escapees Club (same one — but a bit cheaper — as used by Good Sam — and both are now Camping World affiliates). However, if you’re a serious boondocker, even the best road service might not be able to find you (or you be able to call it). You do, really, need to be able to take care of yourself sometimes.

Legend of America on the road.

Spare Parts — and Other Parts. As a minimum, experienced boondockers carry: Ignition module. Spark Plug and Coil wire set. Spark plugs. Ignition coil. Alternator. Voltage Regulator (see Wrangler, mentioned earlier, for external regulators for GM and such which are far superior to the OEM junk on your RV). Starter. Fuel, oil, and air filters. Full set of fan-type belts. Full set of pre-formed engine water hoses. 10′ of ½” common water system (vehicle engine) hose. 10′ of appropriate sizes (for your engine) fuel and vacuum hose. An abundant supply of stainless-steel hose clamps in various sizes. Rolls of #10, #12, #14 wire and an abundant variety of connectors and a butane soldering iron. At least 12 quarts of engine oil and 12 quarts of transmission fluid (you’ll seldom use a qt of tranny fluid in a year, but if you ever blow a line, you’ll need at least 12 to refill). Power steering fluid. Brake fluid. Why carry all this stuff that you can buy anywhere? Because you might be in nowhere! If you want to park in the boonies, you’d best know how to survive in the boonies.

Miscellaneous. Aluminum duct tape, not the gray stuff, will cover holes and hold stuff together. “Kool Seal” makes a really gummy butyl tape that WILL seal leaks. Stainless-steel pot scrubbers, not ordinary steel wool will keep critters out of holes.

NOTES: I often refer to replacing standard RV junk with better stuff, but if your appliances are working OK, use them if necessary. Get info on the better things so you’ll know what to get when the time comes.

Circuit boards on appliances are one of the “things that can drive you nutz.”  Get them now, not when something craps out.

Working on the Road. The BEST source for info is Workers on Wheels. Coleen Sykora. 3213 West Main # 306. Rapid City, SD 57702

There’s great boondocking in Canada and Mexico.

TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). Boondocking isn’t “free.” You’ll pay for it by helping and sharing, be it in money, picking up trash or any number of other ways — not the least of them being political activism to insure we don’t lose it all. When your RV club or other organization requests that you write your congressman, DO IT! Don’t assume that other people will. They won’t.

One RoVer recently remarked that there is a lot of personal responsibility associated with this lifestyle. We need to take care of ourselves, our rigs and watch out for others as well. Sometimes we need to be our brother’s keeper, because anyone can have a momentary “brain phart” and be headed for trouble.

What price freedom?

phred Tinseth © 1999-2002 Reproduction Permitted

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2 thoughts on “Boondocking or Dry Camping in an RV”

  1. Great article. However I have never heard a single person use the term independent parking. I’ve always heard it called boondocking or dry camping… 30 years rving, and I’ve only ever heard these two terms talking about it.

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