The whole point of having a camper van or RV is to get outside and enjoy nature. Personally, I like being out in the wild backcountry with very few other people around. This usually means my family and I end up boondocking to enjoy the great outdoors to the fullest. But, not everyone is into this off-grid boondocking life.
Boondocking is when you camp with your van or RV somewhere undeveloped, meaning there are no set campsites, bathrooms, running water, or hookups. This usually takes the form of dispersed camping on public land.
While this isn’t for everyone, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages for me and my family. Let’s dive a little more into exactly what boondocking is and how to make it work for you.
What is Boondocking?
A few different things are essential in order to call yourself a true boondocker. The camping spot you choose must be…
- Legal: trespassing on private land or staying somewhere not designated for dispersed camping on public land is not okay.
- Free: paying for a spot is simply camping, not boondocking
- Undeveloped: even if you dry camp in a designated camping spot, you’re still somewhere that has been prepared for your arrival, thus, it’s not boondocking.
Boondocking is different than simply dry camping, though.
What is the Difference Between Dry Camping and Boondocking?
Dry camping is when you are not plugged in to electricity or water if you’re in an RV. This usually occurs at a designated camp ground without hookups.
For example, you can dry camp at a designated campground as long as you stay self-contained. But, that doesn’t fit the undeveloped requirement of boondocking. In addition, you can dry camp in a parking lot, rest stop, or in a friend’s driveway, but its not considered boondocking. While these options are legal and free – they’re still not undeveloped.
In essence, boondocking is dry camping, but not all dry camping is boondocking.
The Pros and Cons of Boondocking
Boondocking allows you to go places almost completely untouched by man. This gives you raw nature, which is incredibly cool to observe. Rather than spotting a bear that frequents a campground for trash, you might see a truly wild bear who rarely sees humans. Which, in that case, make sure to stay safe.
By boondocking, you’ll have stunning mountain vistas, wildflower plains, and desert scapes that few get to see.
The best parts of boondocking are:
- You’re far away from civilization.
- It’s free.
- You don’t have to keep your dog – or kids – on a leash.
- You can (mostly) make your own rules.
- You meet nature as its intended to be – untouched by us.
But, with great freedom comes great responsibility. While you don’t have to follow campground rules when you boondock, it is essential to protect the land for the next person and for all the plants and animals that live there. I recommend following the Leave No Trace principles, as they have fact-based ways for you to help love the land you’re in.
The hard parts about boondocking include:
- You have to pack out your waste, trash, and anything else that isn’t natural.
- No access to running water, bathrooms, shower, or normal everyday amenities.
- Cell phone access and electricity are usually extremely limited.
- Nature can get dangerous – wildlife and storms can be unpredictable.
- It can get lonely if you’re an extrovert.
Where Can You Boondock for Free?
In order to boondock for free, you need to find public land. The most common agencies that manage public land for boondocking are the National Forest Service (NFS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Many states also allow you to boondock in their parks, but that varies by state and local requirements.
The easiest way to find public land is through boondocking apps, like the Dyrt PRO app, the vanlife app, and FreeRoam. These apps allow you to see where most types of public land are. By zooming in on your destination, the apps will either show outlines of the different land types, dispersed camping spots people have gone before and rated, or campgrounds if you don’t – or can’t – boondock.
Can You Sleep Overnight at Rest Stops?
In short, yes, you can. Truckers do it all the time, although their rigs are built for it. Rest stops are well lit for safety, but that means you’ll want some fantastic blackout curtains if you want to fall asleep. In addition, there will be highway noises all night, and, obviously, there are no hookups and you have to walk to use the restroom.
That being said, they’re a wonderful spot if you need to choose to rest rather than keep driving. When my husband and I bought our Sprinter van, had to drive from Chicago to the Adirondacks. So, we slept at a rest stop on the way back. But, our van wasn’t built out yet, so it was not comfortable at all!
This is a good time to note that there are many Walmarts that allow overnight RV parking in designated spots. However – not ALL Walmarts allow this! You should check with the specific store before spending the night.
Remember, though, that because Walmart is developed, this isn’t considered boondocking.
How Long Can You Boondock?
The length of your boondocking depends on local regulations. While BLM and the National Forest Service have general listed times for how long you can stay, there may be additional regulations based on the specific location. Typically, it’s around two weeks that you can stay in one spot on federal land.
As usual, always check the park’s website for specific regulations on their dispersed camping time limits.
Dispersed camping on BLM land is allowed as long as there are no posted signs saying otherwise. Usually, you can only stay at one site for 14 of 28 consecutive days, so make sure to move around if you’re making a lifestyle out of this.
You can find BLM land maps on their website. Remember, you need to follow Leave No Trace principles wherever you go. This leaves minimal to no footprint behind when you leave, meaning the land is still untouched for someone else to come and enjoy.
There are sometimes paid campsites on BLM land, but remember, that’s NOT boondocking.
National Forest Service Land
The National Forest Service is also happy to host you for your boondocking adventure. To set up on their land, the rules vary depending on the spot. In general, you must be self-contained and can only stay for 16 days. After the 16 days, you have to move at least five miles away to a new spot. But, your camper must always be over 100 feet from any water source.
Do note that all dispersed camping spots are on a first-come, first-serve basis
What does an RV / Camper Van Need for Boondocking?
Your rig will be disconnected from water, electricity, and pretty much any other necessity you can think of for the length of your boondocking trip. In addition, you will likely be out of cell service and the ability to call for help.
So, in order to boondock successfully, your RV or camper van will need:
- Plenty of water and/or a way to make accessible water clean
- A generator or solar panels if you have a large electric draw
- A toilet OR follow LNT principles for taking care of waste
- Refrigerator OR cooler for keeping perishables fresh
- First aid kit for the unexpected
- A table and chairs for relaxing
- A stove/kitchen for preparing food
- Ways to explore nature how you like (ex: good hiking shoes, mountain bike, camera, etc.)
All in all, you only need what you deem necessary. Some stealth camper vans need very little to be lived out of off-grid, while others prefer setting up quite a nice home base for their boondocking adventures and need the amenities to go along with it.
Make sure to test out your rig for a few days within distance of somewhere safe to work out any kinks you might have when boondocking. It’s much better to do a test run and learn issues you could have than get out into the backcountry and have to make it up as you go.
Why I Love Boondocking
I’ve boondocked with my Sprinter van a few times. The most memorable being in Anza Borego State Park in Southern California. The desert was absolutely stunning, and the mixture of mountains, wildflowers, and off-roading spots made for a great vacation.
We took our non-4×4 Sprinter on some dirt roads – and she did great! However, it is essential that you always scout ahead as you drive down dirt roads for boondocking.
There were a few points where we were unsure if our van could make it back up a sandy slope or where we were too large to turnaround. When in doubt – go back and find a new spot. The last thing you want to do is get stuck!
Hopefully, you’ll fall in love with boondocking just as much as we have! It brings a new joy to the great outdoors and is a perfect way to experience life unplugged.
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Lauren Nowack is a freelance writer and story maker living in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. She is passionate about the outdoors, mental health, and living a bit on the wild side. In her free time, she enjoys mountain biking, building out her Sprinter van, and finding a new trail to blaze with her family.