The what, why, and how of boondocking.
By Ronald E. Jones, F115768
Your motorhome is “self-contained.” That means you have the ability to live in it for several days without hooking up to utilities. This capability is integral to motorhome design. With the normal systems in your motorhome, you can boondock or dry camp without connecting to water, sewer, and power (commonly called “shore power” “” a term brought over from recreational boating).
It is important to note that you do not have to deprive yourself of anything while boondocking. You live with the same comfort and convenience as you do when hooked up. The wine is perfectly chilled and, if needed, the furnace toasty warm. When boondocking, you simply live a bit more conservatively but without roughing it. I can assure you, we don’t rough it!
Living Well With No Hookups
Part of being able to live without hooking up is accomplished by an alternative electrical source on board. Most motorhomes have special “house” batteries that will run many of the electrical things occupants need to live normally. Those batteries will not efficiently power high-amperage-drawing appliances such as air conditioners, a hair dryer, and others. A generator furnishes the electricity to run these appliances, plus charge the house batteries. Most type A motorhomes have a generator; some type C units may not have one.
In addition to generators, newer coaches are equipped with inverters, which change direct current from the batteries to alternating current to operate 120-volt appliances (TV, microwave, coffeemaker, toaster, etc.). This eliminates the need to start the generator during “quiet time” for a late or early snack. If you have an older coach that is not equipped with an inverter, and you do a lot of boondocking, you might consider the purchase of one. By and large, an inverter has a much more efficient battery charging capacity than older convertors. (Editor’s note: for more information about inverters, please refer to the article titled “Silent Power” in the March 2007 issue of FMC.)
The other part of being able to live normally without hooking up is a function of your RV’s holding tanks. Most motorhomes have three large plastic tanks: one for fresh water, one for gray water (the runoff from all sinks and shower drains), and one for black water (sewage). Some older coaches may have only a fresh water tank and a second tank in which black and gray water are combined.
By taking advantage of your RV’s electrical and water systems, you can live comfortably for several days without hookups.
The Epitome Of Convenience
We frequently choose to boondock because it is convenient. We averaged boondocking 11 nights per month during 2006 and 12 nights per month during 2007 “” whenever it was easy to do. Sometimes dry camping may be your only option, such as at rallies, conventions, and other RV gatherings. Hookups typically are not available, or electricity only is furnished at these sites. For example, this past February, we arrived at FMCA’s Southeast Area Rally in Brooksville, Florida, where we worked as vendors. We were able to plug into a 20-amp circuit. Another example: every January, Quartzsite, Arizona, hosts the largest gathering of RVers in the world, and dry camping is a must for the 10-day event. Even getting your RV serviced may require staying one or more nights, often with no hookups or minimal hookups.
Like yours, my motorhome has those self-contained systems, so we use them. The ability to boondock provides you with thousands of places to stay for those times when you are traveling and find that you are tired, sleepy, hungry, or whatever and not near a campground. Mind you, I’m not “anti-campground.” When I need those things (utilities, space, and security) the campground offers, I pay the fee, stay there, and appreciate the opportunity. Consider this . . . I go to the grocery if I need groceries, go to the barber if I need a haircut, and go to campgrounds when I need campground services. I also use campgrounds when we stay two or more nights in one place.
When meandering across this great nation, as we commonly do, we regularly park overnight at various businesses “” but only with their permission. Following is the policy statement taken verbatim from the Wal-Mart Web site …
“Can I park my RV at a Wal-Mart store? While we do not offer electrical service or accommodations typically necessary for RV customers, Wal-Mart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers. Consequently, we do permit RV parking on our store lots as we are able. Permission to park is extended by individual store managers, based on availability of parking space and local laws. Please contact management in each store to ensure accommodations before parking your RV.” (http://walmartstores.com/317.aspx)
Other places where you may be able to boondock overnight include Flying J truck stops (the area where RVs are permitted), Sam’s Club, Cracker Barrel (only those that allow bus parking, although their bus spaces can be pretty short), Fred Meyer, Giant food stores, Food Lion, Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, Gander Mountain, some rest areas and visitors centers along interstates, Lowe’s, Home Depot, occasional malls, some organizations (Elks, Moose, VFW, American Legion), most casinos, various city parks, fairgrounds, marinas, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, and others. With the exception of rest areas and visitors centers, we always ask permission by calling ahead (if possible) or asking upon our arrival if we were unable to call.
Wal-Mart SuperCenters have 24-hour-security personnel who have knocked on our door to let us know they were there. We’ve been offered a “special” RV parking area, and also have been provided with free electricity (120-volt AC) for the night. All this has definitely enhanced our “one-stop shopping convenience.”
I’ve heard unverified estimates that approximately 800 municipalities nationwide have banned overnight parking city-wide. That number changes as local city councils vote to enact or rescind parking bans, so the only way to accurately know is to call and verify. If overnight parking has been banned in a city, don’t go there and plan to park. That’s why you call and ask. You cannot call rest areas or visitors centers, but they may have signs posted, such as “Nighttime Security.”
Once we lost our motorhome brake lights and definitely did not want to drive at night. We had a service appointment the next day and stopped at an interstate rest area to, hopefully, stay the night. Signs were posted warning, “No Overnight Camping.”
I spotted a state trooper in his car and asked him if we could stay the night. He said sure; they were providing 24-hour security in the rest area, he would be there all night, and we were welcome to stay. I asked about the sign. He said that meant no tents. Remember that commercial business parking lots are not “campgrounds,” so don’t “camp” there. That means no grills, chairs, or awnings out, and no jacks down either, especially in hot weather on their blacktop. Don’t even think of leaving your trash there! It’s a convenient place to park overnight, period.
Don’t assume that if one RV is parked, it must be okay. Many RVers just pull in and park without asking. Seeing other RVs parked there should not be construed as automatic permission. So call ahead, request permission to stay, park away from the store, shop a bit, get/fix dinner, watch TV, sleep, get up, have coffee, and leave. If you are going to stay two or more nights and be a local tourist, find a campground.
I also do not recommend truck parks “” the parking area next to truck stops. Except for Flying J, other major truck-stop companies sometimes tolerate RV parking, but it’s not encouraged. Indeed, many of the truckers don’t like it either. They are required to get off the road (by law) and must find a place to park their rigs, so stay out of their way so they can do their jobs.
Good To Go Anywhere
You are self-contained, so take advantage of the capability. The next time you use your motorhome, practice the suggestions, and have fun while learning how. Doing so, you can stay longer at places like Furnace Creek Campground in Death Valley National Park; the Columbian Icefields in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada; FMCA’s 80th International Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, July 14-17, 2008; FMCA’s 81st International Convention in Perry, Georgia, March 16-19, 2009; an occasional overnight somewhere convenient when you’re tired and need to stop driving; or in a service bay at the dealership.
Travel safely, and we’ll see you there.
You don’t have to change your lifestyle when boondocking, but you will have to do some things differently on a daily basis. Boondocking is easily accomplished simply by being conservative. Here are a few of the many tricks RVers use:
Carry a few gallon jugs of drinking water with you. Use these for cooking, filling the coffeepot, refilling drinking bottles, giving pets water, etc. This leaves more fresh water in the tank for washing, flushing, etc.
Carry the empty jugs in your car. Refill them with potable water at every opportunity.
If you use lots of ice, put an extra bag in the freezer when starting the trip. Replenish when possible.
Use condiments in a squeeze bottle to save washing extra utensils.
Wash dishes using two plastic tubs “” one for dishwater, the other for rinse water. Set them in your sink. Don’t dump this water down the sink into the gray tank. Pour it down the toilet.
Turn off your water pump to prevent the toilet flushing while dumping dishwater.
Use paper plates, disposable cups, and plastic utensils to eliminate some dishwashing.
Plan one-dish meals (casseroles, stews, etc.) to eliminate washing extra pots and pans.
Cook in disposable pans where possible.
Grill outside to eliminate washing of pots and pans.
Use plastic bags with seals as mixing bowls. Squeeze the ingredients to mix well and pour directly from the bag.
Prepare multiple meals simultaneously to utilize preparation utensils and clean up once.
Wipe excess food from pots and pans with used paper napkins to eliminate the prerinse before washing.
Never run water continuously for any reason “” brushing teeth, washing hands, etc.
Pour each person a half-cup of water from the water jugs for brushing teeth and cleaning their toothbrush, and don’t run water at all.
Use a pan to catch the water while waiting for the hot water to come through any faucet “” especially the shower. Heat this clean water for washing dishes.
Take a classic “GI” shower. Get wet quickly (5 seconds) and shut off the water. Soap and wash as long as you want, since there’s no water running. Rinse quickly. If you want to stand under a long, leisurely shower, rent a campsite or a hotel room.
If the next person showers immediately, you won’t have to preheat the water again.
Make sure the diverter for the hand-held shower will completely stop the water flow.
Skip an occasional shower.
For a quick warm washcloth, barely wet one, put it on a paper plate, and microwave for about 10 seconds.
Wash off with a stronger paper towel “” such as paper shop towels available at auto parts stores. Wet and microwave it for warmth.
RV gatherings may offer services including water trucks and the ever-popular “honey wagon” (sewage-pumper truck). Take on fresh water, plus get your tanks pumped out “” for a fee. Paying for these services may be more realistic than moving the coach. Check all tank valves after they unhook. You don’t want them left open by mistake!
More Boondocking Tips
1. This first tip could be considered very basic, and I can hear some of you saying, “Well, duh!” while you read this. But wearing sweatshirts and sweatpants in the evening and to bed during cold weather can vastly extend your boondocking time by conserving both LP gas and battery power.
2. Do not drain your batteries and allow them to go dead before starting the generator to charge them. If possible, run the generator twice a day (the length of time depends on the batteries’ state of charge). The best time “” observing, of course, the quiet time rules “” may be in the morning during breakfast making and in the evening during entertainment hours. Remember that the batteries are about 90 percent charged when the inverter remote panel indicates “float.”
3. Turn off the interior house power during the day. Many motorhomes are set up so the LP-gas refrigerator will work with the house power off, but make sure yours is one of these before shutting off the main power switch (mine isn’t). Battery charging is not affected if house power is off.
4. If you need the furnace during the night, set the thermostat temperature as low as acceptable to keep furnace operations to a minimum. With a hooded sweatshirt keeping your ears and head warm “” where you lose most of your body heat during sleeping “” this will save house battery power and conserve LP gas.
5. Check on small or out-of-the-way lights that use battery power, such as the porch light, storage bay lights, the step light, etc. If the television is not on, turn off its antenna amplification device. Even one light can reduce battery reserves quickly.
6. Starving yourself and then trying to do physical labor leaves you feeling weak, and you may become easily fatigued. This also is true with batteries. Remember, failing to adequately charge the batteries and discharging them past their recommended charge point only shortens their life and decreases the amount of charge the batteries will accept. Keep your batteries charged, especially when you’re heading for the backcountry.
7. Keep flashlights handy. Place a flashlight inside the front door and another near your bed for moving about the motorhome during the night (LED flashlights are becoming the thing to have). If interior lighting is needed, use one light in a central location, such as the hall or central bath. If necessary, remove one or two bulbs to conserve battery power.
8. Build a campfire, if allowed in your camping area, when spending nighttime hours outdoors “” and keep a flashlight handy. Extinguish the flames completely before retiring for the evening. Watch out for any barriers or unexpected obstacles between the site space and fire pit.
9. Water “” fresh and black or gray “” will be a significant limiter to boondocking time. “Blue boys” (portable wheeled holding tanks) can be a great aid in getting rid of waste water in dry Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service camping areas, as well as many state park campgrounds. Just make sure you drain the portable tank before the contents overflow. For fresh water replacement, I recommend having at least one five-gallon or seven-gallon container available. Most of us wouldn’t want to stand there holding a 40-pound to 56-pound (when full) container while trying to empty its contents into the gravity feed opening. I solved this with a 12-volt-DC water pump (I used the same model as I found in my coach, so it became an instant spare). I connect it to a battery, run the input hose into the container and the output hose into the gravity feed, and make sure it doesn’t run dry.
10. Solar panels are passive and green. Although fairly expensive (it may take many years to offset their purchase price given how economical today’s generators are), once purchased, they cost nothing to operate and are a valuable addition for maintaining the charge in the batteries. All you need to do is clean them once in awhile. With the appropriate solar controller, you can add as many panels as you can afford.
— Jim Brightly, F358406, Technical Editor