The Ultimate Guide to Finding Free RV Camping
The open road awaits, and what better way to enjoy an outdoor adventure than riding cross-country in a recreational vehicle? For those with less ambition, there are even great options close to home that allow for rest and relaxation.
Many travelers experience the freedom of enjoying nature’s many bounties by traveling from campsite to campsite, taking time away from the rigors of daily life with an old-fashioned road trip.
However, understanding how to be self-sufficient can be an intimidating experience for many novice RVers, and finding campsites can prove both challenging and expensive.
Although it means giving up some modern comforts, there is an option that can save a lot of money by providing free parking and no additional expenses: RV boondocking.
Not to worry – this guide will provide all the details on how to enjoy life as a boondocker, including tips on where to find free camping and compensating for life “off the grid.”
What is Boondocking in an RV?
In short, “boondocking” is a slang term for “dry camping,” which means enjoying the traveling and camping experience without many modern commodities, such as power, sewer access, or water hookups.
Free parking does not necessarily mean delving deep into the backcountry; it can be as simple as finding a suitable highway rest stop. There are a variety of options available to a savvy boondocker to ensure that extended traveling is efficient and cost-effective.
Without the expenses that come with staying at an overcrowded RV park, boondocking not only allows campers to save a considerable amount of money but also allows the pleasures of stripped down life, frontier style.
Of course, there are options that make it possible to still enjoy some amenities, if going fully dry is a more exciting experience than desired.
What to Know Before You Decide to go Boondocking
It can take a little time and research to learn how to be a proper boondocker. Otherwise, it is possible to find oneself stranded without a place to stay or facing self-sufficiency complications, which can be a stressful experience at odds with the relaxing atmosphere most RV trippers are seeking.
First, consider the boondocking benefits:
- It is free!
- Campers do not have to suffer overcrowded or noisy RV parks.
- With seclusion comes peace, quiet, and the ability to commune with the natural environment.
- Many pay locations require scheduling in advance, so boondockers enjoy the flexibility to travel where they want, when they want and are not tied down to any specific location.
- Without modern amenities, it is possible to enjoy a life away from technology and experience simplicity.
While these are fantastic benefits and are many reasons why so many people decide to give boondocking a shot, there are a few important considerations to take into account:
- Cell service may be unavailable or of low quality, depending on the location.
- As expected, there are some rules and regulations about where RVers can park for free.
- “Off the grid” means just that – access to amenities such as showers, trash receptacles, water hook-ups, power, picnic tables, bathrooms, and other luxuries will more than likely be unavailable, which means finding alternatives if necessary.
- Roads can often be rough and more difficult to navigate further from civilization.
- Stores, medical facilities, and other services will likely be unavailable or distant, depending on the chosen location.
Boondocking Tips for Beginners
More than likely, the first boondocking experience will involve a lot of trial and error. While one of the greatest benefits of boondocking is the amount of freedom and flexibility associated with it, the very first time should involve a good amount of planning to ensure there are fewer of the latter.
Consider these helpful tips to help prepare for the journey:
Choose a Date and Location
It is a good idea to have at least the first destination established (and a backup location just in case) so more time can be spent making sure that all supplies and other necessities are prepared. After all, one of the most common problems newbie boondockers face is not having something that they will later need upon arrival.
When more experienced, weather may not be as significant of an issue, but it is best for the first trip to take place during ideal weather conditions. Keep in mind, there may not be cell service available upon arrival, so make sure to check the weather for as many days in advance as the duration of the stay at least, so there are no untoward surprises.
Whether renting an RV or using an owned model, run through a maintenance check to reduce the opportunity that something could go wrong, especially if the journey will be extensive. Remember the basics, too! No matter how tip-top the RV might be, running out of gas in off-country terrain is a challenge most do not want to face.
Bring More than Sufficient Supplies
One of the most important tips for boondocking is to have the right supplies and more than enough in case of the unexpected. This does not just refer to the absolute essentials such as food and clean water, but also to clothing, toiletry supplies, cooking supplies, and anything else that is part of the RV camping experience.
Charge Technology in Advance
Even if the point of the adventure is to get away from technology, have all cell phones charged and ready to go. This can make all the difference in the event of an emergency or if additional research is necessary to help solve beginner problems on the road, especially in the likely event that the site has no electricity.
Even if the location does not have cell service, it can have several benefits (such as the flashlight feature), and can still prove a life-saver in a difficult situation as it may be possible to drive to cell service range if the need arises.
There are a wide variety of other tips that can help ensure there are no bumps in the road when it comes to the first boondocking journey:
- Avoid arriving at night, as ample daylight is important for establishing and organizing the initial camp location.
- Determine whether the site has generator hours beforehand, and if not, consider bringing a generator if necessary.
- Be conservative with power, as it is often a limited resource when boondocking.
- Prepare supplies for cooking and other necessary activities that require little or no electricity.
- Ensure the RV has an appropriate water supply and practice methods to conserve water. Always fill the water tank completely before leaving home.
- Have portable jugs or other containers to refill water without having to move the RV. A drill pump can make transferring water to the tank much easier!
- Establish an effective plan for dealing with human waste, as this can draw animals or contaminate nearby water.
- If using a generator, bring extra gas. For solar panels, make sure there is an inverter.
- Using reflective covers on RV windows is a cost-effective way to regulate temperature.
- Leave any site as good or better than it was upon arrival. That means picking up any garbage and avoiding causing any damage to the land itself.
- Consider a short journey for the first time as a dry-run to work out the kinks. That way, if something goes wrong or is forgotten, it is easier to accommodate.
How to Boondock Safely and Responsibly
RV camping comes with the same risks that traditional campers face, but with the added protection of having solid walls and lockable doors and windows. That being said, there are certain considerations for maintaining safety while boondocking:
- Upon discovery of an incredible boondocking location, make sure staying there is legally acceptable or get appropriate permission to avoid potential risks.
- As traveling off-country can be unpredictable, make sure that any country road is wide enough to accommodate the recreational vehicle’s size and currently accessible, even if that means walking a short distance down the road or scouting with another vehicle in advance.
- Remember that the weather can affect road conditions as well, so always have a good idea of upcoming forecasts.
- Make sure that any potential location will enable the RV to turn around – it will make departure significantly easier and ensure that it will not become trapped or stuck while maneuvering.
- A major point of boondocking is enjoying nature without the presence of others. However, because of this solitude, take precautions to ensure protection from local wildlife and other potential emergency situations, having a contingency plan in place for worst-case scenarios.
- Respect the land, the wildlife, and other people. Empty waste tanks at approved locations and be especially careful not to start a forest fire.
Essential Supplies for RV Boondocking
It can be difficult to decide what is necessary for boondocking (especially for the first time) because there are such a wide variety of options. While what will actually be required depends a lot on the location and what resources are available, here are some top choices to ensure that any RV boondocking expedition can be a success.
- A generator and/or solar upgrades
- Gas and extra tanks
- A power bank for charging electronics
- A portable water tank
- Water bladders, bags, or jugs for spare water and transporting
- Water filters
- A composting toilet
- A pump for transferring water easily
- More food than expectations dictate
- Foods that are energy-dense and simple to prepare, along with healthy snacks
- A portable grill
- Recyclable dishware and utensils, including paper cups
Safety, Security, and Comfort
- Medical kits
- Tool kits
- Bug spray
- Door and compartment locks
- Space heater(s)
- 12V fans
- Mobile signal boosters and chargers
- An atlas or maps
- Weather appropriate and extra clothing
Rules of Boondocking
There are, of course, rules that should be followed when boondocking to maintain safety and environmental purity. In fact, dispersed camping sites such as National Forests and State Parks have mandatory rules that must be followed.
Here is how to stay out of trouble:
- Leave no trace – pick up everything brought in so that the site appears in its natural state.
- Don’t dump tanks on the ground, especially waste tanks
- Park at least 200 feet from water sources to maintain the purity of the water and vegetation natural resources
- Choose an open spot, preferably one that has been used previously to prevent damage to the natural environment and its flora and fauna.
- Never leave fires unattended and do not harvest firewood without permission.
- Respect the wildlife – do not leave out trash or other harmful contaminants and leave any encountered animals alone.
- Be a good neighbor. If there are others nearby or the property belongs to others, be considerate about noise, waste, loud generator usage, and appropriate distance to avoid being inconvenient to others.
- Know the stay limits and observe them.
How Long Can You Boondock in an RV?
Remember that dispersed camping sites generally allow campers to reside in a specific location for up to 14 days. While taking into account stay limits for specific locations, the only other factors determining how long a camper can boondock in an RV are the camper’s desire and availability of supplies.
Unless using a water purification/filtration system, water is one of the major limiting factors for extended RV boondocking. If unable to create potable drinking water from streams or other sources, make sure to have a large, full water tank and several extra jugs.
Of course, taking care of water usage will preserve it for a longer time. Wet paper towelettes and disposable plates, bowls, and utensils can save a lot of water, as they prevent the need to use as much of it for washing purposes.
Run-off water from some activities can be reused for others, so have a system in place to collect gently-used water for non-hygienic re-use. Also, when using water for purposes such as shaving or brushing teeth, collect a small amount of water rather than letting a faucet run.
Limiting how often people shower is an easy way to conserve a lot of water, as is taking shorter showers during those instances. In the interim, baby wipes and similar means can help maintain hygiene without taking a toll on the RV water resources.
If paper plates are not an option, wash dishes in a bucket or similar limited space. This will save more water than using a sink and allow easy repurposing of the remaining water for other uses that do not require the water to be clean.
It is sometimes possible to refill water from stores or refill stations. Having a transfer pump can be invaluable in these situations as it will make it easy to move water from jugs to the RV tank.
Never dump tanks anywhere other than designated dumping facilities. Wastewater can cause terrible damage to the environment and potentially contaminate water and animals.
Make sure your waste tank is completely empty when beginning the journey so that it will last for a longer period of time. To reduce tank usage, consider only flushing the RV toilet as necessary to eliminate solid waste and limit flushing toilet paper whenever possible, as it takes more water to drain. It also may be an option to use a bush outdoors to limit the need to flush water.
A composting toilet can be a best friend when boondock RVing.
When conserving power, consider the following options:
- Avoid using a propane furnace whenever possible, as the vents use electricity.
- Space heaters, especially the battery-operated kind, can provide an efficient heating alternative.
- Battery-operated fans are an equivalent option for keeping cool.
- An excellent ice chest can serve as an alternative to using an RV fridge.
- Avoid using electrical devices to perform duties that can be done manually, or at least ration these appliances.
- If using solar panels, choose a location that makes sense to generate optimum power.
- Consider using battery-operated lights or even replacing the other RV lights with LED replacements.
Other Things to Consider
Remember that the weather can be unpredictable and can subvert even forecast predictions. Keep extra blankets, warm clothes, rain gear, umbrellas, and other weather-specific gear handy in the event of an unexpected change in temperature or precipitation.
Also keep in mind that this can make road conditions dangerous and could potentially result in an RV becoming mired in the mud.
Have a plan and resources available to prepare for as many contingencies as possible. Also, keep an atlas or paper maps of the area in case necessary.
Top 4 Options for Finding Free RV Parking
When it comes to finding locations to spend the night, there are many options, some better than others. Here are four common options for boondockers:
While not usually the recommended method, sometimes the situation calls for drastic measures. As long as there is not a posted “No Parking” sign or some other deterrent, campers can sometimes get away with a quick overnight without permission. Obviously, the smaller the RV the better chance that this attempt will go undetected, but there is always the risk of a security visit or upset landowner.
When possible, try to acquire permission before holing up for the night on questionable premises.
Store Parking Lots
In a pinch, many large retailers will allow an RV to remain in their parking lot overnight. Obviously, this is a short-term solution with expectations for a single night and not an extended stay.
While this is a better option than unauthorized parking, make sure to contact the store in advance to ensure they have no issue with it or that is exactly what this will be.
This creative moniker is so named because this free parking comes at the expense of family or friends. In other words, this method involves mooching off acquaintances, and getting permission to stay on their land without payment.
However, even family members have limits to their generosity, so make certain not to overstay the welcome. During the time spent on this land, make sure that it remains in the same state (or better!) that it was found while respecting any neighbors.
Each state has options that allow for free camping on public land. This may include areas such as State Parks, Wildlife Management locations, and National Forest Land and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property.
While this is the best free parking method to avoid negative consequences, keep in mind that most of these locations are “first come, first serve” and will have regulations in place, so do the homework in advance.
Fortunately, RVs are generally allowed to stay up to 14 days (verify this), so dispersed camping is a great option for a multiple-day stay. Plus, when the duration expires, it is possible to move to another valid location and restart the clock.
How to Find Boondocking in National Parks
RV boondocking is generally allowed in National Parks for up to 14 days unless specifically stated otherwise.
While National Parks are generally easy to locate on Google Maps or other similar services, another option is to make use of the National Park Service locator, which allows a search by state.
How to Find Boondocking in National Forests
The National Forest Website is a great resource here, providing opportunities for the intrepid adventurer to enjoy some of the greatest natural environments available. They offer a Forest Finder to help seek boondocking opportunities, which allows the user to identify National Forest locations.
Another option is this map provided by the US Forest Service.
How to Find Free Camping in the Backcountry
When seeking lands off the beaten path, remember that one of the best options available is to use dispersed camping.
The Bureau of Land Management website not only provides all rules and regulations in regard to using their public land for camping purposes, but they also provide a camping search and even a cool interactive map to help plan an incredible RV boondocking adventure.
How to Find Free Campgrounds
When trying to find suitable free campgrounds, one of the best methods is to use websites or apps that are specifically designed to promote these locations.
Here are some places to start:
- Freeroam – Offers a wide variety of location searches and provides weather details, reviews, amenity descriptions, and a lot more information to help decide which park to choose.
- freecampsites.net – Using a simple interface, this website is intended to locate campsites near the searcher’s location.
- campendium.com – Another user-friendly website that provides information on free camping sites as well as links to RV Parks and popular dispersed camping organizations like the National Park Service.
Boondocking Apps and Websites
There are many phone apps that make it easy to perform searches for free campsites on the go. Here are some great options as well as other websites that can be useful in finding the ultimate boondocking destination.
- iOverlander: https://ioverlander.com/
- Gaia GPS: https://www.gaiagps.com/
- Campnado.com: https://www.campnado.com/
- The Dyrt (free and paid versions): https://thedyrt.com/
- HipCamp: https://www.hipcamp.com/
- VanLife: https://vanlifewiki.co/
Get Out and Start Boondocking
With this ultimate guide in hand (or on-screen), there’s no reason not to set out on an epic RV boondocking foray.
Remember to keep the first trip simple and prepare accordingly! It can be helpful to design a boondocking checklist before each trip to ensure the completion of all basic RV maintenance and that nothing is forgotten.
Once the maiden voyage is over, the various included resources can serve as guides to a longer journey to more exotic locations.
Boondocking is a great way to escape the bustle and stress of city life and enjoy a rural experience, getting back to the basics with nature. It’s time to enjoy nature’s bounty and explore the many wonders of the wild, so get out there and start boondocking!