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RV dry camping and RV boondocking make full time RVing possible on just about any budget! In this RV dry camping and RV boondocking guide you’ll learn everything you need to know to start saving TONS of money on RV camping!
What is RV Dry Camping and Boondocking?
RV dry camping and RV boondocking refer to RV camping without electrical, water, or sewage hookups. There is technically a slight difference between these two terms (which I’ll explain below), but they are mostly used interchangeably in the RV community.
RV Dry Camping?
Anytime you are camping without hookups you are “dry camping”. For example, if you park overnight in the Cracker Barrel parking lot, that is considered dry camping.
What does Boondocking mean?
Boondocking is the RV life dream (if you ask me). It’s taking your RV miles down a dirt road, pulling off onto a beautiful riverfront spot, and making camp where you won’t see or hear a soul.
Most free RV camping falls into the boondocking category.
The official definition for boondocking is dry camping in a remote area, far from people, without any hookups. When you camp on BLM wilderness land you are boondocking.
All boondocking is dry camping, but not all dry camping is not boondocking.
Keep in mind, however, that in the RV world these two terms are generally referring to the same thing. I’ve seen plenty of articles about “Walmart Boondocking”.
When is the Best Time of Year to Dry Camp?
The best time of year to dry camp is definitely the warmer, drier season for the area you plan to visit. It can be difficult (though not impossible) to dry camp in very rainy or very cold weather.
Generally our rule of thumb is that if temperatures are well below freezing every night or if there’s going to be rain every day for a week or more then we go to a different location.
One of the biggest advantages to camper life is the fact that you can follow the good weather!
Best areas of North America for Dry Camping by Season
Summer is a glorious time of year for boondocking in North America! In the summer you can make your way into the mountains of the Western USA.
The mountains of Oregon, Colorado, and Montana offer spectacular dry camping areas thanks to the vast swaths of BLM and NFS land in these states.
We especially love the boondocking in Oregon in the summer. Mt. Hood and the Three Sisters Wilderness are home to some of the most beautiful natural areas in the US, and you can make your way down the spectacular Oregon coast (pictured above)!
Fall is beautiful in the Eastern Sierras of California and Nevada, when these high desert areas reach a comfortable temperature for hiking and rock climbing.
Some of the most beautiful (and cheap) BLM campgrounds are located on the Eastern side of Yosemite National Park. When planning your trip look up Bishop, the Alabama Hills, and Lake Tahoe.
Winter is actually our favorite boondocking season in North America!
In the winter the spectacular deserts of the Southern USA cool down enough to be accessible, and winter is the BEST time of year to relax on the picturesque beaches of Baja, Mexico!
Southern United States Dry Camping
Southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico are home to spectacular desert scenery that is only comfortable in the winter months when temperatures drop to a reasonable level.
Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Quartzite, AZ, and White Sands, NM are all beautiful areas that are far too hot to visit most of the year.
Pro tip: Many national parks have “overflow” camping areas just outside the entrance that are FREE to dry campers.
Baja, Mexico Dry Camping
Just south of California lies the spectacular Baja peninsula. Tom and I have spent several winters boondocking on the paradise beaches of Baja, and it’s our favorite dry camping location in North America!
Winter is the best time to visit Baja due to its extreme desert climate. In winter you can expect daytime temperatures of 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit and dry, sunny weather. Baja is truly a beach lover’s paradise!
In spring you will want to make your way just a little ways north to Utah, Northern Arizona, and Northern New Mexico. With the snow melted away, you can experience the gorgeous scenery without the freezing weather!
Spring is an ideal time to visit the Grand Canyon, Utah’s epic desert scenery, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Where can you RV Dry Camp and Boondock?
There are lots of opportunities to dry camp and boondock in North America. Below I’ll detail dry camping opportunities (without hookups but in more developed areas), as well as boondocking opportunities (without hookups in remote or wilderness areas).
Dry Camping in the USA
Dry camping covers a LOT of camping in North America. Anytime you are without hookups you’re dry camping. Below we’ll cover your dry camping options, and after that we’ll cover boondocking options!
Big Box Store Dry Camping
Most RV travelers have heard of dry camping at WalMart. However, this is becoming less and less possible every year as many Walmart locations now forbid the practice.
Not to worry! There are plenty of other big box stores that still allow RVers to dry camp in their parking lots for free.
Some chains that are known to be RV friendly: Cabela’s, Costco, and Loews.
If there are no signs posted, it’s always good practice to check with the parking lot attendants or the store manager to see if they allow overnight parking for RVs. Checking in with the staff also immediately signals that you are respectful, and will be respectful of their parking area.
Cracker Barrel is a great option for dry camping as long as you have a meal in the restaurant, and they are well known for allowing RVers to park overnight.
Other possible options include IHOP and Denny’s, though this varies by location, so check with the manager when you arrive.
Rest areas are great because you don’t need to check in with anyone, you can just park and relax without needing to talk with anyone, and they’re free.
The downside to a rest area is the noise, they are right off the highway, and there’s constant noise from 18-wheelers pulling in for a rest.
When you pull into a rest area for the night be sure to check the signs for any rules regarding time limits. Some rest areas only allow a maximum 8 hour stay.
Most large truck stops have an area where you can park and sleep for the night. The downsides are similar to rest areas (they’re noisy), but at a truck Stop you can get food, water, and even a shower!
Casinos are our one of our favorite FREE dry camping options in the USA! Most casinos will allow you to park your RV overnight for free in their parking lots even if you aren’t gambling!
Check for casinos on your route, and then look at their website or give them a call to find out if they allow overnight RV parking. For more information on finding free casino camping check out our guide.
National and State Parks
Many national and state parks do offer campgrounds with hookups, but in my experience those campgrounds are never as nice as the smaller campgrounds that require dry camping.
When researching national or state park campgrounds be sure to check the maximum vehicle length allowed. If you have a smaller RV you will rarely (if ever) run into issues with this, but sometimes bigger rigs are too long for dry camping sites in the parks.
Boondocking in the USA
Boondocking is our absolute favorite way to camp in our RV! Boondocking allows you to camp in beautiful natural settings for free!
With over 610 million acres of public lands all over the USA, there are loads of awesome boondocking opportunities available to you.
Below I share the most straightforward ways to find awesome boondocking sites in North America.
It is legal to camp on most BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land for up to 14 days in the United States. If it is not legal to camp in a particular spot it will be well marked with a sign.
BLM RV camping accounts for most of the boondocking in the United States, and most BLM land is located in the Western and Southwestern USA.
To find BLM land visit the BLM site at: https://www.blm.gov/visit
Like BLM land, USFS (United States Forest Service) land is free to camp on.
Visit their website to find USFS land near you: https://www.fs.usda.gov/
Ioverlander Smartphone App
A great way to find boondocking opportunities is through the boondocking app “ioverlander”. This app is updated by its users, and shows boondocking opportunities all over the world!
The app will use your location to bring up a map of all the RV boondocking locations nearby that other users have added. You can see pictures of the area and read notes from other campers.
This app is our number one most used boondocking app, and we highly recommend it!
Ioverlander is totally free, updated daily, and you can find it in your phone’s app store!
How do you manage water when you’re dry camping or boondocking?
Fresh water is the first, and most important, thing you need to sort out before you head into the wilderness to boondock.
Luckily, we have a tried and true strategy for finding, storing, and conserving water when boondocking!
Where to get water
Finding water to fill your fresh water tank is actually pretty easy whether you’re boondocking in the US, Canada, or even Mexico.
In the United States and Canada you can spend a night in an RV park or a campground with RV hookups, and fill your tank there. This is often a good strategy because water will be included in the camping fee, and you can take advantage of other amenities like laundry and hot showers while you’re there.
If you don’t want to spend the money for a night in a paid campground, try to find a large truck stop. Most truck stops will let you fill your water as long as you are filling up your gas tank there (you may be charged a small fee for this, but it will often be free).
If there are no truck stops nearby check with regular gas stations, as they will often have a hose you can use to fill your tank.
In Mexico you can pull into any water purification store and they will fill your tank with purified water for a small cost.
One of the key skills when boondocking is learning to use less water! The less water you use daily, the longer you can stay camped in a beautiful, scenic spot.
We have a few tried and true methods to conserve water that I’ll describe below.
First and foremost, we never use our RV shower when we are boondocking. It is very difficult to conserve water using our RV’s shower because it pumps a lot of water per second, and we can’t control that flow rate.
Instead, we carry a solar shower with us, and as soon as we arrive at our site we fill the solar shower and hang it in the sun to warm the water. It takes several hours to warm the water, but it will get plenty hot in direct sun.
When we’re boondocking we will often shower outside with the solar shower. If it’s remote enough we don’t worry about a curtain, but if there are other campers around we will just bring our solar shower into our RV shower stall and use it there.
If you shower outside be sure that you’re using biodegradable soap and shampoo! We use Dr. Bronners castille soap.
Conserving water dish washing
Dishwashing is a very different experience when boondocking because it’s important to conserve as much water as possible in the process.
We use a large spray bottle filled with soapy water for dishes that aren’t too dirty. We give the dishes a spray with the soapy water, and wipe them down with a paper towel.
For dirtier dishes we use a 3-basin washing system that saves a lot of water. First basin is for soaking, second is for soapy water/scrubbing, third is for rinsing. We use a collapsible bucket for one of the basins, and we consider a collapsible bucket a boondocking necessity!
Avoid filling up your grey tank
We are careful to never completely fill our grey tank when we boondock, because we always want to be sure that we have some space available in the grey tank in case we run into bad weather or something else that keeps us inside our camper for a day or two.
With that said, you do want to be sure that there is at least a few gallons of water in your grey tank before you dump your black tank. In most RVs your grey tank water helps rinse out the dump pipe after you’ve dumped the black water.
To avoid filling our grey tank we use biodegradable soap, and dump dishwater outdoors in the most low impact spot possible (a big patch of empty dirt rather than in bushes, for example).
When you’re boondocking it’s really important to pay attention to your impact on the wilderness around you. Always leave a campsite as clean as, or even cleaner than, than you found it!
How to purify water supply when necessary
There may be times when you have to get water from a source that feels a little sketchy. This has only happened to us in very rural areas, but remember- better safe than sorry! If you have any doubt about the purity of a water source go ahead and purify the water from that source!
In the US and Canada, simply attaching an RV water filter to your fill hose is a simple way to ensure that your water is purified.
In Mexico, you may have to occasionally fill up from a tap water hose. You definitely NEED to purify this water!
In this case, not only do we run the water through the water filter, we also add the appropriate amount of bleach to our tank to kill micro-organisms while still leaving the water safe to drink.
Refer to this EPA water purification chart to see how much bleach you should add to your freshwater tank to purify it. For example, for our 17 gallon tank we add 102 drops of 8.25% bleach. To be sure it mixes up, we add about 1 gallon of water first, then add the drops of bleach, and then add the remaining 16 gallons.
You can also boil water before you use it if you are concerned about the source of your water supply.
How do you deal with waste when you’re boondocking?
Waste disposal can be tricky when you’re boondocking, but we’ve figured out some easy ways to manage our waste.
What do you do with garbage when you are RV dry camping or boondocking?
The number one most important thing you can do to manage garbage when you are dry camping is to reduce the amount of garbage you are creating. You will have to find somewhere to dispose of your garbage legally, so the less garbage you create, the better.
Purchase items with less packaging to start with
This is a big one. When we started boondocking we began really paying attention to packaging. We try to buy items with the least amount of packaging possible. This means no individually wrapped items, and cereal bags are better than cereal boxes (which have a bag inside them)!
Another example is buying a big container of yogurt instead of several individual servings, and buying a liter or 2 liter bottle of soda instead of individual cans/bottles.
You can burn paper products in your campfire, but ONLY paper products. Anything with a plastic coating should not be burned (trust me, the fumes are awful, you don’t want to test this).
We use a lot of paper towels in our RV, and they can easily be burned in the campfire.
Keep in mind that this only works if you are in an area where campfires are legal, and when there is no burn ban in place!
Campsite dumpsters when you pay for a night
This is the number one way we dispose of our boondocking trash. When we return to civilization after a boondocking stint we purchase a night in a paid campground or an RV park.
This gives us the opportunity to throw our trash in a legal dumpster, and if we pay for hookups it allows us to dump our black tank, and refill our water.
Plus, after a week or two boondocking, a long, hot shower is pretty awesome.
Where do you poop when you’re dry camping?
I know, I know, gross! But this is an important question! There are a couple answers to this, and it really depends on your personal preference and comfort level.
You can certainly use your RV bathroom, just be sure that you have added the correct chemicals to your black tank to ensure that the waste will break down properly. Also, be sure to keep a close eye on the tank monitor, as you never want to overfill your tank!
Another option, which will be familiar to backpackers, is digging a hole for this purpose. You want to be sure you do this right, so I recommend reading this article about how to properly dig a “cathole”.
A third option is to consider installing a composting toilet in your RV. We think this is the best option of the three, and are certainly considering installing one for ourselves!
Composting toilets break your waste down into a dry, clean fertilizer that can be spread safely in the wilderness. No more black tanks to dump!
Where do you dump your black tank when dry camping or boondocking?
NEVER dump your black tank anywhere other than an approved dump station! Problems with black tanks being dumped in wilderness areas have led to camping restrictions on some public lands, and rightfully so. Plus, there’s an enormous fine if you get caught!
Your black tank’s waste water is a bio-hazard, and must be disposed of properly. Luckily, it’s easy to find a place to dump your RV’s black water tank.
RV dump stations can be found all over North America. The easiest way to locate one is to use an RV travel app like Allstays or ioverlander, as these list dump stations near you!
Even without an app, just look up nearby RV parks and truck stops. Most RV parks will allow you to dump your tank for a small fee, and same with truck stops.
As I mentioned above, when you finish a stint of boondocking it’s well worth it to purchase one night in a campground with hookups so you can dump your tank, fill your water, and take advantage of all the amenities.
Dry Camping Tip: Have a small trash can in your RV bathroom where you throw away toilet paper. Even the “RV-safe” toilet paper can clog your black tank, and cause you a huge headache. We recommend never putting any type of toilet paper in your black tank.
How do you get power when you’re boondocking?
There are several strategies for electricity while dry camping/boondocking. The two major options for generating your own power are a gasoline generator or solar panels.
Both of these options charge your motorhome’s coach battery, and then your electronics will pull the charge from the battery.
Here I’ll go over the pros and cons of each option!
What’s better- solar power or a generator?
In my opinion, solar power is the way to go. I love that solar power is clean, low maintenance, and most of all it is QUIET. I find the rumble of a generator extremely distracting, especially if your goal is to enjoy the nature around you.
With that said, solar power has its limitations, so there are going to be cases where a generator just makes more sense.
You’ll want to ask yourself a few important questions when deciding between a generator and solar power.
What kind of appliances do you need to power?
Solar panels can easily power your lights, water pump, and can keep your personal electronics charged. We carry a 100 watt suitcase style solar panel in our RV which provides us with more than enough power for our needs.
However, if you wanted to run a television, microwave, or air conditioner in your camper then it’s unlikely you could get enough power from solar panels.
Additionally, if you have a medical device like a CPAP machine that requires power, it’s unlikely a solar panel will work for you.
How comfortable are you with noise and fumes?
If you do get a generator, expect it to be quite noisy and smelly. Additionally, you will need to carry enough gasoline to fuel the generator.
Gas is heavy, and generators are heavy, so you’re looking at carrying a lot of extra weight with a generator.
There are some nice high-end generators nowadays that are much more quiet- a feature that fellow campers and wildlife will appreciate if you do choose a generator for power.
What kind of solar panel will you need?
There are a LOT of options when it comes to solar panels, and we recommend you do some research to see what makes sense for your personal needs and budget.
We chose a folding, suitcase style 120 watt solar panel. We chose this option for a few reasons:
- It allows us to set our solar panel out in the sun while we park our camper in a shady spot. If we had a solar panel mounted on our roof we would need to park in a sunny spot to get full power from the panel.
- It is one of the most affordable solar options. Our panel came with a built-in inverter, and with wires that clip right onto our RV’s coach battery.
- Since our panel is portable we can take it with us when we car camp and camp at festivals.
Ways to Conserve Electricity While Boondocking
“How long will my battery last while boondocking?” is a question we hear a lot! Your battery should never run out of charge if you hook it up to a power source (solar or generator), and are careful to conserve electricity.
When we purchased our motorhome we immediately replaced all of the light bulbs with LED lights. This saves a LOT of electricity, and helps us make the most out of our solar power!
Other ways to conserve electricity include: turning lights off when not in use, waking up and going to bed with the sunlight, and turning off the water pump when you aren’t actively running water (most RVs have a switch for this).
Propane Appliances, and how to Avoid Running out of Propane
Propane kitchen appliances are the best choice if you plan to be dry camping or boondocking in your RV.
You can save on electricity by using a propane refrigerator, range, and oven. Most RV refrigerators allow you to switch between electric power and propane, which is super convenient for boondocking. Just be sure you don’t run out of propane!
Avoid Running out of Propane
The best way to avoid running out of propane is to carry two full tanks with you at all times. When empty the first tank, hook up the second, full, tank, and go get your empty tank filled. This system ensures that you are never without propane.
One standard (20 pound) tank of propane lasts us about two weeks, and that runs our refrigerator, stove, and oven.
If your camper has an internal propane tank, you can install a kit that will allow you to use external tanks as well. I would recommend carrying one standard tank that can be hooked up when your internal tank is empty.
And if you need help installing this connector, I recommend this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZpVk3CIqUQ
RV dry camping is an awesome way to save money on RV camping, AND to get out into some beautiful wilderness with your RV!
Wondering whether boondocking is for you? Read about why we avoid RV parks!
For more information on boondocking, moving into an RV, and the RV lifestyle check out my ebook Nomads in Campers!
Are you planning an RV adventure and don’t know where to start? Check out this RV Trip Planning Guide!
Last year we spent 6 months traveling Southeast Asia with only carry-on backpacks! Read more about our Southeast Asia adventures here.
Every year we head to the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man! Read more about Burning Man and our favorite festivals here.
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