When you close your eyes do you picture your RV camped by a brook filled with leaping rainbow trout, on the edge of a wildflower-covered meadow with elk grazing nearby, or beside a mirror-surface lake reflecting a blazing sunset? If you do, you also know that these wilderness paradises have few campgrounds and those campgrounds seldom have RV hookups for sewer, water or electricity.
Camping at a wilderness site requires boondocking skills—the means of living without those electrical, water and sewage hookups available in RV resorts. But you’re in luck. RV manufacturers make these homes-on-wheels with just the right equipment (sometimes with a few added tweaks) to allow you to camp on your own.
You have to search for pristine campsites because they aren’t listed in the campground guides. But if you know how and where to look, you can find them and camp for free on America’s public lands managed by agencies like the U.S. Forest Service. Away from crowds, you can mingle with deer and eagles beneath towering pines. These tips will help you learn how to camp without hookups and find the perfect forest campsite.
You can take any RV manufactured within the past several decades into the wilderness and boondock as long as your resources hold out. The basic equipment items that you need to dry camp (without hookups) are a house battery separate from your starter battery, a holding tank for fresh water, and holding tanks for waste water from the shower, sink, and toilet. Fortunately, all modern RVs have these features.
However, with a few optional items, you can extend your boondocking days beyond what you would be able to with just these basic features. For instance the house battery, if you only have one, will not last long if you don’t practice effective energy conservation, like turning off all lights and appliances when not in use, not leaving your porch light on, restricting use of high amperage appliances, and adjusting to not using high-voltage appliances that run off alternating current—for which you need an electrical hookup, inverter or generator.
You can run your generator—if you have one—for short periods to operate a microwave oven, blender or coffee maker, but to recharge your batteries or operate an air conditioner would require many hours of operation, not what most of us want to listen to while camped in the forest.
Best option: Practice energy conservation, and install another house battery, which would double your available electric power.
Tanks: Water and Waste
You can carry extra jerry jugs or collapsible bladders of drinking water, an inexpensive way to supplement your built-in tank’s capacity. It is also more efficient, if water is the resource you run out of first, to drive your tow or toad rather than your RV to a refill station and refill your jugs and bladders.
Usually the first thing to call a halt to your boondocking trip is the gray water holding tank (sink, shower) filling up. These tanks are usually of low capacity, much smaller than your fresh water tank, so any measures you can take to reduce the wastewater entering your gray water tank will extend your boondocking time.
For instance, before the water in your shower warms up, capture the cold water in a plastic tub and use it to rinse dishes or flush your toilet. Turn off the shower water between lathering up and rinsing off, and don’t leave the water running when you wash dishes and brush your teeth. If you scrape off all food particles from your dishes and use biodegradable soap, you can dump your used dishwater on a thirsty plant well away from your campsite rather than into your waste tank.
How to Find Campsites
You can easily find campgrounds in any number of campground guides, and there are even guides and websites devoted to free campsites and primitive campgrounds (no hookups) in the national forests, but the true boondocking campsites (“dispersed campsites” are what the rangers call them) are recorded only in the minds and GPS coordinates of users.
Not to say that some forest service campgrounds aren’t great woodsy camping opportunities—which they are— and which you can find in guides and on websites like forestcamping.com or freecampgrounds.com, but to get away by yourself you need to look a bit deeper to find those pristine, isolated, private campsites.
Finding boondocking campsites in our national forests is not as difficult as it may at first seem, though it will take you some time—but time spent wandering around in the woods is not all bad. If you didn’t already know, you can camp anywhere in the national forests unless expressly prohibited by signs or fencing. Outside of campgrounds, camping is free, but you must camp at least a mile from an established campground.
Stop at the local ranger station or forest service office and ask the rangers about dispersed campsites. They can probably point out some of these areas on a map. They often have photocopies of rough maps of how to get there, but you will have to ask for them.
Next step is to pick up a topo map of the area—about $8 and worth it since these maps show all the forest service dirt roads and elevation changes so you know what you are getting into.
A good plan is to stay at an established forest service campground for the first night, then explore the next day by tow, toad, or bike (or your rig if you are not towing) in search of a boondocking campsite. When you find one and are sure your rig will fit, return and retrieve it and move into your new digs.
The last part is the most crucial: set up your camp chair by a stream, put your feet up on a log, cast your line into the stream, pop a beer, kick back. Now you’re a real boondocker.
Bob Difley was a full-time RVer for 17 years and a regional general manager for a national RV rental and sales company. His articles and photos have appeared in numerous publications.
Nikki is a writer and editor for Do It Yourself RV, RV LIFE, and Camper Report. She is based on the Oregon Coast and has traveled all over the Pacific Northwest.