As a full-time RV couple, we have spent many nights boondocking and camping for free in some seriously breathtaking places throughout the United States. This ultimate guide to RV boondocking for beginners is a place full of resources about how to boondock, dry camp, and dispersed camp to get out of the RV parks and off the grid and out into nature so you can have the camping experiences of a lifetime.
What Are Dispersed Camping, Dry Camping, and Boondocking?
Let’s be honest, with so many different types of camping and phrases to describe them it can get confusing. Each of these terms; RV boondocking, dispersed camping, or dry camping, describes a form of primitive camping without water, electric, or sewer hookups. Let’s break down exactly what is dry camping vs. boondocking vs. dispersed camping:
The term boondocking refers to camping without electric, water, or sewer hook-ups (off-grid) and is also often referred to as dry camping or dispersed camping.
Typically, this means your RV is self-contained and you can keep your batteries charged on your own accord and have a place to use the bathroom. If you are not self-contained, you must follow leave no trace principles and carry out everything you carried into your campsite and properly dispose of waste.
You can boondock in a wide variety of places, ranging from truck stops and Cracker Barrel parking lots, to remote locations on BLM Land.
Boondocking is a form of dry camping. Whether what you are doing is considered dry camping or dispersed camping all depends on where your boondocking adventure is taking place! For example:
Dry camping refers to camping without electric, water or sewer hook-ups, but is done in organized places with facilities such as a developed campground, in a designated parking lot (such as Walmart), or even in a family member’s driveway.
- Paying for a dry camping spot (no hook-ups) in an established campground or designated campground such as a National Park or State Park. Typically you will have access to certain amenities like toilets or showers so you do not need to be fully self-contained.
- Spending an overnight in a parking lot such as Walmart or Cracker Barrel
- RV camping overnight at a brewery, vineyard, or farm with Harvest Hosts
- Staying on family or friends’ property. If you are using any of their utilities (using some electricity or water, etc.), this is sometimes called mooch docking
Dispersed camping is camping on public lands that have been designated for the purpose of camping. Here you will not find facilities or hook-ups like you might expect at a campground, but you will typically find clear areas designated for camping with signage referring to any guidelines for the area.
Dispersed camping areas are places like BLM Land and National Forests and will typically be split between areas reserved for the purpose of camping and areas where camping is not allowed. Keep an eye out for signage and indicators that sites are meant for camping (like a stone fire ring).
Typically you will also see limitations for how long you can stay in the designated dispersed camping area, with many places now limiting stays to around 14 days to allow time for everyone to enjoy these beautiful places.
Dispersed camping is dry camping done in areas such as:
- Staying for free on public BLM land (Bureau of Land Management Lands)
- Staying for free on National Forest roads open to dispersed camping (run by the United States Forest Service)
A majority of the boondocking areas with free camping can be found in the western United States, including places like Utah, Arizona, and Colorado.
The How To’s of Boondocking & Dispersed Camping
Boondocking can take a bit more planning than pulling into an RV park and plugging in. We were surprised about how many things we didn’t think of when we ventured out on our first boondocking experience and it made for quite a steep learning curve.
We want to help your boondocking experiences go a bit smoother! Here are some important RV boondocking tips to keep in mind:
How Do You Get Water While Boondocking?
Water supply and getting access to fresh water is often a big factor that determines how long you are able to boondock in one place. The first hurdle is finding a place to fill your fresh tank before heading to the boondocking spot.
If you are leaving a dump station or campground, you might be able to fill up then. If not, checking resources such as comments on RV Life, Campendium or iOverlander can be helpful for finding water sources.
How large your freshwater tank is and your water consumption will determine how long your water lasts. We have a 100-gallon fresh water tank that can easily last us 14 nights on BLM land or longer if we are being conservative.
If we are traveling long distances between spots, we typically will not fill our tank all the way. This help keeps our weight down. If we are in need of more water for our stay or plan to do laundry off-grid, we use a water bladder and water pump to be able to more easily fill water without having to move our rig. This gives us great flexibility and 60 additional gallons of water if we ever need it.
Concerned about water quality depending on where you are able to fill water? Our RV has a whole-house water filter. We also use a Berkey Water Filtration system for all of our drinking and cooking water. This gives us peace of mind, and we have even used this to filter water that we sourced from fresh mountain streams on occasion.
- 60 Gallon Water Bladder
- Remco 12V water pump (drop-in replacement for the one in our rig)
- Berkey Water Filtration System
How Do you Conserve the Space in your RV’s Gray Tank Without Sewer Hook-Ups?
Without sewer hook-ups, water usage from your faucets and shower will be collected in your gray tank. This can be another limitation for the time you can spend off-grid as it includes water from your sinks and shower in addition to any water you might use if doing laundry in your rig.
In our experience, grey water tanks fill up the quickest if you are not careful about water conservation!
Our RV has a 75-gallon gray tank, which gives us another reason to be conservative with our water use. For the most part, it is not okay to dump gray water onto the ground. While it is just leftover dish or shower water, the soaps and detergents can be detrimental to the local environments in which you are staying. In addition, there can be food particles that can attract wildlife or make them sick.
We suggest a dry run to understand how you can conserve the limited capacity of your gray tank and how long you can expect to go before filling it up. This will help you understand if a blue boy is necessary, depending on how long you plan to stay in one spot.
- You can do this from the comfort of an RV park by filling your tank, disconnecting from sewer hookups, and pretending you are boondocking to see how much water you use and how quickly you fill your tanks. This can be tricky at first, but it gets easier.
How Do You Manage Your RV’s Black Tank Without Sewer Hook-Ups?
If you have a composting toilet, you may be able to boondock for weeks or months on end without having to worry about it.
We have a 50-gallon black tank that sets limits for us. When it is nearing full we would need to leave our boondocking site and head to a dump station if it were not for our “blue boy” or “honey wagon.”
Our portable tank has a 32-gallon capacity and allows us to dump our tank into it and haul it to a local dump station so that we can stay off-grid longer. We typically do not stay anywhere more than 14 nights in one spot off-grid and so far our 50-gallon capacity has been plenty to get us by between dump stations.
A couple of great resources for finding dump stations (which often also have potable water available for filling your fresh tank) are rvdumps.com, sanidumps.com. You can also filter for dump stations on Campendium.
- RV Portable Waste Tank (could be used for black or grey tanks)
How Do You Manage Electric and Propane Usage While Boondocking?
With no electric hookups, it is important to be aware of your energy use and the charge of the batteries in your battery bank. You have the responsibility of being your own power source!
We installed an RV solar setup on our roof and swapped out our batteries for lithium in order to meet our boondocking needs. This allows us to run our residential fridge and work remotely while off-grid. Learn more about how much solar you need to run your residential or RV fridge.
We have 1700 Watts of solar and 600amp hours (12v) of lithium batteries as part of our RV solar install.
We also carry a 3300 Watt Generac Portable Generator to help us out on stretches of cloudy days, or if we end up in a spot where our solar panels are under trees.
One important note is that electric heating sources require a lot of energy. Boondocking, especially in colder weather, will require paying closer attention to your propane stores than if you were just using it to cook as you may need it to run your furnace for heat.
Read more about our solar setup and off-grid power in our article about RV inverters and RV power
Can You Run Your AC While Boondocking?
Boondocking for us is very much a fair-weather endeavor. In the summer we aim to stay at elevation and travel with cooler temperatures as running an AC without electric hook-ups requires a lot of solar (over 1500 watts) or heavy generator use if you have traditional RV air conditioners, even with soft starts installed.
With our upgraded solar system, which includes 1700 Watts of solar and a soft start on our bedroom air conditioner, we now have the option to run our AC if we need it, but try to limit that to extreme cases only rather than planning on needing it!
Where Do You Dispose of Trash While Dispersed Camping?
Something we had not thought about before boondocking was disposing of trash. If you are dry camping in an organized campground or a BLM campground, you most likely will have access to trash disposal.
If you are out on free or public land, you will most likely not have trash cans around. For us, the best we have found is to dump our trash at commercial spots that do not have signage about “no dumping trash.” You could also ask the place of business if it is okay to use their receptacles.
Places we have disposed of our trash include CVS, Walmart, and National Parks.
How Do You Get Internet While Boondocking or Dispersed Camping?
Away from the amenities of a campground, you will need to invest in some additional systems if you want to have internet while boondocking out in dispersed camping areas. We work full-time while RVing so having reliable internet that can support long days of video calls is a must for us. For this reason, we have two systems set up in our RV.
Pepwave Max Mobile Router by Peplink: This mobile router allows us to plug in cellular sim cards in order to utilize mobile data plans that run off cell towers. We started off with plans from AT&T and Verizon and had great luck with speeds and reliability in the initial phase of our trip. We dropped AT&T when we signed up for Starlink and have not needed our Verizon plan since. $1200-$1500 for router set up; $80/month for Verizon plan with 100GB of data
Starlink Internet Service by Space X: Starlink has allowed us to work and stay in beautiful remote places that we would not have been able to go to if relying solely on our cellular internet plans. It has been reliable and fast and we couldn’t be happier so far! You can find more information in our Starlink Roam review & guide.
T-Mobile Home Internet: Our newest addition has provided us with strong speeds and reliable unlimited service for only $50/month!
We do not rely on our mobile hotspots on our T-mobile phone plans but can use them as a last-resort backup.
Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Boondocking Internet
How Do You Get Mail While Boondocking?
Mail can be a bit tricky when traveling around the country, especially in remote areas. Our address and mail are set up through a service called St. Brendan’s Isle which caters to people living in RVs and boats or traveling often.
This mail forwarding service allows us to have a place to receive mail to one address, and the option to scan mail in order to review it. This way we can keep on top of mail from anywhere, virtually. For packages, we can have them forwarded through the service or order packages directly to the locations where we are staying. There are a couple of ways to do this while boondocking:
Deliver to Amazon Hub locker or pick-up counter: This is a convenient way to ship packages to a business local to where you might be boondocking. You can look up various locations here. If you are in a remote area where this service is not available your next option will be General Delivery.
USPS General Delivery: Delivering to general delivery at a local Post Office does not always go as planned. We have learned to try and plan for additional time to receive packages based on experience. Multiple times our packages have been stuck in other cities. Packages are free to send to post offices that participate in this service (not all do) if coming by USPS. There is a small fee if sent by other carriers such as FedEx or UPS. We last paid $4 for this type of charge. Be sure to use the full address of the Post Office where you are wanting the package to be delivered. We have also put General Delivery as the company when shipping items.
Popular mail forwarding services for RVers:
These services also cover the most popular states of domicile for full-time RVers; Florida, Texas, and South Dakota.
How Do You Scout RV Boondocking Spots That Will Work For Your RV?
When it comes to a new boondocking location, you don’t know exactly what you are driving into. To avoid low trees ripping a hole in your roof, or getting to a point where you are stuck and cannot turn around, we always recommend scouting.
If you have an extra vehicle this might be quick and painless. For us, we choose to put our hazards on, lock our truck, and go scout spots on foot or by bike. We also use our drone on occasion, which has been extremely helpful.
Scouting can help you figure out what spot might be best for your rig in terms of size and levelness, and things like cell service or an open north sky if you are using Starlink. A bit more time and effort, but better to be safe than sorry!
As a general rule, it can also be a good idea to have a backup plan in case you do not fit into the boondocking site, it is full, or the conditions are poor. Boondocking sites are often off dirt roads that can be bumps and turn slick and muddy in rainy or wet conditions.
We use a few different apps and websites to find boondocking spots and find reading the reviews to be really helpful for directions, best spots, safety concerns, or other pertinent information:
- Google Maps (satellite); this helps to see where spots are, the types of roads leading in, etc.
- Blogs (like this one!)
- The Dyrt or HipCamp
- Harvest Hosts
- Boondockers Welcome
READ MORE: Best Boondocking Apps
When it comes to safety, we have never personally had a bad experience when camping off-grid. In fact, we have made some great friends at some of these free camping spots! Use your best judgment and follow your gut feeling; your safety is most important.
Are There Rules For Dispersed Camping? RV Boondocking Etiquette Basics
While camping off-grid is much freer than the handbook of rules you are given when entering an RV park, there are still some common courtesies to consider. Be a good neighbor and protect these popular destinations for wild camping :
- Only camp in places that have been camped in before. Don’t drive over grass or brush to make a new spot.
- Do not walk through other people’s sites
- If there is room, don’t park too close. Ask if you are unsure.
- Be respectful with late-night partying or music if you have neighbors.
- Try your best to run your generator during the day vs. when people are sleeping
- Pack it in, pack it out. Don’t leave trash at your site, this ruins these beautiful areas for everyone and puts them at risk of being shut down.
Important things to know before your first boondocking or dispersed camping trip:
- Boondocking can be wonderful. It is cost-effective and allows you to land spots with incredible views. At times, it’s hard to imagine you get to enjoy them for free.
- Boondocking can be dirty. Expect dusty dirty pets, floors, cabinets, etc.
- Being over-prepared is often better. We started out with no generator, no water bladder, and no Starlink and learned the hard way. Investing upfront would have saved us from some tricky situations.
- Boondocking, in our experience, is not as scary as the media might make it seem. We have met some of the best people when camping off the grid!
- You can live with less than you think. You adapt and it can be beautiful. Less is more and we can see the positive impacts on our well-being and satisfaction with our lifestyle choices.
- Not every day is perfect. Days can be hard, things break, and you can feel homesick. The bad comes with the good and keeping things in perspective helps us to stay grounded and present.
READ MORE: 51 Best Boondocking Tips
What Are The Benefits of Boondocking?
- Great views
- Cost-effective travel
- Room to roam
- Mindful Living
You drive down a gravel road, dust flying in your rearview. A ring of stone marks the spot and you pull in. Your closest neighbor is out of earshot, and outside your windows is the dramatic landscape of rocky snow-capped mountains, green trees swaying in the breeze, and wildflowers in bloom. No check-in or check-out time, no fees, just freedom. This the what makes boondocking so worthwhile.
Part of the allure of experimenting with the RV lifestyle for us was the opportunity to live off the grid. We dreamed about being surrounded by nature and beautiful landscapes, and having a more minimal footprint. RV boondocking and dispersed camping offers:
One of the biggest benefits of boondocking is freedom. For most boondocking spots, you do not need advanced reservations and there is no check-in or check-out time. You have more space than in an RV park and fewer rules. We often let our dog Azalea roam off leash when boondocking off-grid and never feel that our neighbors are too close or cramped. In addition, boondocking has afforded us some of the quietest and most peaceful spots to call home with incredible views… for free or much cheaper than a campground with hookups.
Another major benefit in our opinion is the ability to live more mindfully and have a smaller ecological footprint when living so self-reliantly. With more awareness of our resource usage, we are more conservative with our water and energy use and feel good about our consumption as we aim to live more harmoniously with the world around us.
What Are The Drawbacks of Boondocking?
- Fewer creature comforts
- Some places limit the length of stay
- Cell service can be poor
- Cramped or unlevel spots
Boondocking is not always great views and huge private spots. When choosing to boondock and stay off-grid you have to be okay with some of the sacrifices that come along with that. This can mean, using a laundromat rather than campground laundry facilities if you don’t have the capabilities in your rig, turning the shower on and off to conserve water, and having to be careful about appliance usage. Your convection oven or air fryer might not get much use while boondocking unless you have a large solar setup or are willing to run your generator more often.
Some spots might be cramped due to popularity, not be big rig friendly, or you might show up and not be able to find space. Always have a backup! We usually have a top 2-3 in an area just in case. Walmart, Cracker Barrels, or Cabela’s are also often great backups just in case you find yourself in a pinch.
Dispersed camping areas can be dusty and dirty, have poor or non-existent cell service, and have sites that are pretty unlevel. In addition, unless you are staying in a long-term visitor area, they often have stay limits of around 14 nights.
If you want to be off-grid and run on solar power, this can be a hefty upfront investment in equipment to build your RV solar setup.
For us, the benefits far exceed the drawbacks to be able to stay in more secluded spaces nestled in nature, but it is all about what experience you are looking for.
RV Boondoking for Beginners Overall
As a beginner, boondocking can be daunting. Don’t let that discourage you from ever trying!
Boondocking can be a beautiful adventure and just requires a bit of planning! If you want to pursue camping off-grid, the above tips will help you get started on getting out into nature and being able to survive without hookups and beyond the confounds of the typical campground or RV park. Imagine watching the sunset in silence with uninhibited views, working in a remote section of the desert, or stepping out your door and taking a dip in a crystal clear stream. These are real possibilities when you take steps to prepare for off-grid camping.
What are your non-negotiables? Are you okay with not using the A/C? If not, perhaps you only boondock in fall, carefully follow the weather or invest in a larger generator. Do you want to take longer showers? Perhaps you need a bladder and will just fill it more often.
Asking yourself the hard questions will help you design the camping experience that is most fulfilling for you.
At the end of the day, often the best way to learn is to get out there and see what you think. Start small and see how it goes. You might find that some of the sacrifices you perceive you will need to make, may not be as big a deal as you think. Especially when waking up to mountain or lakefront views each morning. Just make sure you are not putting your batteries at risk by draining them without a way of charging them back up!
Helpful Beginner RV Boondocking Tips & Resources
- Water Bladder
- Water Filtration System (such as a Berkey or Clearsource)
- Water Pump
- Portable Waste Tank
- Generator (we love our 3300 watt Generac portable inverter generator as it is quiet and lightweight)
- Solar Panels, Inverter, & Lithium Batteries (not required, but can be a nice upgrade…see our RV power guide for a deeper dive into off-grid power and inverters)
- Hitch Lock (we use this ing pin lock for our fifth wheel) and/or SimpliSafe System for added security
- Leveling blocks (site will be unlevel)
- RV Life GPS (see our complete guide to RV LIFE for more information)
- Campendium & iOverlander to find dispersed and dry camping spots
- Harvest Hosts for overnight dry camping
A few of our favorite boondocking destinations:
- Telluride’s Last Dollar Road
- Boondocking near Capitol Reef National Park
- Nomad View Badlands Dispersed Camping
- RV Beach Camping near Lake Powell
- Best BLM & Free Boondocking Spots
View our entire list of apps we have found most helpful for RV travel and camping.