An RV is a traveling hotel, allowing you to explore areas that you may otherwise avoid, including the boonies. Boondocking is one of the joys of RV-ing yet finding good spots to stay overnight isn’t very easy. If you want to avoid the typical tourist traps, you need to know how to find out-of-the-way places.
Where are the best spots for RV boondocking? National forests, national grasslands, and areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management are public lands that allow free or cheap recreational camping. Many of the agencies that oversee these areas offer resources for finding places to park an RV overnight.
Besides public lands, there are many other places that offer free overnight RV parking. With careful planning, you can travel the entire country without spending a dollar at an RV park or campground.
What You Should Know About Boondocking
What is boondocking? The RV community is divided when it comes to the definition of boondocking. The term was originally used to describe RV-ing in the boonies without access to electricity, water, and other amenities.
Driving out into the middle of nowhere and parking your RV for free without an electric hookup is boondocking. However, the general definition has grown to include forms of dry camping.
Dry camping simply means camping without electricity and water. While boondocking is a type of dry camping, dry camping doesn’t always equal boondocking.
For example, staying in the parking lot of a store isn’t true boondocking. For the sake of this guide, we’ll use the generalized definition.
Some of the advantages of boondocking include:
- Getting away from the crowds
- Eliminating the need to book campgrounds
- Spending less money on your trip
- Exploring nature
- The freedom of not having plans
The main benefit of boondocking is traveling to a place with fewer crowds. In fact, the best boondocking spots are secluded areas where you’ll likely be the only visitor. These areas include public lands, some of which don’t require fees.
You also don’t need to make reservations. You can show up when you like and leave when you want.
With cheaper fees, your trip also becomes less expensive. While many states and national park campgrounds only charge $20 or $30 per night, these fees can quickly add up. Even though many federally protected lands still charge fees, they are often much cheaper compared to campgrounds.
The bottom line is that boondocking allows you to get away from the crowded sites and lets you explore and enjoy the beauty of nature. You also have the freedom to travel where you want without needing to book a site ahead of time.
How to Find Public Land for Overnight RV Parking
If you want to stay off the grid and away from civilization, public lands are your best option. Get away from the cities and enjoy the beauty of protected forests, grasslands, and parks.
Unlike state and national parks, there are many public regions managed by governmental agencies. These regions are often open to the public but don’t always provide free parking.
Many of the federal recreation sites charge a day use fee. However, many people in the RV community choose to visit these sites for free without paying.
Unlike state and national parks, these public lands don’t always have a manned entrance where someone collects a fee. In fact, you may stay several days without encountering any officials.
The main groups of parks and lands where you can stay include:
- National Wildlife Refuges
- National Forests
- National Historic Sites
- National Recreational Areas
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sites
- Army Corps of Engineers Military Parks
These are the areas that people often refer to as “free.” Unfortunately, if you’re found staying without a pass, you’re likely to get a fine or ticket from the agency that manages the land.
The United States Federal Government manages over 2000 recreational sites across the country. With an annual pass, you can stay at almost any of these places without booking a site.
An annual pass for federal parks is a cheap way to avoid getting in trouble for parking in places that require an entrance fee. You simply pay once and then get to enjoy all the remote areas managed by the government.
These passes are also free for current US military personnel and fourth-grade students. Seniors can get a lifetime pass for the cost of a standard annual pass.
If you plan to spend a lot of time traveling in your RV, these annual passes provide the best way to travel the country and legally stay in the most remote boondocking spots.
Another option is to contact the Bureau of Land Management or visit the official BLM website for your state. BLM manages over 27.7 million acres of land in the United States. While many of these sites charge $4 to $10 per night, there are also many sites that are free.
For example, in Arizona, there are dispersed recreation camping sites that allow you to stay for free for up to 14 days.
Where Is the Best State and National Parks for Boondocking?
Most state and national parks charge fees for camping or RV-ing so they are not traditional boondocking spots. Why does the RV community consider federal lands to be boondocking spots but not state and national parks?
State and national parks tend to be more crowded and charge higher fees. Many of these parks are also less secluded or remote. However, some of these sites are rustic with no electrical hookups.
If you search in the right places, you can find state parks in the middle of nowhere, with fewer crowds and cheap registration fees. While it’s not true boondocking, it’s still preferable than staying in a packed RV campground.
In the eastern states, it’s harder to find remote state and national parks, especially during the busiest travel seasons. These parks tend to fill up quickly, requiring you to book early and deal with crowds of travelers.
If you want seclusion, your best option is to search out west. The western states tend to have expansive state and national parks where you can stay for several days without passing another camper.
Some state parks allow you to purchase an annual permit. This saves you money and may eliminate the need to book a spot before your trip.
While some people in the RV community don’t consider rustic state parks to be boondocking, you’re still going to spend time in the remote wilderness away from other people and electricity.
Alternative Solutions for Free Overnight Parking
Depending on where you want to travel, you may not find suitable public land in every region. In some cases, you may need to stay in a city or town for a night. Luckily, there are still places that allow free overnight parking:
- Truck stops
- Rest areas
Most people in the RV community know that you can park in a Walmart parking lot for free. Unfortunately, Walmart has now left this decision to the discretion of each store.
Casinos and truck stops are also common choices when you have nowhere else to stay. As with Walmart, these places may or may not allow free parking overnight.
Even if the store or business allows you to park your RV for free, there are some states and counties that prohibit this activity. Local laws always come before company policy.
Before parking your RV for the night, go into the store and talk to a manager or supervisor. Ensure that they allow parking before you get too comfortable.
If overnight parking is allowed, there are several rules of etiquette to follow:
- Don’t overstay your welcome — only stay for one night.
- Always clean up your trash.
- Park in a designated area or far away from where customers park.
- Don’t set up camp, pull out the awning, or start grilling.
Rest areas are the last resort. While they provide a free place to stay, there are added concerns when staying in a rest stop, especially if it’s near a major city. These areas tend to attract a variety of denizens who may not wish you the best of luck.
If staying in a rest area is your only option, always keep your RV doors locked. You should also pay attention to your surroundings and don’t let children use the facilities on their own.
Pros and Cons of Parking on a Friend’s Property
Another form of boondocking involves staying on private property owned by a friend, family member, or acquaintance. This is quite common in the RV world.
You may know someone or meet a fellow traveler with a vacation property in a remote area. People often buy these properties exclusively for camping or RV-ing and never build a permanent structure, which keeps the property taxes down.
As they may only use the property once or twice per year, they are often more than happy to share the land with others. There are pros and cons to accepting an invitation to park your RV on someone else’s property. The advantages include:
- Free parking
- Fewer restrictions
- Less likelihood of encountering strangers
- A convenient way to travel
Staying on someone else’s property should be free. It’s unlikely that a friend would charge you a fee to park your RV for a night or two.
You also have fewer restrictions when staying on a friend’s property. While you need to follow some basic etiquette rules, you’re unlikely to encounter state or federal land management officials. Depending on the location of the property, you may even have the freedom to make as much noise as you want.
As you are on private land, you don’t need to worry about random strangers passing by. Even in remote areas, it’s common to occasionally pass or stay near other campers or RVs. Unless your friend invites additional people to stay on the property, you should have the place all to yourself.
Overall, staying on a friend’s property is convenient but it also brings a few potential drawbacks. When staying on friends’ properties, you need to follow their rules. For example, they may want you to dispose of your waste in a specific spot.
Your friend may also ask for a favor in return. While you think that you’re just staying on their property for free, your friend may expect you to help clean out a barn or perform some other chores.
Besides staying on vacation properties, a friend or relative may invite you to park in the yard or driveway of his or her main residence in a city or town. While this isn’t the same as boondocking, it may provide a suitable place to spend the night when traveling across the country.
How to Find the Best Spot in a Park or Forest
Finding the right park or forest to stay at is just half the battle of boondocking. You also need to decide where to stay in the park or forest. If you want to know how to choose a good campsite, use the following tips:
- Talk to the park ranger
- Always follow existing roads and paths
- Never drive through meadows or fields
- Search RV community forums
The first resource is the park ranger. If you’re lucky enough to see officials when you arrive, ask where they recommend that you stay. They often know the area intimately and can point out the most scenic spots.
When traveling through the park to find a site, stick to the existing roads and paths. Never drive through the fields, meadows, or woods. While this is the polite thing to do, it also reduces the risk of getting your RV stuck.
RV community forums are also useful resources for finding the best sites. Ask other travelers for their recommendations. If you let them know where you plan to stay, you’ll likely get a lot of input from people who have camped there before.
How to Stay Clean While Boondocking
Boondocking helps you get away from the crowded RV parks. Unfortunately, without access to electricity or water hookups, you may not get to enjoy some of the luxurious amenities built into your RV.
While you still have some electricity and small water supply in your RV, showering every day is unlikely and washing up becomes more of a challenge. So, how do you stay clean while boondocking? Here are a few of my favorite solutions:
- Stop showering every day
- Take sponge baths
- Pack wet wipes and hand sanitizer
- Find a local laundromat
- Wash up at every stop
Follow the first tip before your trip. Stop showering every day to prepare your body for going longer without a shower.
When you shower every day, you wash away natural oils that your body produces. If you suddenly stop showering, your body starts to produce excess oils, leaving you feeling even dirtier and grimier.
Start cutting back on showers one or two weeks before the trip. Take a good, long shower the morning you leave.
During the trip, if you need to wash up and don’t want to waste the water, take a sponge bath. You can use a small pail of water and a sponge to clean your face, armpits, and the back of your neck. Just make sure that you start with your face.
Spending time outdoors and cooking food results in sticky, dirty hands. Instead of washing your hands in a sink, you need to find another way to stay clean. Pack several packages of wet wipes and a few bottles of hand sanitizer.
Even if your RV has a washer and dryer, you may also need to skip doing laundry in the RV without regular access to electricity. Luckily, almost every city and town has at least one 24-hour laundromat.
Between stays in different boondocking spots, you can find a laundromat in one of the towns that you pass through. As many of these laundromats are connected to other businesses such as fast food restaurants, gas stations, or convenience stores, you should also have access to a bathroom.
Whenever you stop somewhere to use the bathroom, wash up. While you don’t need to strip down in the bathroom and wash your pits, you can at least wash your face and hands.
Safety Precautions When Boondocking in Remote Areas
Staying in the middle of nowhere gives you more freedom. There is typically no one else around, which also means that there is no one to come to your aid if you experience an emergency. Follow these precautions to stay safe while boondocking:
- Always learn more about the area
- Bring a flashlight and emergency supplies
- Keep your phone charged
- Pay attention to your surroundings
If possible, you should learn more about the area before camping overnight. You can talk to the rangers who manage the land, ask RV community members, or search the Internet for additional info.
Avoid areas that are known to house a lot of homeless people and areas with increased bear sightings.
After choosing a place to stay, ensure that the batteries in your flashlight and your phone are charged. While mobile service may be unavailable, a search team may be able to track the last GPS location of your phone during an emergency.
Always pay attention to your surroundings. Look for vagrants, animals, and weather conditions that may disrupt your fun.
You should also learn what to do if you encounter a bear. While most of the animals that you may come across during your RV adventure don’t pose a threat, bears are a little harder to predict. This short video explains what to do during a bear encounter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cs9vGLWM_F4
Besides learning what to do if you see a bear, you should also avoid attracting bears to your campsite. Never leave food or trash out overnight or when you plan to be away from the site. Keep everything secured in the RV.
These precautions should not scare you from boondocking. Staying in the middle of nowhere is statistically safer than staying in your own home.
RVs are less of a target for thieves compared to residences. A permanent home is more likely to contain valuables that can easily be sold for cash.
When you stay in remote areas, you’re also less likely to encounter people, including criminals. It doesn’t make sense for a thief to spend his or her time waiting for a random RV to show up in the middle of nowhere when there are thousands of homes and potential targets in a city.
What is dispersed camping?
Dispersed camping is another name for boondocking. Dispersed campsites are locations where you can park or camp overnight for free. While most state and federal lands charge fees, the Bureau of Land Management and some of the national forests allow dispersed camping.
How do you know if free camping is legal?
There are websites and web pages for almost every park, forest, and grassland in the country. Always verify whether dispersed camping is permitted by contacting the agency or talking to a ranger when you arrive.
How many days can you camp for free?
If free parking or camping is permitted, the agency that oversees the land typically limits the number of days that you can stay. In most areas, you can stay for up to 14 days over a 28-day period.
Conclusion: Where Should You Go Boondocking?
Boondocking is a word that gets used differently depending on who you talk to. Some people in the RV community only consider true boondocking to include staying for free on public lands. Unfortunately, there are very few public lands where this is permitted.
In most cases, you still need to pay a small fee for a day use pass. As some of the public lands that are protected by the government are not regularly patrolled, many people choose to stay in these areas overnight without paying the fee.
If you want to avoid risking getting a fine, consider purchasing an annual pass for federal parks. The pass covers the entrance fee for over 2000 federal lands including national forests, grasslands, and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
If you strictly want to find a free park to stay overnight, the Bureau of Land Management is one of your only options. They still maintain many sites with no entrance fees.
Other options include Walmart and other business lots. However, you need to check with the business before parking. You could also stay on private property if you have a friend or family member who doesn’t mind the company. In the end, there are fewer free places to stay, especially if you want to get out into the boonies. Even if you think that it’s free to stay, you should contact the agency responsible for managing the land. It’s always better to check instead of getting a fine for parking without a pass.