Boondocking


RV owners call it boondocking and what it really means in non-technical language is the fine art of living free. Some people, usually those with deep pockets, would never dream of staying anywhere but an established RV park, with full hookups and a nice big bill at the end of every month.

There are other people, who are quite content to travel the country, and see exactly the same sights, all without spending a dime on accommodation apart from a few basic expenses. For people who live in their RV, especially those on a fixed income or who make very little money from what they do, there simply isn’t any other option.

So what’s the secret? Can you really ditch the bill collector and live free? You bet you can and there are hundreds of thousands of people doing it right now and living the good life, without debt, and without worry.

It isn’t always the easiest life and creature comforts can occasionally be lacking so sure, there are compromises made but if you are prepared to approach RV living in a realistic way then there really isn’t anywhere you can’t go or anything that you can’t do. Remember, the manufacturers design an RV from the ground up to be self-contained and all you have to do is learn to operate it effectively.

The first step is to equip your RV for dry camping, but with an extra few bells and whistles. Water and power will be your two biggest issues and both are manageable as explained earlier. Most motorhomes have a fresh water tank of somewhere between thirty to forty gallons. When you're being conservative in your water use, that goes quite a long way but I would recommend that you supplement your onboard supply with a few water containers as I suggested. You’ll come to appreciate always having water available when you turn on the tap.

Power is likewise easy to manage. Before you head out for a life on the road, wait an extra week or two and spend a little money on a small solar system as outlined in the article on solar. If you’re running LED lights and a modern, low wattage TV then your power consumption will be minimal and well within the capabilities of a small solar setup to recharge your house battery. Worst-case scenario is that in winter, you might have to pull the cord on the generator for an hour or two.

You can spend thousands on RV solar, and many people do, but a realistic setup for boondocking should cost no more than a few hundred dollars. A cheap electrical multi-meter will give you exactly the same information as an expensive monitoring system. It might not look as fancy sitting up there on the wall but it’s all you need to measure the health of your battery and the efficiency of the solar panels. Seriously, invest in a decent meter that you don't mind knocking around a little and it will serve you well. I have use a cheap Chinese one as my beater for working on the RV. It's nothing fancy but its still going strong despite having been dropped more times that I can remember.

There is plenty of information online, do some research, educate yourself but don’t let it overwhelm you.  You don’t need a fancy solar package with all the extra stuff that really isn’t relevant to a small RV system. Buy a good quality panel, the right gauge of wire for the output of your panel and the length of your run, combine it with a decent deep cycle battery, and you’re good to go.

One thing that the modern traveler cannot seem to live without these days is the Internet. As long as you have a Wi-Fi capable device, you’ll find that there are free wireless internet connections just about everywhere that you go. McDonald's, and pretty much all of the big fast food chains provide free internet access for their customers. Every Home Depot has free Wi-Fi, many grocery stores, and in fact, the majority of businesses, from hairdressers to laundromats offer the service. A Wi-Fi signal can travel approximately two hundred feet from the router and most places, especially businesses with a lot of floor space, install Wi-Fi extenders to boost the signal. In other words, you don’t have to be physically located inside the building. Most of the time, the wireless signal will have no trouble at all reaching the parking lot, provided you’re parked within a reasonable range of the repeater.

There are devices on the market that can boost even a weak signal. Most of them act as an extender for home use, meaning that you have to have the password for router. This limitation really doesn’t apply to public Wi-Fi signals because they are usually unsecured.  Still, rather that something that has to synchronize with a router that you don’t control, I would recommend something along the lines of a basic Wi-Fi antenna that plugs into the USB port of your device. They can be very effective, and although it may be slightly inconvenient in that it’s yet another something that needs to be plugged in before you can work on your computer, the benefits of not having to constantly fight with a slow and weak signal are more than worth the little bit of hassle.

Also on the subject of Wi-Fi is what to do when there is no public internet available at all. If you have a smartphone with a data plan then chances are that you have a way of getting online that you probably didn’t know about. Tethering is a method of connecting your computer to your phone via a USB cable and utilizing your cell phone’s data connection. It works on most models, and with most phone companies, even though many of them will tell you that it won’t, either because they really don’t understand how it works, or because they feel the need, for whatever reason, to discourage the practice. Some companies have no problem with it, some will even include tethering options in their data plans but for those that don’t, an Internet search for your phone model and provider will provide you with all the necessary instructions for your own particular situation. The only word of caution that I should add is it pays to be careful with your data usage if you have a limited plan. I would restrict your use of a tethered phone to the basics like checking your email and anything work related. Opening up the desktop versions of web pages on a computer, loaded with graphics and advertising, for hours on end, will chew through your monthly data far quicker than looking at the mobile version of the same web sites on your phone.

Cell phones can certainly set you back a lot of money, and can be one of the only bills that you may find it difficult to avoid, but they really don’t have to be expensive. Pre-paid phones are the only way to go these days and if you shop around you can find some great deals, especially if you don’t want the latest and greatest on the market. When looking for a phone, make sure you find a deal that includes at least some data, even if you don’t think that you’ll need it. There will be occasions when you need to look up something online and find yourself miles away from the nearest town.

The next part of the equation is parking. Walmart is always the first place mentioned when people talk about boondocking. That’s fine for overnight stops but who wants to live in the parking lot of shopping center. It is true that most Walmart’s are RV friendly and that’s why you’ll always see motorhomes and trailers parked out front. In fact, Walmart even sells a road atlas with their locations marked on it. There are stores that don’t allow overnight parking and usually you’ll see signs on the property to that effect. I’m not suggesting that you ignore them but do bear in mind that official Walmart policy as stated on their website (at time of writing) is as follows:

“While we do not offer electrical service or accommodations typically necessary for RV customers, Walmart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers. Consequently, we do permit RV parking on our store parking lots as we are able. Permission to park is extended by individual store managers, based on availability of parking space and local laws. Please contact management in each store to ensure accommodations before parking your RV.”

If you look at the Walmart’s with no overnight parking signs, it’s a safe bet that somewhere in town there is a big RV park that at some time in the past imagined that boondockers at the local Walmart were costing them business and they lobbied for a local ordinance. Also, bear in mind that when parking at a Walmart, or anywhere else for that matter, you’re on private property and unless you’re committing a crime that would draw the attention of the police, then the property owner is the one that must contact the authorities and make a complaint. Most store managers are busy inside managing their store and have zero interest in harassing somebody in the parking lot based on the type of vehicle that they’re driving. You may have been there a day, you may have only been there an hour, nobody really takes much notice unless you’re sitting outside in your chairs, grilling the steaks, and making it obvious.

The same goes for other stores that allow RVs. K-mart has a pro-RV policy for instance, so does Home Depot, and many others. Even if they don’t specifically have a policy, you’ll rarely have an issue parking overnight in a shopping area.  If you're in the city, as long as you play by the rules and act civilized, people tend to mind their own business and will generally leave you alone. My only other advice would be to move on in the morning unless you have broken down or you get a good vibe from the area.

Truck stops are also good if you’re stuck. They can be noisy and busy but an RV can be in the parking lot for weeks, quite literally, before anyone even notices that they’re there. Motorhomes and semi-trucks are such a regular sight and they all look the same to the staff. Company policy at all the big chain truck stops is to allow overnight parking for RVs so once again, you’re not breaking any rules, and nobody really cares.

Once you’re out of the city then the opportunities for boondocking are everywhere. From coast to coast and all through the inland, parking is easy and hassle free. Florida has miles of state and county roads that lead to its beaches where RVs camped along the side of the road are a common sight, along with the fishing gear of the owners. Other states have an abundance of public recreation areas near rivers and lakes, all of which usually permit some form of RV camping.

The other sides of the country, California, Nevada, Arizona, and all of the western states have millions of acres of federal land where camping in your RV is absolutely one-hundred percent free. There are some rules but generally, on any land administered by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), the National Forest Service, or any one of a bunch of federal government agencies, you can camp for fourteen days at no cost. They call it Dispersed Camping and the only real stipulation is that it can’t be right next door to a developed campground where they charge fees to stay. There is a limit of fourteen days out of every twenty-eight. After that, the expectation is that you move at least twenty-five miles down the road. They really don’t care if you stay in the same general area all year round because that’s in keeping with the principal of public use, but the reason for the fourteen-day rule is to prevent damage to sensitive resources from continual camping in the same spot. For the boondocker, it’s a common sense thing and most people don’t mark the days off on a calendar. Clearly, you’re not under constant observation and many areas may only get a quick drive-by from a ranger every other month, if at all, but move on if you can because public lands belong to us all and it would be nice to keep them for future generations of campers.

In urban areas, things can be a little different and you don’t want to invite harassment from local law enforcement by standing out like the proverbial sore thumb. The one consistent rule that I’ve found when boondocking is that you always get one night because nobody looks twice at an RV, even an older one. Store employees either figure you’re shopping or just don’t care, the police are usually too busy to notice and even if they do, you’re not doing any harm just sitting there and minding your own business. If you’re in the same spot, night after night and very obviously camping, then that might invite a few questions. The simplest approach is to not to put yourself in that position in the first place. A good urban boondocker always has an eye out as they drive around, looking for the best places to put in a night or two.

If you happen to pick up a job for a few months, don’t hide the fact at the interview that you’re an RV owner. Be proud of it, you’re doing something that they probably have talked about themselves at one time or another. If it looks like they may have space on their property where you can park without making the place look untidy then don’t be shy and ask them would if they would mind. Many employers are glad to have someone there overnight keeping an eye on things. In addition, there are many who are just glad to help someone. Don’t forget, if they just put you on the payroll then obviously they like you because nobody hires someone that they don’t like. It’s a great situation having somewhere to park while you work without having to worry about being hassled. The best part is that if you can arrange a parking spot then usually they’ll allow you to hook up a water hose and plug into their power outlet.

Once you start looking and gaining some experience, you’ll find that boondocking is incredibly easy and a whole lot of fun. You’ll rarely have any problems and if you do then it’s easy to just turn the key in the ignition and move on. The world is yours to explore. Enjoy every mile of it, and soak up every experience that you can because life really is too short.