Dry Camping the Easy Way

There's a simple reality and that is if you own an RV you can live for free. You'll still need to come up with the basics like food and fuel but  apart from that, you can say goodbye to the landlord and keep your money in your pocket. Yes, you may need to live a bit simpler and try to develop some good habits like water conservation for instance, but the trade-off is no rent or mortgage and the freedom to travel and do as you please, when you please.

Boondocking to me is living in the great outdoors, enjoying nature and the peace and quiet of not being jostled around in a big city. It is not hiding out in a city parking lot or breathing in diesel fumes out the back of a noisy truck stop. We've done Walmart as well as a truck stop or two on the road. Sometimes choices are limited. Where we would rather be though, is out on a lonely BLM road somewhere with coyotes as neighbors and not a care in the world.

We've found that a month at a time is easy and stretching out a few more weeks in a pinch is never a problem. Anyone can do the same. All it takes is a little planning before you go and spending maybe a couple of hundred bucks to set yourself up.

If you're driving a Class A motorhome worth a quarter of a million dollars then nothing here is really practical or doable for you. If however you're living in, or thinking about living in, an old RV that you bought for cash, this article might just help.

The following is a description of our setup in a 1984 Fleetwood Class C (Ford E350). It's what works for us and your own mileage may vary as they say. Everything mentioned can be purchased on Amazon and the links are included in the article.

Free Power, Endless Boondocking

The first thing we did was to replace the starting battery with a second deep cycle battery and wired them in parallel using heavy duty battery cable. With a couple of turns of the wrench we instantly doubled our battery capacity for half the cost of installing a second house battery. Bearing in mind that the starting battery is really only doing just that (starting the RV) and nothing else apart from headlights, engine electrical etc. It can't be exchanged with the house battery for instance, in the event of the house battery going bad. A deep cycle battery works just fine as a starting battery (as you see all the time on boats) but a starting battery will not work as a house battery. After a night or two it'll be dead and will no longer hold a charge.

Next we installed a Perko battery selector switch to provide full control over power sources and charging. When driving, the alternator will charge either both batteries or only one, depending on our needs for the day. Likewise the solar panels or shore power. It also works as a battery isolator/shut-off in the event of an emergency.

One of the many advantages to this setup is that you'll never be stranded anywhere with a flat battery because with the flick of a switch you can basically jump start yourself.

You really shouldn't be running deep cycle batteries down below 50% of their rated capacity on a regular basis so between the two batteries there should always be enough reserve current to turn over the engine. For us it isn't an issue because if we need a quick charge, we have solar and using the transfer switch, can shunt 100% of solar power to the starting battery.

Our backup plan for a cloudy day is a small 2-stroke generator and a battery charger with starting capability. So regardless of the situation, and bearing in mind that I'm always effectively carrying a spare battery (the house battery), I can get enough juice into the system to start the motorhome, even in the event of a failed battery.

I mentioned the little 2-stroke generator, it's rated at a 1000W running and has no problem at all running a 5000 BTU air conditioner in summer plus laptop charging etc. It can also handle a 750W space heater in winter without any signs of struggling. Fuel consumption is over 6 hours on a gallon of fuel versus over half a gallon an hour for the 4KW Onan that we have on-board. The only times the big one is started these days is monthly maintenance, when for some reason we need the microwave or in summer so we can leave the air on for the dog if we run into the store.

Even the little one doesn't get much use to be honest because our solar runs everything we need during the day and keeps our batteries charged for night use. The solar maintains our house battery even when its cloudy but if it's been day after day of overcast weather its nothing to kick on the little generator for a few hours to charge the batteries and do a few other things at the same time.

Our solar power is supplied by the 200W starter kit from Renogy. It's a complete system with nothing else to buy. Highly recommended.

The combined system we use for power is basic, some would say small, but it's reliable and works for us. The whole setup, including solar and generator, was around 500 bucks from Amazon. A small inverter provides mains power for TV, computers etc. As I said, we run 200W of solar and that is plenty for our battery capacity. It's easy to get carried away when it comes to RVs and solar power but there are realities. 

If you have one group 24 battery (which is the average size in an older RV) 200W will supply all you need. You really shouldn't discharge a deep cycle battery beyond 50% as mentioned earlier. The typical group 24 battery is approx. 100 amp hours so 50% of that is of course 50 amps.

A good quality 100W solar panel like the ones from Renogy will put out approx. 6 amps per hour. We have two panels so that's 12 amps multiplied by roughly 6 hours of sun per day giving a total of 72 amps. That's plenty of power to fully recharge a battery and also provide plenty of excess for lights, TV, etc.

There are inefficiencies and losses within any system but for the most part, your battery will be getting most of what your panels put out (provided they are decent quality as I said and that you are using the recommended gauges of wire etc.)

Once your battery is full then its full. Apart from a trickle charge for maintenance, all the extra power from the panels is killed at the regulator and goes no further. Basically, you need enough to charge your battery for night use and run whatever you want to run during the day. You don't need to spend thousands on solar.

Our lights are all LED and we don't worry about using them or rush to turn them off. We have an LED TV with a built-in DVD player and we don't worry about using that either. We charge and run tablets, phones, laptops and all the other trappings of the modern era. Live your life and don't be afraid to turn on a light.

Water on Tap, When You Want it.

Most RV parks offer free potable water when you pay to use their dump station. Usually the fee is somewhere between 10 and 15 dollars. Just about every gas station has free water for the asking and if you ask first and they won't let you have some water then mosey on down the road and spend your gas dollars at somewhere that will.

If in the rare situation where you can't get water in that way, it can nearly always be found in a city park, the side of a commercial building etc (always asking permission of course). The essential equipment for a boondocker to always carry is a 4-way faucet wrench and a little gem of an item called a water bandit. With them in your water kit, there will never be a water source you can't access.

Hoses come in different sizes but we've found the best length for a drinking water hose is the standard 25 feet. Anything shorter is useless and anything longer is too awkward to manage and pack away if trying to fill in a hurry.

For water storage, we have a 35 gallon on-board tank and picked up another one from Amazon. The second tank rides on a cargo rack at the rear of the motorhome. Weight is not an issue as the rack and the hitch are both rated for 500 lbs and the water tank is only around 280 lbs when full. Add in some Reliance 6 gallon jugs as backup and we're at close to 100 gallons. That's well over a month of dry camping for us and although we do conserve water and monitor our use, we really don't go silly about it.

To get the water from the jugs without lifting and from the reserve tank we use a small 12-volt on-demand pump. The original water pump under the sink died so I replaced it with a smaller one from Amazon. It has a lower flow rate (1.2 g/pm) which in my experience is plenty of pressure for general use in an RV. It also pulls a lot less juice than the old pump making it a good all-round choice for boondocking.

I was impressed by the performance so I ordered a second one to use as a transfer pump. The advantages to this are that I have a backup in hand in case the one inside has a bad day, its on demand so there's no fiddling about trying to shut it off when the tanks full. I use a little device on my hose that lets me stop the water flow or taper it off to prevent overflow as the on-board tank fills up.

As soon as I shut off the water, the pumps shuts down just as it would if connected to the RV plumbing and someone turns off a tap. I can then leisurely walk back and switch containers or roll up the hose etc. Its a great setup and geared toward one-person operation. Far better in my opinion than a regular transfer pump from the hardware store that requires two people if you don't want to make a mess and lose that precious water.

I hope I've shown in this article that setting up your RV for long-term boondocking doesn't have to be expensive and that once you are setup, it's basically effortless. RV living can be done on any budget. Once you conquer the two big basics of power and water then everything else is easy.