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Finding Great Boondocking Spots

Finding Great Boondocking Spots 1

My name is Marshall, and I have a “problem.” I’m a serial boondocker.

I spend the vast majority of my time camping on public land, with most locations being free. The last time I stayed at a full-hookup RV spot was also the last time I stayed at a commercial RV park – over six years ago.

On the rare occasions I stay at campgrounds, they are public and offer few, if any, amenities.

The last time I stayed at a campground with any amenities was over 3 years ago at an Oregon state park. Since then, it’s been either boondocking or the (extremely) rare stay at a National Forest or BLM campground with zero amenities.

I don’t choose this style of camping because I have to. I do it because I want to! It fits my lifestyle much more than a crowded RV park.

Oh, and I’m rarely alone.

All this to say, I know a thing or two about how to find a boondocking spot.

But first, what in the heck is “boondocking”?

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Wedge Overlook, Utah

Defining Boondocking

Boondocking is camping at a site that has zero hookups. No water. No power. No sewer. And more often than not in an uncrowded spot on public land. Generally, for free. (OK, almost always free where I camp.)

Call it what you want – boondocking, dispersed camping, wild camping – it all usually means the same thing. Enjoying the wide-open spaces offered by the vast swaths of public land that the United States has to offer.

Where Can You Boondock?

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Alabama Hills

The most common place to boondock is on certain public lands. You can find the most availability of boondocking spots in the West because this is where the majority of the public lands lie.

There are four main types of public land that offer boondocking possibilities:

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is in charge of the vast majority of public lands in the US. Here are some BLM quick stats:

  • They manage 245 million acres (one-tenth of the US land), including 25 National Monuments and 21 National Conservation Areas
  • Greater than 99% of BLM land is available for recreational use with no fees

US Forest Service (National Forests) administers the Nation’s forests. The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of land in 154 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands. Unless you are in a developed campground, it is generally free to camp on Forest Service land (where permitted).

State Lands which is just that – land owned and controlled by a particular state. Western states have a lot more of this publicly held land, frequently in the form of State Trust Land.

The availability of this land for boondocking will vary by state, and there is sometimes a fee to camp on this land. For example, Washington State requires a Discovery Pass ($30 annual fee). And Arizona requires a State Trust Land permit ($15 individual or $20 family annual fee).

City/County Land is the fourth type of public land and is the one that I use the least. This type of public land ranges from a gravel/dirt lot where you can camp to a city or county campground with or without amenities. The fancier the location, the more likely there will be a fee to camp, even if it is dry camping with no utilities.

Please keep in mind that while many different types (and locations) of public land allow public camping, this doesn’t mean that you can camp wherever you want on the land. It’s not a free-for-all out there! You need to follow the rules if you want public lands to remain open for your camping pleasure.

Rules of Boondocking

Public lands are not your private property. You cannot do whatever you want, whenever you want. Like it or not, there are camping rules even out in the middle of nowhere.

Each type of public land has its own rules, and each specific area may have additional restrictions. For example, one National Forest may impose shorter stay limits (typically 14 to 16 days, but some popular regions will have as low as 3-day stay limits).

Many boondocking areas, especially the more popular ones, have posted rules that you should read. Otherwise, you may get a door knock from a ranger who isn’t pleased with what you are doing.

Some generic boondocking rules include:

  • Camp only where others have camped before. A good indication of this is a stone fire ring or other obvious signs of previous use. Don’t destroy a lovely pristine meadow that has never seen an RV before just because you like the view.
  • Don’t tear up the area with your vehicles. I’m constantly amazed at the number of people who think it is their right to blaze a new path with their off-road vehicle. Sure, you’ve spent thousands of dollars on a toy or modifying your 4×4, but this doesn’t give you the right to tear up virgin soil. Use existing trails. There’s a reason they exist.
  • Don’t stay longer than 14 days (if there is no posted stay limit). Two weeks is generally the longest you can stay in one place on any public land, and personally, for me is about the time when I’m ready to move on anyhow.
  • Don’t be an obnoxious neighbor. While you may be the only one around for miles, it’s more likely that there are other RVs within shouting distance. Having nearby neighbors is particularly true in more popular destinations and as the RVing lifestyle explodes in popularity. Keep your noise pollution down (don’t have loud music, pets, kids, contractor generators, or other forms of long-term or disruptive noise). Don’t park on top of someone else. Don’t block someone’s view. Just be a good person (if you have to ask what that means, I don’t know what to tell you).
  • Respect the wildlife. You are visiting their home. You are parking where they eat, sleep, and play. Don’t bother them. Don’t let your dogs run free and chase after every animal they see. And while we are on the subject, don’t let your dogs bother other campers. Nobody likes some random dog barking at them or peeing on your property. Not cool!
  • Keep the area clean. Don’t litter and pack out what you pack in. And don’t be one of those that leave your toilet paper and human waste so others can “enjoy” it. You have no idea how much trash I’ve hauled out of public places, both on my own and with other Xscapers, during official and unofficial cleanups which are often needed, unfortunately.

It boils down to being a good person and using common sense. Unfortunately, there are too many people camping that seem to lack either of these skills.

If we don’t respect the public lands we are fortunate enough to access, the controlling authority will shut down these camping areas. Some popular sites have already been shut down, while others are being converted into designated camping areas (some requiring permits to camp now).

The Escapees organization (parent to the Xscapers) created a Boondocking Policy a couple of years ago after some of us noticed an uptick in people behaving badly while camping on public lands.

Read the policy to ensure you are a good boondocking RVer. The policy covers much of what I did, but reading some of this stuff more than once is never a bad idea.

I’ll now climb off my soapbox and discuss a bit about how you go about finding these excellent boondocking spots.

How Do You Find Boondocking Locations?

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Nevada Boondocking

There are three ways I find boondocking spots, with two being my primary means:

  • Online with campground location websites
  • Via word of mouth from my friends and acquaintances who also boondock
  • On my own using public land maps, Google Maps satellite view, and getting out and exploring

Websites

There are many different online destinations you can use to find camping spots, including boondocking locations. However, the quality varies widely, so I use a total of two.

Campendium is my first choice when it comes to finding places to camp. It has a variety of filters that allow you to quickly drill down to find the type of location you need. The user-generated reviews give you a real-world perspective of what to expect. It offers free searches, or you can become a member to access more dialed-in search features.

Free Campsites is a distant second, and to be honest, a website that I don’t visit that often. Why? It’s just a more complicated website to use. Not as visually pleasing and often includes reviews from tent and car campers, so the information usually doesn’t pertain to people with rigs.

While the above two websites are free to use, there are two paid options that you might wish to consider and that I have used.

Finding Great Boondocking Spots 5
Harvest Hosts Location

Boondockers Welcome is a paid service ($50 a year) that gives you access to over 2,000 locations that allow you to camp for at least one night for free. These hosts are private individuals with either a large driveway or a piece of land suitable to park at least one RV. While the majority of hosts are US-based, there are many in Canada and even some overseas.

Harvest Hosts works very similarly to Boondockers Welcome but features 900+ farms, wineries, breweries, and museums that allow you to overnight. They charge a $79 annual fee and offer an upgrade to include 350+ golf courses. With Harvest Hosts, you are encouraged to patronize the establishment, so the ‘free’ stay often costs a bit, but you will get a great experience staying at some incredible locations.

Either Boondockers Welcome, or Harvest Hosts is a great way to try out boondocking without having to commit to finding a location that works for your sized RV. You eliminate things such as knowing where you can park your rig and where you can’t and being freaked out about camping out in the boonies all alone (though there isn’t much to be concerned about).

These “boondocking” options can allow you to try camping without being plugged into utilities without any of the other hassles of boondocking. It’s an easy way to find out if the boondocking lifestyle is right for you!

Escapees Members Get Discounts on Boondockers Welcome and Harvest Hosts!


Escapees Partner Discounts

Word of Mouth

I have a lot of RVing friends who boondock so it is fairly common that cool spots come up in conversation. When one grabs my interest, I will favorite it on Campendium or save it as a “want to visit” pin in Google Maps.

Keep your ears open when you talk to fellow RVers. While they may not tell you about their secret hiding spot nobody else knows about, they often have no problem telling you about better-known places they love. And with thousands of potential boondocking spots, it’s always nice to have some help narrowing down your choices.

On Your Own

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Eclipse Boondocking

The final method I use to find dispersed camping locations is simply by exploring areas on my own. I don’t do this much as it requires being within a reasonable driving distance of an area I want to explore, and when I am somewhere it means I already have a place to stay.

But I have had very good success using this method in the past. For example, I found a not well-known place in Idaho for a group of 15 rigs to enjoy the 2017 solar eclipse in the path of totality.

To use this method, you must first know where public land is, and if you can camp there. I’ve only done this in National Forests because the US Forest Service makes it very easy to locate where you can and cannot legally camp.

National Forests put out Motor Vehicle Use Maps that indicate where on Forest Service Roads you are allowed to camp. I use this as a starting point, then fire up the satellite view in Google Maps to get a sense of the area.

I’ll look for obvious camping spots and the general lay of the land. The downside of this is that you cannot tell the condition of the road and if a rig can go down it. That’s where getting out and exploring comes in.

You have to physically drive (not in your RV or towing your trailer!) these potential spots to see if your rig can make it down the road and if there is indeed a suitable camping spot.

Be prepared to spend some time doing this. To find the eclipse viewing location, I drove for hours before almost giving up. The last place I checked was THE spot.

Because of the effort involved, and the fact that I would have to be in the area to investigate, I only use this method a few times a year.

Boondocking: Just Do It!

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Badlands South Dakota

Hopefully, this has given you an idea of how to find boondocking spots. If you are out West, there is an abundance of places you can camp for free. Out East, pickings are slim, but they exist.

Use one of the above resources and find a spot to enjoy the freedom of not being in a developed campground. You can thank me later.

Just remember that it is up to each of us that boondock on public lands to ensure that we retain this privilege for years to come.

Treat the land properly, and we all will be able to use it for generations to come.

Treat the land like many (unfortunately) do, and we will all end up being sardines in campgrounds as the only camping option as public lands are closed to camping.

Get out there and enjoy some insanely beautiful boondocking spots that cost you nothing other than a bit of care in the way you treat it. You may become like me and never want to pull into a traditional campground again.

Before You Head Out, Check Out The RVers Boondocking Policy:


RVers Boondocking Policy

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Author

Marshall Wendler

Marshall is the co-founder of Camp Addict, the RV newbie website. He RVed full-time for close to 7 years and now enjoys the lifestyle part-time, always looking for that next great boondocking spot.

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Finding Great Boondocking Spots 9

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