BOONDOCKING TIPS AND TRICKS
As a result of quite a bit of trial and error (and also lots of shameless borrowing from other people’s web sites and suggestions on rv.net), we’ve developed a whole series of tricks for making boondocking more pleasant (and safer). Probably, most of these ideas are pretty self-evident; but I hope that they are helpful. (Also, note that almost all of these ideas are applicable to "dry camping" in a campground.) Although these comments are mostly about boondocking in a trailer, they are almost all applicable to other types of RVs. Finally, if you have comments or suggestions, please feel free to chime in! You might find later that I have plagiarized your comment and added it to my blog, but that’s fair game, isn’t it?
Why Do We Boondock?
Boondocking is somewhat more work than staying in a campground and a lot more work than staying in an RV park. But if you are lucky enough to score a prime backcountry site with no neighbors, boondocking is unique: silent, peaceful, moderately adventurous, and "unpackaged." Also, it's free, but that's not a very big part of the attraction; most campgrounds are fairly cheap, and the extra time, equipment, and effort required by boondocking means that it is not a winning proposition, viewed solely from the standpoint of money.
Fresh Water. I like to travel from home to our campsite with our main tank almost empty, although that causes some "sloshing." My theory is that the weight of the extra water not only costs me extra gas; it slows me down when I am climbing hills and is tough on the brakes and transmission when we are descending. But as a result of traveling empty, we have to fill up when we arrive. That can sometimes be tricky, if there isn't a campground nearby our boondocking site. So we have to plan ahead to make sure that there is a handy faucet. Be sure to buy a "water thief," which is a little green gadget that has a semi-flexible rubber tube that fits over the end of the faucet. It's really useful when the faucet isn't threaded, or where the threads are damaged. The other end of this little device has threads that will connect to your water hose. (Camping World usually stocks the "water thief;" it costs just a few dollars.)
I have figured out that we (two adults) use about 6 gallons per day for cooking, washing, and the bathroom, not including drinking water. So the 30 gallon tank in our trailer ought to hold us for about five days. However, I never like to cut it that close. We always bring extra water. I have five large plastic 6 gallon water canisters that we bought at Wal-Mart. We also fill those up when we fill our main tank.
We carry the extra water jugs inside the trailer. I secure them with bungee cords; I have installed little screw eyes around the baseboard inside the trailer in out-of-the-way places, and the bungee hooks go through the screw eyes. The extra water tanks have to be very securely fastened. When we are boondocking, we often travel on very bumpy roads. You don't want one of those water canisters to tip over in transit!
When we have to replenish the main water tank using one of the extra water jugs, it is not easy to lift a 6 gallon jug up to the fill spout on the side of the trailer; a 6 gallon jug weighs almost 50 pounds. I have rigged up a pole, about 5 feet long, with a hook on the end, which fits under the handle of the water jug. We put the jug on the ground. The hook fits under the handle. I put my foot on the other end of the pole, and I lift the water jug with the hook:
(Remember that if you want to see a larger version of a picture, just click on it and then click "back" to get back to the text.) The jug then swings up into place for relatively easy filling. (In the following picture, I am pretending to fill the tank – the fill spout is on the other side of the trailer, but the lighting was bad on that side.)
Water Conservation. When I wash dishes, I first wipe out the pots and pans with a paper towel. I put a little dab of soap on a scrubbing pad and just a little water into the pan. For dish soap, we use a dilute solution (50% soap, and 50% water) of Dr. Bronner's Castile soap; it rinses off very easily. This stuff can be purchased at any "organic foods" market. It's not cheap, but it requires a lot less water than regular dishwashing soap. (Plus, the writing on the bottle is really wild -- not your usual advertising slogans!)
When we shower, we take modified Navy showers. First, we run hot water into a plastic measuring cup (to be used for rinsing). Next, we quickly rinse off with the shower hose. Instead of having to turn the water off and on and off and on, I have installed a cutoff valve near the shower head. (I think that most RV or trailer shower heads have a built-in cutoff valve; ours didn't.) We then soap up, using the same dilute solution of Dr. Bronner's soap in a small squeeze bottle. Next, we rinse off with the water in the measuring cup. Finally, a quick rinse with the hose, and we are done. My wife uses less than two gallons of water to shower; I can shower with considerably less than a gallon of water because my hair is so easy to rinse (since there isn't much of it).
We also have a "solar shower," which is just a heavy-gauge black plastic bag that sits out in the sun to get warm during the day. Truthfully, we have not often used this device, since we usually camp at high altitude in cool locations. So showering outside is usually prohibitively “refreshing,” except if it's really warm. (But when it is warm, and we are really out in the middle of nowhere, this device is very pleasant – for one thing, it means that I don’t have to dry off the bathroom walls and the shower curtain after showering!)
Anyway, I have rigged up a tripod with a pulley, which lifts the plastic bag up high enough so that we can shower. (Otherwise, we have to hunt out a suitable tree branch, which is often hard to find in a convenient place – not too far from the trailer, not too high, not too low, etc.) Here are the tripod legs in their folded position -- these are just six-foot lengths of 1 x 2 firring strips, with holes strategically drilled:
And here is how the legs "extend" -- they unfold and overlap:
Here they are assembled, with quarter inch bolts and wing nuts through the holes. You can see a cleat on the side of one piece, which will be used to tie off the rope after the shower bag is hoisted up to the top of the tripod:
I then put a short piece of rope through holes drilled in the top end of the three pieces and tie a square knot:
Next, I hook a pulley onto the string and lift the tripod into position:
The lower end of the rope has another hook, which lifts the top of the solar shower bag:
This is a shot of the whole assembly:
If you are wondering how I transport the folded-up sticks, they go in front of the trailer and behind the batteries on the tongue, secured with a couple of bungee cords -- no problem.
In addition to our water tanks, we carry some drinking water separately, since I'm never too sure about the quality of the water that comes out of the faucet in campgrounds. I fill a 5 gallon canister at home with our home-purified water (we have a reverse osmosis system). At the same time, we also fill up a 2 1/2 gallon jug, which we bring into the trailer at night. We carry the drinking water inside the SUV; each jug has its own plastic pan to catch the inevitable drips.
Propane. We have a 4.3 gallon propane tank, which lasts us at least two weeks; we've never run out. And this is with constant use of propane to power the refrigerator, the stove, the water heater, and the space heater (when necessary). I top off the propane at a dealership near home, right before we leave.
I can always tell how much propane I need by the weight of the canister: when it is full, it weighs 36 pounds, and each gallon of propane weighs about 4.2 pounds. Using ratio and proportion, I have a foolproof mathematical technique for solving this problem: first, I take it into the bathroom and weigh it on our scale. Then, I ask my wife to figure it out! (She is a math tutor.) I installed a gauge on the propane tank, but the reading varies tremendously with temperature and pressure, so the gauge is only semi-useful.
Electricity. We are very careful about how we use electricity when we are boondocking. We almost never run more than one light at a time. The lights inside the trailer are little incandescent "wedge" bulbs. Although they are fairly energy-efficient, I have tried to improve on them with LED bulbs. But we did not like the quality of the LED light -- too harsh. We also have a small portable light fixture with a magnetic base (that I bought at Harbor Freight); it sticks very well to the vent hood over the stove. (We remove it when we are towing.) This fixture could take an ordinary 60-watt bulb. But instead we put in a compact fluorescent bulb, which uses very little power (about 13 watts). It runs off of a very small inverter, which is plugged into the 12 V outlet:
I like the compact fluorescent because it gives off a lot of light, which we need when reading in the evening. (The quality of the light isn't quite as nice as an incandescent bulb, but it's good enough.) We also have little battery-powered LED headlamps and rechargeable "book lights." These are OK for reading in bed, but they're not really great for use throughout the entire evening -- too dim and depressing. (I like boondocking, but I'm not willing to suffer for it.)
Batteries. I have two group 27 marine deep cycle batteries mounted side-by-side on the tongue. The trick is never to let them get too low -- supposedly, they can be damaged if they get below 50% charge, or about 12.1 volts. I’m told that the batteries will last a lot longer if they are always kept above 50% charge, rather than being allowed to run down. As soon as I get home from each camping trip, I take them off the trailer. I check the battery water (carefully). Next, I hook them up to my "batteryminder plus" on the shelves in my garage, and I leave them there until our next trip. I have heard that deep cycle batteries sometimes get more efficient after several usages. I don't know if that's true.
Because our current setup only uses one battery at a time (i.e., the batteries aren't set up in parallel), I rotate them -- on one trip, battery A is in the "hot seat" to begin with. On the next trip, it's battery B. But every day during the trip, I monitor the battery voltage with a cheap handheld monitor. (Someday, I might install a voltmeter inside the trailer.) The key, I found, is to test the battery when everything inside the trailer is off, and after the battery has had an hour or so to rest after the last usage. That's when I get the most accurate reading of the battery state. A full battery is at about 12.7 V. But when it drops to 12.1 V (50% capacity), I swap out the tired battery with the spare. A full battery generally lasts us four or five days, depending on the temperature.
I have a "pigtail" that runs from the electrical plug on the back of my SUV to a bumper-mount platform; I can put a run-down battery onto the platform and charge it while I am driving the SUV around. I haven't had much occasion to use this "recharging station," but it's nice to know that it's available.
I also have a Honda 2000 generator that can recharge the batteries pretty quickly, but I don't like to use it. Although it's the quietest generator on the market, it still makes a little bit of noise. And I don't like the smell of the gasoline. To keep the generator as quiet as possible, I run it on a long heavy-duty extension cord connected to the trailer’s built-in cord, so that the generator is about 50 feet away from the trailer (preferably behind some rocks or trees). We do bring the generator on longer trips (more than five days). I generally transport it inside the trailer, using bungee cords to keep it from moving around. (I transport the gas can on a bumper mount on the SUV.) And I also surround the generator with a home-made sound-dampening enclosure made out of foam insulating panels. I don’t know if the enclosure really makes it quieter, but it makes me feel better. There are lots of plans available on the Web for really soundproof enclosures; unfortunately, they are heavy and bulky. This one is very light, easy to assemble, and probably almost useless:
In an effort to keep the generator from getting stolen when we are away from the trailer, I have put an eyebolt on the tongue of my trailer, big enough to accept a kryptonite lock that goes through the handle of the generator. A really determined thief could hacksaw through the eyebolt, but it's better than nothing:
Here is the generator, the enclosure, the oil can, and the lock, all inside a standard plastic tub for easy transportation and storage:
I have been tempted to try solar panels to charge my batteries when boondocking, but there are a few drawbacks. First, we always try to set up camp in very shady places; there's just not much sun available. Second, the solar panels are not easy to transport or to set up. Third, they are very expensive. When "rollup" thin film panels are available at a reasonable price, I will probably give them a try -- perhaps with a nice long extension cord to get them into a sunny patch, away from the trailer.
Black Water. Our "black water" tank holds 30 gallons, which lasts us at least two weeks. In warm weather, I add some deodorizing chemicals. Sometimes I add “White King D” water softening powder, to break up any solid matter. I don’t know if it makes much of a difference.
Gray Water. Our trailer has a very small (6 gallon!) gray water capacity. That is a hassle. When we are in a campground, I empty the gray water into a bucket and dump it into the campground toilet. Usually, when we are boondocking, I haul it away from the campsite and dump it into the bushes. That sounds terrible, but it's not. We use very little soap, and it's always biodegradable stuff. The gray water is practically drinkable. Also, think about the folks who tent camp: they use the same amount of gray water as we do, and they (of course) dump it on the ground. If we are in a place where we can't dump it on the ground, I could dump it into the toilet, because our black water capacity is so much greater.
Keeping Warm. Since we usually camp in cold, high-altitude places (whenever possible!), we've developed some strategies for keeping warm. At night, we sleep with lots of blankets. If necessary, I wear socks, and sometimes even a knit cap. We also put foam rubber over the windows on the inside of the trailer to reduce condensation and drafts; I have custom-cut the foam rubber to fit the window, and I use a very strong magnet to hold them in place. But velcro would probably work just as well.
The vent hood over the stove lets in a lot of cold air; I have made a simple plastic shield that goes over the vent fan area to cut down on the draft. In order to conserve electricity and propane, we don't use the built-in heater very much, except when we are showering. (It's not a pleasure to get out of the shower when the interior of the trailer is much below 55 degrees.) Otherwise, we keep the interior at around 50 degrees, except when we are sleeping (when we don't use the heat at all).
During meals, we use a very small catalytic heater that runs off of propane canisters. It's important to leave a little ventilation when you use those heaters -- carbon monoxide is very dangerous. We never run the catalytic heater at night, no matter how cold it gets -- too risky.
Food. The ability to eat our own food (instead of restaurant food) is one of the main reasons we got a trailer in the first place. The goal was to cut down on calories and salt; also, homemade food just tastes better. And it got tiresome when we were staying in motels and then trying to hunt down a decent restaurant meal -- very time-consuming, and usually far from the trailheads in the national parks and the national forests. Now that we've become "boondockers," we have discovered that when we are camped in remote locations, eating is a big part of our entertainment, especially in the evening -- there's not much else to do! So it's really important to have excellent food, not just adequate food.
Breakfast. I would be fine with just oatmeal and coffee, but my wife likes a hearty breakfast of eggs and toast before a day of hiking or biking. She mixes real eggs and Eggbeaters in a plastic cup and then scrambles them in a nonstick frying pan. She covers the spatula in aluminum foil for easy cleanup. It is really easy to clean the pan after breakfast - the pan wipes clean with a damp paper towel.
Our biggest coup has been “boondock Starbucks" drip coffee. This is a real treat, and here is how we do it: I took a plastic coffee filter holder from a defunct Mr. Coffee machine. The holder, of course, has a hole in the bottom. I then installed a “hole blocker,” which is a flap of plastic that covers the hole and slows down the flow rate. I fastened it to the filter holder with a very small stainless steel screw:
I then put the coffee grounds into the paper “cupcake” filter in the holder. The filter basket fits on top of a plastic thermos carafe. I then pour a measured quantity of boiling water over the coffee, a little at a time:
The coffee is absolutely top-notch quality. The cleanup is a breeze - the coffee grounds and the paper filter are dumped into the trash, no muss, no fuss. (A French press makes really good coffee, too, but it's not easy to clean up, especially where water is at a premium.)
Lunch. Lunch tends to be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, along with sliced apples. Most of the time, we are hiking or biking, and PBJ is very easy to pack.
Dinner. Before we leave home, we freeze the main courses of our dinner meals - BBQ chicken, beef, pork, or whatever - and then wrap them in heavy duty Release foil, with some kind of sauce. We transport those frozen meals in our big cooler, inside the SUV. (We freeze three two-liter bottles of water and use them to keep the cooler cold.) Each morning, we take dinner out of the cooler and put it into the fridge to defrost. It is then very easy to heat up the dinner on the stove: we have a small rectangular aluminum tray (from an old toaster) that goes on top of a burner, and the foil packet goes on top of the pan. It takes about 20 minutes at a low burner setting to heat the foil packet, turning it every 5 minutes or so. The biggest problem is that when we are camped in a cold place (which is most of the time), we can't open all the windows and doors while we are cooking, so we have to run the fan. Aside from the fact that it brings in cold air, it is noisy and it also uses up electricity. But it can't be avoided.
Sometimes (especially on cold nights), we fix a "quasi-risotto" of brown rice, lentils, smoked sausage, and garlic, adding canned chicken broth as needed. The rice and lentils are pre-cooked and packaged, courtesy of Trader Joe's. Yes, it is more expensive than making it from scratch, but it is much faster and easier. (The smoked sausage is pre-cooked and sliced at home.)
While the main course is heating up, we prep the salad. The pre-cut lettuce stores nicely in plastic bags in the cooler, with paper towels to keep it crisp. Pre-cut lettuce will keep for several days, using this technique. If you have to buy fresh lettuce while you are out on the road, we discovered that if you cut it up and put it in a strong plastic bag and punch holes in the plastic bag, you can rinse it right in the plastic bag. Then, take the plastic bag outside and swing it vigorously in a circle. The remaining water will run out of the holes. This is very effective, and very entertaining.
We usually cut up carrots and other veggies (like red pepper and artichoke hearts) and throw them into the bag with the lettuce. Add a little bottled dressing, shake, and there is your tossed salad. We toast bread slices over a burner -- they tend to be a little charred on the outside and not fully toasted, but hey -- it’s camping. A nice red wine, and we are ready to eat. Having a pleasant, delicious, comfortable dinner with a reasonably good bottle of wine, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, is one of the most enjoyable aspects of boondocking.
Finding a Campsite. Usually, we boondock in the national forests; you can't boondock in a national park. The national forests all have really good maps that show the roads and the campgrounds. The general rule is that you can't boondock within 2 miles of an established campground. After I've taken a look at the national forest map, I go on to my National Geographic Topo program for a close-up look at the roads and the terrain. Next, it's on to Google Earth; often, I can see clearings in the best areas, indicating that other folks have boondocked in the same places.
Sometimes, the rangers will provide useful tips about boondocking sites. But be aware that the folks who answer the phone at the national forest offices are not always rangers and are often volunteers. Sometimes, they're not experienced campers. Be careful about relying on their advice. Sometimes they say that areas are closed when they aren't, and vice versa.
The best way to scout for sites is to get to the area early. Ideally, we deposit the trailer in a campground and then go scouting. We try to look for very quiet places, preferably sheltered from the wind, and not really visible from the roadways. It's important not to trample out new boondocking sites -- always use existing sites.
Positioning the Trailer on the Campsite. In an ordinary campground, you don't have a lot of room for error (or room for creativity). What you see is what you get. But when you are boondocking, you are in charge, which can be both a blessing and a curse. First, look for a reasonably level site. Think about drainage: if it rains, is the water going to run right underneath the trailer? Is the soil going to get so soft that you can't extricate the trailer when it's time to leave? Watch out for overhanging trees: sometimes, they drop leaves or sap on the trailer and the awning. And be careful of clearance - remember that the air conditioner sticks up higher than the roof of the trailer and can get whacked by low branches. Also, before you drive into a potential campsite, make sure that you can drive out of it! Leave yourself room for turning around and hitching up.
Bears, Wildlife, and Garbage. If you can take your trash every day to a nearby campground or trailhead, that's great. But if not, you can't store the trash on the ground outside. No way. There are some options, in that case: a couple of times, we have put the trash into hefty bags and then have tied ropes around the hefty bags and have pulled them up high off the ground, looping the rope over a tree branch:
If there's no tree branch available, we have occasionally put the trash into bags inside our car-top carrier, which is a hard-sided oblong box. Failing that, we could put the trash inside the car, which isn't a great idea. It smells up the car, and it would encourage animals to break into the car. But if all else fails, that's what we will have to do. We could burn much of the trash (such as the paper goods), but not the tinfoil. Also, it's often true that fires are not allowed in remote areas of the national forests.
Minimizing Your Impact on the Campsite. This is probably obvious, but if you want to have a campfire, try to make it in an established fire pit. (If it's breezy, maybe do without a fire.) Watch out for overhanging branches. At night, don't leave the embers unattended -- drown the fire and then feel it. There have been quite a few cases of "escaped campfires" that have led to forest fires, and the forest service isn't shy about suing the folks responsible, often for millions of dollars. Try to use downed wood instead of cutting fresh wood; in some areas, you're not allowed to cut green wood. (Also, downed wood is likely to burn much more readily.)
Sometimes, we find bits of trash in the fire pit from earlier campers; we try to pick it up and bundle it up with our trash. The goal is to leave the campsite cleaner than when we found it. I often wish that we could somehow erase our tire tracks; at the very least, we try not to drive on previously "undriven" parts of the forest floor.
As mentioned earlier, we try not to run our generator; even though we are boondocking, and even though we have a really quiet generator, I really don't want to disturb anybody else. And for goodness sake, spend the extra money and get a Yamaha or Honda generator, or the equivalent. Please don't use the cheap "contractor grade" generators -- they can be heard for miles.
The Tow Vehicle. We tow with a 2005 Nissan Pathfinder with a 4.0 liter V-6 engine and four-wheel drive. (Our trailer is very small -- about 14 feet and 2000 pounds). After a couple of flats with the original-equipment passenger-car tires, I put on BFGoodrich All-Terrain tires, which are much beefier. On the highway, I run them at 50 or 55 pounds of pressure. If we are going to do a lot of dirt road driving, I "air them down" to 35 pounds. For real off-roading, that's probably not soft enough, but we don't do serious off-road driving; we are mostly on bumpy, muddy forest roads. At 10 miles an hour, 35 pounds works just fine. When we get back to civilization, I then reinflate them to 55 pounds, for better mileage. They ride really rough, and I don't mind it a bit! An ideal boondocking tow vehicle would have a lot more power and clearance than my Pathfinder does. But then you would suffer when not towing, because of the poor gas mileage. So it is a trade-off.
My Pathfinder can run in two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive "high," and four-wheel drive "low" (which is only for very low speeds). I ran across some good advice on the Web, which I will pass along: be careful about using four-wheel drive to get yourself into situations that you can't get out of. To put it another way, four-wheel drive sometimes will just get you stuck 50 feet further down that muddy road than you otherwise would have been. In icy conditions, of course, I will use four-wheel drive, no matter what. And remember, four-wheel drive will help you move ahead and steer, but it won't help you stop.
Whenever we plan to go off-pavement (which is almost every camping trip), I bring all of my "getting unstuck" devices: a pry bar, a shovel, heavy-duty chain, a small air compressor, heavy-duty nylon towing straps, and a good set of tools. I also bring carpet scraps, which we would put under the wheels to give us traction in ice or snow or mud or sand. I've never had to use any of these toys, but it's nice to know that they are with me. I have a manual winch, but I usually don't bring it because it's too bulky. I also have tire chains; so far, I only have chains for one set of wheels, but I very soon plan to get chains for all four wheels of the tow vehicle and chains for the trailer. I'm told that sometimes, the California Highway Patrol requires chains on all six wheels!
I have also put strips of Astroturf on both of my running boards near the driver and passenger doors, secured with cable ties. (This is a very stylish accessory, as you can imagine.) The Astroturf allows us to wipe mud and snow off of our feet before getting into the car, since so many of the boondocking sites are muddy or snowing:
The Interior of the Tow Vehicle. I have put down custom-cut thin plywood sheets inside the back of my SUV. It makes it a lot easier to get cargo in and out and protects the interior. Think of it as a low-budget bedliner. But get used to the idea of a dirty car -- going off-pavement means mud and dirt and gravel and scratches.
Safety, Weather, and Forest Fires. Before we leave home, I get the latest forecasts directly from the National Weather Service. For example, the current California "discussion" is at:
For some odd reason, I could not get my links to publish as links; you could just copy it and paste it into the address bar of your browser. (You can see that the letters "ca" indicate California; just substitute the abbreviation for your state in the address.) The discussion is pretty technical, but after a few days of reading it, you should be able to decipher their terminology and abbreviations. (Plus it's fun to get the forecast before the local TV weather people get it!)
The goal, of course, is not to get caught in bad weather unexpectedly. However, even with careful monitoring of the forecasts, sometimes the weather can change suddenly, and you have to take quick action. See, for example, what happened to us when a predicted "light" rainstorm turned into a fairly heavy snowstorm, contrary to the predictions:
Remember that when you are boondocking, you are probably in an area that isn't snow-plowed and isn't patrolled, so you are on your own. And if you don't get out in time, your trailer could be trapped for the entire winter. I have heard about trailers that were crushed by heavy wet snow when left out in the forest all winter -- bad idea.
Similarly, if a forest fire breaks out, no one is going to come around and tell you to evacuate. You have to be alert and make your own decisions. During the summer of 2008, we were boondocking in the Eastern Sierra south of Bridgeport, and our campsite suddenly became very smoky in the late evening. We were certain that we were going to have to pack up and leave quickly. Fortunately, our campsite was about 5 miles due west of Conway Summit on Highway 395, and there were cell towers at the summit. We were able to pick up a signal and contact the fire department, who told us that the fire was far away from us and that we didn't have to evacuate. If not for the lucky accident of decent cell reception, we probably would have made the decision to leave: better safe than sorry.