How To Research And Secure Boondocking Campsites

If you are interested in RV camping, learn about boon docking campsites and how they differ from regular campsites.

Camp
By Adventurtunity Family
Camp Ambassador

If you’ve tried making a reservation at a full-service campground recently, you may be very familiar with these phrases: “Sorry, we are booked out for the next two months.” “Our next available opening is in October.” “Thanks for calling, but we don’t currently have any sites available.” The increased popularity of camping and RVing over the past couple of years has made it increasingly challenging to find a spot to park your rig or pitch your tent with services (water, electric, bathrooms, etc.), especially in highly sought out destinations.

(Photo: Adventurtunity Family)

Not to be deterred, seasoned campers and those with a more adventurous spirit have started to look beyond RV parks for camping accommodations. You may have heard the terms boondocking, dispersed camping or primitive camping. And while there are a few minor nuances between them, they all essentially mean the same thing: camping without hookups or services in roughly designated areas on public lands and county or state parks. In this article, we’ll be discussing the best ways to find, secure and enjoy camping off the grid!

Whether camping in a tent, towing a trailer or driving a motor home, if you are used to camping in full-service campgrounds, the thought of camping away from civilization and all of its amenities may seem a bit intimidating. But if you love the outdoors and really want to immerse yourself in Mother Nature, we have found that the best way to really get out there is to REALLY get out there! The key is to do a little research, be prepared, know your limitations and have a plan B or C.

(Photo: Adventurtunity Family)

Research

There are a lot of ways to go about finding a place to set up camp under the stars and away from the city lights. But there are a few tried-and-true sources that come up when you ask almost any boondocking enthusiast. These apps include Campendium, iOverlander, FreeRoam and The Dyrt. Within most of these apps you can filter search results in your desired area by things like price, terrain, accessibility and proximity to facilities where you can dump your tanks, refill fresh water and find bathrooms/showers. The best part about these apps is being able to read reviews on the areas where you are looking to camp. The reviews are extremely helpful and give you a clearer picture of the road conditions, views, cleanliness, safety, size of the sites and how popular they are. They can let you know immediately if a site may work for you or if you should look elsewhere. Pay attention to how recently the latest review was posted, as things may have changed if it’s been over a year.

Another great app (also a website) to reference is Recreation.gov. This app allows you to search national park areas for campgrounds in and around the parks. It is packed with pertinent information regarding when boondocking sites are open during the year, size of the sites, nightly site fees and what facilities, if any, are in the area. It will also let you know if the sites are FF (first come, first served), A (available) or R (reserved). You’ll find many of the sites are FF, but on the rare occasion you are able to book a boondocking site ahead of time, it can definitely bring you comfort knowing you have a spot to park your rig!

Whether you have a reserved boondocking spot or are attempting to secure a first come, first served site, we always recommend checking the reviews and weather reports a day or two prior to your arrival. You’ll want to specifically look for any information on the current road status. Rain, wind and snow can turn what was once a passable road into a very hazardous situation quickly. The last thing you want to do is get stuck in an area far from town or worse with little cell coverage. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and take the time to double-check reviews.

(Photo: Adventurtunity Family)

Securing A First Come, First Served Site

There was certainly a learning curve to navigating the first few times we boondocked. And once we became a bit more familiar, we attempted to boondock at a few first come, first served places. It was pretty much the luck of the draw whether we got a spot or not. A handful of times we were successful in nonpopular areas but had also been turned away several times in more organized boondocking sites. That’s when having a plan B comes in handy. But with each time we learned, and now we have a few important tips and tricks to share.

First, if there is a phone number for the county/state/national park areas, call them the morning you plan to arrive and ask if there are any open sites. Knowing a site or two is open will at least give you a chance to secure one. And if they say they are full, then you don’t have to waste time driving to that location. We have also found arriving on a weekday usually offers a better shot at landing a good spot.

Secondly, if you are towing a trailer or toad vehicle, you are going to want to scout the area before committing to leaving the paved road with your rig. And most likely, you will be leaving the paved road to secure your boondocking spot. Many times, there are open areas or parking lots right off the road for you to unhook and leave your RV before heading down the dirt road. Another option is to leave your rig at the closest town in a Walmart or similar parking lot. The reason for scouting is two-fold. There is always a chance of not being able to find or fit in first come, first served, dispersed or primitive campsites, so it much easier to look ahead and avoid hauling your trailer and all of your gear 5 miles down a washboard dirt road only to find that all of the sites are occupied. 

Another reason to scout the road is to make sure the road is passable for your vehicle. If there was recent rain or snow, roads can become too muddy or rutted for larger trailers or RVs to navigate. And depending on where you are in the country, the road may have areas of deep sand or be too rocky. It’s better to find this out in your scout vehicle than to get stuck with nowhere to turn around. Remember, many of these “roads” are not maintained regularly, if at all, so it’s a bit of a gamble in terms of what condition they will be in.

This is also why you’ll want to have a plan B, just in case your first spot does not work out. Many times (especially out West) there are multiple boondocking areas in the same location where you can easily try another spot. Other plan B options could be to drive on to the next town or grab an overnight in a campground to regroup.

We know this may sound a little intimidating, and it was to us at first. But once you start with a few dispersed camping spots, you will learn so much and become more comfortable with your own process and the types of boondocking sites you prefer. And staying under the stars immersed in Mother Nature is certainly worth the effort!

(Photo: Adventurtunity Family)

Types Of Boondocking Sites

The types of dry campsites you will find are quite diverse and include everything from campgrounds with gravel pads and pit toilets to open camp areas with nothing to mark the sites but handmade rock fire rings from previous campers, to a plot of dirt in what seems to be the middle of nowhere with no clear access. Of course, none of these have hookups, but by using the suggested apps and doing research, you should be able to find something that fits your comfort level. In popular areas or organized dispersed campgrounds, you will most likely have other campers within eyesight. And then at others far off the beaten path, you’ll feel like you’re the only humans on the planet.

Whichever spot you land, you’ll want to check the local regulations in case you need to obtain a permit or pay a fee where you want to camp. Typically, nightly fees are around $12 a night, but many times you can find free dry camping. And oftentimes you need to obtain a permit from the local Bureau of Land Management or forestry service office so that they know there will be campers in the area. There’s also typically a 14-day limit on staying in these camping areas. This allows everyone a chance to enjoy them throughout the season.

(Photo: Adventurtunity Family)

Reminders

One of the most important things to keep in mind when camping off the grid is that you’ll need to pack in everything you need for the duration of your stay. Most of the time, these campgrounds are a decent drive away from town, so you don’t want to forget anything. If you’re in an RV, make sure your waste tanks are empty and your freshwater and propane tanks are full. If you’re tenting it, remember there are no facilities, so be sure you have everything you need to handle your business. Some more popular areas may have pit toilets nearby, but don’t count on there being any toilet paper in them. It’s best to bring your own. 

Depending on the time of year and how active you are, you can never have too much water. When we boondock, we fill our onboard freshwater tank and then have an additional 6-gallon jug we keep in the Jeep. If you plan to stay for longer than you think your supplies will last, be sure to include nearby water, propane and dump stations in your research.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, be sure to pack out everything you pack in, and possibly even more. This means be prepared to take all your trash, food remains and even used sanitary products with you when you leave. And, unfortunate as it is, don’t be surprised to come upon trash left behind by previous campers. We always do our best to clean up some extra trash from our site and the surrounding area before we leave. The goal is to leave no trace that you were there and leave the site in better condition than you found it. Boondocking on public lands is an awesome experience, and that experience should be shared by everyone who gets to enjoy time there. So, we all need to do our part to keep it clean and ensure that not only the next camper gets to enjoy it, but also the next generation!

Related Articles

Always be ready to go with the Go Out{side} Email Newsletter

Don’t miss out on new Go Out{side} news, tips and tricks.