What Is Boondocking? – Free Camping Start to Finish

Boondocking in Switzerland
Featured photo by Dino Reichmuth, overlooking Oeschinen Lake, Kandersteg, Switzerland

Boondocking, also known as free camping, dry camping, camping off grid, dispersed camping, primitive camping, and many other titles, is camping for free (often in the wilderness).

This means you are responsible to find your own place, set up camp and expect nothing in terms of service or amenities. (i.e. parking place, toilets, water, etc—the obvious stuff.

Sometimes established campsites are free—and that’s still considered boondocking!

The term dry camping (remember, identical to boondocking) comes from the idea that a dry camper will have no access to hookups (water, electricity, etc). In that sense, the camp is ‘dry’.

A few points to focus on…

  • The hunt (location)
  • Campsite
  • Tent, Trailer, or RV?
  • Etiquette
  • Equipment

Finding a Site

Though it may seem hypocritical (for a boondocker) to have a campsite planned out ahead of time, let me tell you that it is a world of help.

You won’t want to be searching as the sun goes down, and definitely want to avoid searching for a spot when it’s dark.

The First Places to Look

There are a few governmental agencies, as well as some helpful online resources, that have databases on dry camping. We’ll touch on a few before listing them all in our own database of databases.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

BLM is a great resource for boondockers. They have managed over 245 million acres since 1946 and are extremely friendly to those interested in primitive camping.

“Public lands are open to dispersed camping, as long as it does not conflict with other authorized uses or in areas posted “closed to camping,” or in some way adversely affects wildlife species or natural resources.”

BLM

Stay Limits

Dispersed camping is allowed on public land for a period not to exceed 14 days within a 28 consecutive day period.

BLM

Campendium

Another awesome place to find a place to boondock is Campendium. It is a curated online database of reviewed campsites that is constantly updated.

Though it is not as extensive as BLM (it still has over 10,000 campsites), I like it because of the detailed information on each campsite. You know what to expect.

National Parks

National parks have many campsites, but often do not allow primitive camping.

It never hurts to call and check—some do allow it.

One strategy many campers use is to boondock just outside the borders of the park. It’s almost always just as nice, but the regulations are completely different.

Stay Limits

“In National Forest land, the standard is a 16 day stay limit, you must move more than 5 miles between campsites, and you are not supposed to stay in the same campsite more than once in the same calendar year.”

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The Trick

When you call a national park, wildlife preserve, or similar, first thing to do is ask if you can camp there. But be specific!

What you have to make clear is that you don’t want to camp on a campsite.

Many of the more inexperienced volunteers or rangers (and the websites) will say yes/no to ‘Do we have a developed campsite?’ Of course, that will have a nightly charge; therefore, it’s not boodocking.

Make sure they understand you want to camp on the property, but not on a campsite.

Expect some skepticism. (only because they aren’t used to the question.) Even so, many volunteers/rangers will let you camp.

The Best & Easiest Way to Find A Place to Boondock

The best thing to do is find a ranger’s station. Call ahead of time to determine if boondocking is allowed.

It always a great idea to check in with the local ranger. Not only will you learn local polices, you can find great spots.

Ranger's station at night

This is a list of questions to pose local authorities before boondocking (to a ranger, over the phone, in person, state/national park/forest personal, whoever):

  • Can we gather and burn firewood? (Seriously, sometime not allowed)
  • Is there a maximum time limit to camp? (Often 14 days)
  • Can we keep souvenirs like cool rocks or pine cones?
  • Can we swim in the river/lake?
  • Are cat holes the appropriate way to bury human waste?
  • Do you have a fire safety or forest fire prevention policy?
  • Are we allowed to hike/drive off trails/roads? (found out the hard way in Iceland)
  • Are there wild animals we should be aware of? (And related safety policies?)
  • Can you recommend any special sites or fun activities to do nearby?
  • Anything else we should know? (especially local rules that might be unusual)

Bookmark this page so you can find this list when on the phone.

“Just because it’s listed doesn’t make it accessible, and just because it was accessible to a big rig last week doesn’t mean it’s still accessible.”

Founder of Campendium

Databases

We’ve compiled a list of resources (yes, a database of databases) you can use to find great legal boondocking spots.

These sites are public forums, mostly curated, where users can submit sites and reviews all over the United States (and sometimes the world).

NameSizeFounded
Campendium10,000+ Camps2012
Bureau of Land Management245,000,000 Acres1946
U.S. Forest Preserve193,000,000 Acres1905
Free Campsites13,000+2008
Boondockers Welcome*†1,900+2010
Boondocking.org700+ Camps2006
Recreation.gov100,000+ Camps*1990s
US Army Corps of Engineers400+ projects1802
Casino Camper400+2006

†Free Airbnb for boondocking/annual fee *Not all free. Be sure to check.

This is a great resource to bookmark (click the star at the top of your browser).

OutsideHow wrote an informative article about finding free campsites, which you should checkout if the list above looks daunting.

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Consider The Weather

Don’t forget, when planning your trip, to check the weather ahead of time.

Driving, much less camping, is downright challenging and uncomfortable on muddy ground.

Rain, fog, and frigid temperatures can ruin a camping trip. Hiking in high humidity and elevation are other elements to consider.

Camping in fog with flashlight and tent hidden

I was camping in Montana, once, near a river we planned to swim in, then ford and hike around. Days earlier it was in the 90s (degrees Fahrenheit).

The first day we arrived it was 38° and snowing. Instead of swimming, I spent the whole day (and night) stoking the fire.

Respect the Wildlife

I mean it one way, in two directions: survival. You want to protect yourself, of course, but also the wildlife.

Be aware of the animals where you plan to visit. Every region is different, so don’t assume anything. Do research beforehand and take the necessary precautions.

Beware…

To help save time, each link is to a thorough article on each kind of encounter.

Blue Ridge Outdoors has an extremely informative guide to avoiding animal encounters.

When in doubt, ask the ranger.

For a visual, entertaining education watch Man vs. Wild, a personal favorite.

Always, no matter where you are, bring a first aid kit. Buy one, designate a spot for it in your RV, and keep it there. If you ever need it, you’ll have it.

120 Piece First aid kit survival swiss safe
Swiss Safe – 120 pieces
Surviveware Small First Aid Kit
Surviveware

Dogs, Cats & Other Pets

Because, when boondocking, there aren’t other people around, often dogs and cats can go off-leash.

Both BLM and the National Parks welcome pets. There are some rules, but in undeveloped places (where you’ll be camping), normally they are welcome.

Then there’s the problem of bringing pets RVing. We’re not going to get into it here, so check out a complete guide and one especially for camping with cats.

The Campsite

There are choices to make when you go camping. For boondocking especially, it is wise to know what you are in for.

Wherever you end up, there won’t be anything waiting for you—no toilets, no table, no ring of stones for a campfire, no grill, no nothing. (Otherwise it’s not really boondocking). Planning ahead can make or break the experience.

Choosing the Spot for Your Camp

As we will really get into later on in etiquette, the goal of boondocking and camping in general is to minimize your impact on the natural beauty of the world.

When given the opportunity to choose a campsite, avoid vegetation, other campers, and any place that you would have to disturb while establishing camp.

Camp 200 feet from water to protect the riverbanks and allow animals access.

When traveling around your camp and nearby areas (such as getting water from nearby creeks), vary your travel paths so as not to overly trample plants/vegetation.

A few important tips for avoiding vegetation:

  • Rocks, gravel, and sand are all durable surfaces to set up camp.
  • Pick often-camped sites to focus human impact
  • Camp away from other campers
  • Beaches (above the high water line) can be great spots

Do not camp on moss or lichen.

Moss and lichen on rocks

Read more about picking the best spot to camp from Leave No Trace.

Building the Site

Unlike regular camping—where you book a spot at camp, pull up, and unload your equipment, maybe start a fire, connect to the hookup—you’ve got nothing.

However, sometimes it is encouraged to reuse campsites.

Well-worn spots focus human-impact in one stop, but sometimes limit natural growth there. It is the policy of some parks to have campers rotate through a few areas, to allow plants and wildlife to regenerate in each spot.

Ask the local ranger.

So What Do You Do First?

Actually, it really doesn’t matter. If you want a fire, make a fire. It’s best to allot half an hour for setting up your tent, if you have one. Make sure to do that well before dark (especially if you’ve never done it before).

I know people who begin by locking the car (keeping everything safe from animals) and going to explore.

They’ll swim, hike, kayak, or bike all day, then come back with at least an hour of daylight to set up camp and make dinner.

Campfire Safety & Policy

A “small” campfire is considered a reasonable fire.

(NOTE: This is a general guide. In practice, every situation is different. RV SUPPLY Co in no way implies or states any responsibly whatsoever of any consequence or cause of any fire or fire-related event whatsoever.)

Fireside Outdoor makes a portable fire pit—one you can carry like those soccer-game folding chairs and set up in less than a minute. I find them faster, easier, and more reliable than making a campfire from scratch.

Fireside Pop Up Fire Pit
Portable Pop-Up Campfire. Read our review.

Everyone knows that you should make a ring of stones around your firepit—please do.

You should make sure there is clear distance between anything flammable (including grasses, brush, leaves, etc). Best practice is to build it on a shelf of stone.

Never leave a fire unattendedPlease.

When extinguishing a fire, douse it with water and cover with dirt.

Campfire over sand with still hot smoldering coals

Hot coals can start fires. Don’t leave them unattended either.

There are significant penalties for starting forest fires, including jail time and/or massive fines. Please, please check local fire safety policy or ask rangers for best practices.

If you want to learn more, read our guide to RV fire safety.

Where Do You Plan to Sleep?

Do you plan to bring a tent, a whole complex of tents, a quality (off road) travel trailer, an RV? A combination of the above?

Travel Trailers / Camper

This is (currently) my personal favorite. For camping like this, I find most RVs too big and tents not comfortable enough.

Teardrop-size campers (whether or not they really are teardrop shaped) are a good option.

Small campers are a great balance between RVs and tents. One, because they’re relatively cheap compared to RVs, not too hard to store, and still a sweet escape from the discomforts of the wild.

Above you can see the comforts of the Polydrop Trailer, one of the many companies to start up in the last 5 years, engineers turned adventurers making handcrafted trailers.

We’ve reviewed some pretty cool small travel trailers. Here are a few…

See the full list of campers. Also, check out our favorite off road travel trailers for wilder boondocking.

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Tents

Tents can be a great option. They’re flexible and reliable for a great price (compared to buying an RV).

Five beautiful tents overlooking hills and rolling fog

While they may not be as comfortable as sleeping in the bed of a camper or caravan, tenting offers the most rugged adventure.

For all the campers out there in need of an extraordinary tent, this is the one.

Coleman Camping Tent

The Coleman Sundome 4-Person Tent is 9 x 7 feet. It is polyester, with a patented welded floors—it’ll keep you dry.

They claim it will only take you 10 minutes to set up. Budget more the first time, but it’s easy to handle.

Size

4 person tents, I always find, are the best size. They’re not massive (a pain to store and assemble), but they can hold 4 people. For one or 2 people, there is plenty of room.

Fun fact: Something is considered ‘remarkable’ when someone makes a remark about it. I’ll say this tent is quite remarkable; it has over 2,400 reviews (as of October 2019) on Amazon.

RVs

If you plan on boondocking with an RV, you’ve probably already got one.

If you don’t have an RV, but would like to boondocking in an RV anyway, rent one.

RV Share is the place to rent all kinds of RVs.

Etiquette

Of course, unlike the wild west, you can’t just go drive anywhere, set up a camp, and call it a night. The modern world has laws.

Size & Distance

Some sites have a max size on RVs. Though it’s much less common there are also weight and size limits for certain areas.

If this applies to you, check with local rangers.

Also, the world is a big place. So spread out.

There’s no need to set up camp anywhere near other campers. If another camper pulls in next to you, don’t be ashamed to ask them to move further away.

Boondocking is meant to get away.

Parade of RVs crowded camping

Noise

When camping, there is no need to be loud. Especially when boondocking, you are in nature; you are a part of nature.

Listen to the birds, do not drown them out.

Shouting a lot isn’t the problem. The biggest noisemakers, in my experience, are generators. Many RVers, as well as travel trailers and campers, bring a generator to power their electronics.

We have written a massive article on the best generators. For boondockers, I would focus on the quieter models.

The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken 
BY ROBERT FROST

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

From the Poetry Foundation

If you notice line 10 in the above, classic poem by Robert Frost, you will notice that both paths are about equally trodden. That is not good for the environment.

Whenever possible, take the road more traveled by.

Concentrating travel on trails reduces the likelihood that multiple routes will develop and scar the landscape. It is better to have one well-designed route than many poorly chosen paths.

Leave No Trace

The best method for choosing your route, in any wilderness situation, is to minimize your footprint(s). Try to leave as few clues as possible you were ever there.

This is the mindset of everyone who cares about the environment.

Human Waste (Cat hole)

Location of solid human waste disposal (cat hole)

The most common and well-accepted strategy for human waste disposal is:

  • Pick a spot 200 feet from water sources
  • Pick a spot 200 feet from your campsite (and others)
  • Good spots include hills, underbrush, and other out-of-the-way spots
  • Dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and 5 inches wide
  • Poop
  • Disguise with dirt and leaves

Use toilet paper that is biodegradable.

Human waste disposal instructions

Another solid human waste method is packing-out, which is required in some places. Read more.

“Pack it in, Pack it out”

What you bring in, you bring out. No exceptions, no litter, no trash.

Do your part!

Don’t litter!

Don’t leave waste!

Protect our world!

Leave No Trace

For more information, learn about Leave No Trace, a group dedicated to preserving the remaining wilderness of our Earth.

They champion these Seven Principles:

Some Gear To Consider

Now comes the important part: all the equipment you need to be safe and have a great time.

When camping, often you will have access to nearby facilities (showers, toilets, fresh water). This section covers some gear that can make up for those missing pieces.

For a general overview of what to bring for an incredible camping experience, look for our complete guide coming soon.

What You Won’t Have

Without a hookup (water, electricity, etc), or just camping in general, there are a few things you will want to bring.

It depends, of course, on whether you have an RV, a travel trailer, or only a tent and car (maybe you’re even backpacking!).

RVers may have access to a full kitchen while backpackers may just have survival gear.

So read this next section looking for the things you need.

What You Can Bring

Biodegradable Soap and Shampoo

You may not have access to a shower, but we hope you plan on cleaning yourself. Whether or not you bring your own, biodegradable soap is a must.

You can use it to clean yourself and wash dishes with river water. Carry the water (using the jugs below), finding a wash spot at least 200 feet from the shoreline.

This allows the soil to filter the soap so as to minimize its impact on the river ecosystem (even with biodegradable soap).

Water

Without a hookup to connect to a spigot of clean water, you need to find some way to get it.

The easy solution is to bring your own. Water Storage Cube makes large jugs that collapse after you use them for easy storage. They are highly rated and designed for camping.

Portable and collapsible fresh water storage for primitive camping

Buy your clean water or fill them up in town or at a paid campground, then head into the wilderness.

You can also fill them with river water, for uses that don’t require clean water (grey tank quality).

For drinking natural found water, there are many good filter systems.

small Water filter
Sawyer: mini filter attachment
Lifestraw personal survival water filter
Lifestraw: a personal water filter
Lifestraw Go Water Filter Bottle
Lifestraw: bottle and filter in one

Firepower

Coleman is a great camping brand. In particular, their Triton 2-Burner Stove is a great addition to any camper’s toolkit (if you have the ability carry it).

The 2-Burner’s size is both its greatest strength and weakness. It weighs 10.1 pounds, but two burners mean you can cook almost anything.

Coleman Triton Series 2-Burner Stove for off grid camping

It saves you the trouble of making a campfire every night (following best practice), but takes up about 2 x 1 x 0.5 feet (technically 22.8 x 13.8 x 5.8 inches).

This is the perfect fit for travel trailer adventurers (and anyone who can find room to carry it). Find more great choices with our guide to RV and camping grills.

If you plan to park somewhere and then hike to your ultimate boondocking destination, you’ll probably want something smaller.

Primal Ridge makes only one product, called the Solo Cooking System.

Solo Camping Cooking System from Primal Ridge

Portable Shower

Portable Shower for camping and boondocking

This is a relatively new product, designed to make up for the lack of amenities Boondockers miss from a regular campsite.

The road shower has pressurized water, either hot (warmed by the sun) or cold, which is great for doing the dishes, and cleaning yourself.

Out camping, you can fill it with a water jug and pressurize with a cheap 12 volt tire pump

Road Shower.com

If you find yourself lacking in a cheap 12 volt tire pump, this one is highly rated.

Washable Toilet

We know most of you will use the great outdoors. But, in case you didn’t know, Camco makes a Portable Travel Toilet for campers, RVers, and boaters.

Portable Travel Toilet for campers and RVers

Like me, you probably recognized the name Camco as a manufacturer of utilitarian RV gear (pipes, hoses, and that sort of thing). I just learned they make toilets as well. Who knew?

There is one downside…it still needs to be cleaned out. (I’ll stick with the cat hole.)

But there is truly something for everyone.

And don’t forget: use toilet paper that is biodegradable.

Tips & Best Practices

  1. Make sure you have all the extra gear you need beyond your regular camping supplies (see above)
  2. Have a general idea of where you want to stay before you get there
  3. Follow etiquette and know how to Leave No Trace you
  4. Follow the law (ask the ranger about local rules and regulations).
  5. Conserve your fresh water (and bring more than you expect)
  6. Choose a rocky or sandy campsite—not vegetation
  7. Ask the local ranger for local rules and the best spots
  8. Know how to dispose of your (solid human) waste
  9. Know generally where you plan to stay

FAQ

What is Boondocking?

Boondocking, also known as dry camping, camping off grid, free camping, dispersed camping, primitive camping, and many other titles, is camping for free (often in the wilderness).

This means you are responsible to find your own place to set up and camp, without the usual amenities of an RV hookup or toilets/showers.

What is dry camping?

Dry camping, also known as boondocking, camping off grid, free camping, dispersed camping, primitive camping, and many other titles, is camping without RV hookups or amenities (for free, not necessarily in the wild).

What is dispersed camping?

Dispersed camping, also known as dry camping, camping off grid, free camping, boondocking, primitive camping, and many other titles, is camping out in the wilderness (for free).

What is primitive camping?

Primitive Camping, also known as dry camping, camping off grid, free camping, dispersed camping, boondocking, and many other titles, is camping without amenities (for free, often in the wilderness).

Where can I legally Boondock/primitive camp/dry camp for free?

There are many great places to look to find places where you can legally turn into a campsite. We have a databases of databases for that! (See earlier in the article).

Some noteworthy resources include the Bureau of Land Management, Campendium, the US Forest Preserve, Free Camping.org, among others.

National Parks often don’t allow boondocking, but many state parks do.

Can you Boondock in National Parks? What about State Parks?

National Parks often don’t allow boondocking, but many state parks do.

There are many great places to look to find places where you can legally start boondocking/free camping/primitive camping. We have a databases of databases for that! (See earlier in the article).

That includes the Bureau of Land Management, Campendium, the US Forest Preserve, Free Camping.org, among others.

How do you prepare for Boondocking?

You’ll want your regular camping/RV/camper supplies, a few extra things (see above) to make up for developed campsite amenities and hookups. You’ll also want to review boondocking etiquette and Leave No Trace principles to help follow the law and preserve the environment.

How do you have the best experience Boondocking?

Like anything, the answer is to be prepared. You’ll want to…

  1. Make sure you have all the extra gear you need beyond your regular camping supplies (see above)
  2. Have a general idea of where you want to stay before you get there
  3. Follow etiquette and know how to Leave No Trace you
  4. Follow the law (ask the ranger about local rules and regulations).
What are essential Boondocking tips?

We cover many, many—here are a few…

  1. Conserve your fresh water (and bring more than you expect)
  2. Choose a rocky or sandy campsite—not vegetation
  3. Ask the local ranger for local rules and the best spots
  4. Know how to dispose of your (solid human) waste
  5. Know generally where you plan to stay
What’s the best place to camp when Boondocking?

When choosing a spot to camp, make sure it’s on rock, sand, or previously disturbed locations. Beaches are good spots. You just want to make sure you aren’t trampling any vegetation.

When Boondocking, the goal is to Leave No Trace you were ever there.

The End

Thanks for reading! We hope you find this helpful. If you have suggestions, content ideas, feedback or want to contribute send us a quick email at info@rvsupplyco.com.

Outdoorsy RV Rental

What Isn’t Camping

This last section I added because I wanted to include this image. Needless to say, the more elbow room, the better the camping experience.

An overcrowded campgroud—what isn't camping

A video guide from Campendium.

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