Disclaimer: Boondocking, or the art of finding free places to park an RV without hookups, can be addictive. You have been warned!
When we bought our RV, we had dreams of being parked in the wilderness with no one around and waking to spectacular sunrises with no other sound but singing birds and the coffee brewing. After a couple of years and many months on the road, we realized this dream was possible. We got hooked on the boondocking lifestyle. Some may call it “Off the grid”, “Dry camping”, “Dispersed Camping” or “Wild Camping” but the idea is the same…it is about heading out there in the wild and having fun camping… for free.
There is something liberating about finding a place to park for the night or even for a few days for free, especially if you find a spot like this!
So the question is how do we find these places? Travelers like to share their stories and if we are lucky, some will disclose their secret locations with us only if we promise not to tell anyone! Who wants to return to their favorite location only to find it is full of fellow RVers? Maybe we won’t be that lucky so where can we get that precious information?
To us, the real question is: Where can we park safely overnight for free? Safety is the number one issue for Joanne and I. Although we feel relatively safe in a Wal-Mart parking lot (convenient but this is the last resort choice) we would not feel comfortable parking on a city street or in a city park without feeling safe about it. We would be on the lookout for either a police or security presence or other RVs parked there as well. Otherwise, we would choose another location.
Harvest Hosts has been a very useful resource for us. This is a membership-based service where you can stay overnight (for one night) at host locations such as wineries, farms, and museums. You must call ahead to make arrangements (and arrive during business hours) and it is normal etiquette to thank the host by making a purchase at their place of business. There are hundreds of hosts scattered in the US and Canada and you are likely to find one on your itinerary. We have made wonderful discoveries this way. Furthermore, we have always felt safe at every place we stayed.
Boondockerswelcome is another membership-based service, but this time you are staying on a fellow RVer’s property. In this case, a little more planning is required because you must contact the potential host through a secure messaging system, which sends an email to the potential host. We have found that it is best to contact hosts a few days or even a week ahead of time to get a response. Many hosts are travelers like us and may not have access to emails. This has been more difficult to manage because we are often the type to decide on a destination as we go. But once we got a positive response back, it has always been a memorable experience. We enjoy visiting cities and like to be parked near the action, and this has been an excellent option, assuming there were hosts in the area. You may consider leaving a small token gift to your host, especially if a full hookup was offered. Have a look at the “resources” tab on the website for other very useful links. The next tip happens to be on that resources page.
Frugal-RV-Travel is a sister site to the “boondockerswelcome” website. We have saved hundreds of dollars in camping costs by using their guides to boondocking locations. If you are traveling to Arizona, Southern Utah, Southern Texas, New Mexico, or California (2 guides), you will find (very) detailed directions to some spectacular locations such as this:
Free and low-cost campgrounds is a guidebook to free or under $12 campgrounds. Although we have had less success with this guide, we often use it as a reference and it has provided us with directions to nice free sites. We have found some of the information in our 2014 edition to be out of date. Some GPS coordinates took us down a long dirt road at a private residence, not at all what we expected, or in another case, the coordinates were for the middle of a lake! Also, some campsites were closed for business. Now we cross-reference the information from the guide with Allstays, an indispensable camping app for mobile devices. If you do not have this application, get it now.
Bureau of Land Management also known as BLMs manage public land mostly in the western US states. There are some campgrounds managed by the BLM that are fee based ($10-$15 usually) but there are many dispersed camping sites that are free of cost. Those can be discovered by visiting a BLM office, the BLM website, and some visitor centers offer information. In addition, the “Allstays” app can display BLM sites, and other online sources too. In many cases you will need a permit to stay at a dispersed campsite, which is available at BLM offices. The permit is free, but you will need to list names of the people in your party, vehicle information, the area where you will be parking and the length of your stay.
Some other useful apps like Campendium and Ultimate Campgrounds are regularly updated with free locations. Another useful resource is the community-driven freecampsites.net.
When in a bind, we sometimes have to resort to parking on asphalt, most often at a store or other business that usually allows for this practice. Make sure you ask for permission because some cities have bylaws that restrict overnight parking. By calling the non-emergency police line at the local town, you will know whether it is legal or not. You may even get some tips on where to park legally and safely for the night.
Here are few of the spots popular with travelers (again – if in doubt, ask for permission):
Have you ever gone camping in the wild? This is what we love to do and it gets better if you also have friends with you. For us, it is the ultimate thing in camping not only because of the money we save, but because it fulfills the inner explorers in both of us.
Do you have other ways to discover boondocking sites? Let us know in the comments below.
While spending a long weekend in western North Carolina last month, we camped at a location that, for many reasons, seemed perfect to us. And now, as we are making plans for an upcoming trip much further west, we are using that campground as a benchmark. More about that location later, but first a disclaimer: It is now becoming more obvious to me that what we see as an ideal campsite is very different than what most RV owners seek.
To some extent, this may be because we’re working full-time and have no children living at home. That means shorter vacations that are not structured around campground entertainment. Most campgrounds seem to be built for different RV owner demographics – for example, retirees who don’t have time constraints on their travels, or parents who are camping with their kids. This explains the popularity of resort-like campgrounds that have built-in entertainment opportunities, including pools, sports facilities, and planned social activities. Longer vacations and family travel account for why larger (Class A and C) motorhomes are much bigger sellers than small (Class B) motorhomes like ours.
At the other extreme are RV owners who avoid campgrounds altogether, preferring to camp without services such as electric, water, and sewer hookups. For some, this is so they can stay at remote wilderness sites (“dry camping” or “boondocking”). Small motorhomes are particularly well-suited for this since they are maneuverable on smaller roads and are self-sufficient, at least for a few days. But dry camping is much more common among RVers who are just looking for a one-night stopover and don’t want to spend money on a campground. There are even websites and smartphone apps that help you locate free RV parking sites, such as Walmart parking lots. I understand the economics and convenience of that choice, but I confess that camping in a commercial parking lot is probably the very last thing I would want to do with my vacation time.
Regardless of our destination or our length of stay, our goals for identifying a suitable campsite have been focused on three main criteria:
Overall, we think of our motorhome as a mechanism to get somewhere interesting and to serve as a basecamp for exploration and activities; we don’t need the campground itself to provide entertainment. The best campground for us serves as both a getaway and a gateway, located within a short distance of the experiences we are seeking.
Which brings us back to that ideal campground I mentioned at the beginning: Just north of Asheville, North Carolina, is Campfire Lodgings, a small private RV campground located on a mountain ridge. We stayed at one of the “premium” campsites, which are all situated with unobstructed views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Depending on whether you choose sites with that view or sites with more trees and shade, the cost is $45-65 per night. The campground is well-maintained by an attentive staff and includes cabins, yurts, hiking trails, a laundry facility, and clean private bathrooms/showers. It’s just a short drive to the great food and music and art galleries in downtown Asheville, the gem of western North Carolina. Perhaps it’s a mistake to tell anyone about Campfire Lodgings, since I don’t want it to get too crowded; assuming it doesn’t, we’ll definitely be back.
(More articles at my travel/photo/blog site: https://www.vanscapes.net)