Winnebago’s 2022 Boondocking Guide
Winnebago’s 2022 Boondocking Guide
Experienced RVing boondockers share their extensive knowledge and tips.
By: Kelly Laustsen & David Somach
Whether it is the excitement of finding epic campsites in nature or the desire to save on camping fees, boondocking has continued to grow in popularity among RVers.
That’s why Winnebago asked a couple of our GoLifers with extensive boondocking knowledge to share their tips and insights for anyone wanting to try out this more rugged way of RV camping for the first time, or anyone wanting to expand on their current boondocking experiences.
From boondocking basics to logistics and supplies, this guide has it all.
What is Boondocking?
We consider boondocking staying at any free and legal camp spot, without any hookups or amenities. In a city, boondocking usually means staying at a business that allows overnight parking, like a Walmart, Cracker Barrel, casino, or truck stop. Wild boondocking is a spot on public land, like a national forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land.
Boondocking requires a little extra planning, such as bringing enough water, checking any rules associated with the spot, and being prepared for the unexpected.
An Intro to Wild Boondocking
Public lands vary in different parts of the United States and Canada. In Canada, most public land is Crown Land, which has camping regulations specific to non-residents. In the United States, you can camp on most BLM land, national forest land, Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), state forest land, and National Grasslands. While there is significantly more public land in the western part of the country, we still found plenty of opportunities for boondocking along the east coast.
A majority of Alaska is public land, and we couldn’t believe how easy it was to find free camp spots throughout the state.
Typically, there are rules associated with camping on public lands, such as limits on the number of consecutive nights you can camp (typically 14 nights on BLM land), restrictions on where you can camp (sometimes in designated spots or a certain distance from roadways), and fire bans at certain times of year.
It is important to do your research ahead of time, especially given that public land camp spots are often in areas without a cell phone signal. We’ve found rangers to be a great resource and will often call local National Forest or BLM offices ahead of time to get advice on spots to camp.
What About Urban Boondocking?
While most of this guide is focused on boondocking in nature, we’ve also had great experiences urban boondocking. In addition to some of the more common businesses that allow overnight camping at some locations (Walmart, Cracker Barrel, and Cabela’s), we’ve also enjoyed many restful nights at casinos, truck stops, gas stations, and local businesses friendly to campers.
We think the key to a good experience is to set your expectations appropriately. You likely won’t have the quietest night at a truck stop or Walmart next to a busy highway, and often businesses keep bright parking lot lights on through the night.
Good blackout curtains and a white noise app on our phones help us sleep well. We are always amazed at how cozy the inside of our van feels in a busy parking lot once we get set up for the night.
Sometimes we’ll treat a night at a Walmart parking lot as a special occasion, using it as an excuse for a movie night and popcorn. When possible, we make a purchase at the business where we are staying and keep our visit to a single night. Whether businesses allow overnight camping varies from location to location, so we also call ahead to make sure we are welcome.
What Type of Rig Do You Need to Boondock?
People boondock in many different types of RVs! We picked our van and designed our setup to be just as capable in a city as on a forest road in winter.
For us, this meant:
- We didn’t consider any campers we’d have to tow and selected a short wheelbase van that we can parallel park. We store our van in our driveway or on the street in front of our house and live on a busy, narrow street, so needed something we could easily get to and from our home.
- We use our van for longer trips and often spend nights without access to a bathroom, so having a toilet and shower on board were a requirement.
- We rely on our van to get us to the mountains in the winter regardless of road conditions and up forest roads to access hiking in the summer. We put a big priority on 4x4 so we wouldn’t have to worry about planning around our van’s limits. (But many other vans and RVs also do really well, check out this overlanding article from a van lifer in a non- 4x4 rig).
- While we’ve been surprised how easy it is to find fresh water and dump stations in many parts of the country, we wanted large fresh and grey water tanks for times and places these amenities are harder to come by (like in the winter and more urban areas).
Given our plans for our rig, including a fifteen-month trip around the United States and Canada, the Revel was a perfect fit. We’d long considered a truck camper or building out our own van. But when we saw the Revel released a few years ago, we knew right away it was the best option for us. We love how compact our van is and that we can fit in a standard parking space.
Being able to seamlessly transition from the driving space to the living space is also a big benefit when stopping for a quick meal or bathroom break on a long drive.
Of course, boondocking isn’t just for those with vans. There are options for all different kinds of rigs and campers if you plan for your vehicle’s capabilities. While some spots do require 4x4 and have limited space for turning around if you are towing, other spots are just off the pavement or accessed by a gravel forest road in good condition.
Some spots are hours from a water fill-up or grocery store, while others are just fifteen minutes away. We’ve seen a huge variety of campers in boondocking spots, anything from a small car with a rooftop tent to a Class A RV.
We recommend outlining how you plan to use your vehicle, including where you plan to spend your nights, and using this to guide your camper selection.
Pros and Cons of Boondocking
When we spent fifteen months on the road in our Revel (named Gnar Wagon), we expected a good number of those nights would be in campgrounds or RV parks, not realizing just how many options there are for boondocking.
We ended up spending most nights at free camp spots, realizing this was the easiest way for us to save money on the road and convenient for our flexible style of travel.
Here are some of the pros and cons of boondocking that we’ve experienced:
Pros of Boondocking:
- Doesn’t require reservations, allowing you to plan on the go and be flexible. We like to have a rough itinerary when we are in the van, but leave the option open to modify our route or spend more or less time in destinations along the way. We love not having to make reservations or plan too far ahead.
- Free! If you are on a long trip, saving on overnight accommodations really adds up. Spending more nights boondocking allows us to spend more of our budget on meals out and experiences.
- Typically quieter and closer to nature. We seek out boondocking spots on public land that are spaced out and quieter than a campground. We especially love a spot with a view or next to a river.
- Sometimes boondocking is the most convenient option - like in a city where campgrounds or RV parks are far outside the city, or in natural areas where public land camp spots are close to hiking. When in Anchorage, AK, we spent the night at a Cabela’s just minutes from downtown, which gave us access to great food and drink options. In Oregon and Utah, we’ve boondocked at spots within a half-mile bike ride from mountain biking trails.
Cons of Boondocking:
- Not having hookups for water or electricity means planning ahead and conserving your resources. If we plan to boondock at a spot for several nights, we’ll often bring an extra five-gallon jug of water and only shower if we really need it. While our solar panels keep our batteries full in the summer, in the winter we’ll keep our meals simple to conserve our batteries.
- Some boondocking spots can be crowded and unpredictable. Several times we’ve boondocked on public land that requires you to camp at a designated spot, without the option for reservations. This might mean driving several miles down a rough forest road only to find all the spots are full. We’ve also boondocked at spots that are crowded and just as noisy as a campground, or we’ve been unexpectedly joined by another camper in an area we thought we’d have to ourselves.
- Often boondocking spots in nature don’t have cell service and are far from any services, so you need to be prepared in case of an emergency.
New Trends in Boondocking for 2022
We have spent many nights boondocking over the last few years and have noticed a jump in popularity, especially with COVID. Local spots in Oregon we used to have to ourselves are often full by the afternoon, making it more difficult to show up late and claim a spot.
There are also lots of new phone apps and websites popping up to help find and share spots. It is hard to imagine what boondocking was like before the age of smartphones, and we feel spoiled by how easy it is to find information and plan on the go.
To sum it up, epic nature spots are popular and easy to find! So, you may want to get to your chosen spot early to make sure there is still room for your rig.
Our Go-To Resources for Boondocking
We use several websites and apps to find dump stations, water fill-ups, gas stations, and camping spots, including:
- Sanidumps.com: A website that provides maps by state showing water fill-ups and dump stations, noting which are free.
- GasBuddy: An app that shows gas station locations and user-reported prices, allowing you to search along a route or in a specific location.
- iOverlander: An app that shows user-added spots for a wide range of destinations, including camping spots, local businesses, libraries, service stations, water fill-ups, and dump stations.
- onX Offroad: An app that shows land ownership so we can confirm we’re not camping on private land.
- Harvest Hosts: A subscription app that connects users to breweries, wineries, farm stands, and local attractions that welcome overnight guests. Harvest Host spots require users to be self-contained, and it is expected that you’ll support the business you spend the night at.
We’ve also used campendium.com, freecampsites.net, the Dyrt, and allstays.com to find boondocking spots.
Most of the resources we use rely on users to contribute information and to review the spots others have added to confirm or refine the information. We’ll often come across spots on iOverlander that have been marked closed as the spot is actually on private land or tribal land. It is critical to cross-reference public land maps if you aren’t certain you are in a legal camping spot.
Sometimes public land maps are hard to find online, but usually, we can find at least a PDF map on the appropriate agency’s website. There are also apps that provide land ownership information, such as onX Offroad, that we use to confirm we’re camping on public land.
One of our favorite ways to find new spots is talking to locals and other van friends!
Helpful Gear for Boondocking
We’ve added to our repertoire of gear over the years to make our boondocking experience more comfortable. Boondocking doesn’t require anything fancy, and it is most important to have the essentials: drinking water, a first aid kit, food, plenty of warm clothes and blankets based on the weather, and lights.
Sometimes bringing a couple comfort items can go a long way to making for a better night, like hot tea and coffee, s’mores ingredients if you’re making a fire, slippers, and a good book.
Some of the “extras” that we use when boondocking include:
- Signal booster: One van upgrade that we were most hesitant about initially is our cell phone signal booster. However, it works wonders and we are so glad to have it. We’ve driven up forest roads where we’ve seen our signal drop from LTE to 3G to 1x to no signal, and when we set up camp and turn the booster on, we’re back at LTE. It’s allowed us to stay in touch with friends and family while traveling in remote areas and to research our activities as we go.
- Travel fire pit: We love a good campfire, and our travel fire pit has come in handy in the winter, on the beach, and in spots without a solid premade fire pit. We are surprised by how often backcountry camping spots will already have a fire ring, but we’ve still found plenty of opportunities to use our fire pit.
- Portable hammock: We have a two-person hammock with tree straps that makes for a comfy lounge spot and is quick and easy to setup. It packs down in a small stuff sack, making it easy to store in the van for a spontaneous setup.
- Solar panels: we have a total of 410 watts of solar, which means that even on partially sunny days, our batteries stay charged. In the winter, we have to be more conservative with our energy use, but still have plenty of power for cups of hot tea and chocolate throughout the day. We’ve considered getting an additional solar panel to attach to the solar port on the side of our van, but haven’t needed to with how much solar we have on our roof.
- Camp lights: We added twinkle lights around the edge of the van ceiling and carry blow-up LED lanterns that use solar power to charge. We also have motion-activated lights throughout the van so that, when we enter the van after dark, we can easily find our way to the light switch. It is incredible how dark a remote camp spot can be, and having enough lighting makes a big difference to the feel of the camp spot.
- Water storage: We carry a collapsible five-gallon water tank to supplement the 21 gallons of fresh water we have on board. We’ve run into situations where a water fill-up was hard to come by, and we had to drive out of our way to fill our tank. So when we know we’ll be in more remote areas, we fill up our extra water tank as buffer.
Tips for Beginner Boondockers
We can still remember many of our early boondocking experiences and learning some lessons the hard way. It can be intimidating to camp in the woods, especially when there aren’t any other campers around. It has taken time for us to feel comfortable boondocking, both in nature and in cities.
Our experiences have been largely positive, and we have met a lot of other campers through boondocking.
Here are some of our tips for anyone just trying it out:
- Leave no trace, and pick up after others if you can. Finding trash at a camp spot definitely detracts from the nature experience. Be especially careful of any trash that could puncture a tire – we’ve seen leftover nails, broken glass bottles, and other debris near firepits. If you plan to use the outdoor facilities, make sure you’ve read up on best practices and always pack out your toilet paper.
- Know the limits of your rig and setup. If we are boondocking in a new spot, we’ll sometimes get out of the van to walk the road ahead to scope out the road conditions. We are especially cautious of low branches and have reversed down forest roads before to avoid overgrown trees and brush that would scrape our paint. Forest roads often don’t have places to turn around, so before you go down a road, make sure you know how you’ll get back out.
- Have a backup plan. Especially if you are heading to a spot that could be crowded, have a backup spot if plan A doesn’t work out.
- Get to your spot before dark. The first time we went boondocking, we arrived after dark and had a much harder time finding the best place to park. It is easier to find a level spot and see potential obstacles like trees and rocks when it is light out. We also always feel safer and more comfortable when we arrive before dark, especially in areas we aren’t familiar with.
- It is always more fun with a friend. We love boondocking with friends, which encourages us to spend more time outside the van in the evenings around a fire pit. Especially if you are new to boondocking or feel nervous out in the woods, having a friend nearby is a big comfort.
- Plan for the weather. Make sure you have enough warm clothing and bedding, as it really cools down after dark in the winter! If there is any chance of snow, be prepared to get out of your spot and clear snow from your vehicle. We’ve seen more than a couple vehicles get stuck trying to get in or out of camping spots in the winter, so know the limits of your vehicle and be prepared. We carry traction tracks that have helped us get out of snowy spots and also have a winch, which we’ve largely used to help other vehicles get unstuck. (See our winter gear here).
- Try new places. While it is fun to have usual camping spots, we make an effort to try new places and sometimes plan our trips around areas we’d like to camp.
A Few of our Favorite Spots
Not every boondocking spot has an epic view, wildlife, or solitude, and we’ve had plenty of great times at spots that are nothing more than some trees and grass. However, we’ve been fortunate to stumble upon some gems and can’t believe that these spots are free and open to anyone.
Here are a few of our favorite spots:
We hope this guide inspires you to try out boondocking! Feel free to share any questions or tips of your own in the comments.