How to Boondock - The ultimate guide for free camping
You've probably come across some incredible pictures from folks who are boondocking, or maybe you like the cost (Free!), and want to know how to get started. We're here to help with that!
Note: This is a living document, we're always working to improve it. If there's anything that isn't clear, let us know in the comments at the bottom of this page.
Boondocking is camping without amenities or hookups. It's typically either in a parking lot (eg a Walmart) or pretty deep into nature on public lands. Many people choose it not just because it's free, but because you have plentiful space around you, surrounded by nature. No more paying $50 a night to be packed in like sardines in an RV park, it's just you and nature.
Boondocking in nature
This is where the real magic happens. You find a nice spot on public land that allows camping and stay for 1-2 weeks before moving on to another spot. You get to choose whether you want to be surrounded by friends, or off on your own.
You don't have hookups, so you'll have to be self-sustainable, using propane, stored water, batteries and solar or a generator to charge those batteries.
Boondocking in civilization
Boondocking in or near cities usually involves staying one night in a Walmart parking lot. If you're in a van, you can probably stay in more places, but for RVers you're pretty much limited to Walmarts and a few other businesses like Cracker Barrel. Most people just do this on travel days when moving from one nature spot to the next.
Not every Walmart allows overnight parking, so be sure to research a little more into the one you'd like to stay at.
How to find
This is where you can find a much wider variety of sites. You can stick to the popular places where you know exactly what you're getting before you go, or you can get a little more adventurous to find the perfect spot.
We'll start with the easier route.
The quickest way to get started is to find a popular boondocking site with plenty of YouTube videos and information about it. On FreeRoam that typically means finding a campsite with the dark orange icon (one that has reviews).
Off the beaten path
If you want to get a little further off the beaten path, you'll need to do a little more research. If these spots were easy to find, then everyone would be there ;)
The research typically involves using public land maps, and satellite overlays - fortunately both of which are easy and free to do on FreeRoam.
Using map overlays
By far, the two most common places to find boondocking spots are on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and USFS (United States Forest System) land. If you're in Florida, the big one is WMA (Wildlife Management Areas), which we don't have an overlay for, but do have campsites listed.
Just because it's BLM or USFS land doesn't necessarily mean you can camp there... so the easiest thing to do is look for clear spots where people have camped before - typically marked by a fire ring in satellite view.
To use this technique, go to the main map, tap the layers icon at the top right, and select "Satellite", then "BLM". This will turn on satellite and overlay the BLM map layer on top of it.
Vehicle usage maps
Another approach you can take, especially in the warmer months, is to stay in USFS (National Forest) lands. There are 154 National Forests in the US and with each you can typically find many MVUMs (Motor Vehicle Usage Maps). These are designed to let you know which roads are open to which types of vehicles, but they often will also tell you where dispersed camping is allowed.
We'll use this map for Kaibab National Forest as an example. If you open it, you'll see a legend on the top left that shows "Motorized Dispersed Camping, Both Sides" and "Motorized Dispersed Camping, One Side". You can then zoom in on the map to the right to find the roads that match the legend (dots on the side of the road lines), and cross-reference it with satellite view in Google Maps or FreeRoam to find potential spots.
If you're in a stealthy van, you might be able to get away with parking in more places, but for the rest of us, there are two main sources of parking: businesses that allow it, and rest areas.
The main thing to keep in mind is this is overnight parking and not camping, so it typically means no putting out lawn chairs and a grill ;) And if it's warm out it's best not to put down stabalizers since that could damage the asphalt.
Businesses that allow it
The biggest business you'll find that allows overnight parking is Walmart. Although more and more are starting to ban overnight parking (particularly in and near large cities), most still allow it.
You can find Walmarts on FreeRoam here
Many casinos will allow overnight parking. These are typically very large parking lots, and you have the added bonus of a cheap buffet.
You can find casinos on FreeRoam here
Truck stops have parking available that's meant for truckers, so if it looks like it's going to be full, definitely skip it in favor of a Walmart or somewhere else. There is a shortage of parking for truckers, so taking their spots is frowned upon, but if it looks pretty empty, you should be fine parking there. Depending on rig size you may be able to squeeze into a spot which would be too small for a truck.
Some Flying J's have parking spots that are dedicated for RVs.
Cracker Barrel, Cabelas, Bass Pro Shops are some other companies that typically allow overnight parking. Home Depot will sometimes allow overnight parking but this is less common. Camping World may allow overnight parking but many locations are phasing this out, if you bought your RV from them or are in the Good Sam club you may be ok, call ahead though as many require you to check-in and get authorization during business hours.
With all these businesses, if they don't own their lot, the owner of the lot probably doesn't allow overnighters, if they do own their lot they will typically allow you to stay. Check the Free Roam map, if you don't see reviews give the store a call to confirm ahead of time. Occasionally stores will want your license plate or vehicle description so they can track who has gotten permission.
Overnight parking rules vary state to state, signage may vary as well. As noted above, overnight parking means keeping a minimal footprint, keep this in mind at rest areas. This is also an important distinction when reading signage; camping is frequently prohibited at rest areas, if you see "No camping" signs, you're probably fine, if you see "No overnight parking" signs, it's time to move on.
If a state is not on either of the two lists below, overnight parking is explicitly not allowed statewide at rest areas.
Overnight Parking Allowed
- Alaska: yes, if 10’ from road. Turnouts, rest areas and other roadside vehicle areas
- California: allows 8 hrs
- Idaho: allows 8 hours
- Minnesota: allows 6 hours
- Nevada: allows 18 hours
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- North Dakota
- Oregon: allows 12 hours
- Rhode Island
- Texas: allows 24 hours - includes official picnic areas (typically blue signs) and rest areas
- Virginia: allows 10 hours
- Washington: allows 8 hours
Overnight Parking Allowed with caveats/restrictions
Use discretion when parking in these states. Many states with hour restrictions are known not to enforce, but that doesn't mean that they can't enforce.
- Arkansas: RV must be in ready to drive state, signage may vary and may not always reflect the state laws, use discretion when determining whether to follow signage or state law.
- Florida: allows 3 hours at rest areas
- Illinois: allows 3 hours at rest areas (may vary on toll way, check with turnpike authority/service center signage)
- Indiana: not permitted at rest areas statewide, check with turnpike for tollway restrictions and permissions
- Louisiana: allows 2 hours
- Maryland: allows 3 hours at rest areas and welcome centers unless permit received.
- Michigan: allows 4 hours
- New Hampshire: allows 4 hour max at rest areas, overnight RV stays allowed at Park and Rides
- New York: allows 3 hr max
- North Carolina: allows 4 hour max
- Ohio: allows 3 hour max in rest areas statewide, some may allow full overnights, overnight parking allowed in service areas, confirm with turnpike authorities and signage. Some service areas have hookups and/or dump stations.
- Oklahoma: no policy
- South Dakota: allows 3 hour max
- West Virginia: unknown
You can find rest areas on FreeRoam here
Harvest Hosts is a paid service ($79/yr) that lets you stay at wineries and farms one night at a time.
Boondockers Welcome is a paid service ($30/yr) that lets you stay at peoples' homes.
Getting to and from (driving / road condition)
Often time with boondocking, you're trekking quite a bit further into nature than your typical RV park. This means more dirt roads and potential places to get stuck or damage your rig.
Check what the road looks like in Google Maps, see if you can find a YouTube video or reviews of the spot ahead of time - usually if the road is bad, people will mention it. Take it slow, and know your rigs limits.
Internet / Cell Signal
Perhaps the most important part for a lot of folks is having cell service and internet. You're certainly less likely to have signal out in the boondocks, but there's still plenty of great areas with signal, especially if you have Verizon or AT&T. Keep in mind that many plans throttle data especially when using a hotspot in populated areas. When using data in remote areas you are frequently not in competition with very many people, so two bars may give you the same experience as four bars do in a city.
It's pretty easy to check if a spot will have signal. Head to the main map, tap the layers icon at the top right, and select the cell carrier you have to see the coverage map. Or you can just filter all campsites by cell signal through the filters on top of the map (select the carrier, and 2-3 bars of signal).
Cell boosters are an option if you're frequently in need of cell signal in remote areas and are struggling to get signal. The WeBoost 4G-x RV model typically gives about a two bar boost on Verizon, it works with other carriers as well. When shopping for boosters explore uni-directional and omni-directional options. Omni directional options are set it and forget it, they have a fixed attena (typically attached to a roof ladder or roof rack) and don't require any fine tuning. Uni-directional options need to be aimed at a cell tower (typically with the help of indicator lights), they need more effort since you'll need to adjust them, but in return they can provide higher signal boosts.
Boondocking typically means no air conditioning, especially when you're away from your rig, which can be a big deal if you have pets.
The solution is more or less to stay in spots where the weather is moderate, which you'll probably want to do anyways. Keep the windows open and never leave your pet in a trailer or van that's going to get too hot - it's no different than being in a parking lot.
Ceiling fans can sometimes be used to regulate temperatures without drawing too much electricity which is especially helpful for pets. That said, they are not air conditioners and given a smallish space (about 30-45 sq. ft) can keep the temperature between the window and fan at the temperature of a shaded spot outdoors. Maxx Air and Fantastic Fan are two popular brands, keep in mind that the Maxx Air comes with a cover which allows use in rainy conditions, a similar cover can be found for the Fantastic Fan.
Mail and Packages
Amazon lockers are an easy option if you are ordering from Amazon. For all other packages there are options for the major carriers:
With all of these options you'll need photo ID to pick up your package and it must be addressed to you.
USPS General Delivery
General delivery is a service that frequently brings confusion (even to postal workers) but is easy enough to use. Address mail to:
Your Name GENERAL DELIVERY City, State Zip
Get the zipcode from the main post office in the city. Check the Post Office Locations list and find the one with just the city's name Post Office Locations. When in doubt call ahead to be sure that the location processes general delivery as sometimes USPS will change the location. Using the full 9 digit zip code seems to be the most reliable way to get it to the exact right post office, be sure to make a note of which location you sent it to though if there are multiple.
Walgreens accepts packages from FedEx. They will typically hold them for pickup at the photo desk.
Address the package to your name at the location's address (no c/o and don't put Walgreens name in the address), sometimes FedEx will get confused and hold the package at the local service center, keep an eye on the tracking.
UPS hold for pickup
UPS will allow you to request "Hold for pickup" as soon as you have a tracking number. Send the package to an address in the city you will be in, once you have tracking call UPS at 1 (800) 742-5877, say track a package and then request hold for pickup. Walgreens is a good address to use, especially if you're not sure how the package is being shipped, just remember to note the address as UPS sometimes needs it for confirmation.
Check where the service center is ahead of time, more rural areas may be served by a service center in a larger metro further away than you'd like to drive.
In almost all cases you're limited to a maximum a 14 days, but depending on your rig, you'll likely run out of resources (water, full black/gray tank) before then.
To last longer, take navy showers, be mindful when washing dishes (use paper towels to wipe down before rinsing), save soapy water you've used to flush the toilet with, etc...
An easy option is to alternate between boondocking for a week or two, then spending a night in an RV park where you can dump, fill up on water, throw away trash and get ready for the next bit of boondocking.
For most RVers, this is pretty straight-forward. Sewage goes into the black tank, sink and shower water goes into the gray tank, and when they're full, you find somewhere to dump them. So the big difference is being more conscious of how much water you're using, and of course finding somewhere to dump your tanks every week or two.
You can find dump stations on FreeRoam here
Trash can be a little tedious to get rid of.
You can find dump stations on FreeRoam here
It depends on your rig, but water is probably the first resource you'll run out of. Fortunately it's pretty easy to get more, since you aren't forced to move your rig. You can buy 6-gallon jugs or a water bladder to transport from a source of water to your rig.
- Gas stations sometimes have a water spigot (make sure it's potable)
- Rest areas typically have water spigots
- Grocery stores with water vending machines
- Parks sometimes have water spigots
- USFS ranger stations and BLM stations
- RV Parks (usually you'll have to pay)
- Cabelas locations sometimes have water spigots, check by the pet area
You can find water on FreeRoam here
Most of what you're using will run off of propane (fridge, cooking, heat and hot water), but if you're RVing you're probably already familiar with propane and how/where to refill.
For those completely new to RVing, you can refill your propane at many truck stops, U-Hauls, and smaller propane businesses.
You can find propane on FreeRoam here
If you're running a generator, you'll need gas to power it. Most generators can only hold 1-2 gallons at a time which will only run it for ~8 hours, so you'll probably want to store extra gas in a gas-safe container.
You can find truck spot gas stations on FreeRoam here
What you need to start
The bare minimum
When you're boondocking, the main difference in requirements for your setup is the fact that you'll be without power, sewage, and water. Most of what you need revolves around solving those 3 limitations.
You have two options here: a generator and/or solar.
A generator is the easiest option, and you'll probably want one regardless of if you have solar.
The main job of your generator is going to be charging your batteries - it uses gas (or some use propane) to generate electricity. Then the things you need to power will run off of the batteries.
You can learn more here.
Solar is the quieter, self-sufficient, environmentally-friendly option. It can be more expensive up-front and take more time to setup, but it's certainly ideal for boondocking.
You can learn more here.
You shouldn't be running your generator 24/7, so you'll need batteries to store power for you. The cheapest, easiest way to go is pick up two 100 amp hour deep cycle 12v batteries from Walmart.
You can learn more here.
When you're running off just batteries, your 120v appliances (microwave, laptop charger, ...) won't work. You'll need an inverter that converts the 12v coming from your batteries to 120v. Many newer RVs come with one out of the box.
You can learn more here.
Some way to run your fridge
You can always use a cooler and dry ice, but the preferable route is to have a fridge that runs off of both electric and propane, and run it on propane while boondocking. Another option is to get a power setup (solar + batteries) powerful enough to run the fridge off of 12v or an inverter.
If you're in an RV, you probably already have this covered with your black and gray tanks and don't need anything extra. There are some things that can make life easier, but those are in the "Living like royalty" section.
In an RV you'll probably already have a fresh water tank and water pump. You just need to be sure to turn the water pump on where you're boondocking - that will pressurize the water lines so you can use your sinks and shower.
If you're in a van, you'll need a container (tank or jugs) for water, a foot pump, and another container to collect dirty water.
To read more on products, click here
Living like royalty
Some items can vastly improve your boondocking experience, but at more of a monetary cost.
Lithium batteries cost about $1,000 for 100 amp hours compared to ~$100 for a similar lead-acid battery. BUT you can discharge them to ~20% instead of 50% (so 30% more capacity), they're much lighter-weight, last ~10x as many cycles and are more efficient. So if you have the money to spend, they're worth it in the long run.
A composting toilet
Nothing says royalty like emptying your excrement into a plastic bag, right? Using a composting toilet can help extend your ability to boondock by quite a while.
A composting toilet means your 'waste' goes into a little container below the toilet and gets dried out through a venting system and decomposes.
With this, you're no longer using your black tank, so you can start using it as a secondary gray tank, and you can dump your toilet without having to move the whole rig to a dump station.
Rules and Safety
Be sure to follow the rules wherever you are. Typically that means staying no longer than 14 days, not leaving behind any personal property, don't leave your rig for longer than 24 hours, cutting wood requires a permit, and several varying laws on fires depending on the season.
BLM camping guidelines can be found here
A primary concern of many people before they boondock is safety, since you're often in the middle of nowhere, mostly alone.
The good news is, criminals don't typically go out of their way to target you. If it's convenient right by a highway, sure it's a little more likely, but typically those locations will have more RVers nearby and there's strength in numbers.
For peace of mind, get a hitch lock.
Boondocking: Camping without hookups. So technically you can boondock and still pay, but most people mean free when they say it
Dry camping: Same as boondocking (camping without hookups), but tends to be used when referring to campgrounds
Free Camping: Camping for free :)
Dispersed Camping: Same as boondocking, but usually used when describing boondocking on USFS (National Forest) land
Have any suggestions for how we can improve this guide? Let us know in the comments!