Over the last 4 years of full time RVing we have really embraced dry camping AKA “boondocking”. We love to get out into the more remote dispersed camping areas where we can enjoy amazing scenery, nature, photography, and hiking. Really kick back and relax. I love having a bit of elbow room when I camp. Almost all RVs are setup to be self-contained camping vehicles, but in their stock (off the lot) form are generally not going to last too long without hookups. Over time we have learned a many ways to help us dry camp more effectively. In this article I’ll share some of our most helpful boondocking tips and tricks. You’ll also find links to more in depth articles I’ve written on many of the subjects.
Setting up the Rig
The beauty of most boondocking locations is the ability to set-up the orientation of the RV to your preference. For us a lot depends on the sun. I have installed my solar panels on the fifth wheels front area so I like to point the rig south for max sun power. This also works well for keeping the rig cool as we have very large windows on the driver side slide out and back of the trailer. Remember, when boondocking it is much easier to heat up the RV than cool it down.
Propane Radiant Heater
If we need heat during waking hours we use a small, very efficient portable propane radiant heater. By using it instead of the larger, less efficient RV furnace we save both money and battery life. I still use the regular RV furnace at night for safety reasons and it heats the underbelly of the RV. Important to avoid plumbing freeze ups. (See my full article on the Big Buddy heater)
By swapping out the power hungry incandescent lamps to LED ones, we can camp much longer before the batteries will need a recharge. The average incandescent bulb wastes a huge part of its total power as heat. LEDS run much cooler using up to 1/8th the amperage. I installed a bunch from a company called Starlights Inc. They are very good quality lamps and give off a warm bright light at 1/5th the power usage. (See my article on the Starlights LEDS)
Powering the RV
Batteries are the lifeblood of a boondocker. Whether you use solar, wind or a generator you need a way to store the power. Our rig came equipped with one 12 volt deep cycle Marine type battery. Dry camping with just this would mean constantly having to recharge and it would barely last during a long cold winter night with the furnace running often. So, we added two large 6 volt golf cart batteries wired in series to act as a giant 12 volt battery. This increased our power holding capacity by a factor of 3x allowing us to go much longer between recharges. (See my extra battery install)
We use a 2000W Champion inverter type generator when dry camping. It can provide all our RVs power needs when running with the exception of the air conditioner. We can microwave things, use appliances, watch TV, charge up the battery bank, etc. It’s almost like we are on normal RV park shore power except for the noise. (See my Champion generator review) Noise is a big drawback and can cause the scorn of other dry campers if you don’t follow some generator etiquette. Here are a few tips to help you not annoy others.
- Use an “Inverter Type” generator as opposed to an open frame construction type unit. Not all generators are created equal. The cheap units usually will run at full RPM all the time and are much louder. The inverter type will have an Econo mode where they only rev up as needed and will normally putter along at a much reduced noise level. They also use a lot less gasoline. Ours can run 6-8 hours on one gallon.
- When setting up camp “don’t” park near rigs that have a bunch of solar panels setup. Best to give them plenty of distance. They invested in the solar so they don’t have to hear a generator.
- Use common sense when deciding when to run it. People will be irritated by the drone of your generator during the early morning and around sunset as they enjoy a happy hour outside.
- Position the generator to reduce noise. Use the rig to help block the sound from others. Do a few test positions and walk away from the campsite and see how far you can hear it.
We recently added a couple of 100 watt solar panels to the RV roof. With a modest outlay of about $400 dollars we are now able to reduce our dependency on a generator dramatically. On a bright sunny day we can recharge our laptops and other electronic devices and have a pair of fully charged batteries heading into the evening. We only need the generator now if it is a cloudy day or we want to use the TV for an extended period of time. By adding more panels and batteries we could almost do away with a generator completely. (See solar panel install details)
Inverter for AC power
Once you have a way to create power and sufficient capacity to store it the next thing you need is an DC to AC inverter. An inverter is a device that takes your 12 volt DC battery power and changes it into 120 volt AC power like the power in your regular household plugs. With the aid of the inverter you are able to power up and charge AC only devices, with out needing to have the generator running. How powerful an inverter you need or can use will depend on your lifestyle and the amount of battery capacity you have. We went with a 1000 watt unit and it serves us well. It will power most things short of the microwave or AC. We mostly use it to watch TV, run a desktop computer and charge up our various laptops, phones, etc. (See my 1000W inverter install)
Low Power 12V Fan
To make the RV a little more comfortable on a hot boondocking day we have installed a very efficient roof vent fan that can run on the 12 volt battery power. The fan we chose is called a Fan-Tastic Fan. It only uses an amp or two while at the same time moving a significant volume of air without too much noise. Perfect for boondocking where running the AC is not really an option short of firing up a large 3000-4000 watt generator. Just having the extra air circulation can make a big difference inside the RV. (See my FanTastic Fan install article)
Water and Waste
Tank size matters
If you plan to do a bunch of dry camping and haven’t bought your RV yet, then my advice is to look for one with large tanks. The larger the holding tanks the longer you can stay out there without breaking camp to dump and refill. We went with a trailer that has a 60 gallon fresh water tank and 120 gallons worth of waste tanks. We can easily dry camp a week without giving up much in the way of dish washing and showers. If we went hardcore conservative with water use I bet we could last a few weeks and many folks do.
Fresh water top up
Have a way to add fresh water in between dumps. Most RVs seem to have much more waste water capacity than fresh water storage. Ours is about double, so having a way to top it up can increase the dry camping time. Having a gravity type fresh water fill makes it super easy. I just fill up a large water jug or bladder and place it above the water fill port and through a hose let gravity do its work. Another option is to use small 12 volt water pump to get the water in.
Unfortunately you’ll find the waste tanks don’t fill at the same rate. We have three 40 gallon tanks and find that the shower tank will fill the quickest, followed by the kitchen sink tank and finally the black tank. Here are a few ways to help equalize the tank storage.
- Capture your dishwater or the initial cold water during a shower and use it to flush the toilet with.
- Place a plastic bin in the shower and catch the water and move to an emptier waste tank.
- Special sewer output cap – you can get a sewer end with a small hose attachment allowing you to siphon off waste from one tank to take and dump into another.
- Do some custom plumbing in the rig to divert gray water into the black tank when needed.
- Extra waste gate – On my RV all the waste pipes meet at the end. I’ve added a final endpoint waste valve. This way I can open my galley and shower waste tanks and let them flow into each other equalizing the amount of waste water in each. (See my waste valve gadget)
Unlike in RV Parks or Government campgrounds there are generally no garbage cans when boondocking. It’s basically pack it in, pack it out. You don’t want it stinking up the rig or stored where rodents can get at it. I built a special storage box in the truck bed where I can store our garbage until we reach a place for disposal. Most animals can’t get inside and it is outside away from the trailer.
Many of the best boondock locations are of course off the beaten path and unfortunately for internet pigs like us on the fringe of cell data service. We have found the best carrier for rural coverage out west is Verizon and in many places we get a decent signal from our Verizon hot spot device. But there have been many sites where we could barely connect and it was painfully slow. So last year we picked up a small cell signal booster called a Wilson Sleek. Now when we hit a spot that has a weak data signal we can at least pull out the Wilson Sleek and boost it up to a usable level. (See my Wilson Sleek review)
Video Detailing My Boondocking Tips and Tricks
So there are some basic boondocking tips and tricks that we use. I hope if you’re just starting out this article has helped out a bit as you plan your off the grid adventures. If anyone has more neat boondocking tips please feel free to share them in the comments below. Happy Trails, Ray
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