Project Rustic: Boondocking Responsibly Off-The-Grid In An RV

Last Updated on October 27, 2021 by Christina

While you may not have heard of “boondocking” before, you probably know what it is and may have even done it yourself. It’s the primary form of camping for Project Rustic, a five-month long project to gather data about state forest campgrounds that stems from a partnership between General RV and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Paige Lackey, an AmeriCorps member serving with the DNR, is traveling in a class c motorhome called the Nexus Triumph, which has been provided by General RV on a tour of 77 sites where she’s gathering GPS coordinates, photos, and more. Paige is chronicling her experiences in this blog, including what she’s learned, how she’s been boondocking at many of her sites, and some of the highlights of her journey.

What is Boondocking?

Boondocking is a type of camping that typically implies camping with a vehicle, such as an RV, van, car or pickup truck outside of a developed campground. Folks who primarily boondock are seeking a more traditional way of being in nature away from noise, other campers and light pollution.

Boondocking, or dry camping, is a self-sufficient way to camp away from town and without any public utilities or hookups. The term stems from the word, boondocks, which originates from the Tagalog word, “bundók” which means “mountain”. The word was brought to the United States by American soldiers fighting the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). The Filipino people used the word as an expression for rural inland areas, which on the Philippine islands is generally mountainous, difficult to reach areas. Today, the phrase, “out in the boonies” stems from the word “boondocks”.

Boondocking: The Responsible Way to Camp in a Pandemic

Boondocking could be viewed as a responsible way to camp during the pandemic. It provides an opportunity for solitude and independence. Over the last two years, we’ve seen a large increase in use of campgrounds and outdoors spaces across the country. Many popular campgrounds were completely booked for the last summer season. Boondocking provides an opportunity to isolate and socially distance from the outdoor crowds. Additionally, there are no shared services like bathrooms or water sources. While boondocking, you use only what you bring and interaction with others is limited, and often nonexistent.

Rules of Boondocking & Things to Consider

Although boondocking could seem as simple as spotting an open field and parking your rig there, there are many things to consider. First off, you need to know whether you are legally allowed to stay on the land. Check any posted signage or with a local ranger station regarding local regulations. Be mindful of the size of your RV. Make sure your RV can handle traveling off the beaten path and has enough room at the site to safely park, or even turn around. Additionally, make sure the surface you park on is durable – this will minimize your impact.

Safety should be taken into consideration when camping “off-the-grid”. You are likely alone, meaning the nearest person may be miles away. You most likely will be far from cell service or other means of communication. Keep your wits about you and choose your location wisely. Stick to existing roads and use established sites when possible. Weather can change quickly, which could alter road conditions, making a previously easy-to-navigate route impassable.  Be mindful of water sources, as a low and lazy creek could become a roaring river after heavy rainfall.

Most importantly, leave no trace. This should be top of the mind when boondocking. The same rules that apply to backcountry backpackers and tenters apply to boondockers. This means “pack it in, pack it out”. Everything you brought with you needs to leave with you, especially any trash generated. Be responsible with fire, don’t dump your tanks on the ground and respect the wildlife.

How to find a Boondocking site

In the U.S., most boondocking can be found on public lands, which include Bureau of Land Management land, national forests and some state land. Dispersed and Primitive tent camping within U.S. Forest Service land is allowed almost anywhere, unless otherwise posted as closed and/or “No Camping”. Most national forests that allow dispersed camping have a 14-day stay limit, though it can vary from as short as one day to as long as 30 days. Check local regulations by either stopping in at the nearest ranger station, or calling ahead before you arrive. Some online resources are available, like Campendium and iOverlander, which provide honest reviews and detailed information on middle-of-nowhere places to set up camp.

Essential Items Needed for Boondocking

Solar panels boondocking

Boondocking requires a little extra thought and preparation. Once you’re parked in your spot the nearest town could be miles away. Here are a few camping accessories you may need to be prepared for off-grid living:

  • Power Source:
    • Solar panels are more popular than ever and they’re much more environmentally friendly than a generator. Even with a solar set up, a back up generator is good idea. Some days might not offer enough sunlight to charge up your batteries.
  • Lights:
    • The easiest way to light up your camp is with solar powered lights. Lanterns or string lights can be helpful outdoors lights.
  • Heating/Cooling:
    • A portable heater might be necessary for cold nights. Instead of using the noisy, battery-draining heating system in the RV a propane heater is a great alternative.
    • Using the RV AC while boondocking is typically not possible. A battery-powered fan is a great, low-energy alternative.
  • Water Containers:
    • Prior to leaving civilization, make sure you have sufficient water for your trip. Top off the water tank in the RV and bring additional water sources with you. Plastic water jugs or reusable containers will offer additional water if your tank starts to run low.
  • Cooler/Fridge:
    • Food storage is necessary and often can be one of the more challenging elements of boondocking. A low power fridge or electric cooler are great options. An ice packed cooler is also sufficient for shorter trips. 

The Best RVs for Boondocking

Medium-sized or small campers, such as a teardrop trailer, tend to be the most popular among full-time boondockers. Boondockers generally want their trailers to be manageable in having to make tight turns, towing up steep grades, and getting through soft sand. Vans, and Class-B RVs do a great job of being able to get into smaller campsites, and offer much more maneuverability in tight dirt roads, but full-time boondockers prefer to remain camped in the same site for at least a week or up to a few weeks at a time. When it comes to living full-time as a boondocker, couples need space to maintain a healthy relationship. Some of the best RVs for boondocking by class type include:

Best Travel Trailer for Boondocking

Travel trailers are a dependable option for boondocking, like this stylish model from Forest River RV:

Best Class B RV for Off-The-Grid Adventures

Mobility and versatility make Class B RVs one of the best choices for off-the-grid living, like this option from Winnebago:

Best Toy Hauler Ready for Adventure

Toy haulers, like this one from Keystone RV, are more sturdy, can handle larger loads, and can carry an abundance of water, making them ideal RV for boondocking:

Best Pop-Up Campers Built for Exploring Parts Unknown

Pop-up campers are built for exploring parts unknown with quick set up, ease of use and convenient storage, like this model from Coachmen RV:

Best Fifth Wheel RV for Boondockers

More storage, more living space and more features make fifth wheel RVs a preferred option for every boondocking adventure, like this model from Winnebago:

Best Class C Motorhome for Boondocking

Class C motorhomes provide boundless freedom combined with upscale comfort, like this option from Winnebago:

Project Rustic is now entering its final stages, as Paige visits the final handful of sites remaining on her list. Continue to follow Paige’s journey across Michigan with updates on the General RV Project Rustic blog page.