Boondocking: The Ultimate Guide to Free Camping

If you belong to the camping community, you must have or will come across the term “boondocking” at some point. So what is boondocking and why so many campers opt for this lifestyle? Boondocking, also often known as dry camping, is camping without any electricity, water, sewer and wifi. Just you and Mother Nature. 

This might not sound at all attractive to the novice travellers due to the lack of basic amenities and the question of safety. However, boondocking has been gaining popularity across the world, owing to its many benefits. First and foremost is the freedom to stop at lesser known places with spectacular views as well as a wholesome camping experience without the distraction of our mobile phones and TVs. For the budget travellers, it’s the savings on parks and campgrounds fees while others might prefer to camp away from these crowded stops. 

This ultimate guide to boondocking will explain the different types of boondocking, where to look for free and almost free places to boondock and how to secure free boondocking, plus many useful tips and reminders from seasoned RVers while dry camping. 

What Is Boondocking?

What is boondocking and how was this term coined? RV boondocking is a common term used by RVers to describe camping without being connected to any services like water, sewer, electricity and wifi. You’re entirely on your own with absolutely no hookups, thus this is also called dry camping. You might also come across other terms that all refer to boondocking: free camping and wild camping.

The term boondocking seems to have originated from bundog, which is a Filipino word and roughly translates to “a mountain”. During World War II, the US soldiers stationed in the Philippines used the term to identify bushy rural areas. The soldiers who returned brought together with them a loose adaptation of the original term, which became commonly used and it stuck. ”Bushy rural areas”, “camping in the bush”, “wild camping”. Makes sense.  


Why Boondocking?

Many would be puzzled as to why some people would choose to camp in such a way without comfort. There are many benefits to dry camping, that is why urban boondocking is becoming more popular as more people experiment with alternative lifestyles, moving away from the urban concrete jungle and closer to Mother Nature. 

Boondocking has become more than a short-lived fad in urban areas but now an established alternative lifestyle, especially in the US and Europe. Statistics show that up to 77 million households in the US have family members who are campers, from occasional to regular and full-time.  

For some, this return to the most traditional form of camping is a result of choice, while for some it is a necessity. Perhaps the priority of the majority of boondockers is more choices plus the flexibility and freedom that comes from the experience. Not limited to RV parks and campgrounds, there are a vast number of lesser known places to explore, with spectacular views to offer. With more choices, campers would also have more freedom to plan their trip.

In other cases, there are many campers who deliberately choose to avoid crowded campgrounds. One of the reasons is that many campgrounds, both public and private, have been steadily increasing their rates in recent years. Secondly, many travelers prefer a tranquil atmosphere to fully enjoy what nature has to offer.

It is not uncommon that you sometimes might be forced to park outside of campgrounds while traveling in your RV. There are times when you need quick overnight rests on the route but there are simply no campgrounds available in an area. 


3 Different Types of Boondocking

There are two options to go from there, one involves a small amount of parking fees and one does not, and not having to pay for parking is of course all the better. Below, we will discuss the different types of boondocking, which include both the free options and the paid options. 

What distinguishes the types of boondocking in an RV is the location that you choose to park your trailer. Not all campers know of these free and widely available locations for RV boondocking. Also included will be handy tips from full-time RVers on where to search for free boondocking spots and how to secure these precious parking spaces.

Boondocking #1: Established Campgrounds With No Hook-Ups

As above, boondocking can be either totally free or involve a small fee. Each comes with pros and cons. In general, zero-cost boondocking would not offer the same level of security, while boondocking with reservations and paying a small fee for your stay typically provide more safety. 

Parking your RV at established campgrounds that do not offer any hook-ups is still boondocking. It’s actually very common to find campgrounds, even private campgrounds, offering paid campsites without any hook-ups.

You can usually reserve these campsites for a nightly fee that is lower than that of a campground with full hookups, because you’re just paying for the space on the ground alone and maybe also the use of any amenities the campground may have, like a pool. However, staying in a developed campground with fellow RVers around offers more security than being on your own in the middle of nowhere. 

Since you’ll likely stay longer than just overnight at an established campground, you’ll need to plan ahead to make sure you have all you need to sustain for the duration of your planned trip. Make sure your house batteries are charged and your fresh water tank is full, as well as having the equipment and means to cook your meals.

In an established campground you might have access to a water spigot, but it’s still a good idea to go with a full fresh water tank. You’ll also be able to run your generator to top your batteries off, but an advice from the veterans is it’s always a good idea to arrive with your house batteries fully charged, to account for later check-in times, quiet hours, and other restrictions on running generators.

Before boondocking at a stop, developed campgrounds often have dump stations, however as above, it’s always a good idea to make sure your grey and black tanks have been emptied.

The best of this type of boondocking is established campgrounds with no hook-ups at national and state parks. These locations typically provide more privacy and immersion in nature, while you won’t have to miss out on some of the comforts of developed campgrounds like security, dump station, public bathroom and common pool. 

Boondocking #2: Undeveloped Campsite

What comes to mind for most RV enthusiasts when they think of boondocking is actually boondocking in an undeveloped campsite, or “primitive” campsite. That is in addition to no hookups, you also will not find camp hosts, dump stations, fresh water bigot, common facilities and no security, although you do get plenty of privacy. 

This type of boondocking is absolutely not recommended for beginner campers because there are no services of any kind. With this type of boondocking, you’re completely off-grid and you need to be entirely self-reliant. Boondocking on primitive campsites is only suited for seasoned and full-time campers and RVers.

In the US, you’ll usually find undeveloped campsites on United States Forest Service (USFS) property. Another great resource is the Bureau of Land Management and National Forest websites, where you can search for free overnight parking or camping on government-owned land. There will be no guards or hosts to give you instructions; often only a marker or an old fire ring are your indicators for a spot to camp in.

Although this type of boondocking requires the most planning, camping experience and self-reliance surviving in the wild with no services and no human support, it can be the most rewarding. Depending on how off the beaten path the place is, you will have a serene view not spoiled by the crowd, plenty of privacy, and you might even have the whole place to yourself. Sometimes, these wild campgrounds place you overlooking a pristine lake, or beneath the milky way surrounded by mountains. 

Boondocking #3: Overnight Parking

Sometimes you might need to find a rest stop on the route to sleep over for one night, and in this case, not having to pay for parking would be ideal. There are websites and books devoted to cataloging free RV parking locations that the budget travelers can take advantage of. 

The most popular of such guides are Don Wright’s Guide to Free Campgrounds and Guide To Free and Low-Cost Campgrounds, in addition to a few online catalogs. Many seasoned campers keep a copy of these books in their RV so they can search for free overnight parking spots while traveling between campgrounds.

It is important to note that the most common places that allow free overnight boondocking typically only allow you to stay for one night only. Thus, they must be treated as resting stops along your travel route and not for camping, so the first and foremost rule of thumb is to never, ever, ever overstay.

Asking For Guides & Permission

The surest way to find or confirm free RV boondocking spots is to ask the local police or sheriff office, as there might be changes in regulations or certain limitations due to circumstances. 

Simply make a phone call, be polite, introduce yourself and clearly tell them your purpose, and they might direct you to many surprisingly great places available, and free at that. Naturally, when you’re dealing with smaller communities that are not popular tourist attractions, it’s easier to find and ask for permission for free overnight stops. 

Safety

Do note that once you opt for this type of boondocking, a factor you must consider is how safe the place you choose to park is. A popular choice for overnight boondocking is Walmart’s parking lot, which RVers often call Wallydocking, have the advantage of the security, onsite restrooms, and easy access to other amenities. 

You will find below many more odd places where you can boondock overnight for absolutely free, many of which only the very seasoned campers know about. Some might sound surprising, but rest assured that as long as you stick to the rules and etiquette guidelines that follow this section, you should be fine. 

Rest stops 

Rest stops are popular with campers, for most of them offer camping facilities, including hookups, electricity, drinking water, and many even have dumping stations.  

Unlike the remaining locations below, rest stops will allow free stays for more than one night. That said, it is always recommended that you ask for permission if you can park for a night or two to make sure you’re following state laws, which might vary.  

Bix-Box Stores

Apart from rest stops, the bix-box retailerWalmart is the second most ideal place to boondock overnight free of charge that not every camper knows about. This is referred to as Wallydocking. For once, Walmart stores allow this, and you can find them everywhere. Some even have designated parking spaces for large recreational vehicles. 

With permission, you may also be able to stay overnight at some other big box stores such as Kmart, Lowe’s and Home Depot,given that you park far from their normal traffic flow, that is the entrance and exit. 

In addition, do note that not all stores allow overnight RV parking due to city regulations. Therefore, the rule of thumb is calling ahead of time to check individual stores for policy or best ask to speak with the manager directly.

Truck stops 

You might be surprised to hear that it has become the norm for RVers to boondock overnight at truck stops. 

That said, despite this “new normal”, you’re still parking out of the ordinary, so the rule of thumb is making sure to observe the rules of other truckers and be courteous. Park straight, stay one night only and best to leave by mid-morning if you choose to park your RV overnight at a truck stop.

A pro tip by experienced campers: Since truck stops are crowded with people driving in and out even at night time, whether you’re in the RV or wandering out and about, remember to lock your doors, windows, and keep valuables out of sight for your peace of mind.

Private Property

In case you have a friend or family member in town, they might let you park in their property. This is called “moochdocking” in RV slang.

Otherwise, the C2C platform Craigslist, or certain services like RVwithMe and Outdoorsy, can be a quick way to find kind people who are willing to let you park in their driveway for one or two nights.

In both cases, whether you’re planning to park at an acquaintance’s or a total stranger’s place, make sure to inquire ahead and check city regulations to see if parking an RV on private property is allowed. 

Note that more cities are banning RVs parking on neighborhood streets and enforcing quite a hefty fine. This means it is safer if you can fit your big RV in a driveway.

Casinos

Casinos is another unexpected free RV boondocking spot that only the seasoned and curious campers know about. Many casinos, especially those along the NASCAR circuit in the US, allow RVs to park for one night, given that spaces are available of course. To check which casino offers zero-cost RV parking and hookup campsites, you can do a little research on a site called casinocamping.com.

Again, permission is key. It’s important to call ahead and check with management if and where you can park before parking. 

If you’re lucky, you might even come across some that supply full-hookup campsites. While gaming is not required, you can stay in a casino’s parking lot as long as you ask permission. A huge perk is most casinos offer 24/7 security. Note that some casinos charge a small fee during peak hours, weekends and holidays, but it’s only a reasonable amount.

Some casinos have specific spots for RVers, but they surely fill up very quickly, so you might want to check exactly where you should park so that you will not get towed. Most of the time, other casinos allow RVers to park as long as they’re far enough away from the entrance, so they are not blocking the traffic flow.

Camping World

Camping World is the largest and most trusted retailer of RVs, RV parts, and outdoor gear in the US. Along with Walmart, Camping World is considered the first few options to dry camp overnight for free, as they provide spacious parking spaces for recreational vehicles, given the nature of their business, and often allow free parking overnight. 

Cabelas

Like Camping World, Cabelas is another prestigious retailer of hunting, fishing, and outdoor gear, and typically has spacious parking lots with designated spaces for large RVs and often allow one-night parking on their premises.  

Cracker Barrel

These US nationwide restaurants usually allow free overnight RV parking. They are scattered throughout the country, so quite easy to find, and offer spacious parking spaces for trucks and RVs. 

Small Town Venues

As mentioned above, you will be more likely to find free parking spots in smaller communities. In small towns, you can most likely find free overnight parking in fairgrounds, city parks and county parks. Most of these are very clean and with plenty of greenery, and if you’re lucky, you might even get hookups and designated parking for large recreational vehicles.

Churches

Just like big-box stores, churches often have large parking areas for their visitors. Churches tend to get their parking space filled up on Sundays, so it’s easier to ask for permission to park overnight during the week when there’s no service.

If you happen to be looking for a church service on Sunday and there are plenty of parking spaces, you can park and ask for permission to stay the night before the service or the night following it. When asking for permission, do let them know that you will be attending the Sunday service. This will make the enquiring process smoother.

Even if you’re not attending a service, you can certainly ask for permission to park for the night. Just make sure to be courteous, and strictly follow their instruction on where to park, stay away during their busy hours, keep a low profile and leave in the morning.

Last Resort: Schools 

This should be your last resort parking spot if you can’t find anywhere else legal to boondock on a pinch. If you’re not attending an event there or are not part of the community, some schools might consider RV parking in their premises trespassing. 

But you might just get permission from the school officials. Since schools are busy during the week, you might be able to ask for permission to park in their parking lot on the weekends and holidays only, as long as the parking lot is empty. 

The rule of thumb, especially in the cases of schools and churches, is that courtesy is key. Introduce yourself, be courteous and explain about your trip and why you’re driving through their town.

Inquire about specific times when you believe the school to be empty. For credibility, provide a mobile phone number and an email address. If you’re traveling with kids, mention this too. 

Let them know you’ll be out of there long before school hours, if you leave on Monday morning, and make sure you do just that. Plus, make sure to park exactly where school officials tell you to. Otherwise you may block their traffic flow or students moving about campus. And absolutely stay for one night only. 

types of boondocking

Bonus: How To Ask For Overnight Boondocking

Make Sure You Talk To The Right Person

First and foremost, you must ask for permission from a person who really has the power to do so. Many campers got a “yes” over the phone, only to discover later on that the person they had talked to was not, say, a manager, but an employee of the facility.

Be as polite and sweet as possible, even apologize in advance, but do ask specifically for the manager or the owner, and explain that you need to make sure that you’re actually talking to the right person.

Be Courteous

You’re asking strangers who don’t know a thing about you to help you out for free, so be as polite and friendly as possible, and don’t be irritated or disheartened if you’re rejected. 

You will be asking permission from managers, officers and officials, so keep in mind that whoever is on the other end of the line is most likely busy. Always be short and to the point, but polite and sweet at the same time.

Indicate That You’re A Customer

Where relevant, mention that you plan on using their service as well, in case you’re parking at a big-box store, a restaurant, camping gear retailer or church, if you’re actually planning to do so. These places tend to be friendlier to customers, naturally.

The same applies with kids. If you have children on board, it might be a good idea to mention that too, which should ease the process a bit. 

Don’t Mention The Word Camping

This is of utmost importance: do NOT say you would like to “camp” or “boondock” in their parking lot or property. What comes to most people’s minds upon hearing the word “camping” is a tent, fireplace, and some makeshift toilet spot behind the trees. 

Instead, only, and only use the word “parking.” After all, all you need is a place to park your RV, and as long as you’re not trashing the place or making a lot of noises, no one needs to know what you are doing inside.

Ask For Permission Twice: Written & Verbal

When parking an RV overnight in a pinch outside of regular campgrounds, make sure you clearly inform and ask for permission from whoever manages the area or the facility, such as the manager of a store, the owner of a private property or the officials. Some will be willing to let you park for one night, but this is not always the case, so make sure you ask so that you won’t wake up in the middle of the night being towed. 

It’s best if you can ask for permission twice. First, try calling or emailing ahead of time with the person in charge, and then approach the manager on the premises personally upon arrival.

Emailing ahead of time is safer than calling; this way you’ll get a clear, undisputable written permission from a manager who has the authority to give such a permission.

Rules & Etiquettes

While asking for permission, make sure you follow their instructions on exactly where to park, what rules or etiquettes you must follow, keep a low profile, be quiet and clean after yourself when you leave. Remember, being responsible when parking out of the ordinary as an RVer shows gratitude, and you won’t negatively affect the opportunity of other campers who come later.

Chris Coleman is an interesting travel blogger and outdoor photographer with a great sense of humor. He owns an RV Accessories shop in New York City so he has the knowledge necessary to provide thorough reviews and give advice on how to choose the right products for RV travel. He puts all that RV knowledge and experience to good use in his sharing posts. Besides product buying guides/reviews, Chris also writes informative articles, how-to articles and RV camping guide in his own interesting viewpoint. Chris’s blog is one of the most reliable information sources for RV campers no matter if you're an expert or a determined beginner.

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