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Boondocking 101: How to Live on the Road for Free

Looking to get away from the crowds and enjoy some of the most beautiful places in the world? Tired of busy campgrounds with crying kids and RVs galore? Boondocking is your solution. Boondocking means living life off the grid, away from the amenities (and annoyances) of established campgrounds and RV park[ing lot]s. Boondocking is living quietly and self-reliantly, but also inexpensively. While you might not have a bathroom readily available, you also won’t have a camp host stopping by to ensure your dog is on leash either.


Toyota Tacoma Rig backcountry dispersed camping in crested butte colorado, vagabond guru

Life on the road can be tough, but we are here to help you navigate both the ups and the downs with a full guide on Boondocking 101.




Finding a spot to Boondock:


The greatest thing about boondocking is the freedom that comes with it. You do not have to deal with making reservations, getting permits or having to find a campground near where you want to explore. All you need to do is find an area with public land or dispersed camping and you are good to go. Your itinerary can be as flexible as you want it to be and can change on the fly if you need it to. The two resources that I use most often to reliably find free, dispersed camping sites are iOverlander and FreeCampsites.Net. My recommendation would be to use both when looking for a campsite, as there were many great spots that were only found on one or the other. Most camping spots are user added, so there are quite a few gems on here.


iOverlander - This app is great for helping locate most everything you could need while boondocking. Both paid and free campsites, laundry services, water fill-up stations and even places where you might need to take a shower (every other week is cool, right?). While this app is particularly good for van-lifers and car campers, we used it frequently for tent camping. I thought this app shined particularly well when looking for “stop-over” campsites on long cross-country drives. We found some great spots on bodies of water and even one on an undeveloped hot spring while driving through Oregon.


FreeCampsites.Net - Although they do not have an app and their website may look a bit underdeveloped, their content and recommendations are absolutely spot on. Some of our favorite camping spots of all time have been found through this website. It is very helpful to peruse your GPS coordinates on their website to see what dispersed camping areas are nearby. User comments are very helpful to review in order to get a better sense for what to expect.



Toyota Tacoma rig backcountry dispersed camping in Taos New Mexico with slumberjack roadhouse tarp, vagabond guru


Boondocking Basic Needs:


As a Boondocker, your first priority after your campsite needs to be self-reliance for your basic needs: food, water, shelter and hygiene. Once these needs are covered, you can live nearly carefree in your new backcountry base camp.


Food:


Food will be the easiest as it takes the least adjustment from regular camping. Chances are high that you already have the cooking equipment necessary for life in the woods. The basics I would recommend are a Coleman two-burner stove, a Lodge cast iron skillet and some sort of cooking pot for boiling water (I purchased mine at a thrift store). The Coleman stove is the best option as they are cheap, nearly indestructible and their propane is available at nearly any grocery store, Walmart or gear store you may encounter on your journey. The cast iron is great for cooking nearly any meal, they clean off easily and they could be used as an impromptu weapon should the need arise. I also recommend some sort of folding table to cook your food on when boondocking.


Given your new backcountry location, the other thing to consider is food protection, as there will be a lot of critters vying to get their paws on your sustenance. I recommend always keeping your food inside your vehicle or in a bear-proof container such as a hard-sided cooler or a bear canister. I have had bears steal food from my open truck when I was standing only 10-15ft away, so don’t assume that your presence alone will be enough of a deterrent. Bears are not the only consideration - squirrels, marmots and other small critters are notoriously good at chewing through backpacks to get to food inside, but bear-proof containers will stop them as well.


Water:


Water can be one of the bigger annoyances of long-term boondocking as you will need to stock up fairly frequently, especially if you are doing any sort of physical activity such as hiking or biking. We recommend carrying a 6-7 gallon water container to go the longest in between refill stops. There are two main ways in which you can fill up on large quantities of H2O: using a clean water source or filtering the water yourself.


If you are looking to fill up from clean water sources, the two places that we frequent most often are developed campgrounds and grocery stores. We have found that a majority of campgrounds offer clean water sources and we were never turned away from a water spigot - even if we were not staying in the campground. This is often your best option, as you are more likely to find a campground while in remote areas, while grocery stores will necessitate a return to civilization. If you are using the iOverlander app, they will often label nearby campgrounds that you can visit to fill your water. While most grocery stores do have water refill stations available (usually at the front of the store or near the bottled water section), we found that many were broken when we tried to refill. Whenever possible, we try to avoid refilling using water jugs, as it is a huge waste of plastic.


If you are looking to avoid civilization at all costs (or simply don't feel like leaving camp), you can also purchase a gravity water filter like the MSR Guardian Gravity Purifier. Simply fill up the Dirty Water bag, hang it from a tree, wait a few minutes and you will have 10L of water in the clean bag. We were able to fill our 6 gallon water jug in about 30min while cleaning up camp, as a gravity filter system doesn't need anything from you but time. You will obviously need a nearby water source, but these are invaluable at filtering high quantities of water in a short time.


Shelter:


While living on the road for months at a time, we found that the weather often played the biggest role in how our day went. Therefore, it's important to be ready for any type of weather, although a storm might restrict you to your car for a bit. I recommend some sort of free-standing shelter for your group to hang out under if the weather turns, such as the Slumberjack Roadhouse Tarp. This thing is great, because you can hook it up to the back of nearly any vehicle to serve as an awning or you can hook it up to a couple trees to provide shelter leaving your vehicle free to leave camp as needed. We have used this robust shelter as protection from the wind, sun and rain, so it is great in nearly all weather. It is also large enough to cook or play cards under while waiting out a storm.



Toyota Tacoma rig backcountry dispersed camping in Taos New Mexico with slumberjack roadhouse tarp, vagabond guru


Hygiene:


No one likes finding used toilet paper at their campsite, so be sure to pack out all used products in a doggy bag. I also recommend purchasing a camp shovel or trowel in order to bury human waste 6-8in deep and at least 200ft from any water sources.


The other big component to hygiene is washing up and showering off. It will be nearly impossible to stay as clean as you might while at home, but we found that we were able to stay longer in the backcountry if we were taking more frequent “camp showers.” Products like this solar powered campshower are great for staying “clean” around camp or even something as simple as this roll-up bucket can go a long way. At the end of a sweaty day, just jumping in a creek with some biodegradable Dr Bronner's Soap will have you feeling much better.


Vehicle Recommendations:


While it's not always necessary to travel on backroads to get to dispersed camping spots, we have often found that some of the best hidden gems were a few miles back on rougher roads. A couple minutes on a dirt road is also a great way to leave behind the RVs and get away from the crowds. You certainly do not need to lift your vehicle in order to boondock, but a higher-clearance vehicle (SUV, truck, Jeep, etc.) and four wheel drive (4WD) will go a long way on the backroads. Checking the comments on FreeCamping.Net and iOverlander is a great way to get a better idea of how bumpy the roads might be.



Boondocking Best Practices - Leave No Trace:


Boondocking does allow one to get away from many of the rules and regulations that come with camping, but it does not mean it’s a free for all. The guidelines of Leave No Trace are even more important in the backcountry, because there are no rangers or camp hosts to pick up after you when you leave. Please be sure to pick up all your trash and discarded food products when you are done using the spot. Even better: take a few minutes to clean up your camp spot, so it's even cleaner for the next person. Whenever possible, use existing dispersed camping spots, which are typically designated with fire rings (especially if you intend on having a fire). Lastly, please be sure to drown all fires to prevent the wildfires that are becoming more and more prevalent each year.


Boondocking Gear Recommendations:


Stay tuned for the upcoming post on the gear we most recommend for Boondocking. Feel free to comment below on the gear you are most looking to hearing about!



Toyota Tacoma rig backcountry dispersed camping in Bonneville Salt Flats Utah with go fast camper GFC, vagabond guru


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