Boondocking is more than a funny word: it’s a totally rad way to hit the road! So what is boondocking?

Boondocking is essentially free camping without amenities or hookups.

RV and camper vans can allow us to embrace all kinds of comforts, from water and electricity to WiFi and cable. But RV campers may also choose to escape the crowds of campgrounds for some off-grid exploring. Boondocking can range from setting up camp in the backcountry, to parking your rig at a Wal-Mart.

try boondocking

You might opt for boondocking for more nature or more privacy, or you might just be looking for a free place to park your RV. Here are a few different types of boondocking, and how to find those free or cheap places to camp.

Why Boondocking?

In certain respects, boondocking is a simpler form of camping. You free yourself from the reservation process and the camping fees. You also cut yourself off from the little luxuries that make campers and vans so comfortable — which can be nice if you’re really looking to unplug from the stresses of regular life and connect with nature.

Boondocking is also a handy way to just park and sleep. If your goal is traveling from point A to point B, and you don’t need to sit around a campfire and listen to a babbling brook, parking in a free lot over night is a handy way to save you time and money. You can enjoy the scenery when you get to your destination!

Depending on why and how you’re looking to boondock, there are a variety of options for free and cheap camping.

Dispersed Camping in National Forests

Boondocking in national forests

Many national forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands across the United States offer primitive campsites with no amenities. Typically, you can camp anywhere in a national forest, as long as there is no signage noting otherwise. Follow forest access roads to find spots where you can park and “camp” for free.

If you have a big RV, some forest access roads might be difficult to access. They’re often narrow and unpaved. Check with a local ranger station on where you might be able to park for the night.

The USDA provides guidelines on how and where to camp in National Forests and BLM land.

The US Public Lands app is also a great resource for finding public lands with free campsites. Just be sure to do the research BEFORE venturing deep into the woods, as you’ll likely lose cell coverage.

Backcountry Camping

Backcountry camping often refers to tent camping. You park your car at a trailhead and carry all your camping gear with you on your back until you reach your remote campsite. If you’re lucky, you might have an outhouse.

RVers can also camp in the backcountry in some instances. Many National Parks and Forests have primitive campgrounds with RV sites available. Best for small RVs and pop-up campers, these primitive campgrounds have no hookups and do not offer potable water or dump stations. If you’re keen to try backcountry camping, in a tent or RV, you should check to see if you need a special backcountry permit.

Free Campgrounds

Boondocking for free

Most free campgrounds are dispersed campsites on public land. Many are managed by the state’s Fish and Wildlife Services or the National Forest Service and should be considered primitive.

While it’s typically free, another option for saving money is to “dry camp.” Dry camping refers to staying at a commercial campground with no hookups. You must rely on your own tanks and generators. RV sites with full hookups often cost over twice that of a site without hookups.

Parking Lots + Rest Stops

It’s not uncommon to see several RVs parked at your local big box store during the warmer months. Many of these big box stores, like Walmart, Cabela’s and even Cracker Barrel, offer free overnight RV parking. Depending on the state, you may also park overnight at rest areas and visitors canters along the highways.

Should I boondock?

First, confirm that you’re in a place that allows for overnight parking.

Second, ask yourself: do I have the bare essentials to be comfortable overnight? Do I have water, food, and warmth? If you’re boondocking in a big box store parking lot, you can probably go buy anything you’re missing. But if you’re parking on a secluded forest road, you’re going to need to bring supplies.

If you’re new to the RV or vanlife world, you will undoubtedly go boondocking at some point. Perhaps you already have and didn’t even realize it! Either way, boondocking takes many forms, and you can find a style that works for you.

Want to learn more about boondocking? Join The RV Campfire or The Vanlife Campfire where you can exchange stories and advice around mobile living and camping. 

Katelyn Michaud

Katelyn Michaud

Katelyn Michaud is a freelance writer and healthcare consultant from Portland, Maine. She has traveled to over 40 countries and loves horseback riding, scuba diving, and hiking. Her happy place is in the mountains of Maine with her Australian Shepherd. Check out her blog, Diaries of a Wandering Lobster.