Starting this week, we’ll be driving across the northern US and basing in Portland for seven weeks this summer – all seven weeks in VANdal. Some nights, we may have the luxury of plugging in (“glamping,” we guess you could call it), but most will be self-contained, unplugged and, if we’re lucky, without neighbors. True to “boondocking” form, it will be our goal to not stay in a single veritable campground. As we prepare for our next long journey in VANdal this summer, we share with you some of our strategies for mobile base camp accommodations.
Whether you call it camping off the grid, boondocking, stealth camping, “land yachting,” dispersed or wild camping, the sprinter van as an RV without hookups has major appeal. Our experiences often transcend the reasons why we camp or travel in the first place: Outdoor recreation, meeting cool and interesting people, and exploring – all without spending a fortune. With a lower carbon footprint and an authentic ability to disconnect from the rest of the world (while still retaining the ability to “plug in” when we need to), using our sprinter as a base camp helps us stay connected to the ideals we strive for (and often fall short on) in our “regular” everyday life. Things like water conservation, waste conscientiousness, and minimalist thinking are all mainstays of boondocking and healthy reminders of who we want to be, even at home. Partly, we stealth camp because we want to wake up EXACTLY where we want to be. It allows us to avoid campgrounds that are basically tenements for sedentary RV’ers whose idea of a “hike” is the ¼ mile long “nature trail” that starts next to the campground’s dump station…. No, thank you.
Some pointers to help you achieve the perfect boondocking experience:
1. Find A Legal Spot.
Nothing ruins a good nights sleep like a stern knock on the door, followed by the phrase, “Police! Open up!” We learned this the hard way by staying in a park last year in Colorado Springs that apparently closed at sunset. Whoops. (Side note: If in doubt about the legality of your chosen parking location, do not sleep in the buff. PJ’s are a good idea.)
So what’s fair game and legal? You’re not just relegated to WalMart parking lots and KOA Campgrounds! We can’t imagine choosing to suffer through long wait-lists and close-quarters at National Park campgrounds. NO WAY!
Our favorites include:
- Public Lands – National Forest Service Roads, Bureau of Land Management, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and US Army Corps of Engineers all have land available to stay on. Most allow you to stay 14 days for free, though due to increasing popularity, some have been restricted to USFS campgrounds only (as we found to be the case in the Gallatin Gateway in Montana). Check maps like the USDA Forest Service’s Motor Vehicle Use Maps for regulations specific to your location.
- In Florida specifically, we have found beautiful and uncrowded free camp locations through the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The only downside is you have to plan ahead – reservations are required.
- Trailheads where overnight parking is not explicitly prohibited. If required, get a primitive camping or backcountry pass from a local agency.
- Rest areas (if we’re en route), especially those along scenic highways. Some afford great little morning hikes before getting back on the road (Valley of the Rogue in Oregon is one).
- In urban areas, we like quiet, low traffic streets. Follow road signage or check municipal regulations concerning overnight parking. In some places it’s a first degree misdemeanor to street-camp, so do your homework beforehand…
- Driveways of friends & acquaintances make GREAT boondocking sites! Go out of your way to make connections and meet new & interesting people as you travel ~ That’s part of the point! It may just end up in an offer of driveway space… We did just that in SE Portland and came out with not only a driveway to share, but also some great new friends. Or, connect with a site like Boondockers Welcome where you’ll find people who are ready and willing to host driveway crashers like you (Note: This is a paid membership site and we have not done this.)
2. Be Discreet.
- Whether you’re boondocking in nature or in the middle of downtown, don’t ruin it for the rest of us by being obnoxious. Now’s a good time to be discreet, relatively quiet, and ultra-respectful of your neighbors (including your forest friends). Keep the noise and light low. If you can, design your accommodations with black out capability. VANdal has insulated thermal curtains that emit zero light.
- It goes without saying that you shouldn’t leave any garbage behind… So it’s helpful to begin your trip with that in mind. Get rid of packaged containers, and pre-emptively eliminate your trash accumulation. Buy your pantry items from the bulk section and store in quality reusable, stackable containers. We like “Snap-Ware” line of plastic and glass leak-proof containers because they nestle into one another so there’s no in-cabin shifting. Nothing’s worse than opening a cabinet and having its contents land on your foot.Need a little inspiration to reduce your garbage? Check this out:
- On being discreet, this is another area where the gear garage comes in handy for us… we don’t have laundry lines, bicycles, buckets, towels or various antenni protruding from our vehicle. Stealthy is healthy.
3. Get your water, waste, and electricity plan right.
- Before hunkering down for the night, check your water levels and make sure you have enough for dinner, breakfast, and toiletry needs. Water is relatively easy to find: You can always fill up at gas stations, churches, fire departments, municipal parks with water spigots, some rest stops, etc. Any place with a spigot is fair game to ask if they don’t mind sparing some water. If you’re concerned with water quality, you can always keep filtered reusable bottles on hand.
- For water fill-ups we carry a flexible, collapsible “AS SEEN ON TV” pocket hose inside of a water resistant Sea-to-Summit stuff sack. We have a 40 gallon tank and keep it at appropriate levels depending on whether we’re en route (less) or stationary (full).
- See these posts for info about the potty system we use or, better yet, consider a compostable toilet for your RV/van:
- Make sure your batteries are charged up and limit your use of on-board outlets and power-draining activities BEFORE you go off the grid. Yes, we know you want to bring your Vitamix… But, alas, that thing sucks power like a Dyson. Make the smoothie at home or bring a smaller device like the NutriBullet. Better yet, make sure your propane is full and cook a meal sans-electricity. Sure, you can go solar (we don’t because we carry multiple paddleboards on our roof), but we find that with a good inverter and minimal use of electric-dominant devices, we can stay powered up for up to 3 days without plugging in. (Or a week if we don’t use the microfridge).
- Turn down the fridge as cold as you can while you’re driving and the batteries are being charged off the engine. Then, when you arrive, turn everything on low.
- Remember to unplug all your electronic devices and phone cords that suck phantom power.
4. Be prepared.
- Have most of your spares on hand so you don’t have to waste time looking for a dealer or a parts store. (Electrical connectors, fuses, engine belts, extra bulbs for headlights and taillights), and the tools necessary to affect them all.
- For camping, it’s helpful to have some emergency firestarters, an ax, a saw, and a machete for clearing areas and chopping firewood.
- Have a way to inflate your tires should you get stuck and have to deflate. A 12-volt or a sturdy bicycle pump should do the trick.
- Choosing what tools to bring is always an issue when space is a limiting factor. Multi-tools are great in theory, but their functionality is generally limited by their design. The single best multi-tool is called Fix-It-Stix. It provides a shop-quality feel and function in an ultra compact design. In fact, Martin carries one with him every day. With it, you can fix a bicycle, a water pump, adjust hinges, drive and unscrew any fastener that uses torques, hex, Phillips, or slotted screws. A good portable toolkit will include an adjustable wrench, an electrical volt meter, wire strippers, a good pair of channel locks, some gloves with good grip, and it goes without saying that a roll of Gorilla duct tape is imminently useful.
- If you’re crossing state lines or country borders, make sure dog tags/vaccination records are on board along with your passports, and that you have your prescription bottles with you.
- Pack a medical kit with all the essentials. Bandaids and Neosporin are great, but what emergencies might you really run into? Bring tic-tac containers filled with allergy meds, Benadryl, Cortisone cream, poison ivy wipes, and other necessities for the types of emergencies you’re likely to face.
VANdal leaves in just a few days! We’ll be sure to post some of our favorite boondocking spots on facebook & twitter as we go. This year’s road trek takes up from Florida up to Wisconsin, then over to Oregon by way of South Dakota and the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway. Know of a great spot along that route? Do share!
- MyOpenCountry.com has a great article on dispersed camping — the why’s, how’s, do’s, don’ts and some cool suggested trips.
- Gone With The Wynns (a source for inspiration, camp gadgets, site selection, and more)
- Legends of America Boondocking Tips (an old but VERY comprehensive list)
- Boondocking.org (database of user-defined coordinates)
- Good Luck Duck (her list of boondocking resources is fairly comprehensive)