We remember our first time boondocking. It was the quiet that we most noticed.
There were no traffic sounds. No TV sets from nearby campsites. No laughter, no murmuring voices of anyone else. Just us.
And yet, camped in the middle of the wilds of northern Michigan miles from the nearest paved road or power line, it wasn’t completely silent.
There really is, as Simon and Garfunkle used to sing, a sound of silence.
There was the crackle of our campfire. A hoot of a distant owl. The yips of a pack of coyotes somewhere far to the west. The gurgle of the Rifle River moving over a stretch of rocks just downstream from where we were camped. The whooshing sound of wind whipping through a stand of red pine.
And above, as soon as you walked away from the fire and got your night eyes focused, a gazillion starts speckled the ink black sky.
We were boondocking, totally self-contained with no commercial power or water or Wi-Fi or sewer or any other service. Some people prefer to call it “dry camping” or “independent camping.” Other terms you may hear for it are “primitive camping” or “dispersed camping.”
Whatever, we were loving it.
No one else was around. Probably for miles.
Tai, our Norwegian Elkhoud at the time, ran free, though not very far from our motorhome. I swear he smiled the whole weekend, blissfully exhausted from leash-free hikes and the new scents of deer trails and the deep woods.
We slept with the blinds up and the windows open with complete privacy.
That was our first experience with boondocking back in 2012. Most of our other overnights up to then had been in commercial campgrounds, state or county parks or the driveways of friends and relatives.
This was different. We gathered our own firewood, used battery-powered lights, fired up the generator a couple of times to make coffee and generally unplugged -literally and figuratively.
It was so much fun that we repeated the experience two more times that year before the approaching Michigan winter threatened to freeze our tanks.
And ever since, it's been our preferred means of camping.
And we’re not alone. As it turns out, there’s a sort of boom in boondocking.
As motorhome technology improves, it’s easier than ever to disconnect from the power grid and still have almost all the comforts we’re used to having in our homes on wheels in developed campgrounds.
We're now on our third Roadtrek Motorhome, whose various models are squarely aimed at the growing RV segment that likes to exchange the convenience of full hookups for the independence of being self-contained just about anywhere.
Built on the popular full-sized Sprinter frame and powered by a Mercedes diesel, our current Roadtrek CS Adventurous XL motorhome comes with 650 watts of solar panels, a bank of 32 lithium in batteries batteries and an engine generator/alternator. We've had it for going on two years now. I've written befire how, with our Roadtrek CS Adventurous XL, we are essentially energy independent.
Since we got ours, the company – now part of the Erwin Hymer Group of North America – has newer models on a variety of chassis with even more sophisticated packages that allow for extended off-grid camping.
Clearly, Roadtrek sees a strong demand for boondocking model. Other manufacturers are trying to play catch up, though none come close to the innovation and technology Roadtrek has engineered into its units.
And the places to boondock are many. Some, like the parking lots at Walmart, truck stops and other commercial businesses, are open to RVers for quick overnights, sort of a glorified rest area. The places I’m talking about, though, are in wilderness areas like state and federal forests and the vast stretches of public land available from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which has 17 thousand campsites at over 400 different campgrounds, mostly in the western states.
Costs for boondocking on public land is typically $5-10 a night or, in many cases, free.
Many other RVers use private land, with the permission of the landowner, of course. That’s what I did that first time in Ogemaw County, Michugan, staying on a 200 acre stretch of property owned by my brother-in-law that is bisected by the river and surrounded by hundreds of acres of state land. It's a place we visit several times a year.
But not all boondocking spots have so much elbowroom
Take the tiny, quirky town of Quartzsite, AZ, with a permanent population of 3,000. In January and February, though, Quartzsite becomes the boondocking capital of North America when an estimated 150,000 RVers descend to park their rigs side-by-side on the pancake-flat, treeless desert and boondock away the winter under that warm Southwest sun.
There are so many boondockers out there that businesses set up huge tents to cater to them. It looks like a giant RV rally that goes on for two months.
Quartzsite is not my preferred style of boodocking – though I think it will be fun to some time for a video and story. But to each their own.
The upsides of wilderness boondocking are many. Privacy, serenity, uncluttered scenery, wildlife and truly getting away from it all are at the top of my list.
But my style of boondocking is not for everyone. In the wilds, you often have to work hard to find the right spot, to get level. Because you are truly on your own, you are more vulnerable. Accidents do happen and being out in the boondocks means getting help is more challenging than at a more developed campground with lots of people around. I travel with amateur radio, which always can communicate should cell service be unavailable.
Boondocking, except in a paved Walmart parking lot, is probably out of the picture for big Class A motorhomes. Our Class B has no trouble navigating two-track trails where the going can be slow. Sometimes, Jennifer has to jump out and run ahead to hold back bushes or tree limbs that could scrape up our motorhome.
Interested in trying it?
There are some websites and apps that can help.
For starters, check out the app for iPhone, iPad and Android devices by AllStays (www.allstays.com). They list more than 22,000 campgrounds and boondocking spots, everything from KOAs and Walmarts to state and federal forests, military and BLM land.
Free Campgrounds for RVs (http://www.freecampgrounds.com) has a big database, sorted by state, of state, federal and county land open to camping, most without hookups or services.
For boondocking and camping information about National Forests, check out the very detailed U.S. National Forest Campground Guide (http://www.forestcamping.com). Much of the research was done by Fred and Suzi Dow, a couple of avid RVers who have spent the last 17 years visiting 155 national forests, 20 national grasslands, 1 national tallgrass prairie and 2,383 developed campgrounds.
I also like the Free Campsites website (http://freecampsites.net). There’s an interactive map as well as comments and reviews of boondocking spots.
You can also check the site http://boondocking.org. It’s a database of free boondocking spots based on GPS coordinates. Enter in your location’s latitude and longitude and it will tell you whether the closest boondocking spot may be.
And search this blog for just about any story written by Roadtreking Reporter Campskunk. With wife Sharon and their beautiful cat, Fiona, Campskunk does pretty much nothing but boondock. As I write this, he's on the Oregon coast, boondocking in some pretty spectacular places.