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 on our first boondocking trip five years ago, 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 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, even though we took up RVing that past spring of 2012. Most of our other overnights were in commercial campgrounds, state or county parks or the driveways of friends and relatives.
Wilderness boondocking 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.
That was all it took. We became hooked on it and ever since, thats our main way of camping. Bo, our current dog, gives us weird looks when we have to use a commercial or organized campground.
Since that first trip by us, we discovered we’re not alone in making it our preferred stye of camping. As it turns out, there’s a sort of boom in boondocking. Technology advances in RVing over the past six years – like solar power and long lasting lithium batteries – have made it so much easier to be off the commercial grid. And with super quiet engine generators and things like Roadtrek's VoltStart electrical management system, we very seldom even need to plug in anymore.
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 where our favorite spot is – in Michigan's Ogemaw County, 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.
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 our preferred style of boodocking – though I think it will be fun to visit one of these years for a video. 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 our style of boondocking is not for everyone. In the wilds, you often have to work hard to find the right spot, to get level. You’ll have to conserve your battery power. Generator noise is never pleasant, so if that's what you have, you’ll surely limit that, too. And 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 people around.
Boondocking, except in a paved Walmart parking lot, is probably out of the picture for big Class A motorhomes. Our 2017 Roadtrek CS Adventurous XL 4X4 Class B has no trouble navigating the two-tracks that lead to our favorite spots. Sometimes, the going down such roads can be slow and sometimes, Jennifer has been known 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.
While the regular AllStays app is great, the paid version, AllStays Pro, is the major go-to site Jennifer and I use for finding places to stay that really stand out, especially out of the way boondocking spots and free places to stay. Since Jennifer and I discovered AllStays Pro, the browser-based subscription site, we rely on it almost exclusively in our RV travels. AllStays has generously offered 10% off the AllStays Pro subscription if you use this link and the discount code RVPODCAST when you signup.
There are other resources.
Harvest Hosts is a unique membership service that lets RVers camp overnight FOR FREE at lovely outdoor venues such as wineries, breweries, museums, farms, orchards, and creameries. You can get 10% off the Harvest Host annual membership ($49) using the discount code: HHFriends
Another resource to help you find free or very low-cost places to stay while traveling in your RV is called OvernightRVParking.com. As of today, it has a database of nearly 13,800 locations around North America that can be searched, listing places that allow and prohibit overnight RV parking. The site is a subscription service – $24.95 a year. I had a great conversation with the owner and he has made a nice offer to our readers. If you decide to sign up, he will extend your membership from 12 months to 15 months. That works out to a pretty nice discount so use the link above to sign up and receive your 3 free months!
If you are looking for places to boondock on private land, you'll find no greater resource than Boondockers Welcome,
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 20 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.
iPhone users may instead want the Boondocking App from modesitt software (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/boondocking/id561352659?mt=8). It is based on the same information but it automatically detects your location from your phone and spits out a list of boondocking locations.