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The Boondocking Basics for Van-Lifers

Hi, we’re Sabrina and Wes from YouMeAndTheParks. We live, work, and travel full-time in our self-built Ford Transit.

Three years ago, we outfitted a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited with a pop-up tent, pressurized running water and shower, and a signal booster, and turned our Jeep into our home to travel the world. Since then, we’ve upgraded from the Jeep to a much larger and more comfortable Ford Transit van, covered over 40,000 miles, and have explored 35 national parks from Alaska to Flordia. In all this time, we’ve spent $0 on sleeping and camping!

Whats our secret? It’s called boondocking!

Hi! I’m Sabrina. Wes is behind the camera!

What is Boondocking?
Boondocking, aka “dry camping,” is a kind of vehicle or RV camping without connection to services such as water, sewer, or electric. In a lot of cases, you trade these services, neighbors, and noise for solidarity, space, and beautiful sights and stars! Oh, and it’s usually free!

Where you decide to boondock first depends on what kind of rig you’re in. Some dispersed camping locations are deep into forests, on roads that are only accessible with 4WD and high clearance. We’ve had to cross rivers, rock crawl over bolder fields, and turn back due to fallen trees and mud slides. That being said, vehicles and RVs of all sizes can boondock, from a prius to a well-outfitted 4WD Jeep, you just have to be aware of the area and your capabilities.

We spent two weeks boondocking and living out of this Toyota Prius when our Jeep was getting repaired/Photo by Wes and Sabrina

Safety
Here are some general safety tips we follow:

  • Know your vehicle. We have our vehicle’s height, length, and weight printed on the dash and are aware of what is likely going to get us stuck.
  • Only go where you can turn around, via a pullout, three-point turn, etc. If you can’t turn around, it’s possible to get yourself in a situation you’re stuck and can’t get out.
  • Only go where you have the ability for emergency communication. We’ve read about nighmare scenarios of people in Death Valley taking a detour on a desert road, their vehicle breaking down, and having no way to get out or call for help. We carry our cell phones, radio, and two satelite transmitters. If something happens and we need medical or emergency assistance, the satelite transmitters work almost anywhere.
  • Carry safety and recovery equipment and know how to use it. We carry a shovel, traction pads, tow straps, tire repair kit, first aid kit, Ham radio, and a satelite transmitter. We’ve learned the hard way, and have had to use all of these at one point or another.
  • Listen to your gut. If you feel uneasy, turn around and find somewhere else!

Boondocking on BLM land outside Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park/Photo by Wes and Sabrina

Places to Boondock
There are a lot of places you can boondock, but it’s important to only stay in places that you know are legal and where boondocking is allowed. Although national parks are public land, they generally do not allow dispersed camping outside designated campgrounds. Check out alternatives below, which are usually okay for boondocking. There are exceptions, however, and you need to make sure to do your research before showing up with your rig!

National Forests
These are our favorite places to look for boondocking, as almost all national parks have national forests nearby. Plus, the scenery is often as good as the national park itself, they’re secluded, quiet, and wild!

We’ll first look for established back-country campgrounds, which often have minimal facilities, sometimes makeshift fire pits, and flat areas to sleep. If there are none around, we’ll look for forest roads that are open and accessible for our van.

Got some fresh snow, boondocking in Bienville National Forest/Photo by Wes and Sabrina

In general, you can disperse camp anywhere in a national forest, and the USFS has just a few rules:

  • You must drive or tow on established roads only.
  • Don’t impede traffic or the safety of others.
  • Don’t make noise that bothers others (generators, music, etc.).
  • Follow local forest rules and guidelines for prohibited dispersed camping locations.

Most forests allow for 14 days of consecutive camping, some have less, others have more. Always check online, or at a local ranger station before camping.

BLM Land
12% of the land mass of the U.S. is public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), run by the Department of the Interior. Similar to national forests, BLM land offers both developed and dispersed campgrounds, and has similar rules. Like always, research should be done to verify said rules before showing up.

Private Businesses
National forests and BLM lands are great if you’re away from civilization or near national parks, but if you’re in a city, on a major interstate, or not near public lands, you can still boondock!

There are a few private businesses that allow RV and car “camping” for single nights as you pass through the area. However, tt’s good practice to call the store, speak with a manager, and make sure that specific store is okay with you spending the night.

Here are a few private businesses that we’ve stayed at, in the order of preference:

Cracker Barrel, Cabela’s, casinos, Costco & Sam’s Club, Walmart, Pilot Flying J, and Love’s.

Good Stewards
We’ve shown you where to boondock, no matter where you are, but it’s important to understand these free services are offered under the presumption that people follow their rules. This means following “Leave No Trace” guidelines, not overstaying your visit, and being a good neighbor to those around you. Failure to follow these basic rules will results in the loss of these beautiful resources for us all.

Finding a good spot is so relaxing; wild camping is just better!/Photo by Wes and Sabrina

Resources
In order to help us find all these awesome dispersed campgrounds, we use a few apps:

  • Ultimate Campground is our go-to app to find areas for dispersed camping. It works well offline and has a huge database of campgrounds.
  • iOverlander is our backup. If there are no official campgrounds, iOverlander sometimes catches the unofficial ones.
  • AllStays provides a good list of private places to spend the night.

Header photo: Boondocking in Whitehorse Yukon, Canada/Photo by Wes and Sabrina

Sabrina and Wes live, work, and travel full-time out of their self-built Ford Transit van. At ExploreHere and YouMeAndTheParks, they build web and mobile apps that help share information and history about parks, lands, and all the places in-between.

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