Boondocking 101 for RV’ers

In Adventure, Guides, RV, Travel

If you’re new to RV’ing, or you’ve always gone to parks that have full hookups (electric, water, and sewage), you may have heard about “Boondocking,” but you might not fully understand the concept.  In this installment of Living In Tin we’re going to talk about real boondocking, and what you need to know about it.

Unplug Completely

Today’s RVs are completely self contained.  Normally you have a fresh water tank, a grey water tank, blackwater (ewww), some type of battery plant, and propane devices like your hot water heater, heater, and kitchen stove.  With all of these items your RV can function without hookups offered by RV parks, and you can add a little adventure to your travels by totally disconnecting.

The first quasi boondocking trip for the Airstream that this website features often was to Little Diamond Pond State Park in Northern New Hampshire.  It wasn’t total boondocking as there were facilities at the park, but with no water hookups, sewage, or power, we learned what the Airstream could do on an extended stay off grid.  Your batteries only last so long, your fresh water tank will eventually run out, and if you’re flushing way too much your blackwater might fill up faster then you think it will!

Learning what you can expect out of your rig before your first big boondocking experience will save you hassle and headaches down the road.  One simple suggestion would be trying it out when you’re “home” (if you’re not a full timer).  See how long your battery plant provides power over a few days in the driveway.  Flip your fridge over to the propane setting, turn your water pump on, kick the heater on, and run the hot water heater as well.

What was discovered on the maiden boondocking voyage for the Airstream was that the battery plant lasted about 2 full days with all appliances running in the background.  If we were more conservative with all of the appliances we could have gotten another day out of it easily.

Portable Power

Honda Generator for RV'ers
A 1000 Generator from Honda meets most of our needs

Learning pretty quickly that power was the main issue boondocking, a small portable generator was added to the travel gear that comes along with the Airstream.  A Honda 1000 portable generator is always along for trips where we know that we’ll be off grid.  Recharging the batteries with it is relatively quick, and quiet!  Today’s portable generators can be extremely quiet and very fuel efficient as well.

Unfortunately, a 1000 Watt generator is not going to power any RV’s air conditioner or microwave.  It will allow you to recharge your batteries, computers, tablets, phones, etc.  But the big appliances just take too much juice to run off of such a small generator.  You can find larger portable generators that will run the big appliances, but they take more space and become heavier with each upgrade.  If you’re looking to run it all, a Honda or Yamaha 3000 will cover your needs.  Another option would be to purchase two 2000 Watt generators and chain them together.   It’s all about how much you’re willing to spend, what you really need on your off grid trips, and the space you have with your RV.

For many of the larger RVs out there, generators might be included in your vehicle.  Class A RVs invariably have their own house generator in the unit.  Several van style RV’s as well.  In the case of the Airstream, no built in generator was included, which is why a portable was required.

Power from the sun

Solar for Airstreams
With today’s improved panels, we might have some room on the top of our RV

At this point some readers may ask, “What about solar as an option?”  Solar installations for RVs today are extremely reasonably priced, and the latest solar technology is light years ahead of installations from just 5 years ago.  So solar is an extremely viable option.

There are issues with solar.  If you have a small battery plant you still are limited by your storage capacity.  So solar may require more batteries in your rig, and for smaller RVs allocating space to additional batteries might become a problem.

Also, a solar setup and battery plant isn’t going to get your Air conditioner running or microwave either.  It you have a large installation with a sizable battery plant and an inverter (converts DC power to AC), maybe you could run larger appliances, but there are limits and you need to really research a solar setup for your rig.

In the case of the Airstream that I travel with, I’ve found the simplest solution is a portable generator.  Normally where I travel to the Air conditioner and microwave are not needed.  In the event we do need to run the AC, a Yamaha 2800 generator takes the place of the Honda 1000.  It’s larger, isn’t as fuel efficient, and is louder than the small Honda, but it allows the use of the microwave or the AC (not at the same time).  While I’d love to see a solar installation in the Airstream, the layout of the roof is not great for a bunch of panels, and there is no additional room for batteries beyond the two already installed in the Airstream.

In the end, it’s up to you how you’d like to power your rig.  Our solution works well, the Honda was relatively inexpensive, and it can run on a little gas for a very long time.

Inverters

If you’re running on battery alone, or you’d like to recharge a device or two while on battery, chances are you will need an inverter.  Inverters allow you to convert DC (power from your battery) into AC (your standard house plugs).  Honestly, you don’t need a large one for charging laptops, phones, drone helicopters, etc.

Where inverters get larger and require installation would be in situations where you are using Solar, and you’re looking to have several AC outlets “hot” in your rig.  The size of the inverter will need to be calculated to make sure that your battery plant can handle the load, and that you are providing enough power for all of your AC requirements.  Normally though, if you’re looking to recharge a laptop or two, a few Smart Phones, or other small devices, there are many portable inverters that plug right into a DC outlet out there for you!

A Shower a day…..

The latest shower heads help conserve water, and conserve on your hot water!
The latest shower heads help conserve water, and conserve on your hot water!

While we all love a refreshing shower at the end of a day of exploring new places, a shower a day might not be the best idea if you’re looking to do extended boondocking.  The shower requires several things.

1-  Fresh water in your tank.  There’s only so much you can carry, and the size of your tank will depend on the size of your rig.  In the case of the Airstream we use, a 40 Gallon Fresh water tank supplies us with boondocking water.

2-  Hot water heater.  You’ll be burning propane, and running down your battery plant that controls your hot water heater.  Now you’re hitting several limiting factors.

3-  Water pump.  The water pump, which delivers fresh water throughout your rig consumes more of your battery plant capacity.  A double whammy to your power if you’re really looking to run a lot of water every day.

Doing the dishes can cost you water while boondocking.
Doing the dishes can cost you water while boondocking.

Think about how much water we use every day when at home, or hooked up in a full service RV park.  Washing dishes, showering, use of the toilet, cleaning up in in your bathroom, etc.  A 40 gallon tank suddenly becomes an extremely limiting factor when you think about it.  So if you’re looking to do extended trips, rethink how you use your water.

The first trip to a boondocking site in the desert southwest found me rationing water in the Airstream.  Even so, by day 4 I was looking to drain the gray and black tanks, and needed to refill the fresh water tank.  Doing dishes every night with a full sink of water, then rinsing off those dishes quickly cut into the water supply.  After that experience I learned the value of paper plates, quick cleaning of utensils, etc.

Keeping warm

On a chilly evening while boondocking you may find yourself tempted to set the temperature at 70 degrees.  That’s once solution to the chill.  But remember, the propane heater depletes your propane and your battery plant when the heat runs your blower.  Once again we’re looking at that battery plant as a limiting factor.  And you can bet on truly cold nights, the heater will kick on often draining power and fuel.

There are ways to mitigate the cold though.  Extra blankets, area rugs for exposed flooring that radiates cold in, sleeping bags……  You get the idea.  If you’re looking to do extended boondocking, get creative with using everything in your self contained RV!

Trade offs – What’s great about boondocking?

Full service RV parks are pretty cool.  Your power, water and sewage are all hooked up, and it’s just like being at home.

Just like being at home……..is that what your next trip is going to be about?

Getting away, disconnecting, unplugging, turning off the net….Unwinding.  This is where boondocking comes in.  There are incredible destinations all over the place where you can pull into a national forest, or BLM property, and stay for days on end.  Civilization is behind you, and seeing amazing natural beauty is right in front of you.  And 9 times out of 10, the really great locations don’t have your full hookups!  There’s why you might find a boondocking trip of interest.

In the desert southwest there are many boondocking locations available.  In more populated areas, not as many, but they still do exist.  All you have to do is a little research and you’ll find a great getaway spot.  And the benefits are many.  Have you ever really seen the Milky Way?  We have on almost every one of our boondocking trips!

Boondocking Borrego Springs
Boondocking Borrego Springs

In our upcoming December article we’ll be talking more about boondocking, visiting LTVA’s, and what it’s really like staying unplugged for a fair amount of time.  Be sure to check back for the latest article!