The Advantages and Disadvantages of Dry Camping

One of the key advantages of RV travel is that all it takes to technically start camping is to throw the motorhome or tow vehicle into “Park.” With most vehicles being highly self-sufficient – even away from the power grid and water hookups of your average campground – any stretch of land can become an impromptu campsite for the night. A secluded spot next to a stream. An empty field or a deserted parking lot. Yes, even Aunt Edna’s driveway, if you’re so inclined.

Such features as an onboard generator and/or inverter, LP tank(s), fresh water supply, and holding tanks make such a reality possible. That is, assuming you know what you’re doing. Surely, the temptation to dry camp or boondock, where travelers camp in one way or another away from standard campsites and hookups, appeals to the gypsy spirit in many of us at some point and time. And there are other reasons, too.

Me, Myself, and I
A sense of community is always nice, but sometimes being thrown into the mix at the local campground isn’t exactly what you’re looking for. Larger campgrounds may swell to thousands of campers on a busy weekend; poorly laid out parks stack RVs one right on top of each other. Where did all these people come from? While no one can deny the benefits of full hookups, hot showers, game room, and mini-mart, frankly, established campgrounds are not for everybody. Even the five-star RV resorts that do everything from back in your RV to massage your feet might sometimes miss the point. You want to get away from it all, and that means blazing your own trail. Setting up the travel trailer at the secluded fishing hole. Maneuvering the motorhome through the deepest reaches of the dense forest until you find the perfect spot. Ah, now that’s more like it. No sounds of idling diesels next-door, no kids playing Frisbee through your campsite. Just you, your crew, and nature. Isn’t this the way it was supposed to be?

Location, Location, Location
An RV trip isn’t always to popular destinations, where campsites are plentiful. Some folks, who take the second-home concept seriously, choose to set up their rig for an extended stay in a place where an established campground might not be found. For example, that fold-down camper of yours might work admirably in grandma’s backyard during your lengthy visit. Best of all, the grandkids are nice and close. Or perhaps it’s the part-time job that’s got you working at the Christmas tree lot, volunteering at that State Park, or selling your wares at a regional art show that requires on-site living sans hookups? Patient’s families have been known to “camp out” at the hospital, in order to be close to a loved one during a time of crisis. Furthermore, those whose hobbies take them far off the highways – such as motor sports enthusiasts, rock climbers, or boaters – often won’t find better nightly accommodations than their RVs. Different situations call for different accommodations, and your RV is ready for any of it.

Drastic Times Call for…
The couple was absolutely dumbfounded by the no vacancy signs up and down Pennsylvania’s Interstate-80. They looked everywhere, by the end of the night just hoping for any campsite, anywhere. Unfortunately, it was fall foliage season and every single place was booked. Sound familiar? It’s getting late and everyone’s exhausted? Somebody forgot to make the reservations and things are looking a little grim. Any RV maverick who heads for a prime tourist spot in-season knows full well how quickly campgrounds can fill up, often forcing a decision of where to beach the rig for the night. Truth is, sometimes boondocking is a necessity – even if you don’t particularly like the idea of bunking down in a Wal-Mart parking lot or deserted field. If you’re not going to be a stickler about making reservations, it’s best to work out dry camping skills in advance – before you have to use them.

Money Woes
Compared to even a moderately priced motel, most RV parks, campgrounds – even plush RV resorts – are terrific deals. A night spent at a state or national park is cheaper still, bolstered by the kinds of bedazzling views one won’t find just any old place. However, there are those of the RVing sect who say hooey to the whole notion of paying to camp. After all, they already ponied up $100,000 for the motorhome, which is the premier full-time camping machine. By their thinking, every night spent parked in the woods or at a friend’s house or catching zzz’s at the truck stop is money in the bank. Of course, campground owners don’t much like this free-wheelin’ philosophy, but you can’t beat the price of a night of dry camping.

The Can-Do Spirit
Many RVers started as tent campers, so we’re used to the idea of roughin’ it. And just because we made the transformation from soggy sleeping bag to comfy digs doesn’t mean we no longer embrace – or at least pine for – the pioneering spirit. Many of us still cuddle our inner explorer and we get a thunderous sense of pride from camping out where few motorhome tires have tread before. We’re talking about a spot so rustic that not even the pricey satellite dish works. Generating your own power, carrying your own water, feasting on fresh trout or a pantry full of canned goods is a sure-fire way to restore one’s swagger – regardless if it’s in a $5,000 truck camper or $500,000 diesel-pusher. Free camping can be found throughout many of the million acres governed of the Bureau of Land Management and National Wildlife Refugees.

Before You Go…
However, contrary to popular belief, the world is not your oyster. One cannot simply park their vehicle anywhere they please and throw out the welcome mat. There are laws to consider, etiquette to follow, and safety concerns to factor. Furthermore, different RVs offer different capabilities as far as boondocking is concerned. Many smaller towables lack the ability to generate their own power, lacking an onboard generator, inverter, or even solar power applications. Smaller fresh water tanks will limit the duration of the trip – and length of shower, for that matter – of any off-roading adventure. Is your RV up to the challenge? Are you? Here’s a few things to consider before camping without a net.

Safety First
The problem with camping in Parts Unknown is just that – you just don’t know. Is it safe or not? While every campground isn’t necessarily Fort Knox, the reputable ones are well-lit, fenced-in, and offer the safety-in-numbers reassurance you won’t get bunking at the truck stop or deepest, darkest woods. For me, every snap of a tree branch sends me into a deep, paranoid panic when parked in isolation. For others, it’s all part of the natural experience. Still, one must never compromise the safety factor. If it’s just a matter of spending the night before moving on in the morning, gravitate towards spots that are well-lit, fairly busy, and ideally located near the communal bond of another RV or two. Parked under a streetlight might not make for the best night’s sleep you’ve ever had, but it does provide some assurances of safety. Moreover, make sure doors and windows are locked, possession brought inside for the night, and you know where the keys are in the case of a much-needed quick getaway. That, and a Louisville Slugger in case things ever get, ahem, interesting.

Legal Matters
While Wal-Mart has made it well-known how much they just love harboring RVers for the night, many potential landlords aren’t so giving. Nor are some towns, which feel squatters may not be the best thing for the community – or the local businesses that profit from overnight guests. The fact is the land you’re looking to camp on – be it in the back of a mall lot or next to a woodland stream – belongs to somebody. And that somebody probably isn’t you. At the very least, one should always try to get the owner’s okay before activating the slide-out and sending up the TV antennae for the big game. Otherwise, that tapping you hear on the side of the window at 4 a.m. might just be Officer Friendly looking to point you back on the highway. As a rule of etiquette, it’s always nice to support a business that has allowed you to camp over for the night.

Is Your Rig Worthy?
The axiom is painful yet true: The smaller the RV, the less stuff it’s got. Smaller fresh water tanks mean less aqua for drinking and washing, while minuscule holding tanks dictate fewer days spent in the wild before needing to purge. Keep this in mind before scheduling a two-week odyssey far away from civilization. As we mentioned, your vehicle may or may not have means to create electricity onboard, forcing owners to invest in a portable generator or inverter to do the work. On the flip side, a smaller unit is better when it comes to maneuvering you and your crew to more reclusive places. A camper van or truck camper is a superior off-road machine, capable of squeezing through the tight passages that a 40′ motorhome or 60′ worth of trailer and tow vehicle can only dream about. In short, don’t write checks your RV can’t cash. Know and respect your RV’s limits, and plan accordingly. Moreover, what is the condition of the RV? Is everything working okay? Better be sure before you find yourself 20 miles away from a paved road with a flat tire or a dead battery. As you would before any trip, fully inspect the unit and stay on top of any preventative maintenance and routine service.

Ready, Set, Camp
Even if you never intend to spend one single, solitary moment camping away from full hookups and the predictable fun of a campground, it’s still a good idea to at least know how what your RV is capable of – just in case. The best advice is to test your dry-camping skills in a safe environment. The smartest way is to get a no-hookup campsite (or get full hookups and don’t use them the first night or two) to see how you do. Or just try things out in the driveway. You’ll learn all-too-quickly you and your RV’s learning curve. How fast does your family go through water? How much LP do you need for a weekend or more? How adept are you at cooking over a campfire if the LP gas runs out? How much can your generator handle at one time – or how good are you at conserving electricity? Ah, yes, conservation, the backbone of the dry camping experience. Here’s some ways to get the most out of less.

Restore Power
If you run out of electricity, you run out of a lot. Fortunately, there are ways to keep that from happening, namely through the use of a generator or inverter to keep the batteries surging. Portable models aren’t cheap, but are available to prolong your stays in the great outdoors. Otherwise, you’ll need to adopt a highly disciplined approach to squeeze every bit of juice out of your batteries. Turn off all unnecessary lights and appliances when not in use. A few guilty parities are the water pump, electric step, or exterior lights, which all subtly eat up the amps. Forgo the blow dryer and air conditioner, which are big electricity-users. Park in the shade, on hot days, to keep the refrigerator from overworking, but still keeping things cool onboard. Don’t keep playing with the slide-outs or spend the whole afternoon watching TV. Keep an eye on that monitor panel. You don’t want the batteries to drain to zero. Remember: In a pinch, a decent-length drive can partially recharge your coach battery when readings begin to wane.

Water World
Not everyone has a 100-gallon water tank. For everyone who doesn’t, it’s time to conserve, considering that water is critical for cooking, cleaning, and hydrating the crew. How else are you going to make Kool-Aid? Thankfully, fresh water is pretty easy to maintain and re-supply if you should run out (Quick Mart, anyone?) Still, shorter showers (remember the in-and-out style of the “Navy” shower) and minimizing hand washing (use hand sanitizers when possible) should maintain water levels. Don’t leave the water on when brushing teeth or washing dishes, either. If there are facilities nearby for showering and such, use them. And just think – the less water you use, the less goes into the holding tanks. It’s a win-win. A final thought: Just because no one may be able to see you doesn’t give you the right to dump the tanks during your boondocking adventures. We’re on our best behavior, right? Fifty gallons worth of spewing gray and black water is no way to repay someone for using his or her property.

LP gas is a pretty hardy resource, meaning it’s tough to run out if you have any decent-size tanks. However, our conservative approach should still be employed here as well. The best way to stretch the propane supply is to cook outdoors. A campfire is still the most fun and flavorful way to prepare a meal, a method that simply can’t be replicated in the RV’s oven no matter how you try. Snuffing out pilot light’s when not in use will stretch your supply even further. Otherwise, go easy on the furnace and water heater.

Overloading the RV is a bad thing. Running out of Mac N’ Cheese 30 miles from the nearest town isn’t too good, either. Dry-campers must walk the line between loading up and overloading, which is hopefully something that comes with experience. Spare canned goods, firewood, and portable cooking devices can go a long way when roughin’ it – provided they don’t tilt your vehicle into the overweight condition. If boondocking plans simply call for a night here and a night there, you probably won’t run out of food or supplies. However, if the campout is of the epic variety, be realistic about how much of everything you might need and how easy it will be to get more. Bring extra food and water, if need be, since a hungry group quickly falls into mutiny mode. A few other possible items to include: portable grill/cooking grate, charcoal, fishing poles and tackle box, extra blankets, alkaline batteries, cell phone, first aid kit, tool kits, hatchet/saw, manual can opener, cooking tools, and bug spray. And don’t head into the woods with the fuel tank on “E.” Chances are your generator will munch on some of the fuel and dry camping is no time to run out of gas.

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