Would you like to be self-sufficient in your RV?
The key to enjoying your boondocking or dry camping experience is becoming self-sufficient in your RV. Having that freedom and independence from the grid and full-hookups will change the way you RV, but it will require preparation and practice.
In this article I’ll give you tips and suggestions to help you overcome the situations and conditions you'll encounter while boondocking or dry-camping. Whether you have a motorhome, travel trailer, fifth wheel or camper van won't matter. Most of these dry camping tips will apply.
It has taken us several years to get to the point where we can camp comfortably without any hookups. Check out this video to hear how we got to where we are today.
Boondocking vs Dry Camping
Boondocking and Dry Camping generally refer to the same type of RVing. The only difference may be that boondocking is camping in remote undeveloped areas, where dry camping may be overnighting in a campground, parking lot, or anywhere without hookups. It doesn't matter what you call it really. In either case, you're RV is must be self sufficient and able to function without electrical, water, or sewer hookups.
Tips for Boondocking In Comfort
We picked up many of these tips from fellow RV travelers sharing their knowledge and experiences with us. The rest we learned simply through trial and error.
These aren't in any particular order. So feel free to click on anything that interests you.
- Know Your RV's Capabilities and Limitations
- How To Conserve Water
- How Much Battery Capacity Do You Need?
- How To Charge Your Batteries with Solar or Gas Generator
- How to Accurately Monitor Black and Gray Water Tanks
- How to Get A Better Cellular Signal In Remote Areas
- Essential Boondocking Gear
- How to Stay Warm and Use Minimal Electricity
- How to Stay Cool Without Your Air Conditioner
- How To Find Boondocking Sites
- Prepare for Problems and Failures
Know Your RV's Capabilities and Limitations
The first step to self-sufficiency is to fully understand the capabilities and limitations of your RV. You should be able to answer these questions:
- What is the capacity of your water tank?
- What is the capacity of your black and grey water tank?
- What is the capacity of your battery bank?
- How do you plan to recharge your battery bank?
- Do you need or have the ability to generate A/C power?
I suggest taking your RV out on a short camping weekend and live in it for a couple days without hookups. Do not venture too far from home on this one. The point of this outing is to determine your daily needs and the limitations of your RV. Take note of the following:
- How much water did you use per day?
- How much battery power did you use per day?
- What equipment were you able to use?
- What equipment were you not able to use?
When you return you should have a good idea of what your daily needs are and how your RV is able to satisfy those needs. My advice is not to let yourself our spouse get discouraged. What you learn from this experiment will help identify improvements to make so that your next outing is even better. Each time you make improvements, take another outing to test it out.
Prioritize your to-do list based on your budget and preferred amenities. Keep in mind that some of the upgrades you may want to make (like adding solar) can be done in stages. It took me four years to get our solar off-grid setup just the way I wanted. As our power needs became clearer, I scaled up and reworked my setup until I had just right.
Upgrade in Stages - Had I simply dumped a bunch of money upfront into solar upgrades, I probably would NOT have gotten what I ultimately needed or ended up with
So consider starting small, experiment, learn and make improvements when you can. You will end up with an RV that more closely suits your needs that way and spend less money doing it.
How To Conserve Water In Your RV
Once you’ve done some experimentation, you probably realized that there are some limitations. You may have also figured out that power and water are the most precious resources when camping without hookups. So let us talk about the water.
Water has to be the more precious of the two resources since we can survive just fine without electrical power
Conservation is key when it comes to prolonging your water supply. Developing smart water conservation habits will go a long way to prolonging your water supply. Unfortunately, this will probably be the most difficult adjustment you may have to make.
Taking long showers and letting the water faucet run while washing dishes or brushing your teeth are sacrifices you will have to make in order to preserve water. With practice though, these habits become second nature and you will quickly realize how much water you actually waste at home.
Here are several tips for conserving water while camping without hookups that will enable you to stretch your water capacity beyond what you thought was possible.
How Much Battery Capacity Do You Need?
Unless you plan to run your generator all day, your battery bank will be your primary source of electricity while dry camping. If you're a new RV owner, you will probably underestimate how much power you'll need throughout the day and night to be comfortable.
This may even be your first time using a deep cycle battery. So it's natural to assume that huge battery will power your RV for days? Not true.
Have you ever been left puzzled when faced with a low battery after a few hours or evening of use. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. It is very common.
Without a battery monitoring system, there's no way to know how much power you are using in the RV or how much reserve battery capacity you have left.
Every boondocking setup should include a battery monitoring system (with or without solar). It should be the first thing you install. I'm not talking about that gauge your RV came with that shows you the battery voltage. Reading the voltage does not tell you how much power you're using or have available.
An RV battery monitoring system uses a device called a shunt to measure energy flowing in and out of your battery bank. That information is processed by the battery monitor to give you the TRUE status of your battery bank and power consumption.
I have the SIMARINE PICO Battery Monitor System in our RV which makes it very easy to see the status of our battery bank. Here's a picture of the battery screen where we can quickly see how much battery capacity we have available and the energy consumption at that time.
There are some good units on the market to choose from. Here's a list of the top RV Battery Monitors available in 2018-2019 to help you select the right one for you. Bluetooth, WiFi and remote mobile access are some key features I look for now.
Your newly purchased RV is probably ill-equipped for boondocking. Most have a single 100 Amp Hour deep-cycle battery which is inadequate for off-grid use. Expanding your battery bank with probably be necessary. In the last 10 years, I’ve upgraded my battery bank multiple times. 450 amp hours seems to be the right amount of capacity for us, but it took some trial and error to figure that out.
Without getting too scientific about it, I can tell you that you're probably going to fall into one of these standard battery bank configurations:
Common Battery Bank Configurations
- 200 Amp Hours (good for occasional dry camping providing you can recharge daily)
- 400 Amp Hours (great setup for long term dry camping providing more than one day of power)
- 600+ Amp Hours (serious boondocking or full-timer setup)
Keep in mind that these configurations consist of multiple deep cycle batteries wired together to operate as one large battery.
Here is a video showing how I wired my 450 Amp Hour battery bank using 4 x 6 volt deep cycle batteries.
Deep Cycle Battery Types
Deep cycle batteries vary in price and characteristics. The most common choices are:
- Flooded Lead Acid Batteries are the most common, least expensive battery option that require some routine maintenance to check and refill electrolyte.
- AGM (Absorbed Glass Matt) Batteries are a step up from flooded lead acid batteries. At about double the price, AGMs provide steady power with no maintenance required.
- Lithium Batteries are becoming a popular option due to their light weight, steady high power output capability, and extended lifespan. Lithium batteries have a much higher up-front cost but could last three times longer (more recharge cycles) than lead-acid batteries.
TIP: Your usable battery capacity of a lead acid battery is actually 50% of the rated amp hours (e.g. a 100 Ah battery will give you approximately 50 Ah of usable capacity). This is because you don’t want to discharge deep cycle lead acid batteries below 50% in order to prolong their life. The usable capacity of a lithium battery is 80% of the rated amp hours.
INVERTER TIP: If you plan to use a high output power inverter to run things like a microwave or hair dryer, you should consider going with AGM or Lithium batteries with roughly 400 amp hours of capacity. Larger loads such as these could draw your battery output down below usable levels and shut off your inverter.
Whether you’re simply looking to keep some lights on or fully power your RV, a basic understanding of battery capacity and power management is essential.
How to Charge Your Batteries With Solar or Power Generator
Any off-grid RV power system must include a plan for maintaining and charging your battery bank. The two most common solutions are to:
- Use a generator and on-board charger to recharge your batteries
- Use solar panels and solar charge controller to recharge your batteries
Charging Deep Cycle Batteries With A Gas Generator
Charging batteries from a generator is very common. Despite the growing popularity of solar power, generators provide a consistent power source for your RV. When used with a good multi-stage battery charger or on-board RV converter charger unit, a generator is a reliable option. The downside is that generators are noisy and need a steady supply of gasoline.
Many RV owners typically fire up their onboard 4000 watt Onan multiple times per day for power and battery charging. Not wanting to be “the guy running his loud generator all day“, they may run the generator for only 30 minutes or an hour at a time. What they don’t realize is that it often takes several hours to bring a battery bank up to a full charge. So they will never get close to a full state of charge that way.
Many seasoned RVers use a smaller and quieter portable generator that can run for hours on a gallon of gas. They will use it to power a multi-stage battery charger to recharge their batteries. This is also a great backup option for those of us with solar. On rainy or very cloudy days our solar charging capabilities mayt be limited.
Using Solar Panels for Battery Charging
Many believe their RV equipment is powered by solar when dry camping. This is a common misconception. Your primary power source is your battery bank. The purpose of adding solar to an RV is to recharge your battery bank, not to power your RV. Many ask “how many solar panels do I need to power my …?“. The question should be “how much battery capacity do I need…?” You would be surprised how often I get asked the first question.
So how do you know if solar is right for you?
If you plan to do a lot of remote camping, then a solar charging system is something you should consider. Powered by the sun, a solar charging system can recharge your batteries indefinitely. Whenever the sun is shining your solar panels will be generating power. Your batteries will be charging even while you are away from your RV.
Most RVs though do not come with solar charging components installed. Some RVs are marketted as Solar Ready which simply indicates that some pre-wiring may have been done. So what is the best way to get started with solar?
The least expensive way to get started with solar is to purchase a portable solar panel kit. No costly installation is required. You simply connect it to your battery when you need it and store it when you don’t.
To learn more start with our Frequently Asked Questions about RV Solar.
- Generating power while boondocking or dry camping
- The Solar Charging System Components on our RV
- Frequently Asked Questions about RV Solar
How To Monitor Black and Gray Water Tanks
Water from showering, dish washing, and hand washing will typically cause your RV gray water tank to fill up before your black tank. So keep an eye out for that. Also keep in mind that your waste water (gray water) tank is probably larger than your fresh water tank. So it will generally not get full unless you are adding more fresh water.
For shorter stays, an overflowing waste water tank is not a major concern. If you plan to replentish your water supply during longer stays, you will have to monitor your waste water capacity.
How full is too full? Keep and eye on the shower drain (typically the lowest point). If it starts backing up, that’s an indicator of a full gray water tank.
How to Get a Better Cellular Signal in Remote Areas
Cell phone and mobile data coverage is often weak or non-existent in remote areas. You're certainly not going to have access to WiFi, so you'll have to rely primarily on a mobile connection. For that reason, we use a mobile 4G signal booster to ensure we have the strongest possible signal. Even if you enjoy being unplugged while remote camping, it's still reassuring having access to loved ones and emergency services. There are several cellular signal boosters available from manufacturers like weboost.
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With our weboost Mobile Booster we have been able to generate a 4G signal strong enough to stream video even in areas where there was little to no signal. Having this option has allowed us to camp longer in beautiful remote locations and still stay connected.
Essential Boondocking Gear
How to Stay Warm And Use Minimal Electricity
In colder climates, staying comfortable can be a challenge with limited electrical power. Electric heaters use way too much power, so the best option is to use propane heat. If you have sufficient battery capacity, using the onboard propane furnace periodically is an option. Be aware that the blower fan on your propane furnace draws a bit of DC power while heating. When possible, consider heating only a portion of the RV.
A small propane heater like the Mr Heater Buddy and Mr Heater Big Buddy portable propane heaters are great for heating small spaces. They are safe to operate indoors and use disposable propane canisters. They can also be connected to a larger propane tank using a direct connect hose kit.
At bedtime, the best way to stay warm is to use a small electric blanket to warm up your bed before climbing in. I use one of these inexpensive blankets on a regular basis.
Finally, if being cold just isn’t your thing, then a full-hookup campsite may be your best bet. Of course, you could always do the snowbird thing and head south to warmer climate.
How to Stay Cool Without an Air Conditioner
Staying cool in hot climates can be difficult and costly in terms of electrical consumption. Running a power generator and air conditioner for prolonged periods is simply not a sustainable option when dry camping. This is especially true if running off of solar.
Experienced desert boondockers use these strategies to keep the RV from overheating in moderately warm areas. Cooling a hot RV down can be very difficult. Therefore, the goal is to prevent the RV from getting hot in the first place by creating shade, repositioning the RV, and creating sufficient ventellation.
Even by following these tips, you may still find the heat or humidity too uncomfortable. When that happens, consider moving to a higher elevation or a full-hookup site.
How To Find Boondocking Sites
When you're ready test your boondocking skills, you'll need to find campsites and boondocking spots. There are a lot of free campgrounds and public land in the western states to camp, but not as much in the Eastern U.S.
This is why many flock to the southwest in the winter where temperatures are moderate, open country is abundant, and camping is often free. Of course, you'll still need to know where you're allowed to camp. This is where sites like Campendium and apps like Google Maps and US Public Lands are very helpful.
Here is my short list of websites and mobile apps I use to find campsites and camper reviews.
- Campendium - The Campendium website is a great free resource for campsites of all kinds. Many are free. What I like best about Campendium are the reviews and photos posted by visitors including cell phone signal strength and carrier.
- Google Maps and Google Earth - I use Google Maps extensively to scout for potential sites and to examine the campsites and access roads from the satellite view. Google maps is also great for mapping your own list of campsites.
- FreeCampsites.net - Freecampsites.net is another free resource. It's not as polished and full-featured as Campendium, but it has a map and is still a good alternate source.
- Harvest Hosts - Harvest Hosts is a subscription directory of mostly wineries, breweries and farms that have agreed to allow you to stay overnight for free. Harvest Hosts charges an annual fee to use their service, but it's a great way to experience an area off-the-beaten-path. Most of these locations have no hookups whatsoever, but some do. Most folks have a great experience with their hosts and it is recommended that you buy some wine, beer or produce while you're there.
- RV Park Reviews - RV Park Reviews lists mostly RV parks but also includes many campgrounds that are often free with and without hookups. It is a great source of camper reviews though. I've found it very useful when researching a specific campground.
- US Public Lands App - This mobile app developed by Technomadia (available on IOS or Android) provides map overlays of various public land boundaries to help figure out who owns the land where your camped. You don't want to find out you're camped on private property or in an unauthorized area. It relies on publicly available map layers, which can often be outdated. Still, information of this type is often hard to find. So it's a great resource when you're searching for a spot.
I suggest using all of these services and populating your own personalized Google Map that you can call up on your cell phone. Each time you hear about a great campsite or boondocking site, drop a point on your map and give it a label with some information. When you're in an area you can see what sites are in your vicinity on your Google Map App and even get directions.
You'll also find that the best campsite information will come from fellow RV travelers. RVers love to share photos of their favorite spots with other RVers. I highly recommend supporting your favorite bloggers and vloggers on their social media channels for many reasons...this being one.
Finally, if you happen to find a great spot, don't keep it a secret. Share it. Please!
Prepare for Problems and Failures
Lastly, being properly prepared for your remote dry camping experience is extremely important and will give you peace of mind as you enjoy the great outdoors.
- What if your RV or truck breaks down?
- What are the essential tools to keep on hand?
- What spare parts should you keep handy?
- Do you know how the basic systems in your RV function?
- What will you do in an emergency situation?
Having good working knowlege of your RV systems will come in handy should something fail to work properly. If prepared, you might be able to come up with a suitable workaround or even repair a minor problem. Also you should have some way to contact someone for help if you need it.
Here are a few recommendations:
- Make sure your RV is running properly before heading out
- Keep the right tools on-hand (have the ability to make minor repairs)
- Understand how things work for when they don’t (fixes are often simple)
- Let people know where you are going (in case of emergencies)
- Have a backup plan (tow car, ability to call someone, or camp with friends)
I recommend going through a dry camping checklist prior to venturing off.
Give It A Try
Hopefully, these skills, suggestions and tips will help guide you towards achieving self-sufficiency in your own RV. Like many things, it takes practice and preparation.
Do you have any questions, comments or tips of your own? Please leave them below.