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Boondocking in the Arizona Desert

Stephanie, her hubby, and their two cats enjoy living and traveling full-time in their RV, often camping off-grid to stretch their budget.

Imperial Dam Recreation Area at Senator's Wash Reservoir

Imperial Dam Recreation Area at Senator's Wash Reservoir

Boondocking in Arizona During Winter

The term "boondocking," when used by the RVing community, refers to camping off the grid in remote areas far from the comforts of civilization. Usually done in dispersed camping areas without designated campsites, boondockers do not have utility, water, or sewer hookups. What they do have is lots of space, unlimited views, and a closeness to nature that is hard to beat. Boondocking is a whole different world that many have come to love.

RVing in the Arizona Desert

It's hard to explain to those who can't imagine life without the TV or electrical appliances, but boondocking allows RVers to explore remote areas and enjoy many aspects of nature that just can't be appreciated in a regular campground. We love to be able to camp alone in the wide-open spaces of the desert. It is in these special places that we can see the night sky unpolluted by the street lights and porch lights. We can sit outdoors at our campfire and listen to the coyotes howl. At sunrise or sunset, we can take our coffee and our camera to photograph the mountains lit up with color -- and no other campers are in our pictures!

There are a few things that make life easier for those who enjoy boondocking off the grid in their RVs. While we have learned to get along without hookups to utilities, we still enjoy modern conveniences in our motorhome as do those who camp in trailers, 5th wheels, and conversion vans. We still like some of our luxuries, especially when spending several months in the Arizona desert.

Camping at LaPosa LTVA.

Camping at LaPosa LTVA.

Beavertail cactus in bloom

Beavertail cactus in bloom

Saguaro Cactus

Saguaro Cactus

Camping at Imperial Dam LTVA.

Camping at Imperial Dam LTVA.

Make Boondocking More Comfortable

Below, I've listed a few things that experienced boondockers find useful for extended stays:

  • Generator: We use our generator to recharge cell phone and computer batteries, watch an occasional movie, and run the vacuum or microwave. The generator also helps recharge the RV batteries, though most of that is taken care of by running the coach motor every few days.
  • Extra water containers: If there's room, most RVers carry 5-gallon containers or a dozen or so plastic gallon jugs for extra drinking water. Although the free potable water at Long Term Visitor Areas is fine for washing and is safe to drink, the chemicals that are added to make it safe also make it taste pretty bad. For about 25 cents a gallon, you can purchase good drinking water at kiosks if you bring your own containers.
  • A refrigerator that runs on propane as well as electricity: A good refrigerator with a small freezer is a necessity.
  • Propane stove and portable propane grill: Although most RV kitchens are equipped with a gas range, cooking outdoors keeps a lot of the mess out of the RV. A small grill is especially handy as it saves having to clean messy pots and pans.
  • Solar Panels: More and more RVers who camp off the grid in the desert are installing solar panels on their RVs to take advantage of the power of the sun. Depending on the size and number of the panels, you can generate enough electricity to satisfy most of your needs without using a noisy generator. Although costly, once the initial purchase is made, the sun is free and the panels can be used where ever you get direct sunshine.
  • Propane hot water heater: You could get along without this by heating water on a stove, but the propane hot water heaters are super fast and efficient. We only run ours for about 10 minutes a day to get enough hot water for the day.
  • A stock of paper products: We try to use real dishes whenever possible, but scarcity of water while boondocking requires strict water conservation. We use recycled paper products (never plastic!) occasionally.
Desert sunset view from camp at La Posa LTVA.  Quartzsite, Arizona.

Desert sunset view from camp at La Posa LTVA. Quartzsite, Arizona.

Our campsite at La Posa LTVA.  Quartzsite, Arizona.

Our campsite at La Posa LTVA. Quartzsite, Arizona.

Day trip into the desert.  Another perfect Arizona day.

Day trip into the desert. Another perfect Arizona day.

Miner's camp in the hills near Quartzsite, Arizona.

Miner's camp in the hills near Quartzsite, Arizona.

Cholla (Teddy Bear) cactus in bud.  Desert near Quartzsite, Arizona.

Cholla (Teddy Bear) cactus in bud. Desert near Quartzsite, Arizona.

Desert Boondocking in Southern Arizona

Two of our favorite places to boondock are on Bureau of Land Management land (BLM) in the Arizona desert. The first is La Posa Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA) in Quartzsite, Arizona. This is a mecca for snowbirds who come to Arizona to enjoy the big RV show and the gem and mineral shows held in Quartzsite each winter. RVers can park as close or as far away from the crowds as they wish and still enjoy all of the activity of the town and the beauty of the desert.

La Posa LTVA at Quartzsite, Arizona

At the La Posa LTVA, you can stay for 14 days at a charge of $40 or 7 months for $180. This entitles you to choose a spot in any of 4 areas of dispersed camping and gives you access to trash bins, a dump station, and a water station. There are also short-term visitor sites in the area that are free for 14 days, but you do not have access to the water and dump stations at the BLM areas. Frugal RVers get around this by either paying to dump at the LTVA or heading over to one of the businesses in Quartzsite that provide dump stations and water.

We have found La Posa LTVA to be a perfect spot for winter desert camping. It's close enough to Quartzsite where we can take advantage of some of the free and cheap entertainment in town, particularly enjoying the entertainment at the Quartzsite Improvement Center. We also take advantage of the local flea markets and visit the rock and gem stores, the Gem and Mineral Shows, craft shows, and, of course, the RV show that attracts thousands in mid-January.

Our favorite activity, though, is to head out in our Jeep Wrangler to explore the many back roads around Quartzsite that lead into the hills. We've found miners' camps, abandoned gold mines, hidden springs, and interesting cactus and rocks in our explorations. Although we do carry a GPS, we've found that the more lost we get, the more interesting it is! Our rule is to always start with a full tank of gas, a good spare tire, and some basic tools. We stash a good lunch and snacks as well as an extra gallon of drinking water in the back with cameras, jackets, and binoculars. Local visitor centers can help with maps of the backcountry and give good advice on what to look for as you explore the desert.

RVers Go Green

I believe that boondocking RVers are some of the most conscientious conservationists. Out of necessity, we live a life of water conservation and conservation of resources. Part of the reason for this is that many of us are retired and living on a fixed income. While we love the boondocking life, we also love the fact that it costs very little. However, this lifestyle requires giving up some of the luxuries we've come to enjoy. Here are some luxuries boondockers must give up or cut back on:

Saving Water Is a Way of Life

  • Daily showers: Oh, no! Can we really live without our long hot showers every day? Yes, we can, and most boondockers do. If we didn't, we would be breaking camp every other day to dump and take on more water. Amazingly, we can get along on sponge baths from a small basin of water with maybe one nice hot shower every week or so. And usually, that shower is limited to less than 5 minutes!
  • Washing dishes under running water: Again, to conserve water, we always wash dishes in a small pan of hot water, and rinse in another small pan of cold water. The rinse water is usually saved for other washing.
  • Brushing teeth or shaving with running water: Brushing teeth is done with one small glass of water. Shaving is done with a small amount of hot water in a basin. No running water except to rinse the sink.
  • Paper products: It might seem convenient to use all paper products, but most of us only use paper for sandwiches or snacks. Often we brush off the paper plates to reuse. We never buy plastic disposables as we would not burn them in a campfire, and they fill up the trash too quickly. Paper towels are used occasionally for dirty jobs like soaking up grease from a pan or messy cleanups.
  • Laundry: Even those nice RVs that have their own washers and dryers have a problem using them because of the difficulty in getting water. Most of us use the town's laundromats every couple of weeks and we hand wash underwear and some lightweight clothes in between. One of the wonders of living in the desert is that things dry really quickly! Because it's not only a pain in the neck but also expensive to use the laundromat too often, we're all likely to wear our clothes several times before washing.
  • Electricity. Even with generators and solar panels, we need to be sure that our use of electricity doesn't exceed our ability to produce it. The best-case scenario is to use solar panels for power. Without solar panels, use coach lights for necessary lighting at night or use a solar-powered lantern. Charge batteries when the generator is running for other purposes or when the coach motor is running. Put away that electric coffee pot and other electric appliances!
  • Generator: Most boondockers do have a generator. One thing to remember is that every time you use it, you are introducing noise and pollution into an otherwise quiet and clean environment. We use our generator sparingly and try to be considerate of others as noise carries in the desert, and nothing is more annoying than to hear someone's motor running constantly. If you really need to watch TV all day, go to a private campground with electric hookups!
View of  hills near Imperial Dam Long Term Visitor Area near Yuma, Arizona.

View of hills near Imperial Dam Long Term Visitor Area near Yuma, Arizona.

Wild Burros visit the Hurricane Ridge camping area at  Imperial Dam Long Term Visitor Area near Yuma, Arizona.

Wild Burros visit the Hurricane Ridge camping area at Imperial Dam Long Term Visitor Area near Yuma, Arizona.

View of Imperial Dam from LTVA.

View of Imperial Dam from LTVA.

Ocotillo cactus blooming near Senator Wash.  Imperial Dam Long Term Visitor Area near Yuma, Arizona.

Ocotillo cactus blooming near Senator Wash. Imperial Dam Long Term Visitor Area near Yuma, Arizona.

Brittlebush blooming near Senator Wash.  Imperial Dam Long Term Visitor Area near Yuma, Arizona.

Brittlebush blooming near Senator Wash. Imperial Dam Long Term Visitor Area near Yuma, Arizona.

Imperial Dam Long-Term Visitor's Area

Imperial Dam LTVA Near Yuma, Arizona

The second area that we've come to really enjoy is the Imperial Dam LTVA near Yuma, Arizona. Located on the edge of the Imperial Valley. This area attracts hundreds of winter visitors who like it for its mild weather and laid-back lifestyle. Yuma is about 20 miles away. RVers like the proximity to shopping, repair shops, restaurants, and entertainment. Visitors also like the two flea markets in Yuma as well as the nearby Quechan casinos. The Yuma Proving Grounds facility, about six miles from Senator's Wash, allows campers to enter the military base to get gas and drinking water or use the restaurant, bowling alley, laundry facilities, and convenience store. Many visitors drive to the Mexican border and walk across the border into Algodones for shopping, lunch, dental work, and to pick up medications.

Imperial Valley garden farms are just a few miles away from the camping area. Watching the farm workers tending, picking, and packing truckloads of lettuce, broccoli, and other vegetables makes us appreciate our fresh food even more. There are also several date gardens where visitors can buy wonderful fresh dates to eat or send home. A treat to have at least once during a visit to this area is a date shake -- an ice cream shake with dates whipped into it.

The camping area is near the Colorado River Valley on the California side of the border. Dispersed camping can overlook the reservoir or be tucked into more secluded areas in the hills. While this is a popular area for snowbirds, there are areas where you can have a wonderful view as well as privacy. We enjoyed visits from resident burros who wandered close to our camp and sometimes saw coyotes and quail just a few feet away.

What to Do While There

Because of the relative isolation of the Imperial Dam LTVA, there are many places where you can go for a long hike in the desert or take a 4-wheel drive vehicle out exploring. We often packed a lunch and extra water and went out with our cameras to hunt the newly blooming wildflowers of the Arizona desert. Each time we went out, there was something new to see. On one very long ride into the backcountry, we finally found the remains of an old turquoise mine and picked up a few chips of turquoise to add to our collection of pretty stones and interesting rocks.

Because the Imperial Dam LTVA is in a remote location, campers often make their own fun. We often spent an afternoon listening to jam sessions at nearby camps, the guitars and folk songs a perfect accompaniment to the rustic surroundings. In one sheltered quarry, a book lover had set up a lending library in an old Airstream trailer. When I visited it one day, I found it stuffed with all kinds of reading material. Borrowing is very casual as readers are invited to take what they want and bring the books back when they're finished -- or bring something else in exchange. It works well as there are many avid readers who count on the library book exchange for their winter reading.

If you've never boondocked before, these two BLM areas are wonderful places to start. The campground hosts are very knowledgeable and always ready to give advice or help to newcomers. Do try it -- we'll be looking for you!

Questions & Answers

Question: We are looking at boondocking close to Yuma, Arizona. We heard that trucks come by and we can buy gas, water, and propane from them. Is any of this true?

Answer: We have not seen propane or water delivery in the Yuma boondocking areas where we've camped, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. If you camp in the Senator's Wash area, you can get water at the main registration area and propane at the Christian Service Center, but you'd have to drive your rig there. You have to drive to the military base for gas or go into Yuma.

In any case, you'd have to drive to the dump station or use a Blue Boy to take your waste to the dump station.

In Quartzsite, you can arrange for water delivery and sewage pumping service. I don't know about propane. I've never heard of gas delivery available at either place.

© 2010 Stephanie Henkel