RV Living off the Grid on Arizona's BLM Land

Updated on November 4, 2017
Stephanie Henkel profile image

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

RV Camping at Quartzsite With Solar Power

Camping is free in the 14-day BLM area on Plomosa Road near Quartzsite with solar panels up on the roof and wash on the "solar" dryer.
Camping is free in the 14-day BLM area on Plomosa Road near Quartzsite with solar panels up on the roof and wash on the "solar" dryer. | Source

RV Living Off the Grid

Styles of RV living range from luxury motor homes in RV resorts to living off the grid in modest RVs in wilderness areas. Like pioneers in their covered wagons, thousands of RVers head to Quartzsite, Arizona, to spend their winters RVing off the grid. While they may live in more luxury than their predecessors, RVers who stake out a little temporary home in the desert around Quartzsite are still pioneers in their own way.

They come to the Arizona desert to set up camp in dispersed camping areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and often live off the grid (known as boondocking) without hookups to utilities, water or sewer for three to six months. A six month permit costs less than a week at a moderate private campground.

Bargain Camping on Arizona's BLM Land

Boondocking Bargains

Boondocking on Arizona BLM land is one of the best bargains around. The 14-day areas are free while the long term camping areas offer an unbelievably low seasonal rate of $180 for six months. Compared to camping in one of the many private campgrounds that’s an incredible bargain.

Thousands of RV snowbirds come to Quartzsite prepared to live without water, electric or sewer hookups. For novice off the grid RVers, this might look like a daunting undertaking. If you are now wondering why the heck anybody would want to do this, then you might also have a lot of questions about how it’s done.

Thousands Camp Cheaply in Quartzsite

Cheap camping in Quartzsite
Cheap camping in Quartzsite | Source

Why Camp Off-the-Grid?

  • It's really cheap!
  • It's good for the environment.
  • It feels good to be self-sufficient!
  • It saves energy.
  • It uses readily available solar and wind power as power sources.
  • It allows campers to camp in more private areas untethered by power cords and cables.

Some RVers Boondock Off Grid At Quartzsite For 3 to 6 Months

Boondocking for three to six months is a very long time to go without electricity or modern conveniences. How do they do it? Well, most RVers have figured out some way to have their cake and eat it too.

They come prepared with solar panels, windmills, generators, propane heaters, solar and battery operated electronics. They’ve also learned to conserve energy, using their backup electrical systems only when necessary.

The Sun Shines Bright On Quartzsite

The sun shines bright on Quartzsite where there are seldom any overcast days. It's a perfect place to make solar power..
The sun shines bright on Quartzsite where there are seldom any overcast days. It's a perfect place to make solar power.. | Source

Use Solar Panels to Power Your Rig

Living off Grid With Solar Power

The best things in life are free! And free sunshine is plentiful in southern Arizona. RVers camping in the desert often use solar panels to generate electricity they need for conveniences like lights, TV and powering their battery operated electronics. Recently, more solar powered gadgets are available that just need to be set out in the sun to work for several hours at a time. Solar powered lanterns, weather radios and battery chargers for cell phones and small electronics are well suited to this lifestyle.

Diehard boondockers, the RVers who love to camp in the wide open spaces of the desert, seek out public lands where they can live off the grid. They save their money to spend on fascinating pastimes and exciting explorations rather than expensive campgrounds. Some of their solar set-ups are complex and expensive, while others manage with a simple configuration and one or two solar panels.

Making Solar Power With Two Solar Roof Panels

Two solar roof panels charge batteries in the lower compartments. Stored power can be used for lights, TV and charging computer batteries.
Two solar roof panels charge batteries in the lower compartments. Stored power can be used for lights, TV and charging computer batteries. | Source

How Many Solar Panels Will You Need?

The answer to this is complicated because needs and expectations are different for different people. Someone in a forty-foot motor home will need/want more panels than the couple in a twenty-five-foot rig. Those who want to run their microwave and TV will require much more power than people who just want lights at night.

Start With One or Two Solar Panels

The good thing is that you can start with one or two panels and add more later as you determine your needs. We purchased two used 80-watt solar panels two years ago along with an inverter and a controller/booster. We use four 6-volt golf cart batteries to store the electricity. By pacing our usage, this set-up will run the lights in the motor home all evening, charge up one of our computers and usually run our TV for a couple of hours. After some trial and error, we learned how to use our stored power to best advantage.

Solar panels, like other technology, is becoming more affordable all the time. Now, four years after purchasing our first used solar panels, we can purchase a new one from Amazon for about half the price.

If you are thinking of buying solar panels, go to a reputable dealer and get someone who knows what they're talking about to help you figure out what you need and assist with initial setup. Do your research, or talk to some of the old hands who have been camping around Quartzsite for years. Some of these guys know more than the “experts” who sell the stuff!

Get Off-the-Grid With Wind Power

Windmills Are Another Great Source of Free Electricity

Like the sunshine, wind is free. Although not as popular as solar panels, portable windmills are also a common sight on the BLM campgrounds around the desert. Some people hedge their bets with both solar and wind power. If the sun doesn’t shine, it’s likely that the wind will blow anyway! Again, it’s a good idea to have someone experienced help you get started if you’re considering a wind mill for generating electricity.

Pros and Cons of Energy Sources When Camping Off-Grid

 
Pros
Cons
 
Solar Panels
Work great in sunny weather
May not work as well with heavy cloud cover
 
 
Quiet and free to operate once it's set up
Needs professional setup
 
 
A couple of panels with an inverter will run lights, tv and charge computers
Energy needs to be used carefully or batteries will drain at night.
 
 
Larger setups and more panels will run appliances and AC units
More panels and larger setups are significantly more expensive
 
Wind Power
A light breeze will keep the windmill running
Too little wind and the windmill won't turn. Too much and you have to shut it down to prevent damage.
 
 
Works day or night, rain or shine
Windmills may be heard inside the RV and even at adjoining sites if you have close neighbors
 
 
Windmill must be set up and taken down each time you change campsites
Initial cost may be more than solar
 
Generator
Convenient to use, especially the onboard type which just takes the push of a button
Off-board generators must be set on the ground making them targets for theft
 
 
Depending on size, will usually run any appliances, lights and electronics without a problem
Can use a gallon of gas per hour, making it costly
 
 
Work in any weather, day or night
Newer on-board generators are quiet, but older ones are noisy inside and out. May be a nuisance to neighbors.
 
 
In motorhomes, generators use gas from your gas tank, so you don't have to worry about fueling them
If you run your generator a lot, you can deplete your fuel supply too far in the motorhome
 
 
 
Some areas limit use of generators to certain hours.
 
There are pros and cons to each type of energy production. Many rigs use more than one, i.e. solar or wind and a back-up generator. Choose what's right for you.

Solar Vs. Wind

RVers often choose solar power over wind power for these reasons: a) Solar panels will generate power in minimal sunlight while windmills need a certain amount of wind, not too weak and not too strong, in order to work properly, and b) Solar panels are easier to put up and down and often they will store right on the roof. Windmills, especially the larger ones, need a good anchor and guide wires to keep them stable.

Solar Appliances and Gadgets

With a bit of research, you can find many useful solar powered gadgets and appliances that will help you in your efforts to unplug from the grid.

In the sunny southwestern states, campers cook with solar ovens, light their nights with solar lanterns, and even charge their electronics with solar powered chargers. Be creative and investigate these options.

Tips to Conserve Energy

Conserving water, fuel and energy is a way of life for boondockers in the desert. Here are some of the ways they survive while unplugged:

  • Only heat water when you need it. If you need a small amount for doing dishes, heat a little on your stove rather than turning on the hot water heater.
  • Wear clothes several times before laundering. Hang towels to dry after use, and use more than once.
  • Hand wash smaller items like socks and underwear and hang to dry outdoors. Desert air will dry them in a jiffy.
  • Charge computers and electronics during mid-day if using solar power so that you aren't depleting your storage batteries.
  • Switch out incandescent bulbs for LED bulbs in your RV.
  • Turn off extra lights and outdoor lights when not needed.
  • Don't run your generator unless you need it. (Also, be considerate of people who might be bothered by the noise!)
  • Use a thermos to keep coffee or tea hot rather than re-heating it through the day.

Other Sources of Power

There are many who live off the grid without either solar or wind power. They usually bring generators to power their microwaves and lights, and sometimes TVs and other appliances. The drawback to generators is that they are noisy, they depend on fossil fuels, and they cost money to operate. The high price of gas is making people think twice about using their generators more than very short periods of time.

Purists might tell you that you don’t need any of that stuff. You can see by the light of the lantern, you can sit around the campfire at night rather than watch TV. Get an extra blanket or sleeping bag for warmth! You don’t need any of those fancy electronics when you have the sun in the morning and the moon at night!

Living Off Grid In an RV

Would you live in an RV in the desert without electricity for 3 to 6 months?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Stephanie Henkel

    Comments? What Do You Think About Living Off Grid in an RV?

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      • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Henkel 

        3 years ago from USA

        Mr-B - If we buy a permit for the long term visitor area, we can dump and also fill our water tanks with potable water. There are also a couple of places around town where you can fill your water tanks (for a price). Our RV fresh water tank holds 70 gallons. If we are careful with it, we can last about 10 days. If you take showers often in your RV, you'll need to fill up more often and you'll need to dump more often. Smaller RVs usually have smaller storage tanks, so you may need to dump and fill up more often. We don't drink water from our tanks, though, just use it for washing and flushing. We buy separate drinking water in bulk for 5 gal./$1 at water stations in town and store in our separate water storage containers. We use about 1-2 gallons a day for drinking and making coffee. Just a note that some people do drink the water from their fresh water tanks, we just don't like it. If you do that, you'll need to be sure that your tanks are sanitized occasionally.

      • profile image

        Mr-B 

        3 years ago

        Great article! Thank you for sharing! Are you able to fill your water tanks with potable water when and where you dump? Also, how much water do you need/use on weekly basis, and is there enough storage built in to the rv to accommodate your needs, or do you have extra water storage of some kind? Thank you!

      • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Henkel 

        5 years ago from USA

        Availiasvision - I'm a great fan of Leonard Knight ever since I met him at Salvation Mountain a few years ago. I have heard that he's improving and that he just had laser surgery on his eyes that was very successful. I think that there is now a group taking care of Salvation Mountain. There's a Facebook page on Salvation Mountain that has updates regularly. I do hope that his art will be preserved as it is so unique. I will have to look for your articles...

      • Availiasvision profile image

        Jennifer Arnett 

        5 years ago from California

        I'm glad to see another Salvation Mountain fan. Isn't it such a unique place. Sadly, it may not be around for the next few decades. Leonard is in a nursing home and there is no one to keep the place up. I've heard rumors of weeds popping up. I was given a personal tour by Leonard and found him to be a truly amazing and gifted man. I have written articles on the fate of Salvation Mountain, as well as the plight of the Salton Sea.

      • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Henkel 

        5 years ago from USA

        Availiasvision - We do love camping off the grid, and there are many places to do that in Arizona,California and other Western states. Yes, we have visited Slab City, and in fact, I wrote an article about it and about Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain.

        When we plan to boondock, we always check ahead of time on the availability of disposal stations. While camping in Quartzsite or Imperial Dam Recreation Area, we use the central dump stations where we can either drive our RV or take our portable tanks to dump. With careful planning, we only need to dump every week to 10 days. Some popular BLM areas also have mobile services that will come to your campsite and pump your tanks or bring you water. There are also dump stations at some gas stations and truck stops and some towns have a place where you can dump for a fee.

      • Availiasvision profile image

        Jennifer Arnett 

        5 years ago from California

        I'm glad to see that some are taking advantage of the freedom to live off grid in the West. Have you been to Slab City in California? It's a free snowbird city on the Salton Sea.

        How do you dispose of waste?

      • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Henkel 

        6 years ago from USA

        Xenonlit - Although I grew up in the Northeast, I've come to love Arizona and other Southwestern states. RVing off the grid in Quartzsite is a wonderful way to spend time in the desert and gives us lots of time and opportunity to explore. Thanks for stopping in to comment

      • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Henkel 

        6 years ago from USA

        Brett.Tesol - Like many people, we started RVing after retirement and enjoy spending time off the grid in places like Quartzsite. Once you're set up for it, RVing off the grid is a cheap, fun way to spend the winter in a warmer climate. Thanks for stopping in to comment and thanks for the share!

      • Xenonlit profile image

        Xenonlit 

        6 years ago

        Nice! I so love Arizona and camping sounds fine.

      • Brett.Tesol profile image

        Brett Caulton 

        6 years ago from Asia

        I love the idea of doing this in the future, when I'm no longer in the 9-5 routine of things. Your tips are good for anyone considering this!

        Thanks for SHARING.

      • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Henkel 

        7 years ago from USA

        Hi Will - Don't you love it! We've only been using solar panels since last year, but I love getting our power from the sun and not having to run the generator. It still feels like magic when we're boondocking! It's nice to see you here - thanks so much for stopping in!

      • WillStarr profile image

        WillStarr 

        7 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

        I have friends who boondocked in Quartzsite for several years. They now live in Idaho, and I just spoke to them yesterday.

        I've installed solar panels, a charger, and six volt batteries. I can run TV, satellite, and lights every day, if I don't overdo it.

      • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Henkel 

        7 years ago from USA

        Eiddwen - Thanks for stopping by to read about Quartzsite and RVing off the grid. It's definitely a culture all its own, and anyone who RVs should see it at least once, whether or not they camp there. Glad you enjoyed the read. Thanks for your comments and votes.

      • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Henkel 

        7 years ago from USA

        festersporling - Camping off the grid is not everyone's cup of tea, but I'm glad you enjoyed reading about it! Thanks for stopping by!

      • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Henkel 

        7 years ago from USA

        Femmeflashpoint - The first time we went to Quartzsie, I was amazed at the number of RVs there who were boondocking in the desert. Amazingly, there are as many high priced motor homes camping off the grid as there are very modest RVs. It is a place where you could find a quiet spot to enjoy nature and write if you wanted to. Thanks for stopping in to read my hub!

      • Eiddwen profile image

        Eiddwen 

        7 years ago from Wales

        I really enjoyed this one Stephanie and your obvious hard work did really pay off.

        I have to vote up and look forward to reading many more by you.

        Eiddwen.

      • festersporling1 profile image

        Daniel Christian 

        7 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

        That sounds awesome. I am more of a hotel guy, but that sounds great.

      • profile image

        femmeflashpoint 

        7 years ago

        Excellent article Stephanie!

        I'd never heard of Quartzsite, nor did I realize people did much camping off the grid in RVs.

        This was wonderfully informative article, and never know, I might even like it if I tried it. Sounds like a little work, but it'd be a great way to get some work done in some beautiful surroundings!

      • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Henkel 

        7 years ago from USA

        Diogenes - We are lucky that there are still many wide open spaces in the west and southwest where we can go to camp very cheaply. It's not possible to camp this cheaply in the east where there is no BLM land, though the National Forest campgrounds are also reasonable.

        I love the term "wild campers"! It sounds very adventurous and exciting! Perhaps you could go with portable water wheels? :)

      • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Henkel 

        7 years ago from USA

        JS Matthews - Although some solar panels are permanently installed on RV roofs, other people carry them in their compartments and just set them up on the ground in the sun. They're pretty lightweight and portable, and using them this way makes it easy to keep them if you should trade in your RV. If you want to "go green" before you're ready to trade up, you might want to look into doing something like this that's less permanent. Glad you enjoyed the article! Happy trails!

      • profile image

        diogenes 

        7 years ago

        To use a delightful misappropism, you Americans got it 'made in the shade!' What a lovely word, "boondockers" We say "wild-campers" here. You have so many opportunities in the US, denied to all in Britain...we need someone to invent "rain panels" What you pay for 6 months in Arizona they charge for a week here...Bob

      • J.S.Matthew profile image

        JS Matthew 

        7 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

        This is an awesome article! I have a small camper and wanted to convert it to "Green" but it is a 1973 and I don't think it is worth it. Someday I will get a nice big RV with solar and wind energy and head West! Very well done. Great Photos! This should be a Hub of the Day!

        JSMatthew~

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