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 Living Off-Grid
Styles of RV living range from luxury motorhomes in RV resorts to living off-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-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-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 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-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.
Why Camp Off-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 for Three to Six 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, and solar and battery-operated electronics. They’ve also learned to conserve energy, using their backup electrical systems only when necessary.
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 the 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-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.
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.
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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 our best advantage.
Solar panels, like other technology, are 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!
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 to help you get started if you’re considering a windmill for generating electricity.
Pros and Cons of Energy Sources When Camping Off-Grid
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
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
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.
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-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 for 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!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: Where do you dump your black water and grey water when you're boondocking?
Answer: If you are boondocking on BLM land, there are usually dump stations at the check-in area where you can either drive your rig to dump or take your "blue boy" to dump. Depending on your permit, you may have to pay to dump. The LTVA permits in Arizona include use of the dump stations and allow you to fill your water tanks. You can also find dump stations at some service stations or county or city sites. Usually there is a fee and sometimes they are several miles from where you are camping.
Some people don't like to move their rigs once they are set up for the season and will contact a service to pump out their tanks. Availability of these services will depend on how far away from civilization you are. These tank trucks are called "honey wagons" and will empty your tanks in a few minutes for about $20 or $25. There are also services that come to fill your water tank for a fee. Because of the fees and inconvenience, water conservation is extremely important.
When boondocking in other places, it is wise to scout out possible dump stations and places to fill water tanks before heading out. Always head into a boondock area with empty grey and black water tanks and full water tanks.
© 2011 Stephanie Henkel