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RV Camping Boondocking Etiquette

Boondocking in Nevada near Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Boondocking in Nevada near Lake Mead National Recreation Area

What Is Boondocking?

Boondocking is a term used by RVers that means camping in an area without services such as electricity, water, or sewer. Sometimes the term "boondocking" or "dry camping" also refers to camping without services in parking lots, rest areas, or other unconventional places. In all cases, boondocking is either free or costs very little.

Many RVers like to boondock for the obvious benefit — it saves money on campground fees. But there are other aspects of boondocking that are equally attractive. When boondocking on public land in areas where dispersed camping is allowed, you can choose a quiet spot far from the noise and lights of other campers. You can enjoy the quiet of nature, the dark sky sprinkled with stars, the birds in the trees, or unobstructed views of sunsets and sunrises.

By all means, enjoy the benefits of boondocking, and be aware of the unwritten rules of etiquette that will make you a welcome neighbor.

BLM Boondocking Rules

By far, the most beautiful boondocking sites are on Federal and public lands: BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, National Forests, State Forests, National Monuments, and others. Inexperienced boondockers may be hesitant about camping in these areas, not knowing quite what to do. If your camping experience is limited to developed campgrounds, you may have questions about what is appropriate.

Tips to Know

  • Setting up your rig. Unless you are joining a club or group, you should allow plenty of space between you and other rigs. If you have a generator, don't park near other rigs with solar panels if you can help it. Set up your seating and living area and try to keep your things neatly within that area.
  • Approaching others. If you're walking by, wave or say hello. If people seem inclined to pass the time of day, it's great to have a chat. However, be sensitive to others. Some people camp in the desert or the forest for solitude and would prefer to watch birds or read their books rather than have a conversation with every passer-by. Don't be annoying!

    On the other hand, most RVers are very willing to help if you have a question or a problem. Don't be afraid to ask where they get their water, mail, or groceries. They'll happily tell you.
  • Lights. Shut off your porch light, your spot lights, and your other outdoor lights at night when you aren't using them. One of the reasons people boondock is so that they can get away from the light pollution of towns and other campgrounds. Lights destroy the enjoyment of the night sky. You may think that your solar-powered blinking Christmas lights are cute, but don't count on everyone agreeing with you. If you feel that you need "scare" lights and bright spotlights for security reasons, then you are probably camping in the wrong place. You would probably feel more comfortable camping in a private campground with more lighting and people. And your boondocking neighbors will appreciate it!
  • Generator. Yes, you have a generator so that you can enjoy the comforts of home in your rig, but please be considerate of others who may be able to hear it running. Don't start it up too early in the morning or run it too late at night. Usually, running a generator for an hour or so in the morning and an hour or so in the evening is sufficient for doing your microwaving or vacuuming. Many areas have strict set hours when you can run a generator. Find out what they are and adhere to the rules.
  • Noise. Sound carries. Keep voices down, especially at night. If you have a radio outdoors, no one outside your campsite should hear it. In spite of how much you might enjoy it, not everyone wants to listen to NPR all day or country music all night.
  • Pets. Clean up after them! Even on acres of BLM land, you should pick up after your dog, and never dump kitty litter on the ground. Control your barking dog and never leave it in a closed vehicle. Temperatures can change quickly, especially in the desert. It would not be unusual for it to be 40° F in the morning and 80°F a few hours later. Keep your dog on a leash. It's also a good idea to keep your cat on a leash as many wild areas have coyotes who think cats and small dogs are a delicacy.
  • Drive slowly past other campers. One of the most fun things we do on BLM land is to explore the back roads and dirt tracks. If you do this, remember that you are raising dust, even on a calm day. Be considerate when driving past other people, campsites, or vehicles, and drive as slowly as possible to avoid sending up clouds of dust.
Saguaro cactus, BLM land, Quartzsite, AZ

Saguaro cactus, BLM land, Quartzsite, AZ

Decomposition Time of Trash

Leave your camping area cleaner than you found it! Trash takes a surprisingly long time to decompose, and arid climates will increase that time dramatically.

Here are some examples of decomposition time of common trash:

Glass Bottle.......................... Never


Monofilament Fishing Line... 600 years

Plastic Beverage Bottles...... 450 years

Tin Cans......................... 80 -100 years

Aluminum Can..................... 200 years

Foamed Plastic Cups......... 50 years

Rubber-Boot Sole............... 50-80 years

Leather................................ 50 years

Nylon Fabric........................ 30-40 years

Plastic Film Container........ 20-30 years

Plastic Bag......................... 10-20 years

Paper Bag.......................... 1 month

Plastic 6-pack rings,,,,,,,,,,,,,450 years

Cigarette Butt..................... 1-5 years

Waxed Milk Carton............ 3 months

Apple Core...................... 2 months

Newspaper....................... 6 weeks

Orange or Banana Peel...... 2-5 weeks

Paper Towel.................... 2-4 weeks

Respect the Environment

Respecting the environment is probably the most important thing you can do as a responsible citizen using public lands. As RVers, we use and enjoy public lands like National Parks and Seashores, BLM lands, National and State Forests, and Wildlife Refuges more than many other people. It is our responsibility to do our part to preserve them for future generations. The very first rule is:

  • Leave No Trace! Always leave your area cleaner than it was when you found it. Pick up litter, soda can tabs, and any plastic and dispose of it properly. Do not throw or burn trash in fireplaces. Do not throw cigarette butts on the ground anywhere! If you are a fisherman, never leave discarded fishing lines on the stream banks or the beach as it is a danger to birds, fish, and turtles.
  • Park in areas that have been used before. By not creating new paths or roads or campsites, you will be preserving the natural areas and the native vegetation. What looks like an area of dirt and barren stones could blossom into a patch of wildflowers in the spring.
  • Firewood. Different places have different rules regarding the collection of firewood. Some allow it and others do not. If you are in an area that does not allow firewood collection, don't do it. Dead and rotting wood provides a wildlife habitat and is often a source of food for wildlife that may be protected.

    There are also rules about bringing wood into certain states because of the possibility of spreading diseases. If you do bring wood in, burn it before you leave. Obey any regulations.
  • Fire. Because of the serious threat of forest fires or grass fires, many areas will have bans on open fires. Do obey them! When you are allowed to have a campfire, be sure you put it out with water before leaving it unattended. Do not throw cigarettes out of windows or on the ground as they are the start of many fires.
  • Wastewater. Dispose of wastewater according to the rules of the area where you camp. Never dump sewage on the ground.
  • Don't introduce invasive plants. Setting out bird feeders or scattering flower seeds around your long-term campsite may seem like a cute idea, but it is a good way to introduce invasive plants that can cause damage or crowd out the native plants. You might set out hummingbird feeders or a pan of water instead to attract birds without causing an environmental impact.
  • Don't attract pests. Another problem with setting out bird feeders is that dropped seed will attract mice and other pests. This in turn can attract the snakes that feed on them. It's far better to enjoy the birds in their native habitat than to have to worry about snakes around your campsite!

Parking Lot Boondocking or Dry Camping

Many RVers do not consider parking lot camping as "boondocking," but it is similar in that you will be without utilities, water, or sewer hookups. Generally referred to as "dry camping," most RVers will only park in a store or restaurant parking lot when they are en route to a destination and will only be sleeping in their rig for a night. By observing some general rules of conduct, you will help preserve the good reputation of the RVing community.

RV Etiquette in Parking Lots

There are several businesses that regularly welcome RVers who wish to park overnight in their parking lots, but there still may be city and county ordinances which prohibit overnight parking. Always read signs carefully and ask permission of the store manager before settling in for the night. Here are some other suggestions:

  • Park in areas away from store customers or in areas designated for RV parking.
  • Don't put out your slide, awning, or set out chairs or grills. You are parking, not camping.
  • Don't leave any litter around your rig, or leave on outdoor lights.
  • Do give the store or restaurant your business.
  • Don't put down jacks, especially in hot weather when they could damage a blacktop parking lot.
  • Limit your stay to one night.

Safety While RV Camping

  • Take sensible safety precautions, especially when parking lot camping. Always keep the doors of your rig and tow vehicle locked. Never leave valuables outside of your rig at night or when you are not around.
  • Keep valuables out of sight. Even when boondocking with many other RVers on BLM land, take reasonable precautions. While theft is unusual, it does happen occasionally. The most attractive items for thieves are portable generators, so, if you use one, put it away at night.
  • Keep garbage stowed out of reach of animals. Depending on where you are, you could attract coyotes, bears, raccoons, or other unwanted visitors to your campsite.
  • If you feel uncomfortable in an area, leave it! In eight years of RVing, there was only one instance where we felt unsafe in a place and that was a store parking lot late at night near a large city. We did leave it and spent the night in a brightly lit truck stop instead.

Keep Boondocking a Positive Experience

With thought and consideration, boondocking will be a good experience for everyone involved. Whether you are camping on public lands or private property, you are enjoying a privilege that can be taken away if it is abused. Respect other campers, the property owners, and the environment. Enjoy your time wherever you are, stay safe and....

Happy Trails!

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: Can you recommend resources to help find a great site?

Answer: You should be able to find good information through searches on the internet as well as in books. I use Camping on America's Public Lands quite a bit.

Question: What gift do I give a person who lets me boondock?

Answer: If you know they are wine drinkers, a bottle of wine is nice. I prefer to give something edible like candy, fancy jams, or maple syrup. If you do artwork or handicrafts, a small handmade item is nice, nothing too elaborate. It would also depend on how long you stayed on their property. If you used electricity and water, it might be appropriate to offer to pay for it.

Question: How hard is it to find dump sites near good boondocking sites?

Answer: It depends on where you are camping. The BLM camping areas around Quartzsite and Yuma both have places where you can dump and get water. In other, more remote places, you might have to travel a few miles to find a place to dump.

Question: I live in BC, Canada, and I plan on heading to LaPosa South around the end of September through the first week of October. Do you think this is good timing? Will it be too hot? Also, would it be a good time to find a camping site?

Answer: I have not been to LaPosa South in Quartzsite that early, but I think it will still be pretty hot there at that time. I know that some Canadians arrive in October. Also, there's not a whole lot going on that early, but if you're happy with just hanging out or exploring the countryside, that won't matter to you.

It is better to find a good camping spot when it's not so busy. Some of our friends arrive in late November or early December and say that very few campers are there yet. They enjoy the quiet but are also glad when jam sessions start and programs at the QIA begin in January.

© 2011 Stephanie Henkel