Twenty Years of Boondocking -
What has Changed?

I'm in a reflective mood. It's hard to believe we've been RVing and boondocking for more than twenty years! I know, eh? I thought it might be fun to list some of the changes we've seen over that time - those that relate specifically to boondocking.

Here’s my list. Some are positive changes, others not. Feel free to add any you think I've missed by commenting below.

  1. The word itself.

    Years ago, not many people we met, including experienced RVers, recognized the word, boondocking. Even when they were, in fact, doing it! Various interpretations of the word exist and can rouse a lively argument around any campfire.

    The definition has evolved with common usage. Originally, boondocking only referred to RVs parking/camping in free, remote, wilderness locations, far from civilization, without neighbours, facilities, or resources except for those you brought along yourself.

    What’s changed? To the dismay of purists, the word is now also used to describe any type of free, overnight, RV parking including truck stops, parking lots, driveways, and rest areas.

    Blactop Boondocking

    Blacktop boondocking at a rest area

    Boondocking purists will tell you, "That's dry camping, but not boondocking". The term, "blacktop boondocking" is sometimes used to distinguish the two.

  2. Mentality of Boondocking

    Formerly, people presumed that we chose boondocking because we were too cheap to pay for camping. (They were, of course, partly right.)

    Comparing Camping Fees

    Most public campgrounds have increased prices again since 2011. But boondocking consistently saves us 30% of total trip costs.

    What’s changed? Over time, more RVers recognized that there are many more reasons to boondock than just to save money. They incorporate boondocking into their travels regularly because of all the other benefits they've discovered: beautiful natural surroundings, quiet locations, privacy, few rules, and no reservations or check-out times to worry about.

    Ultimate in boondocking

    The scenery and privacy make it....priceless!
  3. Availability of Wilderness Boondocking

    The majority of boondocking opportunities have always been on public lands. In the USA, these include tracts administered by the National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and also by state and other municipal agencies. In Canada, Crown Land falls into a similar category.

    What's changed? Twenty years ago, the rules set by each agency were fairly consistent across the country. We could count on fourteen consecutive days of camping in most districts with a few minor restrictions. Now, access is severely restricted to some areas we used in the past or it has been eliminated altogether. This is especially evident in areas that have gained tourist popularity over that time. Moab, UT and Sedona, AZ are two examples. Vehicles are restricted from driving on many dirt roads where they were formerly permitted.

    Most National Forest and BLM districts have developed a Motor Vehicle Use Map and any roads not shown on the map are "off limits". The maps are well-worth picking up (free from district offices) since signage is sometimes vague or non-existent.

    Motor Vehicle Use Map

    Typical Motor Vehicle Use Map - usually free for the asking

    In some cases, these restrictions are completely understandable. As more RVers discover the joy of boondocking, these areas are being over-used, loved to death. This is an attempt to preserve the natural environment.

    In other instances, however, I believe boondocking has been curtailed or eliminated to shore up profits at nearby fee campgrounds, where camping fees are quickly escalating as more and more are operated by concessionaires.

    A few alarming bills have recently been put before the US congress: One would impose access fees for all activity on federal lands. Another would privatize all National Forest recreation services. I'm Canadian but, I hope that those of you who are US citizens will consider learning more about this and, perhaps, add your voice to oppose these and other (often illegal) bills. For details visit Western Slope No Fee Coalition.

  4. Availability of Dry Camping/Blacktop Boondocking

    Twenty years ago, if we knew where the nearest Walmart store was, we were pretty confident we could stop there for the night.

    What's changed? Walmart has many more stores now and many other retail outlets have joined the movement to welcome overnight parking. Almost all Walmart locations are now superstores, stocking all the groceries we need and they’re open 24 hours; you don’t need to fear that you’ll be " all alone" in that parking lot at 3:00 am. The lots have better lighting, surveillance cameras and, for some reason, those annoying, noisy, middle-of-the-night street-sweepers that were very common in Walmart lots twenty years ago, have become a rarity.

    Unfortunately, in many areas, city ordinances now forbid businesses from allowing overnight RV parking. These regulations are often the result of a 15-year-old, secret campaign by the National Associations of Campground Owners. They've pressured municipal governments to pass ordinances that permit overnight RV parking only in campgrounds.

    What's next?

    Sign No RV parking or eating allowed

    Will we soon see signs like this? After all, The restaurants in those towns depend on our business, too.

    On the upside, crowd-sourced solutions have sprung up – perhaps somewhat in retaliation to these "non RV-friendly" communities. We now have access to thousands of new free overnight parking locations across the continent through a handful of membership websites.

    At our sister site, Boondockers Welcome, fellow RVers provide free parking on their property to travelers passing through. They expect no payment other than, perhaps, sharing some travel stories and your pay-it-forward spirit. Some hosts offer additional bonuses: electric, water, Wi-Fi, or even an RV dump.

    Another web site Harvest Hosts, offers members a growing list of wineries, market farms, and golf clubs that offer free overnight parking to RVers who patronize them.

  5. Finding Boondocking

    Twenty years ago, we never drove by a visitor center without stopping. We talked to locals to ask for suggestions. We would consult and cross-reference several maps to determine whether land was private or public and drive down many dead-end, dirt roads looking for anything that looked suitable, safe, and legal. We carried Don Wright's Free Camping Book - a thick printed guide. It was the only "guide" available at that time and, even if the information was often outdated, we were grateful to have it.

    What's changed? Technology, increased Internet access, and on-line resources! Web sites such as freecampgrounds and membership directories like The Day's End Directory and Overnight RV Parking provide lists of boondocking spots, which fellow members are encouraged to review and update. E-book guides, like my own Frugal Shunpiker's Guides, can be easily and regularly revised. (Updated editions of my guides are free of charge so you never have to purchase them more than once.)

    Can any of us imagine traveling without a GPS today? Although invented more than 25 years ago, the GPS, as we know it, was still rare and certainly not built into our vehicles twenty years ago. My job as the passenger-seat navigator and map-reader got a lot easier and less stressful when we started using a GPS twelve years ago.

    Smartphones mean we almost always have the Internet at our fingertips. Google Maps have all but eliminated the need for physical maps. With Google Earth and Google Street View, we can get a good idea of what a place looks like before we drive to it. Although we still like to think of boondocking as our escape from the excesses of modern-day life, we make exceptions and couldn't live without these tools now.

  6. Contact and Connectedness

    Twenty years ago, if we were boondocking, we relied on a cell phone for emergencies and used email for every other communication, that is if we could find Internet access. This meant only occasional contact with friends and family. We didn't travel with laptops, which were still rare and quite expensive in 2000. We visited libraries all across the country and used the computers they provided to check email. We enjoyed many interactions with small town librarians as a result, and thought we had the cat by the tail!

    What's changed? We are more dependent on having a cell signal and Internet access now, but even without a data connection we can send and receive texts and photos and use a variety of offline applications. We do expect to have a cell signal almost everywhere these days, and may be disappointed if it's not at least 4G and strong enough for video streaming and Zoom calls.

    I realize I'm not speaking for every boondocker in this regard. Many can and do travel without a constant "tether" to the world. But I expect most travelers are much more dependent than we were years ago.

    Many RVers now work remotely and can earn a living while boondocking in scenic splendor thanks to the Internet.

  7. Auxiliary Power

    Twenty years ago, solar technology was not nearly as affordable or reliable as it is today. Even with ample solar panels and lots of sun, batteries were incapable of efficiently storing the power being generated.

    What's changed? We've come a long way baby! I remember seeing LED lights demonstrated (er, I should say DIMonstrated) to us for the first time. They're now standard in most RVs and so much improved. Rechargeable batteries, and low-draw appliances are available at camping stores and some RVs come equipped with a solar package installed by the manufacturer. Why? Because RVers are demanding these options.

    The price of after-market starter solar kits has become much more affordable over the years. To properly install solar panels for optimum performance is still a tricky affair. But we can access expert help on YouTube or vlog sites, read unbiased reviews, and comparison-shop online; we're no longer at the mercy of a smooth-talking, upselling salesperson. By the way, if you're looking for trusted do-it-yourself advice about solar, I've been recommending Handy Bob's Solar for almost twenty years now.

  8. Climate Impact

    Most of our personal boondocking experience has been in the deserts and mountains of the southwestern United States where, at first glance, the landscape looks much the same as when we first discovered and fell in love with it.

    What's changed?

    Over the years, most of this region has suffered regular serious droughts. Devastating fires have destroyed thousands of acres of forest that will take many years to recover. Waterfront boondocking sites are often several hundred meters away from the shore. In some cases, small lakes are no more than ponds or mud holes.

    Lake Buchanan, Texas, Feb, 2008

    Free campsite on Lake Buchanan, TX (Feb, 2008)

    Lake Buchanan, Texas, Feb, 2013

    Same campsite (Feb, 2013). Where's our lake?

    There are still a lot of fantastic, scenic boondocking sites in the southwest but there's no doubt they're becoming fewer and harder to find.

    We carry an inflatable boat but are debating whether we should even pack it for our next southwest adventures.

  9. Economics

    Twenty years ago, we rarely met fellow boondockers who weren’t on an adventure somewhat similar to ours - traveling the country and boondocking to stretch the budget.

    What's changed? Since the economic crash of 2008, there are many more people living in an RV fulltime and boondocking out of necessity, not choice. They can't afford regular housing or even campgrounds. By boondocking they're able to maintain as much independence as possible. They even may have a local job, seldom move their location and, when they do, go only a few miles down the road.

    It's a different dynamic than we saw on our first trips but RVers have always been a diverse group, tolerant of differences. Every one of us has our own reason for boondocking. We try not to judge or make assumptions, and sometimes we treat it as an opportunity to "offer a leg up" to someone in need.

    I’ve recently heard stories about public land authorities clamping down on 14-day maximum-stay rules or telling people who can't prove they have a fixed address they're not permitted to camp on public land at all. That's crazy! I guess free camping is only for those who can afford to camp elsewhere. Sort of like the banks only lending money to those who can prove they don’t need it.

    When we started RVing in 1999, the average gasoline price was $1.20 per US gallon. By 2013 it had surged to $3.00. Although it settled closer to $2.60 in 2019, fuel prices are one reason RVers opt for boondocking more often. It helps them stay on budget. But high fuel prices also affect boondocking negatively because the best spots are generally farther off the main route. Of course, the price of most campsites has gone up as well so this is pretty much a wash.

  10. Popularity

    Twenty years ago, most RVers didn't know much about boondocking and, if they learned about it, were afraid to attempt it.

    Boondocking is more popular today than ever. Along with many other websites, videos, and podcasts, I take responsibility for spreading the word about the benefits and instilling confidence for giving it a try.

    The biggest downfall of being popular is not what you might think; there's still lots of boondocking available. In most instances, there's still plenty of space to camp without feeling like you're packed in too tightly. But with added use, comes added abuse. Too many people are leaving garbage behind and the public land authorities don't have the staff or budget to deal with or police it. Too often now our first job when we arrive at a boondocking location is to pick up enough litter to fill a large garbage bag to take with us when we leave. It's become such a problem that, unless we all do our part to clean up after ourselves (and others), I fear we will eventually lose the privilege of camping on public lands altogether.

Conclusion: All of the above factors have altered our experiences but one thing remains constant: After twenty years of boondocking, we still prefer it to parking in crowded campgrounds and paying for services we don't need or want. What are your thoughts? Can you think of other significant factors that have changed your view of boondocking? How often and why do you choose it over a paid campsite?

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