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Fifteen Years of Boondocking -
What has Changed?

I'm in a reflective mood. It's hard to believe we've been RVing and boondocking for fifteen 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

    Boondocking saves us at least 30% of total trip cost.

    What’s changed? More and more RVers now recognize that there are far more reasons to boondock than just saving 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.

    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? Fifteen 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 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 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 neaby 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

    Fifteen 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 fifteen 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 10-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 and expect no payment, just a positive recommendation from guests (which lets hosts keep their membership free). Some hosts provide additional bonuses: electric, water, wifi or, even an RV dump. Two similar examples are Harvest Hosts, and RV Golf Club - each offering their members a growing list of private properties that welcome overnight RV parking.

  5. Finding Boondocking

    Fifteen 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. Sadly, it often disappointed us with information that was out-of-date and no longer accurate. Of course, we expected that; the latest edition on the shelf was already three years old.

    What's changed? Technology, increased Internet access, and on-line resources! Web sites such as 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-books, 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 20 years ago, the GPS, as we know it, was still rare and certainly not built into vehicles fifteen years ago. I know that my job as the passenger-seat navigator and map-reader got a lot easier and less stressful when we started using a GPS seven years ago.

    Smartphones and tablets 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, most of us make exceptions for some of these tools.

  6. Contact and Connectedness

    Fifteen years ago, if we were boondocking, we relied on a cell phone for emergencies and email, if we could find Internet access, to maintain 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 met a lot of small town librarians this way and thought we had the cat by the tail!

    What's changed? We are definitely more dependent on Internet access now. Many of us expect to have access almost everywhere and aren't happy unless the signal is high speed with a strong enough connection for video streaming and Skype calls.

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

    With Internet access, many RVers continue to work remotely and earn a living while boondocking in scenic splendor.

  7. Auxillary Power

    Fifteen years ago, solar technology was not nearly as affordable or reliable as it is today. Even with ample 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 are greatly improved now and standard equipment in many RVs. Rechargeable batteries, and low-draw appliances are readily available at many camping stores. Some RVs come equipped with a solar package installed by the manufacturer. There's no better indication that RVers want 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. Through the Internet, however, we can access excellent sources of information, read unbiased reviews, and comparison-shop. We are no longer at the mercy of a smooth-talking, upselling salesperson. Are you looking for trusted advice about solar? Handy Bob's Solar is one I highly recommend.

  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 past few years, almost all of this region has suffered an ongoing and serious drought. Waterfront boondocking sites are now 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 southwest adventures this winter.

  9. Economics

    Fifteen 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 2008 economic crash, the increase in the number of RVers and boondockers who aren't actually traveling is particularly evident in boondocking spots not far from towns. People who are, perhaps, boondocking out of necessity, not choice. They can't afford regular housing and, in this way, are able to maintain as much independence as possible. They even may have a local job, seldom moving camp and only a few miles down the road.

    It's a different dynamic than we saw on our first trips but, as far as I'm concerned, not really a negative. RVers have always been a diverse group and tolerant of differences. Every one of us has our own reason for boondocking. We try not to judge or make assumptions.

    I’ve recenlty heard stories about public land authorities clamping down on 14-day maximum-stay rules and even 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. As a result, RVers opt for boondocking more often to help them stay on budget. 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 I figure this is pretty much a wash.

Conclusion: All of the above factors have altered our experiences but one thing remains constant: After fifteen 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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