Boondocking: How to Score Free Overnight RV Parking

Silvana Clark Avatar

man in front of RV boondocking in a Cabela's parking lot

Are you an RV newbie? It’s easy to be overwhelmed with “RV lingo”. Are you driving a fiver? What kind of toad do you have? Are you boondocking tonight? To bring you up to speed on the RV terms my husband and I learned when we became full-time RVers, a fiver is a fifth wheel, a toad is the car you might tow and boondocking is camping for free.

That’s right. Free.

What is RV Boondocking?

The term “boondocking” comes from the idea of camping in the boonies, far away from traffic and other people. However, with the popularity of boondocking, the term now includes free stays at Walmart and truck stops. But more about that later!

Boondocking is also known as dry camping, wild camping or dispersed camping. It’s a way to save money as well as experience a more environmentally friendly camping experience. If you enjoy developed campgrounds with hot tubs, fire pits, planned recreational activities, on-site restaurants and the ability to take long showers in your RV, perhaps boondocking isn’t for you. On a basic level, boondocking is parking your motorhome without electricity or water or a sewer hookup. But don’t let that stop you from at least trying this unique way of camping! All you need is a little know-how.

Read More: The Ultimate Family Camping Packing List

Where Can You Go Boondocking?

Camper boondocking under a tree
Boondocking in nature. Photo credit: Silvana Clark

The possibilities are endless! Most boondockers enjoy the solitude nature provides off the grid, so they camp on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) properties. The BLM website gives tips as well as a map with hundreds of boondocking locations across the USA. Enjoy camping in the Arizona desert next to the ocean in Florida; the Bureau of Land Management is in every state! Be prepared, because many of these forest service campsites are set far from any main road and may require some tricky driving to get to the site. You’ll be rewarded though, with beautiful scenery and silence. In most states, campers can stay a maximum of 14 days, so plan to move to another boondocking spot after two weeks.

The Army Corps of Engineers builds dams and manages rivers and over 450 lakes. Many of these locations offer free campsites. If you want to splurge, check out their reasonably priced camping spots with restrooms and showers. We stayed at their campground in Little Rock, Arkansas, and were impressed with the wide-open spaces between RVs. We spent an enjoyable evening sitting by the river’s edge, watching barges travel wherever it is barges go.

Some hard-core boondockers drive through National Parks, find a deserted area and set up camp. I recommend finding designated boondocking areas to avoid a park ranger asking you to leave at midnight. A good source for boondocking sites is Campendium.  Of course word of mouth is the ideal way to find out about idyllic camping sites on public lands. If you happen to see other campers while boondocking, ask for suggestions. While hiking in a state park, we came across a couple camping in their van in an out of the way place. They happily told us of an ideal boondocking site right next to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. Two days later we drove to the site and fell asleep to the sound of the waves.

Not Scenic, But Convenient: Walmart Boondocking

RV boondocking in Owens Valley with a view of Mount Whitney in California's Sierra Nevadas
Want to get off the beaten path? Try boondocking to see unique and beautiful attractions like Mount Whitney in California. Photo credit: Bob Landry

While it sounds wonderful to camp next to a remote lake surrounded by mountains in a national forest, there’s another reality to boondocking. Sometimes, after a long day of driving, you just want to stop the RV, grab a sandwich and go to sleep.

In that case, instead of searching for a narrow logging road that leads to a boondocking site 15 miles away, stop at Walmart. Yes, Walmart. After all, they have flat, paved parking lots, an RVer’s dream.

Allowing boondocking is up the manager of the local store. So I always call the manager and ask for permission to spend the night. Well, actually I say, “Hello, we’re passing through the area and would really appreciate it if we could park our RV at the far end of your parking lot overnight. What side of your store is best for us to park?”

The person answering the phone simply tells us to park on the garden side of the store or to go in the back by the loading dock. That’s all there is to it! We usually stroll into the store and pick up a salad or roasted chicken for dinner. Usually by 8 pm, four or five other RVs pull up and we have our own mini-campground.

Be a Good Boondocker

Just remember…this is not a full-scale camping area. Be a good boondocker and avoid setting up your barbeque or leaving trash in the parking lot.

Before COVID hit, many Walmart Super Centers stayed open 24 hours, so security was always present. I’ve never felt afraid in any of the Walmarts we’ve visited. I did get an education once, as I peeked out my RV window to watch as several police officers arrived to bust the drug transaction I was watching.

Not interested in overnighting at Walmart? No problem. Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, highway rest areas and even Cracker Barrel restaurants also allow you to boondock overnight. Just check with the manager and remember to park at the far end of the store parking lot.

Read More: One Simple RV Tip to Save You Embarrassment

What are the Rules for Boondocking?

As with most things in life, use common sense and courtesy while boondocking. Camping on a BLM site means you won’t have large trash cans or dumpsters. That doesn’t give you permission to leave your trash on the ground. Take it with you!

If another boondocker is in the area, respect their privacy. This is not the time to blast your music and let your dog run free.

While boondocking in a Walmart parking lot or another approved business, please don’t put out your awning and lawn chairs. We saw one family run their generator to watch their outdoor TV while barbequing. Then they played corn hole until after 10 pm! It’s people like that who cause some Walmart managers to forbid boondocking in their parking lots.

What’s the Hardest Part of Boondocking?

woman boondocking in Arizona
When you boondock, you trade the conveniences of large RV campgrounds for the joys of splendid isolation. Photo: V. MacKinnon

For some people, wild camping requires a huge adjustment compared to staying in a full-service campground. Remember, you don’t have electricity. You don’t have a steady source of running water. And you don’t have a place to drain your black tank!

But with a little planning and a change of attitude, boondocking is manageable. We’ve met people with solar panels on their RV who boondock for over a week by conserving all their resources.

We usually boondock for a day or two and then go to a “regular” campground to fill our fresh water tanks and drain the poop at an RV dump station.

Why Your Teen May Balk at Boondocking

Our friends tried to boondock on BLM land with their teenage daughter. She wasn’t a fan. Why? No 15-minute showers and limited cell service.

Tip for Boondocking

Here are a few assorted boondocking tips to make your wild camping a positive experience.

  • Before boondocking, test how long your batteries will last while running lights and heat.
  • Save water by wiping dishes with a paper towel and then washing them.
  • Pre-wash your fruits and vegetables when you have city water to save the water in your fresh water tank.
  • While a microwave is convenient, it draws from the battery unless the generator is running. Try cooking with gas or the barbeque instead.

Boondocking is a totally different camping experience than hooking up to a site at the Happy Family Campground and RV Park. In some cases, boondocking gives you a serene experience in a remote setting. Other times boondocking is a practical way to stop in a parking lot for the night so you can get an early start on your trip the next day. Either way, boondocking can be fun and best of all, boondocking is free!

Silvana Clark Avatar
Silvana gets the urge to travel when she’s been home more than a month. To date she’s visited 66 countries and shows no sign of stopping. The author of 12 books and over 300 articles, Silvana encourages people to travel creatively and on a budget. This means housesitting, doing home exchanges and finding bargains. She’s also been a full-time RV’er and has tips for people just getting into the RV camping world. As a professional speaker, Silvana also presents travel-related workshops to groups around the country.
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