Boondocking is a word that frugal RVers love. The basic definition of boondocking (the way I use the word anyway) is camping for free or close to free ”in the boonies” on public land such as BLM and dispersed forest sites. It’s the best of the best -> open nature-acess, no neighbours (most of the time) and zip $$ out-of-pocket. I mean, how much better does life get than that? Like most nature-lovers we love it and try to find spots to squeeze in the beast wherever we can.
Just for fun however, I wanted to explore the question from the side of pure cost. Now, you may think me mad to ask if there’s anything cheaper than free camping, but the truth of the matter is that boondocking has hidden costs for RVers and, from a purely financial standpoint, sometimes isn’t cheapest option even if you’ve got solar. Here’s some intellectual food for thought:
1/ Cost of Recharging Batteries – All the electric stuff in your RV runs off your house batteries so when you’re out in the boonies you need to find a way to recharge them. For most that involves running a generator and depending on how much electricity you use (and so how often you run the generator) that could mean a couple of hours everyday or every other day. Our generator uses ~1 gallon/hr of fuel at full load so that can add up to ~$8/day at current diesel prices. We have solar now and don’t need to worry about this anymore, but for most that will be a factor.
2/ Cost of Temperature Variations - We have pets and so we have to be sensitive to temperature changes in the RV. We simply can’t let internal temps fly too high, and if we’re in an area that requires air-conditioning then even our solar can’t keep up. Running aircon for 3-4 hours/day adds another $12-16/day of generator costs. When it’s really hot, getting an electric hookup can make a lot of financial sense.
3/ Costs of Dumping/Water - As the old saying goes, what goes in has (eventually) gotta come out. Most RVers will need to empty their tanks weekly or every other week depending on tank size and if you’re in the boonies you’ll need to find a spot to do it. Some places allow free dumping, but many will charge a nominal fee (typically anywhere from $5 to $15). Not a biggie this one, but it does add to the costs.
4/ Cost of Travel - The best part of getting “out there” is getting out there, but it does mean you might be far away from sightseeing, groceries and other errands. The cost of fuel to/from things you want to do can add up. Having a small, separate vehicle (toad/truck) helps to cut driving costs, but sometimes staying closer to “stuff” can make more financial sense.
5/ Cost of Boondocking – Camping in dispersed (non-developed) sites on public land is very often free, but not always. Quartzite, a popular winter boondocking spot charges a seasonal long-term fee of $180. If camping in a “developed” public campground, even without hookups, there is usually some kind of daily fee.
All these costs mean you might be paying up to ~$18/day for boondocking, depending on conditions. How does that compare to the alternative?
1/ Savings On Developed Camping – Costs in developed campgrounds can sometimes be very attractive, depending on where you’re willing to go.
- State Deals – Our New Mexico State Pass is a deal at $225/year. So far we’ve used the pass for 30 days of camping and even if you add-on the extra fee for electric hookup ($4/day) that works out to ~$11/day in camping fees. Pretty darn competitive.
- Monthly Deals - Many private campgrounds offer a monthly deal and sometimes they can be very attractive. Out in Alabama we could’ve camped with full hook-ups by the beach for $355/month (~$12/day). We just passed a spot here in Taos that offered full hook-up for $275/month (~$9/day). Purely based on price, it’s hard to beat.
- Camping Passes – Passport America is (in my opinion) the best camping club out there offering up to 50% off at member campgrounds, depending on timeframe and season. You might need to be flexible to get the full discount offer, but with some planning you can get a full hook-up site for ~$15/night.
- Senior Discounts - When you reach the “golden years” you start getting a lot of juicy discounts. America the Beautiful can get you 50% off camping fees in National Parks and federal lands (BLM, forest). Some State Parks and even some private parks offer senior discounts too.
2/ Savings on Laundry – We happen to have a washer/dryer in the RV and, believe it or not, it can actually make sense for us to pay for full hookup when we need to do laundry. A typical load in a laundromat will cost ~$3-$4. Got 3-4 loads and you’re getting close to the cost of a discount site.
There’s no doubt boondocking is fabulous and the best way to get “out there” in nature. In temperate climates with solar panels and a fully stocked liquor cabinet nothing can beat it. But if you’re just starting out or camping in extreme temps there are other options that may be cheaper. Something to discuss over your evening glass, in any case