By Bob Wells
What is Boondocking?
The word boondock originated early in the 20th century from American
military servicemen serving in the Philippines. It comes from a Tagalog
word for mountain bundog. They started using it to mean a rural, remote,
bushy area. When they came home they developed the slang word
"boonies". The RV community adopted the word to use it to describe
remote camping in rural areas. So if you were going fishing in your truck
camper to a remote National or State Park, when you got there you were
camping in the boondocks. Since you had no hook-ups, but were self-
sufficient, you were boondocking. Then some people noticed that while
they were driving for several days to get to the boondocks, they could
save some money by staying overnight in the parking lot of a WalMart.
Since they had no hook-ups and were self-sufficient, they said they were
boondocking. After awhile people saw that they could save a lot of money
by not staying in RV parks and so they started planning their trips around
WalMart stores, staying in their parking lots most nights of their trip.
WalMart thought it was great. They picked up a loyal group of shoppers
who obviously had extra disposable income.
On the other hand, the RV parks didn't think it was so great. They were
loosing a lot of business. So they approached the local city council and
lobbied them to make boondocking (sleeping overnight in an unapproved
place) illegal in their city. The cities wanted to protect the RV parks since
they paid a lot of taxes on their land and income, and passed ordinances
making boondocking illegal. They made WalMart post signs in their parking
lot saying overnight parking was illegal. These signs are becoming more
and more common across the country.
There is a rift in the RV community about exactly what is boondocking. The
purists say, "Staying in a WalMart is not boondocking! It's just cheap
parking without hook-ups. Only a remote location in the woods is true
boondocking." And, technically, they are right, that's what the word
means. There is a better word for staying in a WalMart parking lot, and
that word is Stealth Parking. In this article we will examine both styles of
mobile living. First, lets look at true boondocking in the countryside:
Dispersed Camping On Public land
For the first six years I lived in my vehicle I stealth parked in a city. But
after I retired I said goodbye to the city and headed for the hills. For
the last four years, I have lived almost exclusively in forest, mountains
and deserts on public land without paying a penny for it. In the cold of
winter I stay on BLM land in the desert Southwest, and in the heat of
summer I move up into the mountains in the National Forests. Some people
are concerned if camping in the wilderness is safe. In my opinion and
experience, it is by far safer than living anywhere in a city. Numerous
times when I lived in the city I woke up afraid because of people hanging
around outside my van. Never once was I in real danger, but I was afraid
nonetheless. But on public land, I have never been afraid of other people,
not once. More important than my experience is the fact that according to
crime statistics, you are much less likely to be victim of any crime in
remote areas than in the city. Combined with clean air and beautiful
scenery, the woods is the only way to go as far as I am concerned.
When you camp on BLM, or National Forest land without staying in a
campground, you are doing dispersed camping. Nearly all BLM and NF
land is open to dispersed camping. I just drive along until I find a spot
that will make a good campsite and then I pull in and set up camp. Very
often the authorities will ask that you try to use existing campsites
instead of making new ones. The main issue there is if you make a new
campfire ring. These are unsightly and scar the land so they try to limit
them. I am a big believer in Leave No Trace principles so I almost never
make a new ring out of respect for the land. Every so often you will find a
sign that says "Camp Only In Designated Campsites." That means there is
no dispersed camping, you can only camp in sites with signs allowing you to
camp there. The most common reason for closing dispersed campsites is
that the area is close to a city or National Park that increases public use
to the point that they have to restrict camping. Another reason is to
protect an environmental area that is overly susceptible to damage, such
The best way to find out the status of an area before going there is to
call the local BLM or National Forest office and ask for information on
restrictions on dispersed camping. Finding the phone number is as simple
as doing a Goggle search on the name of the National Forest or the name
of the state and BLM (for example: BLM Nevada). That search will show
the location and phone number of the Ranger Stations in Nevada. Give
them a call; I have always found them very helpful! For more detailed info
on living on public land, go to this page:
This is important because most of us will have to work sometimes, and
most jobs are in cities. It is usually impractical to drive to the boondocks
every day before and after work. So sometimes we are going to end up
living in the cities in our vehicle while we save money to move on. If a city
has passed an ordinance making this illegal, then we must be crafty in how
and where we park so as not to draw attention to ourselves. Even if it is
not illegal, local police are often hostile to people who live unconventional
lifestyles. They don't understand them and it is human nature to fear the
unknown. If you are not breaking any laws, there is not much they can do,
but they can still hassle you and tell you to move on.
This is where stealth parking comes in. The police won't hassle you if they
don't notice you. You want to blend in and draw the minimum attention to
yourself. A 30 foot motorhome does not blend in well, in fact it sticks out
like a sore thumb. Many people in big RV's have reported a knock on the
door in the middle of the night and being told to move on by local police.
On the other hand, a box van or cargo van parked in front of a big store
draws no attention. In fact some people put a sign on the side that says
"Bill's Plumbing and Heating, call 345-2567." You are just a plumber
working on the pipes inside the store.
Stealth Parking Tips:
Following a few simple rules will make it much less likely anyone will notice
- Keep yourself and your vehicle clean and presentable. If either are
dirty or ratty, people will notice you.
- Arrive at your sleeping spot late, and leave early. The longer you are
in one spot, the more likely it is that someone will notice you. So hang
around a different parking lot in the evening until just before
bedtime, and then drive to your sleeping spot and go right to bed. As
soon as you wake up, get dressed and leave.
- Sleep in different places every night. If you sleep in the same spot
every night, it is much more likely someone will notice you. So scout
out as many different parking spots as you can find and rotate
- Choose a vehicle less likely to be noticed. Lets look at that in more
This has a big impact on your choice of vehicle. If you have a pension and
don't have to work, it is not so important. If you are working and living in
your vehicle it is very important, so let's evaluate vehicles for their
- Bicycle: To live on a bike means pitching a tent to sleep in. What could
be more obvious? Zero stealth ability.
- Motorcycle: Same as a bike, you have to pitch a tent. Zero stealth
- Car: Cars are everywhere so most people don't give them a second
thought. Parked in front of a store or mall at night you could be a
janitor or stocker inside working. Very good stealth ability.
- Van: Just like a car, vans are also everywhere and don't draw
attention to themselves. Very good stealth ability
- Box Van, These vans look like they belong in front of a mall or store
at night. Excellent stealth ability in commercial areas.
- RV: These stick out like a sore thumb, obviously they don't belong in
front of a mall or store at night. Poor stealth ability.
Some cities have started to see boondockers as source of income. The
police watch the local WalMarts and when they identify someone as
camping overnight they roust them. Instead of simply sending them on
their way, they issue them a fine of several hundred dollars. Ignorance of
the law is no excuse and you will end up paying. For that reason alone,
unless you know that the city does not fine boondockers, you may want to
avoid Walmart. Enforcement of these rules is usually selective. Walmart
has such a reputation that the police watch their parking lots very closely,
but usually they ignore all the other stores. Most cities have multiple big-
box retailers like K-Mart, Target, and Home Depot. Don't forget the
large grocery stores. Many of them are 24 hours and you can blend in well
there. Make them your first choice if overnight parking is forbidden at a
Walmart. Here is a partial list of other areas to consider parking:
- Big Box Stores
- Grocery Stores
- Residential Areas
- Industrial Areas
The choice of a parking spot is one of the most critical decisions a vehicle
dweller will make. The choice of parking spot for a night will have much to
do with safety, security, quality of sleep, and avoidance of police.
Considering the fact that more and more communities are passing laws
that make it illegal to sleep in a vehicle, stealth is of utmost importance if
in the city. If you are concerned about security while boondocking in the
city you could look into a company like http://www.safemart.com/ that
features wireless alarm systems that would work in boats, homes and RVs.
If one is boondocking in the wilderness, this is of little consideration. So,
the choice of parking spot creates an incredible challenge. Let us consider
several different scenarios, and analyze the pros and cons of each.
From the standpoint of safety, security, and a quiet night's sleep, nothing
is likely to be better than a heavily forested location miles and miles from
civilization, parked next to a creek or river. The serene surrounding and
gentle sound of flowing water quickly settles me down and allows me to
get right to sleep. Finding such spots is not difficult in some parts of the
country, such as the Rocky Mountain region, Pacific Northwest, and
central Appalachians, but may be much more difficult in other parts of the
United States. Your mileage may vary in other countries.
A significant downside to living in these areas is also the reason you are
there: The remoteness. Being so remote also means you are far from gas
stations and grocery stores and other conveniences of modern life.
Desert and Plains
There is a lot of this land and many people congregate for certain seasons
in these open areas. You can usually be closer to civilization and have more
of a community atmosphere, but noise and other things that come along
with being around other Homo sapiens can be a negative. I have never
done this before, so somebody else could fill this in better. The BLM
operates what is know as Long Term Visitor Areas (LTVA) in the desert
Southwest. You can stay at these areas for the entire season for just a
few dollars. Other areas have a 14 day time limit but there is virtually no
enforcement of the rule. And if there is, you just move 20 miles away and
park for another 14 days. Do a Goggle search on BLM LTVA, Quartzite,
Information on BLM LTVA areas
City Camping: Residential
When van dwelling in an urban environment, you pretty much have three
choices of places to park: Residential, commercial, and industrial areas.
The beauty of residential areas is that it is usually common to have cars on
the street at night, so it is potentially easy to blend in, depending on what
kind of vehicle you have. It is less common in wealthier neighborhoods to
see vehicles on the street, and you should also be aware of crime rates in
the neighborhood you choose to inhabit. Living in a large cargo van makes
me shy away from parking in most residential areas, as the vehicle just
doesn't fit in as well.
City Camping: Commercial Areas
Retail and business sectors are my preferred parking areas for my cargo
van. It it not unusual to see large cargo vans, box vans, and other
commercial-looking vehicles in these parts of town, since many businesses
use them as service and delivery vehicles. When stealth is of the utmost
importance, commercial/business parks are the cream of the crop. Not
only are larger vehicles commonly parked overnight in these parts of
town, it is also common to see smaller cars in these areas because there
are night crews doing stocking, cleaning, customer service, etc.
City Camping: Industrial Sectors
Industrial zones are typically noisier and dirtier than most other parts of
cities. These areas are also more likely to have 24-hour operations, which
means more people coming and going during the night. Private security is
also more abundant near industrial facilities. This increases the likelihood
of somebody seeing you come and go, or of having your window tapped on
in the middle of the night. In large metropolitan areas, crime rates also
tend to escalate near large industrial areas. To me, these are all reasons
to avoid industrial parts of town. However, if you need to run a generator
to charge your battery bank, this is a good choice for a short period of
Summary: The Best Parking Place?
I personally find the best possible parking spot to be a quiet, low-traffic
dead end piece of road with several other vehicles parked nearby on the
border between a middle-class residential neighborhood and a large
office or retail park. My van typically fits in perfectly in this sort of place
and I tend to feel safe and secure knowing other people are nearby.
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