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Dry Camping in an RV

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A fully self-contained RV has all the necessary systems on board to live comfortably. Use them to extend your stay and access some wonderful camping places.

When Bob Wells contacted me to write this article, I went to his website to see what was there. My first thought was “been there, done that” and don’t want to go back. However, Bob also said… “The vast majority of RVers are in traditional RVs and not vans or cars so I want to include them in my site. Basically it would be living cheaply in an RV by boondocking. My site mostly appeals to nontraditional types but I want them to see that traditional RVs are a valid alternative.” That made sense to me.

I’ve been camping “on wheels” since 1962. I started with a tent trailer and later converted two vans—one a 1967 VW van where we slept under an electric blanket if we could plug in. Today, we full-time in our motorhome and it has all the amenities. I’m still a fan of saving money and boondock whenever it is easy to do. However, I am now a bigger fan of convenienc . Being able to boondock provides you with thousands of places to stay that must be avoided if you have to hook up to utilities for the night. I am not “anti-campground” but I only go to the grocery if I need groceries and only go to campgrounds when I need campground services. Just think, you bought that RV and paid for all those self-contained systems—use them.

What is Boondocking or Dry Camping?
Boondocking is living in your RV with no hookups to utilities (water, electric, and sewer). It can be for a day or a month. Manufactured recreational vehicles (RVs) today nearly all contain complete utility systems—that is, there are connections built into the RV to hook up to water, sewer, and electric (generically known as “shore power”—a term used in boating). (Author Note:  A few RVs being sold today do not contain on-board holding tanks. Specifically, many of the trailers produced to help alleviate the housing loss caused by Hurricane Katrina do not have holding tanks.)

It seems that most RVers are interested in boondocking due to the convenience and cost savings. On average, as full-timers we boondocked 15 nights per month in 2004 and 12 nights per month in 2005. You can easily save more than $1,000 per year by boondocking just an average of one night per week by estimating campgrounds at $20.00 per night and multiplying that by 50 weeks. Your cost savings are substantial, instant, and real.

Where Can You Boondock?
Whether you just want to stop for a night’s sleep while meandering cross-country or extend your stay at Furnace Creek Campground in the middle of Death Valley National Park, boondocking is easy. Your RV is self-contained— you have everything to live comfortably.

Boondocking does not mean having to live primitively—not at all. We enjoy daily showers, a toasty-warm furnace, our TV, great meals, and perfectly chilled wine. We consider these a natural part of boondocking. Yes, we use paper plates, cups, and plastic utensils.

When meandering across country (as we commonly do), we regularly stay a night at Wal-Mart. Other places you may be able to boondock overnight include Flying J (not the truck park but up front where they allow RVs), Sam’s Club, Cracker Barrel (only those that allow bus parking), Fred Meyer stores, Rest Areas (along Interstates), some State Visitor Centers, some organizations (Elks, Moose, VFW, American Legion), most casinos, some city parks, and others. Always ask permission or read the signs. Yes, there is a cost savings but the convenience is wonderful. I hate to be ready to stop (tired, sleepy, hungry, bathroom, whatever) and have to drive another 40 miles to my campground!

But what about staying longer? Yes, there are places to boondock—well, forever, I guess. Most common is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. BLM, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, administers 261 million acres of America’s public lands, located primarily in 12 Western States. Take a look…

The largest gathering of RVs in the world takes place on BLM lands in Quartzsite, Arizona mid-January each year. In 2006, it was estimated there were 70,000 (yes, 70,000!) RVs at Quartzsite for the ten-day gathering. This is not a formal rally or show and there is no fee—just come on in. There will be RV dealers and a huge tent with vendors selling a wide variety of RV products. There are numerous groups of RVers that get together at Quartzsite in their own informal rally. Everyone at Quartzsite has simply pulled off the highway and parked in the desert—boondocking is mandatory.

Boondocking in a Self-Contained RV
Boondocking several days simply requires that you approach water conservation differently. You encounter two problems that force you to stop boondocking—using too much fresh water and your grey tank capacity. The biggest problem with boondocking several days is your grey water tank fills too rapidly—it will fill 2–4 times faster than the black water tank. But, unless you simply enjoy watching water running down the drain, you can easily boondock for 4-5 nights and, with practice, stretch that to 7-8 nights—yes, with daily showers, cooking, and using water as needed. Of course, some of that time is dependant on your RV capacities.

Here are a few things you can do to help conserve both fresh water and grey tank fill—i.e., help extend your stay. Try this…

  • Carry a few gallon jugs of drinkable water with you. Use these for cooking, filling the coffee pot, refilling drinking bottles, etc. This leaves more water in your fresh water tank for showering, flushing, etc.
  • As the jugs are emptied, carry them in your car. When you get someplace where you can refill these with potable water, do so. A plastic milk crate holds four one-gallon jugs securely.
  • Use a zipper-locking plastic food bag for mixing foods. Pour in the ingredients, close it, hand it to your spouse, tell them to entertain themselves. Toss the bag.
  • Plan lots of one-dish meals (casseroles, stews, etc.) to prevent using and washing extra pots and pans.
  • Grill foods outside when possible to eliminate clean up of pots and pans.
  • Prepare multiple meals at the same time—to utilize preparation utensils and clean up one time.
  • If your family uses lots of ice, take an extra bag with you.
  • Purchase condiments in squeeze bottles to save washing utensils.
  • Use paper towels or the used paper table napkins to wipe excess food from pots and pans prior to washing them. This will save a pre-rinse and may also save running a second load of dishwater.
  • Limit each person to a half-cup of water for brushing teeth and cleaning their toothbrush and don’t run water at all. Pour the half-cup from the water jugs.
  • If the next person showers immediately after the first, you won’t have to run the water to pre-heat it.
  • For a quick warm washcloth, wet one, put it on a paper plate, and microwave it for about 10 seconds.

In some boondocking sites, there may be services available including both water trucks and the ever popular “honey wagon” (sewage-pump truck). They will fill your water tanks and pump out your holding tanks—for a fee. Paying this may be more palatable than moving the coach. If you have the holding tanks pumped out, be sure you check both holding tank valves after they unhook. Don’t want these left open by mistake!

Controlling the Biggest Waste of Water
Your biggest waste of water is waiting for the shower to warm up. Catch this cold water in a pot. When the shower is hot, shut off the diverter, then take your shower. Use the clean water for making coffee or heat it to wash dishes, but don’t waste it.

When washing dishes, use two plastic tubs—one each for washing and rinsing. Don’t empty these down the sink into the gray water tank. Flush this water down the toilet. Don’t forget to turn off your water pump when flushing so you don’t waste more water emptying these.

Take a “Navy” Shower
When RVers get together, a common topic that seems to come up is about how to boondock. Without question, one of the easiest and instant methods to decrease your water usage is to take more efficient showers. However, taking efficient showers does not mean less “wash time” but only less “rinse time.”

One of the most efficient shower techniques is often called a “Navy” shower. This is a technique the Navy adopted to decrease the amount of shower water an individual uses. You can easily test this shower-taking technique for your RV shower.

Shown above is a “real” Navy shower on display in the Naval Undersea Museum, Keyport, Washington.

What you are going to do is track the amount of time it takes you to take your normal shower. Then, using the “Navy” shower technique, time that, too. Compare water usage for the two showers.

The First Day… Have someone note the total amount of time the shower water is running normally while you take your “normal” shower. Do not time the water dribbling through the diverter.

The Second Day… Try this “Navy” shower…
Catch the shower water in a pot while it is getting warm. Since this water is clean and usable (for making coffee, etc.) do not time this—it didn’t run down the drain into the grey tank. When it’s warm, close the diverter and step in.

Start timing. Turn the water on, quickly get wet, and immediately turn the water off with the diverter. Stop timing and note it. Now soap and wash as long as you want. Do not time this because the water is off. Restart timing. Turn water on and rinse quickly and thoroughly. Note the time. (If you do not wash your hair every shower, time it both ways.)

Now you have some data and can easily calculate your exact water usage.

Here’s how… Get a container marked in gallons (a tub, pot, etc.). Put it in the shower, start timing, and run the shower for a total time equal to when you took your “normal” shower. How much water did you use?

Next, run, catch, and measure the total water you used for your “Navy” shower.

Now, disregard time and focus on the amount of water—i.e., gallons used. How many gallons does your fresh water tank hold? What is the capacity of your grey tank? Using your actual measure (in gallons), how many more showers could you take by using the “Navy shower” technique? This translates into how many more days you could boondock without needing fresh water or having to dump grey. Finally, if you learned that you could really take a decent shower with about one gallon of water, welcome to the world of boondocking.

A World of Possibilities
While you may be thinking that you will never need to stay “longer,” having the ability and knowledge of how to do this will enhance your travels. Whether you want to stay a few extra days in Furnace Creek Campground in the middle of Death Valley National Park, attend a major RV gathering in Quartzsite, or simply go to a local RV rally, you should know boondocking techniques. Your world of RVing will be greatly enhanced, you won’t deprive yourself of anything, and you will be secure in the knowledge that you are totally independent.



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