How Can We Help?

Finding Water and Disposing of Trash

You are here:
< All Topics

This is a little park in Anchorage where I stealth parked for 6 years. I would come here with my boys to have a picnic, drop off my trash, and fill my water bottles after I filtered it. Now that’s multi-tasking!

I’ve been looking at philosophical ideas lately, so I thought it was time to get back to my roots and talk about the details of vandwelling. When you move into a car, van or RV to become a vandweller, you are going off-grid. While some RVers go from campground to campground using full-hookups, most of us do not. The majority of vandwellers are stealth parking in cities, while others are like me and boondock on public land. One problem we all face is how to get the basic necessities that we once got in our homes; necessities like electricity, sewage and water and trash disposal. I’ve written at length about how to get electricity and going to the bathroom, but it occurred to me I haven’t written much about how to get water or dump your trash. That really stands out to me here in the desert because when new people arrive in camp they inevitably ask where they can get water and dump their trash.

Nearly all Forest Service Ranger Stations have a water faucet and dumpster for public use.

My best advice to every vandweller is to simply increase your awareness and start looking for water faucets and trash cans to put your trash in. For example, one day I was shopping at my local Wal-Mart and was pushing my shopping cart into the little corral where we were supposed to return them and I noticed that every one of the corrals there had a trash can. I thought to myself how careless I was for never noticing it before because it was the perfect place to dump my trash. That’s where my trash went from then on. Here’s another example: I was living in the desert outside Victorville, CA and had never found a source of free water, so I was buying it at a vending machine. One day my friend Steve and I were filling up at our usual vending machine and we looked over beside it and lo and behold there was a faucet. Our first thought was to wonder if it was potable, but we noticed it was the line that fed the vending machine its water, so it had to be potable. Boy did we feel silly, all this time we were complaining we couldn’t find free water and it was right there in front of us.
The moral to the story is to just keep your eyes open for faucets and trash cans and usually that will solve the problem. But if you are new to this here are some specific places to start looking:

  1. Gas stations often have a faucet for water; you just have to be sure it is potable. It is also a good place to drop off trash.
  2. Vending machines that sell purified water are common across the Southwest. The reason they are so common in that in the desert the water that comes out of the tap is safe, but usually very mineralized and doesn’t taste good. As a result, many people buy their purified drinking water from vending machines. The prices vary from 15-40 cents a gallon with a quarter a gallon most common. Many desert dwellers buy it for drinking, but try to find it free for the dogs, cooking and cleaning.
  3. Wal-Marts often have water vending machines inside the store and most have trash cans outside for your trash
  4. City parks will very often have water spigots and trash cans for your trash. So when I was  city-dweller I would stop and make lunch, dump my trash, and fill up my 1 gallon jugs, all while enjoying a pretty place in nature
  5. Rest areas almost always have water spigots and trash cans you can use.
  6. Generally, National Forest Ranger and BLM Stations will let you get water and dump your trash and of course are a good source of information as well.
  7. When I’m getting gas or buying something at a convenience store, I’ll take in a 1 gallon jug and ask if I can get water. I’ve never been refused.
  8. Almost all public restrooms have faucets, but your water bottle won’t fit under them because the sink isn’t deep enough. You can use a Water Bandit (more about that below) with a short hose to fill your water bottles.
  9. RV Parks sometimes have a spigot for public use. No harm in stopping and asking, all they can do is say no.
  10. I’ve never done it but I have friends that fill up at Fire Stations. It’s worth stopping and asking. Firemen/women are usually about the nicest folks you will ever meet and glad to help.
  11. My dog needs nearly a gallon of water a day so I keep my eye out for natural bodies of water like creeks or lakes for him. I am concerned that water could contaminate the container it’s in, so I marked a jug for untreated water only and all untreated water goes it in it and none of the others. If I am going to drink creek or lake water, I filter it first.

 Four water related things I always carry:

  1. An RV water hose. They are specifically made for potable water and they don’t have an odd, “rubbery” taste. I carry two, one is very short and the other is 10 feet long. That way I can use the short one for inside public restrooms with a water bandit and together they are long enough to fill 5 gallon jugs left in the van without lifting it out. When done I screw all the ends together so it stays clean
  2. A Water Bandit. It goes over the end of many faucets and lets you fill a jug from a sink when the jug is too big to go under the faucet.
  3. A backpackers water filter for when you are near a surface water source like creek or lake. You do not want to drink water straight out of a creek or lake without filtering or treating it first. For vandwellers I think your best choice is a gravity fed system. With these there is no pumping or chemicals. You dip a bag into the creek and hang it from a tree or the mirror of the van. There is a tube coming out of it and you put the end of the tube into your water container sitting on the ground. Gravity pulls the water out of the bag, through a filter and clean water falls into your gallon jug. It works extremely well and is surprisingly fast.
  4. Bleach to purify my water jugs. Sometimes I will put bleach water in the hose also just to be sure nothing is growing in there. I do it at least once or twice a year so nothing is growing in my water jugs or hose.

I have three suggestions about how to get rid of your trash:

  1. Whenever possible, recycle it. I know that is often impossible but sometimes it is easier than you think. Many communities have set up recycling areas where you can drop off recyclables sometimes for money, but more often just because it is a good thing to do.
  2. Some people who boondock set aside their paper and cardboard trash and burn it. That will often cut the amount of trash you produce by half or more. Do not burn plastics or put cans in the fire and leave them. That is just littering.
  3. I put my trash in Wal-Mart type grocery sacks, and collect them to throw away when I am near a trash can. That has several advantages: First, it’s cheaper, I don’t have to buy garbage bags. Second, I am recycling plastic which is a very good thing. Third it makes the bags of trash smaller so they are less noticeable and more stealthy when I throw them away. It’s hard to be subtle when you are throwing away a great big bag of trash. But no one thinks anything of it when you throw away a little bag of trash. So if I am making multiple stops on a shopping trip into town, I will drop off one bag at many different locations.

So there you have some general ideas of getting water and disposing of your trash. I have probably missed some, so feel free to comment and include your favorite ways and I will add them to the list.


  1. The Good Luck Duck

    Good suggestions. We always keep an eye peeled for decent garbage cans, and we use a small trash can in the rig like you do, so that trash can be dumped more discreetly in more places.
    We fill up our tank about once a month, and we require 65 gallons. We have gotten bolder about asking people at convenience stores, gas stations, and just anywhere we notice spigots. We make sure it’s potable, since we drink water from our tank. Since our rig is pretty big, and filling the tank may take 20 minutes, it’s different from getting a gallon or two in a sink, but courtesy gets us a long ways. Sometimes we have to pay, but we figure that’s the way the ball bounces.
    Also, it’s sometimes more palatable for a business to offer free water if we’ve filled our propane tank there.

    • Bob

      Wow, 65 gallons, that is a big tank GoodLuckDuck! I agree totally with you, if you offer people courtesy and respect you will generally get it back. Most people are helpful and kind if they can be.
      That is a great looking Tracker! I’m pretty sure that would be my first choice if I were to pull a toad! Bob

      • The Good Luck Duck

        Thanks, Bob! We’re still pretty excited about it.

  2. MichaelinOK

    Thanks for the helpful tips. Though I haven’t had occasion to try it, I was indeed thinking that a device like the Water Bandit (or Thief) would be useful in public bathrooms or other sinks (and not just at unthreaded public park/forest faucets. But I didn’t know for sure, since I’d never tried it. I’m glad you spoke about it.
    Not having real-life experience with this, I have a few follow-up questions: Exactly how have you done it? You mention you have a shorter RV hose (in addition to a longer one). Is the shorter hose a longer hose that’s been cut off after a few feet? Or would that work? And may I assume that no clamp is necessary at a sink because one can hold the Bandit on the sink with one hand?
    And do you ever add a few drops of bleach to water taken from public restrooms, or have you found that not to be necessary…and only periodically apply bleach to the hoses and jugs?

    • Bob

      Michael, I carry a Water Bandit but rarely use it. Since I don’t have an RV I only get a few gallons at a time, so if I have to take out the 5 gallon jugs and carry them to the faucet, I don’t mind. I have a friend who carries a hose clamp with him and if the faucet isn’t threaded he clamps the Bandit on with it. The short hose is 4 foot and comes from the factory that way. I keep it attached to the 10 footer most of the time, but sometimes it is handy by itself.
      To be honest, I’ve never had a problem finding water. I use so little that filling 5 gallon jugs directly from the faucet isn’t a problem for me. I have to admit though that I rarely drink water. I am a diet cola addict and that is what I drink nearly all the time. So I don’t worry about it’s purity. I don’t add bleach to drinking water, just to the jugs when I clean them. I don’t worry about Homers water, he likes it the dirtier he can get it! Some people keep a bleach solution in a spray bottle and will spray the faucet with that first, but I never have. Bob
      I still haven’t found free water in Quartzsite, but it is only 5 cents a gallon for deep well water, so I’m not really motivated to search very hard to find it. Bob

      • MichaelinOK

        Thanks for the follow-up info. and explanations.

  3. Steve & Zeke the Mountain Dog

    Funny how so many are unsure on their solid waste… Understand this that how many millions of pounds of solid waste is dumped into land fills alone via disposable diapers alone each year… Me I enjoy a good constitution daily, I have low plastic waste and actually would be good for the environment to just spill it… All of this ends up at the dump, and as solid waste is actually best for the environment… So dont feel guilty if using a Loo in your camp as you actually are better for the Eco-system than those damn diapers… Just Me Though…

    • The Good Luck Duck

      Steve, we tend to agree about the poo (we ARE talking about poo, aren’t we?). We don’t dump onto the ground, but we use a composting toilet and dump it into a garbage bag every two weeks. Then we’re off to find a cooperative garbage can.
      I’ve had spirited discussions about this practice, and finally decided to make a post about it: Here it is.

  4. Cyrus Palmer

    Great tips Bob!

    • Bob

      Thanks Cyrus! Bob

  5. Offroad

    Theses are all good ideas. Non van dwellers will find it useful for thoses natural disaster times when the town water pumping has stopped. Hurricanes, storms, tornados, blizzards all have a chance to knock out your water supply. Good to think about others ways to get it.

    • Bob

      Very good point Offroad. Everybody should be prepared for a natural disaster and getting water is one of the top priorities. I didn’t mention it, but I do keep a bottle of the Aqua Pure tablets on hand just for emergencies. Even 2 days without water will degrade your mental state to such a degree that survival becomes much more difficult. Best to be prepared! Bob

  6. kitty

    Dear Friends, I am an urban van dweller. I buy bulk dried fruits, rice and lentils and EDEN brand canned dinners for food. I drop off small bags of garbage at gas stations. I buy water a gallon at a time at a supermarket. I volunteer at a local charity and they allow me to use their dumpster and their recyceling. I house sit to make some money and get showers and laundry there. I have very small needs, so create very small garbage.

    • Bob

      Wow, Kitty, if they gave out awards for lowest environmental footprint, I would nominate you! Some of us are concerned about living a green, sustainable lifestyle and others are not, but every vandweller should be proud of the fact that we are doing our part for the earth whether we mean to or not!
      Kitty, you are probably like all of us and some of our friends think we are crazy, but I really admire the wonderful life you have made for yourself!! Bob

  7. kitty

    And Happy Holidays to all!!! Merry Christmas, Gut Yule, Happy Chanucah, joyful Kwanza and Solstice Blessings! Welcome the light!

    • Bob

      The same to you Kitty! Bob

  8. Penny

    I don’t let my dog drink just any old water. Leptospirosis is spread by a dog drinking infected water. She has water from my Brita jug at home, and my good drinking water when we are out camping. She is blind, nearly 18 years old, and I treasure her, so I don’t want her to get sick or get any tummy upsets.

    • Bob

      Hi Penny, I had never heard of Leptospirosis before, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. From the little reading I did, it appears to be a non-issue in the desert which is where I am 6 months of the year. Plus my dog isn’t exposed to rats or racoons as far as I know, two of the big carriers. In the summer when we are in the National Forest, he does drink from lakes and creeks, but because they are extremely dry areas, the risk still seems small. Giardia seems like a much bigger risk, but not nearly as fatal. So I’m going to keep letting him drink from surface water sources, but I really appreciate the information.
      Some of my decision is philosphical, risk verses freedom. The risk seems too low to give up freedom for. He is off-leash 99% of the time and i don’t know how I could keep him out of the lake or creek without putting him on leash. I’d rather see him die younger than do that to him. That may sound hard and uncaring, but it is a decision I have made for myself as well. Without health insurance, I will very likely die younger, but I would NEVER even consider going back to work to get health insurance. I’d much rather die early than give up my freedom. Bob

      • LaVonne

        Bob, I suspect that happiness is a big factor in longevity. You’ll probably live longer than you would have if you hadn’t become a vandweller.

        • Bob

          LaVonne, I think you are totally right. General attitude plays a huge role in longevity. Medical science has established beyond any doubt that stress is a literal killer. Stress is a thing of the past for me!!
          I’m sorry Bertha (an extended Dodge van) didn’t work out for you. I have an extended van and it is a handful. A shorty van or even a minivan might would work better for you. I sure hope you can make it to the RTR. But car camping in the desert in january is risky. It can get quite cold and the wind can blow down a tent really quick!! Bob

      • Penny

        Sorry, Bob, I forget that you are mostly in arrid areas and have a sighted dog. I am my 18 year old dog’s ‘seeing eye person’ so I can control where she drinks. I am her freedom. Happy Tails and Trails, Penny.

        • Bob

          Penny, you have my total admiration for caring for your furry buddy so well in his/her old age. There is a special place in heaven for people like you! Bob

      • Penny

        Sorry Bo, I forget that you are mostly in arrid areas, and have a sighted dog.
        I am my 18-year-old dog’s ‘seeing eye person’, so I can control where she drinks. I am her freedom. Happy Tails and Trails,

  9. CAE

    Great suggestions, Bob.
    It’s funny how one’s awareness of public accessibility to trash and water, etc..gets much more acute when one is fending for one’s self. I evolved in much the same way you did….you start to notice restrooms, trash cans, WiFi spots, etc. a lot more when you need them.
    I buy in bulk and use my own containers. So trash generation for me is almost never an issue anymore. I always think about packaging when purchasing anything because getting rid of it becomes my problem once I buy something. Actually, I’ve had store employees take off the packaging of big items for me right at the store so that I get just the product when I walk out the door as well as assembly, if it requires it.
    You think a lot more about this kind of thing when you can’t just toss the problem into someone elses court.

    • Tara

      CAE, I do the same things when I buy things with packaging. I try not to do it. I unbox it at their door step, and use their trash cans for everything. I consider it THEIR trash, I just wanted the product, not the packaging! 😛 LOL. I’ll have to try the you unbox it for me thing. That’s a good idea 🙂

      • Bob

        Tara and CAE, I do the same thing also. Most stores of any size have a baler where they put in all their used cardboard and bale it up and send it back for recycling. They get credit for all the bales they send back so it actually saves them a little money when you do that, plus it keeps it out of the landfill. It really is a win-win for everybody! Bob

    • Bob

      You are very right CAE. Living like we do makes us much more tuned in and aware of what is going on around us. To some people that is a bad thing, they don’t want to be bothered by such unimportant matters. But it makes me feel more alive and involved. Even the most trivial things become a mini-adventure!
      We had a new lady in camp awhile back and I had to go to the dump for a trash run, and so I asked her if she want to go for a “date” with me to the dump. Of course she was thrilled at the prospect LOL! So that has become kind of a standard joke of going to the dump for a date.
      Whether we plan to or even care, vandwelling is one of the very greenest and most environmentally sustainable ways to live. Bob

      • CAE

        Living off the grid gives everyone a much greater sense of self. Our society has really created all kinds of things that hide life from us on a day-to-day basis. I’ve often lived on a 35 foot sailboat and that really drives home self-sufficiency and our impact on nature.

        • Bob

          Hi CAE, I agree totally. In our obsession with getting rid of all possible discomfort and danger, we not only block them, we exclude a huge amount of joy. We not only keep out heat and cold, we keep out life. I’m sure you lost lots of comfort on that sailboat, but you were fully, totally alive in every fiber of your being! Bob

  10. Tim McDougall

    I also use the small Walmart plastic bags for trash. When getting groceries or gas at Walmart I make use of the trash cans provided. Since it comes from there it seems fitting to return it where it came from. Definitely easier to get rid of it a little bit at a time instead of letting it pile up. I also buy bottled drinking water there and fill a larger drinking water container from the purified water machine. The gas station at Walmart is also a good place to dump the porta potty tank into the toilet. Great one stop shopping and recycling.

    • Bob

      Your right Ted, that is a lot of tasks done in one spot. Although to be fair it is equally true of most department and grocery stores. Walmart just has the cheapest prices while you are doing everything else.
      I know some people have valid reasons why they choose not to shop at Walmart, and I am sympathetic to them. But I have to be honest and say I am lulled by the low prices just like most Americans are. When I am deciding where to make my next camp, one of the big considerations is how far away is it to a Super Walmart. Bob

  11. Linda Sand

    Watch for roadside picnic areas, too. They often have water spigots but it might be well water they use primarily to water the vegetation there so treat accordingly. If that spigot is on the side of a drinking fountain, though, have at it.

    • Bob

      Good tip Linda!

  12. Blars

    Casinos that allow overnight parking frequently have trash cans or dumpsters for people staying there.

    • Bob

      Good tip Blars! Plus, the buffet aint nothin to sneeze at either!

  13. Ken in Anaheim

    Hi Bob (et al) :I was wondering if you (or anyone else) could give me an idea as to just how much water (and soda) you use each month (?) This would include for drinking, cooking, bathing, etc.
    One always hears that a gallon-a-day is needed for “survival” but I’m wondering how much is needed to “live”

    • Bob

      ken, I am extremely frugal in my use of water. I probably drink around 1/2 to 3/4 of a gallon of soda and water a day total. And I use very little for cleaning. I just wipe out my dishes and give them a final rinse with a quart spray bottle. I bathe with wet wipes and wash cloths. So I am sure I could get by with 3/4 of a gallon a day. Homer drinks a lot though. At least 3/4 of a gallon a day.
      because I drink so much soda, I figure 1 gallon a day for the two of us.

  14. Al Christensen

    I try to dispose of the right things in the right places. I don’t get religious about it, though, because I figure I’m tossing a fraction of what the average person does. I also un-package as much stuff as I can as soon as I buy it. Then I toss the packaging there in the store trash cans. When I make a pit stop, I’ve started buying drinks from the self-serve fountain instead of cans or bottles. A flattened cup takes up less room in the trash and I don’t worry about recycling cans or bottles.

    • Bob

      Al, me too! I am of fountain drinks. But I have a big, insulated mug I use for refills. I got it at a truck stop, but every convenience store sells them. They cost less than cans or cups, stay cold a very long time and are better for the environment. My problem is that I am generally not around a store with one so I mainly use cans.
      The best thing would be to switch to water, but alas, I am addicted. What’s worse, I have no desire to give it up!

Table of Contents