Boondocking versus RV parks - there are so many different ways to go RVing. But not all boondocking is the same and there are services that point you to free boondocking destinations that are worth looking into. Two that come to mind are Harvest Hosts and Boondockers Welcome - both very different but both with the same goal - free camping.
What is boondocking?
Boondocking is where you use the infrastructure in your RV to camp completely off-grid. Most RVs have a complete system to offer us everything we need without being attached to anything. Water comes from holding tanks, the kitchen is powered by propane (including the refrigerator) and your toilet and sinks also dump into built-in holding tanks.
Some RVs have small tanks so you can only be off-grid for a few days whereas others, like toy haulers and motorhomes, have huge holding tanks affording their owners many days or even weeks without ever attaching to infrastructure before having to replenish the water and dump the holding tanks.
Furthermore some RVs come with generators to provide electricity for things like the air conditioning, if so equipped, and running the microwave. Others prefer the solitude of not hearing these engines while camping so they use their battery(ies) and solar panels, if they have them. We chose the solar route to keep our two six-volt batteries charged and have the article here.
One of the appeals to many boondockers about this style of camping is that it’s generally free or very, very inexpensive. Often times the locations are more remote and there aren’t other campers all over the place so there’s a degree of solitude. Although this isn’t always true as we shared in our article on Quartzsite where the town’s population swells from 3800 to almost half a million, most of whom are boondockers.
Another reason to boondock is you get to camp in places that can be very unique or picturesque or just unusual. That’s part of the point of the two boondocking services discussed here.
There are at least two companies that help put RVers in touch with places to enjoy free, or nearly free, camping or boondocking: boondockerswelcome.com and harvesthosts.com. Each service is connected with very different camping experiences and you may distinctly prefer one over the other. Both are similar in that both encourage you to stay just one night, although other arrangements can be made with some hosts. Also, the hosts don’t charge for the stays; I’ll say more on this later.
Boondockers Welcome connects travelers with places to stay that are generally private properties and residences. At only $30 per year the service is decidedly affordable and one night’s stay can justify membership. Some hosts allow you to stay up to five days as well - another plus.
Harvest Hosts is more affiliated with businesses that allow boondocking so it feels very different than staying in someone’s driveway for free. However the fancier stays, in my opinion, are what justifies the higher cost of $99.
Recently we tried both services out on a long road trip coming home from Quartzsite and each service definitely had it’s unique perspective. Both require that your RV is completely self-contained so tent campers are definitely out.
Both services use a paid Internet gateway to put you in touch with prospective hosts where you make contact in advance and arrange your stay. I give the nod on Internet services to Boondockers Welcome as they had more places to stay and the process was done totally via the Internet including receiving texts from the service as a reminder or when a host accepted our request to stay or had questions for us.
The stays we arranged through Boondockers Welcome were people’s private residences. If you’re a friendlier sort, this might be for you as some of these people are avid RVers who want to exchange experiences, others are retired RVers who may also want to share experiences and there are also people whom you’ll never see.
You’re basically camping at people’s homes although there are farm lands or other less dense places. You also make a personal connection with some of your hosts which is really nice, and many are good about referring you to local sights and hot spots so you have a built-in tour guide, also nice.
Harvest Hosts spots are often local landmarks. We stayed at a railroad museum and a 4,000 acre winery that also raises pigs and cattle for beef. I love trains so staying at the railroad museum was literally the coolest camping experience I’ve ever had. I got to ride trains around and stroll through barns full of old locomotives and trolleys - it was fantastic. You can see our video about this experience on this page.
At the winery we picked up some wonderful wines along with some pork, sausages and steaks, all of which were wonderful. We also met some great hosts in both places so the experience isn’t cold at all and the landmarks you’re staying at can be really cool. In fact I prefer these experiences to campgrounds by a long shot.
With Harvest Hosts you’re given the location information up front and you call to arrange your stay with the host. The one fly in this ointment comes from businesses not sharing the fact that they’re Harvest Host members with all their team members so it’s possible to get someone who has zero idea of what’s going on.
Also with Harvest Hosts it’s implied that you try out the service or product of your host which can go from very inexpensive to not. I spent over $50 at the train museum on tickets, shirts and souvenirs and almost $200 at the winery. However, this was my choice - I could have come away with just a ride ticket at the train museum and a bottle of wine at the winery and have spent significantly less money. Man those steaks and sausages were good and the wine was fantastic as well so I feel that I absolutely got my money’s worth.
Plus, in some ways it was a bit intimidating staying at people’s houses, for me, whereas staying at these businesses was much more enjoyable - but others may feel completely differently.
Of course another type of boondocking is what Abbey from OurWanderingFamily.com calls Waldocking which is camping out at WalMarts, many of which allow RVers to camp there free with the assumption that you’re going to go shopping at their stores at some point. There are also other places that let you stay for free for a night. Where I travel the Walmarts can be sketchy so I’d much rather stay at some place Boondockers Welcome or Harvest Hosts recommends.
Unlike hooking to services, boondocking is different and a judicious camper will have a better experience if they’re mindful of the limitations of their RV. For example, our small 19’ travel trailer only carries 40 gallons of water and has a 30 gallon tanks for black and gray water.
Even using the shower we can be off the grid for up to five days, we’ve found, but we really have to be mindful of water use and Navy showers are a must. We use solar panels to keep up the batteries in the trailer and, by only having the batteries, this means no microwave or air conditioner for us. This is fine as we tend to boondock more in the winter anyway.
When you’re off-grid you do tend to be more frugal with lights, water, and other resources. We switch to paper plates from the normal ones so we don’t have to wash them and more cooking is done over the campfire so we’re not washing pots and pans either.
Boondocking isn’t for everybody - we have a friend who just can’t get used to limiting themselves on water usage and can literally blow through their entire water reserves in an afternoon with lavish dish washing. Seriously.
But I like it because, as stated above, you’re camping where there is either more solitude or more unique experiences. The train museum was literally my favorite camping experience ever but I also loved the winery and we’ve got more stays booked so I will report on those through our various social media outlets as they happen.
The RV industry is generally concerned that few new campgrounds are being built, but this is America and we’re an innovative, can-do country. When one way of doing things doesn’t satisfy a need we’ll find another and this is definitely filling the need and doing it gloriously, inexpensively and creating even better memories which is what the whole RV experience is all about.