The Art of Boondocking: Beginner Tips & Safety Reminders
The Art of Boondocking: Beginner Tips & Safety Reminders
How to find places to boondock and important solo camper insights.
By: Abby Holcombe
Boondocking, what’s that? If you are new to RVing, this may be a term you haven’t heard before. Boondocking is a word commonly used among travelers and overlanders to describe the process of camping out of a vehicle in a self-sufficient way. A major perk of boondocking is that it is free, so this can vary from spending the night in wild and scenic places to the likes of a Walmart or Cracker Barrel parking lot.
Initially, boondocking sounds a lot more intimidating than it is. I hope by the end of my article you will have a greater knowledge of the art of boondocking, and who knows, you might even be inspired to try it out yourself!
How to Find a Place to Boondock
I primarily use three different strategies when looking for a place to boondock for the night. I find comfort in knowing that I won’t have security knocking on my door in the middle of the night, so I try to stay in places where I am fairly confident that I won’t get hassled to move. The more you boondock, the greater your understanding will be of what to look for and avoid.
1. Word of Mouth
If I have friends in the area or friends who have been in the area before, word of mouth can be a great strategy for finding a free camping spot. Getting firsthand information from people I know and trust about the convenience, amenities, and security of each boondock location is ideal. My parents and I have both found amazing places to boondock by talking to locals and other travelers we meet along the way.
If I can’t find a word-of-mouth recommendation for where to stay, my next step is to pull out my phone and use an app to find a place to boondock for the night. I normally use iOverlander and AllStays. I have found BLM land, Walmarts, Cracker Barrels, and more to park at overnight for free. Apps are one of the best ways to find tried and trusted boondocking destinations.
There are so many different options and pins for where you can boondock when scrolling through each app. When I find a location that looks promising, I always make sure to carefully read the reviews. I try to find the most recent reviews and see if they were able to successfully park overnight, check for any mention of the word sketchy or feeling unsafe, and where the best places were to park.
Below is a screenshot on iOverlander of the reviews from a Walmart I stayed at recently. The reviews weren’t as recent as I would have liked, but they were all so positive that I went for it anyways. It turned out that there were quite a few other boondockers already parked there for the night which was reassuring.
Once I have all of the information, I decide if it’s someplace where I think I can safely park for the night. If I feel good about it, I'll open the coordinates in Google Maps and proceed to my ‘home’ for the night.
This option is pretty hit or miss, hence why it’s lower down on the list. Staying at restaurants is ideal for cross-country road trips where you might have less time to research and prepare a place to stay for the night because you’ve been driving all day.
Sometimes, if I’m really in a pinch, I will go to a restaurant, order dinner, and as the server brings me the check, I’ll ask if they allow overnight parking. Restaurants don’t want swarms of prehistoric and falling apart vehicles deterring potential customers. So, make sure the server understands you are in a contained and functioning vehicle and that you will only be staying for one night.
I use keywords like ‘Winnebago RV,’ ‘self-contained,’ ‘Mercedes Sprinter,‘ etc. This is especially important when you are a young traveler. And if they do allow me to stay overnight, I make sure to be extra generous with my tip.
Backup Option: Campgrounds
If all else fails, you can always use one of the apps I mentioned above to find a local campground. While not free, it’s important to remember that this is always an option, especially if you feel unsafe or concerned about your original boondocking location.
Setting Yourself Up for Boondocking Success & Safety
After finding a place to boondock, it is time to get parked and setup. Here are my tips for setting yourself up for success in most situations.
What to Look for When Parking
Personally, when I’m on BLM land or in wild boondocking locations, I’m less worried about someone bothering me so I try to find the most comfortable place to stay (level, access to phone service, good view, etc)
However, when boondocking at a Walmart, restaurants, etc. I try to find the safest place in the parking lot. This looks different in each situation, but I look for lights to park under, where the most traffic is, or other campers to park next to.
I’ve spent so many nights sleeping in strange places that I feel comfortable staying in most environments. I don’t worry so much about staying in a Walmart parking lot, but more so about not having people around me. Hence most of the things I look for involve finding the most populated area to park.
This gives me comfort because if someone were to hassle me during the night or try to steal my kayaks off the roof of my van, I would have plenty of other people around to hopefully notice the commotion and help me out. It also helps that I grew up falling asleep to the sounds of busy roads/parking lots/campgrounds/etc. so I can tolerate sleeping through the busiest areas of a parking lot.
Each location is different, and you need to abide by the business' rules, but I always look out for those three traits in a parking spot. And I think it should be noted that while I prepare for the worst, I have never personally had someone hassle me or try to steal anything off of my van.
Parking ‘Race Ready’
This essentially means that I always back into my parking space for the night to ensure that there is an easy exit if I need to make a quick escape. Again, this is situational, but as you are parking make sure you have a quick escape path if you need to leave abruptly in the night.
You Are Parked for the Night, Now What?
Regardless of where I am boondocking, I ALWAYS do the following:
1. Shut Curtains
Once parked, I don’t turn on any lights until all curtains and blinds are drawn. Most of the time, I arrive late and leave early, so I try to avoid using any lights if possible, just to draw less attention to myself. I think this helps with safety as well as keeping a low profile, so I don’t get asked to leave.
2. Stay Inside
I also make sure not to leave the vehicle once I’m parked for the night. This way, people outside of the vehicle don’t know that I am traveling alone as a young girl. I’ve heard of women putting men's clothing (hat, jacket, etc.) in the cab of their vehicle so that outsiders assume there is a man in the vehicle, but I have never tried this.
3. Be Ready to Go
Similar to parking race-ready, I also make sure to keep my van as stowed as possible in case I need to have a quick getaway.
Top Tip for Boondocking: Trust Your Gut
Last but most certainly not least, trust your gut! There are always other options and if you feel unsafe or uneasy, trust your instincts and stay somewhere else if necessary! It’s always better to air on the side of caution than to put yourself in a risky situation.
I’ve been boondocking for most of my life in various vehicles, and now in my Winnebago + Adventure Wagon, and I have yet to have a bad experience. Prepare for the worst, stay aware of your surroundings, and enjoy the entire experience!
There are so many perks to boondocking (budget, no reservations, ease, etc.). But most importantly, I love boondocking because I meet interesting people, stumble across the most unexpected and breathtaking places to camp, and I’ve learned so much about myself by putting myself in unfamiliar environments.
I hope this article gives you more comfort and knowledge in the art of boondocking because there truly are some incredible places out there!
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