There’s a fallacy amongst some RVers that boondocking costs nothing. Well, I’m here to say that there is no such thing as FREE CAMPING. There are costs associated with camping off grid but nobody will admit or be truthful about them. From equipment for your RV, basic survival supplies to certain fees, many RVers don’t think about or even consider them when planning their budget.
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There’s No Such Thing as Free Camping! Truth in RV Boondocking Costs
Backcountry and Dispersed Camping Permit Fees
There’s a misconception that there are no fees like typical campgrounds. That is half truth. Many BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or U.S. Forest property actually DO have ‘developed campgrounds’ but the also have ‘dispersed camping’.
While some of those campgrounds may be free, there are others that charge up to $30 per night. And, depending on the area, some dispersed camping areas on federal land requires permit and many attach a fee. You may have to procure and pay for a backcountry permit or there may be an ‘honor box’. (Please DO NOT disregard those honor boxes!)
Let’s take Quartzsite, Arizona for example. According to Recreation.gov,
“A Long-Term Visitor Area (LTVA) pass is required to use a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designated LTVA. … The permit and decal(s) are valid at all Bureau of Land Management LTVAs, which include Hot Springs, Imperial, La Posa, Midland, Mule Mountain, Pilot Knob, and Tamarisk.”
A long term visitor pass costs $180 per season while a short term visitor pass costs $40 for 14 days. For more information, check out the BLM website for details.
Also, even though we boondocked in one of the dispersed camping areas at Big Bend National Park, we still had to pay $5 per day (we have the NPS Access Pass) for a backcountry permit. If you don’t have a qualifying National Park pass, it would cost about $10 a day.
Trust Lands or Endowment Lands
Some states have what you call, Trust Lands or Endowment Lands. 16 states still hold these lands as their own public lands. But, to be able to enjoy so-called free camping, you still may have to purchase a State permit or day use pass. Boondocker’s Bible gives you a great rundown of states where these trust lands exist.
Why are there fees to camp on public lands?
Why do we have to pay fees for staying on federal lands like those listed above? Because the National Park Service, BLM and U.S. Forest Service still has to maintain the dispersed camping areas, provide bear boxes, and make certain roads leading to the dispersed camping area.
In other words, don’t assume that you can just park your RV anywhere on public lands, BLM, U.S. Forest or National Park (or their subsidiaries) thinking it’s free camping. Always check with the Ranger station first. One last note, a great resource in finding boondocking and free camping is on FreeCampsites.net.
We have two memberships designed for ‘free RV parking’ that we pay an annual premium for; Harvest Hosts and Boondocker’s Welcome. And while the parking itself may be free, the memberships cost us about $100/year for Harvest Hosts (check out our 15% off coupon below) and Boondocker’s Welcome annual membership costs about $50.
But there’s also other associated costs with boondocking (or lotdocking) with these particular memberships. There’s an expectation that membership users reciprocate by patronizing their hosts through purchase, donation and/or gifts. Though technically, you are essentially boondocking, is it not considered free camping. We usually spend anywhere from $20 to $100 depending on what the Harvest Host offers in product, meals and service. While we don’t make a habit of spending more than $20 or $30 per host, it is plausible to make certain we budget for these boondocking costs.
READ MORE: Top Money-Saving RV Club Memberships
Another that we utilize so-called free RV parking is through our Benevolent Protective Order of Elks. Our home lodge and national membership combined is about $120 a year. But it doesn’t end there.
There’s a level of expectation that we promise to either support the lodge through bar or food purchases, fundraisers or by simply making a donation to the lodge we may be boondocking. Each time we stay at an Elks Lodge for an overnight, it costs anywhere from $20 to $50 with exception to fundraisers may cost a little more.
Solar Panels, RV Batteries and Energy Management System
If you boondock or camp off grid in your RV, you already know that your RV batteries are one of the most important components you need in your RV or camper. Because since there are no electric pedestals out there in the deserts, lake or riversides, you need a substantial amount of battery storage to sustain your electric usage.
Because we are full-time, we’ve invested time and money into installing solar panels and energy management systems for both, our former Landmark fifth wheel and now, our Winnebago View.
Here’s the deal and this is an unpopular, however, it’s a true statement. You’re not boondocking for free until your electric system is paid for. It’s like driving a car on a loan. That car is not yours until it’s paid in entirety. So, here’s an assessment to give you an idea of what to expect. I can’t really give you a monetary figure because all RVs are different as are each RVers electric requirements.
Upgrade Your RV Batteries
Dan traded out our lead acid batteries for more sustainable lithium batteries that allow us to take them down to 0% state of charge, require no maintenance and last much longer. Lithium batteries will typically last from 10 to 15 years based on usage and other contributing factors.
We admit, while lithium batteries are not cheap, our wishes to stay out there longer far outweighed the cost of replacing our lead acid batteries with lithium.
Upgrade Your RV’s Energy Management System Components
When replacing our batteries though, we also had to out our battery monitor system, converter and inverter along with installing new cables that are more accommodating to our newer energy management systems.
Install Solar Panels
Your RV’s energy management system and RV house batteries are only two thirds of the equation if you wish to boondock off grid. To get them all to provide you ample energy to transfer to electricity, your RV will need solar panels to finish that equation to produce enough electricity to run your coach’s appliances, lights, and other RV components. And while solar panels are not as pricy as your battery replacements, they’ll still cost you depending on wattage and size.
Plain and simple, you’re NOT boondocking for free until your electric system is completely paid for.
Generator Usage Costs
If your RV is not equipped with a decent solar and energy management system and you want charge your batteries, you’re going to need a generator. Some motorhomes and fifth wheels may come equipped with an onboard generator. However, if not, you’ll need to buy a portable generator. And if you need to run your RV air conditioner, you may want to get two smaller portable generators and a parallel kit.
And then, you’ll need to fuel your generator which is adds to your boondocking costs. For what it’s worth, RVs that have propane powered generators will pay significantly more to run them than portable gas-powered generators.
Whether you’re boondocking or not, your RV requires water to sustain toilet usage, personal hygiene, dishwashing, cooking, etc. And, needless to say, water is not free. Whether you go to a campground and fill it up before you trek out to your favorite boondocking spot, filling up your water tank is associated within your campsite fee.
If you’re already boondocking and need to head in to fill up your water tank or you wish to fill up your transportable water bladder to bring back to your RV, you’ll need to pay that water somewhere.
And lastly, if you purchase drinking water, either buying gallons or cases of water at the store or filling your own water jugs at a water service station, you’re still paying for that water. When we use these drinking water fill stations or buy drinking water in the store, we average about $5-10 per week.
Dump Station Fees
Similar to your water usage, what goes in must also come out. When you’re boondocking, your gray and black tanks are going to fill up and you’ll need to empty them. Which means, you’ll need to find a dump station in the locale of where you’ll be camping with your RV.
Our fifth wheel, our gray and black tanks combined were approximately 180 gallons. Considering our fifth wheel was huge it was little more tedious to pack up and relocate. And besides, we didn’t want to lose our prime boondocking site so, we learned how to how to empty our black tank without moving our RV!
But, with our tiny Class C motorhome, and our sewer tanks top out at approximately 60 total gallons. So now, since we have much smaller tanks, we actually frequent dump stations more often which adds a little more cost to boondock. Any which way, regardless of RV size, we average around $10-20 for each dump station visit.
Propane usage while you’re boondocking may be heightened while you’re camping off grid. Because, instead of running your electric heaters and electric appliances, which will consume massive amounts of battery storage, you’ll need to rely on your propane appliances. Also, if we want to have a campfire using our propane fire pit, we’ll need to fill up our little propane cylinder.
And yes, while you’re paying for propane regardless, finding propane is still an expense even when boondocking. And don’t forget, propane costs are regional and can differ greatly from state to state.
How WE save money on boondocking costs
To save on boondocking costs, we try to find a dump station that also has potable water that’s included in the dump fee. And sometimes, it’s more conducive to just pull into a cheap campground with full hookups for an overnight. That way, we not only take long hot showers (we, Coasties call them hotel showers), but also fill our RV water tank.
This is the time we will flush and clean our black tank so it’s clean and empty for our next boondocking adventure.
We also take that time inport to batch cook which requires more dishwashing water. As well, we catch up on laundry which costs a bit of money. However, we’d do that regardless if we were parked at a campground or boondocking.
And, we save money using Dan’s National Park Access Pass that cuts even our boondocking fees in half on federal land, National Forestry land or those within the National Park system.
But mostly, to save on boondocking costs, we monitor and conserve every drop of water and sewer waste which leaves us more time off the grid than hunting for water and dump stations.
Final thoughts on proving that RV boondocking is NOT FREE!
Well, we’ve busted those myths from those who claim that boondocking in their RV is free camping. Realistically, RV boondocking off the grid is not essentially free. There are expenses associated with boondocking that others don’t take into consideration. Yes, boondocking and camping off the grid is liberating, a great way to get away from crowded RV parks and campgrounds. And, it can be a low cost way of RV living. But not all boondocking is free camping.
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