What is Dry Camping
A group sponsored by Coleman, just under 14 percent of the U.S. population went camping at least once in 2016.
This is close to the same figure of prior years. For those who camp, they tend to average around two weeks of camping per year.
One important take away from this information is that there are a lot of people in the United States who may be curious about camping but know little about it.
This article will not only answer the question, “What is dry camping?” but it will provide those of you who have not participated in dry camping a good idea of how to do it in terms of actual planning and in practice.
We will also attempt to answer frequently asked questions of the camping curious to help you understand what the real truth is about dry camping. You will find that there is a lot of urban lore about dry camping that is repeated over and over by city dwellers who have little idea whereof they speak.
Sadly, things repeated over and over tend to be believed as truth.
What is Dry Camping? –
Dry camping means to camp in a location that does not provide electricity or water from utilities or a campground supply. Dry camping goes by several names.
It is called boondocking, dispersed camping or wild camping. You are not at an RV park hooked up to an electric and water supply.
The Forest Service calls this dispersed camping because you are in some location other than a campground. You get to pick your own spot.
You won’t have others nearby, and there will not be “poo-poo palaces,” or commodes of some type. They are also no shower facilities. You will have to provide all of this yourself.
For some of you, your response might be, “Why would I want that? I would like to spend some time in nature, but I want to have all of the modern conveniences around me.” Let’s answer that next…
What Are the Advantages of Dry Camping or Boondocking? –
You aren’t jammed in against other campers –
The majority of campgrounds of all types in the U.S. have campers packed in one against the other, like sardines. You have basically brought the city with you when you are camping with amenities.
The vast majority of RV parks are set up with one rig packed right up against another. The same is true of Forest Service campgrounds. You will have to contend with the noise of your neighbors, their dogs versus your dogs and a total lack of privacy.
When you are dry camping, you pick your spot. You can be more isolated, if you like, or you can have nearby neighbors, if you choose. This will likely ensure a peaceful stay that is quiet and safer.
Because you’re picking your own spot, it’s safer to say that you won’t get lost in the area when jogging or walking.
You can pick boondocking spots that will allow you to enjoy a summer holiday weekend and see few, if any campers, if you choose carefully. You can also pick the optimal site for sun and wind exposure and the one that accommodates the sizes of your vehicles.
You don’t have to leave at noon because of campground rules –
Sleep in and leisurely enjoy your last day camping and go when you want. Most RV parks and campgrounds like to kick you out before you can enjoy your last afternoon of camping.
Dry camping is free!!! –
That should have been the first advantage, but full-time RVers realize that privacy is one of our most important issues.
You can target shoot in your campsite –
If you want to engage in archery or target shooting, many dispersed campsites can accommodate such activities, if you choose your spot wisely and follow the National Forest or BLM rules. There is more about that below in the section regarding personal safety.
How Do I Find a Boondocking Spot? –
Hurray for the wonders of the internet! Today, we have many ways to find good, quality boondocking spots. Freecamping.net provides some boondocking spots.
You can also find blogs by people who post their finds. You can buy economical ebooks from the Frugal Shunpiker. These cover many boondocking locations in California, Arizona, Utah and Texas.
A really great way to find spots is to use a combination of the Benchmark map book for your target state to narrow down your location and then Google Maps to get more specific. You are looking for places where small side roads take off or where roads dead end.
Please realize, though, that you cannot camp in front of gates, even when they are closed and locked. Often, it is unsafe and prohibited to camp near trailheads.
You are looking for Forest Service and BLM lands, but you can also look for state land as well. You will need to look at the rules for where you would like to camp.
There are some locations, for example on the national forest, that are prohibited. Often, these are locations that are just outside of popular camping areas. This is to contain the camping and its impact inside of those areas.
One other great way to find locations is to go ahead and camp in a campground for a night or two and go on reconnaissance missions to see where the good boondocking spots might be.
This is a good way to avoid getting stuck towing with your trailer down some road where you cannot turn around.
What Are the Different Ways to Dry Camp? –
Tent Camping –
One of the really great advances in the new tents of the last several years is an easy-up style. Coleman and others have tents that you can deploy easily in just a few minutes.
The older styles take more fussing with shock-corded poles and getting everything just so. Even if you do have an easy-up tent, don’t forget to stake it down! Otherwise, the wind could blow away your shelter for the night.
There are also some very convenient tents now that wrap around the tailgate of your truck or the back of your SUV. They tend to cost a few hundred dollars.
Another newer invention that has come to us from Australia is a type of tent that deploys over the roof of your vehicle. Two cautionary tales are in order about those.
One is the danger of how you are accessing the roof of your vehicle. If you are camping with young children, maybe this is not a great idea. Also, most campers are out in the mountains where, even in summer, it gets colder at night than you would expect.
With your tent over the top of your vehicle’s roof, you won’t have the ground to insulate your body from cold that will seep under the tent. If you invest in one of these tents, a suggestion would be to buy it somewhere that has a really good return policy for if you are unhappy with your purchase.
Hammock Camping –
There are some really great hammock tents that have arrived on the market in the past twenty years. They are sturdy and have bug screens and waterproof flies.
They are easy to deploy and get into. You might want to test one at home, though, to see if you feel comfortable sleeping in it at night. A big tip is to place an insulated sleeping pad inside the hammock. It helps with the insulation from below and also fills out the room in the hammock better.
Coleman’s state of the industry look at camping in 2017 showed that only 3 percent of people backpack. You will need a lighter tent and think seriously about what you are willing to take with you and what to leave behind. Personally, I find a solar shower worth taking.
Truck / Car Bed Camping –
If you have a truck and a camper shell, you have a great place to store your camping items and a place to sleep at night. You will only need to take up one-half of the space in the truck bed. You can pile everything on the other side. It is very secure.
If you have a wagon type car, you can easily put a bed in it and dry camping is a cake walk!
Van Camping –
There is a big resurgence of people converting vans into campers. You will need to insulate the space and decide how to furnish it for camping.
More about the conversion and what it entails is in the very next section below. This is another secure way to camp that gets you out of the elements in the event of bad weather, like a rainstorm.
Cargo Trailer Conversion –
This is my personal favorite. There are many people who have begun to realize that many RVs on the market are poorly designed for space and comfort (that dinette!).
RVs also seem to have a planned obsolescence to them. Offerings from most manufacturers don’t last as long as they should. Airstream is the exception.
Many cargo trailers have rugged, steel-beamed construction and pretty thick aluminum skins. They are built to last.
They can take a little bit of abuse on dirt Forest Service roads, and the “paved” ones as well because they have sturdy leaf springs.
Best of all, they cost a fraction of the price of even the smallest RV trailer. A six foot by 10 foot cargo trailer with a roof vent cut in for you can be had for around $2,500 new.
The cheapest and smallest new RV trailers cost $10,000 and up. Get yourself a nice silver one, and it will look just like those little Airstreams now on the market, sans the window.
When you have bought your trailer, you have an unfinished work of art. Insulate it up with foam board that you cover with plywood; put in your bed, tables and storage; and decide how high tech and sophisticated you want and can afford to make it.
You can buy tables and storage for next to nothing at thrift stores and attach them to the walls with plumber’s tape and to the floors with L-brackets, or you can make your own furnishings. There are so many videos on YouTube that show you some really great ideas.
The videos show the most rudimentary CT conversions all the way up to those that rival, and often exceed, what the RV manufacturers offer.
The best news is that you have saved a ton of money, and you will have something that will last for a very long time with very little maintenance. Also, the floor plan design is your own. It will work better for you and your family.
You can buy an RV, new or used, or you can rent one. It seems the rental prices for RVs are going down a bit. If you go the latter route, carefully check your rental agreement, so you don’t end up doing something that costs you in fees far more than the rental fee.
RVers need to think about and plan for where to dump the greywater and blackwater tanks. Since you will not be in a campground, sewage disposal will not be provided.
Many areas of the National Forest have places to dump your tanks, but you will have to look it up on the Forest Service website for that particular forest. Very few are free.
Often, the fee is about $15. If you try to dump your tanks in the forest or on the road, not only shame on you, but you will likely get fined. Yuck! Please no! The rest of us are going to use the forest as well.
What About Water? –
For every camping option above, you will need to bring along the water you need for your bathing and consumption needs. You can use a filter for drinking water from the creeks, streams and lakes.
There are small filters for backpackers all the way up to the pricey, but well regarded, Berkey filtration system that you could use for vehicle camping.
What About Bathroom and Hygiene Needs? –
There are porta-potties that are a must for anyone vehicle camping that people car-camping in tents can use, with privacy tarps, as well. I know this will sound gross, but I found that the chemicals do not make the smell in the toilets go away.
It just smells like chemical pee and poo fermenting. The chemicals, though, break down the toilet paper.
My highly experienced advice is to skip the chemicals and place the toilet paper in a bag that you wrap up tightly after each visit to the loo.
If you are convinced you want the chemicals, it is best to buy the pricey porta-potty toilet paper, because it breaks down better.
You can save on repeated dumps of your potty by doing Number One where you can benefit nature. You are dispersed camping, so you should be in a fairly private spot and can hide behind the bushes.
Some RVers swear by composting toilets. They are still very pricey, but there is supposed to be no smell.
The output is compost you can use on your plants in the garden.
The simplest shower is a solar shower. Put the water in the bag, the bag in the sun, and let it heat up.
They work pretty well. You can even take one of these backpacking.
The next simplest shower works well for vehicle campers. You fill a 12-quart stockpot with a gallon of water. Heat it up on your stove to boiling.
Add two more gallons of water that are cold and adjust the temperature to suit you by adding more cold water, if necessary. Mix the water and use a sauce pan to pour it over your head.
You can construct a simple shower stall in your van or CT conversion with items as simple as storage containers, PVC piping and elbow connectors, and tarps.
Admittedly, since it takes 20 minutes to heat the water, I call this the “hour shower” system.
More expensive water heating systems include offerings by Zodi or Coleman that you can find on Amazon.com. They use propane and batteries to heat and deliver the water.
I tried the Coleman and was disappointed. I had to return one, and the replacement died in a few months’ time. I frankly like the stockpot-heated water system better.
If you want to install a 12-volt pump, you can install an on-demand hot water system in your van or CT conversion. The reviews of those are often iffy, not glowing.
What Are Other Important Things to Take Dry Camping? –
Lighting – Headlamps, flashlights, LED lights, and spare batteries. You can take a propane lantern or one of today’s more efficient and battery-friendly LED lamps.
Toiletries and lots of towels
A double bag system is great for those who get cold easily. I personally like a heavy bag, in the zero degree range, that I may just lay on top of in most weather, with a bag I just pull over on top of me, just like a blanket, at night.
When it gets really cold, I get in the heavy bag and drape the lighter bag on top. The heavy bag provides more insulation from the underside and more cushioning.
Memory foam or foam camping pad –
If you are backpacking or tenting, you will want to invest in a foam, self-inflating camping pad that you place under your sleeping bag. It will provide insulation and will be far more comfortable than sleeping on the hard ground.
Those of us sleeping in our truck beds, trailers, vans, or RVs can do much, much better. Go to Walmart and buy blocks of memory foam. It is luxurious to sleep on! Sleeping on memory foam is just as comfortable as your mattress at home.
Memory foam can be expensive, but Walmart is truly the “low price leader” on memory foam. This will also provide insulation from the cold that will seep up from under your vehicle.
Propane, cooking stove, pots, pans, utensils, paper towels, cooler, block ice and your food supplies.
Solar panel set-up –
Today, one just needs to buy a 12-volt battery and a suitcase-type solar panel and you can keep the lights in your trailer on and your phone and laptop charged. 100 watts is fine for such small usage when dry camping.
Gas or propane generator –
If you have an RV and have larger needs for electricity, such as your furnace, your solar panel supply may not be enough. Then, you will have to use a generator and store your gasoline in the rig as well.
Noise is an issue. The best advice is to run your generator long enough to top off your batteries in your rig and then turn it off.
Warm clothing –
It is going to be much colder than you think at night. Layers of clothing that you can add on are the best.
Also, during the day, it is better to wear fabrics that wick your sweat, so you don’t get cold later in the afternoon. Here in the forest, we say, “Cotton kills.” Cotton stays wet longer.
If you get chilled in the late afternoon, you could get hypothermia. Don’t forget warm hats and gloves.
Tarps and ropes –
When you go dry camping, you may need to cover your campsite in the event of rain. Pick the heavy-duty tarps, not the flimsy ones.
I have a flagpole holder, extension pole, magnets and tarp that I use to cover the back of my CT conversion and its back door when it rains. This is like a vestibule. The CT conversion is silver and so is the heavy-duty tarp. It looks really nice, not tacky.
Recreation needs –
Bicycle, backpacks, water bottles, the 10 essentials to go in your backpack when hiking, hiking boots, running shoes, water shoes, trail maps and guidebooks, hand-held GPS, kayaks, etc.
What Do I Need for a Campfire? –
You will need a campfire permit, a shovel, a bucket, a good water supply, and wood that is seasoned.
Cotton coated in petroleum jelly and stored in a pill bottle makes a great fire starter, if you begin with small kindling.
Please understand that you are not permitted to chop down trees or branches at your campsite, and they will not burn well or readily.
Green wood does not burn! You can take wood you buy at the supermarket or pick dried, downed wood. The latter will burn.
It is best to find a dispersed camping spot with a fire ring already in place. The Forest Service prefers that you use a camping spot that others have used as well.
How Do I Keep Safe? –
I am purposely writing in depth about this because many of you may not boondock because you don’t feel you would be safe and much of the information out there is either vague, not clearly spelled out or absolutely false.
The forest service may be intentionally vague about open carry of firearms in the national forest. The National Forest Service explains that state law trumps forest service rules when it comes to firearms.
There are rules about where you may shoot. The calgun rules explains the rules that apply on the California national forests. You will need to consult a trusted legal source to see how the laws in your state affect your ability to carry your firearm on the national forest or BLM land.
If you don’t like guns, you can open carry a knife, or you can carry pepper spray in whatever manner you so choose… but, here is the most important information that city dwellers who have never dispersed camp need to realize:
You will not have much of any problems with animals, if you keep your foods out of sniff range. Clean up everything after you eat and store it away.
If you are on a forest or on BLM land that has a bear problem, you will know because the campgrounds have bear lockers in each campsite. You can find this information in advance by consulting the appropriate National Forest Service or BLM page for the area you would like to visit.
If you go dry camping there and find issues, you can easily pack up your things and find a different location to go!
Animals don’t want to harm you. They are mostly quite afraid and want to stay away from where you are.
Yes, I know this is contrary to all you have heard in the past. In campsites, there can be issues because people do dumb things, like leave food out or leave a mess. If you pick a dispersed site that does not already have a food mess, you will likely be okay.
You are getting this information from someone who has been almost entirely dispersed camping for the past four years and who almost entirely does so on the west slope of the Sierra.
An incident I had is a good case in point. I camp with my cat. I stay outside, in good weather, all day long and watch over my cat.
A larger bear looked at my cat as I laid eyes on it. As soon as it saw my cat, it backed out quietly away from us and our dispersed campsite. He did not want to harm my cat nor me. He just wanted some space. It was not a dangerous situation.
I have had many bear encounters in my life. Here on the west slope of the Sierra, they mostly run away.
They have run away from my bicycle several times as I was out bicycling and have run away as I was on my run. One time, Momma Bear and two larger baby bears and I stood about 30 feet apart for a few minutes, like we were having a conversation.
They wandered away after a while, and then I did, too. I just did not make any sudden moves to frighten them. They don’t want to hurt us, unless they feel threatened.
If you have any problems, just bang some pots as the Forest Service advises. I have never had to bang any pots in four years.
It is unlikely you will need to either, if you dispersed camp.
You may ask about mountain lion encounters. Here on the west slope, where I have lived and moved my body in the woods for the past 25 years, I have had only two mountain lion encounters.
Sadly, there are far fewer mountain lions in the woods than in the past. Also, they do a very good job of keeping themselves away from places where the people tend to be. They want to hunt, and they don’t want to hunt you.
I carry my rifle because I am honestly and understandably much more afraid of the two-legged types I might encounter in the woods.
I am mostly carrying my protection due to the need to protect myself from people who might try to cause harm, not animals!
What I am saying about security when boondocking may not coincide with what you have heard before, but it comes from 25 years of moving my body in the woods in the Sierra every day and four years of full-time RVing here.
Other places may be a bit different. Likely, most, if not all, of it is true most everywhere you can go in the U.S. Alaska is likely the exception or the extreme Northern Midwest.
Plan carefully, but you can have a far better time dry camping than you can jammed in like a sardine in an RV park. It will be more peaceful, and you will be able to do things at your own pace and in your own time. Have fun!