If you look up boondocking in the dictionary you won’t find it. But if you look up boondocks you will get the following definition.
Boondocking is the act of going camping for free out in the boonies, simply put.
Boondocking appeals to a lot of people for many different reasons.
Boondocking is free for the most part. If you are tight on the budget or want to go camping for long periods of time without having to deal with the added expense you can boondock for all or part of your camping trip to stretch your budget to camp longer.
One desire of mine is when I retire to go ‘camping’ all of the time and live like that. But my wife only wants to do it for up to 6 months of the year. Either way, if you factor in the cost of camping from $25 to $75 per night it can really add up! If you want to camp for only one week then the cost really wouldn’t matter. But if you want to camp for much longer than that then boondocking is the way to go!
When you go to a campground you can experience what my wife Amy calls ‘Combat Camping’ which means that the next camper over is only 20 feet away and you may have to deal with the noise of other campers with their loud music, barking dogs, playing kids, crying babies, etc. The privacy is what appeals to me the most about Boondocking and of course, the price is good also.
Unless you are a social person and crave meeting new people then you may want other campers close by. There are plenty of campsites out there though that have trees in between the campsites and for the most part, are generally quiet. But if you are like me then you really like the seclusion and the ability to hear the wind going through the leaves and branches of the trees. It is also nice to be able to sit next to the water and hear the lapping of the waves without interruption.
Where can you Boondock?
You can stop at your local DNR station and receive tips on where to do dispersed camping and they can even provide you with maps if they have them available. Don’t be afraid to ask because dispersed camping IS allowed!
One time while stealth camping in a closed state park we were approached by the DNR that camping was no longer allowed there. They told us that they started sprucing up the place to open the state park again. They were really friendly about everything, showed us an app we could use, and pointed to a great dispersed camping spot on a forest service road that was next to a lake!
Paper maps can really come in handy if you are in an area where there is no cell phone coverage to help you find a camping spot.
You can camp in certain areas of the National Forests that are outside of their typical campsites but you have to do so according to their rules and regulations such as 150 feet from a forest service road or at least 100 feet away from a water source such as a river, leave no trace (pack up your garbage!), and do not camp where there are signs saying no camping here. To abide by their rules you have to abide by each national forest’s guidelines according to the state you are in.
To find these guidelines just visit the local national forest website.
So why do the National Forests allow this when you don’t want to use their campsites?
Good question, when you do this you feel like you are stealth camping (more on that in another article) and breaking the law. To keep people from stealth camping and ruining the forests many National Forests create pull-offs along the forest service roads for people to pitch camps. This helps keep illegal camping down to a minimum and trashing our National Forests. Of course, you have to follow their guidelines of cleaning up after yourself and not leaving garbage behind. When I camped in several of these places I see a lot of people leave a lot of garbage behind and I am sure to pack extra garbage bags to clean up their mess!
To camp in areas like this, you fill out a form at the NFS (National Forest Service) office and leave a copy of the form at the campsite so that they know who camped there. Here is an example of a Dispersed Camping Registration Form from Michigan on 10/27/2022. Of course, you will want the most up-to-date form to use. You can get it by visiting the state’s DNR website.
To find your state’s DNR website just Google <your state> DNR Website.
How to Find National Forests
The easiest way to find National Forests is to just ask Google National Forest Near Me, download an app, or refer to an online list of National State Forests.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management)
The official website for the BLM explains where you can camp on the Department of Interior’s land. Whether it be paid campgrounds, dispersed campgrounds, and how to do campsite selection.
This website is also a great source that goes over the permits, fees, and limitations on camping on these lands. I have met one couple who said that they did disperse camping all over the United States just by using the BLM alone.
Allowed Commercial Properties
You may have heard that you can park in the parking lot of a Walmart, Casino, Truck Stop, or Cracker Barrel and yes you can do this for free but each commercial property is different so it is best to contact them and ask for permission first.
Of course, camping in a parking lot is not the ideal place to go camping but it works great if you are looking for a good spot and you are running out of time. The apps listed in this article can help you find these places.
Scoping out Boondocking Spots Ahead of Time
You can use apps, websites, and Google Maps to help you find good boondocking spots. Just remember that these sources cannot be 100% accurate. There are times that I went to an area on an app that listed a free camping site but only to find out that it has become a private property with no trespassing signs. The satellite views on Google Maps may have been taken years ago and not show what it looks like today. One of my favorite locations has been blocked off and the only way you can get there now is by boat. We only got to camp there once and it looked like a screensaver on a PC. Too bad Amy did not enjoy it as much as me. She got bit up by bugs really bad.
My favorite apps to use are:
- Coverage? – Another great app that shows you whether you have cell phone coverage or not.
- iOverland – This app helps you find boondocking places.
- Network Cell Info Lite – This app gives you the techy details behind the coverage and areas, network strength, and helps you find the best cell phone signal.
- Recreation.gov – An app from the government that lists camping, lodging, tickets and tours, permits, and lotteries. A wealth of information.
- The Dyrt – Another app that helps you find campsites and boondocking areas.
- Campspot -Another app that lists campgrounds nationwide.
- Campendium – Another app to help you find boondocking areas and campsites.
- AllStays – This app gives you spots like truck stops, Walmart parking lots, camping, and more.
- RV Parky – This app gives you the campsites along with the amenities that they have along with any parking lots along the way where you can stay.
- US Public Lands – This app shows nearly 650 million acres of land that we can use.
My favorite websites to use when planning to camp are below.
- Mobile LTE Coverage Map – A great map to show whether or not you will have cell phone coverage.
- Freecampsites.net – Also available as an app this gives free and paid camping spots along with user reviews. It is nice to see what other people have said about the place and what date they said it.
- Benchmark Maps – This website is a great resource where you can digital or paper maps detailing where you can find national forests, forest service roads, and everything you need to find your boondocking spot.
- Bureau of Land Management – This website goes over the details on how to camp on government property.
Using Google Maps can save you a lot of time when finding a good camping spot.
When exploring forest service roads where you are allowed to camp in National Forests just driving there and looking at them one by one can become time-consuming. A good way to see what they look like ahead of time is to use Google Maps. Zoom into the area of the forest service roads in Google and change the view/layer to Satelite View. This way you can see what the area looks like before leaving the main highway to explore the service road. Of course, pull over or have someone else do this for you while you are driving.
Don’t forget that some of these out-of-the-way services roads do not show up in Google Maps! Sometimes you have to use the satellite view to spot them.
Pros and Cons of Boondocking
The pros are that it is free for the most part and you get privacy and quiet time most of the time. I can’t say enough about enjoying the view of an area without the interference of other campers 20 feet away. The exploring and adventure of finding new places are always at the top of my list as a pro as well.
The cons are that usually boondocking does NOT include electricity, toilets, fire rings, and fresh water. But some of them do! So be sure to pack enough food and water and that you are equipped to camp without electricity. We use solar panels to generate our electricity, and propane to operate a stove in case it is raining out or fires are not allowed in the area.
Also, the apps, websites, and Google Maps may steer you in the wrong direction to find out that there is no longer access to these areas or that the locations are no longer available. Hunting down and finding these areas is a con also.
One thing to remember is that the closer to a town a boondocking area is the more likely it will be a spot for partiers. Also, having a four-wheel drive vehicle can help a lot.
Please Help Everyone
If you know of an app, website, or source that can help out fellow boondockers please leave it in the comments below. Or if you have some boondocking/camping tips add them as well.