Beach boondocking at Sea Rim, TX

Boondocking is a word that frugal RVers love. The basic definition of boondocking (the way I use the word anyway) is camping for free or close to free “in the boonies” on public land such as BLM and dispersed forest sites. It’s the best of the best -> open nature-acess, no neighbours (most of the time) and zip $$ out-of-pocket.  I mean, how much better does life get than that? Like most nature-lovers we love it and try to find spots to squeeze in the beast wherever we can.

Just for fun however, I wanted to explore the question from the side of pure cost. Now, you may think me mad to ask if there’s anything cheaper than free camping, but the truth of the matter is that boondocking has hidden costs for RVers and, from a purely financial standpoint, sometimes isn’t cheapest option even if you’ve got solar. Here’s some intellectual food for thought:

1/ Cost of Recharging Batteries – All the electric stuff in your RV runs off your house batteries so when you’re out in the boonies you need to find a way to recharge them. For most that involves running a generator and depending on how much electricity you use (and so how often you run the generator) that could mean a couple of hours everyday or every other day. Our generator uses ~1 gallon/hr of fuel at full load so that can add up to ~$8/day at current diesel prices. We have solar now and don’t need to worry about this anymore, but for most that will be a factor.

She’s laughing ‘coz she doesn’t need to pay…lucky dog…

2/ Cost of Temperature Variations - We have pets and so we have to be sensitive to temperature changes in the RV. We simply can’t let internal temps fly too high, and if we’re in an area that requires air-conditioning then even our solar can’t keep up. Running aircon for 3-4 hours/day adds another $12-16/day of generator costs. When it’s really hot, getting an electric hookup can make a lot of financial sense.

3/ Costs of Dumping/Water - As the old saying goes, what goes in has (eventually) gotta come out. Most RVers will need to empty their tanks weekly or every other week depending on tank size and if you’re in the boonies you’ll need to find a spot to do it. Some places allow free dumping, but many will charge a nominal fee (typically anywhere from $5 to $15). Not a biggie this one, but it does add to the costs.

4/ Cost of Travel - The best part of getting “out there” is getting out there, but it does mean you might be far away from sightseeing, groceries and other errands. The cost of fuel to/from things you want to do can add up. Having a small, separate vehicle (toad/truck) helps to cut driving costs, but sometimes staying closer to “stuff” can make more financial sense.

5/ Cost of Boondocking – Camping in dispersed (non-developed) sites on public land is very often free, but not always. Quartzite, a popular winter boondocking spot charges a seasonal long-term fee of $180. If camping in a “developed” public campground, even without hookups, there is usually some kind of daily fee.

All these costs mean you might be paying up to ~$18/day for boondocking, depending on conditions. How does that compare to the alternative?

1/ Savings On Developed Camping – Costs in developed campgrounds can sometimes  be very attractive, depending on where you’re willing to go.

It’s hard to beat the deals in New Mexico State Parks

  • State Deals – Our New Mexico State Pass is a deal at $225/year. So far we’ve used the pass for 30 days of camping and even if you add-on the extra fee for electric hookup ($4/day) that works out to ~$11/day in camping fees. Pretty darn competitive.
  • Monthly Deals - Many private campgrounds offer a monthly deal and sometimes they can be very attractive. Out in Alabama we could’ve camped with full hook-ups by the beach for $355/month (~$12/day). We just passed a spot here in Taos that offered full hook-up for $275/month (~$9/day). Purely based on price, it’s hard to beat.
  • Camping PassesPassport America is (in my opinion) the best camping club out there offering up to 50% off at member campgrounds, depending on timeframe and season. You might need to be flexible to get the full discount offer, but with some planning you can get a full hook-up site for ~$15/night.
  • Senior Discounts - When you reach the “golden years” you start getting a lot of juicy discounts. America the Beautiful can get you 50% off camping fees in National Parks and federal lands (BLM, forest). Some State Parks and even some private parks offer senior discounts too.

2/ Savings on Laundry – We happen to have a washer/dryer in the RV and, believe it or not, it can actually make sense for us to pay for full hookup when we need to do laundry. A typical load in a laundromat will cost ~$3-$4. Got 3-4 loads and you’re getting close to the cost of a discount site.

There’s no doubt boondocking is fabulous and the best way to get “out there” in nature. In temperate climates with solar panels and a fully stocked liquor cabinet nothing can beat it. But if you’re just starting out or camping in extreme temps there are other options that may be cheaper. Something to discuss over your evening glass, in any case :)

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30 Responses to Is Boondocking Always Cheaper?

  1. boyink says:

    The initial cost of the solar setup also needs to be factored in. I haven’t looked into them to know what I’d be getting into, but would love to see a break-even analysis for a good solar system.

    • libertatemamo says:

      Being nerds we actually did the break-even analysis.
      Just based on pure electricity costs (electricity is cheap) it
      would take us upwards of 50 years. If we looked at saving
      camping costs (going from paying fees to paying no fees at all
      with 100% boondocking) it was just less than a year.
      If you take into account “extra” costs (like the ones I mentioned
      in this post), the breakeven time for fulltime boondocking
      goes to more like 2-3 years.

      Breakeven goes even lower w/ the federal tax credit
      (30% savings), and of course goes longer the more
      time you spend paying for sites.more (e.g. part-time
      boondocking). Lots of variables!

      Nina

  2. Deas says:

    Great points. When we hit road we should trade hot Boondocking finds. I hear most people keep the goods one in their pocket so they do not get spoiled.

    Wish we were out there. Job and 2 homes keeping us on anchor.

  3. Marsha says:

    Wonderful job! We enjoy boondocking also. I agree with the little additional costs (dumping, etc.) that many people do not think about. We do have the America the Beautiful pass and Passport America. They are awesome.

  4. Roxanne says:

    Good points. I think we’re probably on the Xtremely frugal side of life, so we went 10 days without charging batteries – finally we gave up and moved on. But, we don’t watch TV, we use a manual washer and solar dryer, and all our necessities are DC-powered. That kind of living isn’t for everyone.

    Plus, it’s true about up-front costs. We knew we wouldn’t have a lot of money once we unplugged and left, so we frontloaded our expenses by adding batteries and composting toilet. The toilet isn’t for everyone, either, because we have to admit that we poop.

    Roxanne

    • libertatemamo says:

      Hehe…I think you guys definitely fall into the Xtreme boondockers catagory.
      I’m amazed your batteries lasted 10 days…you must have some magic
      electronics going on there. Ours would totally die in ~4 just from
      phantom loads (we draw just under ~5 Amps phantom).
      And I’m in awe of your composting toilet, although I
      can’t believe you admitted to pooing on the web :)
      Nina

  5. All great points to discuss, I think I”ll pour myself a glass….

    Now, a lot of these costs depends on the size of your rig, your solar setup and where you decide to do. Last winter it just about killed me to pay for Quartzsite since there are so many better places to go for free. But we did it to be with the cool kids.

    So, in our case, we have a 24′ RV without an internal gennie. We typically run our Honda super quiet gennie once every 3 days or so if sun is cooperating. We rarely use more than 1 gal a week of gas and we never run our AC with it, it’s impossible. So gas for the gennie really doesn’t factor in for us when boondocking. As for laundry…three loads every two weeks and we’re set. Maybe it’s $10 or so, but never more than that.

    Summer boondocking’s a different story though. Namely, we don’t do it unless we’re in the mountains. We’re not that cheap. I’d rather pay for a site (thank you Passport) than swelter for the sake of saving a few bucks.

    Ultimately boondocking is definitely cheaper if you have the kind of rig and lifestyle that we do. But again, it’s not for everyone.

    And now, back to my glass.

    • libertatemamo says:

      All good points and input. Whenever we trade in “the beast” we’re definitely going
      into something smaller…I think around 30′ would be our ideal…and no doubt that
      would lower our energy draw (esp. phantom). And totally agree on the
      summer hookups…not worth sweating it out.
      Enjoy the glass!
      Nina

  6. A very thoughtful approach, raising some points that a lot of folks wouldn’t think about. We don’t do a lot of boondocking, but we have done more on this trip than usual — and we love it! Only problem is we don’t have solar — purchase costs and installation would eat us up, and there’s no room for the extra batteries. IN the midwest especially, there are lots of city and country parks where you can get hookups for very low cost. In one Oklahoma town, we stayed nearly a week with FHU, and there was nowhere to pay the posted fee! So it was free to us!

    • libertatemamo says:

      What a DEAL you guys got in Oklahoma!! There’s definitely some GREAT
      boondocking out there, and some real deals. I do love it!
      Nina

  7. Beth says:

    When we pay for sites, we prefer to look for NFS campgrounds or state parks. We’ve found Colorado State Parks to have nice facilities when needed and in that case, we bought the yearly “pass” for $60 to avoid the daily fee that would get tacked on to the site fee. Nice analysis!

    • libertatemamo says:

      We’ll be hitting a few of the CO State Parks this summer and I’m really
      looking forward to it. Will definitely be buying the yearly pass.
      Nina

  8. jayhorowitz says:

    Great analysis. For us, boondocking rocks. Solar provides more than enough electricity, we try to park in partially shaded areas with a breeze, and at higher elevations, and we rarely pay for dumping. (We can easily go a couple of weeks without dumping, so we usually have enough time to make it to a free dump station.)

    • libertatemamo says:

      With solar, breeze and shade boondocking definitely rocks!
      Sounds like you guys have found some awesome spots.
      Nina

  9. kayorsonsweaver says:

    Interesting post for someone looking to transition from a jet setting lifestyle to a road warrior lifestyle in the next few years.

    One of the appeals of being on the road for me is being as “off grid” as possible. Solar seems a good option and is making leaps and bounds in efficiency. Composting toilet? Maybe. My experience at Burning Man also tells me that if you’re ingenious you can get rid of grey water in many ways.

    At the end of the day for me though its not about cost, its about waking up in the morning and looking out at a vast valley or mountain range instead of the neighbour’s garden gnomes. ;)

    • libertatemamo says:

      I totally with you on the positives of nature and getting “out there”, but
      I did find the cost analysis intellectually interesting (and one
      I’ve not seen done before). Hope you get your dream on
      the road soon! It’s a fabulous lifestyle and we enjoy it immensely.
      Nina

  10. You also have to watch out for illegal pot growers. I was reading somewhere they are a problem on a lot of public land. And they can be aggressive. Also, some parks make you pay the electric bill if you stay a month or more. We ran into that issue in Austin, Texas. I heard my brother has to pay his in Sedona, Arizona.

    • libertatemamo says:

      I think it very unlikely that you’ll come across pot growers on public land. Any illegal activities are usually done well off the beaten track. The places where you can drive the RV are too accessible. I honestly don’t think it’s something you should worry about, as far as boondocking goes anyway.

      Regarding the monthly rates that’s a good point. Some places do charge electric separately when you go monthly.
      Nina

  11. [...] Is Boondocking Always Cheaper? [...]

  12. Ellen says:

    Great food for thought! Because we prefer to settle into a location for awhile, we opt for RV parks and campgrounds while “settled” and exploring… but we usually boondock in the transit (from one “settled” location to another). This is all to say that for us, especially this summer (with a new Class C and toad rig, instead of the fifth-wheel and dually we started full-timing with), our “boondock” days have been much more expensive — we’re filling the gas tank to the tune of ~$4/gal — and when we spend the night at Walmart we tend to pick up supplies… so that can mean $200+ for a travel day with a boondock night. While in a campground or RV resort, we pay ~$25/night (yes, Passport America rocks!), drive less, and even if we eat out we’re still coming in well under that “boondock” cost…

    It all depends on how you live with what you have, I guess! How much water you use, how quickly your tanks fill… it all makes a difference.

  13. This is all very interesting. My wife and I started travelling in February. Left south Louisiana in mid-February, ended up leaving the motorhome in Cottonwood, AZ. Had to come back home to deal with family stuff and the house (hopefully we can get it finally sold). Plan to head back to AZ in the early fall to continue travelling.
    I hope to become as adventurous as you are in finding these remote out of the way spots. We have a 39′ no-slide DP and look forward to reading your adventures so we can follow along literally!
    Safe travels.

    • libertatemamo says:

      AZ should be just PERFECT in the Fall. Great time to start boondocking in the area. Enjoy your travels!
      Nina

  14. Bettina says:

    Hi Nina,

    I just keep finding more nuggets:) Thanks.

    Question- we have a space for a washer/ dryer and I have been hearing lots of cons against them. How do you like your? What brand do you have and would you recommend it? I have been told to find something after market.
    Suggestions?
    Thanks again!
    Bettina

    • libertatemamo says:

      We have one of those Splendide combo washer/dryers. It came with the coach and we love it. It takes ~3 hours to do a load and you can only do small portions at a time, but we’ve been perfectly happy with it. Who cares if I have to spend all day in the coach? I just load it and leave it. Much better than going to the laundromat in my mind.
      After-market washer/dryers will probably be more powerful and do a faster load, but I don’t know much about them.
      Nina

      • Bettina says:

        Great to hear your experience. Can you actually fit your sheets in the washer/dryer?
        We can’t wait to buy you dinner & some beverages when our paths cross out there in the great blue yonder:)
        Thanks,

        Bettina

        • libertatemamo says:

          They can if I do them one at a time. Sometimes I do go to the Laundromat for sheets and towels, but if we have hookups I’ll just take the time and do them in house.
          Nina

  15. […] but a few very lucky – or very determined people are making it happen sooner.  One couple I know of sold their business in Seattle and left the rat race to live in the desert in a 40-foot […]

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