Boondocking For Newbies Part II -> Prepping Your RV
If you’ve read the first part of this series you’ll already have decided on a place to go and scouted out some potential campsites on Google Satellite. So, now we’re actually going to prep your RV for the trip.
The main thing to understand when you boondock is that you live entirely “off-grid” which means that whatever you bring with you in the RV is what you’ve got to live on! You need to have your RV (and yourselves) ready for that, plus once you get to your site you need to be able to monitor and conserve what you have to make it last. One of the biggest barriers that newbies go through is understanding RV battery and electrical systems. I won’t go through ALL the details of RV electrical (that could take 10,000 more words), but I’ll cover the basics here. Also, I’ll go through some basic prep work for other stuff too.
So here we go with Part II -> Prepping Your RV
Tank & Fuel Prep
Obviously the first thing to prep before you go into the boonies are your various RV tanks. Very simply the ones that should be empty should be emptied and the ones that should be full should be filled:
- Water tank full -> This will be what you’ll use for washing, flushing and drinking. Make sure you’ve filled it up to the brim. We also always carry a few extra empty jugs of water (we recently switched to two of these BPA-Free 6 Gallon containers), so we can get more water if needed on the road.
- Black/Grey tanks empty -> These are the tanks that you will be filling up as you do your various businesses. Make sure they are completely empty.
- Gas/Diesel tank at least 1/2 full -> Having gas in your rig ensures you can run your on-board generator (if you have one) and/or move a significant distance if you need to (e.g. to get away from weather or a natural disaster).
- Propane tank ready -> If your rig uses a propane refrigerator, range and/or furnace make sure you have enough propane for that. Propane lasts a reaaaaly long time if you’re just cooking and running the fridge with it, but the furnace can suck it away pretty fast. If your rig uses portable propane tanks, fill those up before you go, and if you’re planning on using your portable grill in the boonies bring propane/fuel for that too.
- Generator fuel -> If you’re bringing a portable generator make sure it’s filled and you have some extra fuel ready to supplement it.
Battery & Battery Monitor Prep
Most modern RVs come with house batteries (at least 1-2) and when you go boondocking they are you primary source of power. The types of batteries used are typically deep-cycle 12V lead-acid batteries which are designed to be drained and charged quite heavily many times over. Obviously you want to start your boondocking experience with fully charged house batteries (for example, a night hooked-up at an RV park will do that nicely). Then, once you get to your site you’ll need some way to monitor how your batteries are doing so that you don’t drain them too deep and kill them. So, some kind of battery monitor is essential too.
The typical rule of thumb with deep-cycle batteries is to drain them no more than 50%. You can definitely go lower, but you start to impact the overall life-cycle of your batteries so most folks stick with the 50% number. The way you tell how full (or drained) they are is by their “at rest” voltage. For most deep-cycle batteries around 12.7V is considered “fully charged” while around 12.1V is “50% discharged”. Ideally the way you’re supposed to measure this is to disconnect your batteries and let them sit around & “rest” for a few hours before taking a reading, but I rarely have time for that. In practice I find that just turning off as much as I can inside the RV (lights, fans, appliances etc. all off) and/or hitting the battery disconnect and waiting a few minutes before I go out to measure will get me close enough.
If you have a big Class A there will usually be some kind of monitor already included in your rig, but often times they are very crude (e.g. just some lights) so it’s really better to have a back-up. I suggest either a voltmeter or a battery monitor.
- Voltmeter-> If you’re just starting out and don’t really know if you’re going to get into this whole boondocking thing then a good-quality Digital Voltmeter or Multimeter will do the job. It’s not perfect (a hydrometer is technically more accurate), but it’s easy to use on all types of batteries and good enough for starters.
- Battery Monitor -> If you’re a geek and plan to boondock extensively then a good-quality battery monitor is IMHO essential. This will tell you the state of your batteries as well as exactly what is going in and out of them in real time. We have the Xantrex LinkLite, but Tri-Metric also make awesome monitors, as do other guys.
If you’ve never boondocked before I suggest playing around with your batteries before you get out into the boonies. Unhook you RV, practice measuring the voltages and living “off grid” so that you get a feel for how quickly your batteries drain. If you have a battery monitor turn stuff on and off inside your rig to see how much each piece draws from your batteries. Learn how to check battery water levels (if you have regular flooded lead-acid) and how to clean your battery terminals. Getting familiar with your batteries is essential for boondocking.
Once those batteries hit 50% discharge you either need to leave your boondocking site or have some way to charge them back up again. That leads to my next piece of prep.
Generator Or Solar Or Nothing??
Probably one of the biggest questions newbies ask is “do I need solar?” or “do I need a generator?”. Well, the main answer is that in all likelihood you need something. Your house batteries can only last so long before they hit that 50% level and need to be re-charged. If you have a small rig (e.g. travel trailer) with minimal draw and you are very power conscious (i.e. you only use a few lights at night, don’t use any electronics at all) you can probably last multiple days before your batteries draw too low. However if you have a big rig and want to run all your lights and electronics (computers, TV etc.) your batteries won’t last more than a day before needing to be recharged. Motorhomes with electric-only fridges and electric ranges suck even more power, and usually need twice/day battery recharging.
So, having some way to recharge your batteries will greatly extend your boondocking time.
The two main ways to recharge batteries are with generators and/or solar power:
- Generator ->
A generator is an easy, basic way to recharge batteries as well as fire up/run the AC stuff in your rig. Big Class A’s often have built-in generators but otherwise portable generators are an excellent alternative. The cheapest ones are the “industrial-type” and they will definitely work, but are bulky and really, really LOUD, so if you want to keep your (and your boondocking neighbors) sanity I suggest buying a quieter version (e.g. the Honda EU2000i is a popular RV choice). Be sure to buy a size big enough to power your most-needed stuff** and remember to fill-up the generator with gas before you go (bring some extra gas as back-up). You’ll typically need to run the generator a few hours a day to refill your batteries. Even if you decide to get solar down the line, having a generator as back-up (for cloudy days, treed sites etc.) is really handy.
- Solar Panels ->
Solar panels are awesome for boondocking, but they’re also a big $$ investment. In order to recharge your batteries you need quite a bit of power so those little rinky dink 50 watt panels that you see on Amazon won’t do it. A very general, loose rule of thumb is that you need around 100 watts of solar for every 100 amp hours of battery in your rig. So, if you have 400 amp hours of batteries you need at least 400 watts or solar. More is always better since solar days are shorter in winter and power generation reduces a lot on cloudy days. We have 600 watts on our roof and that serves us nicely, but we have buddies (like our current neighbors) who run 1400 watts. If you wanted to try out solar you could start off with a few hundred watts and go from there, but it’s still an investment since you need wiring, a solar charge controller, monitors etc. So, unless you’re absolutely certain that boondocking will be a significant part of your future, starting off with a generator may make more sense. We boondocked on our generator for a year before we invested in solar. We still use our generator on rare occasion (when it’s cloudy multiple days, or we’re boondocked in trees/shade), but our solar does most of the heavy lifting now.
**To figure out how much power (and thus how big a generator) your various items might need, look at their wattage rating which is usually listed on the back, on the power brick or in the user manual. It’s not exact and your stuff doesn’t constantly pull that much (usually it’s a max limit), but it’s a decent, rough guide. As an example Paul’s computer uses 90 watts, my computer uses 200 watts, while our microwave uses 850 watts and our electric heater sucks up to 1500 watts. That heater is a big sucker! If you want to run multiple things together you need to add their wattage together, plus you want to give yourself a bit of padding too (e.g. for start up surges and such).
RV Solar Part I -The Discovery Process
RV Solar Part II – The Equipment
RV Solar Part III – The Installation
RV Solar Part IV – Panel Tilting & Winter Solar Optimization
Inverter Or Nothing?
Your RV house batteries only put out 12V DC, so the thing you need to understand about this is that they’ll only power the things hooked up to 12V DC in your rig. This means (usually) your interior lights, your water pump, fans, furnace and whatever 12V outlets you have in your rig. Your AC outlets & stuff that plugs into those AC outlets (e.g. computers, vacuums, hair dryers, TV, satellite etc.) will NOT work unless you either:
- Run a generator (which is kind of like “plugging in” your RV) OR
- You’re able to plug these items into a 12V socket OR
- The outlets/items are connected to an inverter that is able to transform your battery DC current into 110/120V AC current.
So, if you want to use your AC stuff without firing up your generator every time, then you need to prepare for this.
For small things like phones, ipads etc. that use USB cables to charge you can get a cheap $10 12V Car Charger (we have 3 of these) that will plug directly into any 12V outlet and provide ready-to-use USB outlets. For medium-sized electronics (e.g. computers, TV etc.) you can get a medium-sized 300 watt Inverter and for big stuff (microwave etc.) you can buy larger 2000 watt Inverters*** that will power the bigger stuff in your rig. If you have big Class A an inverter will usually come pre-installed in your rig (typically as an integrated inverter/charger). If you have a 5th wheel or smaller rig you may not have an inverter and you’ll need to decide if you want to buy one.
For the complete newbie just starting out I suggest buying a few of the cheap $10 phone/pad chargers and try running with that for your first outing to see if you like boondocking. Just be aware that you won’t be able to use your other AC plug-type electronics without running a generator OR installing an inverter. This is another case where disconnecting your RV and playing around with it before you go into the boonies will teach you alot.
***If you decide to go for a bigger inverter you’ll need to get into electrical stuff in more detail. For example initial power draws and wire size/length become really important. Running BIG power-sucking stuff off your deep-cycle batteries for more than short periods of time gets tricky and is not really practical in the long run. So, for newbies plan to run smaller stuff off your RV batteries and use your generator for the bigger stuff (as needed). Also as you become a boondocking expert, you can look for niftier solutions (e.g. installing 12V TV’s that don’t need an inverter, or installing dense lithium batteries that can handle long, big draws), but that’s stuff to look at down the line.
Electrical Conservation Prep
Even if you have lots of batteries and solar power it’s always nice to plan for some electrical conservation. If you have a battery monitor installed you can click stuff on and off to see how much each piece uses and either find alternatives or plan not to use them. Air conditioners, for example, use a crazy amount of electricity and are not really practical to run while boondocking unless you plan to run a big generator all day. Likewise electric heaters suck an insane amount of electricity and are not practical either. You could just do without (and for your first time that’s totally acceptable), or you could make a few, key replacements.
- Lights -> Incandescent lights don’t draw a ton of energy, but they are a draw especially if you have a lot of them on all night. LED lights draw ~1/10 the electricity and are a really nice boondocking upgrade. If you’re just starting out replacing a few of your most-used lights with LED is a nifty power-saver.
- Heating -> Instead of an electric heater bring along extra blankets and extra clothing layers or buy a portable propane-powered heater.
- Cooking -> Instead of using your convection/microwave oven (which is a big sucker and requires a generator or big inverter) plan to cook stuff on your propane stove or a portable grill.
- Coffee -> Instead of an electric coffee pot (which requires a generator or inverter) consider a Stovetop Espresso Maker, French Press, an Aeropress Makeror a Manual Drip Filter.
NOTE/ NONE of these upgrades are essential for the first time out, but they’re a nice to have.
Boondocking Made Easy -> LED Lights
Temp and Weather prep
You need to think about weather before you go boondocking. Check the extended 10-day forecast for rain and extreme temps in the area you plan to be. Remember that temps at 1,000 feet elevation are not the same as temps at 8,000 feet elevation so take that into account when you pick your spot (Part I). Also a lot of ground, especially in the desert and forest gets soft and dangerously sticky in rain. Trust me, you do **not** want to be driving a big rig across dirt roads in those conditions.
Extreme temps will also make your boondocking experience uncomfortable. RV’s roast in hot temps and running the air conditioning all day on a generator is impractical. In cold temps you’ll chill really fast and your batteries start to lose their capacity (which means less usable power -> we found all this out the hard way a few years back when we boondocked in the Sierras in November) so that’s not great either. Also, running run your RV furnace all day will suck down batteries and propane. So, extreme temps in the boonies are just not fun.
Moderate temp swings and the occasional flutter of rain are fine. If it’s chilly we use our Mr. Buddy Propane Heater, if it’s warm we run our Fan-tastic Roof Vent, if it rains we stay put until the ground hardens back up enough to move. As you become more experienced with boondocking you may actively seek out more extreme temps (snow boondocking anyone?), but as a newbie it’s preferable to have good, dry, moderate weather for your first experience.
Food & Cooking Prep
It’s nice to get to your boondocking site with enough food to last for a week or so. This will allow you to luxury to hang out at your site (if you so wish) without the need to think about shopping. Some folks will prepare ready-made meals which can just be re-heated once you’re at your site, but I’ve never seen any reason to do this. If your rig has a kitchen and/or you carry an outdoor grill you can make everything in the boonies that you make at “home”, so make cooking part of the experience!
Just be aware of power usages. Microwaves and electric cookers are energy suckers (and require a generator or big inverters to work) so either plan to use your propane cooktop or outdoor grill or have your inverter/generator ready if you’re making a lot of stuff off electricity.
As for groceries, if I’m able to do so beforehand I will sometimes try to re-pack some of my groceries (so that I get rid of excess garbage), but if not I just deal with it on-site. Even veggie washing can be done on-site with minimal waste if you capture the water and re-use it (e.g. for cleaning & toilet flushing).
This is true of any RV trip, but even more so if you’re going down a bumpy road. Make sure your surfaces are cleared of anything that can slide/crash/break, your drawers are closed, and your storage bins are locked. We put most of our stuff in drawers or securely on our couch.
I do have some table-top ornaments which are secured with Quake-Hold/Museum Putty, and picture frames on the walls secured with 3M Command Strips. Both have held for years of boondocking with no issues.
RV Leveling & Safety Prep
Very few boondocking sites are perfectly level, hard surfaces so we carry some extra items around which I consider pretty important.
- Leveling Blocks -> I like to have a level RV (our fridge prefers to be level too) and our jacks can only level so far, so we have 4 packs of Lynx Leveling Blocks which we use almost everywhere we go. We’ve had these for 5 years and they’re still going strong. Great for any type of rig.
- Jack Pads -> For a big rig I really recommend jack packs to prevent your jacks sinking in the ground. Even if the ground seems pretty firm, the jacks carry alot of weight on a small area, so having something to spread it out really helps. We use 8 pieces of pressure-treated 4×6 blocks of wood for this.
- Wood Planks -> A few wood planks can really help if your RV wheels get stuck**** in softer ground and need something firm for the tread to grip onto. They can be used for levelling too.
- Air Compressor -> By NO MEANS essential, but nice to have. If you’re ever in a situation where you need to let air out of your RV tires to get unstuck, then having a Portable Air Compressor (the linked one is 120V, but there are also 12V versions) to air back up afterwards is a really handy. Good site selection should prevent this ever being necessary, but it’s nice to have anyway. Also sometimes RV tires just lose a bit of air (especially with big temp swings) so it’s nice to have the option to air up without having to find a gas station.
****Note/ For those folks with big rig roadside assistance be aware that your policy likely only covers you “100 feet off of a maintained road”. So, you may not be able to rely on them to get you out of a stuck area if you go deeper into the boonies.
That’s honestly all I can think of for the “critical” stuff. There’s lots of obvious extra items you can bring into the boonies such as flashlights, outdoor chairs, glamping stuff, extra clothing etc. but don’t go too crazy your first time. My main prep advice is just to get your tanks ready, learn and know how to monitor and use your RV batteries (very important) and plan for good weather. Now you’re ready to go to the next boondocking step and actually take your rig into the wilds!! Coming soon….