Boondocking For Newbies Part III -> Geting Your Rig Into The Site
At this point in the series, you’ve got your first boondocking site picked and you’ve prepped your RV. Now, you’re actually ready to go boondocking!! If you’ve got a small, mobile rig you’ll probably find this step really easy (just drive in and park?), but if you’ve got a bigger rig you’ve got to do some prep work, the most important of which is scouting out your site. I cannot overstate how important this step is, especially for newbies and a big portion of today’s post will be dedicated to that.
So here we go with Part III – Getting Your Rig Into The Site
Find Your Boondocking Area
The first thing you’ve got to do is find your boondocking area. Hopefully your prep work took care of this and you’ve got coordinates and details on-hand for your trip. With this info, I use a 3-pronged method to locate my sites:
- Navigating By Phone or Pad: I’ll usually “drop a pin” on my phone or iPad at the site we’re going to visit and use the navigation on my device get there. However I don’t rely on this method 100% since I may or may not have cellular access once I get to the site. I’ll always use the Coverage? App to check ahead for network coverage and that gives us a good, general feel, but sometimes local internet can be iffy (e.g. blocked by mountains and such) so you can’t always 100% rely on it. For this reason I always have a back-up.
- Navigating by GPS: Most GPS units can be used reliably just about everywhere except in very heavily tree’d spots (and tunnels). Our GPS has an option to put in exact coordinates as well as “drop a pin”, so this is something we always do before we start on a trip.
- Navigating By Paper Maps: In addition to the above two methods, if I’m going to a spot for the very first time I will ALWAYS have paper map to back-up my phone/GPS. Many times this is simply my Benchmark Maps combined with a detailed print-out of the satellite view from Google Maps (with my potential sites marked on it in ink). If all else fails, I fall-back on this. If I’m going to a National Forest I will also have the MVUM map on hand, and if I’m going to BLM I will sometimes back-up with whatever detailed paper map I got from them.
There’s one last thing to be aware of when you’re searching for your boondocking location. Many public land sites have some kind of marker or indicator that they’re actually public land once you get to them, but this is not always the case! If you see the BLM logo, National Forest sign and/or a 14-day limit camping sign this is a sure-fire indication that you’re legally on public land. However some land may have nothing at all to identify it. This is where your prep work comes into play and the time you spent investigating & calling the local field office will be to your benefit. Make sure you are actually ON public land before you scout.
Park & Scout Ahead
Whenever you get to your new boondocking area, find a safe place to stop, unhook and go out scouting. If you are nervous and/or need more time to scout, plan to park overnight at a nearby campground. If you have time and feel confident, plan to park somewhere near the entrance to the area.
I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this step, especially for bigger rigs.
Even 5 years later, with all the boondocking experience we’ve got under our wings we still do this every single time, and I recommend that you do too. Conditions in the boonies can change suddenly. What looks like a firm road can suddenly get sandy and the spot you had last year may not be in the same condition this year. Plus the conditions at the entrance to the boondocking site may be totally different than further in. There’s no absolute way to know except to physically scout it out!!
So, the safest thing to do is drop your big rig, get in your toad (or truck) and drive around. As you drive the road towards your potential sites make a note of what it looks and feels like:
- Firmness -> You want to make a note of road firmness, especially if you have a bigger rig. Sandy areas with deeply rutted tire tracks are dangerous places for your rig to get stuck. Also desert landscape can be deceiving. A ground that looks firm, might just be a thin crust with soft stuff underneath. The bigger/heavier your rig, the firmer the road needs to be, so make sure you check this thoroughly by driving your toad around everywhere you plan to drive the rig. If your little toad vehicle is sinking on your scouting trip, for goodness sake don’t bring in the big rig!
- Bumps & Ground Clearance -> Check how bumpy the ride is and whether there is sufficient clearance for your rig. Are there deep dips that might scrape or catch your RV on the front or back? Does the road lean side-to-side or is it fairly flat? Are there lots of ruts & stones or is the path fairly smooth? As a total newbie you may not have too much feel for how much your rig can handle, so being conservative is always a good idea. The flatter and smoother the ride is, the better.
- Width & Height Clearance -> Make sure the road is wide enough to handle your rig size. Is there lots of hard brush at the sides which will scrape your rig, or is the road wide & easy? Most regular boondockers resign themselves to getting a few “pinstripes” on the sides of their rig (it’s kind of a right of passage, if you will), but you don’t want to go too crazy and get in a position that’s dangerous for your tires & rig. Also, if you’re in a forest remember to look UP at the trees. Do the branches curl over the road & hang low or is there enough clearance to handle your rig height? Road width and trees are a big reason we don’t camp in National Forest as much as we’d like. There’s nothing wrong with bringing a measuring tape with you on your scouting trip to check height and width if you’re not sure.
- Curves & Obstacles -> How curvy is the road? Are there stones/bushes/obstacles on the bends? If you have a big rig you need a sufficient amount of “swing space” to drive through curves and if there are obstacles in that swing space you’ll end up hitting them and potentially causing a lot of damage to your tires and RV. Hopefully you’ve done enough big rig driving on regular roads to have a good feel for your swing room, but if not some practice & measurement in an empty parking lot will teach you a lot. Large, smooth, easy curves are the best. Tight curves are simply not feasible in a big rig.
- Turn Around Space -> Always, always make sure that you can turn around and get back out. The campsite you chose should be big enough to allow this, but if it happens to be full (say, you scout one day and the site is taken the next day) then you MUST have a place to turn around which will not hurt your RV or the surrounding nature. There’s nothing more nail-biting that backing-up a big rig across miles of tight, bumpy road, and it is NOT OK to plow brand new tire tracks into pristine nature.
For total newbies who don’t have a good feel for their rig clearance, staying close to the boondocking area entrance on flatter/firmer/straighter roads is the best. As you do more boondocking you’ll get a better feel for what your rig can take. Once you find a potential site, move to the next step.
Chose A Good Campsite
This is still part of the scouting process! An appropriate boondocking site is one that has:
- Previous Use -> All public land offices will tell you that to use a site that has been used before. Previously uses sites are usually pretty easy to spot. They’ll be cleared-out areas with (often) a fire ring and obvious signs of usage (tire tracks, packed earth etc.). It is NOT OK to “create” a new site in pristine nature. This destroys the very nature the area is meant to preserve. So, chose a previously-used site.
- Good Separation -> Good boondocking etiquette maintains that you should put some distance between you and the next boondocker. If there are miles of empty space, don’t ruin someone else’s experience by parking right next to them. Chances are the other boondockers are out here to find some peace, so give them that space. If the area is tightly packed (e.g. Quartzsite during the big annual RV show) just try to be as spaced-out as you can without encroaching on someone else’s site. Don’t become a “clinger”.
- Conforms To Rules -> If you’re in a National Forest that has specific rules about how far you can park from the main road and/or how close you can park to water, then make sure the site conforms to those rules. Many National Forests have tightened their rules over the past few years, especially regarding how close to the main road you have to camp, so sites that may look legal (i.e. they’ve obviously been previously used) may no longer be legal under the new rules. Many National Forests list their dispersed camping rule online (e.g. see this example from Fishlake), but not all do. This is where your planning process (Part I) comes into play.
- Is Firm & Clear Of Obstacles -> Once you find a good site get out of the car and walk/jump around to test the firmness of the ground. Look closely at the ground to see if there are any sharp rocks or pieces of glass which might damage your tires. Imagine your rig in the spot and mentally figure out how you are going to get into position and how you are going to get back out (very important) when you leave. For big rigs this means enough firm space to turn your monster around without destroying/impacting the surrounding area.
- Is On High(er) Ground -> This is not a completely critical thing, especially if you’ve chosen good, sunny weather for your trip, but I consider it a good, extra safety measure. Given a choice I will always chose a spot on higher ground with clear drainage, just in case it rains. In the desert water travels in washes , and flash floods can be very dangerous (trust me, you do NOT want your rig to be in their way) so I will always pick a spot that is higher than the wash. In the forest low-lying areas are typically softer and will gather water if it rains so choosing a higher spot will provide added safety.
Blog Post -> 7 Tips On Boondocking Etiquette -> Rights, Wrongs & Plain Common Sense
Blog Post from Cheap RV Living -> Staying Safe In The Desert: Flash Floods
Figure Out Orientation
While you’re checking out your site think about your rig positioning. Where do you want your front (or back) window view? Where do you want your “sitting area”? Where do you want the afternoon sun? Where is the shade (if there is any)? Which orientation will get you the most solar (if you have solar panels)?
Since we have solar panels which we tilt in winter we will always park our rig facing East-West and tilt our panels towards the South. That gives us the absolute max benefit from the solar day. Our panels tilt in both directions so the only other decision we have to make is the direction of our front windshield. In colder winters we park with the windshield facing West since we like the late afternoon sun to warm up the rig and provide heat going into colder nights. In hotter months we park with our front windshield facing East since the rig stays much, much (much!) cooler if the front windshield is shaded during the afternoon. If we have an open choice we like to keep our fridge on the opposite side of the sun (so it doesn’t get too much heat), but that’s usually secondary to our windshield orientation.
As above, make sure you are able to get your rig into the orientation you desire without impacting the surrounding nature.
Check Cellphone/Internet Access
If cellphone/internet access is important to you make sure you bring along your phone and/or MiFi on your scouting run to check the signal at the site you’ve chosen. If you rely on the internet (e.g. for work) there’s nothing more annoying than getting your rig all set-up in a site only to realize you have no access.
Safety and Surroundings
This is kind of a wishy washy thing, but the last thing I check for before bringing in the big rig is the “feel” of the surroundings. Do I feel comfortable here? Does the site feel right? Is the site clean and neat or is there a lot of trash and shell casings (e.g. from weekend shooting) in the area? Do my neighbors (if I have any) look like friendly folk or are they running an industrial generator and glaring at me in a scary way? Am I within sight of the main road or am I well hidden? Some folks prefer being closer to the road and having company (other boondockers around), others prefer total solitude.
There key thing is that there is no wrong or right here -> only what YOU feel comfortable with. Give yourself a moment to “feel” the site out and if you don’t feel comfortable just don’t go!!
Bring In The Rig…..Slooooowly
Once you’ve scouted and decided on a site, go back out and bring in your rig….slooowly. This is not a race and you want to be sure your rig is handling the road the way you expect. Take your time, and if there’s 2 of you, drive a car behind the rig to check clearance as you’re going over bumps (make sure you and your partner have a pre-arranged “signal” in case the rig doesn’t look right). When you get to the site, get into the orientation you want and check how the rig looks inside. If you aren’t level use your leveling blocks (Part II) to get level, and unless the ground is hard as concrete (which is very rare), put jack pads under your jacks before you lower them (believe me, you don’t want your jacks sinking into the ground!).’
Congratulations, you’ve gotten your rig into your boondocking site!!! Now, you just need to enjoy the area and practice a bit of conservation so your experience lasts. Coming next…..