The sun is setting. “How long are we on this road?” Mitch asks, not hiding the irritation in his voice. We’re inching along, everything down to our fillings rattling as we swerve back and forth, trying to find the path of least wash-boards.
“Well,” I say. Do I tell him the truth? Or do I say, “It looks like just another mile” and then act completely surprised that the info was wrong? The spot I want to go to that everyone has raved about on Campendium is actually 6 miles further down this awful road and I know Mitch won’t go for that. And anyway, will it be worth it? Is it going to be packed? All the other boondocking spots we passed were filled to the gills.
We end up turning around and settling in for the night in a dusty pull-out fifty feet from the highway. Not really a “back-to-nature” spot.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term—boondocking is free, or almost free, dry camping (meaning no hook-ups for water, electric, sewer, cable). A couple of years ago we traded our class C for a truck camper so we could travel down suspect roads to find pristine, quiet camping spots with jaw-dropping views. For over 10 years now we’ve been taking major RV road trips in the winter. We’d grown tired of the campground routine.
Here’s the dirty little secret that no RV dealer will tell you. In 2017, according to RVIA, over 500,000 RVs were sold in the US. In 2016, it was over 430,000 units. A few new private RV parks are popping up. But our country is not adding anymore public parks. In fact, these days, public land is going the other direction. So where are these nearly 1 million new RVers supposed to go?
We’re not a fan of private RV parks. It’s not their fault. I completely understand that they have to make a living. But the sites are usually packed so tight together. And the locations are usually in sketchy areas. And there are usually skeevy units that haven’t rolled in decades with 4-5 questionable vehicles parked around them. I know this is not always the case. We’ve stayed at some beautiful, well-managed private campgrounds. But you will pay through the nose for those.
The sites at state and county campgrounds are usually much more spread out. They are usually in beautiful locations. They won’t have any year-round residents. And they are affordable. IF you can get into them. During the high season, you have a better chance at winning the powerball than getting an RV site at Sebastian Inlet, or Anastasia, or McDowell, or Cattail Cove, etc, etc. Basically, in the wintertime, state park campgrounds in any place you’d like to be, are full. I’ve spent hours on park booking systems, checking and checking, hoping someone gets sick and has to cancel their reservation. You can get in at the last minute, but it takes effort.
So that’s why we wanted to boondock. It wasn’t so much about free camping (although it’s a great way to stretch the travel budget and it makes you feel like you’re “stickin’ it to the man”). For us, it was about getting away from people and noise and noisy people.
Here’s what we learned:
1) Near popular areas at popular times of the year, you will not be boondocking alone. Most other RVers are not anti-social like us, so that’s not a problem for them. It’s not what we look for though. Near Sedona the boondocking spots looked like tailgate parties. South of Tucson, the sites were guarded by preppers. The further we got from these areas, the less congested the spots were. But we were never alone.
2) Start early. That’s a tough one for us but we learned that, when you’re going boondocking in an unfamiliar area, you need daylight. You might drive down a terrible road for hours to find that the site is packed. Sometimes the area just doesn’t feel right. Sometimes the sites are just plain hard to find and you need plenty of light to see turn-offs and site lay-outs, etc. Then, if there are multiple options, you have to compare sites, consider carefully, and maybe go back to the first one you found. And, most importantly, the early bird gets the worm (or the best site if you’re not into worms).
3) A tow vehicle helps. We didn’t tow this year. It would have been nice to be able to scout with our Jeep. We need 12 feet of clearance for our truck camper. We’d start down a dirt road and then have a low branch up ahead. Is it worth trying to inch around it or pry it out of the way if a quarter mile further we’ll have to do it again?
4) Safety issues. When Mitch was in college, his car got broken into at a trailhead while he was camping. He hadn’t left any of his valuables in sight—he’d put them in his trunk. But the thief used a pry bar to pry up the sides of his trunk. So when we’re boondocking, Mitch doesn’t like leaving the camper alone. We take turns going on bike rides or hikes instead of going together which is more fun.
5) What the heck do you do? I guess this comes down to our grasshopper DNA. We find a perfect spot—peaceful, no neighbors, beautiful views. The first day we take turns exploring and then we sit outside and read and chat. The second day we take turns exploring and then sit outside and read and chat. By the third day we’re going crazy. It took so long to find this spot and then squeeze into it that we’re not about to leave it to drive an hour plus into town for lunch or to find a new trail and then come all the way back.
With the million RVs sold in the last two years there are probably a million styles and preferences for camping. Ours evolves. But I think we’ve discovered that we need a mix. My perfect ratio would be about 5 days in a campground, 3 days boondocking. Mitch’s would be about 7:3 or 10:3.
Maybe we just haven’t found our boondocking nirvana yet. That perfect place with no one else around, the beach out your front door, endless mountain trails out your back, with good cell service, and a lively little bar within biking distance.
Anyone know of that place?