What’s boondocking, you ask? That’s a great question. The short answer is that it’s free camping, generally located out in secluded, rural areas, otherwise known as “the boondocks.”

Although U.S. national parks and forests offer plenty of campsites of their own, they like to charge a fee for their use. But, usually just a mile or two down the road, you’ll often find secluded spots in the forest that are perfectly legal (and free) to camp in. These are known as “boondocking sites.”

In this guide, we look at the basics of boondocking and explain why it’s a good option for those driving across the U.S. on a tight budget.

Photo by @glampville

BOONDOCKING 101

Boondocking is essentially camping in undeveloped areas without hookups. You may have also heard it referred to as “dry” or “wild” camping. Either way, boondocking is a great way to get away from cities, traffic, and crowded campgrounds, and surround yourself with nature in its purest form. And, you’ll also save a pretty penny on lodging while doing so.

The main question you’ll have to ask yourself is if boondocking is right for you. If you enjoy being in the great outdoors and don’t mind forgoing a few amenities, then it just might be. But, if you prefer to be surrounded by neighbors and recreational activities, then you might be happier in a traditional campground. Or, if you’re not ready to fully commit to the idea of camping without running water or public restrooms, you could choose do a combination of both camping styles, that way you get the best of both worlds (i.e. comfort and a free, fully immersive wilderness experience).

Photo by Ana Pereira

WHERE TO BOONDOCK

The best location for boondocking is on public lands (that way, you know it’s legal).

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Forest and National Grasslands, and Fish and Wildlife Management are all public agencies that allow (and encourage) recreational camping. To find out where their camping areas are located, go to their websites, and use the search engine, typing in the organization’s name plus the state you wish to camp in. (For example, you could search, “Bureau of Land Management Washington.”) To make things even simpler, download the U.S. Public Lands app, which will show you a map of all of America’s public lands, labeled in different colors, and offer links to the websites of the government entities that manage each piece of land.

Additionally, websites like UltimateCampgrounds and Campendium are great resources for finding free campsites in the U.S. and Canada, though they don’t list every free site. For that reason, we recommend checking the BLM and National Forest websites for the most accurate information.

Photo by Sarah Rini

HOW TO PREPARE FOR BOONDOCKING

So, what do you need in order to boondock? Turns out, not much at all. Anyone who sleeps in the woods is more or less boondocking. Although everyone is going to have different packing lists for when they head into the wilderness, let’s stick with the basics. We all need to eat, drink, and stay warm (or cool).

Water

Regardless where you’re going, you’ll need to think about hydration. If you’re only going to be camping near streams, you could go minimalist and bring a backpacker-style water filter or iodine tablets. Otherwise, you’ll need to bring your own water. Remember that you’ll need water for drinking, cooking, cleaning dishes, and possibly bathing.

Food

You obviously know this is important — you’ve been eating your entire life. That said, be sure to pack plenty of food and either keep all food items securely packed away inside your vehicle or bring your own bear-resistant containers, as there won’t be any bear-proof storage at the boondocking sites.

Photo by Sarah Rini

Location

Finding comfortable temperatures while camping can sometimes be difficult. Aside from bringing the appropriate gear, look for moderate natural temperatures. When it starts to get hot, look for places with shade and elevation. When the weather turns cool, turn to sites in the desert. No matter how well-insulated your gear may be, the best system of climate control is always Mother Nature.

Aside from your standard camping equipment and toiletries, remember to also bring extra clothes, a portable stove, plenty of toilet paper and baby wipes, and whatever car chargers/adapters you may need.

Photo by The Bus and Us

BOONDOCKING ETIQUETTE

Lastly, always remember to be respectful, use existing roads and camping spots, pack-in-pack-out, share the space, and leave the area as you found it.

Happy boondocking!

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Hailing from the foothills of Northern California, Kacie is a writer and editor who's worked on everything from quarterly surf magazines to art books, zines, lookbooks, novels, and emoji style guides. She's a bit of a story junkie, but we forgive her for that. To view more of her work, creep her website and Instagram.