Boondocking - Making It Work
Boondocking basics by Paul Bernhagen
This information was developed for a Life On Wheels class which Paul Berhagen taught on the subject.
Will We Be Roughing It?
Boondocking does not mean doing without. It simply means adjusting the way you do things to stretch the use of your fresh water, maximize the capacity of your gray and black tanks and get the most out of the power you have available. In fact, the following boondocking tips can even stretch your stay in a partial hook-up campground.
Some think of boondocking as free camping. In some cases it is. Other places charge RVers to boondock, such as national parks, some BLM areas, festivals, rallies etc. On cross-country trips, when RVers need a place to pull off the road for a night, many will stay at truck stops or Wal-Marts. We all know an overnight in a Wal-Mart parking lot is likely to cost us more than a campground. Wal-Mart does too! That is why they are happy to give us a place to get off the road.
Whether you boondock in scenic places, at rallies, on the fly in a parking lot or find yourself in campgrounds with partial hook-ups you will find some of the following tips useful. Boondocking can be intimidating the first few times, so if you can, go with some experienced boondockers. You will find some tips work for you and others donít. That is okay. You will also come up with some tricks of your own over time.
Be Kind to People and Places
- Take trash to town and properly dispose of it in dumpsters.
- Keep your camping area clean.
- Donít put out awnings, chairs, grills, tables, etc. when boondocked in parking lots. Parking lots should only be used for overnight stops. To stay longer risks all RVers privilege of using the parking lot.
What Power Do You Need?
- Converters do absolutely nothing for you when boondocked. A converter converts AC power to DC power. If you are not plugged in, you have no AC power to convert.
- Chargers in most converters are too small, charging batteries very slowly. And again, you need power to charge.
- Inverters convert DC power to AC power, allowing you to run equipment off your batteries that you would otherwise need to be plugged in to run.
- You will want to size your inverter to the maximum load it will be used for, generally the microwave. But keep in mind that a microwave pulls a lot of power out of the battery and you will need to get that power back into the battery some how.
- If possible, isolate water heater, AC and refrigerator circuits from inverter. This equipment has such a large draw on the batteries that they would be drained in no time.
- Most inverters produce a modified sine wave and run most appliances. Some appliances require a pure sine wave to operate, such as some laser printers and computerized sewing machines. Pure sine wave inverters are available, however, they are more expensive.
- Generally, the closer the inverter is sized to the load, the more efficient it will be.
- Consider two or more inverters, a large one for large loads and a small one for small loads. Our 13-inch TV run off our 2000-watt inverter pulls two more amps an hour than when it is run off a pocket inverter. Pocket inverters plug into cigarette lighters. We run our TV, satellite dish and VCR on one pocket inverter and the computer and printer on another pocket inverter. Since inverters do not have power surges we often run the computer on an inverter even when we are plugged into shore power.
- Inverters pull power the entire time they are on, so conserve power and turn the inverter off when it is not in use.
- If you will be using a generator to charge your batteries select an inverter with a good charger.
Will We Be Roughing It?
- Donít discharge your battery more than 50% (12.2 volts). Discharging more than this can damage the battery.
- Use a digital voltmeter to check battery voltage. To get an accurate reading the battery needs to be at rest (no power draw or input) for at least 2-3 hours. This means the best time to check the battery voltage is the first thing in the morning before you turn on the power and before solar panels or a generator start to charge the batteries.
- Check batteries monthly for water usage. If the caps are sealed with a label, cut through the label to access the caps and check the water. This will extend the life of your battery.
- Use a digital Volt-Ohm-Amp meter to determine how many amps you are using.
- Unplug all 120-volt appliances when not in use as even when they are off they draw power. While they may not draw much power, the little bit they do draw adds up. This can have a big impact on how long the energy in your batteries will last.
- Using a switch box with surge protection makes it easy to turn things on and off.
- Charge small appliance (cell phone, computer) batteries, using a small (pocket) inverter, while driving around.
- Energy labels on appliances generally show a higher power draw than you will have.
- Select a quiet generator and size it to fit your needs. Be considerate of your neighbors.
- Coffee makers, hair dryers and toasters all put a large drain on your batteries.
- Control your phantom loads. These loads put a constant load on your batteries that you may not even be aware of.
- Conventional ovens are better suited for boondocking than convection ovens, which require a generator.
- Tow vehicles provide minimal battery charging. While the alternator may be rated to put out plenty of power to charge your batteries, the wires coming off the alternator do not carry much load at all.
How to Flip a Switch
- Conserve power by removing bulbs from multiple light bulb fixtures or turning on only one light bulb at a time.
- Fluorescent lights give more light per Watt.
- Turn lights off when not in use.
- Bullet style lights pull little power and concentrate light where needed.
- Avoid AC lights, which require an inverter to turn on.
- Skylights provide lots of light.
- Large windows brighten a room.
- Turn the antenna booster off when not in use.
- Use a smaller TV to conserve power.
- Turn the TV brightness down to conserve power.
- Some radios pull power constantly. Install a switch to cut the power.
- Laptop computers use less energy than desktop computers. Laptops also have their own batteries to use when you are in a high conservation mode.
- Buy appliances based on their energy consumption.
- Watch local TV instead of satellite TV. This means only your TV is drawing power instead of both the TV and satellite receiver.
Free Power From the Sun
- If you have solar, maximize your power use while the sun is shining.
- Monitor panels, such as an E-Meter or Link 1000, allow you to monitor amps in and out, amp-hours consumed and battery voltage.
- You will buy more solar panels, so plan ahead before deciding where to place the first panel or two.
- Be sure nothing shades the panels (AC, roof vents, pods, antennas, etc.) as even slight shading can shut the power production down.
- Mount the panels so they can be tilted. This nearly doubles the power output.
- Position panels so they do not shade other panels when tilted.
- Wind generators produce a lot of power, but they are noisy and you have to like wind.
- Solar ovens work great. They minimize heat build up inside the rig and save on propane or running the generator.
Does Water Always Flow Downhill?
- Use 6-gallon water jugs, large tanks or bladders to carry water.
- Run water slowly to conserve.
- A 6-gallon water heater is more than enough.
- Water heaters with a continuous pilot light will keep the water warm with just the pilot light.
- Find out where your water pump pickup is and tilt your RV that way to get the last of your water.
- Avoid RVs with multiple dump locations. Multiple tanks should be plumbed together.
- Some places allow you to dump gray water on the ground. If it is allowed and you plan to dump gray water, do so daily to hold down the smell.
- Flush the black tank with the gray tank when dumping. Once you have dumped the black tank, hold the hose up high so that the gray tank water is forced into the black tank when you pull the gray valve. When the water stops rushing close the gray valve and put the hose down to allow the black tank to drain out. Do this two or three times.
- Drive carefully with full holding tanks to prevent a rupture.
- Water is heavy (8.3 lbs/gal). Fill up close to your destination or haul water after you are parked.
- Select an RV that does not require pressure for filling the fresh water tank.
- Buy another demand pump to fill the water tank if yours requires pressure to fill the tank.
- Avoid tank less instantaneous hot water heaters. They require a fair amount of water to run before the heater starts to work. Also, when the pump cycles on and off you get hot and cold bursts of water.
- Donít leave water running while brushing your teeth.
- Only run the water heater as needed.
- Select an RV with large tanks. Recommended minimum sizes: 50 gallon black, 75 gallon gray, 70 gallon fresh.
- External tank monitors are precise and can be added to most RVs. Stop guessing how full your tanks are.
Can Water Hit the Shower Walls?†
- If you do not have a thermostat on your water heater, you may wish to time how long it runs. With just a small amount of practice you can figure out how long to run it, in different climates, to get the water temperature just right to take a shower running only the hot water. This eliminates both wasted water from adjusting the faucets and cold bursts when turning the water on and off.
- Catch water while waiting for the hot water to reach tap. This water can then be recycled to the fresh water tank, used for drinking, cooking or watering pets.
- The water heater should be as close to the bathroom as possible.
- When showering run water only long enough to get wet and rinse off.
- Catch shower water with a dishpan. You can stand with one foot in and one foot out of the dishpan as you shower. The water you catch can then be used to flush the toilet.
- Set adjustable showerheads to minimize the water output.
- Donít waste water rinsing shower walls.
- On/off valve on shower hose allows you to turn the shower on and off without adjusting the faucets each time.
- Shower less often.
- Baby wipes are great for washing faces, taking sponge baths and cleaning spots out of clothing.
- Take showers back to back when more than one is showering. This reduces the time your water heater needs to run.
How Does the Dishwasher Work?†
- Use paper plates to reduce dishwashing.
- Wash dishes only when needed.
- Wipe dirty dishes with paper towels to minimize water usage.
- Pocket meals reduce dishes. Pocket meals are meat and vegetables wrapped in foil and placed on the grill.†Do dishes after showering to minimize the water heater run time.
- Heat water on the stove for dishwashing.
- Wash dishes in a dishpan. Dispose of or recycle the water for toilet flushing.
- Wash all dishes, then rinse all at once under slow stream of water. Catch this water for flushing.
Do You Know How to Flush a Toilet?†
- Install a water shut off valve on the toilet and flush with jugs of water. This can cut water going into the toilet by up to two-thirds.
- Use rinse water from dishwashing for flushing.
- Catch and use shower water for flushing.
- Use lake, stream or rainwater for flushing.
Don't Touch That Thermostat!
- Furnaces pull lots of power.
- Use ceramic, blue flame or catalytic heaters. Vented models pull power. Un-vented models can be vented by cracking windows. By code, RV manufacturers cannot install un-vented heaters. If you install one, be sure to crack the window when running it.
- Orient RV for warmth or coolness. If the weather is chilly, park so the sun comes in the windows. If the weather is hot, park so the sun does not come in the windows or so awnings minimize the sun coming in.
- Use awnings to keep the RV cool.
- Fantastic fans pull little power and are very effective.
- Add another blanket rather than run the heater all night.
- Dress warmer or cooler to conserve energy.
- Move north or south to better a better climate.
Not All Refrigerators Are Created Equal†
- If your refrigerator has a humidity switch, turn it off.
- Refrigerator electronics pull power even when switched to gas. If batteries die so does the refrigerator.
- To our knowledge the manufacturers no longer make a manual refrigerator, however, some repair facilities will convert electronic refrigerators to manual refrigerators. While you may not want to do this while the refrigerator is still under warranty, if the electronics fail after the warranty expires it may be less expensive to convert it to a manual refrigerator than replace the electronics.
- Paint jugs black and set them in the sun to heat water.
- Use a weed sprayer to shower with.
- Use a solar hot shower.
- Cool off with wet T-shirts in front of a fan.
Copyright © 2001-2008 Paul Bernhagen