Boondocking: An Outsider’s Perspective on Dispersed RV Living

Boondocking: An Outsider’s Perspective on Dispersed RV Living

In just about every campground, we find them. They’re the snowbirds, the kind and retired folks who’ve set up shop in this place for as long as they’re allowed before moving on to the next site (each campground has different limits on length of stay; two weeks seems typical). We’ve thought that many places we’ve come across on our journeys have been ideal snowbird locales, but it turns out that there is a geographical center of snowbird-dom, and it’s in a place called Yuma, AZ.

“My husband and I stop here every year [here was Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, near Alamogoro, NM and White Sands National Monument], but just for a few days, for a rest. We’re on our way to the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] land outside Yuma. Have you heard of it?” I admit to the elderly woman in the ladies’ room that I haven’t. “We have a special permit, a six-month permit, to camp on the BLM land. It’s totally off the grid – no electricity.” Here a big grin crosses her face; she’s really excited. “We have a whole group of friends who meet up there every winter. It’s wonderful.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was speaking to my first boondocker. Boondockers generally dislike the term boondocking, preferring dry-camping, or dispersed camping, but I like the ring of it. Basically, boondocking means that you possess a vehicle with a self-contained septic system that you can park somewhere either for free or for a small fee and live independently, off the grid. A lot of boondockers have complex solar panel power systems, satellite dishes for TV and internet, and generators for when the sun don’t shine (enough). There are entire guides posted on strategies for conserving your tank of water. Most have fancy RVs, but every once in a while you see a customized van or a real beater of an RV.

Months later, we found the BLM land I had heard about, outside Yuma. Oddly, we felt completely out of place. We didn’t have the entrance fee: the RV. We were hoping to spend a week or so on the BLM land ourselves, off the grid, but this grid was pretty fully occupied. There were possibly five hundred RVs spread over maybe a thousand different sites in about ten designated areas, and only one site had restrooms – all other sites required self contained vehicles. The camp area that was equipped for people who have to poo outside their vehicles was the worst area of all: namely, the one downstream from the dam, with the scary warning signs about bells and flashing lights that would fire off when immediate evacuation was required. It was a very organized kind of off the grid living, with different cliques lining up in different areas. Since we didn’t have the entrance fee, there was no place for our kind.

I remained conflicted in my opinion on boondocking (and BLM land) mainly just feeling left out, until recently, when I read a collection of articles by Edward Abbey called Abbey’s Road. They were the typical crazy, destructive, respectful, romantic adventure and misadventures stories that I love so much. But one of them surprised me — one called The Winnebago Tribe. Here is Edward Abbey in a tone that I didn’t think was possible: conveying an understanding of a group of people he had previously despised, realizing where RVers come from.

On our way to the Salton Sea from Joshua Tree NP, we drove down a canyon that was designated BLM land. It was a very wide, flat, sandy-bottomed canyon, and the paved road twisted and turned through it. But the tire tracks went all over the place. If someone didn’t feel like taking that turn, well, they didn’t take it. They went straight ahead. You could camp anywhere, as long as you didn’t have a fire and properly disposed of your (biological) refuse. The number of other campers was pretty limited, and I could see why. You can’t live for six months in a wash. Too stressful (a few months earlier a huge storm had flooded the area, closing the Cottonwood Springs area and campground inside Joshua Tree for months and washing debris down the canyon for miles). We parked the car and hiked around a side canyon. It was strewn with beer cans, rusted gas cans, shotgun shells, handgun shells, toilet paper, bonfire remains, and plenty of other garbage.

I previously had a less than favorable view of boondock paradises like the BLM land outside Yuma, but thanks to Mr. Abbey, and my general BLM observations, I’ve since come around. As our friend Mary said: “Anything goes on BLM land.” Maybe that’s why certain areas have been staked out and populated by the retiree crowd. It’s a way of guaranteeing protection from the shotgun-wielding, bush-pooping, beer-drinking crazies (like our Edward Abbey, in his day). It’s great that there is a free to low cost, semi-wild option available for people who want to live a non-traditional, nomadic lifestyle in their retirement. Seeing a crop of a few hundred RVs in the desert is not pretty, but it’s like the SVRAs (State Vehicle Recreation Areas) – if you provide a place where people can drive all over and generally tear it up, then hopefully they won’t do it anywhere else. Same goes for boondocking.

I should mention that there’s a whole other crowd of people out there who boondock, just for the sake of living for free — we call them the stealth campers (more about them in the future). I’m cool with that too. We’d like to do the same.

A group of Boondockers in what I call the Wagon Circle formation.
A group of Boondockers in what I call the Wagon Circle formation.
Boondockers spread across the Ocotillo Wells Vehicle Recreation Area.
Boondockers spread across the Ocotillo Wells Vehicle Recreation Area. Wake up and you’re off-road.