We often get asked how we chose where to stay. There are essentially 4 ways to place ourselves in a given location; friend/family, boondocking, private RV parks, and government-owned parks.
We’ve really only done this once, while staying close to my parents in Mission TX. They live in a “55 and over” development and these places always have homes with RV pads by them. In our case the home had changed hands and the RV pad was unused by the new owner. Since it was just 2 doors over from my parents this worked great.
We had electric and water hookups, but the electric was only 20 amp which meant I wasn’t willing to run our electric heater and mattress pads during the unseasonably cold overnights. If we blew a breaker we’d either be knocking on the neighbors door at 3:00 AM, or suffering without for the rest of the night. We chose to run our propane furnace instead and used most of a ~ $30 bottle that week. Not a huge deal, but just be prepared that these types of arrangements will have their own complexities. We did leave our hosts with a nice gift card at the end of the week to make up for the electricity and water we used during our stay.
Boondocking is essentially parking your RV somewhere where there is the advantage of no overnight cost, and the disadvantage of no hookups (electric, water, or sewer connections). Within the RV community there is a gamut of enthusiasm, experience, and equipment around boondocking. Some folks like to see how long they can go without paying to be somewhere so invest in things like generators, solar-based charging equipment, solar ovens, and solar water heaters etc. Some folks boondock on an overnight basis while traveling, finding it a way to save money if all you need is to get off the road long enough for a meal and a night’s sleep.
While before we left my intent was to boondock at least one night a week to save money, we’ve actually only done it a few times. Weather has been a large factor - when overnight temps are close to or below the freezing mark (as they have been for large stretches of our trip) we just haven’t been comfortable enough depending on our trailer battery to keep the furnace running all night. The trailer furnace also runs off propane, so while boondocking saves money on not paying for a campsite, you spend some of that back in increased propane costs. When plugged in at a campsite we can use our electric heater and heated mattress pads to stay warm and not use the propane.
Another puzzle with boondocking is finding a place where you are both visible enough to feel safe, but secluded enough to actually sleep. While many folks just look for Walmarts to boondock in, our experience with them has been they stay surprisingly busy into even the wee hours of the morning and we haven’t slept that well. We’ve used a church parking lot to much better success. Timing can be an issue - we’d prefer to find a spot while it’s still daylight, but in the winter that means being settled in by 6:00PM and then having hours to kill before going to bed.
We don’t have a generator to supply power for things like the coffee maker, toaster oven, microwave or laptops so it seems like the part of the money we save boondocking gets eaten up by buying coffee and breakfast the next morning, and if I need to work then I need power anyway.
We haven’t needed to boondock as much because we aren’t moving that far. A long day on the road for us is 4 hours, and sometimes we only move 30 minutes up the road. If we were trying to make better time on longer drives then boondocking would be more attractive.
As we move into spring and into areas of the country with more BLM land (where you can also boondock for lengths of time) I’m hoping to try more boondocking - mainly just for the experience of it. We’ll either just do overnights on battery or we might invest in a generator. Not sure yet.
Another option is privately-owned RV parks. The main benefits of private parks are usually lower cost (especially if you join the Passport America discount camping club), amenities, and location.
Cost-wise we have paid as little as $12.50 a night for a spot with full hookups, a nice laundry facility close by, and working wi-fi. This particular park was also the closest we could find to the city where we needed to be for business reasons. However, the park was not much to look at, basically a large gravel parking lot with power poles.
Private parks can often have full-time residents living in trailers in varying states of repair. These residents are sometimes retired people or they can also be working people just trying to get by. We’ve been in parks where the trailers looked like they had been there since the 1970s with very little maintenance done to them.
We’ve also paid just shy of $40/night for a private park by the time they added a “kid tax” (charging extra if you have more than 2 people).
Some private parks have small spots, with just enough room to place your trailer and park your tow rig. Some have provided a large site with bushes and privacy fences. Most, however, tend to want to get as much income from a piece of land as possible so tend towards the smaller sites.
Private parks tend to be closer to main highways, making them more convenient for overnight stays. Private parks are more likely to have pools, hot-tubs, camp stores, propane stations, and playgrounds or game rooms for the kids. Whether these items are currently open and working is always a question, however.
We tend to choose private parks when I need to catch up on work (and hope to use their wi-fi), when we have laundry to catch up on, when we want to be close to a city or other attraction, or when we need an overnight spot but still want to be plugged in.
Or there are times where the state parks are full - we had that recently around the Presidents Day holiday. The Corp of Engineers park where we were was booked out over the long weekend so we had to move to a private park that had openings.
We’ve learned, however, to call ahead and ensure they have a spot, the costs are as advertised, and that the wi-fi is currently working.
Government Owned Parks
Of the different government-owned places to camp -city parks, county parks, state parks, national forests, and Corp of Engineers parks- we’ve mainly stayed in state parks and the reason we usually chose them is scenery. As a country we’ve done a pretty good job at setting aside the prettiest parts of our states as parks and camping in them has been a joy.
We’ve had waterfront sites, sites nestled against majestic rock faces, and in view of cool rock formations. Some parks have had ranger programs that make great homeschooling experiences. We’ve mountain biked, beach combed, and searched for cool rocks in state parks. Bathroom and shower facilities are, on average, nicer at state parks - and we do tend to use the park facilities rather than our trailer when possible.
The downside of state parks is that (on average) they cost more than private parks. In some states you can buy a yearly pass, but you have to stay in enough parks to make up for that purchase cost.
State parks also don’t tend to have as many amenities as private parks. Most sites don’t have sewer hookups, so if we need to dump that becomes an additional hassle in getting on the road. Some state parks have laundry facilities, but usually not as large as private parks. We’ve only been in one state park that listed wi-fi, and even it wasn’t working. When we are at state parks I rely on our air card for connectivity, and have been in places where it wouldn’t connect so we had to cut our visit short. And while we have a 20GB per month plan, I still worry about going over that if we use it continually.
We’ve had far fewer interesting conversations in state parks, and I’m convinced it has to do with larger campsite sizes. While some private parks initially don’t appeal because the RV’s all look crammed in, we’ve found that the closer you are to your neighbor the more likely you are to meet them. We’ve had long conversations in the laundry, while hooking up sewer hoses, or just based on our license plate viewed while setting up.
Great summary of camping options. We found boondocking to be challenging in the beginning (our first night was in a Wal-Mart and our batteries had died and our generator shorted out!), but we’ve since gotten the hang of it.
We use boondocking as a one-night stay-over when making it to a destination. Our generator (now that it’s fixed) has been instrumental in making it a decently comfortable experience, as well as mild weather.
(We run it during high-activity times and then shut it off for the remainder of the day/night.)
About the noise at Wal-Mart: the first couple of times we boondocked there, it was annoying. Now, I’m used to it and sleep fine. I like Wal-Marts because they’re right off the interstate, open 24 hours, have a RedBox to rent movies, will bake your $10 pizza for you in the deli and I can pick up necessities for the next day.
Great website, by the way!
Thanks Melanie -
The generator does seem to be key to comfortable boondocking. I just can’t decide if spending the money on it makes sense, especially now that we’re roughly halfway through this adventure.
I keep hoping one drops in our lap, cheap..:)
But even then it’ll require some custom work to mount to the trailer, and then there’s where to carry and secure fuel, etc. All puzzles yet, and I can buy alot of nights in campgrounds for ~ $1K….
Thanks for the compliment on the site…helps to be a web developer..;)
Thanks for all the details! Though our family is traveling in an RV this information is helpful and interesting.
We’re traveling only in our mini-van and find places to stay with friends/family, business associates we’ve previously known only online, other business associates, contacting hosts at Couchsurfing.org or house sitting.
Looking forward to our families meeting in person.
Very interesting, informative post! This whole subject is new to me (I’d never even heard the term boondocking before) so I’m enjoying the behind-the-scenes look at your adventure. Interesting about the difference (in costs) between private and government parks; I would have thought it would be the opposite!
Sue - sounds like you ended up doing a bit of boondocking..;) Each time we’ve done the Wal-Mart approach we saw other non-RV based travelers sleeping in their cars. It just makes sense to save the cost of a hotel if all you need to do is sleep. And can do that in a car/van.
Julie - the costs of government-owned parks has gone up quite a bit over the years. We camped alot growing up and my parents often say how cheap it was (even adjusting for inflation). State budgets are hurting so rates have gone up to not only cover costs but (at least in some MI state parks) become a profit center.
This is an excellent overview! We’re 60 days in and still learning our way.
Thus far, we’ve primarily used Passport America. The $12.50/night rate sounds awesome. It may be because we’re on the east coast, but it seems that most of the campgrounds we’ve stayed at w/ PA have been in the $17-$24 range.
We’ve also stayed at a church parking lot (which worked out great!) and at county/state parks.
As you know, we also just purchased a used Thousand Trails membership off of eBay. If our calculations are right and we use it as often as we think we will, the cost savings should be super.
I’m curious: Why do you prefer to use the bathroom and shower facilities at campgrounds rather than the ones in your RV? Or - do you only do that when you don’t have a sewer hookup?
Also - that sunset photo in Panama Beach is spectacular. What kind of camera do you have?
12.50 a night was definitely an exception - most parks are in the range you mention.
Our shower is small - for me it’s like using a water bottle while standing in a sleeping bag. I just figure using park shower keeps the wear and tear off our fixtures, keeps the tanks from filling, and just in general goes faster. It also doesn’t tie up the bathroom for others.
The Panama pic is actually well after sunset - it’s a long exposure shot using our Nikon D40. I had Data “paint” the trailer with a flashlight while the camera shutter was open.