What is Dry Camping?

By Meg Jernigan; Updated June 08, 2017

Doing rustic camping right

What is Dry Camping?

Adventurous types familiar with the secrets of dry camping know it’s cheaper than staying at developed campgrounds but acknowledge that it brings its own set of challenges. A spot in the woods away from it all may seem idyllic until the realities of being without electricity and water set in.

What is dry camping?

Dry camping, also known as boondocking, independent parking or wild camping, is the practice of going off the grid in an RV, car, van or truck to camp. There are no bathhouses, electrical hookups, campground stores or piped-in water in dry camping. Some dry campers prefer to find an isolated spot surrounded by nature; others head to places like Slab City, an entire semi-permanent community in the California desert east of San Diego with a wild reputation.

But where?

Thousands of acres of public land are open to dry camping, mainly in national forests, on Bureau of Land Management lands and at Army Corps of Engineers holdings. The U.S. Forest Service publishes maps showing where you can drive off-highway and set up camp, but national parks rarely let dry campers drive into the backcountry. RVs can stop at many truck stops, highway rest areas and big-box stores, but watch for signs prohibiting overnight stays. Private property is a dry camping option, with the permission of the owner.

RV vs. car

Dry camping in an RV has its advantages over dry camping in a car or van. RVs are typically self-contained, with fresh water, sewage tanks and batteries for electricity. Long-term dry camping RV enthusiasts add solar systems for backup electricity and have extra space to store additional water. Their major limitation is the need to empty the sewage tank at a dump station regularly. Car boondockers don’t have these built-in advantages, but can use portable solutions for necessities. Use a tarp to funnel water into a bucket during rainstorms, purchase a solar charger for a cell phone and invest in a high-quality camping lantern that provides bright light.

Keep in mind

A single overnight stay is manageable in a car or RV without hookups. Longer stays require advance planning. Dry campers must collect their trash and find a proper place for disposal. Seasoned campers recommend learning how to dig a cathole latrine, a rough comfort that is exactly what it sounds like – a hole in the ground for human waste disposal that’s covered up after use. For protection from the weather, carry tarps and bungee cords to secure them. Tyvek, the material used to wrap houses before siding is added, is an inexpensive, weatherproof material that can be used as a tarp or fashioned into a poncho. Remember to leave no trace. A dry campsite should be cleaner when you leave than it was when you arrived.

About the Author

Meg Jernigan