Boondocking, at least in our mind, means staying in a location without electricity or water hookups, unlike at an RV park or some campgrounds. I've seen the term "primitive camping" also used, especially if it's a campground without hookups. You're using only what you brought along, or what energy you can collect from the sun.
Although we no longer have propane or a generator on board, our solar panels and lithium batteries provide a bunch of energy. Enough even to run the heat pump air conditioner, which is awesome. This is especially true in summer months when there are many hours of sunshine each day. Winter plus heating will be a different deal, assuredly. Right now (i.e. August in the northern hemisphere) we are generally limited by water and waste tank capacity; otherwise we could boondock indefinitely.
We have been boondocking a lot this summer, and it seems like a good time to write a few things about our experiences.
Because we're self-sufficient, we can easily set up in (basically almost) free camping spots with our memberships in Boondockers Welcome and Harvest Hosts. There is a yearly fee for the memberships, plus you are expected to buy something at the Harvest Hosts locations. You might pay a small fee if you connect to electricity or water at some Boondockers spots. We stayed with a nice family in Reno (parked in their driveway) for a couple nights, then at a historical site near Logan for a couple more. These are the first places I'll look for when we're moving to another destination and want a short-term spot along the way that doesn't involve the noise of a truck stop or Walmart parking lot.
The next location was one night at a small campground in Idaho called Pine Bar. No hookups, no problem. Our solar panels (and water in the fresh tank) were all we needed:
There was a very nice view to boot:
Now for the tale about how Howie (our travel trailer) gained another battle scar.
We were trying to stage ourselves near (but not too near) Jackson WY so we could scout the feasibility of moving into the valley. We had heard reports that the area was being overwhelmed with tourists and campers. I guess we weren't the only ones thinking it was a good idea to go somewhere beautiful and not-so-hot this August.
Out west there are many places you can camp on public lands, for free. It takes more effort to find spots that will work, especially places big enough for a travel trailer and on a road that we don't mind driving down (no 4WD). You can't make a reservation, and there are usually "stay limits" (14 nights is typical). Most of the time it's totally worth it.
So we started with Granite Creek on the road toward Pinedale. After an hour slowly creeping along to minimize the effects of the bumpy dirt road, we found the perfect (we thought) boondock spot that was also empty. Side note, they graded part of the road every day we were there, and it only took 30 minutes to remove ourselves later, much better.
Anyway, besides the road condition, the location looked great. Above a lovely creek, a few trees to make it more private, and plenty of sun for the solar panels. If only there wasn't this one pole alongside the entry road. Many things could have been done better (it was a day full of learning), but also, many things could have been worse! Number one thing learned - don't try backing a trailer up a steep dirt road. It could slide sideways when you really don't want it to go sideways.
As if we don't have enough reasons to be annoyed with Shell Oil Company, why is there a pole here? (In more recent positive news, Shell in Europe is starting to move toward renewables - New York Times story)
On the plus side, John figured out how to remove (and later reinstall) our trailer steps, he happened to have a slackline with a winch in the truck for some lateral bracing of the hitch, we could still open (and close!) the trailer door (phew!), and the damage was minor. Some small strips of metal had to be rebent into shape. So now we have a long "let me tell you a story" scratch along the "side fender" of the trailer.
Finally installed in our excellent boondock spot, only a couple hours later than anticipated:
One of John's hikes led him across the creek, where he got this lovely photo:
My view from the window where we could watch for animals:
There's another story that started in this location, we think, but that will need to wait a few paragraphs to gain some momentum.
Our scouting around Jackson for boondocking spots led us to chat with a nice ranger who recommended "The Pit", around the corner from a super-popular location informally called "Teton View". The ranger seemed to apologize when he said "It does have a view of Mount Moran," and I for one think Mount Moran is quite lovely. Especially at sunrise and sunset.
The Pit, which is probably open only temporarily, was perfect for us. A huge gravel lot, plenty of space, only partially inhabited at any one time, and a much better gravel road leading in and out. It wasn't nearly as private as our prior place, but overall much easier. And with a view of Mount Moran! Oops, I should have gotten a photo of the mountain. Yep, it really does get forgotten in the so-called shadow of the Tetons.
So far all of our camping locations had provided plenty of sunshine. Every day the batteries returned to 100% full and we looked for ways to use more energy (run the air conditioner, heat up water). The amount we generated was limited by how much the batteries could hold. When we tried to use as much as possible, we could gather 7 to 8 kWh per day. It would be interesting sometime to spend a day managing usage to determine the max the panels could produce during the summer with an open sky. For now, we're happy with the system (and John is researching the possibility of adding batteries).
Next up ... Moab! We love Moab but haven't been here in several years. It's still just as incredible as ever. Our camping spot (Goose Island) is in a canyon, plus there are some lovely trees around us. Normally this shade would be a bonus in hot weather, but we're getting a lot less sunshine on the solar panels. They are generating about 5 kWh per day instead of 7-8 kWh that we have gotten used to lately.
The afternoons are up to 100 degrees right now, and nighttime is still warm at around 70. We can still run the air conditioner, but not full-time. I've moved us into "moderate conservation mode".
This means we're using fans (desk fan on my face, bed fan for sleeping). We run/hike early in the day, then deal with a warmer trailer around lunchtime. The Super Fan in the bathroom draws air from an open window through the trailer to add ventilation and keep the trailer from becoming an oven, at least until mid-afternoon.
That's when we typically head to town in the truck to find a shady spot and work on the computer (with internet from the phone, which doesn't work in the canyon). By the time we return, the sun has recharged the batteries most of the way. The sun drops over the side of the canyon at 4:30 pm, and things slowly start to cool down.
In the evening we can turn on the AC with a setpoint in the 80's, which is by now completely comfortable because we've become heat-acclimated. The dry air helps a great deal with the comfort level as well. We've started buying bags of ice and now I'm spoiled for having chilled water. I monitor the battery level to make sure it's above 60% before bedtime and we haven't had any problems.
We tried using the Super Fan and opening windows in the evening to assist with the cool-down process but ran into issues with campfire smoke and tiny bugs that get in through the screens. Maybe we need better screens?
The battery level drops by ~15% overnight because the fridge is on full-time. We definitely need a replacement refrigerator. The cooling part is working great, but the insulating part really is not.
With the batteries starting in the 45-55% range, the solar panels can get the batteries mostly back to full during the day.
Moab "camping in the canyon" summary: Battery level management, due to a smaller sun window on the panels
View from one window:
View from the other:
Solar panels by the Colorado River:
John's neatest latest "invention" is our outdoor shower stall. We have always enjoyed using a small solar shower to heat up water while boondocking. Also whenever possible, we'll collect water from an external source (water spigot in town or a nearby creek) and not use any from our trailer water tank. Even more ideally, we'll shower outside and keep the runoff from going into our trailer gray tank. Not only does this preserve space in the tank, it's just an amazing feeling that I highly recommend if you ever get a chance.
Side note - we're not using soap or shampoo when we do this, to keep from sending anything besides dirt and water back to the earth.
We've managed with simple little privacy curtains before, but now John has upped the "professional installer" factor with shower bars and way more room inside, using the bike rack framework as a base.
Welcome to our outdoor shower:
It's just so awesome.
Finally, the other story I promised. It started in Wyoming when we heard some rustling at the back of the trailer. Was there an animal climbing around on the bikes? We went out to look a couple times and never saw anything. An occasional noise would make us wonder, but then it would go away and we'd forget about it.
Fast-forward at least a week (and two driving days) to Moab. The morning after John left for a 6-day rafting class on the Colorado River, I woke up to find that a Bel-Vita bar had been partially eaten out of the pouch of my running vest. Noooooo! The "it could have been worse" factor is that the mouse didn't chew on the vest at all.
Yep, there's a little mouse poop in the corner too. Dang it, I guess that had been the rustling noise and somehow Mouse had survived all the way from Wyoming. I assumed it was living in the back of the trailer under some boards that were screwed down to cover a little slope next to the rear door. It would come out night, hunt around for food, and then go quiet during the day. I was amazed it survived some of the heat, especially during the longer drive day. Not wanting it to die under the boards, I put out a little water dish.
And then went for a run to town to buy a trap. Wow, so many choices. Absolutely not on the sticky paper (that stuff seems so inhumane and should be banned). The snap traps seem to be a quick death and I knew they would work. There was also a "catch and release" trap with a picture of a cute mouse on the package. OK fine, I'll try that first.
I baited it with sunflower seeds and sprinkled a couple more seeds around. That night the seeds on the floor disappeared but there was no mouse in the trap. More scurrying could be heard. I moved more items up to higher reaches of the trailer and out of the way. No damage to anything, and it seemed like Mouse was being respectful of our stuff. I told it to stay OUT of the pantry, that's the only thing that is nonnegotiable. And the sooner I could remove it from the trailer altogether, the better.
The next night I lay listening to Mouse. With a flashlight I caught it batting around the hanging trash bag. I moved the trap over there. A few minutes later I heard it testing the hallway into the trap by pressing on the little spring-loaded plate. I could almost hear it say "Nope!" and move back to the trash bag question.
Finally, an idea. I pulled out a flat box and emptied it out, then added the trash bag and set it on the floor near the bed. If Mouse rummaged through the bag, I might have enough time to jump down and close the lid. Mouse checked out a lot of other things (my foam roller, really?) and FINALLY got back to the bag. I gave it a few seconds to scrounge around for the sunflower seeds I'd scattered in the bag, then leapt over and slammed the lid.
Mouse was still inside! It took me a minute to realize that I had actually done it. Now what? I grabbed a couple bungee cords and secured the lid so there was no way all this work would get undone.
I also took one quick photo, in which mouse isn't visible, but decided not to traumatize it any further with an extended photo shoot:
At least I had a plan for the release - I drove a couple miles downstream, across the river, and stopped at a trailhead. When I opened the box, Mouse jumped and then ran as fast as I've ever seen a rodent go. Bye Mouse! It was fun, I hope you survive, please don't come back.
As I drove home just after midnight, I pleaded, "please let it just be one mouse".
I woke up the next morning to a mouse staring at me as I leaned over to see what was making noise on top of the gearbox under the bed.
Dang it, dang it, dang it! I cannot go through that again.
I ran back to the hardware store and bought the cheap snap traps. So sorry, but I have to do this. Traps loaded and baited, not looking forward to tonight.
Toward evening I had the thought, "I wonder if Mouse has been getting in and out of the trailer during the day - and maybe it's not even here right now." That would explain some of the louder scratching before it shows up, and why it's so quiet during the day. We have wondered in the past if there might be a hole where some larger bugs get in.
I went searching for the hole. And found it! There is a gap along the bottom of the back door, plus a larger space at the bottom right corner. Not easy to see at all, 1/2 inch wide at most. And usually not an issue. Apparently Mice can squeeze through tiny spaces.
One old towel and a long piece of coroplast later, and I wondered if I might have found a way to block rodents from entering.
And it worked! So far - no more indoor mice. And no dead mice. A minor miracle.
John is back now, and because he's a professional installer, he will fix the problem more permanently. Happy days!
And then we will be moving on to our next boondocking location, wherever that ends up being! With any luck, without bringing Mouse along too.