What I learned on my first boondocking trip

Does the thought of boondocking make you nervous? I’m a newbie, and it made me nervous too. 

Since buying a new Airstream last summer, we’ve been staying only in places with full hookups. But last weekend, I boondocked for the first time, and – spoiler alert! – I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

First, let me say that I’ve never considered myself a “camper.” After a few tenting trips to northern Arizona and Yosemite, I realized it just wasn’t for me. With an olfactory system like a bloodhound, I’m not so big on unwashed body (or other) smells, which admittedly, I equate with “roughing it.” A hot shower and shampoo with blow-dry are my daily requirements. 

So, my vacation preference has historically been to travel by airplane and stay in boutique hotels with lots of amenities. I always thought Airstreams were cool, but I had never dreamed of owning one. 

Then I met Rich Luhr, publisher of Airstream Life magazine. And as soon as I became an Airstreamer by injection, I eagerly awaited the chance to travel in one. 

When we bought a 2020 Globetrotter 23 FB this summer, I fell in love with everything about it – the cozy shape, the interior design style, and sleek cabinetry, the fact that everything is so adorably little. I affectionately refer to it as The Fort and I’m really getting the hang of traveling in it.

But up until mid-January, all of our trips in The Fort had included full hookups. From Prescott and Patagonia, Arizona to Silver City, New Mexico, and Borrego Springs, CA, each adventure involved staying in a national park or private campground with water, sewer, and power. Meanwhile, Rich kept telling me how much fun boondocking would be, as it afforded the opportunity to stay in certain places that we couldn’t otherwise enjoy.

So in early January, I decided to throw caution to the wind – along with my high heels, a going-out dress, and my blow dryer – and head out for a sans hookup weekend in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, just north of the Arizona border. 

Unhooked campsite in Organ Pipe Cactus National MonumentOur unhooked campsite at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

I can honestly say that this no hookups campground ended up being my favorite of all those we’ve stayed in. The lush vegetation in and around the campground, spectacular vistas, and starry skies allowed us to unplug and relax for two days and two nights with our little dog Mickey. 

Our dog Mickey enjoying the sunrise out of our Airstream bedroom windowsMickey loved the Airstream bedroom sunrises.

Here are 9 things I learned on this first boondocking trip.  

1. The prep is a little different than if you are heading toward hookups.

Do these things before you leave:

    • Top off everything. Although we never leave with completely empty tanks or batteries, in the case of boondocking you want to be sure everything is full. Fill the water tanks to overflow, make sure you’ve plugged in overnight so your batteries are fully charged, and fill both propane tanks.
    • Plan ahead for coffee. Important to anyone like me who is adamant about having an excellent morning brew. More on that in a moment.
    • Take note of what you won’t (or shouldn’t) use while boondocking. When you are only using batteries, things that have a heating element or need a surge of power to operate, either won’t work or shouldn’t be used. Common items include: blow dryer, microwave, air conditioner, drip coffee maker, laptop charger. Plan accordingly.
    • Buy a bunch of fresh drinking water in gallon jugs. We took 6 gallons and used about 3 for drinking and cooking. Tip: Make sure at least one of the jugs has a screw-on top so you can lay it down in the refrigerator without risking the top popping off during towing.
    • Take a power source with you. This allows you to keep the batteries charged so you can run the lights, sound system, TV, and furnace without worry. We have a portable solar system. Rooftop solar or a generator are other options.
    • Pack easy to make foods and snacks. When you have a limited amount of water and can’t use the microwave, you’ll appreciate this. We took things like instant oatmeal, mixed nuts, dried fruit, cereals, cut up veggies, hummus, cold cuts, bread, etc.
    • Take a few rolls of paper towels. A tidy boondocker’s best friend, I found these to be useful for many things. 

2. Set up is so easy!

Normally, it’s my job to hook up water, electric, and sewer hose at arrival. It had been two months since our last trip so I was reviewing how to do these things in my head while we were driving, and mentioned to Rich that I might need a refresher from him about the sewer hose connection. He gently reminded me that there would be no place to hook it up. I had not quite clued into the fact that no hookups = no sewer hose. And no electricity plug or need for the EMS power protector or water spigot either. Just pull in, unhitch, and flip on the water pump and you’re good to go. 

3. You need a good coffee solution because you can’t use a coffee maker. 

Coffee lovers, pay attention! When you’re drawing from the battery, you can’t use anything that has a heating element that draws a lot of power quickly. That means, no drip coffee maker. Mon Dieu.

I have taken my Bialetti stovetop coffee maker on previous Airstream trips, and I do love the coffee it makes. But to plan for this trip, I had been testing a stainless steel pour over that doesn’t require a filter. I wanted a bit of a “slow coffee” experience. On this trip, I heated the drinking water we carried with us in a collapsible kettle and poured it over ground coffee. 

A pour over for my coffee and collapsable teapotThe aroma is amazing when you use a pour-over funnel to make your morning coffee. 

I love the simplicity of this pour-over method and the aroma is spectacular. Plus, you make it one cup at a time so it’s always hot and fresh and doesn’t have that burned taste you get when it sits on the electric warming burner too long. 

4. You have to check the fresh and grey water tank levels throughout your stay.

All you experienced Airstreamers are thinking “well, duh,” but I had truly not thought about this kind of diligent monitoring until Rich mentioned it during the trip.

The level data is available on the Tank Monitor panel. In our 2020 Globetrotter, it’s in the bathroom. In your model, it might be in the kitchen.

  • Push the FRESH button to see the percent of freshwater you have left. Most Airstream trailers carry 30 gallons in a full tank. If you are experienced you can run it down to 25% or even 10%. This helps you know how long you can stay put without going to dump and refill. If you plan to stay longer, you’ll need to plan for using the campground dump station and refilling the tanks.
  • Push the GREY button to see the percentage of space that’s been used in the grey water tank. In other words, at the beginning of a trip it will start at 0% and gradually go up as you use water. After a day, ours was reading 20% full, and Rich gave me props for that since I’m the primary cook and dishwasher.
  • Push the BLACK button to see the percentage of space that’s been used in the black water tank. There was no need for me to monitor this tank level because there are only two of us and our trip was only two days long. 

Note that the level on the panel is approximate. There are a whole bunch of reasons why the data cannot be completely accurate (for example, the black tank includes toilet paper, which impacts the level reading), but I won’t go into that kind of detail here. Mostly, because I still don’t understand it well enough to explain it.

Bottom line: The more you boondock and monitor your levels while doing it, the more you’ll understand your usage.


Check the levels of your fresh and grey tank regularly when boondocking. If you’re
planning to stay unplugged for more than about five days, check the black tank level too.


5. Solar power makes a huge difference.

We used the Airstream Life Portable Solar Kit throughout our trip and it performed beautifully. I plugged it into the solar charge port on the A-Frame and connected the two cables, then unfolded the three solar panels in the morning sun. Super easy. Because it’s portable, we moved the panels with the sun throughout the day to optimize our solar “catch.” 

The result was that we never worried about our batteries draining. The sun kept them charged all day long. So we used electricity as if we were plugged in, save for one thing:

You can’t use the microwave or A/C when you are using the batteries. And it did get into the 80s during the day, with west-facing exposure. This is where you have to roll with it when boondocking. Sure, it wasn’t an icy 65 degrees in the trailer. But we put the awning out and the fans on and it was fine. If we’d had our Zip-Dee solar shade with us, we would have hung it on our awning – but we haven’t yet installed it in our trailer.

If you are wondering, you can plug in your laptop charger, but boondocker beware. Without getting technical, doing so requires that you turn on the inverter, which switches the power supplied directly from the battery, to the type of power that is required to run things like a laptop power cord, television, DVD player, and other electronics. 

But just because you can do this doesn’t necessarily mean you should. At least, not too frequently. That’s because overuse of an inverter ultimately can lead to it failing, and that’s an expensive thing to replace. So if you must bring your laptop, don’t keep it plugged in the entire trip.

If you’re looking for more technical details about solar, Rich has written multiple blogs on the topic. Here’s one about when you do (and don’t) need solar panels 

We used a portable solar system to charge our batteries during the day.
The panels weigh only 18 lbs which made it easy for me to move them as the sun moved.


6. Yes, hot (albeit short) showers are possible!  

Full disclosure, I showered both days but didn’t wash my hair on the first morning of the trip. It’s medium length and thick and I didn’t want to use too much water. I’d say this was the only real drawback of boondocking for me. (I realize this may cue eye-rolling for some of you.)  

Here’s what I learned is the best way to take a boondocking shower:

    • Turn on the propane switch in the bathroom to heat the water. It takes about 20 minutes, so plan ahead. 
    • Turn the shower full on to HOT. That will get the shower-ready water faster and you’ll use the least amount of water. 
    • Turn the water on to rinse, and off to suds up. This will be familiar to some as a ‘military shower.’
    • Use the water saver button on the showerhead. I had not noticed this little gem but Rich showed it to me on day two. There is a black button on the side of the showerhead that shuts on and off the water. So, get the temperature right, then use the button to turn the water on and off – saves more water than turning it on/off at the faucet each time.
    • Shower during the warmest part of the day. This will make your shower infinitely more comfortable. Especially if you boondock during colder weather.

7. Paper towels are a great all-purpose solution for cleaning and water savings. 

Great for wiping out the pour-over coffee filter (read: no water was used to clean it each day), wiping out the sink, and wiping off countertops. I used, dried, and reused paper towels throughout the trip. I also brought a plate scraper, but we didn’t eat anything that required me to use it. I found the paper towel to be much easier and more versatile. 

Yes, there is the sustainability issue of more waste, but for convenience and the fact many of the paper towels could be used multiple times after drying them, I think paper towels are the way to go. And, you can purchase a brand made from recycled material. We used about a third of a roll during the entire trip. 


8.
 You can rinse dishes and wash your face with surprisingly little water.

To wash dishes: Dampen a sponge and put dish soap in it, then suds up each dish or utensil with the water off and put it in the sink. When everything has suds, turn on the sink to a small drizzle, and using your hands and moving the plate, rinse quickly.

To wash your face/brush your teeth: Similar to showering, turn the water on only when rinsing, and keep the flow low. Turn it off when brushing or washing. 


9. Propane is really efficient and seems to last forever.

Kudos to Airstream for including so many gas-run appliances in the trailer. They are incredibly energy efficient. We didn’t skimp on running the stove, refrigerator, or furnace, and there was still plenty of propane left when we got home. 


My overall take on boondocking? It requires a little practice and mindset modification, but I didn’t feel we sacrificed anything. Sure the showers were short, but we ran the furnace, cooked, listened to music, and even watched Gone With the Wind one night. I just had to be mindful of and monitor my water usage. And frankly, that’s a conservation mindset I should adopt at home anyway. The boondocking experience kept me mindful about how we were using our resources.

If you have long, thick hair you may have to go without washing it for a day. And no, you can’t use the microwave or leave the faucet running while you wash dishes. But in the end, these aren’t the reasons you bought an Airstream anyway. So, don’t be nervous about boondocking. Embrace it as an opportunity for simpler travel, and an excuse to leave your blow dryer at home.

 

Comments

  1. Pat says

    A large mixing bowl is your best friend when dry camping. Wash dishes in it, wash your face over it, catch your shower water in it while waiting for it to heat up, in the bowl. And then toss it all into the black tank, which at 37 gallons, takes a LONG time to fill. Keep it in the kitchen sink where we run water the most.

    • Doug says

      Great post and a great point Pat! I also use the outside shower for myself and washing dishes. It’s easy to haul extra water with you but once the tanks are full it’s over 🙂

    • Cheryl Toth says

      Pat, this is a great tip! We travel with a large mixing bowl and I’ll use it on our next boondocking trip. Someone told me recently she uses a small bucket for this purpose.

    • RichLuhr says

      Pat’s tip is good, but if your black tank is smaller than hers (like ours, which is just 18 gallons) it might be a better idea to water a nearby tree with that used wash water. It’s legal in *some* places to dump wash water. For a list of where it’s permitted and where it is not, see this resource:

      https://www.boondockersbible.com/knowledgebase/can-i-dump-my-gray-water-on-the-ground/

      Generally state and county parks don’t allow dumping of wash water, so your other option would be to take it to the dump station, if there is one.

  2. Jerry Calvert says

    Coffee – they make filters that fit your stainless steel pore over one cup coffee maker. Cleanup is even easier. I also bought a stainless steel french press for when I want more than one cup in the morning., but cleaning is a little more difficult. I have put a filter in bottom and most of the grounds come right out.

    • Cheryl Toth says

      Thanks, Jerry. I hadn’t discovered the pore over for the one cup coffee maker. I wanted to avoid the glass carafe so didn’t look in that direction, but that’s also a great solution. What we coffee lovers won’t do for our morning brew! 🙂

      • Carol says

        You can also use that pour over filter on a larger thermoses to make more than one cup at a time.

    • Ahh2Bretired! says

      We use Starbucks VIA instant coffee which we found is the same cost per cup as coffee grounds. It’s quite good and all we have to do is warm up water. We drink coffee this way even when we’re not boondocking!

  3. Gypsymom says

    My son just purchased a Basecamp 20X. I’ve shared ideas with his wife on how to conserve while boondocking. My husband and I have a 28’ Flying Cloud. To save on power, I keep a gallon jug of water in the bathroom to avoid having to use the water pump to flush and quieter when one has to get up in the middle of the night! We also keep a blue 3 gal jug with a hand pump on it for our coffee and drinking water and a second jug in reserve. Fill them up at HEB or other grocery stores that have water machines. Much cheaper than buying bottled water and better for the environment too!

    • Cheryl Toth says

      I haven’t run across a reusable water jug with a hand pump – thanks for sharing that Gypsymom. We’ve been talking about getting a 5 gal jug but for this trip we picked up the gallon jugs out of convenience.

  4. Stan says

    I have a 16′ Bambi Airstream, so even less water for boondocking. I have solar, so water capacity is my limiting factor. I’ve started using Dawn Power Wash. Just spray a little on the dirty dishes and wipe off. Almost no water necessary. It works great.

    And, I am also a big fan of the “pour-over” coffee. In fact, it’s the only way I make coffee now in my Airstream anymore.

    Thanks for the tips!
    Stan

  5. Ray Delgado says

    Great job, Great Points. Just had similar experiences with coffee maker but luckily had a friend prepared with an alternative. Amazed with propane as well. Furnace worked flawlessly! Kicked in inverter at one point, engaged a space heater which drew too much and caused a beeping…had me dumbfounded for a bit. The Joy…Loving it as We Learn! Thank You!

    • Cheryl Toth says

      Learning is as we go is fun, isn’t it? The space heater is one of those appliances that has a heating element, so it should not be used while boondocking – inverter or not. Sounds like it was your lesson for that trip. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story, Ray. As a wise friend of mine once said, “when all teach, all learn.”

  6. David Ward says

    I found a dish pan that fits perfectly in our 16ft Bambi which we have recently sold. I bought it at Bed, Bath & Beyond. The last trip we took in it, we only had electric and we were out 5 days. I carried a five gallon fresh water jug and (2) 1 gallon jugs. I filled our fresh tank with that large jug 2 times. We tossed dish water, tooth brushing and face washing water outside. 2 showers only and we had 75% full when we dumped. Looking forward to our 2021 Globetrotter in the spring.

    • Cheryl Toth says

      David, you have clearly have thought through the water conservation. Nice tips, and amazing conservation. We LOVE our 2020 Globetrotter (aka, The Fort), and I know you will too.