Leave No Trace Principles For RV & Van Boondocking

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, then you’re most likely familiar with the seven Leave No Trace (LNT) principles. If you’re not familiar with them, well, these principles are the bedrock of responsible and sustainable recreation in our natural playgrounds. The LNT principles apply to all kinds of outdoor activities – whether it’s hiking, mountain biking, snowmobiling, fishing, rock climbing, skijoring, camping, or hunting – so they should also be followed when boondocking on public lands. Here are how you can apply the LNT principles when boondocking – no matter what kind of rig you call home.

If you’re not familiar with the term “boondocking”, please first read my Let’s Talk about RV Boondocking post.


Leave No Trace Principles:

1.     Plan Ahead And Prepare

2.     Travel and camp on durable surfaces

3.     Dispose of waste properly

4.     Leave What You Find

5.     Minimize Campfire Impacts

6.     Respect Wildlife

7.     Be Considerate Of Other Visitors

8.     Extra: Tag Thoughtfully

Boondocking means having views like this from your rig.

Boondocking means having views like this from your rig.

Plan Ahead And Prepare

Planning ahead and being prepared are key to having a positive boondocking experience. They’re also crucial to ensuring we’re using our public lands responsibly. This is an extremely important principle because it prevents bad behaviors. By being prepared, we avoid putting ourselves in situations where bad decisions are even a potential option. For example, knowing ahead of time that a boondocking area is going to be extra busy due to holidays means not having to consider creating a new boondocking spot to fit your rig. Having locally purchased firewood on hand means not being tempted to chop down trees.

By researching the dispersed camping rules in this area, we learned that we were able to stay in this spot despite initially thinking it was off-limits.

By researching the dispersed camping rules in this area, we learned that we were able to stay in this spot despite initially thinking it was off-limits.

  • Each boondocking area (aka dispersed camping) has different rules and regulations. Research and know the rules in the area you’re planning to stay in. This includes the stay limit, where you’re allowed to camp, fire and usage restrictions, etc. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse; “I didn’t know I can’t camp here” does not hold water.

  • Know the weather forecast and potential hazards because it may change where you choose to stay. For example, you don’t want to be boondocked near a desert wash if there’s rain in the forecast due to flash flooding dangers.

  • Avoid popular places during holidays and other times of high use. Not only is there the possibility of not finding a boondock site during busy times, but heavy traffic is harder on the land.

  • Be prepared with enough supplies: water, food, and fuel. Some boondock locations are remote and may not have any amenities in the area, including cell services.


Travel And Camp On Durable Surfaces

Be responsible about where you plan to boondock and how you get there. Traveling improperly can cause irreversible damage to the natural environment above and below the ground. For example: the desert may seem barren and tough, but some of the most fragile organisms live there in the form of cryptobiotic crust soil. Cryptobiotic crust consists of algae, fungi and cyanobacteria mixed with soil. This mixture becomes a delicate crust on the surface that resists erosion, and provides soil stability and nutrients – all of which allow plants to grow. This type of soil is crucial to the arid and semi-arid ecosystem. Cryptobiotic soil is easily damaged from human and animal footsteps, and vehicle and bike tracks. It may take five to seven years for a thin top layer of cryptobiotic crust soil to regenerate. It’s estimated to take 50+ years in favorable conditions for damaged areas of soil crust to be fully functional again.

We found an established site on hard packed dirt and at last 200 feet away from the river.

We found an established site on hard packed dirt and at last 200 feet away from the river.

  • Durable surfaces include established campsites and trails, rock, gravel, sand, and dry grasses. The majority of dispersed camping rules require users to stay in established campsites and not create new ones.

  • Don’t create your own new boondock site and don’t enlarge or alter any existing sites. If your rig doesn’t fit then look for another place to stay.

  • Avoid soft-packed sandy/dirt roads during or after a rainfall. These types of roads can turn into a mud pit and become extremely hard to drive on or simply impassable. Soft, muddy roads shouldn’t be driven on because tires create deep tracks that damage roads.

  • Sometimes it’s necessary to scout out a road or boondock site by foot or bicycle before driving in to make sure your rig will make it down a dirt road and fit in the spot you have your eye on. Dirt roads may start off gentle but turn into a pothole nightmare, require 4-wheel drive, or have low branches in the way. There may also be occasions where you need to turn around but there aren’t any pull-out spots large enough to use.

  • Protect and minimize the negative impact to water sources by camping at least 200 feet from lakes, rivers, and any other natural bodies of water. This is extremely crucial if you need to dispose of human waste (via cat holes) or wastewater (dishwater or toothpaste). Following this rule helps create extra barriers for wastewater to filter through before reaching water sources since food bits, cooking grease, shampoo, soaps, and lotions are harmful to aquatic life. Even biodegradable shampoos, soaps, and lotions are pollutants when they enter into our natural waterways.


Dispose Of Waste Properly

Pack it in, pack it out! Leave your boondock site cleaner than you found it! Before leaving an area, ask yourself: did you leave anything behind that wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for you and other visitors?

Properly disposing the waste from our composting toilet.

Properly disposing the waste from our composting toilet.

  •  Pack it in, pack it out – more often than not there aren’t trash cans or dumpsters where you’re boondocking. Also, be the better person and clean up your campsite/boondock site, even if it’s not your mess.

  • Don’t leave your garbage outside. Wild critters (birds included) will tear trash bags apart looking for delicious leftovers, leaving you with a scattering of coffee grounds and green pepper seeds to pick up, not to mention other non-edible trash blowing around.

  • If your rig doesn’t have a toilet in it and there aren’t public toilets nearby, be sure to dig a cat hole that’s 6 – 8 inches deep and at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails to deposit your poop in. Not sure how far away 200 feet is? Take about 70 steps. Remember to pack out your toilet paper (and tampons).

  • If you’re in a rig that has gray water and/or black water tanks, be sure to never ever empty them on public lands. The proper place to empty those is at an RV dump station.

  • The poop tank of composting toilets should never be emptied on public lands either. Even if you dig a big and deep hole. The contents in a composting toilet are not safely composted. Pee bottles can be emptied outside – contents should be spread in a wider area and at least 200 feet away from streams, lakes, etc. Read my post Where To Responsibly Empty Your Composting Toilet.

  • Scattering small amounts of dishwater (from a few meals) and shower water is ok. But carry water 200 feet away from natural water sources, use small amounts of biodegradable soap, and strain the dishwater of food first (food bits go in the trash). Never shower with shampoo and soap or wash your dishes directly in lakes and rivers. Read my post Living On The Road: Showering Outside.

  • Organic matter such as orange skins, banana peels, or apple cores are biodegradable (takes two weeks to two months), but they still shouldn’t be tossed out in the woods or desert. That’s littering! You may think, “Oh that’s not long at all! It’ll be gone before I leave the boondock site or when I come back again!” But now if everyone thought that and tossed their food into the woods, then it would quickly pile up. None of us choose boondocking to check out piles of trash. On top of that, tossing food out like that actually harms wildlife. Read more about it under the Respect Wildlife principle below.


Leave What You Find

As Leave No Trace for Outdoor Ethics says, “Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.”

“Leave only footprints and take only photos.” Taking a picture of these wild lilies means other hikers and mountain bikers are able to also enjoy them by the lake.

“Leave only footprints and take only photos.” Taking a picture of these wild lilies means other hikers and mountain bikers are able to also enjoy them by the lake.

  • Boondockers shouldn’t have to cut down trees or vegetation, dig up the ground, or make any other changes in order to be able to stay there with their rig. If that’s the case, then that’s not the spot for you.

  • Sometimes there may be trees or bushes in the way as you drive to your boondock site. Those shouldn’t be cut off or driven over. Find another route to get to your site or find another site.

  • Please leave cultural and historic structures and artifacts alone and for others to enjoy. This goes the same with wildflowers, plants and even pretty rocks. 

  • Leave what you find unless it’s trash left behind from other campers. Be good stewards of the environment and leave a campsite better than you found it.


Minimize Campfire Impacts

Sure, we all love a good evening hangout by a campfire. But it’s not necessary to have one to enjoy the outdoors – especially when there’s a risk of forest fire. From June 1 through December 31, 2018, the entire Santa Fe National Forest was closed due to high fire hazard. Initially it was just a forest wide fire ban. But despite the ban, forest and fire officials found over 120 abandoned campfires, 84 of which were over Memorial Day weekend alone. Since visitors couldn’t follow the rules, officials closed the entire forest for safety.

We rarely have campfires when we’re boondocking, but sometimes it’s nice to have one - if it’s allowed.

We rarely have campfires when we’re boondocking, but sometimes it’s nice to have one - if it’s allowed.

  • Find out what the campfire restrictions are where you’re staying. Aside from potentially getting fined for having a campfire during a fire ban, you could cause a forest fire - leaving you potentially responsible for the millions of dollar bill. Don’t be that person.

  • Use established fire rings or fire pans if campfires are permitted. Campfires scar the natural landscape so don’t add your own fire ring to an area. Keep fires small; you’re not using them to alert the next town over of a military ambush!

  • Fallen trees and standing dead trees provide shelter for animals, not to mention provide stability and nutrients to the soil. Only gather dead and down wood (if permitted). Only burn locally-sourced firewood to prevent the spread of disease and respect local restrictions on bringing in firewood from outside the region.

  • Burn all wood and coals to ash, make sure to put campfires out completely by drenching with water and stirring. It should be cool to the touch before you walk away from it. That means you can touch it with your hand. Yes, really.


Respect Wildlife

Whether or not you think you’re in their home when you’re boondocking, it comes down to respect for another living being. And besides, some of them are a whole lot bigger than we are and have sharper teeth.

I took this photo from inside the truck that was parked on the side of the road. I zoomed in to get a closer view of the mama and her cubs.

I took this photo from inside the truck that was parked on the side of the road. I zoomed in to get a closer view of the mama and her cubs.

  • Keep your distance from wildlife. Don’t be that idiotic person who died because s/he decided to take a selfie with a bear and then the poor bear had the be put down because of the person’s stupidity.

  • Don’t feed wildlife. Ever. You may think feeding them is helping them out, but it actually harms them. It damages their health, alters their natural behaviors, and desensitizes them to people. Feeding wildlife causes them to come to campsites more frequently searching for food which then typically creates the need for the animals to be relocated or even killed. This includes not leaving your trash out or tossing food into the woods.

  • Leave adequate space for wildlife to feel safe to access nearby water sources by parking your rig at least 200 feet away.

  • Keep an eye on your pets and have them under voice control if they’re off-leash. For everyone’s safety, don’t let your pets chase wildlife. Did you know that desert tortoises store water in their bladder to use during the dry months? But when they’re scared, their defensive mechanism is to empty their bladder – leaving them at a huge disadvantage during the dry season. 


Be Considerate Of Other Visitors

One of the main reasons why we turn off paved roads in search of undeveloped open spaces is to escape the everyday chaos of people, noise, and the crazy ways of the worlds. We search for solitude when we leave civilization behind. It’s essential to keep this in mind is when boondocking, especially when you have neighbors nearby. Protect the quality of your and their experience in the wild.

All the campers and RVers are parked a good distance away from one another and kept their sites tidy.

All the campers and RVers are parked a good distance away from one another and kept their sites tidy.

  • Respect quiet hours. Even though there isn’t anyone regulating them, be extra thoughtful during evenings and early mornings.

  • Keep in mind that loud voices, music, and noises travel far in open spaces.

  • If you have a generator, keep its use to a minimum. There’s no better way to upset your neighbors than the loud continuous hum of a generator. Try to find ways to cover its sound and don’t use it for long periods of time – especially late at night and early morning.

  • Keep your boondock site tidy; you’re sharing public land with others. This means don’t scatter your personal belongings everywhere, and if you’re working on a major repair or renovation project, keep your mess to a minimum.

  • Boondocking is nothing like staying in an RV park, so don’t park like you’re in one! This means giving each other space when choosing a site. We all want scenic spots to boondock in, so it sucks to stare at another rig instead of scenery when you look out the window.


Tag Thoughtfully

This isn’t one of the original seven principles, but it’s becoming as important as the others. “Tag thoughtfully” was added in the past year or two in response to the negative effects social media was having on outdoor locations.

One of our all-time boondocking spots. Sorry, but some places should be kept a secret.

One of our all-time boondocking spots. Sorry, but some places should be kept a secret.

Social media via Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and others has dramatically increased the traffic our public lands receive. A lot of these places are too fragile to handle the uptick in human traffic and its impact. Or don’t have the infrastructure to handle a dramatic increase in visitors. For example, a “nondescript swimming hole” in Virginia’s national forest become highly-sought after when photos of it were posted on Instagram. This place used to see 10 to 20 people a day during the busy season, but thanks to social media those numbers jumped to 400 per day.

Campgrounds, hiking trails, and large areas of parks have closed due to too much traffic - along with the garbage and human waste that comes from visitors chasing a hashtag without following or even knowing about Leave No Trace principles.  

There are many websites that are already sharing boondock locations - read my post 8 Ways To Find Free Boondock Sites that can help those who are new to boondocking. But the truth is that a lot of boondock locations are becoming overcrowded and damaged from too much traffic and lack of understanding about sustainable use. So please, think twice before tagging the exact location of your boondock site, whether it’s the name of the place or GPS coordinates. Instead use more general tags like a nearby city or the national forest it’s in. Something about letting others experience the thrill of discovery.


Last Thoughts

The trend of #vanlife and #roadlife doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all and I’m seeing more and more rigs boondocking in the woods. I truly worry that if people aren’t aware of and follow proper boondocking etiquette that forest officials will start closing places off for dispersed camping. We all love the freedom living on the road gives and a huge part of that is the ability to call so many gorgeous public lands home. Let’s all do our part and take care for these lands along with sharing with others how to responsibly recreate outside.


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