According to the RV Industry Association, manufacturers are continuing to ship out new RVs in record numbers. Shipments were up 25.3% in June of 2021 when compared to June of 2020. This means more brand-new RVers are out on the road. And, if that includes you, it might mean you have a lot of questions.
The RV lifestyle is full of terminology that could be intimidating at first. One of the basic things that could be useful to understand right out of the garage is the difference between RV parks and boondocking. A lot of people have strong opinions about which mode of RVing is “right,” but the truth is which is best for you just depends on your travel style and goals.
Here’s what you need to know about the pros and cons of RV parks versus boondocking, so you can hit the road ready for adventure (and with your favorite road trip song playing, of course).
RV parks vs. boondocking
First, let’s define what we’re talking about. Most people have a general idea of what an RV park is. Simply put, it’s a place you park your RV, plug it in, and stay for the night. They can also be referred to as RV resorts or RV campgrounds. Typically you will be able to hook up your RV to water, electric, and sewer outlets.
When people say “RV park,” they are most likely referring to privately owned places, not government-operated campgrounds that may have hookups.
RV parks can vary greatly in size, quality, and amenities. I’ve stayed at a park with only six spots and no bathhouse. Whereas the one we’re at right now has a spa, pickleball courts, live music, and a bar. But in general, an RV park provides some sort of support system and puts you in a place where you’ll have some neighbors.
So what is boondocking? Boondocking is camping in your RV without any utility hookups. The only capacity for handling fresh water, waste, and electricity will be what you have on board.
Boondocking is also sometimes used to mean dispersed camping or dry camping, and there's a strange amount of conflict when it comes to the definitions of boondocking, dry camping, and dispersed camping. All three terms refer to camping without utility hookups.
In short, dispersed camping usually takes place on public lands, such as the National Forests or Grasslands, and you are (hopefully) far from other people. While you can technically dry camp in urban areas — for example, some RV parks may offer dry camping spaces with no utility hookups — people typically use the phrase to mean being out in nature.
So which is best for you: RV parks or boondocking? Let’s break it down by the different factors you might consider.
The pros and cons of RV parks vs. boondocking
When it comes to what you pay per night, boondocking is a clear winner. Dispersed camping on public lands is often free. Even when boondocking, if it isn’t free, it’s typically very inexpensive. When it comes to RV parks, I’ve seen prices up to $90 per night.
My husband and I reduce our RV park costs by using some of the best travel credit cards. Using these cards makes it possible to earn cash back or rewards that effectively reduce your RV park expense over time.
But you also need to keep in mind the more hidden costs of boondocking. For many who want to camp remotely for more than a few days, boondocking will require the installation of a solar electric system, the purchase of energy-efficient or solar-based appliances, and potentially even water- or waste-hauling equipment. That could easily run you many thousands of dollars and take years of camping for you to amortize effectively.
Still, if you’re looking to keep expenses low, boondocking will be the better option.
Winner: RV parks
By the very definition of things, RV parks win when it comes to utilities. Not all RV parks will offer “full” hookups — water, sewer, and electric — but most do. Many of those that don’t offer a sewer hookup will offer a blue boy or clean-out service instead. That means they come around and pump out your RV waste tanks for you, either for free or for a small fee.
You will also have unlimited access to electricity at an RV park. This electricity is typically included in your rate when you stay nightly or weekly, but if you want to stay a month or longer, you’ll likely pay for your electricity by the kilowatt-hour.
When you boondock, you’ll only have the electricity and water you bring with you. And once you fill your grey water and black water waste tanks, you’re going to have to handle emptying those yourself.
If you love taking long, hot showers, boondocking might not be your thing.
Solitude and silence
This might be controversial, but I call this one a tie. There’s no guarantee when boondocking that some other RVer won’t roll up and park right next to you. Like really right next to you. If you hang out in just about any RV online forum, you’ll see the stories and frustration about this. This is especially the case as RVing grows in popularity and newcomers haven’t yet learned camping etiquette.
Conversely, there’s a chance you might end up in a relatively empty RV park. And it’s a pretty glorious thing when it happens, trust me. Or you might be in an RV park that’s near nature and where people are just generally quiet and keep to themselves.
So the truth on this one is that there are no guarantees when it comes to the amount of neighbors you’ll have. There’s a higher chance of solitude the further from civilization you’re willing to drive your RV and the closer in the year you get to bad weather, and that’s about the only constant.
To be fair, I'm going to call this one a tie as well. RV parks are more likely to provide social interaction, but boondocking can too, depending on how you approach it.
Some RV parks will offer things like fitness or craft classes, pot lucks, or entertainment. A laundry room or bark park can also become a social setting. Not all RV parks offer these things, but even the more spare parks likely offer a chance to speak with others if you just walk the grounds.
Many people boondock specifically to get away from others, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Depending on the RV clubs you might join — Escapees and Xscapers, for example — you may actually choose to boondock with a group of people.
Winner: RV parks
My husband and I would boondock more frequently if we felt more comfortable leaving our entire existence parked by itself in nature. We’re full-time RVers, so our RV is literally everything we’ve got. As an RVer, you might go years without having an incident, but it only takes one time of someone ransacking your rig and stealing your valuables to really ruin your feelings about boondocking.
That said, I've also heard stories of people’s RV’s being robbed while parked in “secure” storage. So it’s true that bad things can happen anywhere.
But if you want to be safe and secure while boondocking, you may need to invest in security systems for your RV or be willing to just not leave your RV alone for long. My husband and I actually bought our own land to camp on during the pandemic so we could boondock extensively and safely.
Which is right for you: RV parks or boondocking?
There are so many different types of camping to choose from, and there’s really no right or wrong. What’s “better” will depend on what you’re after.
- Do you want a luxury vacation with activities and amenities galore? You might like a high-end RV park.
- Do you love your RV … except for the shower? And the idea of relying on solar power has you anxious? You might like to camp at a more minimal RV park, but one that still has a nice bathhouse.
- Do you just want to be in the middle of nowhere and sip your morning coffee to the sound of nothing but birds? Then you might opt to go boondocking in a truly remote place.
The best thing is, you really don’t have to choose one style of RVing. You can change your mind from one trip to the next, or even combine different styles of camping within one trip. If you’re trying to keep costs down, you can find ways to save money on RV parks or lower your annual cost with free boondocking.
Remember that the RV lifestyle is about freedom — so give yourself the freedom to choose the kind of camping that’s right for you right now.
Becca Borawski Jenkins is the managing editor at FinanceBuzz, and has been a full-time RVer for the past four years. She loves to write about anything from saving for retirement to cashback credit cards. You can find her, her cat, and her husband driving in a big circle around North America.