Small House Big World

Desert Boondocking

Anna Edgren • January 20, 2016

Kelly and I have spent the past 3+ weeks boondocking in the desert with new friends. I have been bad about updating the blog, mostly because we have been BUSY!  For most of our time on the road, we’ve been pretty solitary, only meeting up with friends here and there when we cross paths. But the desert in the wintertime is when everyone converges. Now, we have a whole neighborhood of friends right next door! 

It all began with New Years in the Anza-Borrego Desert, with a LARGE group of fellow RVers. This was our first experience in group-boondocking. I think someone counted about 40 rigs at peak-time. It was madness but it was great to meet so many other people full-time on the road. 

We then went over to American Girl Mine, just outside of Yuma, with a slightly smaller group of friends from the first gathering. And now we are near Quartzsite, Arizona, camping in a remote spot with a small group but positively surrounded by boondocking RVers just a few miles down the road. 

Having a mobile network of friends and acquaintances swirling around this area is fantastic, and boondocking with a group of people close together is a great reminder of the way small groups of people work together to help each other out and support each other when it counts. It’s amazing how quickly we become a small community here together in the desert. We’ve had neighbors offer to take our trash into town, pick up groceries or run errands for us. We’ve had multiple potlucks with a ton of awesome food and drinks. We’ve had an open house where people could come check out other RVs. We’ve had a plethora of mechanical advice given to us on our furnace (which still is not working… We think we need a new motor entirely) and other various mechanical and technical issues.  We’ve had movie night, and pizza night, and tequila tasting night.  So as much as I’ve loved “getting away from it all” on this trip, getting back together into a community is FUN! 

Here are a few pics of where we’ve been hanging out:

  1. Anza-Borrego:
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View from above of the Anza-Borrego gathering

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2 of many beautiful metal sculptures found in the desert just outside of Borrego Springs

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New Years Eve party around the campfire

2. American Girl Mine

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Checking out the old mining operation

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Looking down into the valley of American Girl mine

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These ancient cans were EVERYWHERE

3) Quartzsite / KOFA Wildlife Refuge 

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Our happy little spot

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Hiking the palm canyon trail

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One of many spectacular Arizona sunsets we’ve seen

Boondocking is great because it is technically free – you don’t pay for a campsite, you just… park. The tricky part of boondocking is that you have to be completely self-sufficient. There is a fair amount of additional planning that needs to take place if you plan to be off the grid for any period of time. Primary concerns become water, waste, and electricity. 

These are our specs:

80 gallon fresh water tank
54 gallon gray water tank
44 gallon black water tank
25 gallon propane tank
75 gallon fuel tank
7 kilowatt generator 
2 6-volt golf-cart batteries

It is a constant process to monitor how much of these resources we have on hand and how much we are using. The more we can conserve, the longer we can stay off the grid. 

When we prepare to boondock, we will empty our gray and black water tanks, fill the water, gas, and propane, and stock up on food. Then we park and see how long we can last. Initially, we had found the bottleneck in the process to be the gray water tank. We would fill that up very quickly and need to go dump. We have taken a few steps to limit our gray water creation that have been really successful. First, we have been much more careful about how much water we use for dishes, as that is the main creator of gray water. Secondly, we have been using biodegradable soap for our dishes, and Kelly will collect the dishwater and use it to water our plants. This is great because it does double duty – nothing better than turning a waste product into a resource! Sometimes you have to think creatively to make your resources last. 

Drink wine not water

After addressing our gray water issue, the next bottleneck is the black tank. After 7-8 days of boondocking, the black tank is full. Unfortunately, there are no great workarounds for limiting black tank usage while boondocking unless you are comfortable peeing outside… Kelly doesn’t mind that one so much but its not really my cup of tea. The real solution to this problem is to get a composting toilet.  We have met a handful of RVers who have installed these and love them. The problem is, installing a composting toilet in the RV would be a very long and expensive project, and at this point it is definitely not in the budget. So for now, 7-8 days is our limit before we have to hit a dump station. 

One of the reasons we don’t have money in the budget is because we have run into some issues with our electrical system. Long story short, this RV wasn’t designed for 2 people to be living in it full time. When we spend day after day using the lights, refrigerator, 2 computers and monitors, cell-signal booster, heater, and other appliances, the drain on the batteries is high. We have a glorious 7 kilowatt generator, but our 23-year-old charger, the middle man responsible for turning those 7 kilowatts into battery power, is very tired and weak. We have not been able to keep our batteries topped up even with running the generator frequently (usually 6-8 hours a day). 

Dog Tired

If our charger was an adorable chocolate lab puppy, it would look like this.

Not to mention the crappy built-in battery monitors that came pre-installed don’t work at all. So we haven’t had any way to really monitor out battery usage, aside from either using a hydrometer and measuring the actual acid in the batteries (which is a pain in the butt to do, and therefore gets done infrequently), or by noticing that our lights are a bit dimmer than normal (this is bad.)

There are a few solutions to this problem, and getting a better charger is the big one. Another looming problem, however, is that we don’t have an inverter. An inverter is responsible for turning DC power into AC power. Without an inverter, you can’t run any of your AC appliances (microwave, television, computer charger, kitchen appliances) unless you are simultaneously running the generator.  WITH an inverter, you can use AC power without the generator going, which would be a beautiful dream come true for us. 

And MEANWHILE, we are sitting in the middle of the desert, baking in the sun day in and day out, without any solar panels to make use of the free and plentiful energy being provided to us… 

The solution became apparent: We need to get a charger/inverter combo device, and we’ve decided to get solar panels to provide additional supplemental energy while we’re at it.  We will definitely have a follow up post with more details on the solar install!

At this time, we plan on continuing to boondock for a while. We haven’t sat down and talked about where we’re headed next. We are playing it by ear, which is a great luxury. Both Kelly and I will have some travel coming up in February and March so we will eventually need to sit down and figure out where we plan to fly out of. We’ll worry about that next week 🙂 

boondocking in the desertborrego new yearelectricity for boondockingrv electrical systemsize of tanks for boondocking

Anna Edgren • January 20, 2016

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