There are lots of ways to save money and be a frugal RVer and I have tried most of them. Just how frugal an rver you need to be will depend on your financial situation. There are ways to just trim your expenses, and there are many options available for really frugal rv living.
If you like staying in RV parks, with hookups for water, sewer and electric, paying by the week or month will save money. If you want to save a few dollars a day, get a site with just water and electric if the park has them available; you can always move over to the dump station when you need to empty your holding tanks. If you’re staying for just a few nights, doing without a sewer hookup is not a problem at all. Some parks have a dry camping (no hookups) area for frugal RVers as well. Be sure to check out the various discount camping clubs to get very nice reductions on your nightly rates.
Sundown at Rockhound State Park, Deming, NM
Many towns and cities have public parks or fairgrounds with RV parking available at very reasonable rates. Some even have electric hookups. If you have internet access, check what might be available in the town you’re headed for.
National Parks and State Parks
are a great way to save some money on the cost of overnight camping.
And, if you stay in one place for one to two weeks at a time (or
longer), you’ll save money on fuel costs, too.
If you spend a lot of time in one state, check to see what kind of annual state pass program they have. New Mexico has a wonderful one that this particular frugal rver has taken advantage of twice.
Another possibility is boondocking (dry camping) on National Forest Service or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. You can pay for one or two nights in a campground, ask the ranger where there is dispersed camping available, and drive the car around to scout out a good location. Once you find a spot, move the rig on over to the new area and stay a week or two.
Sunset at Roadrunner Campground - Quartzsite, AZ
At Frugal RV Travel you'll find tons of information about boondocking as well as a series of guidebooks with directions and gps co-ordinates for specific boondocking locations in the southwestern states. Click here to visit Frugal Shunpikers Guides to RV Boondocking.
Wherever you boondock, there is one big question you must answer: Where's the nearest RV dumpstation?
If you plan to do a lot of boondocking, you’ll definitely be interested in ways to conserve your water use so you won’t have to fill up and dump your tanks as frequently. If you use a small separate dishpan when washing dishes and you’re in a place where you can dump the gray water outside, do it. I’m not a fan of paper or plastic plates but if you don’t want to wash dishes at all, there good alternatives in biodegradable, compostable tableware available today.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of frugal RVers go to BLM land in the desert in Quartzsite, AZ, each winter. In the winter of 2008/2009, you could buy a permit to camp in the desert for six months for $180. And many people did just that, enjoying frugal rv living from October to April. Or, you could buy a $40, 2-week permit for the one area that had fresh water and a dump station, fill up your water tank and dump at the end of your two weeks, then move over to one of the free camping areas for awhile. (If I remember correctly, both free and paid areas have a two-week limit on your stay, unless you pay for the entire six months.)
If you need to dump and get water and propane during your stay in any of the free areas, you just drive your rig into town where you can take care of all those needs at one spot – dumping your holding tanks and filling up with water at the RV Pit Stop; that cost just $10 in early 2009.
Buffalo Thunder Casino - Just North of Santa Fe, NM
Casinos have big parking lots which are another gathering place for frugal rvers wanting to save money. I stayed in one on the Upper Peninsula in Michigan that even had electric hookups. There is no charge for parking in these lots, and it seems you can stay as long as you want. However, if you like to gamble you might not experience the frugal rv living you planned.
When boondocking in any area, there are things to keep in mind:
• What kind of wildlife is in the area? In the desert there are coyotes, and maybe scorpions, in a forest setting, there are bears, deer, elk, moose, buffalo, etc. Don’t leave your pet tied outside alone; don’t leave food scraps, or anything scented (toothpaste, cosmetics, etc.) out, as the smell will certainly attract any bears in the area. Wildlife is wild, and can be dangerous, so give them space and don’t make them feel threatened in any way. Don’t approach too closely and don’t ever try to feed them. Fall can be an especially dangerous time of year as it is mating season. National forests post warnings and advice about wildlife encounters – heed them!
Collared Lizard at Hovenweep NM - Utah
• Sad to say, there are some people who don’t recognize that any gear you happen to leave outside your rig while you’re away has not been left there because you don’t want it anymore. So, stow your chairs, stove, bicycles, and any valuables if you leave the area for any length of time. Don’t make it easy for them! I stayed in the desert for a couple of months, and did not run into this problem, but I’m not foolish enough to believe the problem doesn’t exist. There were always other frugal rvers parked in the general vicinity, which can be a deterrent.
• Speaking of neighbors, if you see a rig parked with no sign of activity, check to make sure everyone is alright.
• Keep a clean campsite. Deposit your trash in the proper receptacle if one is provided, otherwise take it with you and find a dumpster somewhere else.
National and state park campgrounds and RV parks all have campground hosts who take care of certain things in exchange for a free site with hookups. There are many work camper programs available that you might check into. Click here for more information on finding ways to save money, or make it, on the road.
If you’re just driving from one place to another and need to overnight on the way, the absolute best site I've found for finding Wal-Mart locations, other places like Wal-Mart that will let you dry camp overnight, and just about anything else you want to know is: http://www.allstays.com/Campgrounds/campgrounds.htm. Some feel staying in these places is not safe, but as a frugal rver I’ve overnighted in many Wal-Mart parking lots, as well as a few roadside rest areas, and have never had a problem. Of course, it may be that I’ve just been lucky so far.
Frugal RVers at Casino del Sol, Tucson, AZ
A final note on camping out at a Wal-Mart: keep a low profile. Don’t get out your chairs, put out your awnings, and start grilling your dinner in the parking lot. I call the store ahead of time if possible, or go in to talk with the manager to make sure it’s okay to park overnight, then find a spot on the outer perimeter of their lot. Some stores have decided on no overnight RVers (or the town has an ordinance against it), because of a few frugal RVers abusing the privilege. This advice is good for camping out in casino parking lots as well.
Highway rest areas sometimes allow overnight parking. However, many states are in such poor financial shape that they are closing many of their rest areas – so plan ahead if possible.
Boondockers Welcome is a network of people around the world who are willing to offer free parking to RVers on their own property for a night or two. This is a wonderful idea for all those who love boondocking – so check it out.
In the US, camping in state parks is a very reasonably priced option.
Have you visited all the magnificent national parks in North America? If not, put them on your bucket list. They can be a good bet when you're a frugal RVer.