In thanks to our new solar install on the bus, we’ve been getting back to boondocking lately, and loving it.
Boondocking is staying in places without hook-ups (water, electricity or sewer) and generally ‘out in the boonies’. You might also hear terms like wild camping and dry camping to describe it.
During our first 4 years on the road, our travel trailers were optimized for off-grid living, and we got pretty darn good at living without hook-ups or typical amenities.
Then when we bought our bus in 2011, we pretty much immediately headed to the east coast to be near family in Florida while my father was ill. Since we’d be on full hook-ups anyway, we didn’t optimize much for extended off-grid living.
But it was always our goal with the bus to make it a versatile nomadic vessel. Comfortable while being parked in a tight RV Park when needed… or ample in off-grid ability while wild camping.
Since the beginning of November, we’ve been enjoying a lot of off-grid camping. So we thought we’d start sharing some of our lessons and experiences in getting back to boondocking…. from energy conservation, keeping warm, finding boondocking locations, and optimizing water usage.
In this article, we’ll share about our holding tanks and how to get the most out of them while away from dump stations.
Our Holding Tanks
We bought our vintage bus conversion already converted, and it had 100 gallons of freshwater (90 in the tanks under our bed and 10 in the hot water heater), 90 gallons of grey water, and 45 gallons of black. Since we were coming from a 17′ Oliver Travel Trailer (32f/38g/18b) and a 16′ T@b teardrop trailer (without only a 5 gallon fresh tank), this was pretty darn ample.
In regular ‘not thinking about it’ usage, we typically dump & re-fill our tanks every 9-10 days without a problem. That’s given us a lot of freedom in parks without full hook-ups to be without sewer access consistently. And since we love state parks and such, this works out quite well.
At our latest boondocking location, in the Anza Borrego Desert of southern California – we’re in an area with no stay limits like many public lands have (typically 14-days). The nearest publicly accessible dump station is about 8 miles away at the state park, usable for an $8 fee. While here – we decided to see how far we could stretch our tanks with a little conservation to avoid having to pack up too many times.
We were curious to see what would give out first – the black or the fresh water tank.
In the end, it was the fresh water that showed signs of being empty on Day 17 of our boondocking.
Pretty impressive, especially considering we didn’t supplement fresh water much at all by drinking bottled water. And even though we did collect some rain water to supplement dish washing or flushing, we ended up not using it.
However, with a visual inspection, the black tank was not far behind and would have burped mercy not soon after.
So now we know… with being comfortably conservative, we can easily go 14+ days, which is the typical boondocking limit on public lands anyway. And we’re usually itching to leave after 7-10 days in one location.
Update: After our Summer 2015 Renovations, we now have 112f/120g/70b that has GREATLY extended our capacity. We can now go 14 days in regular usage mode without even thinking about it before depleting our fresh water, and have our waste tanks each at about 1/2 full. With some water conservation, we should be able to do a solid 3-4 weeks. If we brought in some fresh to top off the tanks (we set our pump up to be able to ‘suck’ water into the tanks if needed) – we could extend further.
Tips for Optimizing Holding Tanks
After years of living in RVs, we’re pretty conservative already in our water usage. We take ‘Navy showers’, we wash dishes with little water, and typically thrive with just about 250-300 gallons of water usage a month. This is a huge decrease in our previous ‘sticks and bricks’ usage of 2000+ gallons a month. It would be difficult to go back to using that much water even if we did settle down anywhere.
Heck, even when we lived for 5 months during the winter for 2011 in the US Virgin Islands, we lived off a cistern and had to be conservative with water usage.
So here’s how we do it:
Navy Showers: My dad was a submariner during the Cold War, and often they’d be underwater for months at a time. Fresh water was at a premium. So I call our showers ‘Navy Showers’. You turn on the water to rinse yourself down. You turn off the water. You soap and scrub up (we use yummy smelly low-chemical liquids – from Dr. Bronner’s Soaps to my yummy Lush bath gels with a ‘poof’). Then you rinse. We’ve done this for years, and now I get the shakes when I watch a movie that shows anyone showering without turning off the water while soaping up.
Oxygenics Shower Head: Combine a Navy shower with a water efficient shower head, and you can feel limitless. The Oxygenics Body Spa shower head is a RVer’s dream come true. It blasts a bit of air flow into the water to make a little bit of water feel like a rain shower. Our Navy showers usually cost us a mere gallon or two of indulgent bliss. And when we are on full hook-ups and don’t need to worry about it – a 5 gallon shower feels like pure over-indulgence.
No-Poo: No, we’ve not come to the black tank discussion yet. Neither of us has used shampoo in our hair since 2007. After going through the icky couple week transition period of adjusting, our hair feels wonderful just using an occasional scrubbing with baking soda or rinse with apple cider vinegar. This means no water, or just a quick rinse, is all we need on most days. With my naturally curly hair, I do however add a little conditioner when in arid climates.
Skipping Shower Days: The wonderful thing about the desert and its lack of humidity, is that skipping 2 or 3 days of showering is really no big deal. When I’m in humid and warm climates, I crave a daily (or twice daily) shower and just feel icky without. But in the desert, using a wet baby wipe is all I need to feel clean for the day. I also use a squirt bottle with fresh water to wet down my hair to make it curl right back up. Then every 3-4 days, we take a Navy Shower to refresh (when we were in our T@B teardrop without a bathroom, we’d go 7-10 days without showers sometimes.. that, was a bit rough). And heck, when you’re hanging out with fellow boondockers, they’re doing the same thing. In our trailer days, we did also carry a solar camp shower bag, which came in handy often enough.
Collect Cold Water: On our shower days, we keep a 1-gallon bucket in the shower to collect cold water while waiting for the hot water to emerge. Our Oxygenics shower head is on a hose, so we can just aim it into the bucket until the sweet elixir of hot water springs forth. Some folks plumb in a feature to return cold water to the fresh tank.. but that would be quite a retrofit in our rig. Our low-tech method works, and then we use the collected cold water to aid in flushing the toilet. (2015 Update: We built in a cold water return to the fresh tank to make this even fancier!)
Pre-soaking Spray Bottle: We keep a small spray bottle with diluted dish soap near our sink. We spray down our dishes and let them pre-soak. Then we scrub with a brush, and we turn on the water to a light dribble to rinse. This saves a bunch of water during the rinse and scrub part of doing dishes.
Paper Plates: When being in conservative mode, we forgo our ‘quit filling the landfill’ green ways and use paper plates for some meals. This saves on the dishes, and lets us extend our tanks a bit.
Wash in a Bucket: One way to keep on track of how much water you are using is to wash your dishes in a bin or bucket. It can also save on grey space, as you can take the bucket out to evaporate, use to extinguish a campfire or responsibly dump. We actually don’t employ this technique much anymore, as the grey tanks are the last of our tanks to fill.
Dribble the Water: We put in a residential fancy spray water faucet when we remodeled our kitchen. When we’re on full hook-ups, it’s awesome. In spayer mode, it can blast away caked on food. And when off-grid, we do use it for really stuburn stuff. But by and large, we just dribble water on our dishes and employ some old fashioned elbow grease to scrub our dishes clean. We use the water to wet and rinse. The water is off otherwise.
Cooking Considerations: We try to keep in mind our cooking methods when off-grid too. We limit how many meals we make that require just boiling stuff in water that is then dumped (like pasta), and we try to keep the number of pots and pans to a minimum to reduce dishes. We’re one-pot meal fans, and often use our little BBQ grill too.
Teeth Brushing: When I was in elementary school, we were taught to turn off the water when brushing. This is an obvious water conservation method for general practice, and essential for RVing. Rinse your toothbrush head quickly, apply a little tooth paste, scrub and then rinse.
Let it Mellow: When off-grid – we employ the ‘if it’s yellow let is mellow, if it’s brown flush it down’ method. As our RV toilet adds a few cups of fresh water to every flush, there’s just no need to dilute urine with some of our precious fresh water and fill up our black tank this way. When it’s brown, we use the cold collected fresh water from our showers to help flush it down. (2015 update: With our new huge 70G black tank – we can go a month between dumps without having to resort to this method anymore. Hooray!)
Water a bush: When it’s discreet enough, we’re not hesitant to water the bushes. Especially at night and it’s not freaking cold outside. In the desert with wide open spaces and RVs relatively close by, it’s a little harder to be discreet however. And for women, it’s a little less discrete without wearing a skirt or having a pee funnel.
Don’t Flush Paper: We keep a trash receptacle for holding ‘yellow’ toilet paper, instead of flushing it into the tank. Every little bit helps. Some folks also don’t flush ‘brown’ toilet paper, we’re not that extreme – we’re fine giving it space in our black tank.
Composting Toilet Considerations: We’re often asked if we’ve considered a composting toilet like many of our full time RVing friends have. We think they’re cool, and have used our friend’s composting toilets (hey, good friends share such things) – but we really aren’t keen on them for our own use.
In 2015 when we had the opportunity to re-do our all of our plumbing, we opted for installing a new flush toilet instead of composting. Our first year on the road we had no bathroom at all, and utilized public facilities, bushes and ‘pee buckets’ we had to discreetly dispose of – honestly, we got tired of it. If we went composting, we’d definitely plumb in a direct ‘yellow’ holding tank to get away from that. But considering we can make our black tank last a month now, a composting toilet would need to be changed out every 2-3 weeks for a couple using it constantly. Composting toilets will also require some adjustments – such as guys have to pee sitting down and some of us women have to re-think how we ‘go’ (knowing in advance if they need to open the poop hatch.) And honestly, we don’t find dumping the tanks to be much of a hassle – and we’d still have to dump our grey and hypothetical yellow tank anyway.
If you’re interested in a composting toilet, there’s no better experts than our friends Nikki & Jason of Gone with the Wynns.
So.. there it is. How we extend our holding tanks when needed. Have any other ideas to share? We’d love to hear them in the comments!
Some additional resources to finding dump stations nearby to dump tanks and refill the fresh water: