A Complete Guide to Camper Van Off-Grid Camping
For those who are used to sticking to established campgrounds or RV parks, off-grid camping might seem appealing but a bit intimidating. Not to worry, we’ve got you covered with some insider knowledge on how to safely camp off-grid, and have fun doing it.
What Exactly is Off-Grid Camping?
Many people aren’t familiar with off-grid camping because they’ve never done it themselves. Off-grid camping is different from “normal” camping in that you camp somewhere on public lands where overnight stays are legal, but you aren’t in a developed campground.
There are many places where off-grid camping is allowed, and we will get into the details of how to find campsites later on in this guide. Dispersed camping has the major upside of solitude and remote beauty, but you will be lacking the amenities and hookups found at most campgrounds. Nothing beats waking up with an entire stretch of land to yourself, but make sure to follow the advice in this guide to safely and responsibly enjoy off-grid camping.
Where Can You Legally Camp Off-Grid?
If you want to camp off-grid, you can’t just pick a point on the map and go camp there. Before you go on a trip, you should research the area you’re visiting to determine whether there are places you can legally and safely camp off-grid.
Unless otherwise stated, it is generally legal to sleep in your vehicle within federally designated lands. These exclude National parks, but include:
- National Forests
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands
- National Grasslands
- Wildlife Management Areas (WMA)
The types of land listed above leave you with hundreds of millions of acres where you can legally camp off-grid for free. While this is awesome news, it’s also not quite that simple. Although camping is generally allowed in these areas, there may be local restrictions.
It’s always a good idea to pick an area you’d like to boondock, and then call the local ranger’s office to learn more about dispersed camping within their jurisdiction. Rangers are usually more than happy to fill you in on exactly where you are allowed to camp and whether any restrictions are in place, such as fire restrictions or bear safety protocol. They may even be able to point you in the direction of some great off-grid campsites, if you’re not already sure exactly where you want to stay.
What Does Your Camper Van Need to Camp Off-Grid?
Camper vans designed with off-grid camping capabilities have some features that make doing so safer and more enjoyable. Some challenges of camping off-grid include a lack of sewage, water, and electric hookups, no immediate access to food or propane, and traveling in remote locations, often on dirt roads and without cell service.
There are endless features and modifications that can make a van more capable of extreme off-grid camping, but with some basic features you can boondock safely and comfortably.
Without electric hookups, how will you ensure that your van’s 12-volt batteries stay charged so you can continue to use your lights, fan, charging ports, and more? The most common solution to this issue is to utilize solar panels to keep your batteries charged. Solar panels mounted on the roof of your van supply a reliable source of electricity anywhere the sun shines. Even on cloudy days, solar panels can often harvest enough energy to keep you charged.
In addition to solar panels, it’s a good idea to utilize an oversized lithium battery bank if you plan on doing a lot of off-grid camping. Unlike other battery types, lithium batteries can be safely discharged all the way to zero percent. With a large lithium battery bank, you should have plenty of power to last you a few days without any charging. This is helpful in cloudy or foggy weather, or when you are parked in the shade for days at a time.
When it comes to off-grid camping, arguably the most important feature your van needs to have is a large water tank. A large water tank allows you to stay off-grid for longer, which gives you more freedom when planning a trip. Of course, having extra water is also critical in case of an issue with your van, storm, or another issue that could leave you off-grid for longer than expected.
For safety, we recommend packing an extra 6-gallon water container when camping off-grid. Even if you accidentally drain your Sprinter van’s main water supply, you will have plenty of water to take care of your needs before you are able to refill.
Food Storage & Cooking
Similar to water, you’ll definitely want to bring along some extra food when boondocking in your camper van. While it’s not difficult to pack some extra pantry goods, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to bring along your favorite fresh foods for a week in the backwoods? For this purpose, we feel that a decent-sized 12-volt fridge is a great feature to have when camping off-grid. A fridge allows you to keep perishables fresh while camping, and your solar panels and lithium batteries will keep it running without shore power!
In addition to bringing along extra food, you’ll also want to be able to cook it. Most vans, including ours here at Muse & Co. Outdoors, include a propane cooktop. Every one of our vans comes standard with a 5.5-gallon liquid propane tank, enough to allow you to cook your meals for weeks without running out of gas.
One of the major questions people have about camping off-grid is ‘How do we shower and use the bathroom?’ There are various ways to go about having an off-grid bathroom in your camper van. Here at Muse & Co. Outdoors, we have options for showers and toilets that allow you to camp comfortably off-grid, without taking up too much of the precious space inside of your van.
You have the option to add a Road Shower to your Muse van. The Road Shower is a passive solar-heated water tank that sits atop your van’s roof rack. Since it sits so high, it is self-pressurized. You simply attach a short hose and shower nozzle, and you have a steady flow of hot water. Our shower package includes an optional set of custom curtains that integrate with your Sprinter van’s rear barn doors to provide a private outdoor shower space.
When it comes to using the bathroom off-grid, Muse & Co. Outdoors has you covered. We offer the option to add either a cassette or composting toilet to your van, which stows away in its own integrated storage drawer. These toilet options allow you to do your business in a comfortable and sanitary way while you’re out camping away from it all.
What About Off-Road Driving in a Camper Van?
Many of the dispersed camping areas found in national forests and on BLM land are found miles from highways and paved roads. While Sprinter vans are not a true off-road vehicle, they do have decent clearance and the 4×4 models provide great traction on unpaved surfaces.
By far, the best thing you can do for your van’s off-road capabilities is to buy a 4×4 Sprinter. When paired with a good all-terrain tire, having 4×4 will take care of your traction needs in most easy to moderate off-road situations. Aside from traction, clearance is also a major factor in whether a road will be drivable in your van.
The clearance of a Sprinter van is higher than most vehicles. If you really plan on doing a lot of traveling on more serious dirt roads, you might opt for a suspension lift. This will lift the body of your van higher off the ground, and allow you to swap your tires out for larger ones – giving your van more ground clearance.
Regardless of whether you have 4×4 or extra clearance, you should always travel with an off-road safety kit if you plan on driving on rough roads deep in the backwoods. Your safety kit should include a full-sized spare tire, traction boards (in case you get stuck), a tow strap (in case you get really stuck and need to have someone pull you out), and an extra few gallons of fuel.
How to Find Off-Grid Campsites for Your Camper Van
So, you’re geared up and ready to go off-grid camping! Now, you just have to find a beautiful and quiet spot to camp. We’ve got a few great tips for finding dispersed camping sites.
There are some great smartphone apps that can help you locate off-grid campsites. Campendium is a favorite among van owners. The app allows you to view previously visited and reviewed dispersed campsites on a map. You can check out what others have to say about the site, the road conditions to access it, and even see pictures.
You should always cross-reference the information you find on apps like Campendium with information directly from the local ranger’s office. Anyone can add a campsite to the app, so you should be sure that camping there is legal and safe before heading out.
Another way to find campsites is to simply use a map! After confirming that the area you want to go to has some accessible federally designated land, you can search for roads, pullouts, and potential campsites using a map with a satellite imagery layover. Again, before putting a spot in your GPS and hitting the road, get in touch with the local ranger’s office to confirm that the place you have in mind is legal and safe to camp in. Enjoy your off-grid adventure!