Painlessly Extending a Boondocking Stay – Part 2 12


And now for the fun stuff – tank management! Running out of power could be far more serious, but you’d never know it from the way all boondockers try to avoid the dreaded black tank burp! Our tank management skills are thus perceived to be far more important! The average person in a U.S. “sticks & bricks” house uses 80-100 gallons of water every single day. The largest-use culprit is toilet flushing, followed by bathing and showering. Since the average RV freshwater tank doesn’t even hold 80 gallons of water, what’s a dry camper to do?? How can two people stretch 65-70 gallons to a week or more? To use all of our water- and tank-saving techniques, you’ll need to gather a few items:

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  1. A jug to hold drinking water or, if you don’t dry camp often, a 2.5 gallon jug of drinking water with spout from the grocery store and a small funnel.
  2. A dishpan that will fit in your kitchen sink.
  3. A pitcher, coffee pot or other vessel with a spout.
  4. A dedicated pitcher to capture gray water (“black water” is what goes down your toilet: “gray water” is everything else such as dishwater & shower water).
  5. Some sort of disposable plastic jug with a lid (we use a cat litter jug  which is larger than we need, but we’ve always got them on hand) for holding gray water.
  6. Antibacterial wet wipes or hand sanitizer for washing hands. Baby wipes can also be helpful.

Our Holiday Rambler Traveler is a Class A RV, and our tank capacities are as follows:
Freshwater – 60 gallons
Gray water – 39 gallons
Black water – 39 gallons
We (2 people and 2 cats) routinely dry camp for 7-8 days at a time using the techniques that follow. With stringent use and a little supplemental bottled water, we can stretch a dry camping stay to 14 days! You can mix, match and adapt these techniques to suit your own style, but here’s how we do it.

There are lots of every-day activities that we don’t normally even think about that will use a lot of your freshwater capacity and your waste tank capacity. Try to take care of the following before dumping/filling your tanks in preparation for dry camping:

  • Do your grocery shopping so that you can wash and prep fruit and vegetables.
  • Try to plan meals that don’t require a lot of wasted water (such as cooking pasta). Cook boiled eggs before you go, or use the steaming method (it works!).
  • Hand wash delicate clothing.
  • Take care of any cleaning tasks that require large amounts of water (scrubbing the shower, wet mopping, etc. I have switched to a no-rinse floor cleaner.).
  • If you’re moving from one dispersed campsite to another, consider checking into a campground for one night to get all this done. Those long, long showers are well worth the money! If there isn’t a good campground available, we’re not above pulling into a dump station to dump & refill freshwater, pulling over to the side of the parking lot to do the above, and then dumping and filling again.
  • We assume that you’re already using some smart techniques, such as turning the water off while you brush teeth or soap up your hands.


  • We have a plastic water jug with a spout and lid that we leave on the end of our counter. When we are filling our freshwater tank prior to dry camping we also fill this jug. If we’re planning a longer stay we purchase additional bottled drinking water. Use this water for drinking and cooking (you may want to buy extra if your pets consume a lot of water). If you don’t do a lot of dry camping and don’t want to purchase a jug for full-time use, buy the 2.5 gallon drinking water container with a spout. [TIPS: don’t forget to recycle the containers after you’re done. GREEN TIPS: buy in gallon or larger containers (not a case of individual bottles) and avoid buying spring water – the huge demand is drawing down aquifers and reducing the flow of natural springs. Purified drinking water, aka water from a municipal source is a much greener choice.]
    • If you really want to take this to the extreme and have the space to do it, you can buy large water containers or a water bag to supplement your supply.
  • Running the tap while you’re waiting for water to heat up can waste a lot of water.
    • Anytime you are running hot water for washing dishes, catch this water in your coffee pot or other vessel with a spout. Then pour it into your drinking water jug.
    • If you’re showing, run this water into the dedicated gray water pitcher and then sit it outside the shower or tub on your rug. Post-shower, use this water to rinse your shower & mat. Any leftover water could be used to water potted plants or can go into the gray water jug with the lid.
  • Washing your dishes can be done in less water than you think. Use your dinner napkin to clean plates and pans before washing.
    • Run just 1/2″ of water into your dishpan. Start washing smaller things like utensils and glasses and rinse them over the dishpan. This way, by the time you get to pots and pans the water will be deeper and will still be very hot. Rinse with the minimum amount of water possible.
    • If you really want to conserve, put the dishes in the dishpan and spray them with a soapy water. Let them sit long enough to loosen food and then scrub them with a brush. Rinse using minimal water.
  • Showering is generally the biggest use of freshwater in an RV, but there are several ways to conserve. We’ll list these in increasing severity:
    • Use a campground shower if there’s one available.
    • Take a “Navy” shower (turn the water off while you’re lathering up and rinse quickly).
    • Shower but don’t wash your hair. If you’d like, you can use either dry shampoo or a liquid that does not require rinsing. No-rinse shampoos can usually be found at larger stores selling outdoor gear. Dry shampoos are a little tougher to find but most salons carry some version. [DRY SHAMPOO TIP: confirmed by a salon stylist, these are basically talcum powder with shampoo-like fragrances & enough additives to make them “not just talcum powder.” Save the money and use plain talcum powder. APPLICATION TIP: best done over a sink or outside so that you can really distribute it over your scalp and then remove as much of it as possible.]
    • shampoo options
    • Skip days between showers by taking washcloth and/or baby wipe baths. Boy, nothing can shush a campfire conversation faster than asking people how often they shower! But if you do a little research, you’ll find that most experts agree that once or twice a week is sufficient for your health. Showering every day strips your skin of natural oils and interferes with your body’s natural methods of cleansing and skin renewal. I have very dry skin and even when we are in a campground with full hook-ups, I only shower every other day and my skin thanks me for it. How many days you go between showers will be a matter of personal (and perhaps significant-other) preference and will of course depend on your level of physical activity and how hot the weather is. Since we’re already trying to conserve power by not running the AC, hopefully you won’t be in weather that makes you hot & sweaty.
  • Use antibacterial wipes or hand sanitizer for some hand washing.
  • When you need to clean, be smart about it.
    • I now use a no-rinse floor cleaner for mopping.
    • I scrub the kitchen sink just before washing dishes so that I can rinse it while I’m waiting for water to heat up anyway.
    • I wait to scrub the shower until I’m going to take one, also so that I can rinse it while waiting for the water to heat up.

Nobody talks about poop more than full-time RVers except maybe mothers of small children. Just as farming brings “where food comes from” into sharp focus, living in a self-contained house brings waste management into sharp focus. Some RVers hate this but others, myself included, try to look at it as a positive because it makes me intimately aware of my footprint on the planet and lets me manage it more responsibly. We’re going to cover these topics together because our tank management tips involve both. This is because RV manufacturers do something that annoys most of the full-time RVers we know: they make the size of the black- and graywater tanks exactly the same. While I’ll admit that the consequences of an overflowing black tank are much worse than having your graywater overflow, it’s pretty ridiculous to make both tanks the very same size. Come on, which adds more water to a tank; flushing a toilet or taking a shower? In all the time we’ve been RVing, no matter which conservation methods we’re using, our blank tank has never been the “limiting factor” for a dry camping stay. We always run out of space in the gray tank or run out of freshwater first. Our friends at Gone with the Wynns have replaced their RV toilet with a composting toilet, completely eliminating their need for a black tank. If you choose this option, some basic plumbing will daisy-chain both tanks together, thereby doubling your graywater capacity. If you’re not quite ready to take that step, here are some tips for managing your waste tank space. Important note: always check the regulations regarding graywater disposal and “bathroom etiquette” at your chosen camping spot before disposing of anything outside of your RV!

  • Just as with your power systems management, the more precisely you can tell how full your tanks are, the easier it will be to manage them. If your RV came standard with a one-button panel to show the levels of all your “stuff” then you know that the gray and freshwater sensors are an educated guess, and the internal black tank sensor is a total waste of time because it will always show your tank as being full. Always. To get a more accurate reading you can install or have installed external holding tank monitors. We self-installed ours and love them.
  • Put less in the tanks. Some of this is covered in the freshwater conservation section above. Other ways to conserve space:
    • Using the dishwashing method above, pour your dirty dishwater into the dedicated graywater pitcher. What happens next depends on how stringent our conservation methods are/how long we’re trying to dry camp.
      • If we are just dry camping for a week, I pour the whole pitcher down the toilet (because remember, in most RV’s you’ll run out of room in the gray tank long before you run out of room in the black tank). Not only does this save space in the gray tank, we figure it has to help prevent poop pyramids. If you don’t know what that is you’re going to have to look it up yourself because, well, because.
      • For any stay longer than 7 days we either dump the pitcher outside (regulations permitting) or dump it into the graywater jug with the lid. (I keep our graywater jug in the shower stall in case of spills when transferring.). You don’t want a lot of food waste going into this jug because it will smell, so remember to wipe your dishes off with your dinner napkin first. To be extra careful, I pour most of the water from the pitcher into the jug, and pour the last inch or so (which contains food particles you missed) down the toilet. We then use the water from the jug for toilet flushes (keeps it out of the gray tank and conserves your fresh water).
    • Use the outdoor shower if your RV has one or use a portable solar camping shower.
    • RV toilets are already saving water on flushes compared to residential toilets because you control the amount of fresh water you use. When boondocking, use the bare minimum, or if it’s yellow, let it mellow.
    • Take bathroom breaks outside if regulations permit, always using proper waste disposal techniques.

We hadn’t given this last one much thought until we routinely started dry camping for weeks or more. Dispersed campsites usually don’t have any type of trash or recycling containers, so whatever you generate has to be packed out. If you tow a vehicle, waste disposal becomes easier because each time you fill a bag you can drive to a disposal site. But if you can’t or don’t want to do that, you’ll need to manage your garbage. I find 3 things are helpful for this: a few plastic bags (empty bread bags or plastic shopping bags), lightly-used “zip” food storage bags, and a large leak-proof tote bag or two. Here’s how we use them:

  • NEVER leave your garbage or recycling sitting outside! It attracts animals who, at best, may rip open the bag and make a mess. Even worse, animals can get their heads or limbs stuck in jars, cans, or six-pack rings which can eventually maim or kill them. Worse still, most dispersed camping sites are used pretty frequently, and if an animal gets acclimated to free trash handouts and begins to “hang out” in the area they can pose a danger to pets and small children.
    • This means you’ll need to dedicate space in your outside storage or towed vehicle for a bag or two.
  • The leak-proof tote bag is great for storing rinsed cans and bottles for recycling. Make sure they’re rinsed because you don’t want to stink up your car or your storage bay.
  • Weather and regulations permitting, burn paper trash when you can. I hang an empty bread bag or plastic shopping bag and we put waste paper in it. When full, we burn in our fire pit. [TIP: If you’re using baby wipes or antibacterial wet wipes, you can burn them too to reduce landfill waste. They don’t burn the best, but if they’re mixed with napkins & such they’ll do fine.]
  • For the remainder of the garbage, you want to minimize the “smelly” factor since you’ll likely be storing it a few days before you can get rid of it. This is where the lightly used “zip” food storage bags come in. Although plastic “ziplock” type bags will work, I prefer bags that are heavier duty and these days everything from cheese to candy seems to come in them. Especially useful are foil-lined bags and larger bags with pleated bottoms because they’ll stand up in the sink. Whenever we empty one of these, I wipe it clean, let it air dry, and then tuck it beside my aluminum foil & ziplock bags until needed. I then use them to hold food that’s been scraped off plates, vegetable peelings, or when I’m cleaning out the fridge. Not only does this keep the smell to a minimum, it also reduces the chances of having a garbage bag leak in your car or storage bay.

WHEW! It seems like a lot when it’s all written out, but I promise that if you start using one or two of these techniques, they become habit very quickly. We don’t feel like we’re being inconvenienced or making huge sacrifices while we’re dispersed camping. It’s not a competition – you can always pick up & move to a campground if you’re not having fun. We find that the trade-offs in wide-open vistas and wildlife sightings are well worth it. To inspire you, I’ll insert a few more pictures with views of or from some of our favorite dry camping sites.

Grayrocks sunset fire _DSC0363_2 _DSC0741 _DSC9710 20160119_180327

DSC_0838 DSCN1936 DSCN2167 ExitRd campsite JV_DSC1567

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12 thoughts on “Painlessly Extending a Boondocking Stay – Part 2

    • Jet Post author

      Absolutely correct. We avoid them in general use, but do resort to them when really trying to extend a stay. Do you (or does anyone else) have an alternative suggestion?

  • Courtney

    Wow! This is an amazing resource. We’re stationary now (and just getting used to living in our Airstream) but we plan on doing A LOT of boondocking in the future. This article provides an amazing starting point for us to develop good habits right away. Thanks so much for sharing all of your hard earned knowledge!

  • Eric

    Thanks, Courtney.
    Being stationary with full hookups can give you the opportunity to learn how to manage your power, water and waste somewhere that running out of any of them just means plugging back in or turning on a valve. You don’t have to be in the boonies to camp like you are, and you’ll be more prepared when you get there.

  • mary carter

    thanks for this information it answered several questions for me iam just getting started back up with rving
    i now own a 34 ft motorhome first trip out planned for next week
    interested in learning more about solar power and possible extra gas generator for backup
    i mostly will travel alone

    • Jet Post author

      Glad you’re getting back out there! If you’re interested in learning more about solar, a quick search on our site should pull up posts by Eric on our solar install: why he chose gear and certain install procedures as well as the “how to.” Good luck!

  • Reed Cundiff

    Continuing to follow your blog.

    We are doing much of what you suggest. Completely agree with absurdity of equal black and grey tanks. Our fifth wheel has 80 gallon fresh and 40 gallon grey and black water.

    We do wash dishes in a pan with biodegradable soap. If permissible, we do dispose of it outside. We do have a 19′ Roadtrek and a 34′ fifth wheel. Fifth wheel is for US and Western Canada travel. Roadtrek is for Eastern Canada and Mexico.

    We use extensively for Canada and Mexico.

    Reed and Elaine

  • Reed Cundiff

    Should have put this in posting.

    RV parks in Mexico have signs not to put toilet paper into toilet since most of them are not on sewage systems. So one places used TP in a trash basket next to toilet. This means that there is a lot less bulk in the black tank and there are almost no problems in clogging valves.

    We had real problems with the wire pull black/grey water valves. At the suggestion of an RV tech and co-owner (with his dad) of a mobile RV repair firm in Fort Collins, we had the black and grey Valterra cable pulls replaced with hand pulled Valterras. This does mean crawling under 2′ to the black valve while the grey valve merely requires bending over. At the suggestion of a tech in Washington, we put a screw on Valterra valve on the sewer outlet. This permits emplacing the hose without fear of effluvia pouring on the ground

    Reed and Elaine