Comfort VS. Freedom: Best Vehicle for Boondocking–Part 1

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If you want to get right to the edge of NOWHERE, not just any vehicle will take you there.

I recently posted about my Williams, AZ camp, and I mentioned it was too difficult for big rigs to get into. That led to several comments and emails about what was a good vehicle to get into the back-country! I realized I had never blogged about the important issue of mobility/freedom versus comfort. Whether you realize it or not, nearly every decision you have made as a vandweller involved mobility versus freedom.

Boondocking-Capri-Dodge

I consider this Dodge 4×4, 1 ton crew cab with Capri Camper my ultimate Boondocking rig.

Unless you were forced into vandwelling by circumstances, you probably became a vandweller because of a longing for more freedom. You found the traditional house-bound, consumer-oriented life too restrictive so you decided to leave all the wonderful comforts of a house for the freedom of a car, van or RV. That first decision was to give up comfort for freedom. You knew you could have one or the other, but not both, so you chose freedom.

Your next decision was the choice of a vehicle to live in. A car offered a huge amount of freedom because it got very high mpg and allowed you to travel more and it was small so it was very easy to drive. But, it offered virtually no comfort. So you may have been tempted by an RV because it offered a huge amount of comfort. But you realized it also tremendously limited your mobility and freedom because they got terrible mpg and their cumbersome size simply restricts where you can go.

Boondock-Snow-Trailer

I took this picture on May 15th, you just never know when you are going to get clobbered by a storm. But you know if you have 4×4 you are getting out.

Many of us had a third factor that was just as important, and that was the need for stealth. If you live in the city because of work or family, you must have some stealth or keep getting a knock on the door at night by a Law Enforcement Officer telling you to move on. Most of us settled on vans because they offered the best balance of comfort versus freedom versus stealth. I lived in a box van in the city for 6 years because it gave me more comfort and just as much stealth. Mobility wasn’t a factor because all I ever did was drive around town.

After my kids grew up and left the house (and I also retired) I stopped living in the city and started living on public land. Stealth was no longer a factor and I wanted to live as close to nature and with as few people around me as possible (unless they were people I wanted around, like you). For me, that meant going as far back off the road as LEGALLY possible (Please!! Respect Sacred Mother Earth by obeying all the laws and restrictions to road and off-road travel!!!). My box van had great stealth and was very comfortable, but it simply could not go off road. So I had to choose something else. In the 5 years since then I have had lots of experiences with different rigs and want to share with you what I’ve learned so you can make the best choice for you.

Boondocking-desert-001

RVs can make it down this BLM road just fine. But once you pull off to set up camp, there is always a possibility of hitting soft sand. With a 4×4, NO WORRIES MATE!

First, you must understand that the great majority of Forest Service and BLM roads are easily accessible by the average vehicle including RVs. You do NOT need 4×4 or high clearance to be a boondocker! You only need it if you want to get off the beaten path and into some true seclusion.

When I step out of the van in the morning, I don’t want to see any signs of civilization or other people–just the ones I have invited to my camp. Another reason I prefer remote, hard-to-reach areas is that it is much less likely that FS or BLM Rangers, ATVers and Jeepers will go there. Getting to those areas requires a more off-road-ready vehicle.

Please understand that I am not encouraging you to just head off into the boonies. I see way too many people who do that and destroy our public land. ALWAYS OBEY THE RULES OF YOUR AREA!! The rules and the Rangers are not our enemy, they treasure the public land and are doing the best they can in a difficult job to protect it and keep it safe from the ASSHOLES who are thoughtlessly out destroying it. The people who do harm with their vehicles are the enemy, not the Ranger!!! While I try to camp in places the Ranger won’t find me, when he does come into camp I offer him genuine Respect and Gratitude. I am grateful for the Rules and that he is enforcing them—even if they inconvenience me!

Next, let’s look at the factors that limit your ability to go far back on Forest Service or BLM roads:

Sand, Mud and Snow: I’ve run into all these in my travels and if you are a full-timer and serious about really getting into the Back-Country, you simply need 4×4. The roads might be dry when you head back but then you can get hit with a rain or snow storm and then you are stuck. Oddly enough, this is especially bad in the desert where many roads are impassable after a hard rain. Or you might head down a dirt road in the desert and think it is solid and pull off of it to camp and when you try to get out you are stuck in the sand. All these things have happened to me! Fortunately I had 4×4; so I locked in the hubs, put it in 4wd High and pulled right out—no big deal! But with 2wd you’d be stuck or you simply wouldn’t try to drive back there.

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I was in 4×4 low to get to the top of this hill and you can see that the road continues on into the forest. It was so thick I couldn’t get the F150 into it. Only a Jeep or ATV was going any further.

Steep Hills or Extreme Side-hills: I’ve been many places where the only way up, down or around was to lock in the hubs, put it in 4wd Low-Range and crawl my way through. There wasn’t a chance in hell of making it in and out without it. Many of today’s vehicles have All Wheel Drive, but that isn’t the same as true 4×4 with a transfer case and 4 Wheel Drive Low Range. Sometimes that Super Low Gear is the only thing that will save your bacon.

High-Centering on Dips, Hills, Ruts and Inclines: You can’t overestimate the importance of ground clearance on a vehicle for Back-road travel. I have been on dozens of FS or BLM roads that did not require 4×4 but required a High-Clearance vehicle. If you are high-centered, you are just as stuck as if your tires were spinning in the muck. The big problem with RVs of any kind is their departure angle which is the angle from the rear tire to the rear bumper. On many RVs the distance from the axel to the bumper is so long that even the slightest rise of the front causes the bumper to grind. Try to go up too steep an incline and the backend will high-center.

Boondocking-Forest

The side of my beloved F150 was scratched to pieces from the thousands of limbs that had tore away at it. I finally stopped trying to mount antennas and lights on it because they were all tore off within a season. There is a lot of legal camping that only a vehicle this size or smaller can get into.

Narrow Roads with Trees Limbs Protruding in from the Side and Above. In the National Forests this is a very common problem. Nearly all RVs are very tall and very wide so the tree limbs tear at it and quite possibly damage it. Many of these roads also have tight curves around boulders and other obstacles and the length of most RVs mean they can’t make the corner.

As usual, I am too wordy and this post got too long to fit in one, so I have broken it into two parts. In my next post we will look at specific vehicles you can choose for Back-country boondocking and I will give you my specific recommendations.

Bob
About

I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

Posted in Boondocking, Camping Locations, Security/Safety Versus Freedom
36 comments on “Comfort VS. Freedom: Best Vehicle for Boondocking–Part 1
  1. Joe S says:

    Great article Bob! I’ve been reading your blog for a while and have often thought of trading my Tacoma 4×4 for a van. Thanks for reminding me why I bought my truck…. and why I will be keeping it.

    Thanks,

    Joe

    • Bob Bob says:

      Joe, the Tacoma is a tremendous vehicle, one of my all time favorites. But on the scale of comfort versus freedom you don’t get much comfort. I’d love to live in one but I need more comfort.
      Bob

  2. LaVonne says:

    Thanks, Bob. I want to get as far off the beaten path as possible, but a reliable 4×4 is probably too far out of my budget of $3000 or less. I’ll have to plan on upgrading after I’ve had time to save the rent money I won’t be spending any more. Are there 4×4 vans too, or are trucks with campers in back the only option?
    LaVonne recently posted…Father’s Day is BittersweetMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      LaVonne, your right, the extra complexity of 4×4 makes them cost more and be more expensive to keep running in the long run. There are 4×4 vans but they are expensive. A good choice for you might be a AWD Astro mini-van. They are small so they can get through narrow areas and the AWD is a big plus. Their ground clearance is okay but later on you add a lift kit and gain some more. Add some bigger more expensive tires and they are a great little rig for the backcountry. They are smaller than a regular van so it won’t be as comfortable, but it may be worth it to you.
      Bob
      Bob

  3. Greg says:

    As always Bob, the pictures are beautiful! Also reading the articles is interesting and informative. Never too long and always leave me wanting more! Looking forward to part 2 of comfort vs freedom. I have had a van, class B, recently a class C, and now looking into a truck camper. Would love an Alaskan but they are hard to find and very expensive.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Greg, the Alaskan is legendary, but like you ay they are either expensive or hard to find at all. I am a fan of Capri Campers, but I will include that in the next post.

  4. fratermus says:

    Great article. I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing.

  5. Fred says:

    Good post Bob. As with life in general, many , if not most, things are a tradeoff of some kind or another. The life we have chosen is simply an acknowledgment of the fact that we accept that tradeoff, whatever it may be for each one of us. As a matter of fact, I am looking at switching to a larger type van(so I can stand up inside, which is a must for me anymore, i.e. comfort, as far as a van goes) and keeping my TT in storage (its paid for and everything works, why get another one?) until I can no longer do this. Yes, I will incur storage fees unless I can store it at one of my friends place. But this would be a trade off I would gladly accept since I pay no rent anywhere else. If I got a 4wd truck with a camper, I might just go where I would REALLY get stuck a whole lot more easily….lol As it is now, I have found a great many places where I rarely see anyone and, as you said, the great majority of them do not require a 4wd. As well, with all the government cutbacks, many forest areas and BLM land areas simply do not have the staffing to worry about if you stay an extra day or week, as long as you are quiet and unobtrusive. Of course, there is always the exception to that.

    Fortunately for me, my comfort level is easy to accommodate and I have relatively few needs outside of food, water, and shelter, ( but I would add quiet as a subcategory). Some of us need to move every 2-5 days and some like myself, don’t mind if we move every 2-3 weeks or longer if undisturbed. As long as I have a comfortable place to sleep (not much room needed), place to comfortably sit while awake, whether inside or outside, an internet signal if possible, and some way to charge my devices, such as my solar, I wake each day with a smile. This is one of the reasons I am looking into a van as well as the fact I can into more places with just a van as opposed to a truck and TT. I am a happy camper in any case and wouldn’t trade this life for anything else.

    Living this way, it is so much more relaxed and it makes it easier to not worry too much about the little bumps in the road we all experience from time to time. It affords us a way to live inexpensively as well as enjoy the many varied fruits of Mother Nature. It allows us to do as much or as little as we wish while bothering no one else.

    Fred

    • Bob Bob says:

      Fred, you did a great summary of why I live this way:

      Living this way, it is so much more relaxed and it makes it easier to not worry too much about the little bumps in the road we all experience from time to time. It affords us a way to live inexpensively as well as enjoy the many varied fruits of Mother Nature. It allows us to do as much or as little as we wish while bothering no one else.

      And it is also why I like a vehicle that can get me further back into remote places. I think putting you TT into storage gives you the best of both worlds and is a great idea!
      Bob

      • Naomi says:

        I like Fred’s TT storage idea, too. That gives me another option.

        ~Naomi

        • Bob Bob says:

          Naomi, Fred has a really nice and very comfortable TT. But it is much larger than Sue’s Casita and not nearly as good in the back-country.

          I strongly suggest you spend time in each before you make a decision.
          Bob

  6. I have a 2001 E350 Ford with heavy duty tires, but no 4 wheel drive. So far in my short full timing experience, the van has done some back country national forest roads like a champ. Mainly, I’ve had to navigate some small – medium size rocks, making for a bumpy shaky experience. I’m hoping that the super duper tires will haul my butt out in the event I experience the rains. Either that, or I plan ahead and camp within close access to the main road or camp on an easier road to exit during heavy rains. Rainy season will be upon us here in AZ in July, so, plenty of opportunities to test all this out. *LOL…rather nervously.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Gloria, you know Steve with his 4×4 van will always come to your rescue, right Steve! That’s an inside joke, Steve is getting tired of pulling other vandwellers (including me!) out of the sand.
      Bob

  7. Naomi says:

    Love this information.

    Ever since I found your websites, I have mulled these choices over and over in my mind. Unless I kick the bucket first, or win the lottery (I’ll keep ya in mind, Bob 😉 ), I *will* make this my lifestyle.

    I really like RV Sue’s set-up (heavy-duty van and Casita travel trailer). I know I wouldn’t be able to get as far back into the wild as I might like, but I know in my heart I’d need that extra comfort. She seems to be able to both travel and live frugally.

    Just my two cents (until I win the lottery, that’s all I have . . .).

    ~Naomi

    • Bob Bob says:

      Naomi, that is a very good choice! The Casita has a very good ground clearance and if memory serves she bought a model that had extra ground clearnace, but I could be wrong about that. Vans have pretty good clearance themselves.

      It’s really important that you are honest with yourself about your need for comfort. I’m in this life to enjoy it and not prove anything to other people. If you need a shower and a toilet (or whatever) there is nothing to be ashamed of in that.

      Your only obligation in life is TO BE HAPPY AS YOU CAN BE WHILE DOING THE MOST GOOD AND LEAST HARM TO/FOR OTHERS AS YOU CAN.
      Bob

  8. HoboHounds says:

    All good points you have here Bob! Thanks for taking the time to write this post. Looking forward to part 2 🙂

  9. Dave says:

    My new favorite camper. Though the sleeping area looks a little…tight. I wish the builder of these well, we need more sustainable and “handmade” options out there like these…

    http://casualturtlecampers.com/

    • Bob Bob says:

      Dave, it is gorgeous! But they give you very little information, I’d need to know a lot more before I could even form an opinion.
      Bob

  10. Frank says:

    I like Sportsmobile custom campervans and the one with the penthouse poptop is really cool.
    But i also like more the very thin roof v shape poptop of GTRV campervans. The thinness of the roof makes it look like a regular low-top van, great for stealth parking in the city.

    Still though, way too much money to put into my new van. Just so they can cut the roof off that will lead to rust in the near future. Instead i just through in some camping equipment, minus the tent. I saved thousands of dollars, still feel very comfy, and have less work not cleaning it.

    Simple is much better because you save much better.

    Then i turned the key and left like that movie called – Lost In America. But i didn’t have some biker shoot a bird at me like in the movie. Really I didn’t!

    I think one day i’ll move west. I might try living along the coast of California. Near the ocean the temps and weather is soo nice there.
    Best of all one can really stay cool there in the summertime with cool ocean breezes and a drink in your hand.

    Parked for free at a resort hotel – sitting poolside of course.A little better than Florida, but not sure yet.

    I still think Typhoon Lagoon water park is awesome and my comfort level with the ice A/C is fair.

    Best of all there are no bears to worry about. There are only BEERS but be very careful they can also kill you.

  11. Stephen says:

    Nice post Bob,I like to see all the different vehicles that are used in the US for what we call Wildcamping in the UK. Thanks!
    Stephen recently posted…Extra Work Surface ( Part 2).My Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Your welcome Stephen! Americans are obsessed with their cars and want to take them as far back as possible. There are lots of options over here. But most of us buy base models and then customize them as much as we can afford.
      Bob

  12. GARY GREEN says:

    hey now bob, j.m.o. is that if you need to get away from the masses or people,(walk) get yourself a backpack and walk,lot cheaper than a fourwheel drive!! and a hell of a lot healther?. and so much better for mother earth.fellow traveler gary p.s. can’t make the summer rtr no money for gas boohoo next year for sure!!

    • Bob Bob says:

      Gary, sorry you can’t make the RTR, next year though!

      This old fat guy with bad knees prefers wearing out rubber to leather.
      Bob

  13. DougB says:

    Man, this post really throws the variables to consider out there! Seems like one should most seriously consider the smallest rig one can stand, which tends to boost campsite choices (and fuel mileage). I’ve found that traction is very rig-specific and situation-specific, but if you can do without the cost of 4WD, so much the better. I’ve actually gotten stuck in my own former back yard with a 2WD pickup, and that was flat, wet grass! The F-250 diesel pickup I have now is even worse in 2WD because of the extra engine weight over the front wheels and the stiffer suspension. Its common highway tires have been bad news in snow as well, even in 4WD. Unladen, 2WD vans can go where I can’t when I’m in 2WD! The weight of the trailer tongue helps a heap, and so far, I haven’t had to resort to 4WD while pulling the trailer, though it was close once. I’ve had to use it more often than I’d like when running bare, though. I think as long as you can avoid mud, 2WD will do just about anything reasonable for most non-pickup vehicles, except in soft sand. If the ground is soft mud, you’re gonna need both 4WD or AWD and aggressive tires – both of which can be avoided if you can provision yourself for the extra few days it takes to dry back out. Don’t be in a hurry, and save cash too! Or travel with a like-minded bunch and hope that the guy with the 4WD is carrying a tow strap and likes to show off. Sorry for the rambling nature of this comment, but I’m thrashing on a deadline back here in Illinois. I can only sound coherent when I’m relaxing in the desert.
    DougB recently posted…What’cha Doin’?My Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Doug, you sounded more coherent when you were out here? HMMMMMMM!

      Your right of course, traction is tricky stuff and I am far from an expert. But I know in Alaska 4×4 outnumbers 2×4 by a huge amount and I was never without one.
      Bob

  14. Barney says:

    Mellow Mike in his blog a few months ago confronted the same question this blog is asking. It will be interesting to see how the opinions compare.

  15. jackal says:

    There are as many best vehicles for boondocking as there is variation in the needs and desires of boondockers. I’m a hit-and-run boondocker, so my coefficient of physical comfort to weight is extremely high. But if my minivan was twice the weight, my disposition would suffer in the same way my body would if I slept in dirt. The excellent fuel economy doesn’t make me a campsite shut-in but, instead, dramatically increases my range and number of way points. A light rig makes it possible for me to roam 10,000 miles, whereas for the same fuel cost a heavy rig might struggle to attain a measly 4,000 miles. This is saying nothing about the additional costs that pile up with weight. I value the wilderness as much as anyone, but they haven’t made a 4×4 yet that can take me where my boots can, such as — in younger years — to the bottom of the Grand Canyon or to the top of Devils Tower or the Lost Arrow Spire.

    One-hundred years ago, people roamed all over the West, with the finest 4×4 ever made — the horse. I still have vivid, childhood memories of the day my dad’s car wouldn’t start when he needed to make a quick run into town. He impetuously kicked the car’s tire, then saddled one of our horses and rode off down the road towards town, confident the animal was up for the task.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Jackal, I agree totally. Minivans have huge advantages and I recommend it as the best choice for those on a tight budget. I’m also a big fan of getting out and walking. Driving can never allow you to connect with a place like walking does.
      Bob

  16. Bob Bob says:

    Rob, I hope you get exactly what you are looking for!
    Bob

  17. Michael says:

    Bob,
    My biggest problem, other than saving the money to actually purchase a decent boondocking vehicle, is how in hell do I make money on the road? For a guy like me, I assume I’ll need more at first, but then figure out how to live on a lower and lower income. But I’ll still need some things only money can buy. Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated!
    Mike

    • Bob Bob says:

      Mike, I can almost gaurantee you a job as a campground host in the summer and then working for Amazon at their distribution center at the holidays. That’s May to December and you will have made enough to take the rest of the year off.
      Bob

  18. mf says:

    That second last picture with the small lake (pond?) makes my heart ache; so beautiful! Who cares if you can’t go any further? ;o)

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