Social media is ruining boondocking
By Ching Fu
It turns out that you can love something too much, and oversharing can be hazardous, especially when it comes to boondocking sites. Has social media negatively affected the landscape of road life?
What if I told you that social media was ruining life on the road; would you believe me? While the craze of social media— specifically Instagram—has created an unprecedented love for the outdoors, it has also affected the landscape of road life—especially boondocking.
Our Instagram accounts are inundated with glorious photos of unfamiliar places that make us want to see them for ourselves. This reaction is natural, but the problem is that we’re all responding to these photos the same way: putting them on our “must visit” lists. Many of these natural locations can’t handle the influx of visitors.
Sadly, this is also happening to boondocking sites (undeveloped campsites without water, electric hookups, or dump stations). As travelers like us share incredible photos of our homes on wheels parked among craggy mountains, and alongside winding rivers and sandstone giants, a desire is created in others to camp their homes in the same spots. But as we geotag all these wondrous places, they’re getting trampled and overrun. Once-secluded places are now overcrowded, trashed, and on the verge of being destroyed—or closed— in part because of us publicly sharing boondock information.
Since hitting the road full-time with my partner and dogs in 2015, I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of people on the road in RVs of all styles and types—and it turns out that it’s not just my perception. According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), approximately nine million American households own an RV as of 2017. In 2016, 430,000 recreational vehicles of all kinds were sold—a 15 percent increase from 2015. As cellular networks expand their coverage, larger cell-data plans are offered, and a variety of mobile jobs become available, more and more people are turning to road life.
On top of that, a family of four can save 27–62 percent on vacation costs by traveling in an RV, even after factoring in the cost of owning an RV and fuel (according to a study done by PKF Consulting). The popularity of camping in general (RVs or tent camping) has increased drastically. The 2017 North American Camping Report by KOA found that 61 percent of US households—or 75 million—are active campers. This is up three percent since 2014, and 13 million households said that they planned to camp more in 2017. This combination of more people in RVs and tents, and oversharing online, means the once less-trodden spots are overwhelmed.
Of the half-million RVs sold each year, most are not destined for the woods, but more people are turning their backs on RV parks because they realize that that kind of arrangement doesn’t allow them to get away from it all. And they’re realizing that boondocking on BLM and National Forest lands does.
What happened to “sharing is caring”? Sharing boondocking coordinates on social media and websites has made it easy for anybody to access them, which sounds like the community-minded thing to do. But for many of us, these dispersed campsites are like home; it’s like giving your house key to strangers.
Sharing feels neighborly, but unfortunately there’s no guarantee that people who find the GPS coordinates that you put out into the world are educated in camping or boondocking etiquette, and sadly some lack respect for the outdoors. Too often, I’ve pulled up to a boondock site only to find it trashed. Abandoned tents, camp chairs, and foam mattresses are left behind, not to mention wads of used toilet paper tangled in the bushes and a variety of debris left in campfires (aluminum cans and glass bottles don’t belong there!). On “lucky” occasions, the garbage will be bagged as if waiting for the BLM trash pick-up service to come by (it doesn’t exist). Other full-timers have come across trashed TVs and abandoned RVs, left by people who treat our pristine landscapes as their personal landfill.
Many BLM and National Forest dispersed camping sites are seeing so much traffic that it’s causing closures for rehabilitation or major clean-up. For example, Mono Lake BLM campsite was closed during the winter of 2017 because of too much human waste. Human waste is one of the big issues among RVers and campers, since tent campers and many van lifers don’t have toilets. Part of the issue is that proper cat holes aren’t dug (they need to be at least eight inches deep and 200 feet away from water, your camp, or walking trails, and toilet paper and hygiene products must be packed out). But in more popular areas, it doesn’t even matter if a cat hole is properly dug, because there are no spots for new ones—you just end up digging up someone else’s poop-hole (and nobody wants that experience, believe me!).
The popularity—and misunderstanding— of composting toilets has also created trouble. Users assume that the solid waste in their toilet is fully composted by the time it needs to be emptied out (between two and three weeks if used daily), and they empty it out into the woods. In reality, human waste takes over a year to be fully composted and safe to be added back to the earth. The same issue is occurring when people empty their grey water tanks out on the ground; it’s not just water being dumped out, but trash—think of all the cooking grease, food scraps, soap and lotion residue (even if it’s biodegradable) mixed into the water. Grey water belongs in a proper RV dump station—emptied elsewhere, it will attract animals to campsites, harm plants and soil, and negatively affect bodies of water and aquatic life.
Don’t worry if you feel conflicted about sharing boondocking information—I do. I depended on shared campsite information when I first hit the road, and as a newbie figuring out how to find dispersed camping on my own, websites and social media listings were lifesavers. I still use them. So, I feel it’s my duty to repay the charity by also sharing. But veteran full-timers have seen the spots they’ve kindheartedly shared in the past become overpopulated and trashed. They’re realizing that their thoughtful gesture has actually backfired and hurt the most important thing: our public lands.
My new rule of thumb is to share boondocking sites for established campgrounds or update information on a site if it critically affects others. I also happily share boondocking information with friends who value the outdoors the way I do. When people give me a hard time about my decision, my response is that there’s already a large collection of boondocking sites online to get anyone started, and the tools to find your own are also readily accessible. I’m not keeping anything from you. I’m just not going to hand it over to you.
All of this information is publicly available. You just have to be willing to do the research yourself: analyze paper and satellite maps, go scout on your own, and talk to forest rangers. What you’ll find, in addition to incredible places to camp, is the joy of discovering them on your own. It’s hard to beat the sweet, satisfying taste of exploration. On top of that, it also creates a sense of ownership, which in turn fosters respect for that land and encourages us to take care of it.
Ching and her partner boondock 99 percent of the time in their 100-percent solar-powered rig named “the Toaster”. Follow her travels and full-time life on the road at www.livesmallridefree.com, or on Instagram @livesmallridefree.
Resources for finding your own boondock sites:
The Ultimate Campgrounds app
The Frugal Shunpiker’s Guides (use code “ROVA” for 10 percent off)