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Now that we’ve completed our first big boondocking trip, let’s look at our usage and overall costs as we finally get the answers to many of the questions we had before we started! Questions like…How many gallons of water did we use? How many days did it last us? How many hours did we put on the generator? What did it cost to run the generator? What did we pay to dump our tanks? What was our average daily cost? Were there any unexpected expenses?
Now that we have all of this data, we can compare the costs of boondocking with how we’ve been living to date – that is, mostly staying in campgrounds with full (or at least partial) hookups.
Here’s how it all went down.
Days 1–5: Yuma area, AZ
Day 6–7: Quarzsite, AZ
Days 8–9: Lake Havasu City, AZ
Mostly hot, days the 80-90 degree F range (26–32C). Nights in the 50s F (10–12C). Sometimes very windy
Fresh Water Tank – capacity 70 gallons
Here’s an overview of much water we started and ended with the trip with, plus costs:
Day 1: Arrived at the Quechan Casino near Yuma, AZ with about 10 gallons of water on board, enough to get us through the first night = free
Day 2: Completely filled our 70 gallon water tank at a Love’s Travel Stop in Yuma, Arizona = free
Day 2: Bought 5 gallons of spring water from the supermarket as we’d been warned that the Arizona water is not good for drinking. Cost = $6
Days 3 – 9: Tracked our water usage on a daily basis with a post-it note marking on the side of the water tank each morning – this gave us a good gauge of rate and volume we were using so we could modify as needed
Day 9: We estimate we still had about 15 gallons of fresh water left in the tank when we finished our boondocking adventure in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, so we could have comfortably gone another couple of days (Say 10 in total – remember we started with some fresh water on Day 1 and filled the water tank on Day 2)
Daily average water consumption
Here’s a summary of how we used our water:
- Took quick showers at least every other day
- Washed dishes only once a day
- Brushed teeth, washed face before bed
- Washed hands
How much water did we use?
Based on 8 full days (Days 2–9) we estimate that we used about 6.875 gallons per day – let’s round up and call it 7 gallons! Cost = Free
Grey Tank – capacity 65 gallons
With a 70 gallon fresh water tank and 65 gallon grey tank on board, we knew we wouldn’t run into the issue of filling up our grey tank and needing to dump it too soon. But, we didn’t want to waste fresh water unnecessarily either, so here’s what we did:
- Kept a bucket in the shower to catch as much of the shower water as possible for the purpose of flushing the toilet
- The first couple of days we scooped some of the less dirty dish water from the sink with a bottle and transported it to the bucket in the shower
- We stopped transferring dish water to the shower bucket on day 3 as we didn’t want things to get stinky! We figured dish water was likely much ‘dirtier’ than shower water
The grey tank didn’t completely fill but it was definitely ready to be dumped on Day 7! That stuff gets really stinky after 7 days in the 80+ degree desert temperatures!
We poured some “TST Grey Water Odor Control” down the sink to help keep any smell neutralized, which worked pretty well, right up until the drive to the actual dump station! More on that under the “Dump” section below.
Black Tank – capacity 50 gallons
We definitely knew we weren’t going to fill our black tank with 50 gallons of waste in 9 days either (OMG – can you even imagine!?) We wanted to minimize our usage of fresh water for toilet flushing, so here’s what we did:
- Let the yellow mellow – we did not always flush after going number one
- Used the bucket of grey ‘shower water’ to flush the toilet after going number two
We think this strategy really helped extend our fresh water supply throughout the 9 days and still have some left over.
Power – electricity and generator usage
We don’t have solar and aren’t sure whether we’ll get it or not – hence this boondocking test run – so we were reliant on our 7000 Watt Onan generator for power. Because we have to work during the week, our biggest need for power is keeping our computers running.
Marc has a laptop for work which can run on battery, but he requires power to run the external monitor and maximize productivity. Although Julie has a Mac laptop, it’s getting so old now (2008!) that it won’t run on battery alone so it needs to be plugged into a power source to work. Julie mainly works from her newer iMac desktop anyway, which also requires power. Most of the lights in our coach are LED which don’t have a huge power draw, whether we’re running on generator or battery power. The days did get hot – up to 90 degrees F (32C) so we did need to run the air conditioner(s) at times during the day.
Here’s how we used power from the generator when it was running:
- Powered two computers and one external monitor for work, on weekdays only
- In the mornings, we ran the blender to make green smoothies and/or the electric kettle to make tea
- Only used the microwave a couple of times, always during the day
- Marc used the electric griddle and kettle to make us a ‘hearty breakfast’ on the weekends
- Used electric water heater for showers/dishes only
- On working week days, we ran one air conditioner to keep a comfortable temperature inside the coach – occasionally we ran both to cool it faster
- Turned off two of the three main coach lights so only one light came on with the switch
- We didn’t watch TV or play the stereo at all (we aren’t big TV watchers anyway)
- Recharged coach batteries
- Ran the refrigerator/freezer during day (but we mostly ran it on propane)
We generally ran the generator from 6.15am until 4pm Monday to Friday and only an hour or so on weekend days.
We put a total of 51.1 hours on the generator and, according to our research, our particular coach generator uses between 0.5 to 0.75 gallons of gas per hour… we think probably closer to 0.75.
So based on 0.75 gallons per hour, we used around 38.32 gallons of fuel which, at the local price at that time of around $2.25/gal added up to about $86 over the 9 days – an average of about $9.55 per day (4.26 gallons a day).
When the generator was turned off, we were able to run the house lights and recharge small electronic devices using our 12 volt power inverter/charger. This was a minimal drain on our batteries.
We use propane for our furnace, water heater, fridge and RV oven/burners. We also have a BBQ with a separate propane tank. Because the temperatures were mild in the evenings and hot during the days, we didn’t need to run the furnace to heat the coach at all.
Here’s how we used propane during our boondocking week, when we were not running the generator:
- Ran the propane water heater to heat shower/kitchen sink water
- Warmed up pre-prepared meals (eg. chili, curry, soup) in a saucepan on the RV stovetop burner
- Cooked a chicken pot pie (from the famous Julian Pie Shop, CA – mmmmm) in the RV oven
- Barbecued some meals on our portable Weber BBQ Grill
- Kept the refrigerator/freezer running
We don’t really have an accurate way to measure how much propane we used, but Marc guessed it would be no more than a gallon or two. At about $3/gallon, we’re going to estimate this cost = $6.
Cell Coverage & Internet
Because this is so critical to us during the working week, we had researched this ahead of time using the Verizon Coverage Map to select our boondocking location. We’re pleased to report that it IS indeed possible to dry camp in the middle of the desert and still get decent cell/internet coverage! So no nasty surprises there 🙂 All good!
Dumping the Tanks
We were able to go a week before having to dump the black and grey tanks and we found a place called the RV Pit Stop to do the dumping duty as we left Quartzsite for Lake Havasu City.
We were very lucky to arrive just 15 minutes before they closed at 4.30 on a Friday afternoon. Lucky not only because we didn’t want to carry the extra weight of the grey and black tanks all the way to Lake Havasu, but mostly because while driving the coach from Dome Rock to the RV Pit Stop (I followed in the MINI) Marc was overcome by the acrid stench of the lovely cocktail brewing inside our tanks – one week old grey and black waste that had been nicely baking in the Arizona sun – that was sloshing around on the drive.
Marc jumped out of the coach, took a deep breath of the clean air as he announced, before dumping:
“There’s a smell in this coach that will outlast religion!”
It’s an hilarious quote from an Australian mocku-mentary called “Kenny” about a likable bloke who works for a waste management – aka porta-potty or porta-loo – company. Maybe you have to be Aussie to really “get it” but if you don’t mind a bit of ‘toilet humor’ click here to watch a short video clip. It’s a fun movie.
We paid $15 to dump both the tanks, which we thought was pretty expensive – we usually see it under $10 – but it needed to be done!
Of course, we did have to wonder if the “grey water as a toilet flush”strategy we’d been using was a contributor to the smell, but we later learned that keeping a window open while driving can be a culprit.
Tip: Keep your windows closed while driving as open windows can pull grey and black tank odors into your RV
As you may know, Juice the MINI had an unfortunate encounter with a rock in Lake Havasu City toward the end of our boondocking adventure, which rendered her undrive-able (watch the video). In all honesty, perhaps we pushed our luck with the MINI, having taken her on 3 off-road drives in a single week. The third and final one took her out of action for a week.
The repair bill on the MINI? Cost = $334.
While in fairness, we thought we maybe shouldn’t count this as part of our boondocking expenses as it could have happened anywhere, we ended up deciding to factor the expense into our overall bill, as given the road conditions we took the coach and the MINI on, there is definitely additional wear and tear on the vehicles compared with paved roads and campgrounds.
We know many of you reading this might have trucks, Jeeps or other AWD vehicles more suited to this type of terrain, so perhaps this isn’t a consideration for you – but for us, it’s a real expense and something to take into account. We’re not planning to trade the MINI on anything else any time soon!
Camping Locations and Fees
Our accommodation was split across 5 locations (3 cities) during the 9 days:
- Quechan Casino in Winterhaven, CA west of near Yuma, AZ = Free
- BLM land west of Yuma, AZ = Free
- BLM land by Dome Rock in Quartzsite, AZ = Free (14 day permit required)
- BLM land off Highway 95 south of Lake Havasu City, AZ = Free
- Dirt lot off Highway 95 near I-40 north of Lake Havasu = Free
Camping fees: Zero
Shopping & Savings
We didn’t include our expenses for groceries or eating out as that is about the same whether we’re boondocking or staying in a campground.
However, we did observe one cost saving that’s worth mentioning. Because we didn’t have a physical address out in the boonies, we weren’t able to place or receive any online shopping orders from Amazon or anywhere else! LOL.
Total Cost of our 9 Day Boondocking Adventure
So, here’s a summary of our boondocking expenses:
- Camping Fees: $0
- Water: $6
- Generator fuel: $86
- Propane: $6
- Dump Station: $15
- MINI repair: $334
- Total: $447
This averages out at $49.67/day – let’s call it $50 per day.
If we take the MINI repair out of the equation, it would total $113 – an average of $12.55 per day – which we’ll round up to $13/day.
Of course, we can’t accurately estimate the cost of additional wear and tear on the coach and the MINI, but in our experience, boondocking in harsher elements as we did definitely takes more of a toll on your vehicles and equipment over time, which will eventually necessitate additional repairs that you may or may not encounter compared to driving on paved roads and staying in campgrounds. Naturally, your equipment and setup might be designed to better handle more rugged environments than ours is.
How do our boondocking costs compare with camping at Thousand Trails?
In our article about out our Thousand Trails membership upgrade, we estimated our camping costs to be around $4 per night. That includes electricity, water and sewer/dump station.
But for us, it’s not all about the money. Sure, it’s an important consideration, but ultimately it all comes down to your preferred style of camping. We’ve come to discover that we mostly prefer staying in campgrounds for the most part because of the abundance and convenience of electric, water and sewer (all included), amenities (such as laundry, pool, hot tub), the social aspect, locations and affordability. Yet, we also appreciate and enjoy the flexibility that boondocking offers, so we like knowing that we CAN do it comfortably for a few days at a time – or even up to 10 days – just to mix things up.
Would we invest in solar?
Maybe. We’d certainly love to have solar, but given the estimated cost of equipment and installation is around $4,000 range (as quoted for the setup we would want/need), dropping that kind of money just isn’t in our budget right now, especially as it would only remove the generator portion of the expenses ($86 in this case). Most of the other costs would stay intact as you still need to fill with water, use propane and find a dump station (which you can sometimes find for free). Update 2017… we purchased a portable solar panel for under $400 that significantly reduces our generator hours but have still not invested in a large solar system because we still stay in campgrounds 80% of the time and can’t justify the weight or financial impact)
Well, we hope this information, facts and figures have been useful for you. We’d love to hear about your boondocking expenses and experiences as well. Being our first trip, there’s still a lot left for us to learn!