Boondocking 101: On Water

Dry-camping in Colorado. Well worth learning how to conserve water.

Mastering (i.e. attempting) boondocking* (i.e. dry-camping) is a new skill that has taken over our lives in the first months of this year. Appropriate somehow, since we started our journey in the Western deserts and water conservation is a big theme in these lands.

Filling up with our 39 gallons at Joshua Tree

Living in a trailer, we’re living in an odd half-state between “normal” home conveniences and tent camping – all depending on 3 magic lines – electric, water, and sewage. When connected to all 3 lines as a “full hook-up” we get to live like we are in a normal (albeit tiny) home with high pressure running water, tv, lights and air-conditioning, and could go about taking long showers and sudsing up a ton of dishes without a care in the world. Pretty excellent, considering our backyards are some pretty spectacular places. 

However, boondocking is camping without the 3 lines and the modern conveniences they provide. No electricity, only our very limited batteries.  No running water, just the 39 gallons we can hold in our water tank. Cooking, heating, hot showers and a cold fridge are all at the mercy of our 2 tanks of propane.  It’s a new way of living, and like nothing else I’ve ever done it’s made me really think about the resources we all take for granted living in our shiny modern homes.
Filling up the tanks and all water jugs we can.
From the beginning, we knew water would be the big challenge – Joshua Tree, Death Valley…and all our Arizona parks were all week long stops in the desert and none of the camps had a water hook-up, meaning for a week at a time, we would be relying entirely on the water and waste storage tanks on the Airstream.
Our first day out gave us our first lesson in water conservation. In Pinnacles the old-fashioned bronze water taps couldn’t attach to our brand new water hoses and instead of filling up our tanks easily, we had to improvise and use our 5-gallon emergency water jugs to fill up the tank.  (Bless S for buying everything we needed and more before we even left on the trip. I apologize for ever having laughed at having those empty plastic jugs flying around the back of the truck.)
Boondocking newbies at Joshua Tree, but nothing like living in the desert to make you appreciate water scarcity.

At 8 pounds a gallon, it took 8 long slow trips to top off the tank – all in all it was 320 pounds of water that we had fill up individually, haul over, and then pour slowly into the Whale via a small funnel.  Needless to say, it took a long while and gave me plenty of time to appreciate in full the effort of getting even a gallon of water to use.

The tank monitor that governs our lives. It measures the percentage filled of our fresh, grey, and black tanks.
 That was the day I started obsessing over how much water we use in washing dishes, or brushing my teeth. The average American uses over 100 gallons each day – while Seth and I had to share 39 gallons each week.  To put it another way, an average person uses 18 gallons a day just flushing the toilet (toilets being the biggest waste of water in a home).  So if we had a normal toilet, we’d use up our week’s worth of water in just one day’s worth of bathroom stops.
How horrific it now seemed to leave the tap on when brushing your teeth. And then to realize how much water washing your face takes. Now I mentally measure out how much water is needed to wash vegetables for salad, how much more is needed to get that salad bowl clean. I took my first navy shower, only turning on the water to rinse off soap, and effectively giving up one of my great joys in life, a long, hot, decadent shower. I learned it takes a lot of concentration to control your water usage – even something as natural as the act of running the shower to get warm water before getting in is now a dilemma – To waste, or not to waste, that first 10 seconds of cold water?
Dry-camping in Death Valley, where we experimented with 10 different ways to wash dishes and agonized over overflow.
Surprisingly, I found that we became even more obsessed with how much water we USE and put into the grey tank than with how much fresh water we have.  That is, where does our showering, dishwashing, toothbrushing grey water GO? In the Whale, we not only have limited storage for fresh water to use, we have limited space to store the water after it’s used. We can always grab a bucket and add more fresh water but the dirty water…
In those first days, we were constantly amazed at how quickly the grey tank filled up. Turns out 39 gallons isn’t much when it’s all you’ve got for a week. We were continuously experimenting with different ways to wash dishes using as little water as possible and I’ve accepted that ‘clean dishes’ is a relative term and learned to live with some soap residue on our plates. We now wash dishes using a collapsible bucket, so we can throw out the dishwater into the toilet – as it empties into the separate black tank we can balance our waste water and save space in the grey tank.
More grey tank space = the longer we can dry camp and be off the grid.
Washing dishes in a bucket
Now, in campsites with communal utility sinks, we wash dishes outside, and we’ve learned to keep our morning wash-up routines really, really short. I’m not ashamed to admit that dry shampoo is my friend, as are baby wipes.  On the rare days we have full hook-ups, we luxuriate and fully appreciate a long hot shower, but even new habits die hard and that long, hot shower lasts only about 3 mins before the guilt sets in and I get out.
Boondocking in Big Bend, the best of our campsites so far.
I can say that we’ve gotten more efficient with water use each time we boondock. We still check our water monitor obsessively after each navy shower in our perennial contest about who uses the least water per shower, but we are no longer shocked by our water consumption. Better yet, we can now easily make it a week and more on our little tanks, something inconceivable that first week at Pinnacles.
So this is how I am moving from normal, wasteful consumer of water into a much better water conservationist. It’s not a #humblebrag, as it’s necessity more than anything, but as I check out my panel numbers over the course of my day I am constantly reminded how lucky I’ve been in past lives never to have a need for worry. Then I look out my window into a clear expanse of desert/woods/lake and feel there’s no better reward for a navy shower than the privilege of living in this beauty. After all, a little extra grime on the dishes is a small price to pay for living with this freedom.
Getting all the water we can in the tanks, and in our jugs.
I can only hope that after this year we’ll take these lessons with us and learn to live with less waste and more appreciation of this precious resource.  
*Technically, we’re dry-camping since boondocking means dry camping off the grid whereas we’re still in National Park campsites, but it’s such a better word that I shall use it nonetheless.

2 Replies to “Boondocking 101: On Water”

  1. I continue to enjoy your posts, Seth and Jen! After tent camping for six days, I too appreciated the beauty of the long-ish hot shower! Hi from all the Ponies!

    1. Thanks, Ann! Tent camping is a whole ‘nother level (depending on whether there are showers in your campsite or not). We loved seeing all your pictures from your epic road trip as well!

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