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Camping off the grid

Most RVs have propane tanks, either enclosed in compartments or able to be set out, and of different sizes, allowing campers to cook, run heaters, and/or refrigerators, lessening the necessity of electricity.
Most RVs have propane tanks, either enclosed in compartments or able to be set out, and of different sizes, allowing campers to cook, run heaters, and/or refrigerators, lessening the necessity of electricity.Photo by Janda Raker

Most campers know what camping off the grid is, even if they haven't done it. But anyone who has been backpacking, camping from a canoe or kayak, or car camping or tenting in areas without utilities has experienced it. However, many modern-day campers have only camped in RVs of one sort or another or even boats, many of which have only been used "on the grid"--in public or private campgrounds or marinas with electricity, water and even sewer hookups. Off the grid means camping without any sort of external access to utilities.

A pickup camper, off the grid, at Sugarite Canyon State Park, New Mexico
A pickup camper, off the grid, at Sugarite Canyon State Park, New MexicoPhoto by Janda Raker

If you're a camper who hasn't tried camping off the grid, would you like to? What are the advantages? If you prefer quiet and solitude, it's much easier to access if you don't have to plug in, because you'll be away from the multitudes who DO have to do so. Also it's less expensive. Most campgrounds around the country provide hookups, and, depending on what all you want or need, you'll pay more than for basic camping. Depending on the popularity of the area and the luxuriousness of the campground, you may pay from $30 to $60 per night, with electricity and water, more for sewer. If you don't want hookups, the fee will be less, perhaps as little as $20 per night. And many people now prefer not to utilize hookups because of their concern about the environment.

After the original off-the-grid camping in tents, many RVs have used propane in tanks to provide for heat, gas cooking, and even refrigeration. And now for many years, campers have been using gasoline- or diesel-powered generators. They've gradually become smaller, quieter, more efficient, and less polluting of the environment. Now by shopping carefully, you can purchase one for as little as $300 that can provide all the power a small motorhome requires, including television and microwave. Power for an air conditioner will cost more. It can provide many hours of power, storing reserves in batteries, after running only a few. Some models can run for 12 hours using only 2/3 of a gallon of gasoline. And it could be only the size of a breadbox (remember those?) and quiet enough to sit on the kitchen cabinet, running, while you dine at your nearby table and chat with your companion, though you will want to be sure it's finely tuned up so it's not emitting carbon monoxide. What an excellent apparatus to free you from the hubbub of a developed campground and considerably reduce the cost of your nightly camping experience! They can be purchased online, from manufacturers, RV dealers and camping-supply outlets. (Click each for more info.)

However, even-more-recent technology has provided a newer and perhaps even-more-practical mechanism for camping off the grid. Solar power is bringing humans back to their source, back to the sunshine which gave us the energy to explore our world in the first place. Rudimentary versions of solar panels have heated water for homes and businesses since the 1920s, but other than that, solar energy was originally quite expensive and not very productive, really just a novelty. But as more scientists realized the incredible possibilities to be provided by solar power, research and development have continued to create ever-more-affordable and efficient mechanisms. Now solar panels can be made tiny enough and lightweight enough to nest on a backpack to charge a cellphone or large enough to cover the top of a multimillion-dollar motorhome and power almost all its gadgets! In between these extremes are flexible panels, moldable to fit the curved top of a graceful seacraft, charging its "house" batteries, or foldable panels, which can be easily stored in an SUV, camper or pop-up and attached to a "solar generator" or "energy pack" the size of a package of hot-dog buns, designed to store the sun's energy until the next time you need it, to power your laptop, your camera, your flashlight, or even your refrigerator. Practical units are available online from manufacturers, dealers of camping equipment and suppliers of products for boaters. (Click these links for details.) Prices depend on the amount of power you desire and can run from $30 to $1,500. The main advantages to solar power over power generated by fossil fuels are the silence, the lack of necessity to purchase fuel to provide power and the absence of environmental damage.

So where can you camp "off the grid"? That depends on your preferences. Most private campgrounds provide hookups, although they may also have a few "primitive" sites available. That's also true of many state parks. Of course, the cost for camping is usually less without hookups. You may find such areas for as little as $10 per night. National parks and national forests normally do not have utilities available, except for some limited areas run by concessionaires, so most of those areas, often the most beautiful in the country, are off the grid, and they may cost $15 or even half that for senior citizens with a Golden Age Passport or Senior Pass, the permanent permit available for $20. Corps of Engineers camps, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sites, National Recreation areas, and National Wildlife Refuges also frequently offer camping for minimal charge or even free. Almost all of these provide public restrooms (though usually not showers) or portapotties, and most also have picnic tables, fire rings or grills, and some provide shelters.

The western US has more of these free and almost-free camping areas than the east, no doubt just because it contains more undeveloped land. Watching weather patterns can help you make decisions as to what direction you'd want to travel and how long you'd want to stay, for example southwest in winter and north in summer. In some areas, such as near Yuma, AZ, hundreds of RVers gather every year on BLM land to spend the winter, renewing acquaintances, hiking, sharing stories, playing cards, fishing, rock collecting, listening to performers of country music and sharing meals with one another, all without benefit of utilities.

You can go online to find information about such sites or purchase a campground guide or other book on campgrounds and their amenities, some even specializing in off-the-grid camping. Of course, backpackers, boaters, car campers and others who need few amenities can camp along trails, beside or on rivers, lakes, and sea shores, teaching us all the meaning camping off the grid.