20 ways to conserve water when boondocking

Last weekend we were having dinner with some Airstream friends and while swapping stories about each other's favorite trips and rallies, the topic of boondocking and dry camping came up. Something these friends don't do very often, but we favor. 

Our friends had a lot of interesting questions for us and most of them were about water:

  • Do you shower every day?
  • How many gallons of water does your tank hold?
  • Do you cook when you boondock, or just go out?
  • Do you use paper plates?
  • Do you take drinking water?

Our quick replies were:

Yes, we cook and we shower daily when we boondock (including daily hair washing). We can comfortably camp 3 nights on our 39-gallon tank, but we can also stretch it to 4. No, we don't use paper plates and yes, we take drinking water (which we also use to cook).

None of these replies encouraged our friends to up their dry camping time. But since we really enjoy camping this way, we decided to share a few thoughts and tips on water conservation.


Camping away from hookups and in remote places is an aspiration of many. There is something wonderful about relying on only the systems and things you can carry in your Airstream. It's what Wally Byam had in mind when he designed the Airstream travel trailer.

But to be able to boondock well you’ve got to adapt and adjust your expectations, especially when it comes to water use. Power is rarely a problem. There are many ways to ensure you've got plenty of power while you're camping unplugged – lithium batteries, rooftop solar, portable solar, generator. And two full tanks of propane will last you a very long time (unless you've got to run the furnace in freezing weather).

But you can only take so much water with you, and the fresh water tank of an Airstream is not that big. If it weren't for this limitation, we'd probably camp without hookups for nearly all of our trips. 

Yes, you can travel with extra water bladders in your tow vehicle. But even carrying 10 or 15 extra gallons this way adds a lot of extra weight. And at the end of the day, you're still going to have to break camp to find a place to dump the holding tanks.

So that leaves people with the challenge of how to conserve water to extend their camping time as long as possible. 

Here's a list of all the things we do, big and small, to conserve water when we are camping away from hookups. We've also included a few good tips from others that you may want to consider.


1. Fill up the fresh water tank

We always leave the driveway with a full fresh water tank, but for a boondocking trip it's absolutely essential. For us, that means we've got 39 gallons to work with on our trip.

2. Empty the gray and black tanks

It's always recommended to leave home with empty tanks. But for a boondocking trip this is essential. You'll be monitoring how much water you use during your trip by looking at the FRESH and GRAY tank levels on the SeeLevel II monitor. And you'll want those readings to be as accurate as possible, while at the same time recognizing that this monitor is never 100% accurate.

So to give yourself the best chance of nearly accurate water level readings, you want to begin the trip with 0% in the gray and black tanks.

3. Prep foods prior to the trip

The more foods you can prep and have handy in the fridge or freezer, the less you'll need to worry about using water to clean or cook them.

For instance, we make ahead things like rice, quinoa, or farro – which all require water to cook. Just sauteé a few veggies and some tofu and pair them with a pre-made grain for an easy dinner. Or mix in nuts, dried fruit, greens, and another pre-cooked protein and you've got a grain bowl. We also cut up melons and chop up carrots and celery so they are ready to eat and require no water to clean up.

Other Airstreamers we know marinate meats and put them in the freezer in vacuum-sealed storage bags so they can just throw them on the grill. 

4. Wash all fruits and vegetables prior to the trip

This is one of our newer strategies, and it makes so much sense we're not sure why we didn't start doing it years ago. By washing all fresh produce ahead of time, there is no need to wash any of it while you're traveling. The small amount of water you save – multiplied by dozens of fruits and vegetables we eat on each trip – really adds up.

5. Stock the Airstream fridge with all the leftovers from your home fridge

We never leave the driveway for any trip without foraging in the home refrigerator for things that can serve as ready-made snacks or be reassembled into meal.

But when we're boondocking, this becomes even more important because leftovers require no cooking or cleaning, and all you need to clean is the storage container. If you bring the leftovers in Zip lock bags, you can throw those away and not have to clean anything. (Those who prefer to minimize trash probably won't like this option.)

6. Buy or fill reusable water jugs with filtered water

We drink a lot of water, especially when traveling in and around our Southwest desert climate. And we use water for cooking too. So we typically take and use 1-2 gallons of water per day on a boondocking trip. (When we have hookups we make our own filtered water using the Blu Technology water filtration system.)


7. Cook simpler meals

For some people this might mean eating more sandwiches and cereal. For others it may mean sticking to one-pot meals. For us it means fewer meals that require multiple pots and pans. And all of your meal simplification efforts will be enhanced by prepping as many foods and meals as possible at home (See #1.)

8. Wipe food off plates, pots, pans, and containers before you wash them

Pre-cleaning reduces the amount of water needed to wash all of these things. We use paper towels to do this, but you could also use a scraper. 

9. Use a trickle of water to wash and rinse the dishes and cookware

This takes practice but now that we're so good at it, it's become a like a game: Hey, let's see how little water we can use to wash these dishes!  

For über-conservationists, you could use a spray bottle for minimal rinsing but that seems like overkill to us.

And of course, you can avoid dishwashing all together by using paper plates instead. We have many friends who do this. No judgment. But we prefer eating off real plates with real silverware.

10. Use the campground dishwashing station

If you're not boondocking out in the wild, the state park or campground may have a dishwashing station. Plan ahead by packing a dish tub or plastic bucket to transport all your stuff back and forth.

NOTE: If there is no designated dishwashing station at the campground, DO NOT wash your dishes in the bathroom sink. This is a camping faux pas that those new to boondocking may not be aware of. It can cause problems with the plumbing.



11. Use the campground bathhouse if it's an option

So many state parks and campgrounds have clean, well-maintained bathhouses and using them can really extend your dry camping trips. When boondocking, we are big fans of using them, but not typically for showers. If you do plan to use the bathhouse shower, plan ahead by packing a small bucket or tote bag to carry your toiletries back and forth.

12. Don't let the water run while brushing your teeth or washing your face

Turn on just enough water to rinse, and and turn it off while you brush or wash. 

13. Be mindful of the amount of water you use when flushing the toilet

This one is a little tricky because you do need to use enough water to get everything to go down to the black tank, and avoid a poop pyramid down there. It's a bit of a balancing act. Our advice would be to not scrimp excessively in this department.

14. "Shower" with body wipes and/or use baby wipes for quick cleanups

We prefer real showers when boondocking, but many people have hygiene success with the body wipe option. There are several body wipes that have been developed by campers and we hear good things about them.

15. Catch the cold water from the shower into a bucket, and use it to wash dishes

A water conservation classic, catching the cold water that precedes the hot is an effective option for washing dishes later. Although we don't take the time to do this (though we probably should), if you use this tip, plan ahead by packing a bucket or a big kitchen pot.

16. Get good at taking a “Navy shower”

The Navy shower takes a bit of getting used to but it's a great solution for anyone who wants a daily shower. You've probably heard of this simple technique:

  • Turn on the water
  • Get wet—this should take less than 30 seconds
  • Turn off the water
  • With the water off, soap up everything, but use as little soap as possible
  • Rinse off quickly

The shower head in an Airstream and most other RVs has a little button that allows you to turn the water on and off without having to turn off the faucet and lose the water temperature setting. It's brilliant.

And did you know that the average RV shower head uses only 2.5 gallons per minute? If you keep the total running time of the water down to about 90 seconds, that's less than 4 gallons. 

Our term for the Navy shower is "the 6% shower." That is the amount of water we are each allotted for our shower. For two of us that means we use 12% of the water daily for showering. And that means on our typical boondocking trip of three days 36% of the water goes to showering. The rest for everything else. 

If you are wondering, yes, we check the SeeLevel II panel after each shower to keep each other honest.

For Rich, a 6% shower is easy. For Tothie who has long hair, not so easy. But here's a technique that works for hair washing: Kneel just outside the shower, over the shower floor and flip your head upside down. You'll use less water washing from the back of your head.

Follow the Navy shower principles and opt for a better quality shampoo (our choice is Davines) that creates fewer suds so it rinses with less water. This is essential for using less water to rinse.

After washing your hair, get into the shower and use the Navy shower principles to wash the rest.

17. Don’t wash your hair unless it really needs it

This isn't a problem for people who have dry hair and those who can successfully use dry shampoos. Those of us with greasy skin salute you. But we're still going to take our 6% shower and wash everything.

18. Take a solar shower

This tip is recommended only during warm weather. Buy a camping solar shower and fill it with water before you leave on your trip. Hang the bag in the sun to heat it, and take your shower outdoors.

The solar shower is not for everyone but it does save preserve the water in your fresh tank and it can be refreshing and liberating to shower under a tree.

19. Monitor the FRESH and GRAY tank levels regularly

It's no fun to be mid-way through washing dishes (or a shower) and run out of water. Check the SeeLevel II monitor regularly to make sure you know how much you've got left.

This has become somewhat of a game for us when we're boondocking. It's interesting to see how much we use after each shower, after cooking and cleaning up a meal, etc. Be careful not to get too obsessed with it – it's become somewhat of an addiction for one of us. 

20. Use refillable water bladders

Hauling along additional water will extend your water consumption beyond the capacity of the fresh water tank. But remember that water is heavy (8.3 pounds per gallon) and you'll need to factor that into the equation. You'll also need to be sure you have the right sized funnel or siphon to get the water out of the bladder and into the very small hole that fills the fresh water tank.


What are your favorite water conservation tips when boondocking? Please add a comment if there is something you do that we have not covered.



Nancy M

Nancy M

Wow! Some really good tips there! I tried Tothie’s kneeling trick, but modified it a little. I soak my hair in a bucket of water (the cold water I reclaimed). That gets it good and wet. Then back into it for the first rinse. That same water can even be used again for flushing.

Lara Corkrey

Lara Corkrey

Two solutions allow us to boondock for up to 10 days, cooking whatever we want and showering daily. We installed a recirculating shower that uses about 2 gallons of water a day for all showers. We also installed a dishwasher which uses less water than handwashing. We did all the work ourselves and couldn’t be happier with the outcome, especially the freedom to go wherever and be away from the crowds.

Nancy Murphy

Nancy Murphy

We also catch the shower water and can use that to flush the toilet or boil in the morning to drip coffee. It’s not much, but the quarts add up.

Jon Heidelberger

Jon Heidelberger

Boondocking, we use hand sanitizer after bathroom use when practical.

William Brickey

William Brickey

We have done some dry camping and use many of these tips. There are a few here that we haven’t tried but will work into our next dry camping adventure. Managing gray tank levels has been an issue for us and we use a basin to collect some of the wash water while taking a shower and then add that to the black tank. We also will dump dishwater into the black tank.

Rodger Sellers

Rodger Sellers

I know that some might disagree with this; but when we are boondocking in a dispersed area (not in a campground) we make a habit of using the outdoor shower. Extends the gray water tank by several days. (Just make certain you are using biodegradable soap and shampoo.)

Jeffery Hammonds

Jeffery Hammonds

I’ll begin using Tothie’s hair washing trick (an added plus: cool water on the back of the neck feels good). Using dry shampoo enables me to get an extra day or two between hair washing. We use the large body wipes, they keep even me smelling fresher. Finally, guys can make use of the outdoor more easily than the gals; no need to flush the toilet.

Doug D

Doug D

We typically shower every other day, and I use a product called Swair to ‘wash’ my hair between showers. It’s a spray for cleaning your hair – just spray it on and use a paper towel to rub your hair – I don’t have a lot of hair lol, but it does a nice job. It gets rid of the flat, oily hair and feel/looks clean afterwards.

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