Water Conservation While Boondocking 

We may get rain today in the Sonoran Desert just south of Ajo, AZ, and if it’s more than just a drizzle, it’ll be the first rain we’ve ever seen in the desert, and I’m pretty stoked.  The washes (dry “river” beds) might fill with running water, and we might see blooms on cacti and ocotillo shrubs.  I’ve heard the desert can entirely transform, albeit briefly.  I’ll let you know what happens.

In the meantime, the oncoming rain has me thinking about water use.  In case you’re curious, here’s how we manage water in and water out when we’re trying to last as long as possible with little.

The Basics

When we’re boondocking, the trailer is parked without any “hookups”: no connection to outside electricity sources, no incoming water, no way to dump our waste tanks.  We’re a self-contained unit.

We have a roughly accurate (is that a thing?) gauge that tells us percentage levels for all three tanks: 1) fresh water, 2) grey waste (kitchen sink and shower), and 3) black waste (bathroom sink and toilet).  If the fresh tank shows 5%, we know we need to add water asap; likewise, if the black tank shows 90%, we need to dump it. And if we’re far from potable water or dump stations, that means we need to move.

We are careful with water and waste, but not as stringent as some boondockers.  When we first started out, we found we could last for ten days, as long as we could find potable water to add to the tank (see below); now we sometimes can go for twelve.  (You should hear how long people with compost toilets can last!)

At first we were flummoxed by the fact that the black and grey tanks fill faster than the fresh tank drains (seems like water in should about equal water out), but then we remembered the extra element: beer.  

Here near Ajo, we’re lucky that we can access potable water in town; each time we drive there for groceries or propane, Tracy fills our two six-gallon jugs.  At the campsite he keeps them on the far side of the trailer, ready to lift and pour into our fresh tank as needed.  So, water in is not an issue here.  


Why would we need water outside the trailer?  Well, Banjo likes to drink from a bucket, so of course she gets what she wants.  We have a special collapsible bucket that’s one of the first items we pull out from the “trunk” of the trailer and fill for her. She loves that thing and chooses it over her clean water bowl inside every time. 

There’s also the rooftop solar panels to keep clean; they get covered in dirt when we drive down desert or mountain roads and even when we’re just sitting still. (Did you see  my video of the windstorms at Imperial Dam? Amazing.) Tracy will pull out the extendable ladder and climb to the roof with a smaller collapsible bucket and the shower squeegee.  Just a little water on each panel, carefully squeegeed off, will increase our solar intake tremendously.  (Here he’s cleaning the panels on the Beartooth Mountain Range.)

The rest of the exterior just has to wait.  We’re probably pariahs in the Airstream world where Airstreamers pride themselves on shiny, well-maintained aluminum.  Ours hasn’t been washed and waxed since … um … let’s see … when we moochdocked with friends last spring, which means more than a year ago. Airstream recommends waxing twice a year, and we’ve waxed twice, I believe. Ever.  We do use ours differently than the average owner who weekends in RV resorts, though.   


Back to our water use. If I were describing my current habits in the kitchen to my previous self, my previous self would be horrified. 

The first huge adjustment I had to make was washing dishes in cold water.  Really? That’s just wrong.  But we turn our water heater on only when we need it (before showers, essentially). It uses electricity, for one thing, and having it constantly on wears out the something something mechanism. So cold water all the time.  

Here’s where paper towels come in.  (Even through we’re saving the planet with little water use, we’re destroying the forests with how many paper towels we go through.)  They’re essential in wiping oils and food off pots and pans and dishes before we wash them, which makes it easier to clean them and reduces the waste that goes into the grey tank (that really should have just soapy water in it and nothing else because we can’t flush it easily.)

Here, we’re trying to make the tanks last even longer than usual because we want to leave on a Sunday and thus have a better chance of finding a decent boondocking site at our next place after weekenders leave.  So we’re <<shudder>> saving used dish water in yet another collapsible bucket in the sink to soak dishes in.  This oooks me out beyond description, but I am learning to live with it for special occasions.

Notice how Tracy has propped this bucket up with a Seguaro trunk.  Everyone on the Airstream forums said these exact buckets fit this exact sink.  Not.  


The black tank (bathroom sink and toilet) fills faster than the grey because you just can’t reduce how many times you use the toilet (at least I choose not to). So we flush lightly, Tracy pees outside, and we wash our hands in the kitchen sink.

Without washing going on in this bathroom sink, the toothpaste builds up, and I have to wipe it out using bleach wipes.  Man, I hate that.  I’m beginning a concerted effort to find a drop-in porcelain sink to replace this one (there’s a facebook group dedicated to Airstream interior upgrades, and people do love to replace this sink).  Stay tuned for that project. In the meantime, bleach wipes.  


Just like paper towels save water in the kitchen, baby wipes save with personal hygiene.  I started out using the big fancy wipes made for hikers, but, really, baby wipes are inexpensive, ubiquitous, and they do the trick. 

As for hair, being outside nearly all day means I wear a hat to guard against the sun, so hair just stays dirty and braided. (I now own six hats, which is more than any other item of clothing.)  If I’m going into town, I’ll sometimes wash it using the outside shower head, but it’s just as easy to wash my hair in the kitchen sink, catch the water in that bucket, and find a place to throw it outside.  It’s astounding how little water and shampoo you need to clean your hair; I don’t feel guilty pouring that water outside. 


So yes, we do have a shower inside the trailer, and, surprise, we do use it!  We used to wait until the end of a boondocking stint to use the last of the water and top off the waste tanks by showering.  But, you know what? Hitching up, moving on, and then unhitching and setting up camp at the next place just gets you all dirty again.  

So we’ve just recently changed to showing as soon as we show up at a boondocking site.  It’s a little risky in that we’re adding to the grey tank right away, but, man, if you knew how infrequently we showered, you’d say it’s worth the risk.  Remember how I said we used to boondock for ten days at a time, and now it’s more like twelve?  That’s the metric for showering.  Remember though: wipes!

Since the pandemic started, I’ve read that keeping a layer of microbes on your skin is better for it (and for you, like keeping a variety of them in your gut). I really have come around from showering once a day all my life to now leaving a layer on my skin—dirt, sunscreen, bug spray, salt if I’m lucky enough to be at the ocean—at least until I can use wipes at the start and end of each day. My skin seems healthier, and frankly I don’t give a damn otherwise. I count that as a huge improvement.

If this post hasn’t grossed you out entirely, maybe Doug and Melanie will post about their composting toilet.  Travel blogs are beautiful, aren’t they!

6 thoughts to “Water Conservation While Boondocking ”

  1. Cool… ten years of memories are suddenly fresh! Winter tent camping in the Rockies with a kid and two dogs… a self-supported bicycle trip across Wyoming to the Tetons and tent camping for a week before returning to Colorado… also, Burning Man 🙂