Last Updated on 01/17/2024 by Glynn Willard
What Does Self-Contained RV Mean?
The whole idea behind a self-contained vehicle whether discussing any of the following comes down to two important concepts.
- Travel trailers
- Fifth wheels
- Class B RVs
- Class C motorhomes
- Truck campers
- Class A RVs
- Pop-up camper
To be considered a self-contained unit, first, the RV must carry its resources onboard and, second and more importantly, transport its waste away from the campsite.
Let’s look at some of the necessary characteristics of an RV for dry camping and some reasons to have a self-contained vehicle.
What Features Are Necessary To Be A Self-Contained Unit?
In order to dry camp and not rely on any outside sources, an RVs self-contained if it has the following:
- Sewer tanks. This includes a black water tank and a grey water tank.
The black water tank can be replaced with a composting toilet or portable toilets as long as there’s a way to carry out the waste.
- A freshwater tank. This can be in the form of a water tank factory installed in your RV or Water Jugs such as a Scepter Jug.
- A receptacle for safe trash storage. You’re required to safely store trash away from wildlife in some parts of North America and the world.
Yes, it’s nice to have an electrical system that is recharged by either solar panels or a generator, an onboard toilet, and other features that bring the comforts of home, but not necessary.
Let’s examine what you don’t need to be self-contained.
Features You DO NOT Need To Be Self-Contained
When I first started looking into buying an RV specifically for boondocking, I immediately thought about solar panels.
You don’t necessarily need solar panels to be self-contained.
It’s an efficient way to recharge your batteries, but not essential for dry camping.
I also thought I would need an inverter. But again, not necessary to dry camp on public land.
Really and truly, if you’re not concerned about modern creature comforts, you don’t even need batteries or a way to produce electricity.
There’s something to be said for “getting back to nature.” Especially in the United States!
Of course, if you’re only intention is to stay in RV parks with full hookups, your RV doesn’t need to be self-contained at all.
What Is A Non-Self-Contained RV?
Any type of RV that does not have a way to transport freshwater and utilities into the campsite and a way to transport waste away from the campsite.
For example, a DIY class B vehicle that has no plumbing.
Later on in the article, I mention how you can turn any vehicle into a self-contained vehicle.
Is There A Price Difference For Standard Self-Contained RVs?
Generally speaking, upon closer look, most manufacturers of modern RVs build self-contained units as a standard.
In other words, they have a freshwater tank, grey water tank, and black water tank installed.
Most also also have house batteries to run a DC system.
The exceptions to the rule are some camper vans, pop-up trailers, teardrop trailers, and truck campers lack bathroom facilities.
If you need to use public toilet facilities, it’s not self-contained. This can be remedied by adding cassette toilets.
So, technically, there’s not really a price difference between a standard self-contained RV and one that lacks a particular amenity.
The real difference in prices comes when options are added to enable most creature comforts while dry camping.
I’m talking about adding additional solar power, battery power, a larger fresh water tank, larger waste water storage, and digital communication/connection.
A high-end solar power system can easily reach $20k. And it still may only be able to run your air conditioning for part of the day.
You can easily spend $2-4k on a high-end system that will maintain close to a “cable-like” internet connection with low latency and high bandwidth (if there’s a signal).
The latter is a necessity for those who work remotely from the road.
Why Have A Recreational Vehicle That Is Self-Contained?
A great way for freedom camping with most creature comforts is for self-contained RVers to use public lands (USFS and BLM).
This can be in remote locations or even outside National Parks.
Perhaps more important to many is the fact that most dispersed camping on public lands means free camping!
Yes, some campgrounds charge you for non-powered sites (no electric hookups), which I don’t use since there are so many opportunities for free camping.
When you’re self-contained, you also have the option of dry camping at truck stops, Walmarts, some restaurants, etc.
Managing Your Waste At A Dump Station
The most convenient option, aside from your home is a dump station.
The specific details of how to dump are beyond the scope of this article.
But there are several important takeaways.
- Dump your black water tank first.
- Follow by dumping your gray water tanks second, to clean out the sewage hose.
- If equipped, use the dump station’s clean-out hose to rinse your tanks and sewage hose.
- Clean up after yourself.
- This is also a good opportunity to dump your trash if trash containers are supplied.
- BLM Land
- BLM LTVA (long term visitors area)
- United States Forest Service land
- Truck stops, Walmarts, some restaurants, etc. Not for extended periods, of course.
- Boondockers Welcome and Harvest Hosts
- Moochdock at a friend’s.
- A portable toilet.
- A container to transport water into your campsite such as a Scepter Jug.
- A separate container to catch grey water from dishes.
- A bin to store you trash safely and pack it put of the campsite.
- If you want power, a battery with an inverter such as a Bluetti is nice to have.
- Use public restrooms.
- Pee outside in remote locations.
- Capture your dishwater and shower water in a bin to extinguish campfires.
- Trickle your water when washing hands or dishes.
- Get used to Navy showers.
- Use a small generator to run intermittently when you need air conditioning, the microwave or to recharge your batteries.
- Align your rig so that your solar panels get ample sunlight exposure.
- In a warm environment, run your air conditioner right before bed to cool the air, then shut everything off to sleep.
- If your budget allows, buy an RV that is well insulated. You’ll save propane and electricity heating and cooling.
- Burn your paper products to conserve trash space.
You can learn more about finding dump stations in our article:
On a side note, if you’re refilling your fresh water supply at a dump station, use caution.
Not only should it be labeled as potable, but the supply line should be far from the actual dump.
We made the mistake once and all ended up having diarrhea for a week.
And yes, it was labeled as potable, but it was too close to the dump area. At the time, it was the only option.
Where Can You Use A Self-Contained RV?
This is my favorite part!
When we first started living full-time in an RV, I searched for the perfect kind of RV for boondocking with a family of four.
Because I wanted to be self-contained, spend time in remote locations for extended periods, and have no impact on the land.
I satisfied this need with an Outdoors RV travel trailer and F250 4×4.
We’re equipped to spend up to ten days at campsites without the need of external facilities.
We have a shower, cooking facilities, air conditioning, and endless electricity. The only thing we don’t have is a laundry facility.
It’s not the smallest self-contained RV, but it’s still small enough to get through some gnarly terrain and into amazing boondocking locations.
All of this said, to spend a good amount of time in the following locations without hookups is great!
The bottom line, you can park your rig wherever it’s legal and live a normal life.
How Can You Make Any Vehicle Self-Contained?
This is easy. All you need are:
In most locations, you can safely wash your dishes outside without catching the water. But some locations require you to capture all grey water.
It’s better for the environment anyway!
Tips For Getting The Most Out Of A Self-Contained Vehicle
It’s so easy to use up your freshwater and battery power and fill your waste water tanks at “warp speed” when you’re not conscious of your usage.
Some of the best ways to conserve your resources when boondocking are:
Wrapping Up What It Means To Be A Self-Contained RV
Clearly, self-contained can mean several different things.
If I carry the equipment mentioned earlier in the article in my Subaru Outback, it becomes a self-contained vehicle.
But the point of this article is to explain a self-contained RV.
Regardless of the RV classes, if you can carry your creature comforts into the campsite and carry out your waste, you are self-contained.
It’s even better when you have the RV systems in place to maintain the same creature comforts as you do in a sticks-and-bricks home.
But as I mentioned earlier, it’s not necessary.
Getting in touch with nature will do us all a lot of good!
What kind of self-contained motorhome do you dry camp with?
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