Road trip/Camping advice for a foreigner
Replies: 34 - Last Post: Feb 21, 2013 11:52 PM Last Post By: willysnoutredux
Feb 17, 2013 3:24 PM
Road trip/Camping advice for a foreignerHey guys!
I was just after some advice about a road trip I will be undertaking over the summer and was hoping for some help.
I'm studying for two semesters abroad from Australia with the summer off in between so me and my partner are planning on purchasing a suitable road trip van, decking out the back so we could sleep and pretty much live out of it and drive around the country with it.
My main query is about where we could stop at night with such a vehicle to sleep. We're from Australia and back home we have road stops on the sides of freeways were one can pull over for the night and sleep. I was wondering if such things existed in the US. Are campgrounds in abundance over here and what would be the average nightly charge for such a stay? Also, do National Parks have campgrounds here and if so is there a charge for overnight staying? We plan on road tripping for over 3 months so the less we could spend on campgrounds and the more places we could find to sleep for free is of obvious importance.
Thanks in advance and I look forward to the help.
Feb 17, 2013 6:03 PM
1It's not really feasible to just pull over and sleep on the side of the road in many parts of the US. I suppose it may be possible but I've not done it myself.
As for campground availability, it varies depending where you plan to travel but there are a fair number of federal, state, municipal and private campgrounds scattered across the US. Many, but not all, National Parks have campgrounds and they generally do charge a fee (by the vehicle/campsite and not the number of persons). Some Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service campgrounds I've stayed in were even free. The price can vary, as do facilities. If I remember correctly, about two years ago my costs for campgrounds was between 10 and 25 dollar/night. I have found private campgrounds to be the priciest and generally better suited for RVs versus tents, but can be adequate if you have no other options. For me, they are the last resort option.
I myself am planning a camping road trip this summer. I usually start planning efforts with a paper road atlas to get a sense of where campground options may be along my route. My Rand McNally atlas shows most state and federal campgrounds but not all municipal ones.
I recently found an app called "CampWhere" which I have not yet tested but seems pretty good. It includes, National Park, Forest Service, FIsh and Wildlife Service, State Parks, City/Regional/County, Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds (it also shows Military campgrounds but you have to have military ID to use those).
I've tried to evaluate the app based on knowledge of my home state of Alaska - it's missing a number of US FIsh and WIldlife Service campgrounds, for example. I am hoping that the makers have focused more attention on the Lower48 states. CampWhere may be good for planning purposes but not sure how it will be on the road - though I do have it on a 3G enabled device. On the app you can select a campground to learn more about the facilities, get the phone number, and link to the official website, etc and it also functions as a GPS when you have connectivity and will provide driving directions.
There is a website called freecampsites.net/usa/ which I have never used so I can't vouch for it.
Feb 17, 2013 6:20 PM
2For camping in National Parks check http://www.nps.gov/findapark/passes.htm You can also find a list of parks with campgrounds by using the search function on that site. There is a fee to enter most parks and a separate fee for camping. That is covered at the above site.
Feb 17, 2013 6:23 PM
Feb 17, 2013 6:36 PM
4Some of the rest areas on interstates prohibit overnighters, particularly in the east.
Pulling over on the road is often illegal, especially in the east.
Many Wal-Marts allow you to sleep in their parking lots, but this varies by management and local ordinance. Those in urban areas almost always prohibit it.
National Parks have campgrounds. All have fees, which the pass does not cover. Some may be booked solid months in advance, particularly those in Yosemite.
National Forest, BLM, and other federal lands often have camping areas. Fees vary, and some are free. Amenities are generally spartan, and there may be specific requirements (no fires, must keep certain distance from water/roads, etc.).
State parks are also an option. Usually more amenities, but there are fees.
Feb 17, 2013 9:04 PM
5What area of the country will you be visiting?
Camping info and more, on a per-park basis.
Fairly comprehensive list of pay/free developed campgrounds in the US.
A very partial list of what's out there. Many are just pretty places on National Forest land.
Free, primitive camping is available in most National Forests, particularly those in the western section of the country. Search for 'dispersed camping.' This is probably as close as you'll get to the 'pull over anywhere' flexibility you have in Aus. Look for green shaded areas on Google Maps that aren't Nat. Parks.
Most Nat. Parks have developed sites. These can be available on a first-come, by reservation, or a mix of both. Most NP forbid car camping outside these official sites.
Most BLM land offers camping in some form or another. Usually free, sometimes requiring a permit. Few improvements. A table and pit toilet is about all you can ask for.
Feb 17, 2013 9:08 PM
6In the western US, you can usually camp for free on public lands if you are more than 1/4 mile from the main highway. A good map like the Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer or the Benchmark Maps Road and Recreation Atlas will clearly show public lands (usually Forest Service or BLM properties) and the side roads that access them. These maps will generally show many, but not all, developed campgrounds also. Camping on public may be locally restricted to developed campsites, especially in forested areas of California, and near major cities - such restrictions are always unambiguously marked. Private inholdings are nearly always fenced and posted as such. It helps to do a bit of research before you set off- look up the various National Forests and BLM districts along your route and get a feel for the camping regulations.
Some folks on this forum like to make finding places to camp seem complex or mysterious, especially camping of the free and legal sort, but the fact is you can't swing a dead cat in Utah without hitting some Germans in a campervan, figuring it out and doing a pretty good job of it. It's not any more complicated than visiting a series of unfamiliar foriegn cities, and most folks figure that out well enough. Just do your research, and respect the rules, and when in doubt don't drive around the woods (or the desert) aimlessly trying to find a free campsite, just suck it up and grab the nearest campground or motel room. Keep in mind that any free campsites, whether designated or at-large, will be primitive with minimal or no services. Be self-sufficient and respectful of our public property.
Feb 17, 2013 11:08 PM
7When you want a hot shower and laundromat, then you will probably need either a motel or private campground. The Good Sam Club Campground Directory lists campgrounds throughout the USA, Canada, and Mexico. I also stop for free overnight at the Flying J/Pilot Travel Center truck stops (the two have recently merged ownership). I do not park next to the big rigs, but discretely off to the side near the restaurant. They are open 24 hours, so the bathroom facilities are open all night. Some allow RVers to use their hot showers and laundromats, but priority is given to the commercial truckers.
The 24 hours Walmart Supercenters usually allow free overnight parking, if the RVers are discrete, off in a corner. I do park near the truckers who are parked overnight when I stay at the Walmart Supercenters. Walmart has security cameras, which make their parking lots much safer that some; however, I do scope out the neighborhood first. In Alaska, and maybe elsewhere, the Kroger Supermarkets also allow free overnight parking.
I camped in national forest campgrounds in September and the fee was only $10/night. No plumbing, just an outhouse latrine.
Feb 18, 2013 5:12 AM
Feb 18, 2013 10:32 AM
9Just park the car anywhere safe (as in off the road, away from traffic) and sleep. I've done it plenty all over the US and Canada (and Australia and Europe and South America too for that matter).
Yes, there are rest stops at the side of the freeway where you can sleep. Or you can park outside supermarkets as mentioned above. I also like to just park the car in an up-scale residential neighborhood and sleep. (All subject to local laws of course.) If you're in a van I guess you can block off so no-one can even see there are people inside. Don't worry. You will be safe!
Feb 18, 2013 11:42 AM
10I also like to just park the car in an up-scale residential neighborhood and sleep. (All subject to local laws of course.)
These two statements are mutually exclusive. There are no "up-scale residental neighborhoods" where it is legal for non-residents to park the car and sleep. In practice, the worst thing that is likely happen is you get a knock on the window and told to move along. In a van, parked in a residential area with legal street parking, probably no one would notice just one night (depending on the neighborhood, you're actually more likely to be noticed in an upscale neighborhood). So sure, you could give this a go. But since encouraging visitors to violate local laws and customs is frowned upon here on TT, I don't know how many people here will endorse it.
Feb 18, 2013 3:07 PM
11I have parked overnight alongside the highways in vehicle rest-stops, only if it was a good neighborhood and if there were plenty of other RVers or car-campers and commercial truckers also parked there overnight. In some rest-stops, cars are allowed to park for 8 hours. There are clean latrines and some also have security cameras. I did stop along Interstate-5 north of Sacramento, and also in Canada when none of the campgrounds were open because it was still winter conditions with snow.
Feb 18, 2013 3:16 PM
12#10: I'm not referring to gated communities, just any nice and quaint residential street. Or outside a police station for that matter! Guaranteed safe. I bet you that in a smaller town, if you tell the police in Australian language that you are campers from down under who are lost/lost track of time and too tired to keep driving for the night, they will tell you it's alright to set up camp outside the police station and even keep an eye on you.
Feb 18, 2013 3:20 PM
13In the West, Forest Service campgrounds are usually very cheap or free - they're usually just a few sites with a clean latrine and fire ring. We love them. There are few of these in the East.
National Parks - you should think about reserving in advance. Ditto with State Parks.
I think it's fine to snooze in your van in a highway rest stop, but there are some signposted 'no overnight parking'. We've certainly pulled onto the side of roads in Alaska and slept with no problems.
We've never tried Walmart - I think they are leery of little vans - they are fine with enormous self-contained campers though.
Feb 18, 2013 11:36 PM
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