If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that I just completed a three-month road trip across the US and back (in two parts)! I had an amazing time and learned a lot about traveling across the US. Here are some notes and tips to keep in mind for future road trips!
Camping on public lands
- In case you didn’t realize, camping is free on almost all public lands (AKA forest service or BLM land). This sort of camping is called “dispersed camping” or sometimes “primitive camping”
- The BLM and Forest Service also have lots of campsites, some of which are free. Be careful though, and make sure they’re open when you’ll be there. I found that many forest service campgrounds didn’t open until April or May (and many were delayed because of the shutdown). The USFS website tends to have this information fairly easily accessible, you just have to remember to check for it.
- In well-frequented areas like forests outside of national parks or Utah, you don’t need to stress too much to find the areas you’ll camp because once you get there you’ll see other people.
- Speaking of which, lots of national parks have free camping in the national forests just adjacent to them. I loved camping right next to the Grand Canyon – for free!! Highly recommend.
Tools, apps, and maps
- Avenza is key: you can download geo-located PDFs, so that you can be located on the maps. I used this to find campsites on public lands. The Forest Service Motor Vehicle Use Maps sometimes also indicated which roads allowed dispersed camping; this was my go-to for forests. As far as I can tell, apart from the are around Moab, public camping is unrestricted on all BLM land, so the BLM maps were all I needed there.
- If you have an Apple phone, there’s apparently a USFS and BLM app that shows the boundaries of all public lands. I wasn’t able to find an equivalent on Android.
- I did find the Freeroam app on Android, which was pretty good for the parts of the US that don’t have a huge amount of public lands. The “just park anywhere along this road” campsites aren’t super well-marked (and the forest service roads aren’t all correct), but it was a pretty good thing to cross-reference. It also has all the public land boundaries, and some layers that show where you can get service. So it’s pretty handy overall.
- freecampsites.net was also good to find places to camp, but less user-friendly. If I had access to a computer or was going to be in a tricky spot without too much BLM or USFS land, I would often do a quick search here before heading off into the wilderness.
- Car (lol)
- Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad
- Extra blankets for extra comfort (and, at times, warmth)
- Camping chair
- A sharp knife
- Headlamp (preferably rechargeable)
- Camping stove - mine had two burners but that’s not strictly necessary. It was good to have it be fairly wind-proof, though.
- One pot and one pan
- Camping plate, bowl, cup, and silverware
- Can opener
- Tupperware for leftovers, preferably water-tight for swimming in the cooler
- 5 gallon water jug
- Heavy-duty battery to recharge laptop
- Lots of recharging cables to plug into the car
- Paper towels
Nice to have
- Fancy car with all-wheel drive, which kept me safe multiple times
- Multiple large water bottles, for long drives and long hikes
- Portable speaker, for those nights when you’re just chilling in your car
- Cambodian picnic mat, made of woven plastic so you can sit anywhere
- Thermos, for those cold nights when you make tea and extra hot water and retreat to the car
- Flat plywood “mattress”, for evening out the bump where the seats fold down
- Extra two-by-fours, for adjusting the angle of the plywood when parked at an angle
- A bubble level app, for figuring out just how angled you’ve parked (I found 2-3 degrees palatable, but more than that was fairly noticeable)
- Solar-charged lantern, for those nights when you’re chilling in your car
- AC converter that plugs into the cigarette lighter
- Organic dish soap, which was fine to not fully rinse off of dishes
- The National Geographic Road Atlas is super handy, highly recommend!
Would have been nice to have
- Fancy car with all-wheel drive and high clearance
- Room to sit up in the back of said car
- Different-sized pots and pans or at least smaller ones, for making individually-sized meals
- An actual nice cooler, so the ice wouldn’t immediately melt and submerge all the food
- A non-broken phone with a working hotspot, since most places had service
- An actual system to wash dishes
- The single-serve Indian food packets and pre-cooked rice or quinoa were awesome: delicious and easy dinners.
- Relatedly, scrambling eggs with yesterday’s leftovers is delicious regardless of what the leftovers are.
- If you’re camping in your car, make sure you have some meals available that don’t need cooking just in case it’s raining and you can’t really cook. I liked dried salami or bagged flavored tuna as easy options. These are also good for food on hikes.
- If I were traveling for longer and needed internet more frequently, I’d make much more use of public libraries.
- Everywhere you go, ask the people you meet if they’ve been where you’re going next and if they have recommendations.