Tips for Camping in and Around National Parks
Ready to start planning that camping trip around the United States that you have been dreaming about for years? Think it is not possible unless you have an RV? Think again. With a few tips and tricks from your friends at lostinbeautifulplaces.com, you will be on the road in no time, exploring some of the most scenic destinations in the USA.
Hack #1: Free Camping
Yes! You read correctly! You can camp in many places in the western United States for free. The most comprehensive and reliable resource that we have found to find free campsites is freecampsites.net. This handy website lists both paid and free camping, with reviews and directions. As a rule of thumb, free camping is allowed on all National Forest land (not National Park land) and all BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, but other agencies such as towns and counties also have free campsites available.
Over the years, we have found some amazing free campsites. We have set up camp beachfront, riverfront, lakefront and even next to hot springs. Most spots listed on the website have fire rings and cleared areas for tents. Some have picnic tables, bear lockers or potable water. Freecampsites.net gives detailed descriptions and directions, as well as reviews and
Be sure to plan accordingly when camping in a remote area for the first time. Bring enough gas, water, and food and have a backup plan in mind in case the campground is full when you arrive. Keep in mind that most of the campsites on Freecampsites.net do not offer many amenities, so stock up on supplies accordingly. As a safety precaution, we always download the map to our next campsite in the off-chance we lose reception on the drive there.
Hack #2: Last Minute/No Reservations
Many parks, even the more popular National Parks, set aside a small number of campsites each night that can not be reserved. These sites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis each day and fill up fast. In order to secure one of these spots, call your desired park and ask what time you should arrive for a chance to get a last-minute campsite for the night. Sites may or may not open up each morning and there could be a lot of competition from other potential campers, so make sure to have a backup plan in place. If you are able to secure a site, you may stay just one night or as many nights as the campground allows. Each morning, just go up to the ranger station and pay for the night or leave before checkout time.
Some examples of last-minute camp spots that we have gotten…Labor Day 2019, we were able to get a last-minute spot at D.L. Bliss Campground in Lake Tahoe, California. The campsite had views of the lake and was in a perfect location. Since we are long term traveling, we were not in a hurry to leave and extended our stay each day for an entire week. A few months earlier, we were in Wyoming and secured a last-minute campsite in the very popular Grand Tetons National Park. Again, we extended the stay each day and ended up spending an entire week.
Hack #3: “America the Beautiful” National Park Pass
Our last road trip around the west took us to six National Parks. Each of the parks charged $30-$35 per vehicle to enter. In order to cut some costs, we purchased an “America the Beautiful” park pass for $80, which saved us over $100. The pass allows entrance to 61 National Parks and over 2,000 other federal sites, for up to four adults and one vehicle or two motorcycles. Seniors are able to purchase the pass for $20 annually, or $80 for a lifetime. Current members of the military and 4th graders qualify for free. Passes are available at most National Park entrance kiosks and online.
Hack #4: Food
Rule number one: Unless you are made of money, stock up on groceries and other essentials at the larger grocery stores in the larger cities/towns. Small towns and areas with National or State parks tend to have overpriced groceries, as well as a lack of selection. Look for warehouse grocery outlets that have a large selection of bulk items at discounted prices. In addition to having
Once at the parks, there are always some items that will be needed to be purchased from the local area. Ice, firewood, gas for the camp stove and anything that was forgotten while at the large stores or left at home. Buying camping supplies such as these in small towns or near parks usually are not too overpriced.
Tip: If you are shopping in a grocery store and don’t have a rewards card, ask the cashier to use the store rewards card. Every store that offers rewards has one. This could save 5 to 10% on the total bill.
Tip: Instead of buying large containers of condiments, grab the small individual packets that are offered for free at the deli counter of most grocery stores. Salt, pepper, napkins and plastic cutlery can also be obtained this way.
Tip: Buy ice in blocks instead of cubes. Blocks last longer. Also, if breaking up the camping with nights at hotels or vacation rentals, be sure to freeze water bottles in the room’s freezer before heading to the next campground. This trick provides free ice and cold drinking water at the same time.
Hack #5: Transportation
If you already have a vehicle, great. Skip to the next hack. If you are coming from another country or don’t have access to a vehicle, the authors at lostinbeautifulplaces.com recommend renting an economy car for your travels. Since there are very few public transportation options in the western US, renting a small passenger car is the best way to stay on budget and have the flexibility to reach those out of the way parks. An economy car will provide plenty of storage, cost much less than renting an SUV or camper, and will get better gas mileage. A small economy car will seat up to 4 people and hold all of their luggage and camping gear, although it will be tight.
We find the best car rental deals by first searching the large aggregator websites such as Hotwire.com or Priceline.com. Sort the results from lowest to highest priced. Then compare the lowest rate available to rates found on the rental agency’s official webpage. Rental agencies often throw out a prepaid offer at a considerable discount. This can save big money. Make sure that your plans are rock solid before booking a prepaid offer, as they are often non-refundable.
Tip: Make sure to check with your credit card company to see if they include insurance for rental cars. Not having to purchase additional insurance can save up to 25-50% on the total bill. One of the best credit cards for car rental coverage is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Earn 2 rewards points per dollar spent on car rental and all other travel expenses. Another advantage of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card is that no foreign transaction fees are applied to any purchases. We use this card and highly recommend it. We have saved thousands of dollars over the years using it in combination with Charles Schwab’s No-Fee Debit Card to access cash.
Hack #6: Camping Gear
After securing a car, the next order of business is to purchase camping equipment and other supplies. Essential items that will be needed are a tent, an ax or a hammer, ground tarp, camp stove, gas for the camp stove, cooler, matches/lighter, fire starter (paper), sleeping bags or other bedding, pillows, mattress pad, pots & pans, cutlery, and lighting. These pieces of equipment, along with some non-perishable food items, can be found at reasonable prices at any of the large super centers, especially Walmart.
Traditional camping stores such as REI offer better quality products, but can cost up to twice as much as the discount stores. If purchasing for the long term, buying higher quality gear will pay for itself, since it will last much longer than the cheaper equipment. Higher quality equipment is better suited for extreme conditions and remote locations. It tends to be smaller, lighter, stronger and better designed than cheaper gear. If you don’t plan on keeping the gear long term, buying the lower quality equipment might be a better option.
Renting gear is another option offered by REI and other specialty camping stores. Renting gear gives the benefit of using the highest quality camping gear without having to invest tons of money. Renting also saves from having to put plastic in the landfills once you are finished with your trip or from having to sell your gear if you are leaving the country.
Tip: We like to store our cooking equipment, our mattress and our bedding in plastic storage containers with lids. Camping in remote areas can get very dusty and dirty, so containing our gear keeps it clean and organized. Storage containers can be purchased at many retailers in the US and are relatively inexpensive.
Tip: Using a memory foam mattress topper as a camping pad is our preferred method of sleeping. They are much more comfortable than traditional camping pads, cost about the same, and the memory foam squishes down into a plastic tote container when we are ready to hit the road.
Don’t let another summer pass by without visiting some of America’s spectacular park lands. A road trip through the USA is a guaranteed fun adventure through spectacular forests, canyons,
National Park Website: https://www.nps.gov/index.htm
Best Free Camping Directory: https://freecampsites.net/
Another Free Camping Directory: https://www.campendium.com/free-camping
Free Camping Guide: https://www.escapecampervans.com/blog/dispersed-camping/
Discount Rental Cars: https://www.rentalcars.com/
Camper Rentals: https://usarvrentals.com/
Campervan Rentals: https://www.escapecampervans.com/
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