Where do I sleep at night?
March 1, 2009 7:20 PM   Subscribe

Road Trip Filter: New to extended road tripping. Would like to make a loop from Denver to Seattle, down to Cali and back through the desert and up through Utah before heading home. Where do I sleep on a limited budget?

After graduating from High School this May, a friend and I are planning to make an approximately 1 month trip as described above, leaving mid-late June and returning mid-late July.

We are on a limited budget and want to save our money mostly for food and gas. Really scrape by like they do in the movies.

I have a Honda Element, which I believe would work wonderfully for night-time accommodations - the seats fold down to make two beds to sleep in and has a moon roof right where our heads would be at night.

What I am not sure about: Where to park at night?

I don't want to be right on the side of the road nor do I want to be somewhere where we might be in danger (some crazy farmer with a shotgun's field) or somewhere where we'll be woken up by the sheriff tapping on the window with a ticket. Of course we could pay for a campsite, but that costs money and isn't quite as "out there" as we'd like.

We're also planning on having a tent and sleeping outside somewhere some nights, but we don't want the same problems as described above.

Note: For now, I am not really looking for specific places to visit, just some general directions/tips for basically random overnight spots.

Please, MeFi, help me live my graduation dream!
posted by Alec Loudenback to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
You can camp pretty much anywhere in National Forests for free.

I've pulled into state parks campgrounds after hours and just in the parking lot and slept in my car. Some state parks don't charge entrance fees.
posted by thewestinggame at 7:24 PM on March 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hard-core RV'ers are known to "coop" in Wal-Mart parking lots overnight without much in the way of hassle, as long as the local laws don't forbid it. You might check to some of their websites to see what other spots are recommended.
posted by jquinby at 7:32 PM on March 1, 2009

I'm sure you could just sleep in your car at rest stops too.
posted by All.star at 7:34 PM on March 1, 2009

Consider getting a GPS, such as the Garmin Nuvi 260w (and many others), which shows points of interest, including campgrounds. You can also look up things online and add them to the GPS yourself.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 7:35 PM on March 1, 2009

Advantage to National Parks = showers. You will need to consider that on an extended trip.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 7:38 PM on March 1, 2009

have you thought about couchsurfing?

It's a great way to meet people and get a comfortable, safe bed/couch to sleep on.

btw I'm not so sure about the national forest thing. In CA at least, camping tend s to be restricted to designated areas.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:42 PM on March 1, 2009

Generally, an overnight parker in a residential neighborhood won't attract too much trouble, though I would advise you to make sure residential permits aren't needed, lest you awake to find yourself propelled via tow truck. This would probably be safer than an actual parking lot, and also dimmer and therefore more conducive to sleep.

If you need a shower, seek out a public swimming pool. For your fee you'll get not only a shower, but also a swim and possibly a hot tub and / or sauna.
posted by BrittneyBush at 7:45 PM on March 1, 2009

Get a book like Let's Go USA or Lonely Planet USA.
posted by tiburon at 7:45 PM on March 1, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses so far!

I was hoping to avoid parking at Wal-Mart or a residential street. After looking through the website you linked to jquinby, I went further and found the "Free Campgrounds for RVs" website which lists some good spots and is more what I was looking for.

Related to those campsites, and others at national parks, how far in advance should I plan for in order to make sure I can stay there? I am especially worried about the more popular national parks and that they might fill up quickly (if not already).

Also, if anyone has more ideas about finding a non-campsite, non-parking lot spot in the middle-of-nowhere-ish, that would be great!

Thank you so far!
posted by Alec Loudenback at 8:00 PM on March 1, 2009

You can park in any Wal-Mart parking lot overnight with all the seniors in their motor homes, and then use the washrooms in the morning. This is totally above-board, Wal-Mart loves having senior citizens eager to pee and shop first thing in the AM, and they won't mind you tagging along on the tide of silver foxes.

I've parked & camped in open fields on the side of small rural highways. We'd park & pitch our tent behind bushes or a barn or over a hill or something, so we were out of sight of the road. No fire, we had a little stove and ate mostly cold groceries anyway. And we'd leave the place clean in the morning so we weren't an inconvenience to the property owners. Sometimes we even knocked & asked them if it wasn't too late when we stopped for the night.

Finally, Hobo Stripper's blog has good tips on living in a vehicle.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:28 PM on March 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

I've done this for years. I usually sleep in my car at rest stops if I'm really travelling on a budget and/or in a hurry. If you get one of those big US road atlases, there should be a list of which states allow you to sleep overnight at rest stops (almost all of the ones except on the coasts). Some rest stops are right off the highway, but some have nice little pull in spaces that are around back and little cooking/eating areas. I'm a 5' 2" woman who travelled alone and I never had any trouble, YMMV, but that's been my angle. It may not be very dark and it may not be very private but you can rig up some curtains for the windows and it would definitely work and there will be decent bathrooms. Utah rest stops are pretty excellent for that, if memory serves me.

Additionally if you can sleep in your car you might want to try couchsurfing and drop people a note asking if you can park in their driveway and/or use a shower in the morning. I put people up at my house overnight with pretty much no trouble at all and there are a lot of MeFites on couchsurfing.com so you could add some connections and seem reputable.

AAA has camp books that list campgrounds that range from fancy KOA type deals to really sparse cheapie $7 places with pit toilets and a place to park. I've been to many of them that seemed very very "out there" so you might want to look into that if you're trying to avoid the sheriff. You can also park in hotel parking lots a lot of the time, but it's not terribly fun and it's often super noisy.

If you sleep in your car and it's warm out, make sure you get good bug screens for your windows. You can stick them on with magnets or something but beware, if it's warm out you'll swelter in your car with the windows up but you'll be savaged by bugs if you don't have bug screens.
posted by jessamyn at 8:35 PM on March 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Many National Park parking lots have congregations of people in cars. Some of the busier or more well-funded parks will have rangers who will tell you go head on up the road, but in general, the next pullout is as far as you have to go. I've also parked in a *lot* of church lots near national parks - if the cops come snooping, tell them you didn't realize the camping was filled up in the park and hey, isn't a church lot the place *he* would recommend as safe? (this only works in urban parks, like Saguaro.) Most cops, if you aw-shucks it and don't smell like pot or beer, won't really care.

Especially in more crowded (relatively) areas, I tend to sleep one person *in* the driver's seat, kicked back, with the seat scooted forward (so you can kick back further). Have a sleeping back, zipper facing down, with your feet only in it. If you want to sleep on your side, tuck the leg of the side you want to sleep on up so that the ankle is under your other knee. I've found this to be reasonably comfortable. Oh, and fold up a towel under your lower back. With a pillow, and a stocking cap (cold up in the mountains), the window cracked so the windows don't fog, and a cellphone set for an hour before sunrise (two at the Grand Canyon) in the armrest, you're set.

As for eating, make a bag of gorp: a jar of honey roasted peanuts, a carton of raisins, a caron of dried cranberries, and some peanut butter M'n'Ms. Cliff bars, jerky, and string cheese round out the diet. Take a couple nalgen bottles, a couple of those 2.5 gallon jugs of water, and a bunch of Propel and Crystal Light flavor packets (some of the crystal light ones have caffeine). Mix up flavors; I really dig the caffeinated packets mixed with Grape propel...tastes like fuckin' candy.

Take your socks off to sleep. Trust me on this. Wash your face, your pits, and crotch with a wet nap every day. Brush your teeth, and keep some powder for your feet. Keep a mileage sheet going - sudden changes in mileage, that aren't from changes in terrain, can tell you something may be up with your car. As for paying for stuff - each of you put money in a community envelope. Gas, grocery (big stock-up) trips, park passes, anything community comes out of that. Gas, gas station food, trinkets - that's for you to buy for yourself.

I've been doing road trips, (usually on one-week, er, nine-day trips) 5000 miles, sleep deprived, etc, since I was your age. It has taught me a lot about myself and my friends. IF you have any other questions, mefimail me. And have fun.
posted by notsnot at 8:46 PM on March 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I love roadtrips. I've personally driven probably 8000-10,000 miles of roadtrip; I've ridden on another 6000-8000 miles, at least. I almost never schedule my stopping points, even if I have a list of them. The whole point of the roadtrip is not having a schedule. If I wanted to be told when to be someplace, I'd submit to the anal probe and fly.

First, get a road atlas and a GPS unit.

The GPS unit is just straight up awesome for navigating you to a specific destination. It's also useful for doing analysis of how long something's going to take you and how far away something is. This is necessary data for how much gas you need and how much longer you can go before you'll need to find someplace to sleep. I have a TomTom; I like it very much. The Garmins are equally good. Everything else is pretty shitty, IMO. A TomTom at Walmart should set you back around $100.

The road atlas, however, is far more user friendly than any GPS I've ever met for finding things along your projected route. Also, your GPS is going to prefer to take you along the strictly fastest route. If you have a non-optimal route that you want to take (going from Philadelphia to Seattle via the Grand Canyon instead of Montana, for instance), the road atlas is going to make it easier to find appropriate waypoints to input to your GPS. The GPS just isn't flexible enough to understand that you don't care if you drive 20 miles out of the way to get a campsite; or if it's flexible enough for that, it won't realize that 21 miles is also okay; reducto ad absurdium.

I sleep in a variety of places.

My first choice is a state or national park with a campground. If I have a copilot, I generally handle this by having her use the aforementioned road atlas to find campsites along our route. She then googles them in her phone and calls them up to check vacancy and to place reservations. She'll start doing this at 6 or 7pm, calling parks 60 to 100 miles ahead of us. Most parks want you in by some relatively early hour (8pm seems pretty standard, plus or minus an hour). So, keep in mind that you'll get less mileage on nights where you camp. Also keep in mind that they almost always have vacancies on weeknights, but that Friday kand Saturday night are often booked solid at popular parks--especially on holiday weekends.

If I don't have a copilot, I'll make my reservations when I stop for supper. I'll do this earlier (like 5pm), and start at my target mileage and work backwards. I still use the atlas + google + phonecalls method, I just don't try to do it myself while driving.

Really, your main resource here is going to be state parks, not national parks. National parks are fairly few and far between. National forests, while they're more frequent than the parks, still aren't as common as you'd like, and do not have any amenities (showers, campsites, etc.) whatsoever--they're strategic reserves of timber, not even kinda nature preserves. The forests have, at best, trails along which hikers have made small campsites--and you don't want to be backpacking five miles after driving 600. But, in many states, on most major highways, there's a state park every 50 miles. Almost all of these will have campgrounds. Find them with your road atlas. Ignore the points-of-interest search on your GPS, they never have all of the parks, and I have yet to meet a GPS unit that can actually do the fuzzy "a couple miles off the route, somewhere in the next 50 miles" search--on a route, near a city, near your current location, all doable; "near your projected route, within parameters", not so much.

You're right to fear that the really popular National Parks (Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, etc.) will have reservation and population issues that make it difficult to spontaneously drop in. If you're willing to backpack a little ways (and have the gear), you can usually find places even at these parks for weeknights. But, the weekends and holidays will be completely booked. You might luck out, or they might have strictly first-come-first-serve campsites. But, I'd just try to avoid staying in them directly. If there are sights you want to see at these parks, you can usually find state parks in the general vicinity that offer camping and a half day or less drive to the big national park.

Also, here's my mandatory plug for Hennessy Hammocks; after 10 hours of driving, a hammock is an infinitely more comfortable sleep than any tent+ground pad that I've ever experienced. I prefer my hammock to a hotel bed 100% of the time. Nights spent in my hammock are some of the most restful nights in my entire life.

My second choice is a rest stop off the interstate. Sleeping in your car sucks pretty badly, no matter how comfortable you may imagine your vehicle to be (unless you actually have an RV or camper with beds). While space is an issue, I find temperature regulation to be the most difficult problem to overcome--your car offers essentially no insulation. They're nowhere near as dangerous, in terms of collision, as sleeping on the shoulder of the road. The paranoid sort, however, might worry about miscreants. I am paranoid, and so take precautions such as parking near other vehicles, going armed where legal, etc. I also think my paranoia is totally unfounded.

But, a rest stop doesn't cost a dime. And, it gets you back on the road again quickly. Pull the lever, sit up, start the ignition, and you can be on your way (although I'd recommend you take a leak before you start, of course).

Next is the cheap hotel. You find them by exiting in towns and cruising the exit ramps a bit; if there's not one near the highway, move on to the next town. A cheap hotel is actually a much, much worse experience for me than camping; but, it's better sleep than you'll ever get in your car. I mostly avoid them unless there are both no parks (with vacancies) and I'm feeling very tired. However, I will choose to stay in a hotel if I'm trying to make good time, because they'll take new guests at any hour. I'll also choose to stay in one about once per five to seven days of travel. While the National Parks have showers, they're fairly primitive affairs that are merely adequate (and sometimes expensive). $40 for a decent sleep and your own, private shower with infinite hot water and a place to change that doesn't involve contortions necessary to keep your clean clothes dry... totally worth it once or twice a week.

"I don't want to be right on the side of the road nor do I want to be somewhere where we might be in danger (some crazy farmer with a shotgun's field) or somewhere where we'll be woken up by the sheriff tapping on the window with a ticket."

National and state parks will generally charge you around $5-20 a night, with the lower end of that range being more common. I'd really suggest you go that route.

If you're really demanding to camp illegally to satisfy your sense of adventure, I suggest you google "stealth camping" and "guerrilla camping". There's a wealth of information put together by hobos of all sorts.

However, in all but a few specific situations, you will be trespassing. This means that if you're spotted, you can be awakened by the farmer's shotgun--who isn't crazy, btw, he's understandably wary of people suddenly showing up on his land unannounced--or the sheriff and his ticket book. If you're specifically interested in courting the precise danger you say you wish to avoid, by all means, camp stealth.

The biggest problem with stealth camping with a car is that you have a big piece of obviously man-made material that you need to hide. Your car will attract attention, even if you're keeping the stealthiest of campsites (no fire, no steam, black or camo hammocks or tarps (not tents, btw), no noise, no shiny gear, etc.). Any attempt you make to camouflage your car is going to make you look very bad if you're discovered--a couple dudes with low-key camping gear on foot are just considered bums and told to move along; if you set up duck blind netting or camouflage netting over your car, even Barney Fife is going to wonder if you're a terrorist or a drug runner.

Also, your list of RV sites is pretty useless for your Honda. First, many of the RV places won't take cars. Second, those who do take cars aren't going to give you a discounted rate. RV camping is expensive. The last time we thought an RV park would be a good idea, they wanted to charge us some ridiculous number that I can't remember ($50? $75?)... because we were going to be taking up a spot for an RV. I just remember that we stayed in a Holiday Inn that night because it was cheaper and didn't require us to sleep in the car--they almost never have sites suitable for tent or hammock camping.

Also, sleeping in WalMart is okay for RV folks. But, the cops really frown on people sleeping in their cars in such parking lots. I've never tried it myself, but a friend of me once related that he was chased off by some cops when he tried it while he was parked next to a line of RVs full of (presumably) sleeping people. But, the cops could see him, and it strictly and obviously fit their idea of vagrancy, so they woke him up and chased him off.
posted by Netzapper at 9:19 PM on March 1, 2009 [8 favorites]

On thing I forgot to mention:

GPS units fucking love for you to retrace your steps. For example, if you're traveling from Seattle to LA, and you want to stop in Reno, it's not going to plot you an interesting route. It's going to take you right down I-5 to Sacramento, over on I-80 to Reno, back along I-80 to Sacramento, and then put you back on I-5. This is because it's strictly faster, since the speedlimit on the interstate is probably 75 (or if Cali drivers are to be emulated, 120 with sporadic weaving) and the state highways you'd use on a non-backtracking route probably have a speedlimit of 55 and only two lanes but plenty of traffic (so no passing).

If you're into seeing the country, you're going to be fighting with the GPS a lot trying to get it to stop doing that kind of shit. The best way to do that is to use the road atlas to identify other towns to add as waypoints: so, you'd use the road atlas to determine that your route should be something like Seattle->Sacramento->Reno->Carson City->Gardnerville->Strawberry->LA.
posted by Netzapper at 9:34 PM on March 1, 2009

I took a 9 week, 14,000 mile road trip through the US last summer. I was on a very limited budget.

For the most part, I used the aforementioned Couchsurfing.com. Don't look at it as just a place to sleep, though. While people do that, the site is more about the experience of meeting other like-minded adventurers, and having a real local show you about the area. Some of the people I've met through the site have turned out to be great friends. Fantastic experience that I will never forget.

Myself and my traveling companion slept at rest-stops quite frequently, as well. They do good in a pinch and I never once felt in danger. Truckers will use the area to sleep, as well as (in most places) several other cars. If you don't mind sleeping in your car, it's a good place to crash. Some of them - Iowa in particular - even have free wireless internet. Things that help to sleep in the car: OTC Benadryl, ear plugs (essential!), and an eye mask. One of those inflatable neck pillows isn't a bad idea, either.

Cheap hotels are an option, but you won't find much under $45. Pick up the trucker travel guides at gas stations. They have coupons that will actually come in handy. Be wary of storms and random events going on nearby - - they'll jack up their prices.

I would not recommend parking in strip mall parking lots or residential streets. It's easy for people to notice that you're sleeping in a car, and passer-byers may get worried and call the cops. We planned on doing this at the start of the trip, but finding a quiet, safe looking street when you're ready to pass out is not an easy task.

I know you just wanted ideas for where to sleep, but a couple other points I feel I need to make:

*As stated above, a GPS is very, very useful. Not only will it help you get from point A to point B, but it will allow you to quickly find restaurants. The directions may not be great, but if the passenger takes over the role of Navigator, it will ease the burden.

*Make sure your car is in good shape. Clean air filter. Strong tires. You'll be traveling right when it starts to get hot again. Be very careful in the desert; our tires popped in Arizona. It was 115 degrees out and we decided to hold off on buying water until the next rest stop. Not a good idea. The GPS allowed us to find the nearest towing company.

Feel free to hit me up with any questions. Good luck!
posted by HonorShadow at 11:50 PM on March 1, 2009

Best answer: Most National Parks, like Yellowstone specifically, have public hot showers and coin laundry at all of their concession run campgrounds whether you're camping there or not. You pay at a counter and head into the shower. Usually $2.00. Some will even rent you a towel.

Some towns in the west don't like the Wal-mart campers so they have passed ordinances to restrict overnighting. They say it hurts local businesses like motels and campgrounds. Check with the manager before you go to sleep. If you don't see any RVs, there's probably a problem.

Rest areas are safer and are often patrolled. Ignore the 'no overnight parking' signs. In 20 years of sleeping in rest areas from Key West to Fairbanks, I've never been asked to move on from a rest area. I think that's a rule to prevent long term RV parking or storing a vehicle at a rest area.

Truck stops like Flying J and Pilot have no problem with overnighters. There are showers, 24/7 coffee, and plenty of company if you're worried about security.

Bring a pillow and a sleeping bag. Don't think you're going to get a good night's sleep with just a blanket and a rolled up sweat shirt as a pillow.

Buy an annual National Park's pass at the first National Park you visit. Just do it; you'll see why.

I second Lonely Planet travel guides. They are our kind of people.

N.P. recommendations along your route: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, Arches, Grand Teton, Bryce, Redwoods, John Muir, Olympia.

N.P. thumbs down: Death Valley, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree.

Best road atlas is put out by the Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA.com). Shows all Wal-marts, Flying Js, and campgrounds in the country.
posted by birdwatcher at 7:23 AM on March 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

Nthing couchsurfing. I've had some great experiences through that site.

The further out west you get, the better national forests are going to be as options. Most of the western forests, at least those away from heavily populated areas (i.e. Denver) allow for free primitive camping. Find a pull-off somewhere, toss a tent out of your car, and you're set.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:34 AM on March 2, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who responded!

Everybody had some really good answers - I'm glad for my first question I was able to tap the Hive Mind so nicely!

Thanks again!
posted by Alec Loudenback at 8:00 AM on March 2, 2009

One thing I do to save money on car trips is pack a cooler with drinks and sandwich supplies. That way you can have a nice snack at rest stops. Pack some things that feel indulgent - a chocolate you really love or something like that. You can always add ice along the way. This will save you tons of cash - road food is fun but can get old and pricey after a while.

For finding routes I like to follow the green dots in road atlases (these mark the scenic routes), I look for things that sound funny from Roadside America, and I look at Road Trip USA to see if I'm going along any of his routes at all.

It might not hurt to check out some youth hostels for the occasional cheep bed - and the chance to meet some other travels.
posted by dog food sugar at 9:16 AM on March 2, 2009

On review I'll second/third getting a road atlas. If you have a AAA membership they can help you out if you have car trouble and have discounts in some of the chain hotels. Be careful driving at night - in rural areas animals sometimes wander onto the roadways - deer, cattle, coyotes, raccoons, possums, rabbits, rural dogs and cats.... the large animals can kill you and your car, the smaller ones will really wreck part of your trip if you kill them.
posted by dog food sugar at 9:26 AM on March 2, 2009

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