Free Backpacking in Wyoming/Montana/Anywhere Else
June 9, 2021 2:20 AM   Subscribe

So, after spending my money on a major surgery I need to save up money for a deposit on an apartment, and my family situation has fallen through. Instead of looking at it as being homeless for the summer I am trying to reframe this as a fun adventure, and a way to get away from people and recharge my batteries. But...I need some advice about details.

I've been doing illegal camping and sleeping where I can find a spot with a tarp and it's not a good time. There are a few free camping apps, but they're geared towards boondockers with RVs and list things like Walmart parking lots too. For free legal camping I need to look at national forests, BLM land and the like. I'm on the east coast and tick season is worse than usual this year (yes, it made the news). With a suppressed immune system I'd like to avoid lyme. Plus the east coast is crowded and I really feel bruised by all my interactions with people lately.

It looks like driving out West would be ok, but where? I've been backpacking in wilderness areas out this way before, but I have no idea how to find places to park and such in less-traveled areas of national forests, which is where I'd like to be. (I do know I have to move 20 miles or so every 15 days). Assume I'm familiar with camping/backpacking and LNT principles, and I have a hammock, a quilt, a tarp, a backpack, a small stove and a water purifier. I'm going to pack a few questions into one because of lack of time:

A) Any recommendations on specific places to go that are cool/pretty/quiet? How to handle parking when I'll be in national forests and avoiding trails? Unfortunately I'm not in good shape because of recent surgery, so I won't be going super long distances. I'm guessing for the first few weeks I'll be limited to five miles a day or less. So I'll need to probably to hike no more than 20 miles from the vehicle. This is going to make avoiding people harder, which I'm hoping people have suggestions for.

B) Medication. I have to take medication once a month that needs to be refrigerated, and my coverage requires that I order it from a specialty pharmacy and they send multiple shots at a time. Has anyone dealt with anything like that before? How did you handle it?

C) Food. When backpacking before I've either had the money to buy dehydrated meals, or had a place and time to dehydrate my own, and they've been short trips, so I don't worry about getting enough vegetables. Currently I *need* to eat well. I know there's no way I can get the recommended 10 servings of vegetables a day, but I have no idea how to get any sort of reasonable amount in a form that won't spoil, even assuming I don't go far and can carry heavy foods. Add in to this that cost is really, really important. If I spend as much as I would on rent in gas and food I won't have enough money for a deposit on an apartment when it gets cold. I've already spent some on the camping gear I have and it disappears so fast.

D) Last, I'm trans, and I still don’t pass, but after three years of hormones I am very visibly not-standard-issue. I'm not too worried because I've lived this long and survived plenty, but I don't usually go out to isolated places for a long time away from my car. When I've been backpacking I've gone with people or been on private land. Still, if people have safety tips, I'll listen, and I'd especially like to hear any experiences from other single campers who have extra safety concerns, like being queer, POC, or female.

I'm not asking if this is a good idea or not. I really don't have a lot of options, and I'm hoping going out somewhere wild will make it feel more like an adventure and less like a scary thing that is happening. Please be kind. I still have nightmares about a question I asked on askme a long time ago under another name asking for advice about how to find an under the table job that would let me keep medical care and get through school. People were absolutely hate-filled and it was devastating. Spoiler, I didn't get through school and I still get my tiny disability check garnished for school loans. So please, please be kind. Also assume I investigated other options first: a housesitting thing fell through, so did a seasonal job, and I asked a few friends if I could stay the summer. It wasn't convenient for anyone, and I suddenly ran out of time and options, so a-venturing I will go!

I seriously appreciate anyone who takes the time with advice!
posted by liminal_shadows to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would definitely take advantage of the fact that you have a car, and if you want to avoid people, look at destinations that are less popular overall rather than trying to hike a long way.

On the food, I think that fruit and vegetables are slightly easier than protein. A combination of ubiquitous and longer storage fresh items, such as apples and carrots, with canned vegetables is probably the cheapest approach without reliable refrigeration. You could keep more of it in the car and hike with less of it. Other food items that might be helpful include dried milk powder, cous cous, nuts and nut butters, canned tuna or salmon. These are usually inexpensive and shelf stable and don't require too much cooking to consume. In terms of nutrition, unless you need to do otherwise for medical reasons, it's usually easier to think about your diet across a week rather than meeting all nutritional requirements on each and every day day. My other suggestion is to budget for treats of some kind, and food treats are often cheap.

I hope that you find some places truly beautiful to spend the summer and a safe place to live as soon as possible.
posted by plonkee at 4:49 AM on June 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

The good news is that once you get out west -- hit the Rockies, basically -- public land becomes abundant and your options for camping are nearly endless. Most National Forest and BLM land allows free camping without permits (the exceptions tend to be the most heavily-used lands nearest to big cities like Denver). You won't even have to hike at all if you don't want to: you can find a nice spot along a forest road and camp at (or in) your vehicle.

The term you're looking for is "dispersed camping": searching for "{national forest name} dispersed camping" should turn up information about where you can camp for free. For example, here's information on dispersed camping in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest outside of Laramie WY. As you'll see there, as long as you're outside of a designated camping site, you can camp anywhere in the MedBow. (I like the MedBow, I've done a bunch of camping there and think it's lovely, and close enough to Laramie to duck in and get food and supplies. But I'm cis, and not sure about the safety question, so I'm going to let someone else address the safety question and hold off from making recommendations about specific areas.)

The other piece of the puzzle is the roads. To get somewhere lovely and quiet, you'll need to drive dirt roads. The quality of these roads varies wildly, from gravel roads that are in better condition than some paved ones, to terrifying 4x4 tracks that will destroy anything other than the most burly four wheeler. Luckily, the forest service maintains data on the quality of these roads: this interactive visitor map shows the USFS-maintained roads; if you zoom in and click on a road you'll see something like "Level of Service: Suitable for Passenger Cars", so you can figure out ahead of time if you can drive these roads. (These maps are also available in many digital mapping programs; e.g., I use Gaia). I don't know if the BLM maintains similar road data; I spend a lot more time in national forests than BLM lands.

Enjoy! Dispersed camping on public lands rocks. I think you'll love it.
posted by dorothy hawk at 4:50 AM on June 9, 2021 [18 favorites]

For the medicine, you can make a Zeer pot "fridge" from terracotta planters pretty cheaply, though actual temperature guarantees may depend on the location.

And apologies for the non-answer but if you'd consider farm work (and being around people), you might look into WOOFing. You'll get free room and board in exchange for helping out on farms. It doesn't necessarily require a lot of strength if that is a concern - might just be picking berries and running the farm stand - and would solve the good food and access to a fridge issues. They are everywhere nationally and globally, and I think you could screen for inclusive environments. On the east coast, for example, I think you could have luck around Vermont, maybe the Berkshires or Hudson Valley. Start with college towns like Ithaca.
posted by veery at 5:58 AM on June 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

National forest land is usually open for free camping; check with local Bur. Land Mgmt. offices for rules. Fire is almost certainly banned, for good reason. Van-dwelling has gotten popular because of Nomadland, but there are a lot of people living in cars and vans because of money; learn more about how to do it at Read the book; it's excellent and a little useful.

You can often get camping gear at Goodwill, or post on freecycle or Buy Nothing groups looking for gear. Libraries usually have excellent wifi, as well as Starbucks, McDonalds, etc., libraries being a better place to hang out and read. Big truck stops have showers.
posted by theora55 at 8:01 AM on June 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

From a 2017 Time article: Over the years, scientists and nutrition experts have recommended eating five, seven, or even 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day for optimal health. If anything, the mantra when it came to fresh produce was, more is better. But a new study claims that just three to four servings a day of combined fruits, vegetables, and legumes may be enough to stave off early death—and that getting more than that doesn’t offer any additional protection.

Most people do not eat up to 10 servings of fruit and vegetables per day and apparently that is okay. The study referred to above defined three servings as 375 grams, if I understand correctly. It also thinks raw fruit and veg is better than cooked but honestly, don't worry about that. A can of peas is still your friend.

Because I hate to cook, I live on sardines, canned beans, brown rice, oatmeal, and frozen veggies. Much of that won't work for you but some will. Canned sardines tend to be cheap, are super nutritious, and do not need cooking. I buy the kind in tomato sauce so I get some of the benefits of cooked tomatoes. If you have access to a blender, you can make your own instant oatmeal packages before the trip and save some money. Peanut butter tends to be relatively inexpensive and is also nutritious. Supposedly apples will last up to a month if you can protect them from bruising, according to someone who lives on a boat and has opinions about storing fruit and veggies without refrigeration. Best of luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 8:12 AM on June 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

Just a note on ticks - can you get a permethrin treatment for your clothing? As long as you don't have a cat, that would be the best way for you to avoid Lyme. Permethrin is highly effective at keeping ticks from biting you and one treatment lasts on your clothing for months if you don't wash them often.
posted by epanalepsis at 8:25 AM on June 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Hey liminal_shadows, this might not be the sort of answer you want, and if so I apologize. But it sounds like you'd be doing this on hard mode, and that you're not doing it because you actually want to. So I don't know how much you'd need for a deposit, but as a fellow sufferer of chronic health crap, and as someone who knows firsthand how hard it can be to eat well with no infrastructure, if you consider doing any kind of gofundme I would be glad to pitch in to try to provide an alternative.
posted by trig at 8:47 AM on June 9, 2021 [28 favorites]

Check out this website:

I'm in a facebook group (Homes on Wheels Alliance) for van-dwellers and found it mentioned there. There are several such groups and they share interesting tips. I don't currently live in my van but have in the past and plan to again this coming winter. I've seen mention of medication mailing issues, but didn't pay attention as it's not relevant to me.

You might consider getting a real tent. I bought one for 30 bucks when I was planning to camp at a place that seemed to indicate I couldn't sleep in my non-RV minivan. Turned out it was fine.

Safe ravels!
posted by mareli at 9:53 AM on June 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

It might seem counterintuitive to spend money to save money but if you have the means, get a Costco membership. They have a ton of good nonperishables suitable for car camping (I love the Madras lentil pouches and precooked brown rice, canned fish, super cheap instant oatmeal)…and excellent gas prices which will be important. You may want to consider how the cost of gas will
impact your ability to save money. Currently over 4.00 per gallon on the central coast of California. Also, hot temperatures will necessitate looking for higher elevation, or coastal, locations.

I also recommend investing in a multi agency Adventure pass (60-70 bucks per year, entrance into national parks and required for camping in some areas of national forests.

You will need to keep in mind food storage options for keeping food away from animals (raccoons and bears are the first thing that come to mind). In many of the more mountainous places you could end up, sleeping in your car with food in there as well is dangerous. Bear bags are pretty easy to set up.

As far as safety goes-advice from a female solo adventurer-I always have my dog with me. This may not be an option for you but I highly recommend it. I also recommend keeping two cheap camp chairs with you-like the kind that are 10 bucks at Walmart-to set up to give the appearance that there are more than one of you.
posted by sparringnarwhal at 9:58 AM on June 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

I also recommend investing in a multi agency Adventure pass (60-70 bucks per year, entrance into national parks and required for camping in some areas of national forests.

Good point! If you are permanently disabled (and it sounds like you may be -- if you are receiving disability, your SSI or SSDI letter is one form of documentation for this), you can get a free Access Pass that grants you admission to 2,000 sites overseen by the Forest Service, the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, USACE, and Bureau of Reclamation.
posted by mochapickle at 11:37 AM on June 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

For food you might want to look at The Hungry Spork Trail Recipes by Inga Aksamit - she is a thru-hiker but the recipes are tasty and generally good for anyone looking to travel light.

If you're staying on BLM/NFS land you don't need to hike any distance from your car, you can just pitch your tent by your car. Which may or may not be ideal...just don't stress yourself out trying to plan huge backpacking trips along with your camping adventure(s)...

Might look for your base to be PCT or CDT trail towns - they will likely be more open.

Have fun & good luck.
posted by wearyaswater at 3:31 PM on June 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Seconding trig. You’ve recently had major surgery and you are prescribed medication that you need from special pharmacies, and which requires refrigeration. If you’re open to alternative ways to get through summer I’d like to help. Feel free to post something here or dm me. <3
posted by nicodine at 5:19 AM on June 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

What nicodine and trig said. Please check your MeMail.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:04 AM on June 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

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