Camping in North America
May 1, 2004 9:21 AM   Subscribe

I want to camp for cheap in the northeastern US and southeastern Canada. [More inside.]

Alright, a friend and I are planning a motorcycle camping trip from here in sunny Virginia Beach, Virginia up to Toronto and then perhaps east to Nova Scotia. Commercial campgrounds, and a lot of state parks, are often more than $16 - sometimes up to $20. Is it as hard as I think it is to find cheap/free places to camp? We're not picky - an untrafficked patch of grass/dirt is about all we ask. We have exceptionally strong bladders and can probably make due with gas station bathrooms if forced. We are men in our mid-to-late twenties, if that widens/limits our options.

Also, the motorcycle thing might be a little limiting. Two strong men could easily lift our little japanese sportbikes and place them in a pickup truck, so we'd rather not have to hike several miles from where the bikes are parked.

So here's what I've found so far.

In the US :
- National forests. Apparently you can camp free in US national forests.
- There are a couple of parks in Pennsylvania that are $3/night for a camp site.

In Canada :
- ??

I'm thinking I might email or fax a few churches in the areas that seem particularly problematic. Does anybody think it's likely they'd allow someone to stay overnight on some corner of their property? I can probably get my current church to write a letter that I am a member in good standing and show no obvious signs of being an axe murderer.

Anybody have any ideas? Experience with this sort of thing?

By the way, this seems like the sort of thing that would probably have been covered on AxeMe, but a google search didn't turn up anything.
posted by mragreeable to Travel & Transportation (8 answers total)
I don't know if this covers camping, but here's info on a national park pass that only costs $50 and you can use it in any park for a year from when you first used it. Maybe that would help keep costs in the US down?
posted by zorrine at 9:43 AM on May 1, 2004

coupla things you can try:

+ AAA doesn't just have hotel guides, they have what are called Camp Books. These have campgrounds listed and you can sort of sort by locale and price. You'll still see all the KOAs and the state campgrounds, but they often have listeings of weird little campgrounds [pit toilets and no electricity] that are lower cost [in the free-$7 range when I was doing a lot of camping]. They're geared towards drivers, so they're generally places where you can sleep next to your car/bike
+ the average Mefite might not know you enough to come visit, but a lot of people would not object to your staying in their driveway/yard, etc. If you're in Central VT, you can stay here
+ is untested by me but an interesting idea
+ there are places that do sort of homestay type situations in the US, generally with people who are ideologically aligned. I know that Servas has reasonable memberships and then you can get a list of other peace-and-justice minded folks [if this is you, this works, if not, this may not be for you] whose homes you can stay in [or whose land you can camp on].
+ if you were in a car, I'd say: rest stops, Wal-Mark parking lots, hotel parking lots. I've seen people with bikes stop in rest stops and just roll out sleeping bags on the lawn [the understanding being that you CAN'T sleep in your car, so....] but I've never done this.
+ parks pass is a good idea. I think if you got someone writing a letter from your church, you'd be more likely to wind up with the minister/pastor/whoever offering you a place to stay in THEIR house. Sometimes it's tough for people to get a handle on the fact that you choose to sleep outside.

Also, you'll be most flexible for your trip and the various places you might stay if you make sure you pack properly.
posted by jessamyn at 1:56 PM on May 1, 2004

I'm a native of New Brunswick and you'll be driving through here to get to Nova Scotia, if such is your goal. Fundy National Park is more or less on the way (just a bit off the TransCanada Highway) and it's well worth the visit. There's also Kouchibouguac National Park which is on the eastern shore, north of Nova Scotia and further off course.

They should be reasonably priced for an American visitor. There are some tinier parks, but these two are the best in the province for overnight camping. I don't really know if the smaller parks are much cheaper, but there are generally billboards along the TransCanada that'll advertise them coming up. If you have any other questions about New Brunswick, you can drop me an email. I know the area you'll be travelling through fairly well.
posted by picea at 9:46 PM on May 1, 2004

I recommend this award winning travel atlas (US and Canada). I used it for a 40 day car-camping trip recently and always found good camping sites. The maps show every park (state, county and national) along with every "point of interest" which are often state or national historical places off the beaten track where you can usually find a out of the way place after hours. When I was ready to sleep I'd look for the nearest red-square or green-tree on the map and it was usually a good campsite for free.
posted by stbalbach at 9:53 PM on May 1, 2004

to clarify.. i avoid actual campsites at all costs. They are dirty, full of obnoxious locals who stay up late drinking and often make you pay for the privilege of being in someones version of the outdoors next to a manmade lake in a new-growth timber forest full of tick-infested raccoons and deer feeding on the margins of humanity.

The best way is to be stealthy and keep a low profile and go where other people don't. If you can't get to a state or national park where camping can be done anywhere (away from the family campsites), find a dirt road into the local woods (hunter and fishermen access) and pull off in there somewhere. Don't build fires. Don't hang around too long. Usually you can find amazing campsites with privacy and views for free with a little effort and spirit of staying off the beaten track.
posted by stbalbach at 10:17 PM on May 1, 2004

I have camped unofficially (aka just walking off the road into some bush or a woodlot) in Southern Ontario, which is comparatively crowded, but can be done. With motorbikes, it would be more challenging. Stbalbach's advice is good - be unobtrusive, carry a stove rather than setting fires, and probably few if any will ever notice you were there. But then I only had myself and a knapsack, as I was hiking. Where did you leave your car, stbalbach?

Also - here is some information about Crown land in Ontario and New Brunswick - this is undeveloped land held by the government and generally open to certain uses. The Ontario page says that camping is free for Canadians, but $10 a night for Americans (and other non-residents), but I couldn't imagine that anyone actually checks (also - does this matter outside Ontario?). I know that in BC, logging companies working on crown land actually create camping sites with outhouses and firepits - they were some of the nicest pre-set campsites I have ever used.
posted by jb at 11:48 PM on May 1, 2004

Response by poster: Ok, I just spent a couple hours using Ontario's interactive crown land map. What a great resource. Also I ordered that atlas you recommended, stbalbach.

There's a lot of really great information here. jb, stbalbach and jessamyn : your camping advice was especially helpful.

Thanks much, everyone.
posted by mragreeable at 10:50 AM on May 2, 2004

Oh one other thing a GPS works wonders finding campsites couldnt have done it without it, allows you to really get off the beaten track without getting lost and finding roads that are not on other maps.

jb -- just camped near or in the vehicle, depending on weather and conditions.
posted by stbalbach at 4:51 PM on May 2, 2004

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