Surviving the California Coast on a Budget

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The title may sound dramatic for somewhere so pristine and beautiful, but you may feel you are purely surviving this section of your road trip, due to the strict limitations enforced on freedom campers. In most large cities and Southern California towns it is illegal to sleep in your car, California is a travel destination that is favourable all year while unaffordable rent leads to more homeless. The problem is exasperated by lack of budget campsites and crowded sites at weekends, some people may view $30 as inexpensive, but for most travelers with modest funds this will eat away your daily budget.

Towns by the coast along highway 101 have strict overnight parking regulations, when evening comes you will want to drive a little further inland. Use your acquired knowledge to suss out a suitable overnight parking area; perhaps you find a park with few residential homes around it -but parking regulations in the parking lot, if there are no restrictions on the road you are also unlikely to be infringing on someone’s property in this area. Consider that if it is a dead end there will likely be little traffic or people disturbing you overnight. Finding a decent night sleep in Southern California is a bit of guess work and a lot of luck; ‘Walmart’ and ‘CampingWorld’ alike will refuse you overnight parking in this part of the USA, in some cases you may be able to ask a manager permission, but check for signage and restrictions first. If you have a car rather than a huge RV it is far easier to be subtle and not be noticed by cops or annoyed locals.

In cities such as Los Angeles or San Francisco you may have to leave the area for the night, with car camping being illegal and the unsafe feeling in certain areas, it may be best to drive away for the night or pay for a campground. Weigh up the cost difference between paying for a campground or paying for gas and driving out of the city overnight. Another way to save those extra dollars is to try and share campground pitches with other travelers, most campgrounds allow for two cars in one space making it possible to share, it is also a great way to meet fellow travelers and share advice and information.

Hanging at the beach for the day gives you a perfect opportunity to use free benches and barbecues for cooking, as well as the chance to shower off the sand and sun lotion. There will always be fresh drinking water at beaches, so ensure all your water containers are filled before you head off.

Don’t be off put and avoid the California coast line on your Western USA road trip, Highway 101 and the surrounding coastline is too beautiful to miss. You can see why people love California life and never leave, you won’t want to either!

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Joshua Tree NP
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Visit Kootenay National Park

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In the cluster of National Parks that border Alberta and British Columbia it is easy to overlook Kootenay, it may not be as big and as bold a Banff or Jasper, but it should be judged on its own virtues.

Campgrounds are far quieter and often as well kept as the larger National Parks, you will usually be able to use a fire pit and pit toilets as well as a bench. Similarly to other Canadian parks, not all sites have drinking water, so ensure you are fully stocked, have some kind of filtration or purifying tablets. Expect fewer crowds, 2017 may be the time to visit due to the free ‘Discovery Pass’ which will undoubtedly send swarms to the bigger parks.

The landscape is unlike any of the surrounding parks, ravaged by wildfires there are acres of burnt out trees that make for interesting viewing, giving the park a Jurassic era feel. Lightning could strike at any time during the summer months, setting the park ablaze once more, encouraging a refreshment of new growth.

You can hike to glaciers, see azure rivers carving through rock canyons and visit the Paint Pots. The Paint Pots are iron rich and staining the surrounding earth in ochre hues, the pigment is of significance to many First Nations in the area.

Keep a lookout for Bighorn Sheep, you may need a set of binoculars to view them up high on the mountainside, their horns are a wonderful sight.

Wildflowers are in abundance between the burnt-out trees, the Indian Paintbrushes are stunning and add a splash of colour in the summer months. Fireweed is bountiful and beautiful; the landscape post forest fire is a sight of pure contrasts and nature of the best kind.

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Where Should you Sleep for the Night?

thumb_DSC_0986_1024It’s amazing how quickly you adjust to finding places to park overnight and sleep peacefully. Your creativity and ideas will improve with experience, you will learn how to blend in and keep your profile low. Here are some ideas to start your imagination running wild:

Free Campgrounds
If there are any available nearby then use them. Free Campsites and Allstays Camp and Tent can help you search nearby for free campgrounds. The facilities are basic but you will usually end up with a bench, fire pit and a pit toilet at minimum; there is also normally a river or lake for washing up. Check out my posts to find some awesome free campgrounds in British Columbia, Canada and The USA.

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Walmart (or other department stores)
Use the Allstays Walmart App for advice on Walmart’s that allow overnight parking, App users input comments reviewing their experience. Other stores that may allow overnight parking are Camping World and K-Mart, but be sure to check with management wherever possible.

Casinos
Often have parking that can be used overnight, discretion is key and you should try and cook away from the parking lot in a picnic area.

Rest Areas
Usually rest areas have signage for 8-10 hour parking limits, overstaying this time will depend on how regularly the area is patrolled by security. Flying J truck stops often have a separate area for overnight parking of RVs or an area where smaller cars can park for the night.

National Forests
You may find gems of free places to stay in National Forests, often campgrounds are well established with a pit toilet; they are not always easy to access; be sure to check that the area is accessible by road.

BLM
In the USA the Bureau of Land Management is in charge of an abundance of free campgrounds and areas you can stay overnight, use Allstays Camp and Tent for ideas as well as searching BLM on Maps.me.

Churches
Usually have a large and safe parking lot that is fine to stay in, so long as you leave early in the morning; ask whenever possible.

You could also try parks, residential areas without too many houses, or bars and restaurants that will be used to seeing cars left in their parking lot overnight. Keep a look out for signage forbidding overnight parking or only allowing residents to park. Do your cooking away from the area you intend to sleep, picnic areas and parks are usually best for this, to draw little attention to your stay. If you can, do a scout out of the area and decide if it is suitable returning once it is dark.

Backcountry Rookie

DSC_0591Love staying away from the crowd? Eating noodles? Seeing wildlife? Good. Hiking the back country is for you! Multi day hikes enable you to have an authentic camping experience and see parts of the wilderness most tourists would miss. Before you embark on a backpacking adventure it is advisable to have polished your hiking skills by day hiking; getting used to bear country and the physical exertion. The first back country hike I undertook was a solid 4-day trip in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, it was a huge learning curve and an incredible few days. You will meet experienced hikers with all the labels and excellent gear, but you don’t have to feel pressured into buying anything costly, the basics will do. Yes, your backpack will be heavier, but you should give back country a try before you commit to buying better equipment. Here are the corners I cut for so many back-country hikes last year…

The tent was from Canadian Tire, it cost $75 CAD on sale; it wasn’t great and was heavy, but it survived the entire trip. Look on classifieds for bargains or see if any fellow road trippers are looking to sell their gear post trip.

The backpack I hiked with I already used to store clothes in the car, I would take out the clothes and store them in a garbage bag when I needed the backpack for back country.

Hiking Poles are the saviours of your knees while you are out walking, you don’t need to purchase any as you can find a suitable stick on your hike and leave it after for someone else to use.

A sleeping pad at this stage won’t necessarily be for comfort, it is more for a barrier between you and the cold floor. I used an old yoga mat that I had lying around and it did the job.

Sleeping bags do not seem to pack down to small sizes in North America, unless you have a lot of money to spend. My sleeping bag was an MEC branded bag which cost $10 CAD from Value Village, it didn’t come with a bag so I would hike with it wrapped in a garbage bag. There are plenty of second hand sleeping bags out there, make sure you run any purchases through a dryer for 20 minutes to prevent bed bugs.

Rain coats can be found in thrift stores, along with waterproof trousers if you wanted to protect your legs.

Follow my back-country food guide for ideas of lightweight meals on the go.

A water filter or purification tablets are essential for safety, choose whichever method works best for you.

A small gas cooker shouldn’t set you back more than $20 including the gas, plates, bowls and small enough pans can be found at the dollar store.

The priority when you are packing should be safety and survival so always carry a first aid kit, various means of starting a fire (in a waterproof bag), spare batteries for your torch, a map, knife and sunscreen. Keep warm clothing in a garbage bag to prevent it from getting wet in a survival situation. Extra Clif bars or energy gels will be wholly appreciated in emergency situations along with a space blanket. Remember to keep these essentials in your bag for day hikes, as well as an emergency shelter and water purifier.

 

5 FREE Campgrounds in Western USA

Car camping for free becomes trickier the closer to the coast and large cities you get, but there is still an abundance of free campsites scattered across the Western states. Using them comes down to whether they fit in with your route and if they’re car accessible, be sure to download Allstays Camp and Tent to help you find them, in conjunction with Maps.me. Finding a free campground is such a reward, you can relax, cook dinner and ask fellow travelers for advice. These campgrounds were memorable for all the right reasons

 DSC_0818Lowry Bridge GPS 47.51332, -112.00801 Montana

Pit toilet, river, bench, grill, grizzly bear

The scenery is otherworldly as you drive through Montana, the straight roads cut through the rolling hills of the landscape. Lowry Bridge offers you a resting spot to sit back and appreciate the landscape in peace. There is bear scat around and there have been sightings of a grizzly around the site, Montana is one of the only lower states in which they thrive, you should be extra vigilant with packing away food and cool boxes.

 DSC_0228Mill Canyon Road GPS 38.71268, -109.73934  Utah

Pit toilet, dinosaur footprints

This is a dispersed campground so it feels more a barren area to park up overnight, it can make a good stop on the way to Arches National Park, or Monument Valley heading through Moab. Don’t drive too far along the track, it becomes sandy and you will struggle to escape with a two-wheel drive. You feel the solitude of the desert and can witness a beautiful sunset, before finishing your beer and settling in for the evening. Mill Canyon Road has the added surprise of preserved dinosaur tracks, so don’t leave without seeing these, they are a sight to behold.

Sawtooth Canyon GPS 34.670375, -116.98407 California

Pit toilet, grill, bench, dinosaur sculpture

This worked as a stop en route to Southern California, winds can arise in the area so pick a pitch that has some coverage if possible. Benches and grills are built to be sturdy in concrete, so the facilities feel a little less basic. There is a dinosaur sculpture-come-play area, which is an apt touch, considering the fossils and prints found in surrounding areas. Be sure to look up at the surrounding rocks at dusk, you may just spot some wildlife.

 DSC_0986Tuttle Creek GPS 36.564857, -118.12591 California

$5, Pit toilet, bench, grill, drinking water

Located in Lone Pine, California, right behind the 48 lower state’s tallest peak Mount Whitney and Death Valley to the East, it is an excellent gateway to some of the USA’s best National Parks. Admittedly, the site is not free (it’s $5 per night) but the price is a steal, the campground is surrounded by an extraordinary panorama. You can hike in the area or simply rest before heading elsewhere, whatever your purpose drive slowly through Lone Pine, viewing the saloons against the mountainous backdrop.

DSC_0326 (1)BLM Lands East Zion 37.249128, -112.778939 Utah

There are no facilities at this campground, it is dispersed and not wholly obvious that you are able to overnight park there in the first place. The lack of facilities is remedied by the excellent location close by to Zion National Park, heading from Bryce Canyon. Views across the vermilion sandstone landscape are dazzling at sunset. This site as found using Free Campsites another excellent resource for overnight camping, the website isn’t the most user friendly, but it is full of great information.