This entry is a part of a series. Check out the rest of the Road Trip Survival Guide for more valuable information.
For most Americans, travelling away from home means spending a night in a hotel. But if you plan on being on the road for a long period of time, hotel stays are prohibitively expensive. The average daily rate for a hotel room is approximately $125 per night. In just eight nights, you could spend more than the average monthly rent payment or mortgage payment.
You can find motel rooms in the range of about $35-$60 a night. But even on the low end, you’ll still end up spending more per night than your average rent or mortgage payment. Effectively, you’ll pay double or more for your housing.
Hostels offer lower per-night rates, but they’re not a practical alternative for anyone road-tripping in the United States. The prevalence of hostels here in the states is relatively non-existent compared to our European brethren.
Lodging will almost always be your single-biggest expense. If you can find ways to eliminate that expense, you can travel further and longer. There are so many ways to get free lodging on the road. But before we continue, please review the scopes and perspectives that I’ll be addressing each of the questions presented in the Road Trip Survival Guide.
National Forests & Dispersed (or Primitive) Camping
Bar none, my favorite way to spend a night on the road is primitive camping in a U.S. National Forest. It’s free, it’s legal, and you get a truly rustic and down-to-earth experience. All you have to do is abide by a few reasonable, fair, and common-sense rules.
Leave No Trace!! I like to believe that most people who enjoy camping outdoors tend to be excellent stewards of the environment. But there are plenty of assholes who bring the modern world with them when they camp, and leave devastation in their wake. (If you are one of these assholes, pray that you never run into someone like me.) Primitive campsites usually have no facilities or amenities of any kind – including trash receptacles. It is your responsibility to pack up all of your trash and bring it with you when you leave the campsite. Bodily waste also needs to be buried in a responsible manner, since most primitive campsites do not have toilets, either.
You can’t settle into a campsite indefinitely. I haven’t done a comprehensive survey of the rules of each and every U.S. National Forest (there are over 150 of them), but my sampling suggests that the rules on this vary from forest to forest. I’ve seen posted limits of 11, 14, and 16 days. Afterward, you have to move a certain number of miles away before establishing a new campsite. If you’re like me, you won’t spend more than a few nights in a single location, and you’ll drive hundreds of miles before making camp again. So these limits aren’t anything you really have to sweat. In fact, they’re downright generous.
It is usually legal to make a campfire, but be extremely careful. Most primitive sites will have an existing fire ring, stone pile, or fire pit. Use it. Don’t start a new fire anywhere else. Heed nearby fire warnings (aka Smokey the Bear signs). Although you should always be vigilant, exercise extreme caution if the Fire Danger Level is “high”. If the level is “very high” or “extreme”, do not build a fire at all.
Primitive campsites usually have no facilities or services of any kind. No electricity, no indoor plumbing or running potable water, no grills, no picnic tables, no trash bins, and no toilets. This is what some people call “roughing it”. I call it “living”. If you find a campsite that has these features, there’s a good chance that you are at an established campground (or near one) and you are expected to pay fees to remain there.
Where possible, camp near a lake or stream. You have to keep your campsite at least 100 feet away from any source of water. But even if you’re not inclined to drink the water, it’s helpful to have access to that water for bathing and cleaning purposes so you can save your bottled water for drinking.
People don’t visit National Forests nearly as much as they visit National Parks. I’d wager most Americans are barely aware of their existence. Once you find a campsite, you will likely enjoy a safe and uninterrupted space to spend the night.
The toughest part to camping in a National Forest is finding a campsite. For one thing, National Forests are not everywhere to be found. They are far more prevalent out west and in the deep south, and much more difficult to find in the northeast, midwest, and central plains. A map of the U.S. National Forests can be found here.
Unlike National Parks, private property can exist within the boundaries of a National Forest, so you have to be careful not to trespass onto someone else’s home. Similarly, you have to avoid the aforementioned established campgrounds if you wish to avoid having to pay fees.
If you are in unfamiliar territory, always look for a campsite before you run out of daylight. It will be a lot more difficult to identify a good campsite after nightfall. Review your maps and identify that you are within the boundaries of National Forest territory. Look for “forest service roads”. You’ll find these abbreviated in Google Maps as NFR, NFSR, FSR, FDR, FR, or something to that effect. These roads generally cut through public land. You will generally find private property along traditionally-named roads.
Drive down the forest service road and look for a small clearing off to the side. These spots are frequently marked with fire rings or other evidence of past campfires. Avoid blazing new trails or creating new campsites. Pull over completely and make sure you keep the forest service road clear for other travelers. Depending on where you are, you might go several days without seeing another soul. But these are public lands, so don’t block the roads like you own the place.
Highway Rest Areas
As much as I love primitive camping, I don’t always end the day in a location hospitable for camping. Road trip long enough, and eventually you’ll find it necessary to sleep in your car.
Although small cars can feel cramped and uncomfortable, you can get used to sleeping in your car, and there are major advantages to doing so. Vehicles make for stronger shelter against foul weather and other potential threats. You don’t have to set them up as you would pitch a tent. For the weary traveler, sleeping in your car is faster and requires much less effort. When I sleep in my truck, all I have to do is rearrange some of my cargo to free-up my passenger seat. I recline the chair, throw on a blanket, and voila! I can be asleep in as little as five minutes.
Highway rest areas are conveniently located off of major highways. On busier interstates, they tend to be reliably and evenly spaced – about 50 miles apart. Almost all rest areas have restroom facilities, a spigot for refilling water bottles, and picnic tables. Some have vending machines and/or grills. I’ve found that most rest areas on the eastern side of the country are full-service pit stops with on-site restaurants and gas stations. You can use this web-based map to find highway rest areas, or download one of these apps for your mobile device (Android or iOS).
Highway rest areas are not as common in Canada, though they do exist. I’ve observed that on the eastern side of the TransCanada Highway, rest areas are instead referred to as “picnic areas”, usually with restroom facilities, trash bins, picnic tables, and perhaps a grill. Facilities rivaling those found in the eastern U.S. can be found in the region between Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal.
Rest areas tend to be relatively safe places to sleep. Even ones close to major cities are usually far enough removed from the city to not be substantially affected by its higher crime rates. Most of the people who are spending the night at a highway rest area will be professional truck drivers and nomads like yourself. In all the nights I’ve spent at highway rest areas, I’ve never been robbed, assaulted, or the victim of any other crime.
Relatively safe as they may be, sleeping at a highway rest area is not without a degree of increased risk. I recommend keeping a knife or blunt force weapon close to your side. In the unlikely event you are accosted, you want to be able to scare off your assailant or even defend yourself if necessary. I strongly advise against carrying a firearm. If you’re awoken suddenly out of a deep sleep, the possibility of a fatal accident is way too great. Sleeping in the driver’s seat can help you make a quick getaway, though I find this uncomfortable and I worry about hitting dashboard controls in my sleep. If you have to crack open a window, do it on the side of the vehicle you’re not sleeping in so as to put some distance between yourself and a potential attacker.
Also be warned that it is not always legal to sleep overnight at a highway rest area. Many will have signs posted forbidding overnight camping. That being said, these laws are seldom enforced and you’ll probably get away with breaking them. It’s difficult for the authorities to distinguish between someone illegally spending the night and someone who has pulled over for a legitimate power nap. I’ve never been bothered by authorities, but if you are, simply apologize and move on. It’s pretty easy to claim ignorance, that you didn’t see the signs, or that you slept longer than you intended to.
I’ve heard stories about people being harassed by police or even fined for sleeping at rest areas. I am inclined to believe that other circumstances were at play that drew the attention of highway patrol. My advice is to keep a low profile. Get in late at night and depart early in the morning. Pull over, sleep, and use facilities as necessary. Don’t do anything else (legal or illegal) likely to draw suspicion or unwanted attention.
Wal-Mart Parking Lots
Like highway rest areas, Wal-Mart parking lots make for reasonably safe places to sleep in your vehicle. Wal-Marts are often located within a few blocks of a major highway or interstate. They’re good places to replenish your provisions and use a proper bathroom. Many are open 24 hours a day, and the presence of customers and surveillance cameras establish a degree of security throughout the night.
Moreso than highway rest areas, Wal-Mart parking lots represent a community gathering area for nomads, drifters, and crust punks. Here, it is almost impossible not to run into other budget travelers just like you.
Wal-Mart lots have evolved into hitchhiking hubs. Routinely harassed by police, fewer and fewer hitchers can be found loitering along the highways. These days, your best bet for finding a ride out of town or a finding a travel companion is in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
Not all Wal-Marts permit people to sleep in their parking lots, and there will be signs posted if they are forbidden. Based on observation, I believe this is not about store policy so much as it is about municipal ordinance. I’ve found that Wal-Marts within city limits forbid overnight stays, whereas Wal-Marts outside city limits (in villages and towns) permit it. Even so, as with rest areas, these rules do not seem to be strictly enforced.
If you decide to camp in a Wal-Mart parking lot, don’t park just anywhere. You will find other travelers congregated toward the far end of the parking lot (away from the store). Look for semis, trailers, and campers and park amongst them. And as much as I personally detest the Wal-Mart corporation, you should patron the store in exchange for use of their parking lot. Buy something to eat or drink. You don’t have to buy much, but buy something so that these oases don’t disappear on us.
I consider Wal-Mart parking lots to be less safe than highway rest areas because you’ll find non-nomad vagrants (beggars, the mentally ill, the homeless, alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, etc.) mixed in with nomads. I don’t say that to be judgmental or to imply superiority or inferiority. Just because someone is homeless or mentally ill doesn’t necessarily make them dangerous or less deserving of human compassion. But there is greater danger inherent to this environment, and you’d do well to remain vigilant. Again, it’s a good idea to have a knife or blunt weapon nearby, just in case.
For the remainder of this article, I’ll be discussing shelter alternatives that I have little-to-no personal experience with. I mention these not to give detailed advice (I can’t), but primarily to make you aware that these alternatives exist.
Couch-surfing is sleeping in someone else’s home (usually on the couch) for free. The easiest (and safest) way to couch-surf is to crash at a friend’s house. Between childhood friends who move away and the utility of social media, most of us have friends and acquaintances spread throughout the country (and the world). If you know that you’ll be passing through a city where one of your friends lives, crashing on their couch gives you free accommodations and an opportunity to catch up with someone you probably haven’t seen in a long time.
If you don’t have any friends in a particular city, Couchsurfing.com is the way to go. Most of the hosts are nurturing mother hen types who enjoy taking care of travelers, people who enjoy hearing stories of adventure from their nomadic guests, or other couch-surfers who open up their home as a way to give back to the couch-surfing community.
I haven’t had much opportunity to couch-surf (either as host or as a guest). I live in a small city that almost no one visits, and I rarely visit large cities myself. I’m inclined to believe that Couchsurfing works best in large cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc.) or tourist-heavy cities (Las Vegas, Washington DC, San Francisco, etc.).
The risk here is negligible. The odds of being taken in by a serial killer is about the same as hooking up with someone you met online. And Couchsurfing.com provides several mechanisms (reviews and ID verification) to weed out most of the psychotics.
Squatting in Abandoned Buildings
I haven’t done this yet, but I’ve come close – twice. I hope to do it eventually. Depending on the conditions of the building and the elements you need protection from, squatting in an abandoned building (even if only for a night) could be an interesting experience.
What has deterred me (so far) is my uncertainty that a building is actually abandoned. Unless I’ve been scouting a location for weeks, I’d be inclined to believe that I’ll be visited upon by the owner or other squatters. Both times I considered spending the night in an abandoned structure, there was evidence that although the building was vacant during the day, it likely would not be vacant come nightfall.
Being guilty of trespassing or being the victim of an assault are just two relatively small risks you take with squatting. The bigger risks you need to be aware of are the potential environmental hazards. Most abandoned buildings are abandoned for a reason. They may even be condemned. There could be structural hazards (rotting floors, leaking roofs, or buckling support beams), busted glass, faulty wiring, bad plumbing, hazardous mold, and more.
In this paranoid, security-obsessed, post-9/11 world, I’m going to catch a lot of shit for suggesting this. But a lot of transit terminals (airports, train stations, and bus stations) make for a decent place to crash. Avoid places with frequent service to local destinations (intra-city bus or subway stations where a layover of more than 15 minutes is unlikely).
Although the authorities might not like it, people sleep in airports and train stations all the time. Layovers (and delays) of several hours are common. Some areas of a terminal (especially airports) may be restricted to ticket-holders, so keep in mind that security personnel could make you produce a boarding pass. But in more public spaces, it’s not difficult to pass yourself off as a waiting customer.
I hesitate to list this one separately. The only time I did this, I was technically at a National Forest campsite that just happened to be adjacent to railroad tracks. But I’ve observed a lot of hitchers sleeping by railroad tracks, and not necessarily because they were intending to hop a train.
Railroads pass by a lot of industrial spaces and other low-population areas (particularly abandoned at night). A lot of railroads are flanked by steep changes in elevation. In some places, this creates a sort of ditch by the tracks that you can lay low in.
Beyond the fact that you will almost certainly be trespassing (if not on railroad property, then on adjacent private property), you also have to contend with the fact that if you are caught that close to the tracks, you will probably be accused of attempted train hopping.
Are These Alternatives Dangerous?
Most people reading this article might find these ideas absolutely terrifying. They imagine themselves robbed at gunpoint, assaulted, or worse. They imagine themselves much safer in a cozy (albeit expensive) hotel room. I don’t deny that these methods carry a slightly higher degree of risk. But the perceived danger of these methods is blown way out of proportion.
Much of our fear is born out of ignorance. Americans – by and large – simply do not travel this way. We’re accustomed to sterile rooms and continental breakfasts, not picking up hitchhikers and sleeping in parking lots. We don’t do long-term budget travel, and so these methods seem to us to be strange, foreign, and therefore – dangerous.
A nomad being brutally murdered at a highway rest area certainly makes for a sensational story on the evening news. The exotic nature of the crime fires up the imagination and leads us to believe that a nomadic lifestyle carries with it a short life expectancy. It’s the same logic fallacy that makes us believe that air travel is more dangerous than driving a car. The idea of plummeting tens of thousands of feet in a crashing plane is sensational and terrifying, even if it ignores the fact that more people die every year in boring auto accidents. Foreign terrorism stokes fear and imagination because of the drama of watching planes slam into skyscrapers, even though the tragedy of 9/11 is dwarfed by the number of people lost to domestic gun violence each year.
Our fears seldom bear any resemblance to reality.
Besides, no place is absolutely safe. Your home could be broken into and you could be brutally murdered in the comfort of your own bed. Playing it safe is no guarantee of a long life. So you might as well take some chances and live a little. For very little effort, you can make these methods relatively safe.
General Safety Tips
- Keep a low profile. Whether you’re trying to avoid detection for trespassing, or trying to avoid being the victim of assault – it’s important to recognize that you are more vulnerable camping out than you would be at home or in a hotel. Keep your head down and avoid drawing attention to yourself. Squirrel yourself away deep in the woods when you can, and learn how to hide in plain sight when you cannot. Be on your best behavior, don’t push your luck, and don’t do anything – legal or illegal – likely to draw suspicion.
- Keep a defensive weapon nearby, just in case. Knives are ideal since they have general utility in camping (cutting ropes, branches, etc.). Blunt instruments (like a crowbar or heavy metal objects wrapped up in a sock or bandanna) are a little less lethal. Acting in self-defense doesn’t give you the right to maim or kill someone. Always defeat your assailant with the least amount of force possible. Try to deter. Defend yourself if necessary. Try to disable before you inflict harm.
- When it comes to light, I don’t have a one-size-fits-all rule for seeking well-lit or shady places. You have to evaluate the scene objectively and decide which is best under the circumstances. A well-lit space makes it difficult for an assailant to approach you without being exposed and seen by potential witnesses. On the other hand, a well-lit space is difficult to sleep under. The light also reveals to the assailant what is inside your vehicle, whereas it is much more difficult to see into an dark vehicle at night. 90% of the time, I feel safer in an shady space. But it depends on the overall situation.
- Similarly, I don’t have a one-size-fits-all rule about being in heavy traffic or being isolated. A heavily-trafficked area has more potential witnesses which makes for more deterrence. But it also has more potential assailants, noise, and chaos. It depends on the overall situation, but 90% of the time, I feel safer in an isolated space. It’s easier for me to identify potential threats if I don’t have to parse through as much noise.
Have I missed anything? What ideas for free accommodations do you know of that I forgot to include? Do you have questions? Do none of these solutions work for you because of specific circumstances that I haven’t considered? Whatever you’re thinking – I would love your feedback! Help me make this Road Trip Survival Guide the best it can be.