Never Pay for a Place to Sleep!
++++++++++The basics: YOUR VEHICLE
Your vehicle is the sine-qua-non of sleeping free. There are places to sleep free in a tent--but you can't get to one without a vehicle unless you are ready to walk all day, and if you're that kind of a traveller, find a publication more suited to your needs. You will be sleeping in your vehicle, or in a tent near your vehicle, so the choice of car is important. The options are a camper, a pickup-with-shell, a van, a mini-van, a station-wagon, or a car. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages, which you will have to weigh according to your own tastes and needs.
Since you're traveling on the cheap, you'll also be considering the price of your vehicle. It's a buyer's market these days for good used vehicles, and pretty reliable cars can be bought for no more than $2,000.
Camper---A camper is big and unwieldy. In addition, much of the cost is in the back end, and you'll have to pay a lot more than just the price of a reliable vehicle. But there is plenty of room, if you like to spread out.
Van---The standard size van has plenty of room, but two distinct disadvantages. Poor fuel economy, and the fact that most owners have abused them or used them hard, so they're in rough shape when they get down to your price.
Mini-van---The Mini-van has been around long enough that there are cheap used ones around. More vertical room than a station-wagon. Unfortunately, none of them have really stood up well, and older used ones seem to be getting tired rather quickly, so repair bills may be a problem.
Station Wagons ---Small ones are too small, but okay for one person. Big ones get poor gas mileage, but are good reliable machines with lots of room, and are the best bargains in the used car price range. Mid-sized wagons may be just right for you, delivering gas mileage in the upper 20's, and with enough room for two to sleep in back.
Car ---Not suitable, unless it has a stow-through rear-deck and fold-down back-seats, in which case it works like a station-wagon. But if you plan to tent everywhere, a small car may be perfect for you.
Our last three vehicles were a '85 Ford LTD Wagon, a'87 Olds Cutlass Wagon, and a '91 Dodge Caravan. Each was about ten years old when purchased, with around 120,000 miles on the clock. We drove the wagons about 70,000 each, and have now logged 30,000 on the Caravan. None of the three cost over $2,200, and none required as much as $1,000 in repairs. Altogether we have gotten 180,000 miles out of the three vehicles, for a total cost, purchase and repairs, of less than $8,000. That's about $10 for a 250-mile driving day, and no motel to pay for at the end of it!
We remove or fold down the back seats, and keep a mattress in there at all times. Since our Minivan has more vertical room, I have a piece of paneling under the mattress, and stow flat things beneath it, like a card-table and two folding chairs, and a miscellany of umbrellas, folded raincoats, sweaters, socket-sets, etc. On one side, a camp-stove, some milk-jugs of water, our cooking kit, and various boxes of foodstuffs. Then, a picnic cooler and a milk-crate of groceries on the mattress.
When we stop for the night and we're ready for bed, we toss whatever's in the way into the front seat or on the roof (if it is raccon- and rain-proof), and crawl into the back and start counting sheep.
We also carry a tent, but rarely use it. Our first travels were in an Escort 2-door, too small to sleep in, so the tent was used virtually every night. That required an overnight stop in a place in which a tent could be erected--a very limiting factor, since it is sometimes very hard to find such a place that does not charge a camping fee.
Cooking/eating is even more so a matter of taste. A few observations: The Coleman camp-stove is an excellent device that works well and takes up little space. Buy the small 2-burner model, and get the old style, that requires re-filling a pump-up cannister with liquid fuel. The newer propane models can cost up to ten times as much in fuel for the same amount of cooking. Also, don't bother trying to keep things cold. Shop frequently for meat and veggies and eat them up. All condiments, even mayonnaise, remain tasty and safe for months at room temperature, and processed meats like hot-dogs and lunch-meats are okay for a week or two. Just rinse them off if they get slimy. Keep soda cool by storing it outside overnight, and insulating it in pillows or blankets during the day. Use your picnic cooler to store semi-perishables and fragile things. With the lid secured with a bungee cord, you can put it on the roof of the car overnight without worrying about raccoons. There is nothing Kate cannot cook in our simple kitchen-pack: A large cast-iron frying pan, a big soup-kettle,
a smaller sauce-pan, a coffee pot, a few plates, bowls, and spoons, and a good butcher knife, ladle, turner, and wooden spoon. Everything stacks inside each other--buy them all at second-hand stores for next to nothing.
************WHERE TO SLEEP************
...Okay, now where do you park? There are plenty of categories that abound in free places--but the suitability of them and the accessibility to them varies a lot from one part of the country to another, so it will depend on where you are.
... Since you will occasionally have to pay, I'll start with the official places. NEVER go to a State Park. They are public lands, owned by the people of the state. But they have been taken over as the private enclaves of the rich, with a per-day use fee imposed at the gate to keep the riff-raff out, and to support the
golf courses, swimming pools, and hot showers. On many off-season days, the money that they take in doesn't even pay the wages of the guy who takes your money. In addition to the average of $5 a day for the entry fee, the camping fee runs upward from a minimum of $12. Exception: Missouri---NO daily use fee, and only $6 to camp.
The US Army Corps of Engineers used to have free campgrounds, with a federal mandate to provide free camping facilities. Forget it--that is gone and COE properties now charge around $15 to camp.
If you want to pay a little for the secutiry and convenience of an official campground, the best bet is the National Forest system. The campsites are nearly always primitive--drinkable water and picnic tables, but no showers or flush toilets. The highest fees seem to be around $8, sometimes $5. Many less-developed sites are free. Most national forests are still really forests, and you can legally camp just about anywhere that you can safely pull off the road. A few meters up a log-truck road works fine--try not to block the road. Some National Forests look just like the surrounding countryside, with farms and driveways, and a few (Pisgah NF in North Carolina, for example) strictly prohibit camping except in the campground. A few states also have State Forests, with highly variable camping situations.
Some are just as bad as State Parks--in others, just camp anywhere. .... National Forest campgrounds that have camping fees almost always have a self-registration procedure, where you pick the campsite and leave your money in an envelope in a slot. How you deal with an honor system is your business. If the big lumber barons pay pennies for all the trees they can cut, though, you may wonder why you should pay $5 to sleep there in your car. Tent camping is fine in any of the above locations, but from here on, you'll have to be a little more circumspect about how far you can spread out. In `unofficial' camping locations, a tent will attract the attention of anyone who might want to go on a power trip.
... It is legal to park overnight in road-side rest areas in quite a few states, but I've seen several lists of them which are all wildly different, so I won't mislead you. If you are not allowed to park all night, there will be a sign that says so. But if it's a busy rest area on an Interstate highway, it's unlikely anyone will set the timer on you. It's always permitted to rest overnight at the truck-stop service stations, and safe.
... But many government properties still permit free camping, or at least tolerate it if you don't make a nuisance of yourself, or look like someone who might. One example is the public boat ramp. Americans are great outdoorsmen--and outdoorsmen who kill animals get a lot of perks. Most states have disignated areas at which fishermen can put their boats into rivers and lakes. There is parking space there for them to leave their pickups and boat trailers while they are fishing. If any authority ever looks (a rare occurrence), it is presumed that the owner of a parked vehicle is out fishing--even at
midnight. Generally, boat ramps will be signposted on the highway. Sometimes they are several miles up a poor road, and at other times, right under the highway bridge. In either case, they are as safe as anywhere, and offer a low-hassle risk. But plenty of mosquitoes!
Similar facilities in many states are the Conservation Areas--publicly -owned land set aside to preserve game and accessible lands for hunters. They will also have parking areas, but a slightly higher risk that someone will hassle you, since there isn't much night-time hunting. To locate a boat ramp or a conservation area, go to a convenience store and ask a customer who drives an old pickup or wears a dirty baseball cap. They will know.
... Such areas might be harder to find in more populated areas of the country. There, the press of civilization offers another prospect: the airport. Even the smallest airstrips have a parking lot for people who go out to log hours in their 2-seater, or charter a plane for business travel. Any airport without commercial flights will not charge for parking--the fee is nominal at worst at commercial airports. If anybody asks, give them a story about how there is an emergency back home and you have to charter a plane in the morning.
... Another kind of commuter makes still another possibility in the vicinity of large cities--the car-pool parks. On major highways around big cities, many freeway exits will have a parking lot for people to meet and car-pool to the city to their jobs. There are always a few dozen cars in them--it never occurs to any security patrol to look inside and see if anyone is asleep. Once again, have a story ready: e.g., An idiot-light flashed on your instrument panel, and you didn't want to go on until you could see a repair-man.
...In areas where you can see intensive agriculture everywhere, there are also rudimentary roads that farmers use to reach their fields. In flat states, they are called Section-lines--they form a checkerboard grid of one-mile squares. Some are un-driveable, some are paved highways. Most are just dirt roads, sometimes two-tracks. Every few hundred yards, there may be a turnoff, where a farmer pulls off into his fields. Except during intensive harvest time, he will not be doing any field work at night, so you can just pull over onto his access--but not into his fields!!! That'll really piss him off, in addition to the fact that you'll have to ask him to tow you out of the mud. Pick a road that looks like nobody would use to get from A to B. Once you find a pull-off, get out and walk the terrain before driving onto it. Nobody has ever questioned me in any such `campground'. As you go further west, into Montana or New Mexico, for example, there are fewer such back roads, but also virtually no chance that the land owner will know you are there. Remember that in these cases, you are on private land--a guest in somebody's home--treat it with the respect it deserves.
... Safety is something I've never had occasion to doubt. Nothing suspicious has ever happened in any place I've ever slept in my car. Obviously, near a big city requires more caution. By all means, lock yourself in when you go to sleep, and leave windows open less than enough for someone to reach in and unlock them. People will probably not bother you, animals will certainly not, with a few exceptions: Raccoons can be a terrible nuisance, but not dangerous. Rattlesnakes, I suppose, might take refuge for the night under your road-warm car, so be careful stepping out of the door if that is a risk. And mosquitoes. There are no mosquitoes west of the Rockies. They are worst on the Atlantic coast, from New Jersey down to the Everglades, and in the northern prairies. There is no reason for them to disturb your sleep--just duct-tape some household window-screening over the inside of the back-door windows. You can then open those windows a few inches at night, and get fresh air but no skeeters.
... A final note--in any unofficial camping place, you MAY be challenged as to what you are doing