1. You can camp for free.
I’ve paid for 7 campsites in 10 weeks. There are various places where one can find free camping. National Forests generally allow free dispersed camping, as does the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Most of these free campsites do not have facilities but in a camper van it works out great. I’ve also stayed up all night shooting the stars and went to sleep as the sun was rising which is not considered camping at a national park. Some of these free sites are rarely used and would be a great place to bring a small group and have it to yourselves. Oh, and any Walmart across the country will not hassle you if you sleep in your car in the parking lot.
2. Be prepared
I’ve run into several people on the road who have needed assistance and could have benefitted from being better prepared. One pair of hikers was lost in Canyonlands – Needles because they had left the trail map in the car, but more importantly forgot what the trailhead was called where their camp site was. I ran into the desperate bunch around sunset and helped them get out. Luckily it was a fairly painless lesson for them. It’s good to have a plan when venturing out in the wilderness, know where you’re going and how you are getting out. Then have a backup plan. I carry a light weight space blanket ($2 on amazon) and a flash light with extra batteries whenever I go out in case I just stuck out after dark. There are many other safety things that you can bring, for example I carry my inReach Delorme satellite text messenger for emergencies when the trail is isolated and it’s not guaranteed to see others.
3. When you need something, others will help you
The two hikers I helped get off the trail at Canyonlands had a campsite in the full campground which they offered to share with me. (Yes, I could have driven to another campsite outside of the park, but it was nice be there) Sometimes things just end up working out in ways that one could never has predicted. Just be open to the possibilities around you and when meeting other people.
4. You can get most things on the road simply and quickly
The areas around parks and wilderness are generally setup to handle travelers. Filling my water tank at RV campgrounds is sometimes free but never more than $5. Dumping grey water at do it yourself car wash places is an interesting way to empty a grey water tank but many parks and campgrounds have free dump sites. Get the Gas Buddy App (iPhone & Android), it’s free and it reliably tells you where fuel stations are with current prices. This is essential if you have a diesel vehicle.
5. Be early or stay late to find a moment of solitude and bliss
At many of the big attractions sunrises and sunsets can be quite popular for good reason. However in the morning many people show up late (after the really good light is over) or leave after the sun dips below the horizon. At the Grand Canyon after everybody had left, nearly 40 minutes after the sun had dropped below the horizon, seven California condors swooped up from below the rim right in front of me, took up a formation and sailed off into the sunset. It was an epic park moment that I treasure.
6. Get off the beaten path
The main attractions at parks are amazing, but don’t assume that the places not as heavily pushed by the rangers and park brochures are not good. Many low traffic trails are magical places to find some amazing moments. In Joshua Tree they allow wandering off marked trails, which more of the wilderness experience. I took unpopular trail at the busy Barker Dam area and never saw anybody all afternoon. Instead, I found a special small, lush canyon that had a naturally maintained trail running through it where a desert tortoise lived. The top entrance of the canyon I now call “Tortoise Canyon” was blocked off with heavy brush except for a small slot in the rocks. The lower entrance, guarded by two lone Joshua Trees (The Gatekeepers), looked certainly unappealing surrounded with desert scrub. Nature tends to thrive in places where it’s left alone.
7. It gets really hot in the desert
This may be an obvious one, but it is something I didn’t think about when I planned my trip. The California lowlands, Arizona and most of Utah are large desert areas with temperatures teaching over hundred in the day. Waking up early and starting hikes at dawn is the best way to beat the heat. Also prepare to carry 4 liters of water for a long day hike, yikes! Take time to check weather conditions before and throughout your trip.
8. Don’t rely on cell service
Many of these areas do not have cell coverage which means if you are counting on being able to look up trail information once you get there you could end up unable to find it. Email yourself the text of the webpage so that it is available offline.
9. Use the Google maps cache for offline navigation
Google maps downloads map data as you zoom in and move around the map, it then stores that information in memory and can use it when you lose cell coverage. As long as wifi is turned on your location will still accurately be displayed.
Before going into an area, take some time when you have coverage to zoom in and scan around the map. Park roads as well as forest roads are usually shown and sometimes even labeled. I discovered this in Death Valley where I as traveling dirt roads for 3 days, and many of the roads were not signed. Google helped me navigate through this with confidence that I was on the correct road.
10. Have a reliable renewable power system
This one is primarily for photographers but would be a convenience for anybody. In order to charge your camera batteries, cell phone, and upload data from your memory cards to a laptop takes time and more importantly power. It is great to have power with you in your vehicle. A portable battery along with an inverter can run a laptop and most of your electronics. While you drive the car you can charge the portable battery so it’s ready when you need it. This way you don’t accidentally kill your starter battery and get stranded.
There are various size batteries depending on how much capacity you will need. The salesmen at batteries plus are great resources for figuring out a solid power system. A solar charge panel on the roof of your car is the best way to get a charge during the summer.
Traveling to national parks and wilderness is an amazing experience that I highly recommended. I hope I’ve covered some key tips that can make that experience much more enjoyable and manageable so that you are more eager to get out there and discover some cool stuff.
The classic way to camp in a tent will work, but getting a vehicle that you can sleep in is better for long trips, and a camper van with power, a refrigerator, and water tank, is indispensable for working while on the road. You can see more details of my Sportsmobile van in a recent post.