When you’re a cheap-ass background camping and hitchhiking hobo like us, backpacking in National Parks in the States might seem as hard as crossing a mountain with roller skates. But it really isn’t. Check out how we did it and how you can do it too.
If you want to look up some info while reading, the official NPS website has ALL the information you need.
Before you begin
1. Grand Canyon or Yellowstone?
“Have you seen the pictures of the Grand Canyon? Wow! Let’s go there. But wait, what about Yellowstone and Great Smokey? Let’s go there too! Oh but my god have you seen these pictures of Yosemite?”
STOP. Now. I know, they’re all beautiful and you want to see and hike them all and get beautiful pictures in every single one of them and all of this during the same trip. If this is going to be your plan, you better invest in a car. Growing wings is also an option.
Google Maps is really good at giving us the illusion that the world is tiny and that we can jump like kangaroos from one place to another. Making choices is really hard – don’t tell me; just picking chocolate in a grocery store takes me about 30 minutes.
2. Start planning – but not too much.
Nope, you didn’t magically end up reading someone else’s blog. Why would we, out of all travelers, advice you to plan anything? Well, certainly not because we think it is fun.
The only reason we want you to plan is because we don’t want you to miss out on anything. If you want to camp in some of the most famous parks, you’ll want to plan – even months in advance. Why? Don’t click on the X yet, we’re getting to it just now.
3. Get your permits.
There it is! The one and only reason we would advise you to plan. Don’t worry about the entry permits, you’ll be able to buy those ones on the spot. If you know you’ll be visiting quite a couple of parks, buying the America is beautiful pass might be a good money saver.
However, most of the National Parks require a permit for backcountry camping. When asking for a permit, the park will ask you on which dates you think you’ll be there, hence why you have to plan.
If you’ve got big names on your list like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, make sure you ask for the permits as soon as possible. Getting those permits is a bit like playing at the lottery, especially during the tourist seasons. A lot of demand with only a few limited places.
Because the smaller parks don’t require you to buy the permits in advance, it still allows you to wander around from one park to the other without having to follow a schedule all the time, and they’re definitely also worth checking out!
Getting to the parks
Your biggest concern after having obtained your permits is finding a way to get to the national Parks. Here are some budgetary options:
1. Shared rides – $
If you don’t like accents, sharing, people or smelly cars, this is not for you. But if on the contrary you’ve always dreamed about stepping in a car with people you barely know, all of you communicating in the same language but with very different accents from all over the world, shared rides is what you are looking for. Keep in mind that you’ll be expected to help with the gas expenses.
Although sharing rides is mostly associated to road trips, and thus spending a couple of days together, it is also possible to find single-trip shared rides.
Here’s how to find them:
- Hostels. Be social, make friends, check out the boards in the common area and you’ll be finding a ride before you even realize it.
- Couchsurfing. This is not a mistake. Couchsurfing is mostly used to find a place to crash but above that, it’s a community with groups, discussions and events, which means that sometimes people organize trips and, you guessed it, road trips! We went on a road trip ourselves with two other Couchsurfers, and it allowed us to see parks we hadn’t thought of visiting!
- Craigslist. Stay safe using craigslist and pick your rides carefully. You don’t want to end up in a creep’s car.
- Other websites we found on the web but didn’t experience: Carpoolworld, zimride and rideship.
2. Public transportation – $$
The easiest way. No risks of ending up sharing a car with weird people or people you don’t like (don’t pretend you like everyone, liar) Although probably the most expensive option.
3. Hitchhiking – Free
“Are you crazy? I don’t want crazy people to pick me up!”
Well, most probably those people picking you up will be told that you could be a crazy serial killer. See, crazy people are meant to meet!
Although slower and uncertain, hitchhiking has been great for us so far and we would absolutely recommend it! There are 2 of us and I would totally understand it if you’re scared as a solo traveler. Keep in mind you can always find somebody to hitchhike with in a hostel.
If you’re on a budget, we are happy to tell you that you probably won’t even have to pay the entry fee if you hitchhike your way into the park! WHY is that? Well, the owner of the car has to pay a fee per vehicle regardless of the number of passengers and once you’re in you’re good as long as you stay inside the park.
We just saved 30$ by hitchhiking into the Grand Canyon!!
In and around the parks
Alright, so you’ve made it to the park. Congratulations!
Life would be too simple if all the trails had the same trailhead. Instead, they are all spread out across acres and acres of land.
Now what? If you found someone you share a road trip with, you’ve made it easier for yourself to get around the park. Otherwise, you’re up to yourself and your chicken legs. This might help you:
- Shuttle services. Some big National Parks have a free shuttle service that will stop at different trailheads. Just hop on the shuttle and go! Some of them are seasonal though, so look it up before heading there.
- Hike through trails. Do you like a challenge and longer hikes? Check out the NPS page of the park you are going through to see if it has hike-thru trails.
- Good ol’ hitchhiking. Yeah, hitchhiking is even a (legal) possibility inside the National Park grounds, so give it a try if you’re tired of walking from trailhead to trailhead. Make sure you have enough water and food as you might get stuck at one place for a while.
No shuttle available?
If you want to stay multiple nights around or inside the National Parks you have 2 options; dry camping or camping on designated campsites.
- Camping on designated campsites. Camping on the National Parks’ campsite means you’ll be camping on a proper campsite, on a designed area often with toilets and water. Usually, the National Parks have a couple of those camp sites at different locations inside the park. The biggest advantage of those campsites is that you’ll be able to set up your tent and leave it there for a couple of days while you hike around the park. No need to carry that big heavy bag everywhere!
- Dry/backcountry camping. Dry or backcountry camping means you’ll be camping in the wild, sometimes on designated areas. There won’t be any toilets, showers, or any of that kind of luxury. It is going to be you, the trees and the wildlife only. If necessary you can always get water at the visitor center or even a shower at the campsites.
Only detail to remember; you’ll need a permit. Check out the National Parks’ website for detailed information.
Where is it allowed?
- Designated areas in the National Park – Check out their website for more info – http://www.nps.gov sometimes free, sometimes not. Sometimes you’ll need a permit and sometimes you won’t.
- BLM land – it’s usually indicated when you enter a BLM area. The Bureau asks to try and camp on previously used spots in order to keep the nature as untouched as possible – http://www.blm.gov
- National forests. You are allowed to camp in every National Forest in the United States unless a sign specifically states otherwise – http://www.forestcamping.com
We also suggest you definitely take a look at this website. It shows you plenty of areas where you are allowed to camp for free.
You don’t know which one to pick? Here’s a little help.
If you don’t mind paying a fee (it can vary from a couple of bucks to 30$ a night), being surrounded by people and want a bit of comfort, go for the designated campsites.
If on the contrary you prefer feeling alone in the world, saving money and don’t mind walking around looking like a turtle carrying her shell between the mass of tourists, dry camping is just right for you.