Sunday, October 26, 2008

Travel Free

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With the economy heading south faster than a migrating mallard, many of us (including your beloved blogger) are bone broke. That shouldn't stop you from enjoying the splendor of the natural world. I've compiled a few tips for traveling for close to nothing. I'll present these tips in a bit of a series as I write them. Today's tip is:

Tip 1: Camp for Free
For the last couple of years I've been camping for free maybe 75% of the time. Here in the US, you can do this in almost any national forest. When you're planning your route, keep an eye out for national forests. While driving through a national forest on a highway, you'll typically see several dirt roads leading into the forest. Pick any one of these, drive up it a little distance till you find a place to pull out and camp. It's that simple.
Well, Almost. There are a few extra things you need to know and bring if you choose this dispersed camping option.

First, there are often restrictions and rules you should know about. This is particularly true when it comes to building a fire, so it is a good idea to check with the USFS website to familiarize yourself with these regulations. In general, use common sense when building fires: don't build them when it is excessively windy or dry, don't build them next to trees, don't build gigantic infernos, etc.

Second, if you plan on camping in a national forest, you will need to bring toilet paper, a shovel (to put out your fire and dig a hole to do your business), and plenty of water. You should also consider bringing a chair. Remember, all you're getting is a piece of land. There are no services.

Finally, I do this in my sedan which is pretty low to the ground. This sometimes makes it challenging to travel the dirt roads. While not required by any means, vehicles with high ground clearance make life easier--particularly if it is raining or snowing. It's a good idea to have a backup campground in mind in case the dirt roads become impassible.
Dispersed camping is not for everyone. It is a very primitive way to camp. However, it is unquestionably my favorite way to camp. You have the wilderness to yourself, free from traffic and loud neighbors. There are no distractions, no buildings, no bathroom lights shining on your campsite through the night... This is the way to experience the solitude of nature!
I'm relatively new to dispersed camping. I'm sure many of you could add valuable advice to this post. Feel free to offer any suggestions.

Up Next: Cook for Free


  1. I admire you Ben, you actually have the nature all to yourself. We are not seasoned campers, in fact, we have not tried once :( We bought camping gears and all 2 years ago, but never got the chance to even practice breaking camp :( I really love too though. I am encouraging my husband that we start practising it just nearby San Diego so that if ever, it is close to home. And when we get confident, maybe we can camp somewhere far. You have such a great tip, asde from the cost, it is really so nice to feel that you are sleeping close to nature, the closest you can get where if you want you can gaze at the stars.

  2. Really great tips you've put together here, Ben. I like to avoid fees too and enjoy camping on Forest Service of BLM lands. Plus, it's nice to get away from the crowds. I had to chuckle at the bring your shovel tip. So important and easily forgotten. It made me smile. :)

    Have you ever considered CouchSurfing? It's not camping, but it's free and seems like a great way to stretch your travel budget. I've been trying to get involved in the CS community but have yet to host or be hosted. Hopefully someday. Here's a link for CouchSurfing if you're interested:

    Great post Ben, I enjoyed it and am looking forward to your other free tips.

  3. betchai,
    There are some real nice spots in the Cuyamaca Mountains just east of San Diego. Take a look at Cuyamaca State Park. These spots are around 30 min-1 hour away depending upon where you live.
    They have several campgrounds with flush toilets, showers, etc. Spend a night at one of these to cut your teeth.

    Nice to see you again! I completely agree: getting away from the crowds is one of the best things about this type of camping.
    I have considered trying CouchSurfing. I haven't yet, so if you host or are hosted let me know how it goes.

  4. I have camped plenty ever since I was a various forms. I enjoyed primitive best, of course, there was always a restroom not too far away! To travel and camp the way that you do must be an awesome feeling! At least now, all I have to do is walk out the cabin and be surrounded by our woods.

  5. Some great ideas, I've done this many times with my friends.

    You need to be careful and keep things clean though, sometimes other people can ruin the experience.

    We usually bring along bags for bringing our trash out. Hang the bag from a chair and keep it clean.

    The few DNR and park rangers that we've run into are really friendly and extra helpful when they see you respecting the park.

  6. Spookydragonfly,
    It must be amazing to live in among the woods the way you do. I'm a little jealous.

    How could I have forgotten to mention this in my post? Thanks for leaving it as a comment. Yes, it is extremely important that you bring out your own trash. I, too, have had to pick up after people.

  7. It truly wrecks the experience when you are out in the middle of nowhere and have to pick up after other campers..

    Great photography, thanks for the tips.

    - Evan

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  9. Me and my husband used to camp a lot in 2008 (I was new even to forest walks while he used to work in national park). It was one the most wonderful experiences in my life!

    It might be a good idea to take usual medicines like painkillers and extra shoestrings and socks!

    And I also 100% agree with Evan J about using a bag for trash. It is a disaster here in Russia that people leave lots of garbage in the forest including l-o-t-s of broken glass!

  10. Thanks for the great tips, Aluajala. I think you're my first visitor from Russia!

  11. Great post. I thoroughly enjoy the outdoors, so camping would be the perfect trip for me. Being someone on a budget, it is great to see there are ways to vacation and relax while still maintaining a budget. I love the idea of getting out into the nature without the worry of bright lights and crowded streets. It sounds beautiful. Very useful tips.Thank you for sharing!