Free Camping: Getting the Most Out of National Forests

We spent the summer traveling across the US in our Subaru and didn’t pay to camp once. Read on to find out how!

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34 days on the road, 7500 miles, 9 states, 2 countries, $0 spent on lodging.

This summer my boyfriend, shepherd (duck) mix and I packed what we could into our Subaru Outback and the rest into a storage unit and took off on a month long road trip. We had limited funds and of course unforseen circumstances arose (like needing a new radiator in Kalispell, Montana) but we managed to stay in budget and have money leftover when we got home by not spending a dime on a place to rest our heads.

We spent a few nights with family members in Washington and Oregon and slept in a Fred Meyer parking lot one night in Astoria, but other than that, we tent and car camped our way across the Western US.

It can be daunting to not know where you’re going to sleep at night. Even in Colorado, where camping trips are usually planned several weeks in advance and locations are known, it can be hard to find a place where you don’t have to pay to pitch your tent. I’m writing this article to share my experience and tips on how to camp in any state for free!

First off, stop Googling “free places to camp near xxx”. If you find any real information, everybody and their brother who was planning on camping in the area has already found it and you will be lucky to find a spot. Grab yourself a physical map of the area and pick a National Forest with a road running through it. As long as there aren’t “no camping” signs or posted regulations, YOU CAN CAMP ANYWHERE in a National Forest*. We had terrible luck with Google Maps showing proper forest boundaries on our trips, so we stuck to physical maps showing boundaries. Once we saw where a national forest began and what the boundaries looked like, we would load the area on Google Maps while we still had cell service. We’d use Maps to look for Forest Service roads (usually indicated by NF, FS or other logical letters before a number) and head for those. Loading satellite images of the area can be helpful to try to decipher what might be flat or have a nice clearing, but if you’re on the road with iffy service, just alot yourself plenty of time before dark to find a place and head towards a Forest Service road.

As a rule of thumb, we never start looking for a camping spot unless we’ve seen a forest service sign or a “welcome to the national forest” type sign. Once we’re sure we’re in the clear, we start exploring the national forest roads. Generally, try to aim away from any private land as distinguishing what’s public and what’s private can be tricky. Take every dubious looking dirt spur road. They often end in the best campsites. Seeing fire rings is an indication that a site is good and that you are indeed where you think you are.

If you don’t have ample time to explore the area, make sure you have a plan B. We tried to set the tent up most nights because there was more space to sleep, but there were oftentimes where we couldn’t find a flat enough place to pitch camp, or there wasn’t much but a small pull out on the side of the road. If you can sleep in your car, you have more options. There were plenty of times we set up the table and chairs and made dinner on the side of a little used dirt road and then slept in the car. In both Montana and Washington, we saw tire tracks off the side of a frequently used paved state highway (in national forest!) and camped with just a bit of forest separating us from the road. It might not always be glamorous, but if you have room in your car, you can sleep pretty much anywhere once you know what you’re looking for. That being said, we were able to pitch our tent more than half of the places we went. There are amazing free campsites all over, you just need patience to find them!

A few dispersed camping etiquette tips…
•If you don’t know the area well, look up fire bans before you go. Don’t have a fire if there’s even a chance of a fire ban, make sure you have a quick way to put it out and burn local wood to avoid spreading  pests! As a rule of thumb, we never had a fire if there wasn’t an existing fire ring.
•If you’re camping near water, do your bussiness and despose of your waste water away from the water source. I believe there’s a 25ft rule, but use common sense.
•Bury your #2 deep and throw toilet paper away in your own trash bag. Feces and used toilet paper attracts bugs and ruins nice campsites.
•Pack it out! This should be a no-brainer, but we encountered horrible amounts of litter on our trip. Bring your own trash bags and throw away EVERYTHING. Don’t burn it unless its paper and it won’t leave a trace and don’t throw your trash around. No one is cleaning up after you.
•Be bear and animal aware. Put anything that smells in your car. Food, trash and dishes attract unwanted visitors.
•Be smart about the roads you’re driving. Some of those dirt spurs? They turn into rock crawler roads with no places to turn around. I’m lucky my boyfriend’s the world’s best backwards driver or I’d still be stuck in a forest on the Olympic Penninsula. If you don’t have 4WD, AWD or high ground clearance, be aware and stay on the main roads. If a road looks sketchy, get out and walk it first. If you don’t have cell signal, finding a tow is gonna be a problem!

Sure, its easier to pay the $10-$20 campgrounds want, but what are you getting for that? A pit toilet and a flimsy picnic table? Frequently we would find a nice campsite half a mile from a campground and be able to use their dumpsters and toilets without paying for the priveledge of setting our tent up there. Sometimes if you’re lucky, you can find designated dispersed camping sites that have tables, fire rings and pit toilets and are free of charge and first come first serve. Follow these GPS coordinates for approximate location of one between Grand Tetons and Yellowstone in Wyoming: 44.108489,-110.668543 and these : 41.861242,-122.772761
for a state highway in NorCal that has a bunch (but this highway IS miserable. )

Its amazing what you can find when you take the time to look. We found great camping just outside Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier and Rainier all for free. We even found camping along the Oregon Coast which was a crazy find on a summer Saturday night.

Good luck, and happy travels!

*This means national forest. Not national rec area, not national wildlife refuge, not national park. NATIONAL FOREST ONLY.

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Free camping with amenities in Wyoming

Two Humans, A Dog and a Subaru Living in Wanderlust

Hello Again, I just couldn’t stay away!

Life is back in full swing after our trip. I found a new job, Topher is halfway through his first semester back at college, Kenzie is back to lounging her days away in her many beds and the Subaru is happily parked, glad we’re not putting 5,000 miles a month on it anymore.

I learned so many things this summer, but the biggest lesson would have to be that adventure is not just some big, life changing trip. Adventure is how you choose to live. I struggled those first few weeks being back. I felt aimless. Looking for a job felt meaningless. [How do you do what you want to do with your life when what you want to do is wander the world?] My days spent home alone while Topher was at school were filled with longing. We’d already tried packing our bags and driving into the sunset; that wasn’t the solution. Or was it?

Two Fridays ago, we woke up feeling aimless and threw our sleeping bags and a box of Pop Tarts in the car and drove to Aspen. We slept in the Subaru up a crazy 4 wheel drive road in frigid temperatures and ate said Pop Tarts for dinner. And breakfast. And maybe lunch the next day, but don’t tell my mom. But the point is, we had this epic adventure. We woke up to the most amazing view, drove through some of the prettiest country and satisfied our wanderlust. For a few days at least. Instead of planning for another huge adventure that might not happen until Topher graduates college, I switched my focus to looking forward to the next adventure. This summer made us brave. We can sleep in the Subaru like pros. We’re good at finding places to park. We can wake up at 10 on a Saturday and go tackle a 7 mile hike. Sometimes our adventures are as little as trying a new coffee shop. Sometimes they’re as big as taking off on a Friday night, no plans in mind. I guess it took our wild and crazy adventure this summer to prove to me that we didn’t need to be doing anything differently. We’re living that life of adventure I’ve always dreamed of and I don’t think I’d realized it until we came home.

Am I still living for the weekends? Admittedly yes, I am. My “Every Day is an Adventure” coffee mug hasn’t quite convinced me grocery shopping is an adventure yet, but I’m now working virtually and following my creative passions so I’m working on it!

Long story short, I decided this would be the perfect platform to relaunch my blogging efforts. I feel like I have a lot to share, that we as a little family have a lot to share for people like us.  I hope Topher will help me out on here, no promises, but we will be sharing recaps of our adventures, tips of ‘living the adventure lifestyle’, trail reviews, random musings, etc, etc, etc. I know a lot of you are signed up to follow us from our trip and please feel free to unfollow if you’re not interested in this re-brand, but I hope you’ll follow along with us!

 

Xoxo,

Mikaela

 

The End.

We have now been back in Denver for one week. This is my third attempt at writing this final post, I’m not quite sure why the words won’t come. Maybe its because I don’t want it to be over. Maybe its because once its over it means reality is setting in again. Maybe its because there aren’t words to express the experiences Topher, Kenzie and I had.

Our trip came to a close much as it started; an energy drink filled all nighter. We had two more weeks before it was time to move into our new place, but none of us wanted to string the trip out just for the sake of taking up time. We were tired and dirty and a little homesick. We found ourselves in northern California where it was hot day and night and decided last Wednesday at 4pm that it was time to go back to Denver. Stat.

We took turns driving through the night and pulled into Denver at 2 last Thursday…22 hours straight! It was a crazy, magical last push of our journey. We watched the sun set over Eastern California, gazed at the stars over the Nevada desert and watched the sunrise over the mountains in Salt Lake.

As I let the reality of being back soak in, I’m remembering pieces of our adventure and it feels like a lifetime ago. We saw so many amazing things and places, had so many experiences. We were really and truly spontaneous. 90% of the time we had no idea where we were going to sleep, what adventures the next day would hold, if the car was going to overheat, where our next shower would be. When we started out, we were headed to Canada. Though I’m a little dissapointed that particular adventure didn’t work out, we changed directions spontaneously and had an amazing trip. We explored the streets of Seattle, canoed on the Olympic penninsula, watched the sunset parked on the beach, stood under a waterfall, rode a ferry, saw wild horses, ate blackberries from our campsite and saw every small town in Montana and Washington. We saw bison and mountain goats, golden eagles and osprey. We got to be in the company of family and revisist places from our childhoods. We saw geysers and lava rock, snow capped peaks and temperate rainforests. We wore down jackets in frigid campsites and swam in mountain lakes. We watched sunsets and sunrises. This trip made me realize what I’m capable of, what we’re capable of together. It made me realize that adventure is continuing on even when the plans fall through. It made me love Denver even more. It made me want to travel even more. It made me realize how far we can get when we put our minds to it. It made me never want to eat hummus again. It made me realize how much I love the guy I get to spend the rest of my life with and our sweet dog. It made me love life just a little more.

I’m struggling being back. Its nice to sleep in a bed and shower regularly and wear clean clothes, but I miss getting up every morning and having to boil water for coffee. Having to pitch camp every night. Having a new adventure to look forward to every day and a new view to wake up to every morning. I miss listening to Watsky on repeat and staring at the views out the car window. I don’t really want to job hunt or move into a new place. But everything’s an adventure, right? Or at least, we return to reality, so we can continue to plan new adventures.

Thanks for following along and for your supportive words along the way.

Much love,
Xoxo,
Mikaela

Central Oregon

It seems like the closer we get to our trip coming to a close, the faster the days seem to go! I’m realizing we’re a week behind on blogging already.

Last week, after leaving the coast, we spent a day in Eugene visiting with my extended family which was super great. I haven’t seen any of them since I was 16! (Loved seeing you guys! Xoxo)

We took the scenic route up and over the Cascades and saw some amazing lava flows! Its pretty incredible to come out of the trees and see a huge expanse of barren earth, covered in black pumice stone. There’s an observatory at the top of McKenzie pass that looks like a castle! McKenzie got to play in her namesake river and was not dissapointed.

We spent a few days with my mom who lives on a farm a little north of Bend. It was so good to see her and her husband and to relax in the AC for a 100° heat wave! We spent a day in Bend and visited Deschutes Brewery where I actually tried a flight (with help of course!) Before we left on Saturday, we went to the farmer’s market and convinced my mom to come home with two free kittens (not gonna lie, Cayenne and Chipotle may be the highlight of my trip!)

We spent a night camped near Mt Bachelor and it was insanely buggy. Our original plan had been to explore the Sparks Lake area, but the mixture of bugs and car problems induced by driving nearly 6k in a month chased us back to Bend. It was fortuitous though, because we ended up at Tumalo Falls which is insanely cool!  Its a 97′ waterfall with three vantage points. You can watch it head on, climb up and look at it from above, or climb down a sketchy, unmarked trail and stand behind it in the mist. It was so cool to look up at a waterfall from behind and see all the rainbows from the light filtering through and get misted on. We found a great camping spot near the creek and spent the afternoon reading with our chairs in the water, drinking hard cider.

The constant cloud cover and showers that plagued the first few weeks of our trip have been replaced by relentless sun and clear skies. We’ve finally gotten several chances to go stargazing, which is one of my favorite activities. I love looking up and seeing the vastness of it all. It makes me feel so small and insignificant. I know that’s a strange feeling to love, but I like knowing that the decisions I struggle with, my problems and feelings are truly inconsiquental. We are itty bitty pieces on the story of space and time and I feel fortunate knowing that my life was given to me to be used to the fullest. Its all gonna work out, no matter the path I may take. OK…rambling over!

We are headed a bit south now before we mosey on home. It is hot and dry and we are taxing the car’s AC and swiftly filling up a Dutch Bros punch card before we leave the West Coast. We’re a little homesick and a lot dirty and can’t wait to see all you beautiful people in Colorado. We won’t even complain about the drivers. Oregon’s are worse!

Xoxo,
Mikaela

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Sunset over Jefferson at my mom's place
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A beautiful, but buggy camp
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Kitties!

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Our trip down the coast – a human perspective :p

Kenzie and Topher decided that she (Kenzie) should write a blog post about our time on the coast and while Kenzie is entertaining, she is not very elaborate, so I thought I might expand on our last week. Please forgive our ridiculousness. We have had very little human contact in the last few weeks!

After leaving Sequim, we spent a big day journeying down the Washington coast. We had planned on staying at a campground on the beach along the way, but a Friday night mid-summer and everything was booked up. We crossed the border into Astoria, OR around 10pm and decided to call it a night in the Fred Meyer parking lot (King Sooper’s bigger, better cousin for you Coloradans!) We’ve been sleeping in the car alot through our trip but to use the full back area, we have to get our bins, table and cooler out of the car. That seemed a little sketchy in a parking lot, so I curled up horizontally in Kenzie’s space behind the front seats, Topher reclined the passenger seat and Kenzie was a trooper and squished in the driver’s seat with the steering wheel as a pillow. It was a pretty sleepless night, but we perservered. It was an early morning, fueled by Dutch Bros, but we found a picnic area overlooking Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock and made a big breakfast. It was absolutely beautiful! We played on the beach and had a marvelously good time.

We continued down the beach to Rockaway, where Topher’s family vacationed when he was a kid. It was fun to revisit the shops and beaches and places he remembered from his childhood.

After a brief detour to Seaside, we found a nice campsite in the National Forest near Pacific City and spent two nights there. We toured the Tillamook cheese factory and went to the Tillamook air museum and went to Munson Falls. We watched the sunset from a beach in Pacific City that cars could drive up on the sand, which was really neat!

Our final day on the coast, we visited Yaquina Head Lighthouse outside of Newport. The tide was out and the tide pools were full of orange and red starfish and purple urchins. I love the way the round, black, perfectly smooth rocks that make up the beach sound when the waves wash over them.

We had lunch at Mo’s in Florence, which I remember from family vacations when I was a kid, and browsed the shops and ate our fill of fresh salt water taffy. We spent the evening on the beach. Topher dug holes and Kenzie helped, until she saw a seagull and caved the hole back in. We picked up THE MOST LIFESAVING TIP from a young family on the beach, baby powder makes sand magically disappear! Sandy fur, sandy toes, sandy hair, baby powder rids the sand and makes everyone feel soft and smell nice. Kenzie got doused in it.

We’re a little behind on blogging, so will post more soon, but enjoy the pictures of our few days on the coast in the meantime!

Xoxo,
Mikaela

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Breakfast with a view!
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Mikaela and McKenzie at Yaquina Head
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Besties ♡
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My family♡
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Yaquina Head, looking dreamy!

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Mua Petit Kenard

My name is Ken-z I’m ten  and a half years old and this is the story of the week I got to spend on the beach. 

My story startus when we left a house in the forest. I liked the house. After the forest I had to sleep in the front seat of the car. Mom got the back. Dad slept next to me and tried to share his pillow. I didn’t like that. I didn’t sleep well. 

After that we went to the beach.(Indian beach) I had breakfast. It was kibble. Then we went to the beach. I made a wave. And drank salty water. Then my people went to rockaway canon beach and seaside. Then we went to the woods. I like the woods. 

The next day we went to a factory with lots of cows. (Tillamook cheese factory) i didnt get to go in but they brought back ice cream. And shared. Then we went to a waterfall and i get wet. I liked that. Then we went to a big building i wasn’t allowed in. (Tillamook air museum) i took a nap. Then back to the forst. I like the forest. Then we spent a day on the beach and i helped dad dig holes. Then we went to a farm (miks mom tamis farm) and i like tha farm. And thats my story. 

Smudge 

Washington and Victoria

Hello!

Mikaela, here again! We can’t believe we’ve been on the road for almost three weeks!

On Sunday we did Rainier National Park. The last time I was there was scattering my Papa’s ashes ten years ago, so it was humbling to be back. It feels pretty awesome to stand at the foot of a mountain where tourists are ooh-ing and ahh-ing and to know your father and grandfather have conquered and summited.

After 17 nights of camping, we pulled into Topher’s grandpa’s on the Olympic Penninsula in Washington and it has been SO NICE to shower (I was going on 11 days! Ew!) and sleep somewhere warm and soft. Our stay coincided with Topher’s parents so its been nice to see familiar faces and be around family for a few days!

My 22nd birthday was on Tuesday. Yes, I am feeling 22 😜. We spent the day exploring the towns of Sequim and Port Angeles and chasing Topher’s childhood memories of bookstores and burger joints. When we were originally headed to Canada, my birthday wish was to go canoeing on Lake Louise in Banff. Since we’re not in Canada, we went canoeing on Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park. Since we were still with Topher’s grandpa, we were able to leave Kenzie behind so we didn’t have to find out if she likes to canoe or not! Lake Crescent is beautiful! The water is the most amazing navy blue, turquoise in some places and amazingly clear. Its over 600 ft deep. A huge tree had fallen in the water and the top of it was so deep, we couldn’t reach it with our paddles! It was super calm and so peaceful. I’m not very good at paddling, but I love canoeing. Being on the water and getting around using your own power is really neat and Topher makes up for my lack of skill! The Lake Crescent Lodge is a beautiful victorian style building with a great sunroom restaurant overlooking the water. We tried some local cider and had an amazing afternoon!

Yesterday we took the ferry to Victoria, BC (so we did get a bit of a Canadian adventure!) I’d never been on a big boat before and so it was ridiculously exciting for me! I felt like a little kid. We didn’t bring the car, so it was a huge day of walking. We explored the shops and Chinatown (which is accesible by a super narrow ally that then suddenly opens up in a whole different world, or so it feels!). We lounged for a bit at the Empress Hotel  and on the lawn of the legislature building and walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a floating houseboat community, which was really, really cool! There are shops, restaurants and houses, all floating!

We are back on the road today headed into Oregon. This weekend marks three weeks on the road!

‘Til next time!
Mikaela
(PS, if anyone has any questions about our trip so far, feel free to ask! Would love to answer!!!)

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Someone doing all the work!
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Ferry selfie...selfies for days!
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Fisherman's Wharf
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BC's impressive legislature building