WOW.. what a crazy, awesome, fun, intense, exhilarating, INCREDIBLE last three months we’ve had! We arrived in California in the beginning of February, and flew out of Seattle only a few days ago, the beginning of April. In that time we covered 14 national parks through the USA / Canada - Death Valley, Sequoia, Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Escalante, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Teton’s, Yellowstone, Glacier, Banff, & Yoho National Park - making our way through the states of California, Arizona, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Montana, Alberta, and Washington.
We kick started our journey in Santa Monica which is where we found ourselves our beloved Dodge Ram van. After a little TLC at the mechanic, Kirk building us a mezzanine bed and cooking area, scoring a cheap mattress on craigslist, sewing some curtains and fixing some fairy lights, we turned old Dodgey into our own cosy little camper-home.
Hundreds of adventures, hikes, photographs, laughs, and unplanned detours later, we decided to write a blog about all the things that we wish we had’ve known before setting off on our road-trip adventure! For anyone that is planning something similar, we hope that this is of some help to you :)
What’s the best way to get around?
Nothing beats the VAN LYF in the USA/Canada - we did a bit of research prior to heading to the US and it became very apparent very quickly that a lot of the spots that we wanted to visit during our trip (primarily being national parks) were not at all that easily accessible via public transport. This left us with two options - hiring a car or camper van for the three months, or purchasing our own vehicle. After contacting a few “budget” camper-van and car companies, we were being quoted a minimum of $6000 for this lengthy hire time-period and that was in the “off-season” and didn’t even include extra mileage and insurance! We realised that we could purchase a car for much much less than this amount, without the contractual obligations, and also having the opportunity to re-sell the vehicle once we were ready to leave the USA.
Craigslist very quickly became our new best friend, a website where people across America and Canada are able to buy and sell almost anything. As we were flying into Santa Monica, we started looking online for vehicles in this area. The day we flew in, we contacted a seller and by day 2 we had ourselves a new home - our 1999 Dodge Ram Van. We got to work straight away converting Dodgey into something that would be comfortable and user-friendly for the next 3 months. Kirk put his carpenter skills to great use and within a few hours we had ourselves a mezzanine bed space, cooking area, and lots of storage space underneath for all of our things. Hitting up Craigslist once again, we found ourselves a super cheap mattress., and after a quick trip to Walmart we had ourselves all of our bedding, and cooking needs - we were officially ready to commence our road-trip adventure!
If you don’t already have a vehicle, you’re certainly going to need one (we found out that hitch-hiking is actually illegal in many of the states!). If you’re planning a road-trip any less than 3 months, it may be more cost-efficient for you to look at hiring options. A few weeks before we were due to leave the country we re-advertised Dodgey on Craigslist - we were overwhelmed with literally almost 100 emails from people who were interested in purchasing him now that he was a fully set-up camper. We luckily sold Dodgey to the first couple that we showed him to, and thankfully he will continue his journey with a lovely people who will continue to take him on new adventures!
If you are NOT from the US or Canada and plan on purchasing a vehicle while in the US - feel free to send us a private message for more information about how we managed to register our vehicle without too many hassles.
Where do I start with planning my trip?
We had a long list of hikes, mountains, national parks, and stops that we wanted to make throughout the US / Canada over a three-month time-frame, but absolutely NO idea where we were meant to go first, and which roads would take us there. But thank goodness for this awesome website and phone app called Roadtrippers (link here) - this made our lives SO much easier as we were simply able to plug in exactly where we wanted to go on a map, and road-trippers linked them all up and mapped out the most logical route for us to take.
Another fabulous mobile app that we used (and something we have used all over the world) is maps.me - this is essentially an offline version of Google Maps - you download the map of your choice in advance (i.e. Utah), and once you have it downloaded, you are able to access it at any time, with or without internet / phone cell reception. This came in handy DAILY - working out which HWY exits to take, and has literally everything on here including campsites, toilets, and even backcountry hiking trails.
When is the best time of year to road-trip?
This question completely depends on who you ask! We travelled from February - April which is considered the “off season”. Off season means unpredictable weather, potential road-closures, and limited facilities at times. But it also means quieter parks.. no need at all to make campsite reservations, sometimes cheaper accomodation & campsites, and limited people on the trails and roads. Yes we had a bit of cold and wet weather every now and again, but primarily we were soaking up the sunshine and enjoying adventuring and taking photos without the crazy crowds. Every now and again we did come across trails that were unaccessible due to heavy snowfall - but there were always lots of trails that we COULD do that were just as amazing. In a few circumstances we came across roads that were closed for the winter - but there is usually always a detour that you can make, and often it turned out to be a more scenic drive.
If you don’t mind a bit of cold weather, prefer to avoid the crowds (and by crowds we mean thousands of other people in the park per day), and like the idea of not needing to pre-organise where you would like to stay, then the shoulder seasons are for you!
Another great pro is that at higher altitudes, some of the trails that you would usually hike in the summer, are open as snow-shoeing trails in the winter instead - so you can really mix up your activities!
And how many people can say that they’ve walked across a frozen lake? This was something that we were able to tick off in Canada, visiting the lakes of Banff and Lake Louise, many of them had completely frozen over for our walking (or even ice-skating if you have the gear!) pleasure.
Another tip we have is to try and time your visits to the more popular parks (Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Zion) any other time other than a weekend, public holiday, or spring break! Try to hit these hot-spots mid-week when the park’s a little quieter.
Do I need to organise accomodation in advance?
Another beautiful thing about having a van or vehicle that you are able to sleep in, means that you never have to worry about pre-organising accomodation, because no matter where you are you will always have a comfortable bed.
If you are planning your road-trip in the peak months through the Summer, then YES, you definitely DO need to pre-organise your accommodation if you are looking for hotels, or even campsites. We were advised by numerous parks that in the summer months the campsites can book out 6 months-prior - you can organise your campsite bookings quite easily online through the government national parks website. Other than camping in designated campsites in the National Parks, pulling your vehicle over anywhere else within the parks including car-parks, pull-over’s, and trail-head’s is a big no-no, and the rangers will definitely fine you once they find you.
Hotels & Lodges aren’t really within my budget, what other options do I have?
All of the National Parks have wonderful campground facilities, with toilets, picnic tables, fire-pits, bear boxes for food storage, and sometimes even showers. However this type of luxury camping comes at a price! Generally we found that the campsites could cost you anywhere between $15 - $25 USD per night in both the State and National Parks. (These prices are usually for up to 6 people and 2 vehicles - so it works out not too bad if you have a larger group, but for just 2 x people it can become pricey) There were a few occasions in which we stayed at these campsites and lapped up the facilities, and some of them were truly beautiful, set along a river or right next to a mountain range. But for 90% of the time, we stayed in free campsites / National Forests, and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Land.
We used an awesome website called freecampsites.net to help us locate spots close to where we wanted to be to stay the night without a fee. Most of the time these spots didn’t have toilets or any facilities, but we were okay with this when it meant that we were saving ourselves lots of pennies that we could put towards other wonderful things. The visitor centres at the National Parks were always more than happy to point us in the direction of the closest BLM land or National Forest - both of these areas are usually always completely free of charge, and most of the time were no more than a 5-10 minute drive from the entrance of the parks! And don’t feel like you will be out in the wilderness all on your own, there were always still lots of people around, enjoying fires together and having a good time out there.
There were also a few occasions where we were driving from one national park to another, and free campsites were limited as we were more so in a small city / town environment. During these instances we camped the night in a Walmart car-park. Lots of other travellers that we had met recommended that we were able to do this for free with no problem or risk of your car being towed. We found this to be the case 99% of the time, always seeing lots of other van’s or RV’s in the car-parks over night. Only in the extremely large cities (i.e. Salt Lake City, Utah) did we have troubles with this as the carparks stipulate that no over-night camping is permitted. But on the whole, there are Walmart’s all over the place that are more than welcoming to happy campers! & it means you can stock up on your food while you’re there too :P
Other options for when you are needing a shower, WIFI access, recharge your electronics, and to do some laundry, is to stop-off at a campground like a KOA. We used the KOA campgrounds a few times, and for around $25 per night you can get a basic tent site with power and water - with all facilities on-site.
Food! What am I going to eat when I’m constantly on the road?
We invested in a two-burner cooker from Walmart which only set us back around $30 and we used it religiously every single day.. You can’t beat waking up to a hot breakfast and coffee! If you’re looking to save some pennies, we would defiantly recommend doing grocery shops regularly and cooking your own foods. There are lots of restaurants, cafe’s and take-away options around the national parks, however most of these are rather pricey given their location.
Travelling for 12 months around the world, we are in major penny-saving’s mode for most of the time, so our breakfast’s usually consisted of eggs & toast or granola and muesli. For lunch we would make sandwiches packed with lots of salads, and for dinner’s lots of pasta dishes, rice dishes, and median - mmmmmm taco’s. Make sure you stock up on all the fun fire-cooking foods too like hot potatoes, popcorn, and corn on the cob! Ooh, and how could we forget SMORES - thanks to our new friends who we met in Zion NP for teaching us all about delicious amores. Boiled eggs, muesli bars, and fresh fruit all make for super easy, relatively cheap, and healthy snacks while on the go or on the road too.
Will there be internet connection around, or will I be completely off the grid?
We are travelling without a sim-card in our phone and solely relying upon public WIFI to keep in touch with the outside world. We were incredibly surprised with how available WIFI was on our journey. 90% of the Visitor Centre’s in the National Park provide free wifi, otherwise, there is ALWAYS a Starbucks or McDonald’s close by. As well as keeping on top of our social media account, WIFI was awesome for checking road updates and weather forecasts.
Are there entrance fee’s payable at the National Parks?
Yes. Standard national park fee’s in the US were $30 USD per vehicle, valid for 7 days. This is on-top of any backcountry hiking permits or camping permits that you may also want to obtain. However, if you have intentions of visiting anymore than 2 National Parks within a 12 month period, then you are best off purchasing the $80 Annual Park Pass - this park allows you entrance into any National Park within the US for an entire 12 months.. After travelling to a dozen of them, we definitely got our money’s worth!
In Canada, we were fortunate enough to be visiting when they are celebrating 150 years - for the entire year of 2017 Canada Parks are offering free entrance to all - how awesome is that!?
What should I bring with me?
Anything that you would bring with you on a standard camping trip and then some! We packed clothes for every season, and every season is exactly what we experienced. One day we were in shorts and singlets, the next in raincoats and boots! We were fortunate enough to be sleeping in a fully insulated van with carpeted walls/floors/roof, so our nights didn’t get too cold - if you don’t have this luxury however, be sure to pack extra bed-socks and lots of thermal layers.
We also found that our crampons and hiking poles came in handy on numerous occasions, especially in the higher altitudes where there was still a bit of snow or ice on the hiking trails.
If you do decide to road-trip in the shoulder season, also ensure that you have snow-chains with you. However most areas that do require snow-chains always have nearby shops where you are able to rent them.
Be bear aware! Some areas in the spring and summer months will recommend that you bring along bear spray with you for that little bit of extra protection. We managed without as when we were visiting the bears were only just beginning to emerge, and instead just made sure that we made lots of noise when hiking the backcountry trails, or hiked in groups of 3 or more.
If you’re camping in the national park, you are not allowed to collect firewood so make sure that you bring your own so that you don’t pay the high last minute prices
Toilet paper! Lots of the trails are long ones, when nature calls - be prepared!
Something fun to do: if you’re travelling with a bit of extra space in your van, pack yourselves some fun toys! Frisbee’s, football, all the good stuff for enjoying afternoon’s by the campsite
How much time should I allow myself in each National Park?
This will completely depend on the National Park that you are visiting, however we generally stayed at each place anywhere between 2 - 5 nights. Parks like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, and Yellowstone have SO much to do and explore, you could literally spend weeks in each one! Where as others you can drive through rather quickly, see some of the hot-spots, and move along. What we would recommend is going into the visitor centre as soon as you arrive, and letting the rangers there know what you’re after - whether it’s wildlife, hiking trails, sunsets, photography opportunities, they know their stuff and they always recommended some great off the beaten track stuff for us to check-out if you ask for it! They will also give you current updates about trail conditions and wildlife movement, as well as handy free maps.
We preferred to stay a few days in each place and completely soak up all that it had to offer, rather than jump from park-to-park each day, and we are so glad we did it this way as not once did we feel rushed, and we left for the next adventure when we felt ready. Yeah, there are still a huge number of places that we didn’t get the time to go and see, but it just gives us a reason to have to come back another time, doesn’t it :P
Will I be doing some big distance driving?
Yes. Some of the drives between the parks are LONG (up to 8 hours), break these up by making regular stops to jump out of the car, take some photos of the gorgeous landscapes, do some stretches, and don’t always feel like you need to do the full commute on the same day. We had a rule that as soon as the sun would go down we would stop driving, we didn’t want to miss out on not being able to see any of the breathtaking scenery along the way!
Ps. Fill up on your gas as far away from the national parks as possible, as the prices are always a lot higher around these towns - to save a dollar, you can even google search close gas stations and you’ll have price comparisons there for you!
As well as this blog post, we also have a few other individual posts about some of our favourite parks that we spent some time in that we would recommend as MUST-see's, check out the direct links below to read more and see lots of our photos from each place!
If there’s anything we’ve missed or any other questions you guys have, please please flick us a message at WeLiveWeExplore@outlook.com, or via the “Say Hello” link on our website - we promise to get back to you!