How I Visited All National Parks in the Contiguous United States 🔗
This is a long one, and unless you're interested in getting some tips on how to travel in the United States from a practical and financial perspectives, you can probably stop reading when you reach the "How Did You Do It" section, where it becomes mostly recommendations, general information, and an analysis of my travel habits. I may have missed a few topics that you find important. If so, send me an email, I'll respond if I can and also update the post.
Table of Contents
- National What?
- How Was It?
- Cut the C, Which Were Your Favorites?
How Did You Do It?
- Supplies, Luggage, Clothing, Souvenirs
- Planning, Unexpected Circumstances
- Hiking, Trail Etiquette, Safety
- Camping & RVs
- Personal Security, Solo-Travel Considerations
- Miscellaneous Tips
For years, I had wanted to visit the United States. The main reason back then was cultural. Despite growing and living in Israel, I really grew up on American music, American television, American authors. In fact I was so "tuned to an American frequency" that around age 12 my brain started shifting towards thinking in English. Speaking of which, this can sometimes be quite annoying, because my thoughts often switch back and forth between English and Hebrew, and I constantly have to translate them to the language I'm actually having a conversation in at the moment, so even when I'm speaking Hebrew with fellow Israelis, I might be thinking in English and can have difficulty finding the right words in Hebrew.
I was also fascinated with Native American culture and history since I was a kid, and watched so many Western films that visiting Monument Valley was a dream for me, which I thankfully fulfilled in 2013.
So I wanted to visit, but there were always reasons not to: I didn't have the money; I didn't have the time; none of my friends were up for it. In the summer of 2012, I turned 28, and started feeling frustrated about it. I was doing my yearly routine of unsuccessfully trying to find money, time and companions, and finally said "screw it, I'm just gonna go." I opened up some random ticket search website, ran a search, and bought the cheapest tickets I could find.
The next day, I told my manager at work that I was going away for a month. I didn't have enough vacation days, and I knew taking one month off was a tall order, but to my delight—and to my manager's credit—he saw that it was burning in my bones and said "okay."
At the time, due to the high costs involved, I believed that it was going to be a one time thing, and prepared as such. I made plans and reservations for 26 out of the trip's 30 or so days, and tried to squeeze in as much as possible. I planned everything: destinations, hotels, events, etc. As far as destinations went, I wanted to see the major cities (Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas)—or major tourist traps if you will—and some of the best known nature preserves: the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and Bryce Canyon.
The trip was a huge success and extremely enjoyable. Looking back to it a full decade later, I can easily say that it affected me in a major way. It was also a disaster. Making all those plans ahead of time was naive and adversely affected the trip. When making plans for a trip, it's easy to get carried away, because all you feel is excitement. You don't feel the fatigue that inevitably comes after a while. Not only that, but on the map everything looked close by. "A five hour drive from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on a very specific day in the future? Yeah sure, sounds great, let's make a non-refundable hotel reservation in LA." As such, I always felt like I was chasing my next booked destination, and I had to make that long drive even if I was exhausted from the packed days I'd had right before it.
The trip also cost me a lot of money. With the exception of my six-month trip in 2021, it was my most expensive trip to the US, mostly because I was so inexperienced. When you're traveling alone, all the expenses are on you. There's no one to share with, and there's really no such thing as a single occupancy room in the US.
Like I said though, I only made plans for 26 days out of the full month. And those four unplanned days were perhaps the most enjoyable. You see, with no prior visits to the US, I was worried about finding accommodations "in real time," and as such arranged for it for most of the trip. I quickly learned, though, that that fear was unfounded, and it was easy to find rooms on the road. Those unplanned days also gave me some breathing room and time to regain my composure. I learned a lot from that first trip.
I didn't really know what National Parks were at the time, but I quickly learned. For those of you who don't know, because it is a topic of some confusion, here's a quick explanation: there are different designations that protected areas can receive. The designation mostly details what can and can't be done in the area. Are resources allowed to be extracted from the area? Are buildings allowed to be built? Is hunting/fishing allowed?
There are also different levels of protection. Some areas are protected at the federal level (e.g. Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona), some at the state level (e.g. Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada), and some at the tribal level (e.g. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Navajo Nation). Some are even privately owned.
National Parks are areas protected at the federal level, and they're all administered by the National Park Service, an agency of the United States federal government. The agency administers areas of several designations, such as National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Preserves, and more. Other federal agencies manage even more designations, such as National Forests, which are administered by the U.S. Forest Service.
"National Park" is the second-highest level of protection an area can be granted federally. The highest level is called "Wilderness", where strict rules are put in place to prevent humans from impairing the areas. People are often allowed to visit, but only on foot, there are no services (such as visitor centers, stores, toilets, or even trash cans), no roads, and a strict policy of Leave No Trace is enforced. There are actually more than 800 such areas in the United States. Some overlap or are otherwise landlocked within the boundaries of National Parks. The latter, on the other hand, provide a high-level of protection that still allows humans to enjoy them as much as possible. While extractive activities are generally not allowed, roads are allowed, trails are often well maintained, various buildings are allowed and many services are provided to visitors.
Now, I mentioned there's some confusion. People often think certain protected areas are National Parks despite having other designations. Some of it is probably due to the plethora of different designations there are. It's easy to confuse a "National Historic Park" with "National Park." Most of it, I believe, is because the National Park Service itself refers to any area under its management as "national park" (in all lowercase), regardless of its designation.
In any case, there are currently 63 areas with the National Park designation in the United States. Of those, 51 are located inside the contiguous United States, a.k.a. the lower 48 states. The other 12 are in Alaska, Hawaii, and a few territories such as American Samoa.
So in 2012 I visited four of those National Parks in four days. It helped that they were relatively close to each other. There were actually 46 National Parks in the contiguous United States in 2012; five more received the designation in the years since then. Visiting those first four parks, I was quite impressed with how well managed they were, and of course their unbelievable beauty. I was a bit out of shape in 2012, and hiking the trails in those parks gave me an incredibly good feeling.
I visited those parks with a rental car, which I had for two out of the trip's four weeks. Those two weeks on the road did quite the number on me. When my road trip ended, I flew to New York City for about a week. The moment I landed in New York, though, I got a nagging desire to get back on the road. That feeling was there when I flew back home to Israel, and it was still there for a whole year after that. It consumed me. Not a day went by that I didn't fantasize about being on the road, driving from place to place, seeing what America had to offer. Clearly, that one time trip was not going to be enough. The cities, by the way, mostly did nothing for me, and I found them quite boring.
For 12 months after that trip, I was constantly distracted with thoughts of being back on the road. Finally, I could take it no longer, and bought tickets for another month, starting exactly 364 days after the first trip. This time, though, I was going to do it entirely different: I would rent a car for the entire duration of the trip, and make no plans whatsoever. No reservations, no nothing. The only two things I arranged ahead of time were tickets to Riot Fest and the reservation for the rental car. My target was to spend less time in the cities and mostly visit nature preserves.
I still remember landing in Chicago's O'Hare Airport. I had two awful flights to get there and felt truly bad, but as I got off the plane, went through customs, and walked that old paved corridor towards the Blue Line—where someone was playing Jazz music on a trumpet—my bad feeling immediately vanished and was replaced with pure euphoria. It was happening again, and I could scarcely believe it.
That trip was perfect, and cemented my views about travel and the way I do it. Every day I did whatever it was that I wanted to do. If I wanted to visit a National Park, I visited a National Park. If I wanted to drive five hours, I drove five hours. If I wanted to rest, I rested. If I wanted to go to a show, I went to a show. If the weather was bad (there was a terrible storm in Colorado that caused disastrous floods), I just drove somewhere else. And I came back with a lot of great memories.
Something else happened too. I was hiking in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, in what remains one of my most memorable hikes ever. The trail was called "Chesler Park Loop," a fairly strenuous 11 mile trail. After several hours of hiking, climbing and scrambling, I reached a ridge that offered an incredible panoramic view of the park's Needles section. It's hard to explain just how awe inspiring it is when you suddenly reach the high point of a long climbing trail and get that unobstructed panoramic view. I was listening to music on my earphones at the time, and there was electricity in the air, which all combined to give me a feeling that I hope never to forget. Incidentally, a big storm rolled in later, so that electricity in the air may have not only been in my head.
It was there on that ridge that I told myself: “I will visit all the National Parks in the lower 48 states.” There are times in your life when you say you're gonna do something that you really want to do and believe you have all the necessary conviction to do it, but after the initial excitement fades, you don't follow through. And there are times when you just say you're gonna do something, and you absolutely know that it's going to happen. This was one of those. The second I made that decision, I knew it was going to happen.
Mind you, I was realistic in my decision to limit myself to the lower 48 states. Despite visiting Alaska being a longstanding dream, I knew that for a foreigner who doesn't even live in the United States, visiting all of the National Parks would be a very tall order, financially and otherwise.
In the end, it took me a little over nine years from my first trip in 2012—and a little over eight years since I made the decision—until I successfully fulfilled that promise. I did it over eight different trips of varying durations, from two weeks up to six months. In the process, I've also visited all 48 states in the Contiguous United States, and probably saw more of America than the average American.
I'm inclined to emphasize that I have also visited many other protected areas in the United States. National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Forests, State Parks, Tribal Parks, National Preserves, etc. There's really no justification limiting oneself to National Parks only, that would be an unnecessarily arbitrary decision.
How Was It?
Extremely fulfilling. I consider it to be one of my greatest achievements. As a non-American resident, I think it's pretty impressive. I find that many Americans have hardly traveled outside their own states, and here I got to see and experience America like not many people get to. The National Parks were kind of a framework for me to see America really, and trying to figure out what the hell it was and is. Apart from the parks, I was mostly off the beaten path, and preferred to see Small Town USA over the normal tourist destinations.
I'm leaving most of my impressions of the country, the people, the cultures, and more to the book of short stories I'm currently writing, so I'll focus more on the National Parks here.
In Israel, America doesn't have the same reputation with regards to nature as places like South America or the Far East (that isn't to say that it has a bad one). That's completely unjustified in my opinion. America is huge and the geography is highly varied, so there's so much to see, and many of the National Parks are some of the most beautiful and famous places on Earth. Some of these parks are also "record breaking", if you will. I often write short summaries to my parents after visiting parks, and I seem to often use sentences like "biggest X in the world", "longest Y in the northern hemisphere", etc.
I greatly admire the National Park Service and their management of the parks. The parks are incredibly well organized and documented and the park rangers are usually very helpful. For most of the parks, I arrive with no specific plans, and just ask the rangers for recommendations.
Visiting those parks was a great source of joy for me. Successfully hiking many strenuous trails was also an achievement for me, and there's nothing like the feeling I got when I finished a long and difficult trail; a feeling of being capable of anything, of being invincible, a real euphoria. Obviously, it was also taxing, both financially and mentally, but the latter mostly in a good way. I have so much more confidence in my abilities. I did it by myself, I paid my own way, I traveled my own way, I successfully dealt with the complications and unexpected issues that arose, I overcame the burnout that often comes with living on the road, and I achieved my dream.
My "project" to visit all the National Parks in the Contiguous United States was a major drive for me for the past decade, perhaps my main one. I thought about it almost on a daily basis. I would often recount in my head how many parks I had left, and the "List of national parks of the United States" article in Wikipedia was practically my home page. I enthusiastically told about my project to everybody who cared to listen.
So I guess it makes sense that my visit to my last National Park, which happened to be Mammoth Cave, was somewhat bittersweet. I waited for that moment for a significant amount of years, and I was truly excited on my drive there that morning. I told one of the park rangers about it being my last park, and he was quite enthusiastic about it. I was elated, but a few minutes later it suddenly dawned on me that it was over. One of my major drives for a decade was suddenly gone, and I turned a bit solemn. Thankfully, that feeling is also gone now, and today, less than a year after finishing this project, I am starting to become excited about the next things to come and new possibilities.
Cut the C, Which Were Your Favorites?
Virtually any person I tell about my "project" asks me which parks were my favorites. I appreciate the question, but avoid answering it directly, because I prefer to look at my journey to visit those parks and the experiences therein as part of an individual, continuous adventure with no bests or worsts. Sounds dumb when I write it, but there we are.
Instead I prefer to list my most memorable hikes. I'm listing them in purely chronological order:
Hickman Bridge Trail in Capitol Reef National Park (2012)
This was my second hike in the US ever, on my first trip in 2012. I hiked in Bryce Canyon the day before, but it was so crowded it was not that enjoyable. It was the first time I was truly alone on a trail, and got to experience that powerful feeling of silence. I prefer to look at this one as my true first. It wasn't a particularly long or difficult hike, but very memorable. Also memorable because driving away from the park I got my first ever speeding ticket in the US.
Chesler Park Loop in Canyonlands National Park (2013)
Already talked about this hike earlier in this post, so Ctrl+F and search for "Chesler". This was the trail on which I made the decision to visit all the parks.
Ute Trail in Aspen, CO (2013)
Very steep, quite difficult, but very rewarding. Making it up to the viewpoint was a big achievement for me. At the time—and I touch on it more later in the post—I considered it to be the most difficult thing I've ever done. I met a couple of men on the summit who recommended which places to visit next, and I had done well to take their recommendation.
The Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park (2014)
Such a ridiculously beautiful trail. It snowed the night before my hike, so there was a perfect mix of green and white while climbing up the trail. The lake itself is an incredible sight to behold. It was frozen in part, and the sun rays reflected on the water just right. I sat down to eat lunch on a large rock and a beautiful blue jay sat next to me and kept me company (well, it wanted my trail mix, but I didn't share, Joey doesn't share food).
Bear Creek Trail in Ouray, CO (2014)
Not in a National Park, but everything about this trail was perfect. The weather was just right, and the colors of autumn were mesmerising. There was a specific section of the trail—a narrow ledge on an almost 90 degree wall of rock—that really made me feel like I was in the Lord of the Rings, for some reason.
Panorama Trail in Yosemite National Park (2016)
Perhaps the hardest trail I've ever hiked, and also my only example for a mistake in preparation. This was my first hike of that year, and I would have been wise to build up my strength before going on such a long and strenuous trail on my first day. It was also ridiculously hot, and although I had 5 liters of water with me, I ran out two miles before the end of the trail. My leg muscles were cramping like crazy, and walking the last mile took me almost the same amount of time as the previous eight. Still, there was so much to see on the trail, and Yosemite truly is amazing. I like to describe seeing the valley as getting punched in the face in a good way.
Observation Point Trail in Zion National Park (2019)
Zion is such a beautiful park it's no wonder why it's so crowded with visitors. I love desert landscapes and the colors and formations of Zion are unparalleled. I decided to hike the Observation Point Trail instead of the more popular Angel's Landing after researching on the wonderful Joe's Guide to Zion website, that made a good case for choosing a somewhat longer and arguably more difficult trail that provides relatively similar views for its lower crowds. Turned out the point was moot because Angel's Landing got closed due to a landslide, so everybody went on the Observation Point Trail. It was difficult and long, but boy was it beautiful.
So I guess I refuse to cut the C after all.
How Did You Do It?
It's important for me to make it clear that the details below reflect various aspects of my personality, my financial standing, my physical abilities, what I'm willing to put myself through, and more. Your mileage may vary. The main barrier is probably financial. Over those nine years, I learned to reduce my expenses considerably when compared to that highly expensive 2012 trip, but this is by no means a frugal way of travel. I made a conscious decision to go after this goal despite the financial ramifications. Had I not made that decision, I probably would have owned my own home by now (real estate in Israel is ridiculously expensive).
I made all eight trips alone, no partners or even temporary companions, apart from a few weeks in 2021 when my sister joined me. I met a lot of people, talked with a lot of people, and I have some friends in the US that I would visit, but for the most part I was alone. I have no problem with that, but many people that hear this are taken aback, and say they can't even imagine themselves doing something like this alone. The thing is, I was worried too at first, but the trip in 2012 taught me that I could easily do it and enjoy it. In fact, the longer the trip is, the more it makes sense to me to do it alone. I also go on trips with friends, but those are better left short, otherwise you start getting on each other's nerves. When you're traveling alone, there are no arguments. There's no "I want to do that, my friend wants to do something else, my other friend doesn't want to do anything." There are no 60 minute discussions on where are we going to eat. There are no compromises.
The following is a description of all the important details of the habits and strategies that I employed in order to achieve this dream, what I learned on the way, and my recommendations if you're thinking of doing something similar.
My main mode of transportation was rental cars. America can't properly be seen without a car. Yes, there are trains, there's Greyhound buses, there's planes, but those can only take you so far. America was built for driving. I drove many different cars over the years: many sedans, some SUVs, one stylish convertible BMW, and for three months I traveled (and lived) in a Class C RV.
Amtrak trains are pretty good, and can get you very far, but I don't consider it cheap. If you're interested in train travel in the US (or otherwise), I cannot recommend the incredible website of The Man in Seat 61 enough, it has all the information you need.
Trains and buses are mostly reliable, but it's important for me to make it clear that I haven't used public transportation that much in the US. I am basically always with a car. I do use public transportation inside the bigger cities or when I want to drink and there's nothing in walking distance (or no way to walk, which is a big issue in the US). I would say that the COVID-19 pandemic did affect public transportation in some places in a very negative way. The downtown Deuce line in Las Vegas, for example, used to be an extremely convenient and quick way to get around, but in 2021 I discovered that the number of drivers decreased significantly and the frequency dropped considerably, making the buses extremely crowded, dirty, and slow. RTC Southern Nevada, which operates these buses, had to introduce recorded announcements pleading with riders not to blame the bus drivers for the terribleness of the service.
Unless you're in a big, touristy location, walking may be hard, if not impossible. Outside of such cities, sidewalks are almost non-existent. Even in the big cities, such as Las Vegas, sidewalks can abruptly vanish, and you find yourself walking on the road. There are bus lines in Las Vegas and other cities that literally drop you off at the side of heavily trafficked roads. Good luck getting home fucker.
I don't know much (or anything) about hitchhiking laws in the US, so make your own research. I have given lifts multiple times, and taken lifts multiple times, to no ill effect. Again, most of the people I meet out there are good, nice people willing to help. That said, I do not recommend hitching your way across the country. Get a car, and visit America like America wants you to visit it.
I avoid domestic flights as much as I can. They're actually fairly easy and cost effective, but I hate everything to do with airport procedures, and after a long time on the road, having to pack up all my stuff for a flight becomes a chore. I'd rather drive unless it really doesn't make sense.
When it comes to travel from your home country to the US and back, which may constitute a transatlantic flight (or other), you can opt for simply going with the cheapest flights available. I mostly use Kayak for that. I used to choose cheaper flights with connections in Europe, but I found it's better to the cheapest flights and go directly through the airlines and their loyalty programs. Most airlines are part of alliances (such as One World and Star Alliance) that share or otherwise cooperate with regards to their loyalty programs, and I would accumulate miles on my trips (also see the "Accommodations" section, where I detail how I use hotel loyalty programs for airline miles). In fact, loyalty programs are your way to go in basically every aspect. Airline miles allowed me to make two domestic flights for free, and a round-trip transatlantic flight in business class for free, which was incredible and basically ruined me for economy class.
My general MO, therefore, is to rent a car, and drive from place to place on a mostly daily basis. I start the day with around 1-2 hours of driving to a park, day hike, then another couple of hours driving towards my next destination. On an average day, it is not uncommon for me to still not know where I'm going to sleep when it's already 7 pm. I stop when I feel like it and find a place to sleep.
Renting a Car in the US
America is much more lax than Europe when it comes to car rentals. Zero dollar deductibles are basically the standard, so you don't have to worry about damages so much. Unlimited mileage is standard too, and the cars are often new and have low mileage on them.
The best and cheapest way to rent cars in America is through a third-party agency. It's worthwhile to compare prices. I usually rent via Israeli company Ofran, which offers much better rates and insurance for Alamo and National than when renting directly from these companies. There are also "official" Israeli websites for both Alamo and Hertz that provide better prices for US rentals, but they are in fact third parties.
The only downside to renting from a third-party is that rentals will usually not count towards the loyalty programs of the rental companies, and loyalty programs are a fantastic way to save money. Personally, specifically in the subject of car rentals, I opted for variety over loyalty. It didn't stop me from reaching Gold status at Hertz though.
Note that some rental companies will request you to present them with a passport if you do not have a local driver's license. Most don't, but don't get caught without it when you're picking up your car. I was never asked to present an "International Driver's License" in the US. If you don't know what I'm talking about, these are paper licenses in various languages which are only valid for a few months and cost way too much. It's basically a scam, but check this page for official info about driving in the US with a foreign driver's license.
Rental rates vary wildly by location, both between companies and within the same company. If you're traveling to the US from abroad, you're probably landing in a large city. It is often much cheaper to take a bus or train from that city to a smaller one, not far away, and rent a car there. The savings can be significant. Prices also vary by state, so where possible, take that into account. It's usually cheaper to pick-up from an airport than from a downtown location, despite the airport fees, and the variety of vehicles is larger.
One important consideration is whether to do a round-trip or a one way rental. On my first few trips, I always did round-trips (i.e. I picked-up and returned the rental car from/to the same location), which is considerably cheaper, as rental companies charge a "drop-off fee" or "one-way fee", and this charge is often not shown in the website. Round-trip rentals severely limit your options for the trip, so it's better to avoid them. Starting in 2015 I believe I moved to doing one way rentals exclusively, which is very freeing and much more comfortable. The longer the distance between your pick-up and drop-off locations, the higher the drop-off fee is. This fee seems to be a scam, because rental companies often have cars specifically assigned as "one way cars", and it's not uncommon for you to be given a car whose license plate is for the state where you're dropping the car off anyway, so seems to me like I'm actually helping them and shouldn't be charged for that. Try to haggle during pick-up (or better, during reservation) if possible. Sometimes I would rent the car for a shorter duration, with a drop-off location somewhere not too far from the pickup location, and switch cars. Depending on the duration and mileage of your trip, you can actually save on the drop-off fee by switching cars at closer points on your itinerary (but be careful, some rental companies charge by the week). It's less convenient, because my rental car is partly my home during these trips and they tend to fill up with junk (a.k.a. equipment and souvenirs), and the procedure of switching isn't that fun, but whatever.
When picking up the car, you will be offered to prepay for gas and to add roadside assistance. Decline these, it's a waste of money. You will save money by filling gas yourself before returning the car, and the roadside assistance thing is unnecessary. If your car breaks down, the rental company will send a tow truck regardless of that. America is also very competitive in terms of gas rates, as opposed to countries like Israel where rates are fairly similar between different companies, so "shop around" for gas.
Unless you have a specific need for a larger vehicle, I find that it's often worthwhile to reserve a smaller car (i.e. economy or compact), which is cheaper, and set a pick-up time for later in the day. By the time I make it to the rental center, all the small cars have been rented out, and the company is forced to give me a larger and better car. Since I've prepaid, they can't charge me more. Happens more than you'd think.
Generally speaking, there's no need to worry over gas availability on long trips. I've been all over the US and never really had problem getting gas. America is gas country, after all. Even the most remote places will often have gas pumps from 60 years ago which are still working. There were a few drives in Montana and Texas that I came close to an empty tank, but still had some left when I finally made it to a station. While some gas stations sell packaged gas canisters, I recommend against it, there's really no justification to keeping a can of gas in the trunk of a hot car.
Speaking of gas stations, I love 'em. It's one of my favorite parts of driving in America (or anywhere really). They're often very convenient, have good amenities, you get to meet interesting people, and it gives you a chance to talk a little. Convenience store clerks are often good to get some recommendations and information about where you are. There are two types of gas stations in America: "regular" gas stations, and travel centers. These are bigger and more oriented towards long-haul truck drivers and travelers. They have larger and cleaner restrooms, restaurants, lots of coffee options, bigger and more varied convenience stores, gifts and souvenirs, and more. There's often WiFi, and showers for professional drivers (a.k.a. truck drivers).
If your rental car breaks down, what you need to do is call the rental company. They'll usually send a tow truck with a replacement car for you, which will drop off your new car, and pick up the broken one. This may take a few hours, so makes all the more reason to keep a gallon of water in your car at all times, and a few snacks. For small issues, such as a flat tire, you can take the car to a garage, get it fixed, and provide the rental company with the receipt upon dropping off the car for a refund. You'd be wise to verify that your car has a spare tire in the trunk when you're picking it up. If the car doesn't have a spare tire and necessary equipment (jack, wrench), I recommend you ask for a different car. Also note that if your rental period is long, the car may need an oil change or some basic maintenance. Simply pull into a Jiffy Lube or any other place you see on the road, have them do whatever needs to be done, and present the receipt for a refund as before.
If you're stopped by a police officer, be respectful. I've received fines for traffic violations in the US a few times. Depending on the state, you'll either have to pay the ticket using a money order in the post office (USPS), or pay with a credit card through a form/website. I have friends who say they were put in front of a judge for speeding "not that much above the limit". I don't know what they did to have that happen, but I suppose it's a possibility. Drive safely, don't go over the speed limit too much, and you'll be fine.
I mentioned earlier about living in an RV for a few months. I will save this for the "Camping & RV" section later on.
Buying a Car in the US
People often believe it may be a good idea to buy a car in the US. That may have been true in the past, and probably this belief has something to do with the countless movies showing a character walking in to a used car lot with a few hundred bucks and driving out with a car a few seconds later. That doesn't really exist much anymore, if it ever did. There are many used car lots, but there's a hurdle to buying a car as a non-American resident (i.e. an expat), and in general. First of all, every car must be registered, which takes time. Further, many states require a local driver's license, which you don't have, and getting insurance as an expat—with no credit score and no social security number—is challenging.
There is a solution, however, which is to do what full-time RVers do, but you have to make sure this makes sense for you. The solution is to form a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) in a state like Montana, which you can do quite easily through a Registered Agent. You can then buy a car and register it in the name of your LLC. Montana allows you to register a vehicle without it being physically present in the state, making it attractive for this strategy. You just mail the registered agent the forms from the dealership where you're buying the car, they register the vehicle for you, and mail you back the title and license plates overnight. They can also give you some quotes for insurance companies that will insure an expat.
There are companies making it easy to buy and sell used cars, such as Carvana. You can browse their websites, select a car, and have it delivered to you. On the opposite side, you can submit your car for sale, and they'll come and pick it up from you. I don't know if they work with non-US residents/citizens, however.
Driving a Car in the US, Navigation
The main problem with driving in the US is traffic laws, as they vary from state to state, but even that is not a big problem. I'd be lying if I said I knew the differences in traffic laws between states. The best advice I can give you is to drive carefully and don't draw much attention to yourself. Things that may be different from your home country, and/or vary from state to state:
- It is allowed to make a right turn on a red light, unless there's a "NO RIGHT ON RED" sign (or similar). Be careful though, many drivers only make sure the turn is clear of oncoming traffic from their left before turning, but don't look for pedestrians crossing the road to their right. Don't be one of those people. Also, be careful when you go back to your home country, you may find you've gotten used to taking a right on a red.
- For left turns that have their own turn lane, there may be a "full green light," indicating the left turners are free to turn, or a partial green light, indicating left turners must yield to oncoming traffic. This partial green light looks different between states/cities/junctions.
- When you have a partial green light, you're generally supposed to creep up into the intersection and wait for oncoming traffic to clear. If this only happens when your light has already turned red, that's fine, complete the turn. You may actually get a ticket for not completing the turn.
- If you're driving on the rightmost or leftmost lanes, and there's a vehicle stopped at the shoulder, different states require you to behave in different ways. Some require you to slow down to stopped vehicles, while others require you to move over to a lane farther from the shoulder. Err on the side of caution and move over if you can, otherwise slow down.
- Some states require both front and back license plates to be installed on the car. Some only require a back plate. Some don't even require that. I once rented a car in Las Vegas that had no plates at all; all it had was a barcode on the windshield. In Nevada, this was fine, but maybe an hour into the rental I was already in Arizona, and got a ticket for driving without a license plate.
You are going to see a lot of road work being done while traveling long distances, as marked by many road signs and large orange traffic cones. Or at least you're going to see a lot of road work zones. Many of them don't really seem to have any work going on in them. Traffic fines usually double inside work zones, so be extra careful even when the work zone is 60 miles long, which happens sometimes.
Navigating in the US is fairly easy. I actually don't use GPS navigation that much in the US. You will find that driving somewhere specific is pretty straightforward: need to get to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park? No problem, just drive two billion miles west on Highway 50 and turn right at the park. That's it. Signage is generally good, and I absolutely love how there's often a sign with a list of services available before every exit.
Inside the cities, of course, GPS navigation is more useful. I do recommend you have two navigation apps installed: an online one like Google Maps or Apple Maps, and an offline one based on OpenStreetMap (e.g. OsmAnd, Organic Maps, etc.). The latter do not excel with regards to navigation, but if you lose cell reception, an offline app can be a life saver. I also recommend such an app for hiking.
When you're driving for hours and hours, it's not unreasonable for you to get tired. Your safety is paramount, and dozing on the wheel (or engaging in dangerous activities like using your cellphone) can end very badly. When this feeling of doziness hits you may not have an option to stop and sleep very quickly (and most rest stops don't really allow sleeping in the car). What I do is keep at least one of those small "4 Hour Energy" shot drinks at all times, in case I'm feeling too tired, or stop at a gas station and guzzle down a Monster. It actually helps. Otherwise I roll down the car's windows so it gets very noisy, shutoff the air conditioner so I'm less cool (which induces sleepiness), drive a little faster, or smack the ever living shit out of my face until the feeling goes away.
For some people, this is an even bigger source of anxiety than transportation. Without a pre-made reservation, they worry they won't find a place to sleep, or that they'll be forced to sleep in a bad place; motels still have a bad rep. Both worries are, for the most part, unfounded, or not up-to-date. It was rare for me to not be able to find a motel/hotel/B&B at a fair price, and even the bad ones are often not that bad. You have to really go to the very bottom end of the list—in terms of pricing—to really experience bad motels.
Loyalty programs are also pretty good. Our world is a world of conglomerates, and most hotel/motel brands belong to a bigger conglomerate, and share the same loyalty program. By now, I have spent more than a full year of my life—altogether that is—living in hotels. As such, I have a high status in almost every loyalty program out there, which gives me benefits such as lower rates, fifth night free, gifts at check-in, better parking, etc. And this is without accumulating program-specific points; I actually have all my memberships set to have my points granted to my airline loyalty programs instead. I'm not sure which way is better, but it is an option, and it has allowed me to accumulate enough points to fly transatlantic on business class a few times for free.
For the most part, I would make hotel reservations just a few hours—or at most a day—before my arrival at the hotel, but many times I just show up and ask for a room. For a long time, my trips were mostly off-season, but I haven't really had a problem even on my in-season trips. While you should always shop around, by now it's better not to do this through websites like Booking.com and others. I find that prices are often the same as when booked directly through the hotel, if not more expensive. Reservations also do not count towards your loyalty programs, and making changes to your stay during it (e.g. extending your stay, which I often do when I like the place) is harder. Also there's no reason to be swayed by the alerts of "only 1 room left" being shoved in your face at these sites, it's bullshit. I once reserved a room in a hotel in a forest in Austria through Booking.com, and the entire reservation process was littered with flashing alerts that there's only 1 room left. In reality, I was the only guest in the hotel.
I've also had several instances of issues with reservations through Booking.com, although they weren't necessarily Booking's fault. One time in Utah, I was about to check-in to a hotel I reserved through Booking.com, when I get an email from them saying they've overbooked the hotel, and they set me up at a different place. It was good that they set me up at a different place, but it was still annoying, and I wasn't given a choice. At other times, the motels could not find my reservations, for different reasons. One motel didn't notice its fax machine was disconnected, which was how Booking.com reservations were sent to it, so the reservation only came through when the receptionist realized that and reconnected the machine, at which point the fax went crazy with printed reservations. Another motel received the reservations via email, but my reservation made it to the spam folder for some reason. The worst one, though, was when I made a reservation to a place in Victorville, CA for after a music festival. Booking.com allows you to input the time you expect to arrive, so I made it clear that I would be arriving around 11 pm, and verified that the motel had 24 hour check-in. Problem is, nobody's reading those little optional fields. When I made it to the motel at night, the owners (a married couple) seemed confused. They kept looking at my reservation printout and speaking Indian for several minutes, before giving me the paper back and saying "we don't have any rooms, go away." I had to drive around looking for places that had a room, and wound up in one of the worst motels ever. Later, they added insult to injury by submitting to Booking.com that my reservation was cancelled because I didn't show up. Anyway, not trying to scare you, just saying you're probably better off reserving directly through the hotel.
There were a few times, mostly on my earlier trips, where I was too tired to keep driving, or it's gotten too dark, and I didn't find a place to sleep. And even that was mostly because I was in places like Navajo Nation and had no cell reception to do a search, or there were only one or two options that I deemed too expensive. As such, I did sleep in the back seat of my car a few times, but I truly believe this can be entirely avoided if that's a deal-breaker for you. Not that there's anything very wrong with sleeping in your car, many people do that even on a regular basis in order to save money. If you're thinking about it, keep in mind that it may be illegal where you are. You generally can't do that in the parking lots of shopping plazas (which may seem like a good idea), though some businesses do allow that (make a DuckDuckGo search, look for "overnight parking in the us").
AirBnb is also a good website to use to find accommodations. Things changed, however. It used to be that AirBnb was a good choice for cheaper accommodations in the bigger cities than hotels, but this seems to have mostly been reversed now, with hotels being cheaper (this varies between locations, but seems to be mostly true). That said, AirBnb is still a wonderful choice for off the beaten path. You can find high quality, cheap places to stay in absolutely beautiful locations. The only downside is that you start envying the people who own those places. I've slept on farms, ranches (which mean different things in different parts of the US), in country houses, cottages, apartments, and more. Some have really left a lasting impression on me, and I really appreciate the hospitality I received. I cannot recommend you enough to look for places in small, rural locations.
I also spent nights sleeping in tents in campgrounds. There are many, many options out there for that, and you can really save up money if you're doing this for a significant number of nights. And of course, there were the three months I slept in an RV. I'll expand on both of these in the Camping & RV section.
Supplies, Luggage, Clothing, Souvenirs
I try to travel light. On longer trips, it gets hard, not because of the luggage but because of the souvenirs and junk you accumulate on the way. I practice Doug Dyment's One Bag "philosophy" and almost never check-in bags. I have a carry-on MEI Voyageur "travel pack" and I use that as my only luggage. I hate checking-in bags, unfortunately stories of lost/damaged bags are so prevalent that it seems too risky, not to mention that most of the stuff you bring with you is destined to remain unused, being nothing more than a physical and mental burden on you. Waiting in baggage claim also makes me anxious. On two of my trips I checked-in a large bag on the way back home because I had too much souvenirs. I also often ship my souvenirs home via the USPS, which is unfortunately becoming less attractive due to rising shipping rates. Shipping packages from the US to Israel is much more expensive than many other locations (and than it was just a few short years ago). USPS is also the only feasible option, as FedEx, UPS and DHL are so expensive even for small packages that you're better off burning whatever it was you wanted to ship back home and forgetting about it.
If you do choose to ship packages home, try to do so earlier on in the trip, and use a return address for some place you know you're going to get to eventually. I had a package that I sent home from South Dakota with a return address of a hotel in Las Vegas that I knew I would get to later on in the trip. The package was actually rerouted to the hotel because the postal worker charged me the wrong amount, so I was able to get it back and have it reshipped.
Since I only travel with a carry-on, I don't pack a lot of stuff. Just three or four shirts, three or four pairs of underwear, two pairs of pants, three or four pairs of socks, a lightweight down jacket, some travel gear, and that's basically it. On one of my trips, my bag weighed only 6kg. That's nothing. I get toiletries on the road (also, just ask your hotel for toiletries like toothbrushes, toothpaste, shaving cream, etc., they have them for free anyway, or buy travel-sized toiletries at pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, etc.). Following Doug Dyment's recommendations, I have one packing list with all the things I might want to take on a trip. Before each trip, I make a (digital) copy of it, eliminate anything that's not relevant, and pack whatever's left. Packing often takes me just a few minutes.
All my clothes are travel clothes. Quick drying, breathable, comfortable. All my socks are Darn Tough socks, and many of my other stuff comes from REI, where the membership program makes shopping there more cost effective. Since I pack just a few clothes, obviously I have to do a lot of laundry. Many motels have coin-operated laundry machines, but sometimes I will drive to a laundromat or just wash by hand in the sink. There's really no need to overpack clothing items, just do laundry, it's really not a problem, just don't bring anything white.
I often want to order things online for my trips, and pick them up on the road. I mostly use The UPS Store for that; they have many locations throughout the United States (and Canada), you can ship packages in your name to them, they'll hold on to it until you arrive, usually charging you five dollars per package. You don't need a mailbox in the store, but it's better to send the specific store an email ahead of time letting them know that you're having a package sent in your name there, in order to avoid confusion. If you're ordering from Amazon, there are also Amazon Lockers in many locations. Always choose a location in a supermarket or department store, other locations are often unreliable. Timing these may be challenging, you want to make sure the package is going to arrive when you're actually there. I once miscalculated because I didn't take into account that the UPS Store was going to be closed on Labor Day, and that screwed me a bit, so make sure to verify the store's operating hours too. You can also check with your hotel if they can accept packages for you, many do (but not as much as in the past), which is very convenient.
Non-costly food options are abundant. Buffet-style restaurant chains like Golden Corral may not be haute cuisine, but extremely good value for money. While fast food joints aren't as cost-effective as they used to be, many (e.g. McDonalds, Wendy's, Taco Bell) have a "value menu" or a "$1 menu" which is surprisingly very good value for money. Most motel rooms have a microwave, so you can buy inexpensive microwave meals in the supermaket and heat them in the room.
For your ongoing supplies (food and otherwise), big name stores like Walmart Supercenters are a good choice. They're often open 24 hours, are usually not crowded, and the prices are good. I tend not to buy in bulk unless on really long trips, mostly because I like stopping at the gas stations and buying some things, but financially it makes much more sense to buy in bulk. Instead of buying single bags of trail mix, beef jerky and energy bars once every few days, buy the big cans in the supermarket and that's it. Also, keep a gallon jug of water and a few snacks in your car at all times, you never know when you're gonna need it.
Choose a smallish first aid kit that you actually know what's in it. Even better, build your own kit with stuff from minimus, and make it available to you while driving too. I usually have my day bag in the passenger seat, with the kit readily available.
I've already touched on it a bit, but when it comes to gifts and souvenirs, it's too easy to get carried away. Everything looks good, there's a ton of cool gift shops (particularly on the highways), and you want to take everything home with you. This quickly gets logistically challenging and expensive, so you need to be disciplined. Convince yourself that you don't need those things, and try to bring back home memories rather than things. That's easier said than done, and not necessarily correct (memories fade if there's nothing to remind you of them), so find the right balance. I, for one, avoid anything that is not made in the USA. Most gift shops sell the same generic crap that's made in China. That "I Heart New Orleans" bag is the exact same bag in every other store in the city and out of it. I Heart New Orleans, I Heart New York, I Heart Atlanta, I Heart San Quentin, it's the exact same sweat-shop bag that will fall apart in two weeks. Why would I come back from a US trip with souvenirs from China? Buy local, handmade gifts that actually mean something to you. Or do whatever the hell you want, what do I care?!
Planning, Unexpected Circumstances
Seeing as how I did intend on visiting all of the National Parks in the lower 48 states, obviously some planning has to come into play, but for the most part, there was nothing more than a general idea of what kind of route I might want to take. There were only two trips—the shorter ones—that mostly conformed with this general outline. The rest were truly improvised. That meant that sometimes I missed or skipped parks and had to come back in later trips. In 2013 I unfortunately skipped Arches National Park in Utah, despite visiting Canyonlands just across the road, because of unexpected flash floods. It was only in 2019 that I finally got back. That same year I was supposed to go to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, but after a few drunk days in Nashville I completely forgot, skipped it, and only remembered a few days later, when I was far away. I had to go back in 2021. I also skipped on White Sands despite being very close, back when it was a National Monument and not a National Park (which it is now), and had to go back. There were some parks I visited multiple times, like Grand Canyon (four times), Zion, Rocky Mountain and Petrified Forest (twice each).
Still, I prefer it like so. I just winged it, and whatever happened happened. That's my style. I was more looking to have fun and see beautiful places regardless of their designation, so if it made more sense to visit a protected area of a different designation than a National Park, I did that.
When it comes to National Parks, the NPS website is really good and informative. Every unit administered by the NPS has its own mini-website with a lot of information, especially for the National Parks.
There are many websites geared towards road trip planning, and various smartphone apps too. I don't use those, but you may find them useful. The only thing I use is Google Maps, together with an offline app based on OpenStreetMap (e.g. OsmAnd, Organic Maps, etc.). Google Maps is better at navigation and for looking up businesses, but the other ones are more accurate from a topographical standpoint, and have hiking trails much better mapped than Google. In fact, they helped me a few times when I lost my way on the trail. Them being offline is also an advantage, because cell service is non-existent or choppy in many nature preserves in particular and rural America in general.
Most of the places I stay in are simply places to sleep in after driving, which I leave immediately after waking up and going back on the road. Therefore, for the most part, I don't choose them, I just take a random exit off the interstate/highway when it's getting late or I'm getting tired, and look for a motel. Sometimes, I will open up Google Maps, look for spots that have a green background, see if there's a town in there, and just go there. I found some fantastic places this way. Last year in New Hampshire, for example, I opened the map, found a town called Jackson on a green background, and just drove there. It was ridiculously beautiful, and with no specific expectations, everything was a pleasant surprise. I spent several days there sitting next to the waterfalls in the middle of town and chatting with random strangers. It was great.
I've already explained how having no concrete plans frees me, allows me to enjoy the trips better, and gives me flexibility in case of the unexpected. To me, that's a major consideration, because unexpected things do happen. It seems that most of the stories in the book I'm writing arose from those unexpected situations. I've had several car breakdowns, almost always in remote areas with zero cell reception. I've had terrible storms that completely derailed my short-term plans. In 2019, I was stuck in Fargo, ND for four nights instead of one night because of a major blizzard that forced the closure of all roads in and out of the city. It's important to keep your composure and be prepared for anything. To me, so long as I have a car, even a broken down one, I should be fine. The car is a shelter, I keep supplies and warm clothing in there. If I'm stuck, I should be fine for at least a few days. Hiking safety is a different matter I write about in the following section.
Unexpected situations aren't necessarily bad ones too. Even the unpleasant ones, like not finding a place to sleep, have resulted in some of my best stories and memories. Sometimes, though, good things come unexpectedly. I like going to music concerts, and often just happen upon good shows in the vicinity of where I happen to be in, so maybe I want to stay another day or two instead of continuing so I can catch the show. Or maybe I just like the location. In Visalia, CA, for example, I checked-in to a motel for one night, but it turned out to be such a lovely motel, with beautiful gardens surrounding a nice pool, that I just stayed for a while and spent some days sitting in the gardens, laying by the pool, reading a book, and swimming. On my shorter trips, I may not have this flexibility to the same extent, but on longer trips, I take advantage of it a lot. You also don't know who you're going to meet on the road. If I get an invite for dinner or something, I want to have the flexibility to accept it.
There are certain things in the US that require reservations months ahead of time. For example, each year the hugely popular Havasupai Indian Reservation opens reservations for the upcoming year, and these fill up almost immediately. There's no way I would make such a reservation, but do not despair. The problem with reservations so far in advance is that people often do not follow through, so if you're flexible, it may actually be easy for you to get a spot, because people always cancel. And I mean always. There are free spots due to cancellations in Havasupai all the time. I wanted to go in 2021, but COVID-19 forced the reservation to close for visitors, and it's still closed as of writing this text.
Hiking, Trail Etiquette, Safety
I generally only do day hikes, no multi-day hikes, no backpacking. There are some incredible places that you can only get to on multi-day hikes, but I've made a conscious choice to visit more places, so there's obviously a balance between complete freedom to do whatever you want, and trying to squeeze in as much destinations as possible within your trip's time-frame. Skipping multi-day hikes, for the most part, seemed to be a good middle ground for me. I did stay in parks for more than a day (e.g. Isle Royale, Death Valley), sleeping in a tent at one of the campgrounds, but simply took different day-hike trails.
Most of the trails I take are on the moderate to strenuous side of the scale, with round-trip durations ranging between 3 and 6 hours; sometimes more, sometimes less. This may not sound that much, but the elevation gain is often considerable. In 2013, when I hiked the Ute Trail in the mountains around Aspen, CO—a trail that gains a kilometer of elevation in a short distance—I considered it to be the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. I still remember how incredible I felt when I finally made it back down. I've hiked more difficult trails since then, as I gained more experience and gotten more in shape. It's important to be in tune with your physical abilities, and there are many easy options in most protected areas, but I really wanted to challenge myself too. Mental resilience is also a factor, because it sometimes feels like the trail is never going to end. That only makes the rewards of the hike that much better.
I am constantly in awe by how unprepared many people are in the parks. It's not uncommon to be out on the trail in 110 degree weather, with the trail being entirely exposed, and people are hiking in flimsy shoes, hardly any clothes on, no equipment, and most importantly - no water. Sometimes, I would see couples and families who drove all the way to the park to go out on a trail just to turn back after two miles because they have no water, are improperly dressed, and are actively dying. How stupid can you be?
When I go out on the trail, I go prepared, regardless of how short or easy the trail is. I have a comfortable day pack that has a slightly rigid mesh backing so my back can "breathe". There's a first aid kit in there that I setup in a lightweight metal box filled with stuff from the previously mentioned minimus website. I organized them in small pill bags with labels. Most first aid kits you can buy in the stores will be difficult to actually use in an emergency. The items they contain aren't really useful in an emergency anyway. Aside from certain pills they contain, you should probably opt for medium-sized options for bandages and stuff like that rather than the small crap you get in those ridiculously small kits. What are you gonna do with that microscopic bandage? Cover a boo boo? In any case, your kit cannot be stuffed deep inside the bag, it needs to be in quick reach. Some will even argue that it shouldn't be in the bag at all, but either tied outside the bag, or hanging from your belt loop. My first aid kit also has Aspivenin, a bite and sting extractor, which is uncommon. There's snakes out there, so you better be careful.
I have a lightweight jacket in the bag even if it's 100 degrees out. If I get stuck, break my leg, whatever, I may be stranded overnight. In the desert, it may be hot as hell during the day, but freezing at night. I learned this the hard way on one of my first nights in the US: I was staying in a cabin in Panguitch, Utah, and it was around 100 degrees, so really hot. Being the Israeli that I am—where I live, if it's hot during the day, it's hot during the night—I went to sleep in nothing but my underwear. I woke up shivering in the middle of the night, feeling like my organs were shutting down. It was 30 degrees. I even bought an ice bag earlier in the day, and left it outside the cabin. When I woke up later in the morning (this time covered in everything I had in my bag), I noticed the ice in the bag hasn't even melted one bit; not a drop of liquid.
I have one of those water bladders that you put in your day bag and drink out of through a hose. I buy the bigger 3L ones, and also keep at least another liter of water in the bag so I can fill up. The water bladders are way better than carrying bottles: they can sit (or rather stand) in the bag against your back, helping to cool it down, and with the hose right next to your mouth it's easy to maintain hydration. The key is to regularly take small sips. "Constant hydration," I keep telling myself while climbing up the trail. I also take electrolytes, sometimes those tabs that you dissolve in the water, sometimes in pill form that you take once an hour or two while hiking. If you're getting a headache while hiking, you're probably dehydrating. Drink water, use electrolytes, and eat some trail mix. You don't just need water in you, you also need salt/minerals/electrolytes. You'd be surprised how quickly that headache goes away after eating some salty peanuts. Don't use those caffeine-infused electrolytes unless in a real emergency. Caffeine will only dehydrate you more, but can be useful in a bind. I don't remember the particulars, but I was once very fatigued on a trail, and a caffeine pill helped me a lot.
I always have sunscreen and insect repellent readily available in my bag, and try to reapply the sunscreen every two hours. I always forget which to apply first, I think the insect repellent. It's easy for people to skip the sunscreen, but you really should use it; so what if your nose gets white and stupid-looking? Skin cancer looks worse. I'm not sure if insect repellent actually does something, even DEET-based repellents don't seem to bother flying pests too much, but I use them nonetheless. Speaking of insects, don't visit Everglades National Park in August, I was eaten alive out there, holy hell.
I also carry a bandana with me. Sometimes I wear it on my neck to cover a bit more of my skin; sometimes I keep it in the bag. I also like to have a towel hanging from one of the loops on my bag's shoulder strap, which allows me to wipe the sweat off my face every once in a while in very humid places.
I wear lightweight, long pants while hiking. It's virtually impossible not to brush against flora in the parks, and disease-carrying ticks live on those leaves you're brushing against. I don't always wear long sleeve shirts, but I recognize the fact that a loose fitting, lightly colored, long sleeve shirt is better at blocking off the heat then a tight fitting T-shirt. I wear hiking boots with good soles that I only buy after trying them out at the store, including on those inclined platforms they have for you to test their traction. My previous boot was a Patagonia boot with Vibram soles that I felt was wearing out after seven years, so I bought a different one, don't remember which brand right now. I don't understand the shoe craze that seems to be going on recently, please don't buy hiking boots on the internet, do yourself a favor and make sure you're going out on the trails with a good fitting shoe that provides you good traction, holds your feet well, is waterproof and yet breathable. Throw away whatever laces came with it and buy better ones too. Learn how to properly tie the boots; make a YouTube search and see, it's not that hard but important to get right. Do not discount the importance of good footwear; a good pair of hiking boots is the difference between a comfortable hike and an uncomfortable one at best, and between a successful hike and an ugly dangerous fall at worst.
Because I visit many protected areas in every one trip, I also always carry bear spray and sometimes an air-horn. People sometimes scoff when they see the bear spray hanging from the loop of my belt, or make a comment that makes it seem like they're brave and I'm a coward, but people are idiots, so you do you. I never had to use bear spray, but I did use my air-horn a couple of times with some aggressive deer, and it worked wonderfully. Do not use bear bells, and do not spray bear spray on clothing or equipment. Both of these things attract wildlife more than repel it. Your best bet is to be noisy, as in human noises. Basically every protected area recommends against hiking alone, but I've done almost nothing but hike alone, which makes it harder to be noisy. You should expect to be almost entirely alone on many trails, so shout, sing and clap every once in a while. When you're done with your travels, if you have to fly back home, take your (hopefully unused) bear spray back to the place you bought it. I usually return it to REI, not for a refund, but for proper discarding. An air-horn is also good if you're lost and need to help people find you, otherwise get a good, loud whistle and keep it handy (on a keychain, or better yet, a necklace).
I do not approach wildlife. I see people making that mistake all the time. This is especially common in Yellowstone, where people stop their cars next to a herd of bison and go out to take a picture from 2 feet away. Most of them will come out unscathed, but too many have been injured or even killed, which happens with regularity. Bears, bison, elk, moose, I don't care how big and strong you are, you are absolutely nothing for these animals, and they will rip you to shreds like a bag of chips. If you do anger them, they will give you signs, like huffing and puffing. This happened to me once with a bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park that was right on the trail. There are many videos on YouTube that show people in such situations, where the animal is clearly giving them loud audible and visual indications that they are not happy, but the people ignore it completely. These videos almost never end well. If you're getting these cues, back away from the animal and give it a wide berth.
Speaking of taking pictures, your selfie isn't important enough to jump over that fence and go pose right at the edge of that precipice. Stop dying for Instagram likes. Or do, what do I care if you die. I try to limit my picture taking in general, by the way. Until 2019, I never carried a camera and only took pictures with my phone. On the one hand, this enabled me to take less pictures and "be more present", to actually enjoy the scenery in front of me, but on the other hand, the pictures I did take sucked. I did eventually buy a good point-and-shoot camera, because I find that a reasonable amount of meaningful pictures help cement and refresh your memories. Pictures are, however, like souvenirs: only a small amount of them are actually meaningful. How often are you looking at all those thousands of pictures you took anyway? Also, editing so many pictures can be a big chore.
I like the fact that it's considered proper trail etiquette to say "hi" to the people you encounter on the trails. There's probably not much to it anyway, but I think it's nice, and I can tell ahead of time whether I'm going to get that hi or get ignored (teenagers usually ignore other people). I always remember the Jerry Seinfeld bit about him letting another driver through on the road but not getting a "thank you wave", leading Jerry to shout out of the window "GIVE ME THAT WAVE!".
I carry out all my trash with me (which is not a lot). I hate seeing litter in the parks. People will often hide their trash in the bushes. This is like taking an effort to be lazy. And there's nothing I hate more than seeing something like "Michael+Jennifer" carved on the bark of a tree. Nobody cares about you, and this park is not about you. I hope you two had a terrible break up.
Not everybody on the trails is an asshole though. In fact, most are probably like you. That said, people have a hard time asking for help. This cuts both ways: you will have a hard time asking for help when you need it, and other people in need will have a hard time asking you for help. I was on both sides of this equation a few times, and found out that people will happily help. There were a couple of times when people clearly seemed to need help, but didn't ask, so I offered, and you could see the relief on their faces. So don't be afraid to ask for help, and don't be afraid to offer it too.
People hike at different speeds. I'm somewhat quick, but there are many who are quicker. Sometimes I feel egged on to go quicker because of hikers behind me, which is hilariously stupid, like getting angry at someone passing you while driving and thus speeding up. It's common for slower hikers to stop of their own initiative and move to the side so you can pass them, but don't be afraid to say "excuse me" and ask to pass. This sounds like such a stupid thing but it took me a while to be comfortable moving to the side and letting people pass, and to say "excuse me" and ask to pass. Try to remember that hikers going up have the right of way, and when you are letting someone pass (which may also be an animal such as a mule), move to the side farther away from the drop that can kill you. I prefer to avoid multi-use trails (e.g. trails that also allow cycling); walking and cycling simply do not play nice together, and I find that cyclists are more often than not trying to keep their speed even if it means injuring you.
At the end of the day, though, what you want is to enjoy yourself. Just be prepared, I know this section has gotten pretty long and scary but it's really not. Go out there and have fun, it's one of the best things you can do. You'll see beautiful places, meet nice people, get eaten by a bear, grow wiser and happier and make great memories.
Camping & RVs
I left this for a separate section because people are often looking for camping & RV specific information. I'm gonna start with camping in general. There are many camping options in the United States, and I highly recommend you try at least some of them. Camping is part of the culture in America that I really envy. It's not that it's non-existent in Israel, but it doesn't really compare.
We can use two different systems to categorize camping options in America. First, there's the location:
- Backcountry Camping: camping in the wild, wherever you pitch your tent, so long as it's allowed. This is the kind of camping you get when you hike out deep into a protected area with a backpack. Often requires obtaining a permit from the agency administering the area.
- Frontcountry Camping: campsites you drive-up to, usually well maintained with certain amenities. This is the kind of camping you do when you go to the "official" campgrounds in the protected areas, or any privately-owned campground located in the country.
- Backyard Camping: camping on other people's private property, with permission of course. This is the kind of camping you get when you join communities like Boondockers Welcome and Harvest Hosts (now part of the same community).
Second, we can categorize based on amenities. Common amenities include a water source, toilets (either flush-toilets or pit toilets), showers, picnic tables, trash cans, electricity, WiFi, etc. Options include:
- Primitive Camping: little to no amenities, zero to infrequent maintenance, zero to little other people around. You're on your own out there. All backcountry camping is primitive camping, but not all primitive camping is backcountry camping.
- Modern Camping: maintained and includes amenities. Other people around you. Possibly an office, or an assigned "host".
- Glamping: high-comfort, well maintained amenities for those who want to go camping but don't really want to go camping. You usually sleep in a big fancy tent provided by the place, or a cabin. Possibility for heat and/or AC.
A privately-owned campground can offer any of the above three types of camping, if not all of them. You may also encounter other terms such as "car camping". This is either used as a synonym to frontcountry camping, or refers simply to the act of sleeping in your car.
I've done almost any possible variation. I slept in tents in primitive campsites and modern campsites. I slept in cabins with nothing but an unmade bed, and cabins with a shower, AC, and a mini-fridge. I slept in National Parks, in people's backyards, in privately-owned campgrounds, in the parking lots of Walmart, Cracker Barrel, Planet Fitness, and other places. In 2021, I also rented a Class C RV for three months and traveled the country with it.
America is a heaven for RV enthusiasts. I have dreamt of traveling with an RV for many years, but it was out of my reach financially. One of my favorite pastimes was watching videos and reading specifications of different RV models. I will tell you that renting an RV for three months is very expensive, but I went for it in the summer of 2021. Despite my enthusiasm with RVs, it was kind of a gamble to go for three straight months in one, but thankfully it worked out well.
Camping, in general, is seen as a much cheaper alternative to motels/hotels, but that is only really true if you're using it for a significant enough period of time. If you need to buy a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and other related equipment—which can easily rack up to a few hundred dollars—you better be planning on using those for more than just a few days. You can rent this equipment, by the way, but I haven't tried, and this limits your mobility, and may not be cheap anyway.
Campgrounds inside protected areas are often very cheap, if not free. You don't get state of the art amenities (showers and electricity are rare, for example), but they've been improving (you can now get free WiFi in pretty remote campgrounds, for example). Many work on a first-come-first-serve basis, which may be an issue in season or in popular locations, so either get there early or be prepared to fallback to different options. Many can also be reserved ahead of time, usually through Recreation.gov, which is a terrific portal for camping and recreation across the entire country.
For any other type of campground, you would do well to get a membership in
one (or more) of several discount clubs. These are mostly
geared towards RVers, but some can be valuable to all campers.
KOA has many campgrounds
across North America, and standards are fairly high. They have tent sites,
cabins, deluxe cabins, RV sites, and more. Within each type, sites are
further broken down by amenities: with/without an attached water source,
with/without an attached power source, with/without a picnic table,
with/without a fire pit, etc. You can even get a tent site with a power
source so you can charge your electric items at night. A well maintained
pool is common, as are laundry facilities, communal showers (level of
cleanliness varies, unfortunately, but never bad), WiFi, and each site has
an attached parking spot. Many locations have a store, sometimes even a
restaurant or other food options, playgrounds, dog-walking trails, events
and activities, and more. KOA is more family-oriented, but friendly to all
travelers. I've been to many KOA locations over the years (in all site
types), and was never disappointed. The membership program only gives you a
5% discount on daily rates (this seems to have been
increased to 10%, which is much better), but is well worth it if you're
going to be loyal to KOA, which is not a bad idea.
RVers have quite a few options, but it's important to choose a program that fits your style and needs better, because most are geared towards full-time RVers. If you're only renting an RV for a short time, a membership program doesn't make sense, but you can save a lot of money if you're doing several months or more. Good Sam has several services and products for full-time RVers, but their membership is quite good for travelers too. They partner with many campgrounds across the US (with many of them branded as Good Sam Parks), and members get discounts on nightly rates. Park quality is often high, with amenities not unlike those for a KOA. I particularly like campgrounds that have private showers instead of communal ones. These are often very clean, comfortable and well maintained. A membership also gives you a discount on gas at Pilot Flying J, and discount on propane. Good Sam also owns the Camping World chain of stores, where you can get camping supplies and RV services. I got my Good Sam membership for free with a purchase at Camping World.
Passport America is a 50% discount club that works with many campgrounds across the US. Quality varies wildly, and each campground has different conditions for the discount, such as only for the first 2 nights, only for walk-ins, etc. I did not get a membership for PA so can't say much.
Thousand Trails seems to have pretty good parks, but memberships are limited to an "area" within the US, and the number of parks isn't that big, nor are the areas extensive, so this is probably only a good option if you're planning to concentrate on a specific area of the country. I did not join this club, but did stay in one huge Thousand Trails RV park in California.
Those who are more interested in full-time RVing and joining a community can look at Escapees, and there are several others of a similar nature. These clubs usually manage a small number of RV parks, but are more focused on building communities; have various activities, some annual; and offer various services to their members. Escapee members stay for very cheap at the club's RV parks, but since there aren't many such parks, this may not be that worthwhile for a part-time traveler. I did join Escapees, and did save some money by staying in some of their parks.
The aforementioned Boondockers Welcome and Harvest Hosts clubs (now joined) are well worth it for both cost savings and unique experiences. I think the ability to stay the night in your RV in the middle of a vineyard is quite an experience, and staying in someone's backyard can also be great.
RV travel is expensive, though. Even if you're only paying $20 a night for the RV park, you still have considerable gas expenses (assuming you're actually traveling around and not just staying put), and renting isn't cheap, as you don't get the zero-deductibles and unlimited mileage you get when renting a simple car, you're paying by the mile. Buying isn't cheap either, as prices have risen considerably in the recent year or two. So to really save money on your RV travel, you have to go all in, in my opinion: join the most aggressive discount club that fits your needs; only eat-in (i.e. cook in the RV); increase your fuel economy by any way possible.
What's It Like Living and Driving in an RV?
A lot better and easier than I thought it would be. First of all, the logistics and upkeep of using an RV are nothing difficult. Hooking up to electricity, water and sewer takes five minutes at most, there's really not much to it. There are some mistakes you should avoid:
- Leave the valves on your black and gray water tank closed at all times, even when connected to sewer. Definitely your black water tank, the gray one is debatable. If you leave them open, your tanks can get clogged up, and you'll need to get a professional tank flush service. You'd also be making it easy for nasty insects to make their way from the sewer and into your RV.
- Do not throw any wipes, towelettes or feminine products into the toilet.
- Dump your tanks when they're almost full, then add an RV chemical treatment and a gallon of water or so. Prefer to dump your tanks when you arrive at your campsite, after driving down the road - which helps unclog your tanks.
- If you're planning on traveling in cold weather (below freezing), note that you may need to winterize your RV pipes. A few hours below freezing probably won't be a problem, but when your RV is below freezing for an extended time, the pipes may freeze, and you'll have expensive repairs not covered by insurance on your hands. Rental companies make it clear that it's your responsibility to winterize the RV, but don't really give you much information about it. Get a professional to do it.
- Make sure you shut off the propane valve (and whatever runs on it, e.g. your refrigerator) whenever you fill up on gas. I think this was the most annoying part of driving an RV for me.
Driving was also not hard. If you'd never driven a large vehicle before, there's an adjustment period, but it was pretty quick for me. For the most part, I stayed in the rightmost lane and maintained the speed limit. The oversized mirrors are actually very good, but you should familiarize with where in the mirrors objects at various distances behind you appear. Make a YouTube search, there are good videos out there, I'll try to find the ones I've seen and link them here. As you're higher and wider than normal, it may be difficult to maintain your position within the lane. Here's my suggestion: look farther into the distance rather than closer, and use the wide-angle mirrors to verify the RV is mostly parallel and between the lines of the lane.
After a short while, I became quite comfortable driving the RV and it has gotten mostly natural. Just don't expect a very smooth ride. You're basically driving a truck, so it's gonna jiggle, sway, creak and squeak like an old bus. If you're in a Class C and using the overhead bed for storage, be careful - my banjo fell on my head in the middle of a drive.
Whenever possible, use a spotter when backing up. I cannot stress this enough.
I was worried about the height of the RV and available clearance while driving. My RV was 12 feet tall, which isn't that tall, but still much taller than a car. Apart from one bridge that was around 12.8 feet and gave me a bit of a scare, most places had ample clearance for the RV. America, after all, is RV heaven. You're probably not going to drive in the cities though. I did, a bit, and had no issues, but it's better to avoid this. Maybe the worst thing about driving an RV is you can't use the drive-thru.
If you're traveling with a travel trailer, make sure to learn about weight distribution: your center of mass should be towards the tow hitch, otherwise you're risking an accident.
RV parks are generally easy to navigate. There are three types of RV sites in terms of how you park your rig in them. Pull-through is the easiest type, you just drive straight into the site, and when you leave, you don't need to back up, you drive straight out of the site. Pull-in means you pull straight in to the site, but you will need to back up to leave it, and Back-in means you'll need to back up into the site, and drive forward to leave it. Prefer pull-through sites, but keep in mind they are more expensive. Some parks have fairly narrow sites, but most places will have a host guide you into your spot and help you park anyway, so it's nothing to fret about unless you have a very large/long rig.
Most RV parks do not have a 24-hour reception/office. If you arrive late and you've made a reservation, most parks will leave a packet for you outside the office. If you haven't made a reservation, many parks allow self-registration for late arrivals, but don't count on it. In Florida on a Friday, I did not make a reservation and was not aware that most RV park offices close early on the weekends, and couldn't find anything that had self-registration. I ended up parking in the lot outside a Planet Fitness and slept there. Not sure if that was even allowed or not, but nobody bothered me (and I didn't bother anyone else).
As far as living in an RV, it also requires some getting used to, but all in all it was fairly comfortable. My RV had a queen-size bed in the back that was surprisingly comfortable. The dinette was a bit less comfortable; pulling in and out was awkward due to the small amount of space between the seats and the table. The kitchen was mostly comfortable and had a surprisingly big sink. I did not use the bathroom sink because it was too small. The shower was small but pretty good, though I preferred to use the showers in the RV parks. In three months, I would say I only showered in the RV six or seven times.
Cleaning the inside of the RV was pretty simple, because there's not that much to clean. I bought one of those Swiffer things that use pre-moistened cleaning towelettes and found it to be the best way to clean the floors (which do get dirty). I used an RV cleaning spray for the surfaces (such as the kitchen counter, the dinette, etc.) and also had a cleaning foam with a brush that I used to clean the seats. I would clean the RV every day, and each time took just a few short minutes.
I was also working remotely while traveling with the RV, so most days I was using the dinette as a workstation. I spent the evenings sitting in a good lounge chair outside, watching movies, reading a book, drinking beer, cooking food, whatever. It was a good experience and I'm very happy to have done it.
Should I Rent or Buy and RV?
That's a very difficult question. On the one hand, buying an RV makes more sense if you really have a lot of time. You need to shop around, find an RV that suits you, make a significant down payment, wait for some dealer procedures, go through the process of registration and insurance, and possibly sell your RV at the end of the trip. On the other hand, renting an RV only makes sense for relatively short amounts of time. So there's a range of travel durations (say between two and four months) where neither option makes a lot of sense.
My original plan was to buy an RV, but I was coming right off the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic and RV dealer lots were empty. Eventually, I rented from Cruise America for three months, which was a substantial expense, but I was intent on fulfilling this dream.
I would say though that despite enjoying the RV experience, I was very disappointed by the RV rental experience. For one thing, Cruise America has many locations throughout the US, but what they don't tell you is that many of them are actually third party businesses that shadow as Cruise America pickup/drop-off locations. The videos and descriptions in the Cruise America website emphasize that CA representatives will show you around the RV, help you familiarize with it, answer all your questions, etc. There was no CA representative when I picked up my RV from what turned out to be an auto shop, and the owner couldn't care less about my questions and concerns about driving an RV. They just gave me the keys, took my signature, and sent me off.
The RVs seem to be reasonably maintained from a mechanical perspective, but the cabin itself is absolutely, completely unmaintained. Here's some problems I faced with the RV:
- I believe the cabin of the four year old RV I got was never ever cleaned. I cannot stress just how dirty it was. It took me buckets and buckets of soapy water to get the floor to an acceptable level of dirtiness.
- I found various junk left by previous tenants in several locations inside the cabin.
- The refrigerator was dirty and full of crud and crumbs.
- Both sinks in the RV were so rusty and tarnished they looked disgusting. I bought some Barkeeper's Friend, scrubbed the hell out of them, and got them nice and shiny again.
- The filter in the sink was somehow lodged inside the drain upside down, making it harder to keep the sink clean, and also making it impossible to plug the sink, which could have been useful in certain situations.
- By law, when traveling down the road, your dump hose must be closed shut with a cap, so that you don't accidentally leak out sewage while driving. My RV did not come with one, and I only realized that late into the rental. Nobody cared to let me know of this law either.
- Many RV parks require that your sewer hose have a sealed connector to the site's sewer hookup. CA does not provide you with such a hose, so technically I should not have been allowed in to many of the parks I stayed in.
- Cruise America likes to emphasize that their RVs have a wide bumper with back-up sensors that make it easy to reverse in your RV. My RV came with a crumpled bumper, causing one of the sensors to be pointed directly at the pavement, so the RV would always beep in the same way while reversing, making the sensors completely useless.
- The toilet is supposed to have some mechanism that does a partial flush (or something to that effect) when pressing the flusher halfway down, and a full flush when pressing all the way to the bottom. On my RV, pushing halfway down did absolutely nothing, and most of the time, pushing all the way down also didn't do anything. To actually get some kind of a weak flush, I had to really push it all the way down.
- You're supposed to use special RV-specific toilet paper, and I believe the rental agreement makes this a requirement, and yet the RV came with a regular roll. Did Cruise America put it there? Did the auto shop? Did the previous tenant? Who knows.
- I had a hard time folding the dinette's table, until I found there was a crayon stuck in the track.
- There were exposed nails in various spots around the cabin, part of the overhead bed was getting loose, one of the cabinet doors fell off the first time I touched it, the grill on the heater was loose, and the floor was cracked in one spot.
- One of the vents was broken and taped shut. The other two were not in very good condition either.
- Probably more issues I can't remember right now.
All in all Cruise America soured me on RV rentals and I can't specifically recommend renting an RV, unless it's really for a short time, or from a private RV owner, though I have no experience with the latter so take this with a grain of salt.
Personal Security, Solo-Travel Considerations
I need to preface this by acknowledging the fact that as a man, I am less susceptible to having my being alone taken advantage of. That said, in a combined 14 months of traveling all over the United States, I can count the times I felt unsafe on one hand, and still have a few fingers to spare. For the most part, I met nothing but good, nice and welcoming people, many of whom were more than happy to help. New York City (specifically Brooklyn)—which I really, really, really don't like—and Florida, which is practically a cliché, are the only places where some unpleasant incidents occurred.
When I first visited the US in 2012, people were generally nice and welcoming everywhere I went, including Chicago. After several weeks of traveling in Illinois, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California, I flew to New York City, and was absolutely shocked by the difference in culture. It was a completely different America - unfriendly, even hostile at times. For the next decade, I refused to set foot in that city. I was like Homer Simpson in "The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson" episode, anxious to get the hell out of that city and never come back.
Florida is—at many places—downright hostile, and I suppose there's a reason why it has the reputation it has. There were many friendly people there, and you can't generalize over a state with more than 21 million people, but there are places there where you really need to be careful. That's true in other states, but extra true in Florida. Here's what I learned: don't walk on the shoulder of the road in places that have no sidewalk (which in America, is most places), people will assume you're a terrorist coming to take over their land. Maintain a "healthy" distance between you and anyone's private property. That's basically it.
I was never robbed, cheated or scammed in the United States. My car was never broken into. I don't use a security pouch to hide my money, good ol' front-pocket for me. I do keep valuables in the car, I don't have any other place to put them. I don't hide the fact that I'm a tourist, nor the fact that I'm from Israel, nor the fact that I'm Jewish, even in the deep south.
When it comes to the subject of safety and security, I think you'd be better off reading the Personal Safety & Security page in OneBag.com, but if you have any specific questions, feel free to send me an email.
I have already touched somewhat on the benefits of traveling solo earlier in the post, but I'm inclined to elaborate further. You may imagine yourself traveling by yourself and feeling quite lonely. I can't say I ever truly felt lonely while traveling solo, and in fact I think these solo excursions are great opportunities for introspection and self reflection. They also afford you more opportunities for socializing that you wouldn't have when traveling with companions. For example, when you're traveling with friends or perhaps a spouse, you're inclined to spend all your time together, and in a way you're actually blocking yourself from forming new connections. When you're traveling solo, however, you have an excuse to "put yourself out there" and reach out to other people. I met and hung around with some great people, and had all sorts of fun I probably wouldn't have had with friends.
- Definitely buy the America the Beautiful Pass, which gives you (and your passengers, if you are arriving by car) 12 months of access to every unit administered by the National Park Service (there's hundreds of them), for the modest price of $80. It is incredibly good value.
- If you're coming from abroad, a local SIM card is probably better and more cost-effective than a package from your local mobile provider. In any case, do not get a data-only package; in an emergency, you want to be able to make an actual phone call.
- Do not expect cell service in the protected areas you visit. This has actually gotten much better in the past decade, but cell service is still non-existent in many places. When I visited the Grand Canyon in 2013, I had no cell service for two whole days. When I returned in 2019, this has changed. If you're planning on backpacking or otherwise traveling to very remote places, you may do well to "invest" in a satellite phone, but I've never done that. There were incidents when a satellite phone would have been useful (like my rental car breaking down in the middle of nowhere with no cell service), but I relied on the kindness of strangers to get out of those binds.
- I highly recommend Planet Fitness for travelers looking to keep in shape on long trips. Their Black Card membership is extremely good value for money, and allows you to work out in any of their (many) locations around the US (and outside). Their fitness centers are usually very modern and good quality, there's showers, massage chairs, a lounge, and more. I really liked it. If they ask you for a bank account (which you probably don't have if you're not American) when opening your membership, tell them you'll pay with a credit card for now and give them the bank account details later, which is code for never.
- AirBNB's Experiences feature is fantastic for finding interesting and memorable activities in your area of travel, and potentially returning home with truly unique memorabilia. I only learned about them in 2021, and immediately loved the idea. I went on a forging experience on a beautiful farm in North Carolina and returned with a meat cleaver of my own making. I went on an experience weaving a mat from lobster ropes in Maine and returned with my own crafted mat. I went on various tours, and met interesting people. Definitely check it out.