Here's the most important rule of camping: Never underestimate raccoons. They will make a fool out of you. It's a hard lesson I've relearned in the last month. Now that you know that, here are some socially distanced camping options.
More than a quarter of American soil is public land and a lot of it you can camp on at no charge for a specified period of time, usually 14 days. These grounds, overseen by federal authorities like the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forestry Service, plus state-sanctioned Wildlife Management Areas, are findable on a variety of map-oriented websites. My favorite is FreeCampsites.net.
Many small towns have a little tourist park where there's a handful of spacious spots to put up tents or pull in a camper for $5-10. Often, each spot will have a water spigot and an electrical box. They're usually surrounded by a public park or playground and there's commonly something quaint like an old tractor or a train as the centerpiece. Right now, a lot of them are using a drop box honor system for payment. These are frequently first-come, first-served.
State and national parks need to be booked in advance right now because of Americans' spiking enthusiasm for outdoor life. On our recent three-week trip, we found that privately owned campgrounds or RV parks usually have spots open day-of. RV-oriented sites can be a bit of a bummer because they feel like a trailer park. Ones with hiking trails, water holes, or other nearby outdoor activities are preferred. Many have adapted to COVID by allowing you to book online or over the phone and have contactless entry.
The lowest form of boondocking – and often the most convenient – is staying in a Walmart parking lot. The retail giant has long allowed RV rats and van-lifers to sleep overnight in their parking lots – as long as you remain courteous and don't spread out a big mess. Most travel centers and truck stops, like Love's, Flying J, TA, and Pilot, allow overnight parking, which is great in a pinch, but truckers sometimes treat you like an interloper and the sound of 50 trucks idling all night can be loud and make it hard to sleep. Surprisingly rest areas are a poor choice for anything other than grabbing a couple hours shut-eye. From my experience, if you're obviously car-camping, you are likely to be woken up by highway patrol telling you there's a time limit or that it's unsafe to sleep there.
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