America is a big place, and many bicycle travelers rightly wonder where they’ll sleep during a bike tour through the USA. It’s a tough question! Given the large amount of private land, the high population density (especially in the east), and the relatively high prices of motels in urban areas, how is a cyclist supposed to find a safe and legal place to lay their weary head each night without breaking their budget?
To help fellow bicycle travelers wanting to cycle in America, I’ve compiled this list of ideas for where to camp when cycling in the US (plus a few indoor alternatives). It’s based on my own cross-country ride, a recent shorter tour in Idaho and Oregon, and plenty of conversations with fellow bicycle travelers.
I’ll be honest, it’s not always easy to find cheap places to sleep while bike touring in the US. The trick is to choose the best options for the type of area you’re in. Rural areas versus urban, west versus east, well-trodden routes versus off the beaten path… They all have their own tricks. Read on for 14 ideas you can mix and match for your particular route.
Is it safe to camp on a US bicycle tour?
Let’s get this out of the way. I’ve cycled over 4500 miles solo in the US, yes I am female, and no I don’t carry a gun (I do get asked this sometimes). While I think it’s far safer than most people assume, I still apply common sense when camping. These are my guidelines:
- I either camp where no one will find me (hidden in a national forest for example), or where plenty of people know I’m there (at a busy campground or in a town park).
- I don’t camp outside of established campgrounds in towns big enough to have a chain gas station, motel, or fast food restaurant.
- I think twice about who I talk to about camping plans as I’m scouting my spot for the evening. Asking around can be helpful, but I always do a quick gut check when choosing who to ask.
In many nights of camping alone in the US and elsewhere, I have never been bothered. However, to help with the occasional nervous night in the tent (which I’m sure many solo campers of any gender can relate to), I sometimes keep these two things at the ready: 1) a bright headlamp, and 2) a personal alarm. Surprise and confuse with bright light and loud sound, that’s my plan. Never had to use it, but it does help me sleep sometimes.
Now that we’ve covered that, here’s a list of places a cyclist can camp or stay while cycling across the US, especially for those watching their budget.
1. National Forests
America’s national forests are gold mines for cyclists biking across the US. As this interactive map shows, the majority of national forest land lies west of the Rockies, but there are smaller swatches scattered throughout the US. National Forests are also usually easy to see on Google Maps.
Dispersed camping is legal nearly anywhere in national forests, and they often have free or cheap designated campgrounds as well (many are shown on the great interactive map at publiclands.org). Personally, as a bicycle traveler I often feel more at ease sneaking off down a dirt forest service road and camping away from the big campgrounds and pullouts, which tend to be full of massive RVs.
Dispersed camping: where is it legal?
According to these guidelines, you must camp at least 1 mile from any developed campgrounds or picnic areas, 100 feet from any stream or waterway, and 150 feet from the main roadway. As always, follow leave no trace camping practices.
2. BLM Land
Similar to national forest land, public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management also provides established campgrounds and legal dispersed camping opportunities.
This USGS interactive map of US public land is a great way to tell if your route passes through National Forest or BLM land (or any other type of US public land, each of which has different use restrictions).
3. Hiker / Biker Campsites
This varies from state to state, but sometimes state or other parks will have a designated area called a hike / bike campsite for those who arrive on foot or bicycle. The benefit is that they don’t require reservations, are usually very cheap (often $5 per night) and are not supposed to turn you away even if the campground is full. They can also be a fun place to meet other bicycle travelers.
Here’s an excellent map showing parks with hike / bike campsites in California; try googling each state individually. The famous rail trails of the east, like the GAP and C&O Canal trails, often have hike / bike campsites at convenient intervals.
4. Other Campgrounds
In addition to the campgrounds mentioned above, you’ll find plenty of other options including town parks, county parks, national parks, and privately owned campgrounds. Prices and availability vary, and some require reservations or fill up on busy weekends, making things tricky for a traveling cyclist. But with a little planning or luck, you can still camp for relatively cheap at some of these options.
Most types of campgrounds can be found by searching for “camping” on Google Maps or Maps.me.
5. RV Parks
RV Parks are a gamble: some allow tent camping and some don’t. It doesn’t hurt to ask, and the smaller the town, the more likely they’ll be happy to let you pitch your tent on the lawn next to the RVs. Chances are good they have luxuries like a shower and electrical outlets too.
RV parks are often shown on Google Maps, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between an RV park (where travelers and sometimes long-term residents stay in RVs) and mobile home parks (where long-term residents live in “mobile homes” that are less mobile than RVs). Both are sometimes called “trailer parks,” but the latter probably won’t welcome tent campers.
6. Small Town Camping (Churches, Parks, Schools)
If you find yourself in a very small town with no campground or RV park, it’s often acceptable to camp somewhere in a public space. This is a hallmark of bicycle touring in rural America and works best in very small towns, the kind with maybe just one general store and not much else. In these kinds of places it’s usually understood that you don’t have a lot of other options.
Good candidates include the town park, community church, school yard, or post office. I personally like churches because the space isn’t busy (avoid Saturday nights) and it seems to lend an air of protection; no one wants to bother someone right outside a church. If there’s a general store or restaurant in town, you could also ask them about camping in their yard (and obviously buy some food from them), or which of the other options they think might be best.
No matter where you choose to camp, it’s nice to ask permission if you can find anyone to ask, and make sure you’re gone in the morning before anyone needs to use the space.
Personally, I only do this in very small communities where the population is maybe just a few hundred or less and everyone knows each other. Anything larger than that – particularly towns on main highways, with businesses like gas stations or fast food restaurants that are open late – and I don’t necessarily feel safe or appropriate camping out in the open.
7. Police and Fire Stations
Bicycle travelers passing through small US towns sometimes have good luck asking at police or fire stations. You could get lucky and be invited to camp there and use their shower. Or, you might be directed to another location. Either way, it’s nice to know you have their official blessing when you set up your tent. If they turn you away, that would be a bummer, but better to find out you’re not welcome now than in the middle of the night.
8. Camping With Permission on Private Land
This is where you knock on doors or ask people you see for permission to camp on their property. Some bicycle travelers swear by this and claim to have never been turned away. If you have the time to ask around and the energy for the conversations that usually ensue, this might be perfect for you. Worst case they say no, best case they invite you in for dinner!
I’ll be honest, I haven’t done much of this in the US. I’m pretty introverted and the idea of knocking on a stranger’s door scares me. I have had a few kind souls offer of their own accord.
If you’re going to knock on doors, I’ve read it’s best to choose a house that looks well kept but not too meticulously neat. Look for lovingly tended gardens and signs of children or family life, like toys in the yard.
9. Stealth Camping
If you truly have no other options and need to camp where you suspect it’s not legal and/or safe to be seen, there’s always stealth camping. I don’t recommend it, but if you’re going to do it, do it right.
Obviously, look for a place that’s hidden from the road. Pay attention to the path of headlights from passing vehicles; avoid the outsides of bends in the road, for example. Moving uphill from the road usually hides you better than moving downhill. Find camp after sunset or just before, wait to leave the road until no traffic is coming, and don’t use a light or camp stove. While slightly less critical than the process of setting up for the night, in the morning it’s best to be on your way early and not be seen leaving.
10. Public Restrooms
This is an odd one I picked up while bikepack racing, which usually involves very short nights of sleep and lightweight camping gear that won’t always keep you warm enough. Finding a clean restroom – especially those in national forests or other public lands – can mean several hours of quality sleep and shelter behind a locked door without spending time to pitch a tent.
As a touring cyclist, it’s not exactly the best place to enjoy a leisurely afternoon at the campsite. But in really bad weather or if you don’t feel safe camping out in the open (such as at busy highway rest stops), a warm locking bathroom can seem like the Ritz! Of course it’s best to arrive late and vacate early, leaving the bathroom available for its intended purpose during times others might need it.
11. Warm Showers
In larger towns and urban areas, you might have a tough time finding good camping spots. Fortunately these are also the types of places with more Warm Showers hosts. Warm Showers is a much loved hospitality network of cyclists and travelers who host touring cyclists.
Hosts might provide anything from a camping spot in the backyard to a full-on guesthouse and meals. Often they’re cyclists themselves, interested in chatting, and may be able to help out with bike tools or other cycling-specific needs.
The only downside is that it requires coordination several days ahead of time, which works best if you’re on a predictable schedule and have regular internet access. Some cyclists may also find the sense of social obligation tiring if they’re more in the mood for a solitary campsite, but for many people it’s is a huge perk.
12. Couch Surfing
Couch Surfing is a hospitality network like Warm Showers, but is not cyclist specific. It provides similar benefits to travelers on a budget: lodging for “free” but often with an expectation of social interaction. It can potentially work out great, but some cyclists have found that hosts weren’t exactly prepared for the specific needs of bicycle travelers (dirty clothes, dirty bikes, explosion of bike bags all over the room, etc).
Sometimes there’s just no avoiding it: you’ll need to get a motel room. Relatively cheap (roughly $50-$70 per night) motels can be found in many mid-size towns throughout the US. Sometimes small towns have one or two family-run motels at good prices. Larger towns will have chains. Motel 6 and Econo Lodge are usually two of the cheaper chain options, but use Google Maps to scout prices.
Often the cheap travelers’ motels are located on the main routes in and out of town, near gas stations and fast food restaurants. Some have mini fridges and microwaves in the room, perfect for grabbing a cheap meal at the grocery store or saving leftovers for tomorrow.
It’s always worth asking for a AAA discount (if you’re a AAA member), or even just looking a bit pathetic and asking what their best rate is for a tired bicycle traveler. I’ve never had a problem taking my bicycle into the room with me, and often I’ll get a first floor room if I ask nicely. I always try to leave the room clean, even if I have to wipe up a little dirt from my bike, so future bike travelers will receive an equally warm welcome.
If you have the time and predictability to reserve ahead, AirBnb can be a nice way to save money and find lodging with a bit more character than yet another Motel 6. Often AirBnbs will be self-contained guest units, but they may also be an entire house, or simply a room with shared bathroom and common space (these are often cheaper than motel rooms). They usually don’t require much interaction with the host.
Tools For Finding Campsites and Other Places to Sleep
Unfortunately there’s no one single place for bicycle travelers to look for camping or lodging in the US. Here’s a list of all the tools mentioned above, which can be cobbled together into a strategy for figuring out where to sleep while cycling across the US.
- publiclands.org: find campsites on public lands and see where dispersed camping is legal
- iOverlander app: see where other travelers have camped before. Note some “campsites” are better suited for people parking in motor vehicles.
- freecampsites.net: similar to iOverlander, a user-created database of free camping for vehicles and tents
- Google Maps (can download maps for offline use)
- Maps.me app (can download maps for offline use)
- When all else fails, try good old google search engine for region-specific queries
More Bicycle Travel Resources
If you’re interested in bicycle touring in the US, you might also like these:
- Must-Know Tips for Planning a Cross-US Bike Ride
- Panniers vs. Bikepacking Bags: How to choose?
- How to Find Bike Touring Blogs for Any Route
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