A self-contained bike trip across America is an adventure filled with awesome sites, experiences, and a fair share of unsettling uncertainty.
For those cycling outside of a typical route across America, one of the big uncertainties revolves around sleep.
When it comes to finding sleeping arrangements on a cross country bike ride, renting a hotel or motel every night could really cut into the budget. Cyclists need to plan well or get creative on the spot to avoid resorting to expensive hotel rooms.
When the sun starts to go down, you need to know where you’re going to bed down for the night, and that’s not always the easiest decision to make.
Here are some ways that we found that let us find free or cheap places to camp.
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Camping at City, State, or National Parks
Duh. This is of course the low cost, typical option for camping when biking across America. Most campsites that we found west of the Rockies included fees to tent camp. Between the Rockies and the Appalachian Mountain ranges, we found more city, state and local parks that didn’t require fees. East of the Appalachians, we found the parks regularly charged fees again.
Campsites with fees typically charged fees between $5 – $12 per night per person. Lower costs typically mean less amenities.
Some campsites charged for a campsite, and in this case, the per person cost might decrease if you can split the cost with your cycling buddies or other cyclists or backpackers you might meet.
Not all city parks advertise that camping is allowed. We had great success finding free or low cost camping by heading to the police station when we arrived in a new town to ask if there were places in the city limits where we could camp. We were often directed to a city park or perhaps a nearby fairground. A couple times we were directed to locals who let cyclists camp in their backyards and once we were allowed to stay in a city storage building.
Firemen can be the best friends for a cross country cyclist. When we arrived in some towns, we would visit the fire station to ask if there were places to camp or if we could camp behind the firehouse.
The answer was almost always yes, and once we got to sleep inside the firehouse on the floor, giving us access to showers, the internet, and even the cookout that night.
The main drawback here are the alarms. Firemen get called a lot in the night, and they have ear busting alarms that will make you jump to attention from a dead sleep.
Ask a friendly local
We crashed on a few couches on our bike ride across America. It’s rare to score these randomly, but we met people at libraries and bars who volunteered to let us crash for free at their house or pitch the tent in their back yard. These nights usually cost us a beer or two for our host.
Ask a local friend
Check your Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social network to see who you know living in areas along the route. Asking friends and family for a place to stay, do laundry, shower, etc. is a great way to cut costs and sleep cheap.
Churches often have a tradition of helping the needy, and sometimes the needy come in the form of weary travelers (i.e. cross country cyclists).
On any day other than Sunday, if you see a church with a lone car in the parking lot, it’s likely the pastor.
Knock on the door of the church office or sanctuary, and ask the pastor if you can camp on the church property.
Often the churches remain unlocked day and night, so you might get access to baths as well.
In exchange for such accommodations from a church, we always offered to make a small contribution to the church ($5 – $10 each). Most didn’t accept the offer but were gracious in their space, water, and bathrooms.
Stealth Camp Wherever you Can Find
We didn’t do too much stealth camping, but the idea behind stealth camping is that you seek out hidden places where you can pitch a tent and camp without paying or being discovered.
From underneath overpasses to the side of the road just outside of town, the possibilities are limitless.
Once we were lost and didn’t reach our planned campground. In a pinch, we asked a local grocery store manager if we could camp behind the store.
He said yes, provided we bought breakfast at the small deli in the store in the morning. No problem. We needed to eat anyway.
As a bonus, we also got to hang some of our wet gear in the hot boiler room adjacent to the store to dry it out quickly overnight.
Hotels can get expensive, but hostels typically charge $20 / night or less for a bunk bed and access to a shower and perhaps laundry.
There are hostels scattered throughout America, and some homes along the typical TransAmerica cycling routes have hostel-like accommodations.
The best bet for finding hostels is a quick Google or site specific search. Call ahead to see if they availability.
Couch Surfing and Other Online Resources
Technology and the web make it a great time to be a long distance cyclist, as there are many online options that help with finding a free or low cost place to stay.
Sites like couchsurfing.com and services such as airbnb provide accommodations to riders when hotels and motels are not available or too costly.
In fact, many of the residents along the major routes of the Adventure Cycling Route Network are bicyclist-friendly as they make a substantial side-income providing shelter for long-distance cyclists.
Like everything with a long distance bike ride, finding a place to sleep involves a little ingenuity. Depending on where you are, where your going, and what your budget is – almost anything can serve as temporary shelter for a night.
Got other tips for free and cheap places to sleep when biking across America? Leave a comment.