Car-less Camping in the U.S. – Joys, Foibles, and Helpful Tips

Car-less camping isn’t for sissies. You can experience situations that range from annoying to scary. Maybe you’ll carry a heavy backpack on a long walk from a bus stop to your campsite. An electrical storm might strike and you won’t have the shelter of a car. Some hassles are unavoidable, but if you prepare, car-less camping trips can be a peak experience!

My travel buddy/life partner Kate and I have included public transit in our trips for fifteen years. Buses and trains have taken us to destinations in a number of countries and to many campgrounds in the US. We will continue to enjoy public transit adventures!

Pennsylvania\'s Grand Canyon, Pine Creek Canyon

Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon, Pine Creek Canyon

We are more unusual than we want to think. Camping without a car remains an almost unknown activity in these days of climate change and rising gas prices. San Francisco Bay Area buses reach Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County’s Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park and Sonoma County’s Salt Point State Park, but rangers report that car-less campers are rare. Bicycle riders camp more often than bus riders at Samuel P. Taylor and Pfeiffer-Big Sur. A handful of Pt. Reyes’ backpackers and Salt Point’s campers leave their cars at home.

Recent publicity may change this situation in this region. Bay Nature Magazine’s April-June 2009 issue shares the Bay Area Open Space Council’s public transit map for campers, backpackers and hikers. This issue also include Ryan Branciforte’s article on a backpacking trip from Walnut Creek BART to Mount Diablo. The Bay Area Open Space Council also features a website, Transit and Trails helps hikers use the 511 transit site to find buses to trailheads. The word is getting out about car-less camping!

Here are some tips to make your trip great.

1 – Be conscious of what you carry

You will need to pack lightly; it is difficult to carry a stuffed backpack on planes, shuttles and buses and from bus stops to campsites. Be aware of regulations on equipment. Airlines will not let you carry camping stove fuel in a canister. Use the Internet to find camping equipment retailers near your destination that rent stoves. Find stores that are accessible to bus lines or taxis – businesses in cities or towns are useful.

A light sleeping bag and a backpacking tent work well on car-less trips. Quick drying clothes made from synthetic materials are invaluable. You can often get by with two pairs of pants, two or three shirts and quick dry underwear. Bring a clothesline so one set of clothes can dry while you wear the other. It is wise to have a third set of light clothes in reserve if you will visit a cool, damp campground. Kate and I found that clothes dried slowly at Olympic National Park’s coast.

Granola and powdered milk make good breakfasts; powdered humus mix and pita bread is a nice choice for lunches. Many supermarkets sell Asian meals that come in a heatable pouches. You cook these inexpensive dinners quickly by placing the pouch in boiling water for five minutes. Simmer dehydrated vegetables briefly to supplement this little feast.

2 – Know bus companies’ schedules, especially when you visit remote areas

Research schedules online, print them and bring them with you. Some regional transit guides and other resource offer provide information that will benefit car-less campers. For example the San Francisco Bay Area’s 511 Website provides transit information for Bay Area campgrounds and trails. Check local transit districts’ web pages for information on buses in other regions.

3 – A cab may be necessary in some situations

California's Salt Point State Park

California’s Salt Point State Park

Call ahead to find out about a company’s rates and be prepared for sudden twists of fate. Kate and I once took a taxi from a backpacking trailhead in California’s Desolation Wilderness to South Lake Tahoe on a Fourth of July weekend. The driver took a wide detour to avoid holiday traffic; the ride cost twice as much as the trip to the trailhead.

Bus companies in remote areas will surprise you with unexpected policies. We took a Greyhound from Philadelphia towards Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon and planned to transfer to a local bus line in a small town. We left the Greyhound and remembered that it was Sunday, a day when many Pennsylvania buses don’t run.

We decided that hitchhiking was our least unpleasant option. A Buddhist nurse and her Deadhead daughter got us to our destination. Luck was with us; this could have been a dangerous situation. We could have avoided it by carefully reading the bus schedule online and making sure we avoided Sunday travel.

4 – Let your presence in your campsite be known

Leave a large sign saying “This site is occupied” near your spot’s driveway. On one northern California trip, Kate and I placed our tent in a small grove of trees in our Salt Point State Park campsite. We woke at midnight on the second night to discover a Sacramento family setting up their tent. They thought that the absence of a car meant that the site was empty. We had a good laugh and shared the site that night; the family found a better one in the morning. This was another lucky break – some campers, especially those who drink heavily can become aggressive. A visible sign can help avoid a fight!

5 – Be prepared to have people stare at you!

Your fellow campers will treat you like you came from Neptune. Many people cannot understand why anyone would travel without a car. All you can do is to keep your sense of humor!

The joys of car-less camping

A car-less camping trip can be wonderfully relaxing. I thrive on reading a long-neglected book while the bus driver, who is generally an expert on traffic jams and twisting roads takes charge. Kate and I will always remember listening to “A Prairie Home Companion” during our shuttle ride down California’s twisty Route One while gray whales breached offshore.

You can connect deeply with the region you visit. A cab driver in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania shared his knowledge of local labor history; a shuttle driver near the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon gave us detailed knowledge of the region’s economic problems. We spent several hours exploring Jim Thorpe during a layover between a cab ride and a bus trip. This tourist village boasted a thriving Deadhead community and posters promoting a redneck festival. We would have missed these surprises if we’d driven through town.

Car-less camping helps you avoid wear and tear on your car and lower costs than if you pay for gas. Many nature lovers feel guilty about their need to drive to campsites. Public transit based camping reduces your carbon footprint and your stress. Leave the car at home and love your trip!

Also check out: A no-nonsense guide to first time camping in the U.S.

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