Choosing Curiosity as Your Guide

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they are going.”  ~Paul Theroux

As we write from the parking lot of a Walmart in Maine, we can’t help but reflect on the poignancy of this article.  We had other ideas for this weekend, but a quick tire change on our trailer revealed a more complex issue.  Of course it’s Friday, and it can’t be addressed until Monday.  So, here we wait, making the most of the opportunity, exploring the area on foot and by bike while limiting our driving to short hops around town.  If we had firm reservations or plans, they would have been canceled.  We would have been stuck with the fees, disappointment, and whatever goes along with it. 

How folks approach travel ranges from “I have to know where I’m spending the night before I leave home” to “Let’s just see where this road takes us.”  We very rarely make reservations for 3 reasons:  1) planning and scheduling takes a lot of time and work, 2) we prefer to linger a bit longer in beautiful places, especially when they aren’t crowded and the weather is nice, and 3) we prefer to avoid reservation or cancelation fees which can be high. 

If you aren’t the type who easily lets go of prearranged logistics, here are a few helpful steps to start going with the flow.

Travel during the shoulder season or off-season.
To avoid the need for reservations, we travel to popular areas during the shoulder season (shortly before or after the main tourist season) or the off-season.  Even places that you think might be over-crowded may surprise you.  We’ve spent winter seasons in places where we thought we were going to fight for our sites -- Florida, Arizona, etc.  The reality was quite the opposite; while RV resorts were filled to capacity, the places we usually camp (national forests, BLM, county and state parks) all had plenty of space available.  It made for an absolutely delightful winter!


Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona

Go solar!
When you use the sun to power your life, you won't need electrical hookups anymore, making your campsite options nearly endless...and it will save you money in the long run. Many parks limit generator use to specific hours and areas of the campground, or don't allow them at all.  We've met hundreds of people who have made the solar plunge -- from vans to skoolies to large RVs. 

If you have thought about solar, but have encountered stumbling blocks, know that you are not alone.  Our recent article, Challenges to Going Solar & Strategies to Overcome Them, is chock full of resources and tips.    

Go small, 25 ft or less.
Simply put, the smaller you go, the more places are available to you.  We squeeze into tent sites all the time because Hamlet is no bigger than a large family-sized tent.  Since many national park campgrounds have limited spots for RV’s longer than 25 feet, reservations become more necessary if your rig is large.  Another plus is that smaller rigs are less expensive, easier to move around, and use less fuel.

Be prepared to boondock.
Sometimes we grab the last campsite and sometimes we miss out.  But, here’s a bit of a secret.  Nearly every national park and many national monuments are surrounded by National Forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM land)  where camping is safe, typically free, or very low cost.  We also use the heck out of our National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas, The Dyrt, and freecampsites.net for finding these cool spots.  Many businesses allow RVers to park overnight at some locations, including: Bass Pro Shops, Camping World, WalMart, Cracker Barrel and others.


A Quiet Night on BLM Land Close to Lake Mead

Check in with the family.

If reservationless travel worries the family back home, check-in regularly to keep their mind at ease.  Just a text will do.  One attendee at a presentation we recently gave called this, “Keeping up with my ‘I love yous!’”  We love that! 

Let curiosity guide you, rather than FOMO.
Overplanners don’t realize, or perhaps value, all the amazing places to discover and people to meet while exploring at a more human pace rather than blasting to the next photo op destination.  Tim Ferris reminds us that, “Most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty.”  If you find yourself settling for the known and certain, ask yourself if it makes you happy or just comfortable.

Traveling with intention is about cultivating curiosity rather than giving into a fear of missing out.  We know many people who have set out to see all 5 of Utah’s national parks in 10 days.  We agree that you’ll see them, but not much except through the windshield.  Take at least 4 days to explore each park, if not longer.  If you don’t have time to see them all, just explore a couple in depth and go where most tourists don't.

Adopt an “abundance mindset.”
While a bit philosophical, we believe in approaching travel with flexibility and resourcefulness -- you will be amazed by what you find that isn’t listed in the guidebook or online database.  Bolstered with all the ideas above, the abundance mindset says, “I’m not going to worry because there are plenty of other options available, and I have a solid plan B (boondock)."  For planners, this type of travel can feel very uncomfortable at first.  We become good at what we practice.  You don’t have to go reservationless all at once, just try it out for a few days at a time, and put some question marks in your datebook.  You’ll be amazed at what you find.

When you let go of the itinerary, amazing things can happen.  Here are a few stories from the road...

Getting Lost in the Moment
One early June, while exploring Yellowstone National Park, we easily found a campsite on our first night.  We then spent most of the next day enjoying each National Park moment – watching geysers explode into the clouds, marveling in the brilliant colors created by thermophilic archaea in the hot springs and lingering in the afternoon light on the lower falls of the Yellowstone River.


Thernophyllic Archae at Morning Glory Pool


Geisers Exploding into the Clouds


Dimishing Light on the River

Around dinner time, we found ourselves cruising through each camping loop in the late evening.  Each full campground after the last confirmed our suspicion-- we would have to exit the park to find a space for the night.  As we drove toward the northeast gate, an evening thunderstorm cast a phenomenal rainbow across a fire ravaged valley.  The rising full moon illuminated multiple herds of bison along the road.  Mother Nature quickly turned what could have been a bummer of poor planning into an amazing evening showcase; and we still found a cozy camping spot in the national forest just outside the entrance to the park.  If you are always ready to boondock in your small rig, you’re ready for a reservation-less adventure. 


Herds of Bison in Yellowstone


Bison Along the River at Yellowstone

Lose The Race, Win The Campsite!
Our RV provides a basecamp for more remote backcountry adventures.  Recently, we joined some friends on a 4-day canoeing / camping trip in the Maine North Woods.  All of the hundreds of campsites are first-come, first-served and we had already seen many groups on the water.  On our second day, we paddled by a number of open campsites which we dismissed because we still felt like paddling.  As the afternoon wore on, word traveled up the river that one beautiful campsite in particular was still open.  We found ourselves in the middle of another group of paddlers and things began to take on the feeling of a race.  Who would get there first?  Our friends paddled ahead, eager to clinch the spot -- which they did not.  Had we missed out on the best place to camp because of a lazy break earlier in the day?


Canoeing the Maine North Woods

Within 30 minutes of gentle downstream paddling, we discovered an open site we dubbed “Camp Perfect.”  Tucked into a bend in the river, it had everything we wanted, an expansive view, a rock outcropping pointing into the current and perfect for swimming, plenty of space for us to spread out our tents, and an ample supply of deadwood for our fires.  We loved it so much, we stayed for two nights!  Had we beat the other group, we wouldn’t have discovered our favorite spot and incurred some hard feelings from our fellow paddlers.  There were campsites aplenty, we just had to be willing to go a bit further down the river.


"Camp Perfect" in the Maine North Woods

Spontaneous Solar Infusions Needed

The North Cascades mountain range divides Washington into distinctly different ecosystems.  The west side is wet, cool, and covered in more green moss and more icy peaks than you can imagine.  But just 30 miles to the east, the environment feels like high desert, arid, sunny and sparsely vegetated.  While working in the North Cascades National Park just west of Washington Pass along Hwy 20, we found ourselves craving a change of environment from time to time.


Turquoise Pools in the North Cascades

Whenever the incessant drizzle got the better of us, we’d drive east to dry out in the Methow River Valley, near the towns of Mazama, Winthrop, and Twisp.  Forest Service and BLM campsites are scattered across the region and offer amazing recreational opportunities for climbers, hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, OHV enthusiasts, and anyone who just wants to sit in the woods.  There are a few private campgrounds and RV resorts offering full services, but those won’t get you out into the beautiful mountains of the eastern Cascades.  Here, we only needed to set our solar panel out into the sunshine for a few hours to charge up everything we needed. 


Deer Point Lake Chelan

Never Too Old to Begin

Our 79-year old parents recently got into the RV travel lifestyle with their 22-foot travel trailer.  While no strangers to traveling, they found themselves at first sticking to traditional campsites with full hook-ups, and this meant they needed to make reservations.  Feeling like this was limiting their flexibility and sense of adventure, they bought a solar panel to keep their batteries charged for nighttime use, and have been tiptoeing into going without reservations.  If they can do it, what’s stopping you?

Join us in living large by living small!  Learn more about our solar powered adventures on our website and follow us on the road via social media at Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube!

Editor's Note:  For even more information about how to camp without reservations, see our previous article, "Hitting the Road With No Reservations".

Shari and Hutch
Author: Shari and Hutch
In 2012, David Hutchison “Hutch” and Shari Galiardi left behind careers and a comfortable home in North Carolina to travel with the vintage camper trailer they lovingly restored, outfitted with solar, and named “Hamlet.” What they thought would be a year or two adventure around the continent transformed into a new lifestyle. 7.5 years later, with no end in sight, they share stories and insights from their mid-life adventure to large industry travel shows, intimate college campuses, open tiny houses in REI parking lots and a growing online audience. Traveling over 100,000 miles to 49 states, countless National Parks and other public lands, the couple pursues what it means to live the good life on their own terms and sustain it. The writing and photography duo currently pen the popular “Full-Time Campers” column in The Dyrt’s online magazine and contribute to Renogy’s solar blog as well as other publications.

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