Sleeping in car at trailheads


Original Post
freefall · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Nov 2016 · Points: 0

Hello!
This is my first post after reading around quite a while but confusion is increasing and I would like to understand a bit better the dispersed camping issue during a roadtrip.
We live in Italy: me and my wife own a WV Van and regularly spend our holydays in it and use it as sleeping base at trailheads for hikes to summits in the Alps.
You could call it disperse camping but in fact we usually just drive at location at dusk and leave for our hike early next day. No tent/items stay out of the van, no fires, it is by all means just a parked car.

Next Summer (August) we will visit Colorado and chase the total solar eclipse in Wyoming. Sincethe eclipse forces us to be flexible and move to the clearest sky on the very last day, we will rent a minivan and sleep in it.
Rough idea to start with a few days in the Colorado Rockies hiking some peaks, then move to WY (Casper area) on the eclipse day and then continue to Yellowstone/Grand Teton National Parks for another week of hikes.

Of course the best option are campgrounds but having no schedule we may find no place.
Moreover, rather than campgrounds with amenities and crowds, we really like to give priority to scenic locations and trailhead spots so to be ready for next day walks.

Just as an example here you are a few places where we may want to stop:
- Gonella Pass or trailhead up the Mt. Evans road (aim to do the combo Bierstadt- Sawtooth-Evans)
- Trailheads around Glacier Basin or Aspenglen (Rocky Mountain NP)
- Stop anywhere along the road in Casper WY (roads 20, 25, 26, looks as total emptiness in streetview)
- Grand Teton NP
- Yellowstone NP
- Gros Ventre Wilderness area
- Wind River Range (maybe on Green River Lakes)

Here comes my confusion: reading around in the forums it seems that sleeping in cars is not permitted in the US but I would like to understand a few of points:
- Is it dangerous (bears, wildlife or thieves)?
- Isn’t it allowed to stop and sleep for safety reasons if the driver is tired?
- If I stop in places where overnight parking is allowed, how can anyone tell if I am sleeping inside or simply not yet back from hiking? What if I would like to stop on a location for some stars watching?

Thanks for helping!

Ty Falk · · Park City, UT · Joined Nov 2011 · Points: 25

I have never had a problem at GTNP. That being said your technically not allowed so I would keep a low profile. Arrive late and leave early if possible. You won't be the only one doing it.

RangerJ · · Denver, CO · Joined Jan 2012 · Points: 0

I have slept at many trailheads in WY without incident. The only place on your list where you might really have a problem is RMNP. They are strict about overnight camping and overnight parking. Cars need to have permits displayed at most trailheads showing that you paid for an overnight permit.

Kent Pease · · Littleton, Colorado · Joined Feb 2006 · Points: 605

In National Parks, it's almost always illegal to camp outside of established campgrounds, including sleeping in your car at trail heads (unless your name is Bundy). There's strong enforcement with a high risk for a ticket in some parks including Yosemite and RMNP. The rangers will knock on your windows and shine a light in the vehicle to see if anyone's home. There is a rumor of infrared sensor use in Yosemite. As a general rule it's OK on National Forrest and BLM lands unless it's posted as "no camping". There are also some State Parks and State-owned lands where the regulations vary and you wouldn't know without doing some research.

Bears and thieves shouldn't be a problem - if you make some noise from inside your vehicle they would run off to easier pickings.

Napping in your car at night because you're too tiered to drive in a National Park would be a grey area. You could be ticketed and it would depend on the discretion of the officer.

Other activities such as star gazing and a late return from a hike in NPs would also be gray areas. In "theory" you shouldn't be ticketed and in most situations you wouldn't' be. If it passes the "sniff test" you're probably OK. The exception would be areas of high abuse where the officers have seen it all.

Welcome and enjoy your travels in the US.

John Barritt · · OKC · Joined Oct 2016 · Points: 888

If you can afford airfare from Italy and a rental van you can pay for a campsite or overnight permit. Way less hassle that way, camping fees are always less than the fines.

Gunkiemike · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 1,865
John Barritt wrote:If you can afford airfare from Italy and a rental van you can pay for a campsite or overnight permit. Way less hassle that way, camping fees are always less than the fines.
Read what he wrote; this isn't about affordability.
DavisMeschke Guillotine · · Pinedale, WY · Joined Oct 2013 · Points: 45

Casper, the Gros Ventures, and Winds trail heads are all open for camping at the trailhead. They're national forest, so you will not have any problems. In Yellowstone and Grand Teton you will have to be much more discrete, especially with a sleeper van. Hope this helps

Collin Holt · · Golden, CO · Joined Mar 2008 · Points: 0

Camping is unregulated and free in almost every national forest in the country.

Bill Shubert · · Lexington, MA · Joined Jul 2012 · Points: 50

Even when it's illegal, if you don't do it obviously right at the trailhead you'll probably be OK. 20 years ago I went to Yosemite on a spur of the moment thing and we slept in the bed of our pickup truck, but first we drove a couple miles out of the park and found an out of the way place to stop. So you won't get up in the morning and be right at the trailhead, but a 5 minute drive isn't the worst thing in the world.

Nick Andrasik · · Broomfield, CO · Joined Jul 2016 · Points: 0

You will definitely get called out at RMNP for sleeping in your car at a trailhead.

If you come up 36, there are some national forest areas to pull off and sleep at that are 10-15 minutes away from the main RMNP entrance. I'd stay there and then just get an early start and get into the park.

mark felber · · Wheat Ridge, CO · Joined Jul 2005 · Points: 28

National Parks have gotten a lot more crowded over the years, and as a result law enforcement has gotten a lot stricter. Your best bet for the national parks is to park just outside of the park boundary if you want to sleep in your vehicle, then drive to the trailhead in the morning. I've literally slept within sight of the entrance station at one or two national parks, and I wasn't bothered because I was outside park boundaries.

As you seem to have figured out, Google Earth and Google maps are a great way to scope out potential parking/sleeping spots.

Steven Groetken · · Durango, CO · Joined Sep 2012 · Points: 10

Easy answer

National parks (yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone) = no, pay for a campground,

National forest and BLM = yes, go for it.

If a ranger stops you, explain your situation. They're pretty cool usually and will give advice. If you're in an area of high bear concentration, do not store food in your vehicle. Black bears won't normally mess with you, but brown bears around Teton and Yellowstone might since they are used to people. Hang a bear bag or get a bear canister and keep away from where you are sleeping. Include toiletries.

Scott Kleeman · · Decorah, IA · Joined Aug 2016 · Points: 0
freefall wrote:Isn’t it allowed to stop and sleep for safety reasons if the driver is tired?
I don't know what laws are on the books, but this summer, East of Seattle and Tacoma in Washington state, I was pretty hosed and pulled off the Interstate onto a huge shoulder on a large bend in a quiet forested highway for a quick kip to alleviate my dangerous fatigue. I woke up less than an hour later--having slept through my phone's alarms--to police lights behind me and an officer walking up to my car. I explained that I was exhausted and had meant to sleep for a few minutes because I thought it was pretty dangerous for me to be driving, and he said I couldn't stay there. He seemed needlessly angry from my perspective, and he left without citing me for anything only after he saw someone speed by us, saying, "I'll go get that guy instead", before immediately walking back to his car. I shit you not I almost didn't believe it, but he seemed pretty pissed. I'm glad I made it back after my nap, luckily I was pretty torqued about that man's demeanor. You never know I guess.

Safe travels and welcome to the USA!!!
Jason Young · · Los Alamos, NM · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 1,000
Scott Kleeman wrote: I don't know what laws are on the books, but this summer, East of Seattle and Tacoma in Washington state, I was pretty hosed and pulled off the Interstate onto a huge shoulder on a large bend in a quiet forested highway for a quick kip to alleviate my dangerous fatigue. I woke up less than an hour later--having slept through my phone's alarms--to police lights behind me and an officer walking up to my car. I explained that I was exhausted and had meant to sleep for a few minutes because I thought it was pretty dangerous for me to be driving, and he said I couldn't stay there. He seemed needlessly angry from my perspective, and he left without citing me for anything only after he saw someone speed by us, saying, "I'll go get that guy instead", before immediately walking back to his car. I shit you not I almost didn't believe it, but he seemed pretty pissed. I'm glad I made it back after my nap, luckily I was pretty torqued about that man's demeanor. You never know I guess. Safe travels and welcome to the USA!!!
The golem of the State was "just following orders" (and his own inflated ego) - public safety be damned.
Long Ranger · · Boulder, Colorado · Joined Jan 2014 · Points: 20

I think one of the finer points if you want to sleep in your car on a country road near/at a trailhead that goes through a National Forest, is to not actually park on the road itself, as it may be illegal to do so, and you could get ticketed or towed. Rather, make sure you're at a pullout or a parking space. National Forests are pretty lenient on where you can "camp", but it's not a free for all. If you're blocking others, people get pissed.

Also double check it's not actually private property you're parking besides.

freefall · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Nov 2016 · Points: 0

Thanks for the many answers!
I’ll try then to book campgrounds as much as possible, especially in national parks, whenever not possible or with no free spaces I’ll play the card of being low profile. For this reason I am going to rent a Grand Caravan with stow&go seats that shouldn’t rise any suspect of RV usage.
Overnight permits are provided by rangers or need to be booked somewhere else?
Also driving a few miles away from trailheads is also a good tip, I’ll check out 36 on GE to find good spots: parks entrance is open 24h?
Is it obvious where it is National forest / BLM / private property soil?
By the way: if anybody wants to share the hike with us we’d love to!

Ryan U. · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Sep 2015 · Points: 25

freecampsite.net

It's a user submitted directory of free or under $10 campsites. I have used it on a few trips. Some locations are amazing and others are just a pull out near the highway.

If you're going through Grand Teton from the south entrance, drive north and on the first and only road between the entrance and the first juntion will follow a creek. Take it for about 8 miles until you reach a NP Boundary sign, once you pass this sign you are now in National Forest land which allows free dispersed camping. Ask a park worker and they will point it out on a map.

MOST national parks are along BLM land which usually has a primitive campground just outside the entrances.

George Wu · · Newport Beach, CA · Joined Jul 2015 · Points: 76
Steven Groetken wrote:National parks (yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone) = no, pay for a campground, National forest and BLM = yes, go for it. If a ranger stops you, explain your situation. They're pretty cool usually and will give advice. If you're in an area of high bear concentration, do not store food in your vehicle. Black bears won't normally mess with you, but brown bears around Teton and Yellowstone might since they are used to people. Hang a bear bag or get a bear canister and keep away from where you are sleeping. Include toiletries.
Good answer. It all comes down to jurisdiction. National Parks are by far the strictest because they get the most crowds (at least in summer). They also have bear problems, so they want to control camping and how people store their food. A bear bag won't cut it in Yosemite and much of the surrounding National Forest. There are bear lockers in established campgrounds. You can find and reserve sites on recreation.gov and reserveamerica.com . Some campgrounds hold sites for walk-ins, so between those allotments and cancellations, you can sometimes score a site. By afternoon, those sites are often all claimed though, depending on how popular the area is.

Some National Forest areas also ban dispersed camping at parking lots or within a mile. Again, that's usually in areas where there are a lot of crowds. You'll notice that there's no single rule. Even within a given agency, the rules vary a lot depending on local conditions and tradition.
ICTOAN Bond · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jun 2016 · Points: 0
Ryan U. wrote:freecampsite.net It's a user submitted directory of free or under $10 campsites. I have used it on a few trips. Some locations are amazing and others are just a pull out near the highway. If you're going through Grand Teton from the south entrance, drive north and on the first and only road between the entrance and the first juntion will follow a creek. Take it for about 8 miles until you reach a NP Boundary sign, once you pass this sign you are now in National Forest land which allows free dispersed camping. Ask a park worker and they will point it out on a map. MOST national parks are along BLM land which usually has a primitive campground just outside the entrances.
I used this website heavily on my cross-country trip last month. I only paid a few times and that was when I wanted to. An excellent resource.
B-Mkll Mackall · · Bozeman, MT · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 1,466

A lot of good ground has been covered here

Freecampsites.net is a great source of information, particularly in the well-travelled/ camped states like CO, WY

National Forest and BLM land, unless otherwise posted, is almost always a safe bet for car camping for a single night, or for multiple nights in spots with established firepits etc. I would recommend getting a recreational map of the places you intend to go so that you know the boundaries.

As mentioned before, National Parks, Monuments, etc. are all very strict in their regulations (comes with the territory). However, most parks are directly adjacent to or very close to extensive national forest (see above).

I have had almost 100% luck with sleeping in my car more or less anywhere in the US, legally, quasi-legally, or illegally. In sketchier spots, don't have a fire, be discreet, show up late and leave early. If you get a knock from a neighbor or ranger/cop, let them know you got in late and couldn't find suitable camping, thought that it was okay for just a few hours, and move along if more fuss is made. Most cops won't make too much of a fuss if you make the "I didn't want to drive drowsy, needed a nap" excuse.

As far as crime goes, in my understanding property-based crime is rare compared to Europe. As long as you are away from dense urban areas you should be fine. Any trailheads that have a history of break-ins are usually well-reported as such here on MP.

Animals are region-specific. Bears are really only a concern in the northern rockies, and general good-sense practices like not sleeping with all of your food and used plates with an open tailgate will help. Buy bear spray if you intend to hike, climb, camp etc. anywhere in northwest WY, MT, or ID.

All in all you should be fine. I haven't paid for camping except for RMNP and Yosemite for almost 3 years and I travel and camp almost 100 days of every year.

Have fun!

ccaissie · · Whitefield, ME · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 5

Right, the Eclipse August 21.  I plan to be hiking in the Wind River Range, supposedly the best possible weather statistics for clear sky probability.

Hopefully, i'm deep in Ttitcomb Basin, away from crowds, though I imagine there's going to be a lot of hike/climb traffic at some of these hot spots... like Jackson.  

I imagine nearby spots will be packed...Jackson, Yellowstone, or any nice area within a day drive of the path.  you can get a google earth overlay of the path, but for me, Grand Teton and Gannett peak on the path is good enough.

I researched clear sky probabilities along the eclipse path and East side of the Wind River Range  is the best option anywhere.

I imagine there will be lots of car bivvy around GTNP and Wind River Range due to the eclipse.  Never had any difficulties car bivvy in WA, AK, OR or really anywhere as long as I stayed away from the crowd.  

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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