EPIC Backpacking USA (2021 Budget Travel Guide)

You’ve been waiting a long time for this moment – you’re about to go traveling in America for the first time, ever.

Maybe you’ve been planning your USA backpacking trip for a long time, scouring sources and friends for information about where to go, what to do, how to travel in the USA. This is about to be one of the most epic trips of your life!

But the United States is a big country, not to mention really expensive. A road trip across America is costly and you could end up spending more than you originally planned to…

That is precisely why I decided to write this in-depth guide to backpacking the USA. As a United States native, one who has gone on more than a few road trips, I know a thing or two about traveling in this country.

Over the course of this article, I’m going to be sharing with you all of my knowledge about the States. We’ll talk about the best of America, including the finest lodges, the most beautiful parks, and the most rad cities.

Buckle up buttercups – we’re going on a road trip in the United States, right here, right now.

Why Go Backpacking in America?

Table of Contents

You’re going to hear me harp on this fact often, but the United States fuckin’ huge. There is a multitude of regions in this country with a multitude of tourist destinations that are inhabited by an even greater multitude of people.

To put it simply: backpacking across America is going to be a long, sometimes crazy experience. But ultimately, it will be thrilling.

grand canyon best places in america

Over the course of this article, we’ll be covering lots of subjects – we’ll talk about how to get around the USA, where to lay your tired head for the night, and, crucially, how to save money along the way.

But first, we’re going to talk about what places to visit in the United States and how to do so. Directly below, you’ll find a list of sample USA itineraries followed by detailed breakdowns of each region.

Make no mistake, there’s are a lot to do and see in the United States, so let’s waste no time and get to it!

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Best USA Backpacking Routes and Itineraries

Backpacking the USA Itinerary – 10 Days

A 10-day itinerary in the USA doesn’t offer a whole lot of time to see the country, but you’ll still have lots of options.

If you don’t mind flying in America, then you can certainly knock out many of the best cities in the USA, like San Francisco, Las Vegas, and New York. You may even have some extra time to see some locations near these cities, like Yosemite (3 hours from SF), the Grand Canyon (2-4 hours from Las Vegas), or Washington DC (3-4 hours from NYC).

fourth of july washington dc best holidays in usa

If you want to stick to a single region, you could get a lot more done with 10 days. This amount of time will allow one to see most of an area’s major attractions (examples below) and you can probably get away with just using public transport or a rental car.

Possible 10-Day USA Backpacking Routes

olympic penisula forest
Highlights: beer culture in Portland, road trip on the Oregon Coast, hiking at Mt Rainier, rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula, Seattle’s modern skyline

Sample US itinerary: Arrival in Portland (2 days) – Oregon Coast ( 2 days) – Olympic Peninsula (2 days) – Seattle (2 days) – Mt Rainier (1 day) – Return to Portland (1 day)

Best Time of Year: Summer

backpacking united states new york city

Highlights: Falling in love with San Francisco, surfing at Huntington Beach, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fantasies, food tours of New York City.

Sample US itinerary: Arrival into San Francisco (3 days) – Train to Los Angeles (2 days) – Road Trip to Las Vegas (2 days) – Fly to New York City (3 days)

Best Time of Year: Spring, Autumn

road trip in new england

Highlights: Boston cream pies, the sublime Kancamagus Route, the colorful Camden coastline, drinking beer in Burlington, farm stays in the countryside

Sample US Itinerary: Boston (2 days) – Green Mountains (1 day) – Burlington (2 days) – White Mountains (2 days) – Acadia and Maine Coastline (2 days) – return to Boston (1 day)

Best Time of Hear: Autumn

utah zion national park the subway
Highlights: exploring the slot canyons of Page (Arizona), visiting Monument Valley, hiking in Zion National Park, boating/rafting in Lake Powell, descending into the Grand Canyon

Sample US Itinerary: Arrival into Las Vegas (1 day) – Zion NP (2 days) – Bryce Canyon NP (1 day) – Capital Reef NP (1 day) – Moab (2 days) – Northern Arizona (2 days) – Return to Las Vegas (1 day)

Best Time of Year: Spring, Autumn

Backpacking the US Itinerary – 2 Weeks

Having a 2-week itinerary in the USA will allow you enough time to really get to know a specific region and all of its little hidden spots. You’ll be able to get outdoors, really experience city living, and have enough flexibility to mix up your methods of transport.

If you so choose, you may even get to see multiple parts of the country. For example, a 2-week itinerary combining the American Southwest and Rockies is totally doable, as is a US backpacking itinerary involving the Midwest and New England.

los angeles best cities in usa

Should you choose to, you can see a lot without a car and can stick flying/public transit. Let me tell you though; 2 weeks is the perfect amount of time to do some of the best American road trip routes! (Check out some of The Broke Backpacker’s favorite road trips in the box below.)

Regardless of how you choose to get around the USA, you should depart the country feeling very pleased with yourself. You’ll get to see a good portion of the country and will have a helluva lot of stories to tell.

The Best Road Trips in America

Backpacking the USA Itinerary – 3 Weeks

Now we’re cooking with gas! A 3-week itinerary for the USA is a great chunk of time and will allow you to see more than ever. You will definitely have enough time to see multiple regions in the USA and, not only that, enjoy them as well.

mt hood sunset trillium lake oregon photography roaming ralph
source: Roaming Ralph

Some parts of America just go together like peanut butter and jelly (you’ll eat plenty of those too I’m sure). Combining the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain states affords probably my favorite scenery in the entire country.

Texas and the Deep South are often lumped into one “Southern USA” backpacking itinerary are often visited together, too.

3 weeks also means that you could conceivably visit the entire East Coast or West Coast as well. Granted, 3 weeks may not be the optimal amount of time for these USA backpacking itineraries, but you should still see quite a bit.

Possible 3-Week USA Backpacking Routes

best hikes in the usa

Highlights: Oregon Coast coast, sleeping in North Cascades fire lookouts, relaxing on Lake Coeur d’Alene, visiting Glacier National Park, seeing the Grand Prismatic Spring

Sample US Itinerary: Arrival in Seattle (3 days) – North Cascades (2 days) – Spokane/Coeur d’Alene (2 days) – Glacier NP (2 days) – Missoula (2 days) – Yellowstone/Teton NP (3 days) – Boise, Idaho (1 day) – Portland (3 days) – Olympic Peninsula (2 days) – Return to Seattle (1 day)

Best Time of Year: Summer, Autumn

french quarter restaurants in new orleans

Highlights: Youth culture in Austin, live music in New Orleans, Texas BBQ, the Redneck Riviera, Hotlanta, the old architecture of Savannah and Charleston

Sample US Itinerary: Arrival in Dallas (2 days) – Austin (3 days) – San Antonio (1 day) – New Orleans (3 days) – Florida Panhandle (3 days) – Jacksonville (2 days) – Atlanta (2 days) – Savannah (2 days) – Charleston (2 days) – Depart from Charlotte, North Carolina (1 day)

Best Time of Year: Winter, Spring

best national parks in the USA

Highlights: Fall foliage in New England, driving on the stunning Blue Ridge Parkway, beer snobbery in Asheville, discovering Pittsburgh and Upstate New York

Sample US Itinerary:  Arrival into Portland, Maine (2 days) – The Great Northern Woods/White Mountains (3 days) – Burlington (2 days) – Upstate New York (3 days) – Pittsburgh (2 days) – Shenandoah NP (2 days) – Blue Ridge Parkway (2 days) – Asheville, North Carolina (2 days) – Depart from Nashville, Tennessee (3 days)

Best Time of Year: Summer, Autumn

Backpacking the US Itineraries – More than 1 Month

Well, everyone, this is it: the best possible way to go backpacking the USA!

With more than a month on your hands, you have free reign and control over your own American dreams. You’ll be able to see the furthest corners of the country, explore the deepest depth of the land, and get to know every little detail you can.

Punaluu Black Sand Beach Hawaii Island
source: Alexander Demyanenko (Shutterstock)

The absolute best American road trip routes will require at least one month to complete. If you have any hopes of doing a coast to coast American journey (without killing yourself at the same time), this is the kind of time you’ll need.

You’ll also be able to see and do things a lot of foreigners have never even heard off. You can take the Alaskan Passage ferry from Bellingham (WA) to Anchorage and still have time to explore the state of Alaska.

In the same vein, you can also visit Hawaii without sacrificing any of the continental United States.

Possible 1 Month USA Backpacking Routes

golden gate bridge san francisco travel to california

Highlights: Big apples in New York City, partying in New Orleans, the endless nothingness of Texas, a California Coast road trip, the land of the free

Sample USA Itinerary: Arrive in New York (2 days) – Washington DC (2 days) – Blue Ridge Parkway (2 days) – Charleston/Savannah (2 days) – Florida Panhandle (2 days) – New Orleans (2 days) – Austin, Texas (2 days) – Sante Fe, New Mexico (2 days) – Telluride, Colorado (2 days) – Moab, Utah (2 days)  – Las Vegas (2 days) – Los Angeles (2 days) – San Francisco (2 days) – Oregon Coast (2 days) – Seattle, Washington (2 days)

Best Time of Year: Spring, Autumn

majestic Grizzly bear during Alaska road trip

Highlights: surfing in San Diego, staying in Big Sur, Olympic Peninsula, Alaskan ferry, Denali

Sample USA Itinerary: San Diego (2 days) – Los Angeles (2 days) – Big Sur (2 days) – San Francisco (3 days) – Redwoods (2 days) – Oregon Coast (3 days) – Olympic Peninsula (2 days) – Seattle (2 days) – Bellingham (1 day) – Alaskan passage (7 days) – Anchorage (2 days) – Alaskan wilderness (2 days)

Best Time of Year: Summer

USA Travel Guide: Regional Breakdowns

East Coast | New England | Midwest | Appalachia | The South | Great Plains | Rockies | Southwest | West Coast | Hawaii and Alaska

map of usa travel guide
Map of the USA not to scale.

Visiting the East Coast

STATES: New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia

The East Coast may just be the most “American” part of America. After all, this is where most of the nation’s history has taken place and where most of its aspirations have sprung from.

The East Coast hosts some of the most important cities in the USA, both economically and politically. Massive New York City, one of the great engines of America’s economy, is here as is Washington DC – the federal capital of the USA. Smaller but no less interesting cities, like Philadelphia (PA), Baltimore (MD), and Newark (NJ), also contribute greatly and worth visiting themselves.

Many will begin their USA backpacking trip in this region, most likely in NYC. It’s convenient to start here, both because of convenience – the East Coast Corridor is very well connected – and because this is where America started.

new york city skyline from brooklyn
source: Roaming Ralph

Visiting the East Coast will be a unique cultural experience. East Coast people have a very particular personality that is all their own and getting to know them is half the fun.

This region is also an enormous melting pot of cultures from all over the world. All those tired, poor, wretch souls who came over on boats across the Atlantic made their own place in America and helped make it the diverse country that it is. Exploring the many ethnic neighborhoods of Queens, NYC, Columbia Heights, DC, and 9th Street, Philly is an amazing opportunity, from an anthropology point of view. Also, the food is fucking fantastic.

So get your city living in now on the East Coast while you have the chance. It doesn’t get much more American than this.

What to Know Before Visiting the East Coast

washington dc capital building east coast backpacking
Capital Hill, DC. source: f11photo (Shutterstock)
  • Don’t miss out on…exploring New York City. Seriously, there is no other city like it in the world. In a few days here, you’ll hear more languages and see more skyscrapers than you ever thought possible.
  • You know what’s overrated…Times Square. This place is an absolute zoo and standing under the LED lights at night is like being in a tanning bed.
  • The coolest hostel is…Chelsea International Hostel (NYC) – Central location, free breakfast, and free Wednesday pizza night!
  • The best food is found in…New York City is a no-fail, but I’d be remiss to leave Scranton, Pennsylvania off the list – best pizza in the USA they say!

Visiting New England

STATES: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine

While the modern form of America may have been nurtured further down on the Atlantic Seaboard, the first version of it was born in New England. The original 13 Colonies, founded by English settlers, were based in this part of North America. If it wasn’t for New England, the US probably wouldn’t exist.

New England has a distinctly more old-school vibe than other Atlantic states. The buildings are older, the food is more old fashioned, and the cultural memory stretches further back. Take one look at the red barns of the New England countryside, the vintage lighthouses of the coast, or the preserved historical landmarks, and you’ll know that people care about heritage here.

Farm Dairy New Hampshire New England America Barn

New England is not as sprawling or as industrious as the Atlantic Seaboard. It is far more bucolic here and the locals like it that way.

They can’t be blamed either – the presence of places like the White Mountains and the Maine Coast, among many others, make New England one of the most beautiful places in America. When the leaves turn gold and red in the autumn, it’s sublime.

That being said, New England still has its fair share of cool cities. Boston (MA) is honestly one of the best cities in the USA and Portland (ME) has been slowly winning the hearts of hipsters over the years. Burlington (VT) is also a cool little hippy town and Providence (RI) is having a renaissance.

If you need a break from the hustle and bustle of the East Coast, head to New England.

What to Know Before Visiting New England

acorn street boston new england
Acorn Street, Boston. source: Diego Grandi (Shutterstock)
  • Don’t miss out on…the fall foliage. New England is probably one of the best places in the world to see the trees change color. In October, the hills explode with shades of reds, oranges, and golds.
  • You know what’s overrated…Mike’s Pasteries. It’s a popular stop on many Boston itineraries, but in reality, it’s a bit of a tourist trap. Modern Pastry is better.
  • The coolest hostel is…The Black Elephant Hostel (Portland, Maine) – Super stylish and funky!
  • The best food is found in…the seaside taverns. Ask for the catch of the day and a plate of heavenly lobster rolls.

Visiting the Midwest

STATES: Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri

Ah, the Midwest – home of cheeseheads, subarctic winters, and charming accents. Not many people make the Midwest a part of their USA backpacking trip and it’s kind of a shame actually.

The Midwest is often focused upon for all the wrong reasons: for being bitter cold in the winter, humid in the summer, and for unlucky economies. Though it isn’t as dynamic as the East Coast or as warm as the South, the Midwest still has a lot of merits.

There are some cool cities here – for alternative reasons – not to mention some very attractive outdoor areas, particularly around the Great Lakes. Most appealing though are the warm, welcoming locals, who are often eager to show foreigners how great the Midwest can be.

backpacking the usa chicago at night

Most will base themselves in the Midwest’s largest city: Chicago. This metropolis is one of the most energetic cities in the USA and has a number of attractions that will both shock and entertain you. (Did you know Chicago actually has sandy beaches?)

There are more cities besides Chicago worth seeing too. Detroit (MI), once the fallen angel of America, is putting itself back together, piece by piece. Madison (WI) is lowkey one of the great hidden gems of the Midwest and maybe one of the best cities in America.

If you don’t really care about civilization though, there’s always the Great Lakes to explore. These enormous freshwater bodies actually mimic the sea in a lot of ways – e.g. you can surf here sometimes – and there are portions that may even resemble the Caribbean.

What to Know Before Visiting the Midwest

painted rocks lake superior midwest
Painted Rocks on Lake Superior. | source: Craig Sterken (Shutterstock)
  • Don’t miss out on…visiting the Great Lakes. They’re probably the most scenic places in the Midwest. The clarity and sometimes the colors of the water are exceptional.
  • Keep an eye out for…the thermometer. In the winter, the Midwest gets SERIOUSLY cold. Subzero temperatures are not unheard of.
  • The coolest hostel is…Freehand Chicago – An upscale hostel with meticulous design, an on-site cafe, and a cocktail bar. There’s even room service!
  • The best food is found in…Madison, Wisconsin. This is a very well-known foodie town that usually rated amongst the best in America.

Visiting Appalachia

STATES: West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, various satellite counties

Appalachia is kind of a strange place, both in the geographic and cultural sense.

Geographically, Appalachia is defined by the Appalachian Mountains, which form the largest chain in the Eastern United States. A lot of states from other regions are actually touched by these mountains – e.g. North Carolina, Pennsylvania – but only one state is actually fully engulfed by them, West Virginia. This means that Appalachia is a bit of an Interzone between the South, Midwest, and East Coast regions.

Culturally, Appalachia has a reputation for being both agrarian and rebellious. Appalachian people are often portrayed as hicks, rednecks, bootleggers, or inbred mountain people. These are, of course, outrageous stereotypes, but most will agree that Appalachia is a poorer and more discriminated region in the USA.

blue ridge mountains virgina traveling to america

But Appalachia offers plenty to the curious tourist, more than other regions of the US. Visiting here will allow you endless opportunities to camp, hike, and explore.

There are hundreds of little towns with rich histories and some offer unique attractions, be them crafts or hot springs. Some of the larger cities, like Knoxville (TN), Pittsburgh (PA), and Asheville (NC), in particular, are actually really cool towns.

If you wanted to leave the mountains, there’s plenty more to see and do in greater Kentucky and Tennessee. Memphis (TN), Nashville (TN), and Louisville (KY) are all exciting cities that offer enough entertainment (often in the form of music and drink) to keep you busy for a long while.

What to Know Before Visiting Appalachia

whiskey tasting in bourbon distillery
source: barmalini (Shutterstock)
  • Don’t miss out on…drinking some local whiskey, preferably in an old distillery or at a local bluegrass show.
  • Keep an eye out for…Gatlinburg, Tennessee. A horrible place that sells fake moonshine. “If they sell it in the shop – it ain’t the real white lightnin’”
  • The coolest hostel is…Nashville Downtown Hostel – Imagine your friend’s garage, complete with couches and pool tables. Now imagine it’s big enough to fit a hundred backpackers. That’s this place.
  • The best food is found in…Asheville, North Carolina. The beer scene is thriving and the food is ultra-comforting. There’s a heavy emphasis on sustainability and sourcing locally.

Visiting the South

STATES: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas

The South intimidates a lot of travelers because the region is unlike any other in the USA or the world for that matter. Things are just different in The South, for better or worse.

There are glaring issues, to be sure: systematic racism still exists, poverty is rampant, and overall public health is shockingly poor. Just stepping off the plane into a Southern city can feel like being transported to an alternate dimension.

All that being said, Southern America is not a scary or particularly ugly place to visit. There is a lot of really interesting stuff going on here if you know where to look.

There are parts of The South that we already know about. We’ve all heard of how hedonistic and fun New Orleans (LA) can be. Everyone knows that Florida has the best beaches in America and that Miami is the so-called “Capital of South America.”

But did you know that some of the finest American architecture is preserved in the cities of Charleston (SC) or Savannah (GA)? Or that Atlanta (GA) is no longer the gritty, crime-ridden city that it used to be? Perhaps you’ve heard that North Carolina is probably one of the most beautiful places in the USA?

There’s a lot to The South that may surprise you. Of course, it’s weird, and, yes, the BBQ will probably lead to an early grave; but if you visit The South with an open mind, you may just enjoy it.

If you’re keen on a different kind of experience during your trip, why not stay at one of the best treehouses and cabins in Georgia? You’d be surprised how much fun this style of “luxury camping” can be!

What to Know Before Visiting the South

spanish moss hanging in savannah georgia
source: Nagel Photography (Shutterstock)
  • Don’t miss out on…staying in New Orleans. This is one of the most unique American cities you’ll ever visit. The history is immense, the voodoo is palpable, and the parties are neverending.
  • You know what’s overrated…Central and North Florida, including Orlando and Jacksonville. Shit just gets weird here.
  • The coolest hostel is…The Quisby (New Orleans) – clean, orderly, well-staffed, tastefully designed, and centrally located.
  • The best food is found in…the barbecue pits. The South probably features the best and most varied barbecue in the whole country. If possible, try to find “whole hog” in the Carolinas.

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Visiting Texas and the Great Plains

STATES: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota

The Great Plains separate the East Coast and West Coast of America like an ocean. This vast region, characterized by endless fields of tallgrass and near perfect flatness, stretches on for eons. Four whole states are just prairie and a large portion of Texas is as well.

It’s not hard to imagine that this is often considered the most boring part of the country. Those on a coast to coast road trip through America often speed through this part because there is supposedly nothing to do, but coastal areas such as Port Aransas are definitely some must-visit coastal destinations.

There is a certain romance to crossing the Great Plains though. This was once the edge of the map for American pioneers. Some of the most respected First Nation peoples, like the Comanche, Apache, and Crow, once roamed plains and, if we’re being frank, these peoples deserve more dominion over their ancestral homelands.

It’s not like this region is totally featureless either. In some parts of the Plains, you’ll find some spectacular landmarks, like Badlands National Park or Mt Rushmore (SD).

We haven’t talked about Texas yet either! (Simmer down now angry residents, we’re getting there.)

Texas is totally worth your time, even if you only make it to a few destinations. Most people head immediately for lively Austin first. Some manage to visit cosmopolitan Dallas or culturally diverse San Antonio while they’re at it. Bonus points if you visit Big Bend National Park or the Texas Hill Country. Head to South Padre Island to experience one of Texas’ hidden gems.

You may end up enjoying the locals more than anything in Texas. They’re a proud bunch – and want everyone to know it – but they’re honestly some of the best folk in the States. Just don’t piss them off.

What to Know Before Visiting Texas

big bend national park texas
Big Bend National Park. | source: Zack Frank (Shutterstock)
  • Don’t miss out on…Austin, Texas. This liberal island in a sea of conservatism is arguably one of the coolest cities in America. Texas Hill Country is also full of great hikes.
  • You know what’s overrated…driving 8-10 hours across Kansas, Nebraska, or Oklahoma. There’s literally nothing out here besides farms and corn.
  • The coolest hostel is…Deep Ellum Hostel (Dallas) – Smack dab in the middle of Dallas’ coolest neighborhood.
  • The best food is found in…Houston. Few people realize how ridiculously diverse Hoston is and how consequently good the food is. You can find just about anything you want in this town.

Visiting the Rocky Mountains

STATES: Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho

The Rockies is one of the greatest mountains chains in North America and has become a defining feature of the Western United States. To this day, the original spirit of pioneers and frontiersmanship still permeates the Rocky Mountain culture. As such, there’s an amazing sense of adventure here.

The Rocky Mountains offer some of the most epic outdoor experiences in the nation. There’s river rafting, skiing, hunting, climbing, sport fishing, and a whole lot more here. It goes without saying as well that some of the best hikes in America are found in the Rockies.

The largest urban area in the Rocky Mountain states is Denver (CO). Denver is becoming an increasingly popular city to both live in and visit. Many residents will talk your ear about how much it’s changed in the last few years.

best national parks in the USA

Denver, like most communities in the Rocky Mountains, is kind of the middle of fucking nowhere. While its location is great for the outdoors and breeding free-spiritedness, it sucks to drive to. The nearest cities – Salt Lake City (UT) and Albuquerque (NM) – are both more than 6 hours away. If you want to visit Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho, it will be a mission.

If you have the time though, the aforementioned states are totally worth visiting. Wyoming hosts two of the best national parks in the USA and Montana is often regarded as the most beautiful place in America for nature lovers.

Lesser visited Idaho, often relegated to a pitstop on road trips across America, is actually a really pretty place, especially around Sandpoint, the Sawtooth Mountains, and Sun Valley.

What to Know Before Visiting the Rockies

bison in winter rocky mountains
source: Johnson Cheng (Shutterstock)
  • Don’t miss out on…hiking in the Rockies. Glacier, the Tetons, Wind Rivers, and Colorado Rockies feature some of the most stunning mountain scenery in the country.
  • You know what’s overrated…Old Faithful. There are a lot of cool places to see in Yellowstone; this is not one of them.
  • The coolest hostel is…Ember Hostel (Denver) – more like a mansion than a hostel! Complete with a hot tub and some of the fanciest rooms you’ll ever see.
  • The best food is found…nowhere? The Rocky Mountain states are not really known for their cuisine. You might some better than average food while staying in Denver.

MATH TIME: The entry fee for Yellowstone National Park is $35. Meanwhile, the entry fee for the neighbouring Grand Teton National Park is another $35. That means that visiting TWO national parks alone (out of the 423 total in the USA) will run you a grand total of $70…

Or you can stuff that whole deal off and buy the ‘America the Beautiful Pass’ for $79.99. With it, you get unlimited access to ALL federally-managed land in the U.S.A for FREE – that’s over 2000 recreational sites! Ain’t that just beautiful?


Visiting the Southwest

STATES: Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada

For a lot of people, the Southwest is the best place in the USA. Why? Because it’s magical and there’s really nowhere else like it.

The American Southwest is a desert, filled with some of the most surreal and fantastic natural features you can imagine. It’s a dreamscape full of natural bridges, rocky portals, and passageways leading to God knows where. It’s no wonder so many great American creatives have been inspired by this land.

Objectively speaking, many of the most iconic places in America are found in the Southwest. The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, even the neon lights of Las Vegas; all of these sights are deeply ingrained in the American consciousness.

dead horse point canyonlands utah best hikes
source: Roaming Ralph

Utah, famous for stone arches and the Mormon religion, probably has the densest collection of state and national parks in the country. You can spend your trip just taking a road trip through Utah’s national parks. Between Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and every other park in the state, there is an endless amount of things to do in Utah.

Arizona is where you’ll find the legendary Grand Canyon in addition to several smaller but no-less-famous landmarks like Antelope Canyon, the Vermillion Cliffs, and Sedona. All of these are often considered among the most photographed places in the USA.

New Mexico is the least trafficked part of the Southwest and is probably more well-known for Breaking Bad than its actual attractions. Sante Fe is a quirky little town with a vibrant art scene. Taos is a part-spiritual enclave, part-ski resort. Finally, no trip to the Southwest is complete with an Instagram in the otherworldly White Sands.

What to Know Before Visiting the Southwest

antelope canyon in arizona
Antelope Canyon. | source: canadastock (Shutterstock)
  • Don’t miss out on…all the amazing canyons. From the towering Narrows of Zion to the intimate Antelope Canyon to the epic Grand Canyon, nowhere else on the planet features terrain like this.
  • You know what’s overrated…the Vegas Strip. Sure, it’s a cultural icon, but why does it have to be so sleazy and ridiculous?
  • The coolest hostel is…Santa Fe International Hostel (New Mexico) – This is a traditional hostel that actually asks guests to help with daily chores. Granted, it’s not for everyone but there’s a really strong sense of community here.
  • The best food is found in…New Mexico. Green chile on everything!

Visiting the West Coast

STATES: California, Oregon, Washington

The West Coast is arguably the most beautiful part of the USA. Few other places on Earth offer such natural diversity as the West, which consists of mountains, rainforests, deserts, an enormous coastline, and more.

The West is a very different place from the East Coast. For one, everything is more spread out here; outside of the urban areas, there’s a lot more open space and a lot longer drives.

West Coast people also behave differently – where East Coasters are generally more blunt and unabashed, West Coasters are more genial but sometimes superficial.

Night San Francisco golden gate bridge

California is the largest, most famous, and arguably most desirable state on the West Coast. People flock here for good weather, good vibes, good food, good beaches, and for the chance to make it big.

It’s really hard to fault California for anything besides having too much. Between the vanity of Los Angeles, the ascendance of San Francisco, and the natural wealth of the state in general, it’s easy to overindulge here. San Diego is probably the most chill city of the bunch, though in general NorCal is the most chill. Might be that weed…

Let’s not forget California’s moodier northern neighbor either. The Pacific Northwest, composed of Oregon and Washington, might be rainier and somewhat more dreary but the region is just gorgeous.

Oregon is like New Zealand-Lite and has just about every type of landscape possible. It’s largest city, Portland, is regularly mocked for being a mecca for hipsters and beer snobs but it’s becoming more these days – just check out our Portland travel guide to find out.

Washington is the more mountainous and richer sibling to Oregon. Once sleepy Seattle, home to loggers and mariners, is now a modern metropolis. Sandwiched between the Puget Sound and Mt Rainier, it’s arguably the most beautiful city in America as well (on a clear day).

What to Know Before Visiting the West Coast

sunset over mt jefferson from timberline lodge oregon roaming ralph
source: Roaming Ralph
  • Don’t miss out on…a road trip on Highway 101. Oregon and California arguably have the prettiest coastlines in the country, and this route pretty much hugs them the entire way.
  • You know what’s overrated…Downtown Los Angeles – it’s pretty dead. Aside from the Latino Market and some (expensive) rooftop bars, there’s nothing to do here.
  • The coolest hostel is…Green Tortoise Hostel (San Francisco) – A legendary hostel in San Francisco!
  • The best food is found in…Portland, Oregon. Consistently voted as having the best food in the USA. Everywhere in town is fantastic!

Visiting Hawaii and Alaska

So far we’ve covered the 48 of the USA’s 50 total states. So what about those lands beyond shores of the Pacific or the wilds of Canada? Are we going to visit Hawaii or Alaska?

Let’s take a look at these distant states below.


best hikes in the usa alaska
Photo: Paxson Woelbe.

Located in the far western corner of North America lies Alaska – the largest and most wild state in the USA. The landscape here is rugged, primal, and mostly untouched by civilization. Mountains dominate the state – in fact, the highest in North America, Denali, is located here in Alaska.

Remote is the best word to describe Alaska. The state is located so far north that it takes a flight or week-long ferry to reach it from the Lower 48.

Most of the state itself lacks infrastructure outside of the Anchorage region. Seeing anything outside the metropolitan area often requires a bush plane.

Visiting Alaska could be an unforgettable experience as there few places this pure left in the world. It’ll just be you and Mother Nature here, and it’s more likely that you’ll see more bears or bald eagles than people.


backpacking kauai

Quite the opposite of Alaska, Hawaii is a tropical paradise. The amount of times that this archipelago has been named “the most beautiful place in the world” is beyond count now.

Hawaii has everything: lush jungles, dramatic peaks, and more than a few pristine beaches. You can do so much here, from surfing to hiking to canyoneering to just being a beach bum. All the more reason to never leave!

Hawaii is very far away from the continental United States and very expensive though. Backpacking in Hawaii is not necessarily affordable but with a little help, you can still visit on a reasonable budget.

Off the Beaten Path American Adventures

A lot of foreigners couldn’t name more than five cities in America and the ones they do name are always Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York, and Miami.

If you’ve been paying attention so far, then you already know there’s a lot more to American than just these cities. In fact, there’s roughly 5000 km between LA and NYC; if you were on a coast to coast road trip in America, that’d be a whole lot of fuck-all in between.

hiking in the wind river range wyoming
source: Roaming Ralph

My recommendation is to actually explore the USA a bit – take the road less traveled and see parts of the country no one really knows about.

To get your imagination going, here are some random places in America:

  1. Wind River Range, Wyoming
  2. Marfa, Texas
  3. Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana
  4. Ashland, Oregon
  5. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
  6. Crested Butte, Colorado
  7. Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah
  8. The Redneck Riviera, Florida
  9. Athens, Georgia
  10. Asheville, North Carolina
  11. The Great Northern Woods, Maine
  12. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
  13. Red River Gorge, Kentucky
  14. Moloka’i Island, Hawaii
  15. Duluth, Minnesota
  16. Yakutat, Alaska
  17. Tucson, Arizona

Read more

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will laptop
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Best Things to Do in America

Doesn’t really matter if you’re backpacking the USA alone or with a group – there’s tons of stuff do here! Check out some of these potential activities and then go search for the best places in America yourself!

1. Get down in the Big Easy

New Orleans aka the Big Easy is one of America’s greatest treasures. Vibrant, storied, exciting, and never ashamed, New Orleans is one of the most interesting cities in the USA, not to mention one of the most fun.

new orleans second line meeting
source: VeryBusyPeople (Flickr)

2. Find the best BBQ

It may be one of the few “real” American foods, but BBQ is all we really need. The meats are tender, the sauces are masterpieces, and the sides are copious. Go on a great American road trip in search of the best BBQs in the US and see which regional variety suits you best.

3. Explore the many worlds of New York City

New York is one of the most culturally diverse places in the world and is an anthropological wonder. There’s a reason why many people consider it to be the center of the world.

backpacking usa empire state building

4. Discover the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes of the Midwest are often relegated to lesser titles; often they’re simply a cool statistic or a means of escaping to Canada. They are, in fact, gorgeous and could easily rival some of America’s best beaches.

Visit them and surrounding Midwest cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, Madison, and Detroit.

5. Drive the Pacific Coast Highway

It’s the stuff (California) dreams are made of – the mystical ocean and the road that runs next to it. A road trip on the California Coast is hands down on the most romantic things to do in America and will probably be the first of many bucket list locations.

pacific coast highway road trip

6. Learn about the history of America in DC

Washington DC is the federal capital of this great land and an arc of enormous historical value. It hosts many of the best museums and national monuments in the country, most of which are, crucially, free!

7. Visit the desert

Some of the most beautiful landscapes in America are its bleak and arid desert regions. For all their desolation though, Southwest deserts are indescribably beautiful and incomparable to anything else. If there’s one region that you must, it’s the iconic desert of the Southwest.

Delicate Arch in Utah at Night

8. Experience the Latin side of America

There is no denying that the local Latin-American communities have had a huge influence on American culture. So prevalent are Latino ethnicities that one day more Americans will speak more Spanish than English. Join the conversation; visit the likes of Miami, San Antonio, or Los Angeles and feel the Latin vibes.

9. Go green in the Pacific Northwest

Both Oregon and Washington are green in many senses of the word. They’re eco-friendly, love to smoke (legal) marijuana, and are covered by some of the lushest woods in the country. With a myriad of waterfalls and a volcano here and there, this an American Arcadia.

backpacking in the usa oregon photography roaming ralph
source: Roaming Ralph

10. Visit one of America’s more distant states

Not many people – even Americans – make it all the way to Hawaii or Alaska. If they were able to though, they would be greeted by some of the most paradisiacal and epic scenery in the world. If you make it to either, you’re one lucky bastard.

Where to Stay in the USA

where to stay in america san francisco

America is an enormous country with an enormous amount of accommodation. Everything from hotels to b&bs to hostels to beach bungalows can be booked while visiting.

Throw in a huge array of unique lodgings, like treehouses, yurts, houseboats, and farm stays, plus campgrounds and stunning castles, and you won’t be a lack of options.

  • Hotels – usually not my go-to choice because they are often sterile and sometimes unfriendly places, not to mention expensive. While staying in an American hotel may be the only choice sometimes, I’d prefer the alternatives. There are now some great hostels in the USA that you will love.
  • Motels/Roadhouses – these are budget versions of hotels that are usually good for quick overnights. They are very basic and sometimes really grimy but it’s still a roof over your head.
  • Hostels – America hostels aren’t exactly famous for their quality or reasonable prices. That being said, there are still lots of great hostels in the USA. Most will be in the larger cities, like NYC, LA, SF, and Miami.
  • Airbnb – One of my favorite forms of accommodation in the US and probably the best overall choice. Competitively priced and usually of excellent quality.
  • Campgrounds – Can be quite diverse, from primitive backcountry sites to full-on glamping. Prices also fluctuate depending on provided amenities – e.g. showers, kitchen – and whether you need to hook up your RV to power/waste disposal. Basic campsites are often free to use but sometimes require a permit. Read up on your campsite; some are glamorous and others may require you to bring your own water.
  • Couchsurfing – It’s still one of the best ways to go backpacking in the USA with no money! Ask friends of friends if you can crash, perfect your Couchsurfing profile, learn how to make a killer meal for your hosts; these are ways to succeed at Couchsurfing.

Best Places to Stay in the USA

There are a lot of options when it comes to lodging. For help finding the best places to stay in US cities, refer to some of these in-depth articles here:

Camping in the USA

Camping is one of the great American pastimes and something that nearly every resident has done once in their life. It’s one of the best things to do in the USA, both because it’s fun and it’s cheap too!

Camping in the USA can be done in many places, be it at a beach, in the woods, in the mountains, or just in someone’s backyard. Urban camping is also becoming quite popular and is an excellent way to experience a city without having to drop boatloads on a lodge.

For all campgrounds outside the main urban areas, you will 99% of the time need your own car to reach them. You’ll also need to make sure you have the proper gear, so we suggest looking at our ultimate road trip packing list before heading out.

best camping spots in Arizona
Photo Rock Slatter

Campgrounds range in amenities and will be more or less expensive depending on what services are there. If you’re staying at a campground that offers showers, electricity, or a mess hall, you’ll obviously have to pay more ($10-$30 per site, not person). You’ll have to pay more if you have an RV because they take up more space, require waste disposal, and consume more electricity.

If you want to spend less on camping, we suggest going to the state parks. These are usually very affordable ($5) and offer enough amenities, like an outdoor toilet and running water, to ensure you’re comfortable. You will sometimes have to fill out a permit at one of these and often campsites are first-come-first-serve, which means that popular ones will fill up quickly.

If you really want to go cheap, then take advantage of the many primitive sites in America. These offer nothing in the way of infrastructure, so you’ll have to rely on your own means, but are totally free.

Some states have much more expensive camping, California and Hawaii being the most expensive, so keep this in mind! That said, camping is much cheaper and more fun than staying in a hotel.

Backpacking USA Budget and Costs

The USA ain’t exactly cheap folks – this is already one of the most expensive countries in the world and isn’t getting any more affordable anytime soon.

That being said, there ARE ways to travel in America on a budget and you CAN have a great time without blowing all of your money. You’ll need to arm yourself with some considerable knowledge though and know the best ways to save a buck while traveling in the USA.

There are many forms of travel in the USA and each has its own price tag attached. You could be a shoestring backpacker and get by for relatively little money or you could spend everything you have and a bender of a holiday.

seattle skyline long expsoure at dawn west coast road trip roaming ralph
source: Roaming Ralph

A lower daily budget for visiting the United States will be around $50-$70. This will get you a dorm bed, groceries, bus tickets, and some extra spending money.

Let’s take a closer look at some of your American expenses:

  • Lodging – While there are plenty of hotels and rental apartments in the USA, there are not so many hostels. Outside of the major cities, you’ll probably only find a handful of American backpacker lodges, which means your cheap accommodation will be limited. If you really want to save money while backpacking America, you’ll need to camp.
  • Food/Drink – This expense really depends on where you are – a burger and beer may be less than $10 in one place and over $30 in another. Dining out in larger cities, particularly in Downtown, is always more expensive.
  • Transport – If you stick to public transport, you can probably get around for around $5/day. If you want to do your own Great American road trip though, you’ll need a car, which means extra expenses for gas, insurance, and renting. Car/campervan rentals range from $30-$150 per day.
  • Leisure – Cultural attractions, like museums, galleries, theme parks, etc, usually cost money to enter. Hiking, walking around, and visiting parks/beaches are almost always free.

United States Travel Guide – Daily Expense Breakdown

If you’re wondering how much would it cost to travel across America, then here is a breakdown of various costs:

  Accommodation Average Meal per person Average Beer Lower Daily Budget Gallon of Gas (if you’re driving)
East Coast $30-$120 $8-$50 $6-$12 $70-$100 $2.45
New England $30-$110 $8-$35 $6-$10 $60-$90 $2.74
Midwest $25-$90 $6-$30 $5-$8 $50-$75 $2.70
The South $25-$80 $6-$25 $4-$8 $50-$60 $2.46
Texas $25-$100 $8-$30 $4-$8 $50-$75 $2.47
Rockies/Southwest $30-$100 $8-$35 $5-$9 $60-$80 $2.52
Pacific Northwest $30-$110 $8-$40 $5-$9 $60-$80 $3.10
California $30-$120 $8-$50 $6-$10 $70-$100 $3.65
Alaska $30-$100 $6-$30 $4-$8 $60-$90 $2.96
Hawaii $35-$130 $8-$35 $5-$9 $70-$100 $3.50

Best Ways to Travel in America on a Budget

If you’re trying to go backpacking in the USA with no money or very little of it, you’d better use some of these travel hacks:

hitchhiking in usa
  1. Hitchhike – Hippies have done it, Alexander Supertramp did, and I do it all the time; hitchhiking in the USA is one of the best ways to save on transport. You’ll need to know how to do it though so refer to our Hitchhiking 101 guide to learn how.
  2. Couchsurf – It’s a fine art but once you’ve nailed the pitch and mastered the ins and outs of crashing on couches, you’re golden. To gain a few insider tips about how and where to Couchsurf, check out our Couchsurfing guide here.
  3. Cook your own food – Eating out every night at restaurants and drinking cappuccinos at cafes all the time; these are sure ways to waste money. Cook your own food and stay at hostels with free coffee.
  4. Take advantage of free camping – From backcountry sites to state parks to parking a campervan in a Walmart parking lot, there’s lots of free camping in the USA. Do some research on the places nearest you.
  5. Use vehicle relocation services – Relocation services are simple – drive a car from point A to point B and you’ll get to use the car for free or very little money. Use websites like immova and Cruise America to get started.
  6. Don’t pay full price – A wise man once said: “only suckers pay full price.” Take advantage of the numerous deals and specials you find around town and work the system. Take advantage of free attractions and eat during happy hour. Just try not to go too far and become an irritating cheapass.
  7. To learn how to travel the world on $10 a day, check out the backpacker’s bible.
  8. Pack a travel water bottle: It’s good for your wallet and the environment.

Why Should You Travel to the USA with a Water Bottle?

Whilst there’s a lot that we can do when it comes to traveling responsibly, reducing your plastic consumption is one of the easiest and most impactful things you can do. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, don’t take plastic shopping bags, and forget straws. All of this just ends up in landfill or in the ocean.

If you’d like some more tips on how to save the world, be sure to watch the video below.

Best Time to Visit the USA

There are a lot of different climates the USA; each one determines when and where you ought to visit. Refer below for a breakdown of American seasons.

Holidays and Festivals in the USA

edc music las vegas best festivals in america
source: Global Stomping (Flickr)

So Americans love to party, but where are the absolute best parties to be found? At the festivals of course!

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of celebrations going on year-round in America. Some of these are giant pits of debauchery; others are a bit tamer and family-friendly.

Start out with these holidays and festivals in the USA next time you’re there:

  • Mardi Gras (February/March) – America’s own version of Carnival. Held in New Orleans, “Fat Tuesday” is an all-out celebration featuring floats, parades, nudity, drinking, and cultural rituals. If you like energy, this is one of the best places in the USA to be.
  • St Patrick’s Day (March 17th) – Celebration of all things Irish! Celtic strongholds, like Boston and New York, go nuts for this holiday and there’s quite a bit of green and drinking around town. Pretty much every city in America uses this day as an excuse to day drink though.
  • Coachella (April) – An extravagant music festival that has become wildly popular in recent years. Tickets and lodging are very expensive. Held near Palm Springs, California. This one kicks off the rest of the music festivals. Consider big ones like Bonnaroo in Tennessee or Lollapalooza in Chicago. Perhaps, Governor’s Island in NYC or Sasquatch in Seattle? Many cities, especially on the West Coast have music festivals big and small, all summer.
  • EDC (May) – The largest electronic music festival in the country. Held in Las Vegas, Nevada. It used to be in LA way back when which is still the best place in the US for all things electronic music. Miami, NYC, and Vegas fall close behind. SF has a good vibe too.
  • Independence Day (July 4th) – The most patriotic holiday of the year! Everyone drinks, barbecues, goes to the beach and just fucks off for the day.
  • Burning Man (August) – One the weirdest and craziest things you can do in the USA is attending this free-spirited gathering. Notorious for its “anything goes” attitude, Burning Man is a playground for alternative types. It’s not as anti-commercial as it once was, but it’s still a unique experience. You’ll find similar vibe (though much smaller festivals, considering Burning Man is a CITY) throughout California.
  • Halloween (October 31st) – A festival that was originally meant for children but has turned into a huge party for adults. Costumes and spooky decorations mandatory.
  • Thanksgiving (last Thursday of November) – A day of feasting that is meant to celebrate America’s humble roots (we won’t get into the First Nation controversies). Usually a big family holiday.

List of Things to Pack for the USA

On every adventure, there are six things I never go traveling without. Be sure to add these to your checklist for backpacking in America:

Somewhere to hide your cash

money belt compressed png

Somewhere to hide your cash

Active Roots Money Belt

This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off.

A travel water bottle

Grayl Geopress Water Purifier Bottle

A travel water bottle

GRAYL Geopress Filtered Bottle

Having a filtered water bottle means you can drink from just about any source. The GRAYL Geopress is hands-down the most effective one we’ve ever used as well!

For those unexpected messes

AR Towel

For those unexpected messes

Active Roots Microfiber Towel

Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight, and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.

When the power goes out

Gifts for backpackers

When the power goes out

Petzl Actik Core Headlamp

A decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples, or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must.

Sleep anywhere

Hammock for backpackers

Sleep anywhere

Active Roots Camping Hammock

Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks), and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere.

To stay a clean backpacker

To stay a clean backpacker

Hanging Toiletry Bag

I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super-efficient way to organize your bathroom stuff. Well worth having as it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.

For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.

Is America Safe?

This is a tricky subject because America seems to defy common sense in a lot of ways.

For being one of the world’s most wealthy and powerful nations, America suffers from an unacceptable violent crime rate (ranked 143rd out of 230). It’s Global Peace Index is 121 out of 163, which puts it just ahead of Myanmar.

Social stratification is rampant throughout society. While some people are living like royalty, some are getting by on less than $2/day – that’s comparable to living in Nicaragua. It’s no wonder theft and other crimes are still an endemic issue in poorer areas.

I’m hard on America because I’m from there. If I’m being honest, it can be a hectic place and there are times where I’ve felt safer in Pakistan.

Grand Central Station new york city backpacking usa

That being said, America is a safe place, at least for tourists.

Most of the worst crime in America happens in remote neighborhoods where tourists have no reason to go to in the first place. There is petty theft in the busier areas, particularly involving car break-ins and pickpocketing, but these can be avoided by traveling in the USA smartly. Plus, it’s not as common as some European cities or in Central and South America.

Outside of certain areas, which will be obvious to you by the numerous patrolling policemen, the odds of you being a victim are pretty minimal. If you’re in the countryside, chances are you’re more likely be killed by bison in heat or a freak tornado.

So, if you’re thinking about backpacking in the USA alone or with a group loved ones, regardless, just know that you’ll be safe as a tourist. The crime, though unfortunate, is contained and, at the end of the day, the government wants to keep you safe.

packable travel medical kit

Be prepared for what life throws at you on the road. Pick up an AMK Travel Medical Kit before you head out on your next adventure.

View on REI View on Amazon

Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll in America

American love to party. And when I say love, I mean need to party.

American culture is defined by blood, sweat, and tears followed by a shot of whiskey. The expression “work hard, play hard” is used here a lot and there are few things more rewarding than spending your hard-earned money on a night out.

Americans party a lot and in many different ways. Go out in Portland, Oregon and you’ll find people sitting in a pub or dive bar, casually drinking craft beers while they shoot the shit. Hit Downtown San Francisco and suddenly people are networking at underground concerts. Visit Miami and be ready for mega nightclubs, dance bars, and copious amounts of cocaine.

Americans drink all kinds of booze. Thanks to the country’s cosmopolitanism and booming economy, there’s just about every type of alcohol imaginable in the USA. All the staple are here – e.g. vodka, rum, gin, etc – though certain regions do it better than others.

For example, whiskey is quite good in Appalachia as this where bourbon was created. On the other hand, the southern states have some really good tequila and mezcal, mostly because of their proximity to Mexico.

The best wine in America is found on the West Coast. California is known for its big bold grapes, like chardonnays, cabs, merlots, etc. Oregon wine is more delicate and the pinots here are some of the best in the world.

Americans also love drugs, probably a little too much. Weed, coke, MDMA, acid, and a handful more can all be found in the USA and quite easily. In fact, marijuana is legal in 10 states!

Some cities actually struggle with drug problems. The opioid epidemic has swept the nation; meth is a real problem in the Southwest and the heroin abuse in Seattle is shocking sometimes, so be aware of who you’re doing drugs with.

Travel Insurance for America

Traveling without insurance would be risky so do consider getting good backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure.

I have been using World Nomads for some time now and made a few claims over the years. They’re easy to use, professional, and relatively affordable. They may also let you buy or extend a policy once you’ve started your trip and are already abroad which is super handy.

If there’s one insurance company I trust, it’s World Nomads. To find out why I use World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.

will in the wild

A message from Will, the OG Broke Backpacker

“Once upon a time, I almost lost my leg in a sweltering jungle… 

I battled a seriously nasty infection that snaked up past my knee and by the time I made it to a local hospital they wanted to amputate. I was delirious, unable to walk, and in a lot of pain but I managed to call my insurance provider – they moved me to a much better private hospital where the doctors were able to save my leg.  

I wracked up $15,000 in hospital bills, but these were completely covered by my travel insurance. Luckily, I still have my leg today, and whilst it is permanently damaged, I’m grateful every day it’s still attached!

Moral of the story: consider getting travel insurance before you head out into the wilds, people!

Getting into the USA – Visas

Whilst there are only two US visa types for tourists, it can be a little confusing sorting through the necessary qualifications and processes. US tourist visa requirements do change regularly so please be sure to always check with the official government website.

Foreigners can enter the United States either via the Visa Waiver Program or by acquiring an official US tourists visa at an embassy.

The Visa Waiver Program

Applicants from 38 different countries can enter the United States visa-free for a period of 90 days. They will need to apply for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) beforehand. Note that an ESTA is not an actual visa for the US, per se (it’s a clearance).

Each nationality will require a different set of documents to travel to the USA using this process, so be sure to check with your local embassy on what you need.

us visa procedures
Blue=visa-free entry. Green=Visa Waiver Program countries. | source: Twofortnights (Wikicommons)

If you are granted an ESTA, which is valid for 2 years, you are not actually guaranteed entry into the USA. Each arrival is assessed on a case by case basis – this means that you will be at the mercy of the customs agent every time you travel to the US.

If you’re traveling to America for the first time, you may not get a lot of pushback from the customs agent. But if this is your second or third time visiting the US in the course of a single ESTA, you could get grilled. (My Italian girlfriend was banned from entering the States for a period 6 months after she visited 3 times in the course of a year.)

Regular US Tourist Visa Applications

All other countries that do not qualify for the Visa Waiver Program must apply for a regular visa for the US. The requirements of this US tourist visa are much stricter than the VWP and will often require conditions like in-person interviews and background checks.

Again, the documents needed to travel to the USA under this visa vary on a case-by-case basis so I cannot tell you what you need. Applicants need to contact the nearest embassy to acquire this info.

If you’d like to start a checklist before traveling to the USA, start by visiting this website.

Traveling to the USA During COVID Times

As of December 2020, the USA is somewhat “open” to tourism. By that I mean, it is possible to enter the United States, just so long as you’re not from one of the following countries/regions.

Currently, there is no national lockdown or mandatory quarantine imposed by the federal government. That being said, individual states have the power to set regional restrictions and entry requirements. Many states “recommend” that anyone entering quarantine for a certain amount of time.

The USA has yet to see the peak of the pandemic and numbers continue to rise. Many people continue to meet for holidays and special gatherings despite, public health recommendations. In short, it’s difficult to stay on top of the situation, so be sure to check regularly the current COVID status in each state.

bus iconNeed to travel to USA on the cheap? Use Bookaway to find the best deals on bus, plane, train, and ferry tickets. It’s easy to use and saves you time and money. Once you’ve arrived, why not use what you’ve saved to treat yourself to a cold beer and a bite to eat?

Book your transport on Bookaway now to guarantee your seat and for the right price.

Best Way to Get Around USA

train on california coast united states travel guide

How you choose to get around will largely depend on your intended USA backpacking itinerary. If you’re just visiting a few American destinations that are in a specific region, you may get by on public transport or with your own car. If you’re short on time and want to see a lot though, you may end up buying a lot of plane tickets.

Renting a Car or Campervan in the USA

People who want to make their own Great American road trip will obviously need their own vehicle to do so. Having your own car in the USA will allow you the ultimate freedom and the chance to see many of its remote attractions and natural wonders.

There are dozens of car rental companies in America that offer an exponential amount of deals. The cost of a road trip across America will obviously vary depending on a few factors:

  1. When you want to rent the car – Book earlier rather than later, outside of peak season.
  2. How long you have the car – you can get good deals for longer periods of time.
  3. What kind of car you rent – sedans will do the job but you’ll need SUVs for real adventures. SUVs will cost more to fill up.
  4. And how much is gas at the time – you’ll be using a lot of it.

We suggest doing your research ahead of time to find the best deal possible. Use rental car search engines to sort through the various car companies and find the right price. Make sure you also purchase a policy to cover your vehicle against any common damages such as tires, windscreens, theft, and more at a fraction of the price you would pay at the rental desk.

Hurricane Ridge
source: bjul (

You can also rent an RV or campervan, which means you don’t have to worry about packing camping gear. You will have to empty and refill the various waste compartments and water tanks though, which will require a visit to the proper facilities. RVs also cost more to rent, use more gas, and demand higher prices at campgrounds.

We suggest booking a campervan with Outdoorsy as they usually have a good selection and good prices. Better yet, Broke Backpackers also get a $40 discount with Outdoorsy! Just use the coupon code “BACKPACKER” when checking out.

We mentioned before that you can reach out to vehicle relocation services, like immova and Cruise America, as a way of saving heaps of cash on rentals. Pursue these as best you can as they can save you a lot of money. Availability is always limited though.

Other Things to Note when Renting a Car in the US

  • Car insurance isn’t mandatory in the United States, but it’s a very good idea to have.
  • Many credit card companies offer free car insurance if you book the car with the proper card. Call your credit card company for more information regarding terms and conditions.
  • Use an American road trip planner app to plot routes. Some, like ViaMichelin, will give you estimated fuel consumption, indicate tolls, and show local attractions.
  • On that note, never use your phone while driving – there have been serious crackdowns in recent years and tickets can be very expensive.
  • Drivers who are under the age of 25 will often be charged extra premiums for rental cars (they’re a reckless bunch). To avoid these extra fees, Autoslash suggests investing in AAA Auto Insurance prior to backpacking around the USA and then renting with Hertz. Hertz won’t charge drivers under 25 extra fees if they have AAA.

Onwards Travel from America

The USA takes up a pretty large chunk of the North American continent. Unless you’re planning to fly the longer distances, there are only a few options for traveling from America to a different country.

  • Backpacking Canada – America’s northern neighborhood and the butt of one too many jokes about mooses and maple syrup, Canada is an amazing country to visit. It’s colder than the USA and people talk a little funny but it is far safer, more diverse, and arguably even more beautiful. The Canadian Rocky Mountains are epic and the rugged coastline of British Columbia and Newfoundland are equally impressive. When you’re not outdoors, the cities of Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto are among the coolest cities in North America as well.
  • Backpacking Mexico – South of the border lies tropical shores and the mystical cultures of Mexico. Many Americans only appreciate this country for its beach resorts – e.g. Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas – or its wormy tequila. Few actually realize that the entirety of Mexico is astounding – see Chiapas and/or Copper Canyon. While it can sometimes be a dangerous place, Mexico is still worth checking out.
  • Backpacking the Caribbean – The Caribbean is America’s favorite winter vacation. While the nation is gripped by snowstorms and cold, the Caribbean is warm, dry, and having a grand ol’ time. There are lots of different islands to visit in this massive archipelago – around 700 actually – and some are extremely vibrant. Cuba, once off-limits to Americans, is beginning to open up and Puerto Rico is usually a good time as well.
garibaldi sunrise backpacking canada photography roaming ralph
CANADA. source: Roaming Ralph

Make Money Online whilst Backpacking the USA

will laptopKeen to live the digital nomad dream while traveling the world? Who the hell isn’t?

Teaching English online is a great way to earn a consistent income on the road. Depending on your qualifications, you can work remotely from your laptop and make a positive impact on the world! It’s a win-win!

Check out this detailed article for everything you need to know to start teaching English online.

Volunteering in the USA

Volunteering abroad is an amazing way to experience a culture whilst helping your host community. There are plenty of different volunteer projects in the USA  including teaching, construction, agriculture and pretty much anything.

The USA is a land full of opportunities for backpacker volunteers. From hospitality in Hawaii to social media management in Sacramento and everything in between, you’ll find a whole load of different projects to help out with. You’ll most likely need a visa to enter the USA, and we recommend applying for a B1/B2 visa if you’re looking to volunteer.

Want to find some awesome volunteering opportunities in the USA? Then signup for Worldpackers, a platform that connects local hosts with volunteer travelers. As a Broke Backpacker reader, you’ll also get a special discount of $10. Just use the discount code BROKEBACKPACKER and your membership is discounted from $49 a year to only $39.

Programs run through reputable work exchange programs, like Worldpackers, are generally very well-managed and highly reputable. However, whenever you are volunteering do stay vigilant especially when working with animals or children.

Worldpackers: connecting travellers with meaningful travel experiences.

American Food

What is American food like anyway?

Having lived in the USA for the first 25 years of my life, I sometimes have a hard time answering this question myself. The United States is such an amalgamation of cuisines and borrows so much from so many cultures that it’s tough to nail what is really American.

America does have a couple of original dishes, which vary by region. For example, BBQ food takes on different qualities depending on where you’re at and can be pretty different.

There are also a number of Americanized dishes. It’s common knowledge that Chinese food in the US is not really Chinese anymore and Tex-Mex isn’t really Mexican.

Here are a couple more instances of some famous American foods, broken down by region:

  • BBQ – Probably the most American food there is. Divine grilled meats marinated in heavenly local sauces. BBQ is divine but fattening. Famous regional varieties include Texas BBQ, Kansas City, Carolina, and Virginia.
  • Hamburgers – Another notoriously delicious and unhealthy American classic. Supposedly invented in Connecticut. Huge variety of style from Hawaiian burgers with pineapple and teriyaki to Peanut Burgers with jelly.
  • Hot dogs – A blasphemous take on a typical sausage. Good when you’re drunk or at a ball game. Try to stick to German bratwursts instead.
  • Fried chicken – A southern staple that has become a hit. Give the absurdly sounding chicken and waffles a try (they’re surprisingly amazing).
  • Tex-Mex – A whitewashed version of Mexican food that is generally more accessible. Less spicy and more reliant upon basic ingredients.
  • Donuts – Fried bread shaped into an “O” shape. Alternative cities, like Portland, have made “gourmet donuts” a fad again.
  • Cajun – A mix of Southern, French, and Creole styles. Spicy, hearty, and usually very simple. Delicious, nonetheless.

American Culture

A GREAT misconception about America is that every resident falls under the same category. To say that Americans, as a whole, are cowboys or business sharks or talk like they’re from The OC is a gross misrepresentation.

The USA is an enormous country. It’s about the same size as the entire European continent – a landmass that hosts over 87 distinct peoples – so it’s no hard to believe that people may be (very) different depending on where they’re from.

America is one of the greatest social experiments in the history of the world. Few other countries were founded upon such a huge immigrant population and have molded together quite so much. Race and ethnicity are often celebrated in the USA but, that being said, racism is still an issue.

barak obama and native american leaders

Each region that we have covered so far in the USA travel guide has some distinct qualities. For example:

East Coasters are generally frank in their speech and can be perceived as rude. They may also have stronger ties to their cultural heritage as the East Coast has powerful diaspora communities (Irish, Italian, Polish, etc)

Californians are often perceived as vain and superficial and care more about personal advancement than relationships. They are very open-minded and laid back though and can get along with just about anyone. Business on the west coast IS about relationships though; whereas, business on the East Coast is often about grinding it out.

Southerners are warm, welcoming folk who prefer to live life to the fullest rather than get caught up with the details. Many people are seen as unintelligent, which are more symptoms of unjust social dynamics (following the Civil War, the South became very poor).

These are just a few highlighted characteristics/stereotypes in a sea of cultural diversity. I encourage anyone backpacking the USA to carefully observe the social nuances of each region and to discover the flavors of each.

Books to Reading While Backpacking Around America

These are some of the greatest American novels of all time. Be sure to grab a few them of them while backpacking in America.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion – A tale of a hardheaded Oregonian logging family that goes on strike, leading the town to drama and tragedy. Written by PNW legend, Ken Kesey.
  • Walden – The transcendental masterpiece by Henry David Thoreau that helped modern Americans rediscover nature and her beauty.
  • To Have and To Have Not – A family man gets involved with the drug smuggling business in the Key West and ends up in a strange affair. Written by the great Ernest Hemingway.
  • The Mountains of California – The musings and ramblings of John Muir, one of the most famous and beloved naturalists in American history.
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God – One of the most important and culturally uplifting novels for the African-American community. Told through a series of flashbacks, which occur in mostly in Slave-era Florida.
  • The Great Gatsby – Fitzgerald’s best book. Concerns the enigmatic and wealthy Jay Gatsby, his adventures, and his obsession with a woman.
  • Catcher in the Rye – One of the quintessential tales of growing up. Follows a young boy from Pennsylvania who runs away to New York in an open act of rebellion.
  • Gone with the Wind – An American classic and an epic about the Civil War and its consequences as told from the perspectives of two Southern lovers.
  • East of Eden – One of Steinbeck’s masterpieces, considered his magnum opus by many. Explores the relationship between two families in the Salinas Valley in the early 20th Century.

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More Unmissable American Experiences

Hiking in the USA

Many will say that the most beautiful places in the USA are not found in cities or towns, but in nature. America is often considered one of the most attractive countries in the world and many are drawn here just to see its natural attractions.

Hiking is a great way to experience the wilds of America and there is plenty of it to be found. Reportedly, there are over 50,000 miles of trail systems in the US. To put that into perspective, that’s equivalent to walking the entire coastline of the Lower 48.

yosemite in sierra nevada california

Some of the best places in America to go hiking are its national parks, which are set up preserve the natural splendor, ecosystem, and historical significance of a given area. These parks are priceless treasures and are among the most cherished pieces of the USA.

Note that most national parks charge an entry fee. If you want to go backpacking in the USA on a budget, consider investing in a special annual pass.

To help you further with your outdoor odyssey, refer to one of our many hiking guides listed below:

As a follow-up, we’d like to remind our readers to never venture into the wilderness unprepared. Always be sure that you have the right gear with you – hiking shoes, backpack, etc – and always have a plan.

If you’re going on an overnight hike, make sure you have a good tent, sleeping bag, and a means to prepare food.

For all other items, refer to our comprehensive list of what to take hiking.

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American Sports

Americans can’t get enough of their sports; some are diehard fanatics.

If you’re backpacking through the USA and have the opportunity, you absolutely have to go to a sports match. Aside from being an all-out blast, it will be a great immersion experience.

  • American Football – One of the three most popular sports in America (the others being baseball and basketball). A violent sport that resembles rugby except the players wear “protective padding.”  September-January.
  • Baseball – Also called the “Great American Pastime.” One of the original sports of the nation and practically a national treasure. Really boring unless you enjoy the analytics. Great for drinking beer and hanging out with friends though. March-November.
  • Basketball – An original American sport that involves two teams trying to get a ball in a hoop. Fast paced and really fun to watch in person. October-May.
  • Hockey – A sport that people either don’t care about or go crazy for. Involves ice skating and shooting tiny pucks into nets with sticks. Often the source of American-Canadian rivalry. October-June.
  • Soccer – While extremely beloved in the rest world – and referred to as football – it’s not really big in the USA. As minorities become more prominent in American culture though, soccer is becoming more popular. March-October.
  • Rock Climbing – A new age sport that is starting to take the country by storm. Not team oriented or televised at all, but really popular and quite prestigious. Climbers like Chris Sharma and Alex Honnold are celebrities.
  • Surfing – One of the best things to do in America if you enjoy the ocean! California, Hawaii, and Florida are some of the best places in the USA to surf, but Oregon, North Carolina, and even Alaska are great too.
  • Wrestling – Unless it’s college wrestling, it’s not real. (Sorry.)

Final Thoughts on Backpacking the USA

Well, folks – that was one epic United States travel guide we just threw down. I don’t know about you but we could use a vacation right about now, preferably in Maui.

We hope that you learned a lot from this article and about backpacking across the USA. Use the knowledge we have bestowed upon, amigos, to have the best trip possible!

If you think we missed anything or have your own favorite places to visit in America, please share them in the comment section below! The US is a big place and there’s always something new happening.

backpacking america travel guide

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