The Ins and Outs of Camping While Land Hunting

When we first decided that we wanted to buy some land to build a home on, and when we had a pretty good idea of the area we wanted to buy land, it was time to hit the road to do some exploring. We thought that we would like Idaho but you don’t really know until you get there. We knew we would simply have to smell the air, walk around, and spend some time in the area.

That said, we weren’t able to leave home for long periods of time, nor did we want to spend a lot of money on travel as we were trying to save up for the big move, assuming we found a piece of land!

What our spring / summers Idaho trips looked like.
What our spring / summers Idaho trips looked like.

During the year we were looking for land, we were extremely busy to say the least. We were working 80-90 hours per week on average while trying to rehab a house in exchange for a place to live so that we could grow our financial cushion. It was important that while looking for land that we were able to leave on a moment’s notice, travel on a budget, and stay comfortable when camping on the road.

We took trips in August, January, April and July. We experienced all different types of weather including lovely sun, rain and even heavy snow and ice.

We’ve learned a thing or two about camping, or car camping, when trying to find a piece of property to buy. From where to take showers to finding free places to camp and even feeling well-nourished on the road, we have had a lot of practice and want to share our tips in hopes it helps someone in their land hunt.

Make packing the car easy as pie with totes.

For most of our trips, we were arriving at our destinations (or the side of the road at a rest stop) late into the evening, if not around 11pm, and we didn’t want to deal with unpacking to sleep or packing up the net morning. Our solution to reducing time spent packing and unpacking was totes.

This was Jesse’s idea and we continue using it to this day! We organized everything in three plastic totes so that we knew where everything was and it was easy to toss it out of the car, stack them, etc.

The totes we had were:

  • A food tote: In this we included our edibles which included potatoes, coffee, honey, snacks, and some other stuff.
  • A cooking tote: If the weather was nice and warmish then we would cook at our camp site or at a rest area on a picnic table. With us we brought a small camping stove, a french press, cutting board, a couple knives, paper bowls, paper towels, soap, scrub brush, etc.
  • Other stuff tote: We always like to be prepared so we have an “other stuff” tote. This includes an axe, toilet paper, hammock, a couple small blankets, maps, and other stuff you may want when camping or taking a road trip.

In addition to our plastic totes we also had two sleeping bags, two pillows, Thermarest backpacking air mattresses, a few gallons of water, a cooler, our laptops and a small travel bag for each of us.

Needless to say, the Subaru Forester was full but pulling over on the side of the road to catch some zzz’s was quick and easy.

One of our go-to free camping spots. We would back in our car, throw the totes in the front seats or on the table sometimes, and pass out for the night. Leaving in the morning was a breeze, too.
One of our go-to free camping spots. We would back in our car, throw the totes in the front seats or on the table sometimes, and pass out for the night. Leaving in the morning was a breeze, too.

Keep an eye out for camping spots.

When we were making multiple trips to Idaho to find land, we knew that we would need to camp to save money. We were always keeping an eye out for rest areas, paid camping spots and best of all, free camping spots.

Sometimes we would pass a place where we could sleep in hopes we could find something better, but we usually always had some sort of backup plan. Sometimes we drove a lot of extra miles. Once we failed completely, all campgrounds were full, there were no rest areas, so we found an area on the side of the road to sleep and got out of there early in the morning before we had a cop knocking on our window!

This was our favorite place to camp that we discovered on our last trip.
This was our favorite place to camp that we discovered on our last trip.

One thing that was helpful to us was grabbing a couple camping maps from the forest service. If you think you’ll be able to find what you need online, then that’s just adorable! Ain’t gonna happen!

We NEVER made a single reservation in all of our trips. Most of the time we lucked out by walking in, but weekends are tough. Once we ended driving for about 3 hours all over Idaho and into Montana to find a place to crash for the night. I do suggest that if you will be traveling over a busy to weekend to maybe plan ahead and try to get a reservation. It depends on how much of an adventure you like! Some people are happier flying by the seat of their pants than others.

Stock up on water when you can.

If you are looking for budget-friendly camping (and by that, I mean free), and if you don’t have a solid plan for where you will be any given night, then it is a good idea to stock up on water when you can. We always had at least 3 gallons of water with us that we tried to keep full.

Filling up on water at a state campground. We always filled 3 gallons and our water bottles.
Filling up on water at a state campground. We always filled 3 gallons and our water bottles.

For one night of camping we would go through 1/2-1 gallon of water… depending on how thirsty we are and whether or not we made dinner, breakfast or stuck around for a morning cup of coffee.

Many free campgrounds don’t have any water. They will have a vault toilet if you’re lucky! So plan ahead.

Also, if you are in a remote area as we most often were, you may want to resume your land hunt immediately after waking up, so you won’t want to run into town to get water.

Some places you can get water include visitor centers, forest service buildings, some camp sites (paid ones usually), and even water fountains (sucks but we’ve done it).

Think of food ahead of time.

In order for us to spend days on end driving and looking for land, we had to ensure that we felt as great as physically possible and that means eating healthy foods. Read this post on what we eat to stay healthy and feel great when camping.

We frequently thought of food ahead of time. Sometimes we would stop by a grocery store when we drove by one, even if we weren’t hungry, to grab healthy snacks. We even bought dark chocolate and healthier sweets to avoid giving in to less-than-ideal options.

Our go-to breakfast. We ate the same thing to keep it simple.
Our go-to breakfast. We ate the same thing to keep it simple.

Dress appropriately for the weather.

One trip we took up to Idaho, we arrived in the middle of their biggest snow storm of the year! We didn’t want to sleep in a motel room, but camping wasn’t an option either, so we had to get extra cozy in the car.

This was such a cold trip! Not gonna lie, car camping was tolerable at best!
This was such a cold trip! Not gonna lie, car camping was tolerable at best!

When sleeping in a car, especially with two people, things can get twisted around and blankets may end up on one person, so be sure that you’re wearing enough clothes (don’t sleep naked… darn!).

During our winter camping, I slept in merino wool long underwear, merino wool socks, had on my down booties, and slept with a merino wool hat. I also had a sleeping bag rated for 0 degrees (bought it on accident for warmer weather camping lol) that Jesse and I were able to share. Even when it was snowing outside and we were sleeping in our car at a truck stop, we were nice and toasty. If for any reason we needed to jump out of the car unexpectedly, we wouldn’t have froze. Very important.

Use your head & be safe.

When we were looking for land, we were burning the candle at both ends to say the least. We crammed too much into a day. We drove too many hours. We drove way too late into the night. It’s really important that you prioritize your safety and use your head.

When we made our trip up over the winter, we were not even close to where we were hoping to camp for the night when the roads started to ice over. After seeing a Subaru in the ditch, we realized that we should pull over and drive when it was sunny and when the roads had more traction. We knew that if we got into an accident at 11pm in the middle of nowhere on an icy road, it would be nothing but bad news, not to mention that we were usually on the verge of being incredibly grumpy at that point of the day.

We drove up the night of this snow storm... yikes! We couldn't even drive into the property and had to walk!
We drove up the night of this snow storm… yikes! We couldn’t even drive into the property and had to walk!

Scout out showers.

I almost forgot to mention this, but this was really important for me! I’m one of those girls that likes to shower twice a day if I have the option. When we were camping, it was really hard for me to go more than 1-2 days without showering. This may be obvious, but free campgrounds don’t have showers (at least none that I’ve been to)! Many paid campgrounds don’t even have showers, or often they don’t work!

When we camped during summer, we would either be on the lookout for showers or camp somewhere where we could jump into a river or lake. Jesse loves mountain lakes where I am much more of a warm-blooded creature, but I was able to make a couple quick dunks for the sake of cleanliness.

Jesse taking a quick dunk in British Columbia. This water was too cold for me!
Jesse taking a quick dunk in British Columbia. This water was too cold for me!

Sometimes we would pay $20 for a campground with showers (usually state parks). It was worth it many nights; other nights, we were find going without.

Also, many truck stops offer showers. The one we frequented provided showers for $5.00. Often, Jesse and I both got to shower for this price. Showering every other day for $5.00 and camping for free actually worked pretty well, and I have to say that we were pretty content.

Load your car in a way that you can easily sleep in it.

When the weather was warm, we definitely preferred to sleep in our tent or two person hammock. This was usually cooler and more spacious than the car.

We love our Forester... we were able to sleep in it no problem!
We love our Forester… we were able to sleep in it no problem!

However, we weren’t keen on pitching a tent at rest areas so we car camped some nights even in warmer weather. Or, if it was cold, rainy or snowy, we didn’t want to deal with tent camping so we preferred to sleep in the car. The whole idea was to spend as much time looking at land as possible, not camping, so we didn’t want to create messes for ourselves.

By having totes and packing strategically, we were able to throw our junk into the front seat of the Forester. We never had to leave anything outside of the car which was great because we didn’t want anything stolen when we were in a deep slumber.

Be flexible & ready to go on a moment’s notice.

For us, it was difficult to find long stretches where we could get away. As you may have learned in previous blog posts, we were working on average 80-90 hours a week for 9+ months. We were rehabbing a house in exchange for rent on top of that, all to save up for buying land. When opportunity knocked, we had to answer!

Our trips were rarely planned in advance. Our winter trip we planned about 10 days out (was hoping it would be sooner than that) and we left on January 2nd. We were in between projects, land was available, so we decided to go despite poor weather. This is one reason why we recommend a simple packing system- totes! They’re easy to throw in the car when it’s time to go!

Also, we had to be flexible while on the road. Sometimes we were forced to stay in one area longer than we had planned and other times we had to cut our stays short. Our last trip to Idaho, we were hoping that we would be able to close on the property within a week of putting in our offer so we planned to just stay up there as we wanted to approve the staking of the property lines. Days wen by without communication from the surveyor, so we decided to go home. All the way, we had to be flexible and always be okay with the plans changing.

When we are delayed somewhere we frequently try to make some fun out of it, hence this random trip up to Canada!
When we are delayed somewhere we frequently try to make some fun out of it, hence this random trip up to Canada!

Respect your loved on.

The last thing that I want to mention is respecting your loved one. Camping and looking for land while fun, can be extremely stressful. You likely won’t be able to plan everything 100%, things will never go 100% according to plan, you may go too long between meals, you may go longer than you would like without a shower, you may end up being forced to spend $60 on a meal out, or you may be forced to get a hotel room for the night. These circumstances can make anyone cranky and snappy.

When taking the trip with your loved on, be sure to try to understand one another’s needs. Many times, a shower was important to me so even though Jesse thought it was silly, he helped me to find a shower even if it was slightly out of the way. Sometimes, things would go wrong on the car or Jesse would get a poor night’s rest because he is a much lighter sleeper than me, so he would sometimes have a short fuse which I did my best to understand.

A trip like this can definitely be a great test of the relationship. I’m happy Jesse and I have been able to work so well together throughout the stress, chaos and excitement.

Get involved!

Have you begun your search for land? Have you made camping trips with little to no planning to scout out that property that looked perfect online? What tricks have you found to make camping a great experience when land scouting?

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I am an aspiring homesteader on a journey to become self-sustainable and free. In my past, I've worked corporate jobs to make ends meet and get ahead a little; it didn't make me happy or confident in my future. Since taking the leap to self-employment and living a more simple life, my happiness levels have increased greatly and I've never felt more alive. I finally understand what I want in life and how to get there, and that is what this blog is all about.


  1. autoguy says

    Interesting quest you have going on there! Good luck with everything. Grabbing the paper maps available can be an advantage as you saw as not all info is online yet. Check national forest areas and try to find the section maps. The more detailed maps show the fire lanes and other access roads, and primitive camping is allowed anywhere without permits or anything. Gathering firewood is ok too. A US Forestry office can help you with info, as you know. I enjoy wilderness camping, always had a van to do so, and camped near stream for a wash water source.

    Showering is a snap. Look for a plastic 5 gallon shower bag. Is has a tube with small shower head and a clip valve. May be called a solar shower also, the idea being to fill it water and place it in the sun. That takes a long time, so what I would do is heat a couple gallons of stream water on the fire, then mix it with some cold water in the bag. Hang it up on a tree and hot showers in the woods are quick and easy.

    I’ve always liked vans and station wagons. I’m sure you’ve pondered your use of the Subaru. If all wheel drive, it has that advantage. Two wheel drive can actually go a lot of places but care is needed to not push it too far. A minivan with the rear seats discarded and a raised sleeping platform might be a consideration. Cargo slides under. Eventually, however, you will find your new homestead and the camping will end, and the vehicles then convert to hauling building materials. The Subaru will do fine for small cargo trailers I’m sure.

    Keep some cans of quicky-food to avoid those $60 dinners. If you really want to save money, you’ll be bowled over at how much perfectly good food is discarded by grocery stores. Do some dumpster diving and see for yourself. You’ll never even come close to eating all.

    An awesome quest you are on! True romance and adventure! Don’t sweat the small things most people think are annoying, sharpen your wits ever more along the way, and you’ll get to your destination. Best of luck! -AG

    • says

      So much great information… sounds like someone has done their homework or simply has a lot of experience!

      I think I did hear that about national forest land although I guess we didn’t put it to the test on our journey. I do think that’s a great bet though is to simply walk into a US Forestry office for recommendations. We did the same thing and the woman was incredibly helpful.

      We’ve heard of solar showers but didn’t put them to the test. I think that’s something we may have to look into if we do a lot of camping in the future in remote areas with no showers, or freezing cold water. Sounds tolerable and inexpensive.

      And dumpster diving… I can’t say that crossed our minds! Have you actually done this and found clean food? Props, my friend! We have had canned chili on hand and enjoyed that a few nights. Funny thing is that most times we pay $60 for a meal, it isn’t even that great and we surely could make better food.

      Take care AG, thanks again for sharing your tips!

  2. autoguy says

    Thanks for the lovely reply and YW. The camping shower bag I had was purchased from an outdoor supply store and it was pretty inexpensive.

    National Forest land is very different than parks and state lands. Unless posted otherwise, open primitive camping is allowed wherever you please. Best to check, but I don’t believe the regs have changed.

    There’s a few very well done documentaries done on discarded food. If you watch them, you will easily see how overwhelmed somebody can get. And yes, I’m talking perfectly wholesome good food that is being discarded in huge amounts. Sensible rules apply, however. Sealed packages, same day discards, use sensible food safety rules, etc.. I have not bought groceries to speak of for 6 years, my house is packed to the rafters with every kind of food you can think of, some of it very expensive, and I never get sick because I follow sensible food safety practices. A box of fresh product gets deformed and they throw it out. The bag of food inside is untouched. A case of red sauce gets one jar broken and it slobbers up the other 11 jars, they toss the whole case. Lots of what I call “dumpster dozen” eggs. One is broken, they toss the whole carton. One time I came upon a rack of discarded eggs that had 200 one-dozen cartons on it. Hams, lunch meat, tons of good fruit and veggies, even ribeye and t-bone steaks at times. Many times, refrigerated perishables are found still cold. I mean, it’s insane! One recent doc is called “Dive!”, and it shows how crazy it gets.

    Interesting about your premium priced dinners being well overpriced. I find that to be common. I’ve gotten pretty good at whipping up great dumpster feasts on the fly that cost me nothing, and easily beat the fare at most restaurants. It’s not hard. :oD

    Best of luck as you move forward, and by all means, be safe while using tools and equipment.


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