You’ve been waiting a long time for this moment – you’re about to go traveling in the USA for the first time, ever.
Maybe you’ve been planning your USA backpacking trip for awhile, 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’m writing 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.
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?
- Best Travel Itineraries for Backpacking the USA
- Best Places to Visit in the USA
- 10 Top Things to Do in the United States
- Backpacker Accommodation in the USA
- Backpacking USA Budget and Costs
- Best Time to Visit the USA
- Staying Safe in the USA
- Getting Insured Before Visiting the USA
- How to Get Into the USA
- How to Get Around the USA
- Volunteering in the USA
- American Culture
- What to Eat in the USA
- More Unmissable American Experiences
- FAQS About Backpacking in the USA
- Final Thoughts on Backpacking the USA
Why Go Backpacking in America?
You’re going to hear me harp on this fact often, but the United States is fuckin’ huge. There is a multitude of regions in this country and a multitude of tourist destinations that are inhabited by an even greater multitude of people.
To put it simply, backpacking the USA is going to be a long, sometimes crazy experience. But ultimately, it will be thrilling.
But there are lots of subjects to cover when talking about backpacking America: how to get around the USA, where to lay your tired head for the night, and, crucially, how to save money along the way.
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Best Travel Itineraries for Backpacking the USA
First, we’re going to talk about the best 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!
10 Days Backpacking the USA Itinerary – A Jetsetting Holiday
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 with a larger budget. Public transportation doesn’t jive well with this kind of time frame, so you’re going to get acquainted with its many airports.
Start your jet-setting itinerary by spending 3 days visiting New York City, the so-called “Capital of the World.” Don’t miss out on the artsy vibes of Williamsburg and Central Park, which might just be one of the only times the US has succeeded in creating a free, public green space.
Times Square is severely overrated, though the lights do look pretty cool at 3 AM post partying. Just make sure you choose a good place to stay in NYC that’s near public transport.
Next, take a quick flight to the favorite place of many and explore Chicago. Here you can enjoy killer food and reliable public transport. Chicago’s one of the coolest places to stay for 2 days filling up on deep-dish pizza.
Once you’re stuffed to the brim, hop on another plane to visit Los Angeles. Your best bet is to rent a car for 2 days to explore surrounding areas like Santa Monica, Malibu, and Venice Beach. LA might just have the best street tacos in the US, and as the city can get expensive, note nearby cheap food options when choosing your accommodation.
To end your trip, check out Miami to get a taste of Latin America in the USA! In 3 days, don’t miss out on Club Space for the coolest sounds in the city, South Beach for beaches and bottles, and Key Biscayne for a more relaxing, natural beach day complete with water sports.
To get acquainted with Miami’s unique culture, check out Little Havana and the famous Versailles Restaurant for authentic Cuban eats. Brickell or South Beach are the best places to stay in Miami, though choose the latter if you want to spend most of your time by the water!
3 Weeks Backpacking USA Itinerary: The Ultimate Roadtrip
Now we’re cooking with gas! A 3-week itinerary for the USA is a great chunk of time to allow you to see multiple regions in the USA and, not only that, enjoy them as well.
First, fly into Los Angeles to start your USA adventure. After checking out the famous beaches, drive to Las Vegas for a quick stop to hopefully make some winnings before continuing onwards to some of the United States’ best national parks.
Spend a few days staying in the amazing Grand Canyon, one of the most amazing natural landmarks in the US. Next up, head to Utah, another wild state blessed with stunning beauty, and some great places to camp on a budget.
Zion National Park is perhaps the most stunning (and therefore most famous) of Utah’s national parks. But the state also has both Arches National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, which are both stellar options. Check out where to stay in Zion National park if you visit.
Now for some of the best multi-day backpacking trips (and a whole lot of doobies!) make your way to Denver, Colorado for a serious dose of mountains, forests, and the devil’s lettuce! Weed is fully legal in the state, and you can find every strain and edible you can imagine.
Now, you’re going to want to head East. Make a pitstop at one of the scenic parts of Appalachia before getting into the last bit of your American adventure: an East Coast road trip.
Some must-see East Coast spots include the nation’s lovely capital Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, home of the legendary Philly Cheesesteak. Then, of course, a couple of days in New York City. If you still have some time, expand your horizons by driving through New England, one of the very best portions of the States.
Rhode Island is a great place to check out some Northern beaches, and staying in Portland, Maine is a must, especially if you’re into seafood. You won’t soon forget that lobster roll! The state is also blessed with a ton of natural beauty–Maine’s stunning Acadia National Park is a dream come true from July-August.
1+ Month USA Backpacking Itinerary: A Backpacker’s Ideal Route
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 can do this itinerary in either direction, though I recommend starting in New York City; it’s got something for everyone, from attractions to some of the best restaurants in the country. There are so many places to visit in New York you might want to tag on a few days.
Next up, take some time to see the charming region of New England before spending a few days in Washington D.C. heading to the sweet Southern locales of Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. If you want to see a particularly interesting US city, you can also hit up Hotlanta AKA Atlanta, Georgia.
Now it’s time for the country’s most notorious state: yup, it’s time for a Florida road trip. After getting acquainted with the Sunshine State, continue onwards to New Orleans, one of America’s coolest cities before expanding your waistline in Austin, Texas.
Need help deciding between Dallas or Austin? Check out our helpful guide.
Moving along, make a stop in Santa Fe, New Mexico before making it to one of America’s most iconic states: Colorado. The high-elevation state is undoubtedly one of the best places to hike in the country.
After some marijuana and mountain action, get ready for even more epic landscapes by staying in Moab, Utah for a few days. The cute town is close to two USA national parks and has a vibe all of its own. The gamblers’ paradise of Las Vegas is up next, or you could just stay in Utah if you’re liking it.
And now for what most people backpacking the USA don’t want to miss: California! Los Angeles is a great place to start your exploration of the most populated state. Don’t spend too long in LA–there’s an entire coast to see. Before leaving, stay in San Francisco, a city truly unlike any other in the states.
The lush Oregon Coast is a logical next step, where you can make a pitstop in the quirky city of Portland before culminating your US backpacking adventure in Seattle, Washington.
But if you have a bit of flexibility your trip doesn’t have to end there! Seattle is a great place to either headway north to Alaska, or thousands of miles southwest to the true highlight of the USA–backpacking Hawaii.
Best Places to Visit in the USA
The United States is HUGE and it would take a long time to visit each state once, never mind really get to know them. Here are some of the “can’t-miss” stops on your USA backpacking adventure:
Visiting the East Coast
STATES: New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia
The East Coast may just be the most quaint part of the US. After all, this is where most of the nation’s modern 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. The famous New York City, one of the most diverse metropolises in the world. It’s fo’sho the highlight of the East Coast–if you have the time, a 4-day NYC itinerary is perfect to get a solid feel of the Big Apple.
The East Coast is also home to Washington DC – the federal capital of the USA. Smaller but no less interesting cities, like Baltimore (MD), and Newark (NJ), also contribute greatly and are worth visiting themselves. To see plenty of US history, be sure to squeeze some days in Philadelphia, one of the USA’s oldest cities.
Many will begin their USA backpacking trip in this region; NYC has a convenient international airport. But also because of convenience; the East Coast Corridor is very well connected.
Visiting the East Coast will be a unique cultural experience. Once you understand the East Coast style, you’ll start to feel like one of them.
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. New England is the start of the USA as we know it.
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.
That’s also what makes a New England road trip one of the most quaint you can take in the entire country. While the region isn’t 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 the USA. When the leaves turn gold and red in the autumn, it’s sublime.
New England still has its fair share of cool cities and the region also. Plus public services are the best in the country, and overall, it has the best quality of life. Backpack Boston, Massachusetts to get a taste of one of the best cities in the USA.
Meanwhile, Portland, Maine has been slowly winning the hearts of hipsters over the years. The state’s amazing food and natural scenery make staying in Maine absolutely worth the effort. Burlington, Vermont is also a cool little hippy town and Providence, Rhode Island is also having a renaissance.
When you need a break from the hustle and bustle of the East Coast, head to New England.
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, such as Des Moines or Indianapolis – for alternative reasons – not to mention some very attractive outdoor areas, particularly around the Great Lakes. Staying near Lake Michigan, for example, is always a good idea. Most appealing though are the warm, welcoming locals, who are often eager to show foreigners how great the Midwest can be.
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 that the places to visit in Chicago even include sandy beaches?
There are more cities besides Chicago worth seeing too. Pay a visit to Detroit, Michigan; once the fallen angel of America, it is putting itself back together, piece by piece. Plus you have Madison, Wisconsin, which is lowkey one of the great hidden gems of the Midwest.
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 – you can surf here sometimes – and there are portions that may even resemble the Caribbean.
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 – like 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, (mostly) outrageous stereotypes, but most will agree that Appalachia is a poorer and more discriminated region in the USA.
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 they crafts or hot springs. Some of the larger cities, like Memphis, Tennessee offer a fantastic mix of Southern vibes and city convenience.
If you wanted to leave the mountains, there’s plenty more to see and do in greater Kentucky and Tennessee. Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky are all exciting cities that offer enough entertainment (often in the form of music and drink) to keep you busy for a long while.
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.
That 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 visiting New Orleans can be.
Everyone knows that Florida has the best beaches in the States. And of course, no USA trip is complete without spending some days in Miami itinerary, the so-called “Capital of South USA.”
But did you know that some of the finest North American architecture is preserved in the cities of Charleston, South Carolina or Savannah, Georgia?
Or that the city of Atlanta is no longer the gritty, crime-ridden place 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!
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 the United States like an ocean. This vast region, characterized by endless fields of tall grass and near-perfect flatness, stretches on for aeons. 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 USA road trip often speed through this part because there is supposedly nothing to do, but there’s definitely something to see everywhere.
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 Texans, 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. Stay in 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.
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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. There are so many amazing things to do in Colorado!
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 the USA are found in the Rockies.
The largest urban area in the Rocky Mountain states is Denver, Colorado. 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.
Another option is the fun and more compact city of Boulder. There are some great hostels in Boulder if you’re on a budget.
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, Utah, and Albuquerque, New Mexico – 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 those that make the effort to stay in Montana often regard it 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. You can find many quaint cabins in Idaho that offer unparalleled views of the natural surroundings.
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 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 the USA are found on a Southwest road trip itinerary. The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, even the neon lights of Las Vegas; all of these sights are deeply ingrained in the American consciousness.
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.
The small town of Taos is part spiritual enclave, part ski resort. Finally, no trip to the Southwest is complete without seeing the otherworldly White Sands.
Visiting the West Coast
STATES: California, Oregon, Washington
Taking a West Coast road trip is arguably one of the best things to do in the US. Few other places on Earth offer such natural diversity as the West, which consists of mountains, rainforests, deserts, an enormous coastline… Need I go on?
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.
The state of 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 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.
Sunny 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. Its largest city, Portland, is regularly mocked for being a mecca for hipsters and beer snobs but it’s becoming more these days.
Washington is the more mountainous and richer sibling to Oregon. Once sleepy, the thriving metro of 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).
Visiting Hawaii and Alaska
So far we’ve covered 48 of the USA’s 50 total states. So what about those lands beyond the 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.
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 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 are 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.
Best Places to Visit in Alaska
- Anchorage – Alaska’s largest city is a great place to start any Alaska adventure. Check out the accessible nature and have a reindeer dog. Yup we’re talking about a hotdog made with reindeer and its damn delicious.
- Denali National Park – One of the most beautiful expanses of nature in the country, this national park gives you a chance to get up close and personal with North America’s tallest mountain.
- Juneau – Alaska’s capital city is the perfect place to eat some salmon, see a glacier, and even mine for gold!
Quite the opposite of Alaska, traveling to Hawaii means visiting a tropical paradise. The amount of times that this archipelago has been named “the most beautiful place in the world” is beyond count now.
Okay, Hawaii can be expensive. But it’s the perfect place to travel and to live.
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. Though backpacking in Hawaii is not necessarily affordable, with a little help, you can still visit on a reasonable budget. You can even find many yoga retreats that combine wellness sessions and exploration with their offering, which is another good way to explore Hawaii.
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Best Places to Visit in Hawaii
- Kauai – This lush green island is the perfect place to stay in Hawaii for nature lovers. Filled with beaches, trails and stunning drives, it’s one of the best islands in the state.
- Oahu – With a whole lot more to offer than just Honolulu, don’t miss out on Waimea Valley and Laniakea Beach.
- The Big Island – The major highlight here is visiting the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and staying in Hilo to enjoy its picture-perfect beaches.
Getting of the Beaten Path in the USA
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 the USA 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 the US, that’d be a whole lot of fuck-all in between.
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 amazing random places in the USA:
- Wind River Range, Wyoming
- Death Valley National Park
- Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana
- Ashland, Oregon
- Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
- Olympic National Park
- Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah
- The Redneck Riviera, Florida
- Athens, Georgia
- Asheville, North Carolina
- The Great Northern Woods, Maine
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Red River Gorge, Kentucky
- Moloka’i Island, Hawaii
- Duluth, Minnesota
- Yakutat, Alaska
- Tucson, Arizona
10 Top Things to Do in the United States
Doesn’t really matter if you’re backpacking the USA alone or with a group – there’s tons of stuff to 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 the country’s greatest treasures. Vibrant, storied, exciting, and never ashamed, staying in New Orleans is one of the most interesting things to do in the USA, not to mention one of the most fun.
2. Experience the Latin side of the USA
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 Spanish than English.
Join the conversation; visit the likes of Miami, San Antonio, or stay in Los Angeles and feel the Latin vibes. Little Havana in Miami is particularly unique.
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. And if you really want to meet others who are also feeling the city’s magic for the first time, stay in one of NYC’s best hostels.
4. Smoke some legal weed!
Marijuana is legal in more than a dozen states, which means one of the best things to do while backpacking the US is to get stoned. Especially if you’re coming from a country with limited access to this fantastic plant, you’ll be truly impressed by the sheer variety and quality of American weed. California and Colorado are both A+ choices for the best vibes and shops.
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 one the most romantic things to do in the USA and will probably be the first of many bucket list locations.
6. Learn about the history of the USA in DC
Washington D.C. 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, 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.
8. 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.
9. Visit one of the more distant states
Not many people – including most 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.
10. 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.
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Backpacker Accommodation in the USA
The USA 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: stay in a castle, treehouses, yurts, houseboats, and farm stays, plus with all the campgrounds you won’t 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 a good budget American hotel may be the only choice sometimes, I’d prefer the alternatives.
- 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 – American 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 Beach.
- Airbnb – One of my favorite forms of accommodation in the US; booking an Airbnb is 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. To find the best places to stay in US cities it’s worth doing some research beforehand:
|Destination||Why Visit!||Best Hostel||Top Airbnb|
|New York City||The city that never sleeps is more of a feeling than a place, and is undoubtedly the coolest city in America–plus it has public transportation.||Chelsea International Hostel||Amazing East Village Apartment|
|Philadelphia||One of the most historically important cities in America, come to Philly for the sites, stay for the legendary food!||Apple Hostel||Cute Studio Apartment|
|Hawaii||The most beautiful place in the US by far, Hawaii feels like another (very green) planet. Plus you can get the very best poke in the world!||The Beach Hostel||Studio Near the Beach|
|Washington D.C.||The modern capital of the US is not to be missed. Spend a day exploring the many amazing historical places by cycle or scooter!||Duo Housing D.C.||Cozy D.C. Apartment|
|Florida||A visit to America isn’t quite complete without Florida. Filled with the lower 48’s best beaches and wackiest people, Florida is an experience to say the least.||Generator Miami||Treehouse Canopy|
|Texas||The Lone Star state is a bbq lover’s go to, and if food doesn’t appeal, perhaps the wide open landscapes will?||Deep Ellum Hostel||Milky Way Cabin|
|Chicago||The Windy City is one of the coolest in America. From incredible eateries to summer days by the lake, don’t forget to try the deep dish!||Freehand Chicago||Artsy Centralized Apartment|
|California||Blessed with a stunning coast, many mountains, and a ton of legal weed, you simply cannot visit the USA and skip California.||Green Tortoise Hostel||Underground Hobbit Hole|
|Las Vegas||Ah, perhaps the most popular gambling city on Earth? Get your money up at one of the many famous casinos!||Sin City Hostel||Private Entrance in Vegas|
|Alaska||Remote and massive albeit a bit expensive, Alaska is a nature lover’s paradise. Most Americans never even make it here, so it’s even a bit “offbeat.”||Base Camp Anchorage||The Johnson House Cabin|
|Denver||“The Mile High City” is perhaps the best in the entire country come summer. With some of the best hikes in the country, and some of the best weed, it doesn’t get much chiller than Denver.||Ember Hostel||Peaceful Private Room|
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, because it’s fun and cheap too! Some of the best camping is in Colorado though you can find them all over the US.
Camping in the USA can be done in many places: 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 spend boatloads on a lodge.
For all campgrounds outside the main urban areas, you will, 99% of the time, need a car to reach them. You’ll also need to make sure you have your road trip packing list kitted out with the proper gear.
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-served, which means that popular ones fill up quickly.
If you really want to go cheap, then take advantage of the many primitive sites in the US, also known as BLM land. 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 on a budget in the US and you CAN have a great time. 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 on a bender of a holiday.
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 USA 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 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. Dumpster diving is also very much possible all over the US.
- 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 – A Daily Budget in the US
Disclaimer: While prices in the US may vary depending upon what region you’re in, this is a good general overview of what prices will look like overall. Be sure to check Google Maps reviews to find the cheapest eats around whenever you roll into a new place.
If you’re wondering how much would it cost to travel across the US, then here is a breakdown of various costs:
|Expense||Broke Backpacker||Frugal Traveler||Creature of Comfort|
|Total per day:||$11-$80||$80-$180||$180+|
Money in the USA
Card is king in the US, and you can expect all big brands to work pretty much everywhere. Visa is the most widely used type of card in the US and can be used virtually anywhere.
Keep in mind that ATMs will charge a fee, which can vary depending on the branch. If your country offers an international fee-free card, it’s definitely worth looking into before you travel to the USA.
US bills are all green with various former presidents on them. Coins are also still commonly used in the US and people will often give you exact change. The major exception to this is if you plan on partaking in drug tourism. Even legal stores often cannot accept cards due to nuanced legal issues.
Tipping in the US
Tipping is expected at US restaurants as workers are not paid the minimum hourly wage, unlike in Europe. It’s expected that you tip around 10-15% of your total bill, though this is social etiquette and not a law.
If you get a service like a massage or a haircut, tipping is also typically expected. Workers in the US face many more difficulties than those in other developed countries, so tipping can really make or break an employee’s shift.
Travel in the USA with Transferwise!
For all matters of finance and accounting on the road, I strongly recommend Wise – the platform formerly known as Transferwise!
Our favorite online platform for holding funds, transferring money, and even paying for goods, Wise is 100% FREE with considerably lower fees than Paypal or traditional banks. But the real question is… is it better than Western Union?
Yes, it most certainly is.
Travel Tips – the USA 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:
- Camp – While many campsites in the USA charge fees, there’s plenty of places where you can camp for free. And of course there’s always stealth camping. Just make sure you have some good backpacking gear!
- 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. Get a good backpacking stove and stay at hostels with free coffee.
- 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, particularly out west. Do some research on the places nearest you.
- 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.
- 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.
- Learn how to travel cheap – With a bit of dirtbaggery, it is possible to backpack the USA on $10 a day.
- Get off the beaten path: The best places in the US are those with the least amount of people, with NYC being a glaring exception.
Why You Should Travel to the USA with a Water Bottle
Plastic washes up on even the most pristine beaches… so do your part and keep the Big Blue beautiful!
You aren’t going to save the world overnight, but you can be part of the solution and not the problem. When you travel to some of the most beautiful places in the USA, you come to realize the full extent of the plastic problem. So I hope you become more inspired to continue being a responsible traveler.
Plus, now you won’t be buying overpriced bottles of water from the supermarkets either! Travel with a filtered water bottle instead and never waste a cent nor a turtle’s life again.
Drink water from ANYWHERE. The Grayl Geopress is the market’s leading filtered water bottle protecting your tum from all the waterborne nasties. PLUS, you save money and the environment!
Single-use plastic bottles are a MASSIVE threat to marine life. Be a part of the solution and travel with a filter water bottle.
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Best Time to Visit the USA
There are a lot of different climates in the USA; each one determines when and where you ought to visit.
A great time to visit the United States! The Northeast and Midwest are beginning to thaw out after the long harsh winter and temperatures are rising on the West Coast. Temperatures are lovely in the South and Southwest and a lot of major cities, like New Orleans and Miami, are kicking off festival season.
Alaska and Hawaii are the odd men out. Alaska doesn’t emerge from winter until May although the Northern Lights are peaking. Hawaii is getting dumped on by rain.
The most popular time to vacation in the United States, which means prices will be peaking. Both the West and East Coasts are perfect and there’s usually not a cloud in the sky. It’s prime hiking season in almost all of America’s many National Parks and Alaska is finally bearable.
The Midwest and East Coast start to get humid while the South is in the midst of the hot, rainy season (hurricanes possible). Texas and the Southwest are a furnace at this time and it is tornado season in Middle America. Hawaii is wrapping up its rainy own season.
Overall, the best time to visit the USA as the weather is good almost everywhere and there are fewer tourists. The southwest and deep south return to lovely temperatures. The deciduous trees start to erupt in the Northeast and Appalachia. The PNW and Alaska are enjoying the sun before it disappears for 5 months.
The Rockies, Midwest, and Great Plains start to receive dustings of snow. If it’s been a dry year, California is still battling forest fires.
It’s raining every day in the PNW. The Northeast, Midwest, Rockies, and Alaska are frigid and probably buried in snow. Great if you’re a skier, but bad if you’re everyone else.
Most likely, people are fleeing to Florida, the South, and Hawaii during this time as they’re warm and dry. Beware of prices in these regions during this time.
Holidays and Festivals in the USA
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 the US. 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) – The United States’ 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 the USA 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 other 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 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 of 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 vibes (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 the USA’s humble roots (we won’t get into the First Nation controversies). Usually a big family holiday.
What to Pack for the USA
On every adventure, there are 6 things I never go traveling without. Be sure to add these to your backpacking packing list for the USA:
Travel Security 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Staying Safe in the USA
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, the USA suffers from an unacceptable violent crime rate (ranked 143rd out of 230). Its Global Peace Index is 122 out of 163, which puts it behind Kenya, El Salvador, and Bangladesh.
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.
Mass shootings are a genuine and pervasive threat in society, particularly in schools, large buildings, or big events. Random violence can occur any time, even in “safe” areas, even comparable to the likes of South America.
Racism is also very real, and vast swaths of the nation unfortunately still support white supremacy.
I’m hard on the USA because I’m from there. If I’m being honest, it can be a hectic place and I often feel safer in Pakistan.
That being said, America is a (mostly) safe place, at least for tourists.
Most of the worst crimes in the country happen in remote neighborhoods where tourists have no reason to go to anyway. There is petty theft in the busier areas, particularly involving car break-ins and pickpocketing, but these can be avoided by standard safe traveling practices.
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, you’re more likely to be killed by bison in heat or a freak tornado.
Speaking of freak accidents, the US is the only developed nation on Earth without universal healthcare. An ambulance ride alone can cost $2000, and a day in a hospital for even a minor issue will easily run over $10,000. So more than almost any other country, you’re really going to want to consider travel insurance that covers the US.
So, if you’re thinking about backpacking in the USA alone or with a group, 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.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in America
Americans 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 staples are here: vodka, rum, gin, etc – though certain regions do it better than others.
For example, whiskey is quite good in Appalachia as this is 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, and merlots. 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 are all easy drugs to find on the road in the USA. In fact, marijuana is legal in numerous states with more joining the party every year.
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.
Getting Insured Before Visiting the USA
Traveling without insurance would be risky so do consider getting good backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure.
This is particularly ESSENTIAL in the USA as its for-profit healthcare system means you could be given a 5 figure bill for even minor injuries.
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.
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World Nomads provides travel insurance for travelers in over 100 countries. As an affiliate, we receive a fee when you get a quote from World Nomads using this link. We do not represent World Nomads. This is information only and not a recommendation to buy travel insurance.
How to Get Into the USA
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 tourist visa at an embassy.
Entry Requirements for the USA
Applicants from 40 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.
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 the USA 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.
The reality is that if you are from a “poor” country it will be very difficult to get a US tourist visa even if your bank account is the same as someone from an EU nation. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but you should demonstrate a good travel history and strong ties to your home country for the best possible chance at success.
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How to Get Around the USA
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.
Buses are ubiquitous in America and can transport you to just about any major city or town. Some major companies include Greyhound, Boltbus, and Megabus. Remember that America is a really big place though so don’t underestimate distances. Also, know that buses stop often – thus extending drive times.
Full disclosure, America has terrible public transport; I’ve been on buses in Pakistan that undoubtedly provide better and less sketchy service. Unfortunately, local buses also tend to be associated with crime and unscrupulous activities.
Train travel in the USA is not like train travel in Europe. Trains here are very limited and are ultimately a huge luxury (expensive tickets).
That being said, the routes that do exist are often stunning. There are USA rail passes available for purchase with Amtrak.
Passenger vehicles are the preferred method of traveling in the USA and do offer the most flexibility. With your own car, you’ll get to go where you want, sleep where you want, and do what you want. Read the proceeding section for more information on renting a car in the USA.
Vanlife is perhaps the most ideal way to see the US, though it might be hard (or extremely expensive) to acquire an affordable one on a tourist visa.
Most people will fly at least once or twice within the United States. Getting from the East Coast to the West Coast is a 6-hour flight in itself, so if you want to see both LA and NYC this may be your only option. Book your tickets WELL in advance to save money.
Be aware that getting through security can be a real pain in the ass. Also beware of Spirit Airlines. They’re cheap for a reason and SIGNIFICANTLY worse than Europe’s RyanAir.
Yes, it is possible to hitchhike in America. However, unlike many places in the world, hitchhiking is illegal in most parts of the US. Police can and will arrest hitchhikers in many states.
Furthermore – although this sounds very anti-feminist – I would only recommend hitchhiking to males, and only to those who would know how to handle a worst case scenario: it has been associated with hundreds of murders and kidnappings.
The US is not South Asia, Oceania, or Europe. Hitchhiking is thought of as a homeless/criminal scene by most Americans, meaning most people will not stop unless someone is injured. And those that do may have ulterior motives. If you still want to give it a go, be extremely careful.
For reference, I’ve hitchhiked in India and Pakistan, yet even as a US citizen, would never do so in the US.
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. Driving 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 the US that offer an exponential amount of deals. The cost of a road trip across America will obviously vary depending on a few factors:
- When you want to rent the car – Book earlier rather than later, outside of peak season.
- How long you have the car – you can get good deals for longer periods of time.
- 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.
- 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 RentalCover.com 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.
You can also rent an RV or campervan to live the vanlife, 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 Backpacker readers also get a $40 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.
- NEVER USE YOUR PHONE WHILE DRIVING – there have been serious crackdowns in recent years and tickets being very expensive, it’s not worth putting your or anyone else’s life at risk.
- 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.
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Onwards Travel from the USA
The USA takes up a pretty large chunk of the North American continent. Unless you’re planning to fly longer distances, there are only a few options for traveling from the US to a different country.
America’s northern neighbor 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 metros in North America as well.
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 Mexico is astounding; see Chiapas and/or Copper Canyon. Though it has an (undeserving) bad reputation, visiting Mexico is incredible.
For more tropical vibes, 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. Travel in Cuba, once off-limits to Americans, is beginning to open up and traveling in Puerto Rico is a good time as well.
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 I 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.
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 not 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, although it is better than in previous decades, racism is still an issue.
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; 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). The South is also predominantly Republican (AKA right-wing) and has the lowest Covid vaccination rates in the country.
Floridians are a category all their own. There’s even a known moniker of “Florida Man” as there have been hundreds of absolutely insane things that continue to happen in Florida with that as a headline. Some parts of the state feel like you’ve left the US altogether, while others will make all the Trump Supporter memes you’d seen while living abroad come to life.
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.
What to Eat in the USA
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.
The USA 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 American-ized dishes. It’s common knowledge that Chinese food in the US is not really Chinese anymore and Tex-Mex isn’t really Mexican.
Must-Try Dishes in the USA
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.
A Brief History of the USA
Native Americans have been living on what is now the USA for centuries. While often thought of as one group, they actually comprised hundreds of tribes that stretched from Alaska to Hawaii and all across the mainland. When Christopher Columbus “discovered” America in 1492, he actually thought he had reached India, thus how the misnomer “American Indians” came to be.
In the centuries that followed, the country we know today was brutally colonized by various “explorers” and millions of natives were murdered. More and more migrants arrived, and the first British colonies were formed in the early 1600s. By the 1760’s the colonies numbered 13 with more than 2.5 million inhabitants, contained alongside the Eastern Seaboard.
In 1776, the declaration of independence was signed after revolutionary General George Washington. It was then that the USA became a country in the city of Philadelphia.
From its inception and even beforehand, slavery was legal in the United States and Africans were forced to live and work in severely atrocious conditions by white slave owners until slavery was officially outlawed in 1865 by the 13th Amendment.
Despite slavery being illegal, African Americans continued (and continue) to suffer from segregationist police. The country was filled with separate restaurants, buses, and schools, and mixing of races was not allowed.
Segregation persisted until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Unfortunately, racism is still a problem all over the country today.
Modern History of the United States
Since the 1960s, the US has been almost perpetually involved in war, most recently in the Middle East. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, the USA has spent almost all of its money on the military while the quality of life continues to decrease for its citizens. In 2008, the United States elected Barack Obama, an African-American who was the country’s first non-white president in over 250 years of history.
When the coronavirus hit in 2020, Donald Trump was a massive source of misinformation and downplaying of the virus. Two years later, millions of Americans do not believe it is real. While Joseph Biden took office in January 2021, he and his party have failed to enact any real change, as the virus continues to kill many daily.
Things go wrong on the road ALL THE TIME. Be prepared for what life throws at you.
Buy an AMK Travel Medical Kit before you head out on your next adventure – don’t be daft!Buy on REI
More Unmissable American Experiences
Yup, there’s still more to do in the USA that we haven’t touched on yet. Read on for American moments and scenes you just shouldn’t skip.
Visiting America’s Iconic National Parks
Some of the best places in the United States for a backpacking trip are its many national parks, which are set up to 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. In the meantime, here are three stellar parks that should absolutely be on your backpacking USA bucket list.
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park can be found in Montana, which is easily one of the most beautiful states in the entire country. The park features over 700 miles of trails, along with a hike to a stunning hidden lake. Nature lovers–it doesn’t get much better than this.
Yosemite National Park
Located along the Sierra Mountains in California, you shouldn’t miss out on staying in Yosemite while backpacking the USA. The stunning and expansive national park can keep hikers busy for days, though most come to see the iconic Yosemite Falls.
Another iconic location is the Half Dome, a rounded granite cliff right near the perfect picnic spot. You also can’t miss the Yosemite Tunnel View, the famous vista that looks its absolute best when tinged with fall colors.
Yellowstone National Park
Visiting Yellowstone National Park is a treat. It might just be the most extraordinary piece of nature in all of North America. If you haven’t seen the photos–google it, you’re going to want to add this place to your USA bucket list.
Its rainbow-colored geysers–especially the world-famous Old Faithful–are unlike pretty much anything else, and the park also features a ton of hikes for all ability levels.
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. The US 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 country’s nature 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.
As a follow-up, I’d like to remind you to never venture into the wilderness unprepared. Always be sure that you take the correct hiking 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.
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?BUY THE PASS!
Go to an American Sporting Event
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.
- North American Football – One of the three most popular sports in the United States (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 USA-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.)
FAQS About Backpacking in the USA
Every first-time traveler to the US has a few questions they’re just dying to know the answers to. Luckily we’ve got them covered!
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Final Thoughts on Backpacking the USA
Well, folks – that was one epic United States travel guide thrown down. I don’t know about you but I could use a vacation right about now, preferably in Maui.
I hope that you learned a lot from this article and about backpacking across the USA. Use the knowledge I have bestowed upon you amigos, to have the best trip possible!
Philadelphia, where much of the USA’s story began, to the rugged mountains of Alaska, the country is as massive as it is diverse and would take several years to fully explore. With 50 states unique as 50 separate countries, backpacking the USA is an adventure unlike any other.
But you also have to remember, the US is going through difficult times and is more divided than ever. So even if you may not see the country at its best, rest assured you’ll still get to experience a whole lot that will absolutely make your trip worth it.
So what are you waiting for? Secure that visa and book that ticket, American dreams are to be made!
And for transparency’s sake, please know that some of the links in our content are affiliate links. That means that if you book your accommodation, buy your gear, or sort your insurance through our link, we earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you). That said, we only link to the gear we trust and never recommend services we don’t believe are up to scratch. Again, thank you!