Sunday, 18 Nov 2018

The ultimate guide to backpacking the USA

Planning a trip to backpack the USA can seem a little daunting, right?

The US is massive, there are tons of places to visit, and so many awesome things to do that it can be difficult to decide what to include in your trip. You can’t really expect to cover such an incredibly huge country all in one go, so where do you start?

We put together this enormous USA backpacking guide to help you find the best time to visit the USA, the best places to go for backpackers, and so much more.

Jump straight to:

  1. Best time to visit the USA
  2. USA Visa requirements
  3. Travelling around the US
  4. Budget Travel in the USA
  5. USA Accommodation
  6. USA Itinerary
  7. Food in America
  8. American Culture
  9. Is America safe?
  10. USA Travel Advice

Best Time to Visit the USA

Before you can get on with planning that epic backpacking journey, you’ve got to figure out the best time to visit the USA for your style of trip.

Here’s the good news: the USA is huge. Like, really huge. It may be a single country, but the United States is almost exactly the same size (10 million square kilometres) as the entire continent of Europe!

Wait, why is that good news?

Well it means the USA has a huge diversity of climates. So, no matter what time of year you have free for your USA backpacking trip, you can find an epic adventure that will fit your travel style.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when picking the best time to visit the USA:

  • The months from May to October are the most popular months for tourism in the USA, though the country enjoys a significant influx of visitors year-round.
  • Americans typically take their own holidays in the months of July and August, and again during the last two weeks of December. You may find that airfare and accommodation are more expensive during these periods.
  • The northern half of the country can get quite cold during the deep winter months, so unless you are seeking out winter sports or really enjoy the feeling of biting cold wind battering your face, you may want to stick to the south and the West Coast from November to February.

In short, though there isn’t one single “best time to visit the USA,” there are times of year that are better than others depending on the sort of activities you have planned and where you’re planning on going. Let’s break this down a bit and find the time to visit the USA that’s perfect for the trip you have in mind:

Best Time to Visit America West Coast

There are few experiences more quintessentially American than to take a road trip along the USA’s West Coast (see below for some totally awesome suggested itineraries). Fortunately, the West Coast’s mild climate means that it’s possible to do year-round and; therefore, the best time to visit America’s West Coast is whenever you can get there.

California sports pleasant weather year-round, with cool to mild temperatures during the winters and warm to hot during the summer.

The summer months of May through August are generally the best times for beach bums looking to work on their tan, or for nature buffs wanting to explore the stunning greenery of the Pacific Northwest.

The winter months are great for surfers looking to catch a wave to themselves or for escaping the biting cold that afflicts much of the rest of the country.

Spring and autumn are perfect for taking a road trip through California’s many national parks or for enjoying the many music festivals that scatter the coast.

Note that the months from November to April bring rain in northern West Coast cities like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco which may put a damper on your spirits. Meanwhile, San Diego and Los Angeles are almost always good bets for those who don’t appreciate a good shower.

In other words, no time is a bad time to visit America’s West Coast!

backpacking USA - beach santa monica

Santa Monica

?: Gerson Repreza

Best Time to Visit the East Coast of America

The same can’t honestly be said for the East Coast. Unless you are a sucker for feeling like you’re living inside a walk-in freezer, the months of December to March are NOT the best time to visit the east coast of America. In fact, the northern cities are borderline miserable during those months.

Instead, it’s best to visit America’s eastern coastal cities during the warmer months of April through October. Within that range, the absolute best months to visit east coast USA are probably either June, after the rains subside but before the summer heat sets in, or September, when autumn rolls in and lights up the cities with a spectacle of changing foliage.

Oh, and speaking of plants, the best time to visit the nation’s capital of Washington D.C. is in early April, when the city’s cherry blossoms bloom, making the National Mall look like a scene from a fairy tale.

What if you want to visit East Coast America and winter is the only time you have?

Don’t despair; you still have options. Miami is a wonderful destination with great weather during the winter. Or you could visit Orlando and take a whirl at Disneyworld. You could also explore the southern coastal cities of Savannah and Charleston, which are very pleasant during those months. Even Washington, D.C. is bearable during the winter, especially considering that many of its best activities are indoors.

backpacking usa - Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.

?: Sarah Farrante Goodrich

Best Time to Visit America for Sport

Ok, so right now some of you are probably thinking: “dude, you’ve been talking a lot about the cities, but I want to get on a mountain/lake/wave/trail!”

Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered!

Skiing

Most American slopes have the best powder from January to March, but you’ll find the snow bunnies out soaking up the sun in some parts of Colorado and Utah as late as May or even June!

Biking

What about the best time to get back to nature with a little hiking or biking through the mountains? Though it varies by region, the warmer months of June through August are probably your best bet, especially at higher altitudes.

Whitewater Rafting

This is best done right after the snow melts off the mountain, during the late spring and early summer.

Marathon Running

You can find a race any time of year, but peak season is during the spring and autumn.

Mountain Climbing

This will really depend on the location, but the climbing season peaks (see what I did there?) during the summer, when it’s warmest at altitude.

Kayaking

If you’re a serious kayaker, visit in May or June when the rapids are at their highest. For a more chill experience, try it out later in the summer.

Surfing

You can find solid surfing any time of the year in Southern California or Hawaii, though November to April offers some of the highest quality time on the waves.

backpacking USA - Newport Beach, California

Newport Beach, California

?: Austin Neill

Ok, so we’ve got you covered for outdoor and adventure sports. But what if you’re more of the spectator type than participant?

America loves its sports and there’s plenty to watch year-round. The winters are great for watching professional and college basketball, reaching a crescendo with the entire country being consumed by college’s March Madness tournament (be sure to fill out your bracket … it’s a thing).

Spring and summer are baseball season. Grabbing a beer and a bag of peanuts and going to the ballpark still remains America’s favourite pastime.

Come September, I hope you are ready for some good ol’ American football, because in autumn the entire country gets swept up every weekend watching collegiate and pros toss the pigskin. College games are typically on Saturdays, while the pros take over on Sundays.

Speaking of, here’s a pro tip for you: come before the game, bring a pack of beer (only if you’re over 21, of course … USA drinking laws are a bummer), and join in the tailgating festivities in the stadium parking lot!

USA Visa Requirements

The United States may be a nation of immigrants, but a wave of nativist political sentiment has unfortunately recently swept the country, leading to a continued tightening of USA visa requirements. Still, for many of the backpackers visiting the US, it’s possible to get into the country with very little hassle.

Here’s the thing: the ease of getting a visa to the USA is going to depend on two things: what country you are coming from, and how long you intend to stay (check out this map for a sense of how often visas are refused to citizens of various nationalities).

You’ll definitely want to do detailed research for the requirements for your nationality, but we’ll quickly run down some of the more common situations to get you started:

US Tourist Visa

Unless you fall within the Visa Waiver Program discussed below (which applies to citizens of many developed nations), you’ll need a category B-2 tourist visa to visit the USA for your backpacking trip.

Though the exact steps and rules will vary by your country and consulate, generally speaking, you’ll need to complete an online form, schedule an interview at your local embassy or consulate, and pay a visa fee. Be sure to apply in advance as you may face wait times. Typically, B-2 visas are good for six months, but it depends. For more information on your specific situation, visit the U.S. Department of State’s website.

backpacking USA - New York

New York

?: José Francisco Rago

US Visa Waiver Program / ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization)

For citizens of certain countries, travel to the United States can be done without a visa as long as you obtain an electronic authorization before your trip.

The list of 38 countries currently included in the ESTA Visa Waiver Program primarily includes European countries (including the U.K.) as well as Japan, Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, and a small list of other nationalities.

You can read more and apply online through the ESTA website. The program allows those eligible to obtain electronic authorization to visit the USA for business or tourism for up to 90 days. You may need to show proof of onward travel within that 90 days.

Visa-Free Travel for Canadians

Wait, what if you’re from Canada, eh?

You don’t need a visa to backpack the USA!

With a handful of exceptions that mostly apply to government officials and those with a criminal record, Canadians are generally welcome to tour the US without a visa or pre-authorization.

Travelling Around the US

Remember how I mentioned that the USA is as big as the entire continent of Europe?

Yeah, well that means you can’t just whip from New York City to the Grand Canyon to Miami without a little advanced planning. Distances between places are deceivingly large, and the country’s top attractions are spread over thousands of kilometres.

Here are the best ways to get around the US:

Air

You’ll be hard pressed to go backpacking the USA without having to splurge for a domestic flight or two. The country is just so freaking ginormous that air travel is almost always the most convenient way to get between two given points.

But here’s the good news: the USA sports a top-notch air network, with over 87,000 planes taking the skies every single day!

Best yet, budget carriers like Spirit and Southwest have forced the big guys to compete on price, meaning that a flight or two doesn’t have to break the bank – even for penny-pinching backpackers like us!

For the best deals on flights, I usually go straight to Google Flights. But I also make sure to separately check Southwest’s website, as that’s the only place you’ll find their fares.

You’ll want to avoid one rookie mistake many backpackers make when travelling the US: forgetting about bags! Increasingly, even carry-on bags carry $30+ USD fees per flight, so be sure to factor that in when buying your flight (or book through Southwest, which allows bags to fly free). Be sure to book your bags in advance, as waiting to pay at the airport can incur hefty surcharges.

Here’s some travel hacks to get some cheaper flights!

backpacking USA - O'Hare International Airport, Chicago

O’Hare International Airport, Chicago

?: Paul Bienek

Rail – Amtrak

Look, I’m not going to lie to you: if you’re coming from Europe, Japan, or pretty much anywhere else in the world with reliable nationwide train service, you’re going to be seriously disappointed by the rail network in the USA.

For most backpackers travelling the USA, there are basically only two situations in which you’ll want to use Amtrak, the USA’s national passenger rail carrier:

Northeast Corridor

If you’re travelling between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., there’s a decently respectable line of Amtrak service that will get you between cities. There’s also a handful of regional rail networks that might be helpful, particularly in and out of New York City.

Scenic Trains

The only other reason I’d honestly recommend taking a train is if you’re just enraptured with the idea of watching amber waves of grain pass by your window as you slowly plod across the country. There’s something to be said for the romantic appeal of trains, but just get ready for some seriously long travel times!

If you do end up taking Amtrak in the US, I highly recommend purchasing your tickets well in advance. Prices are much higher than you might expect (unfortunately, Amtrak recently discontinued its student discount program), but the best deals go to the early birds.

backpacking USA - amtrak

AMTRAK views

?: Mike Petrucci

Renting a Car

Americans really love their cars. Outside of major urban areas (where ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft have taken hold), most Americans own or have access to a vehicle. The country has a sprawling interstate network that makes road trips an ideal way to see the USA.

Here’s a brief rundown of what you need to know about renting a car in the USA:

Licences

Rules of the road in the US are dictated on a state-by-state level. Currently, every state recognizes most international driving licences. As long as your licence is comprehensible to an English-speaker, you should be able to rent a car without trouble. If it isn’t, we suggest getting an International Driver’s Permit before leaving home (note that you can’t get this once you are in the USA).

Cost and Insurance

Depending on what type of car you’re looking to rent, you can often find rentals as cheap as $20/day. Just be sure that you have insurance that covers damage to the rental vehicle (called “CDW” insurance), as well as third-party liability insurance and coverage for your own emergency medical expenses. It’s also advisable to make sure you have some sort of roadside assistance coverage. With so many vehicles on the road, crashes and breakdowns are an unfortunate reality of life.

Age Limits

While car rentals are plentiful in the USA, there’s one major problem that impacts many backpackers travelling the USA: age limits. Very few if any rental car companies will rent to drivers under 21 years of age (the primary exceptions are the states of Michigan and New York, where 18-year-olds can rent). But even if you can get your hands on a car, most rental car companies will impose a surcharge on drivers under 25. One of the few tricks to get around those fees is to join AAA before your trip, and then rent from Hertz, which will waive the under-25 fee for AAA members.

Drive on the Right

The USA, like most of Europe and Latin America, drives on the right side of the road.

backpacking USA - Road trippin' in Moab

Road trippin’ in Moab

?: Dino Reichmuth

Alcohol

Drunk driving is a serious issue in the United States, and penalties for driving under the influence can be severe. If you’re planning to drive, it’s best not to drink.

All in all, if you can get your hands on a car at an affordable price, driving is an excellent way to travel the United States.

Bus

The United States does have a mediocre bus network, with nationwide service being provided primarily by Greyhound (though there are other regional providers).

The problem with taking the bus in the USA?

It takes a long time to get anywhere, and the savings often aren’t all that great when compared to a rental car or plane.

There are exception to this general rule. In particular, budget carriers including MegaBus and BoltBus have cropped up to service the Washington D.C. – New York – Boston corridor. They offer new comfortable coaches with amenities such as WiFi and onboard restrooms.

Increasingly, there are similar services being offered between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But, for a backpacker, why would you want to stuff into a bus and miss out on one of greatest road trips in the world?

Budget Travel in the USA

Here’s the hard reality of backpacking the USA:

It isn’t cheap.

Outside of Australia and a few European countries, the USA is generally one of the most expensive destinations on the planet. So, what’s a backpacker to do in order to travel on a budget in the USA?

Well, stay in hostels for one (more on that next). Save on food by cooking your own meals, for another. Taking road trips and visiting free public sites to cut down on activity costs!

Backpacking USA - New York road

New York

?: Anubhav Saxena

Average Cost of a Meal in the US

Eating is definitely one area where someone backpacking the USA can save some bucks with a few tricks. The key is making as much of your own food as possible (utilise those hostel kitchens!) and relying on cheap take-out options over proper sit-down restaurant meals.

Prices vary a lot by region, but here’s a rough guide of what to expect for the average cost of a meal in the US for one (without drinks):

  • Cooked meal in a hostel kitchen: $4 to $8.
  • Fast food meal: $6 to $11.
  • Cheap Restaurant Meal / Take-Out: $8 to $15.
  • Restaurant with Table Service: $15 to $20 and up.

You can also save a bit of cash by finding a hostel that offers included breakfast.

Tipping: Remember that it is customary to tip at least 15%, and often more like 18-20%, for any restaurant that includes table service. Tipping is not really optional in the United States, and not tipping or tipping below that amount is heavily frowned upon.

Alcohol: In terms of alcohol, note that the drinking age in the USA is 21 and is strictly enforced. Bummer, I know. But if you are old enough to imbibe, be prepared to open your wallet: even a happy hour beer at a bar will regularly run $5 or more.

Road Trip Across America Cost

Road trippin’ the USA isn’t just one of the best ways to experience all that Uncle Sam has to offer: it’s also a great way to see the country on a budget!

Costs of a road trip can add up if you have to cover them all yourself, but that’s the great thing about road trips: they are best done with friends! So grab three or four friends to split the tab (if you’re not bringing them with you, meet them in a hostel), and suddenly it becomes a very economical way to explore.

backpacking USA - miami road trip across america

Miami

?: Andras Vas

Car Rental

A one-way rental car from the east coast to the west coast can will typically run $50-100 a day, plus insurance, deposit, and young driver fees. You can of course cut this cost dramatically if you can find someone who has their own vehicle to join you (Facebook groups and hostel message boards are a great place to look). For long road trips with a group, it can often even be economical to buy a used vehicle and resell it at the end of your trip.

Fuel

Gas prices fluctuate wildly in the US and vary by region (they are typically cheaper in the middle of the country). At current prices of about $3 per gallon, and assuming your car gets at least 30 miles to the gallon, a trip from New York to California will set you back at least $300 in fuel costs.

Parking

Parking can be expensive in cities but is often free outside of them. Plan to pay the odd parking fee here and there but try to keep costs to a minimum by finding a hostel that offers free parking or by leaving the car outside the city.

Tolls

The USA has a really solid interstate network with only a handful of tollways to worry about. You can use an app like Waze to avoid most of them.

Add it all up and you’re easily looking at fixed costs of $125+ per day before accommodation and meals are considered. But split that with four friends and $31.25 per day seems much more reasonable, right?

One travel hack to cut costs on a road trip across America is to look into car and campervan relocation deals. They can be tricky to find, but if you can swing it, you might even find yourself being paid to road trip across America!

USA Accommodation

Finding a place to crash is one of the most expensive pieces of any trip in the USA. Fortunately, there is an easy trick to saving money on accommodation in the USA that any backpacker worth their salt already knows:

Stay in hostels!

Many people seem to forget that the USA has some of the most amazing hostels world. There are too many awesome hostels in the USA to count, but here are a few examples of some of the amazing hostels you can stay in while backpacking the USA:

Freehand – Los Angeles, California

You’ll love the huge rooftop pool, the spacious rooms, and the onsite bar and fitness centre. Who says that staying in a hostel has to mean sacrificing amenities?

backpacking usa - Freehand Los Angeles

Freehand Los Angeles

Harlem YMCA – New York, New York

Besides the awesome location in the historic Harlem neighbourhood, you’ll love the heated swimming pool, sauna, and weight room.

Green Tortoise – Seattle, Washington

Located near the famous Pike Place Market, this hostel organizes nightly events to help you make friends and explore the best that Seattle has to offer.

Miami Beach International Hostel – Miami, Florida

Miami is a city known for its nightlife, so you’re going to want to pick a hostel with a vibe to match. Seriously, this hostel might well be one of the most social places in the world.

Hostel Fish – Denver, Colorado 

Full disclosure: I’m biased because this is my hometown. But this hostel is seriously cool! For one thing, it sits on the top of a former brothel turned speakeasy/music venue. Add in organized pub crawls, plush beds, and a balcony, and you can start to see why I think it’s so amazing.

backpacking USA - hostel fish

Hostel Fish

USA Hostels Ocean Beach – San Diego, California

A rainbow covered building just two blocks from the beach, this is the perfect place to shack up after a long day catching some waves or chilling out in the sun.

As every backpacker will tell you, staying in hostels is one of the best ways to travel on a budget and make friends. Even in pricey destinations like New York City, a dorm bed can often be found for as little as $45 USD per night.

USA Itinerary

One of the hardest parts of organising a trip backpacking the USA is sorting out an itinerary. The sheer size means that there is just too much to choose from!

Fret not, we’ve put together some sample itineraries to suit the length and style of your trip so that you don’t have to stress!

Here are a few tips for sorting out a USA itinerary:

Accept that you can’t see it all in one trip

Try to focus on a specific region, or a few highlights that are important to you, rather than trying to cover too much. You don’t want to spend your whole USA backpacking trip in transit!

backpacking USA - group sunset

?: Jed Villejo

Consider keeping a bit of flexibility

You never know what future friends you might meet at breakfast at the hostel. If you’ve already locked in your plans, you might not be able to join them on that rad excursion they just invited you on.

Email your hostels in advance for advice on activities

Many organise group trips to major sites, and even those that don’t are often happy to provide useful local advice you might not find on the Internet.

US Road Trips

With 6.6 million kilometres of roads to choose from (the most in the world), the USA is a country that just begs for a road trip!

Here are a few sample itineraries to get you started:

Best of the West

Required Time: 2-3 Weeks

Start: San Francisco

End: San Francisco

Start your trip watching the morning fog roll back over the Golden Gate Bridge from just outside the stunning location of the HI Marin Headlands hostel.

Next, cut west and stop for a day or three at your choice of either Yosemite National Park or Death Valley National Park on your way to Las Vegas. Save some extra coin for the poker tables by staying at Sin City Hostel, the only hostel on the famous Las Vegas strip. Remember, what happens in Vegas… well, you know the drill…

On your way out of town, swing by the massive Hoover Dam, then cut a straight path to Grand Canyon National Park. If you can’t afford expensive accommodation within the park and don’t want to camp, consider basing yourself just outside the South Rim in Williams, Arizona at the Grand Canyon Hostel.

After the Grand Canyon, loop back west to check out the famous Antelope Canyon, where you can load up on some awesome photos for your Instagram profile.

From there it’s a long drive to Los Angeles, where you can spend a few days checking out the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, biking up and down iconic Venice Beach, and wandering the fascinating J. Paul Getty Museum. Base yourself at the Banana Bungalow West Hollywood, where you can park your ride for free and enjoy the included barbeque under a thatched-roof hostel bar.

If you are short on time, you could end your trip here. But, if you have the time, you’re definitely going to want to head back to San Francisco along the California Coastal Highway. It’s not the fastest route to get there, but it is one of the most scenic drives in the entire world!

backpacking USA - grand canyon

The Grand Canyon

?: @travellemming

Route 66

Required Time: 2+ Weeks

Start Point: Chicago

End Point: Los Angeles

This was one of the first highways in the US interstate system and is certainly the most iconic. The original highway has been decommissioned, but it’s still possible to drive the route along the newer adjoining interstate.

Start in Chicago, where you can rest up at the classic prohibition-era location of Freehand Chicago and fuel up on deep dish pizza before setting out to drive through the Midwestern states of Illinois and Missouri. Enjoy malt shakes from diners along the way and take in the famous Americana kitsch that decorates the route. Don’t miss out on the Fantastic Caverns in Missouri, which once hosted a speakeasy!

Next up, strap in for a long stretch of open road in Oklahoma and Texas (I hope you’ve got an epic playlist queued up!). To break up the trip, you can visit the giant blue whale in Catoosa, Oklahoma, or the bizarre Cadillac Ranch art installation in Texas.

On your way through New Mexico, stop overnight and rest up at Mother Road Hostel in Albuquerque. If you’re passing through in the autumn, try to time it so that you can enjoy the spectacle of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, when over 500 hot air balloons take to the skies each morning.

The route then goes through Arizona, where you should consider detouring a bit to check out Grand Canyon National Park. Build in some extra time and perhaps do an overnight hike within the basin of the canyon.

From there, the final stretch takes you to Los Angeles, where you can relax your aching legs in the rooftop pool of another awesome Freehand hostel, Freehand Los Angeles.

backpacking USA - freehand los angeles

Los Angeles

?: Jack Finnigan

The Big Loop

Required Time: 8-15 weeks

Start Point: Washington, D.C.

End Point: New York

Caution: this route is not for the faint of heart! You’ll need lots of time to circle the entire country, not to mention some serious tunes to pass the time!

Start in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., where you can spend several days browsing the incredible collection at the Smithsonian Museum and relaxing with a picnic on the National Mall. Base yourself at the highly-rated Duo Housing DC, which feels more like a home than a hostel.

Drive south along the Atlantic Coast, stopping to visit the historic towns of Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. Next, get your Mickey Mouse on in Orlando, Florida, home to Disney’s Magic Kingdom. After that it’s time for some beach and party time in Miami, Florida, staying at the awesome SoBe Hostel & Bar in Miami’s famous South Beach. Or, if nature is more your scene, head out on a fan boat to explore the incredible Everglades National Park (watch out for gators!).

Cut back north up through Florida and along the Gulf Coast to check out the French Quarter in New Orleans. If you have time and are of drinking age, plan a stop at the Florida-Alabama line to go out at the famous Flora-Bama waterfront bar, home to some of the most epic parties in the South.

From New Orleans, get ready for a long drive through the huge state of Texas (it’s twice the size of Germany!). Stop in Austin, a city whose motto is “Keep Austin Weird” and is a haven for artistic types. For a unique experience, stay at the Firehouse Hostel, which is located in a fire station built in 1885.

The next leg of the trip takes you through the American Southwest, where you’re spoiled for choice with the various national parks on offer. You’ll definitely want to visit the Grand Canyon, and likely either Antelope Canyon, Zion National Park, or both.

Over the next week or two, spend a few days in Las Vegas, explore the streets and beaches of Los Angeles, and then follow the California Coastal Highway north to San Francisco, where you’ll want to check out the daily events on offer at USA Hostels San Francisco.

This is about the point in the journey that you might want to pick up some hiking boots because the road ahead has tons of nature. From the giant trees at Redwoods National Park to the stunning lake and volcano combo at Crater Lake National Park, there’s lots of greenery to take in along the way.

You’ll get a brief city break in Seattle, where you can visit the famous Pike Place Market and see the original Starbuck’s location. From Seattle, it’s time for the long haul back east. Be sure to build in lots of time to explore the country’s most famous national park: Yellowstone!

After you’ve had your fill of nature, dip south to spend a few days in the Mile High City, Denver, Colorado. Enjoy craft beers at the bar of the Fish Hostel, see a concert at the famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and completely decompress before the long drive across the Great Plains.

Stop in Kansas City for some barbeque on your way to stay at the Freehand Chicago, a 1920s-era building turned first-rate hostel.

If you have time, take a dip in Lake Michigan before setting out across the American Midwest en route to Philadelphia, where you can learn all about the birth of the USA, and of course see the famous Liberty Bell.

You’re almost done, so ditch the car and hop a train into New York City to explore the Big Apple. We saved the best stop for last, because if we had started in what is arguably the greatest city in the world, you might have never left in the first place!

backpacking USA - new York skyline

New York

?@travellemming

National Parks

The United States is home to some seriously incredible national parks, covering over 210,000 square kilometres. To put that in perspective, that’s just a hair smaller than the entire United Kingdom!

No backpacking trip in the USA would be complete without a visit to at least one or two national parks. You can find them in almost every corner of the country, though the highest concentration can be found in the American West, which makes for the best place to string together a USA itinerary if you want to focus on visiting as many national parks as possible.

We can’t do all 60 national parks justice in one article but trust us when we say that they’re all worth a visit if you are in the area. An $80 annual pass will give you access to all of them (what a steal, right?).

Here are some suggested itineraries that allow you to take in some of the best national parks in the United States:

Greenery and Glaciers (10 Days)

Day 1-2

Start your trip in Seattle, Washington with a coffee at the original Starbucks. Then drive West and take a quick stop at North Cascades National Park, where the elusive grey wolf slinks around in the shadows of stunning conifer trees.

Day 3-5

Head to Montana to explore Glacier National Park. With over 700 miles of hiking trails, this park is one of the best places to lose yourself in nature (not literally!). Just be sure to pack some bear spray lest you encounter a grizzly!

Day 5-10

Now comes the main event: Yellowstone National Park. The granddaddy of all national parks, Yellowstone’s remote location in Wyoming means you’ll need to plan ahead to make it here, but it will be well worth the effort. From stunning canyons to intense geysers to lush forests to incredible hot springs, this is one of the most beautiful places on the entire planet.

backpacking USA - Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

?: Romain De Moor

The Grand Southwest (10 Days)

Day 1-3

Start in Los Angeles and pop up to nearby Joshua Tree National Park, one of the most popular national parks for the Instagrammer crowd (what else would you expect from Southern California?). Relax for a few days in the desert then set out for a long day of driving that will end with an awesome reward at your next destination.

Day 4-7

You’ve probably heard of this one: Grand Canyon National Park. Base yourself in the South Rim for the best year-round views of the Canyon. You’ll definitely want to get up to watch the sunrise.

Day 8-10

End your trip in another park that will light up your Instagram profile, Zion National Park. Located in southwest Utah, Zion National Park is a hit on social media for its reddish sandstone formations. Don’t miss the iconic view from Angel’s Landing.

backpacking usa - Zion National Park

Zion National Park

?: Tom Gainor

Other Options

There are so many other national parks to choose from, that no matter what part of the country you are in, you will have some incredible options. Here are some other favourites to sprinkle into your USA backpacking itinerary:

Acadia National Park

The oldest national park in the eastern US, Maine’s Acadia National Park is one of the most accessible national parks if you will be backpacking the US east coast.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Kentucky isn’t just famous for bourbon: it’s also home to the longest cave in the entire world! Though over 350 miles of the cave have been explored, many more remain and no one actually knows exactly how long it is.

Rocky Mountain National Park

If you have the opportunity to visit this Colorado park during the autumn, you’re in for a real treat: the mountainsides slowly light up as the aspen leaves change from green to gold to red.

backpacking USA - Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

?@travellemming

Redwood National Park

The park itself may not be the biggest, but the trees sure are! Located in northern California, this park is home to the tallest tree species on the planet.

Everglades National Park

One half of Florida’s southern tip belongs to the bustling city of Miami. But the other half is a huge expanse of marshes, filled with some incredible wildlife. Take an airboat tour and try to spot alligators.

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

I bet you can guess what the main attraction at this park on Hawaii’s big island, right? Volcanoes, of course! After a massive eruption closed the park for the entire summer of 2018, the park is finally back open for visitors.

Yosemite National Park

Famous for its giant sequoia trees and incredible vistas, Yosemite National Park is a favourite summer getaway for Californians looking to escape the city.

backpacking USA - Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

?: Christian Vasile

Katmai National Park

This remote park in Alaska is home to a huge concentration of brown bears, who you can watch feed on salmon from a safe(ish) distance.

Believe it or not, this list only scratches the surface of the incredible national parks on offer in the United States! So buy that annual pass, pack some trail snacks, and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime.

West Coast

There’s a reason California is the most populated state in America. Between the year-round mild weather, the laid-back vibes, and the stunning nature, there are so many reasons to be California Dreamin’.

Here’s a (not so) little secret: there’s a ton to see in the American West Coast beyond just California! From stunning forests in Oregon to the funky streets of Seattle, you won’t want to forget about the neighbouring states to the north. And, though you’ll need a plane to get there, Alaska or Hawaii also offer some otherworldly experiences you just can’t get on the mainland.

So, without further ado, here’s an epic 21 day itinerary that takes in some of the top sites on America’s West Coast:

Day 1-2: San Diego

Surf’s up! Grab your board and catch some waves while enjoying one of the sunniest cities in the United States during your stay at USA Hostels Ocean Beach (check out the rainbow exterior!). Or if surfing isn’t your thing, enjoy some of the best craft brews the US has to offer.

Day 3-5: Los Angeles

You always knew you were destined to be a star, and you just might feel like one at the Walk of Fame Hollywood Hostel. When you’re not checking over your shoulder to see if that’s really Jennifer Lawrence standing behind you in the line for coffee (hint: it’s not … JLaw waits for no one), head down to Santa Monica to stroll the pier or take a day trip to check out the beach vibes in Malibu.

Day 6: Channel Islands

You probably won’t find this stop on your typical West Coast USA itinerary, but you’re not here because you’re the typical sort. Known as the “Galapagos of North America,” the Channel Islands are stunning dollops of nature just off the Pacific Coast from Santa Barbara. You’ll need to book the boat trip here well in advance as it does sell out.

Day 7-9: Road Trip!

No West Coast USA itinerary would be complete without driving the California Coastal Highway, a scenic route that affords you some of the most incredible panoramas you’ll ever see. Though you can technically do it in just a day, it’s best to take your time, stopping at little beach towns and natural wonders like Big Sur State Park along the way. Oh, and do it in a convertible if you can somehow swing it.

Day 10-12: San Francisco

If you can only visit one place on the USA’s West Coast, make it San Francisco. The city has an incredible setting against a bay that’s unparalleled by any place other than Rio or Hong Kong. Stay at the Green Tortoise Hostel, where you’ll find free communal dinners three times a week. Make a few friends and rent some bikes to explore the Golden Gate Bridge (it’s touristy and crowded, sure, but still awesome). Make your way to the Marin Headlands, where locals head to get the best views of the city. Explore some of the city’s many eclectic neighbourhoods (don’t miss the Castro, the epicentre of the LGBT world, and the Mission District, a historically Latino neighbourhood with some of the best food spots in town). Oh, and if you fancy something a bit different, take the day tour out to the infamous Alcatraz Island.

backpacking USA - san francisco

San Francisco

?: Sammy Schuckert

Day 12-14: Yosemite National Park

The West Coast isn’t all just beaches and cities, so escape from it all by spending a few days hiking through the sequoia trees and granite cliffs of Yosemite National Park. Be sure to find your way to Glacier Point for some totally rad views.

Day 15-17: Portland, Oregon

Either hop a flight from Sacramento or buckle in for the long 11 hour drive to Portland, the USA’s favourite hipster town. Rest up at Travelers House, a small homey hostel located in the middle of some of the city’s best neighbourhoods. Spend a morning touring the Portland Japanese Garden, and your afternoon at the city’s many coffee shops, quirky stores, and craft breweries. Embrace the weirdness of Portland and visit Rose City Rollers, where you can watch the city’s roller derby league duke it out.

Day 18-21: Seattle, Washington

We started this trip in one of the sunniest cities in the United States and we’ll end it in one of its cloudiest. But don’t let the weather deter you: there is so much to do in Seattle, from exploring the stalls at Pike Place Market to wandering the trails of Golden Gardens park to taking a tour of the abandoned underground city that lies below Seattle (it’s the remnant of an 1889 fire). If it’s a rainy day, you’ll have plenty of museums to explore: the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Pop Culture, and the Museum of Flight are favourites. Oh, and you’ll love City Hostel Seattle, a renovated 1920s hotel that used to play host to stars like Humphrey Bogart and Mae West.

East Coast

The great thing about backpacking the USA’s East Coast is that it’s possible to string together an itinerary that can be done entirely without a car (you really can’t say that about most anywhere else in the country). Plus, the East Coast packs in so many of the best places to visit and sites to see in the United States!

There’s many ways to slice it, but this incredible 14 itinerary will let you sample the best of the East Coast in just two weeks by Amtrak (and you can even sneak in some beach time at the end, though it requires a flight):

Day 1-2: Boston

Our East Coast USA backpacking itinerary starts off in one of the country’s most historic cities, where you’ll want to wake up at the super social HI Boston. Meet a few friends, grab a bag of peanuts and cracker jacks, and find some cheap tickets to watch the Red Sox play a game at famous Fenway Park. For a great free activity in Boston, check out the observation deck at Independence Wharf, where you can get some of the best free views in town.

backpacking USA - Fenway Park, Boston

Fenway Park, Boston

Day 3-5: New York City

You probably already have a lot in mind for what you want to do in the Big Apple, right? Sure, you can go to the top of the Empire State Building, see the lights in Times Square, chill out in Central Park, and take a tour of the Statute of Liberty; but there’s so much more to explore in this city beyond the main sites. Spend an hour wandering the High Line, a one-and-a-half-mile elevated railway turned urban park. Catch a show at the Comedy Cellar, a famous hole in the wall where A-listers still pop in. Or, just stroll the West Village and soak in the sights and sounds of the greatest city on earth. Stay at The Local NYC for spectacular views of the New York skyline from the hostel’s awesome roof terrace.

Day 6-7: Philadelphia

The great debate rages on: Pat’s or Geno’s? These two iconic Philly cheesesteak shops face each other from across the street. But here’s a hint: many locals actually swear by a lesser known spot, Jim’s on South Street. Anyway, when you aren’t shoving your face with sandwiches, you can visit Independence Hall and learn about the birth of the United States as a nation, check out the Franklin Institute for some interactive science exploration, or run up the “Rocky Steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Base yourself in downtown at Apple Hostels of Philadelphia.

Day 8-10: Washington D.C.

True story: Washington D.C. was built on land given up by Maryland and Virginia after the original 13 colonies couldn’t agree on who got to play host to the nation’s capital. Today, the city offers plenty of awesome hostels vying to host you, but you can’t go wrong at Highroads Hostel in the trendy Adams Morgan neighbourhood. Wherever you stay, be sure to schedule at least a full day to tour the enormous Smithsonian museums (the Air and Space Museum is my personal favourite) and to see the many monuments that scatter the city. And, yes, you can technically tour the White House, but you’ll need to contact your embassy months in advance to have any shot of landing one of the limited spots.

Day 11-14: Miami

You’ll likely have to book a flight to get here, but the effort will be well worth it when you settle into the sand on the world-famous South Beach. Miami is best known for its beach and nightlife scene, but there’s plenty else to do here too. Leave the beach to check out the urban graffiti at the Wynwood Walls or browse the shops at the Bayside Market. For your last bed on your USA backpacking itinerary, check into Bed & Drinks (though be aware it may be more of the latter than the former!).

Backpacking USA - Miami

Miami

?@travellemming

Food in America

The USA is a thoroughly multicultural society, and that’s very much apparent from its cuisine.

From Lebanese stalls on the streets of New York, to Italian pizzerias in Chicago, to Thai food trucks in San Francisco, some of the best food in American isn’t actually American at all.

With that said, there are a handful of foods (most of them utterly unhealthy) that have managed to firmly establish themselves as a part of American culture:

Burgers

Traditionally found at barbeques and tailgates, Americans love a good burger. Nearly every traditional American restaurant will have one on the menu, and you can find everything from cheap fast food options to five-star creations complete with custom toppings.

backpacking USA - food in america

Heaven on earth

?: Ashley Green

Hot Dogs

These tubes of mystery meat are usually served with ketchup, mustard, and relish. You can traditionally find them at ball games and barbeques.

Pizza

Ok, it may not technically be from the USA, but pizza is probably as close as there is to a universally beloved food in the country. If you’re passing through Chicago, try the deep-dish version for a special treat.

Tacos

Another food borrowed from our neighbours to the south, you can find a taco stand nearly everywhere in the United States nowadays.

Apple Pie

There’s a reason they say that something is “as American as apple pie.” The sweet dessert has deep roots in the country, and can be found at dinner and holiday parties across the country.

Barbeque Ribs

You’ll find unique regional takes on this classic American dish. Texans seem to prefer it sweeter, while in Kansas City it comes off a bit smokier. Wherever you are, it’s sure to be a hit.

S’mores

If you’re going camping, you absolutely must make s’mores! To do otherwise would be thoroughly un-American. Just roast some marshmallows over a campfire, and sandwich them between some graham crackers with a slice of milk chocolate. Delicious!

backpacking USA - smores

You’ll always want S’More

?: Autumn Mott Rodeheaver

Regional Foods

From crab cakes in Maryland, to grits in the South, to clam chowder in New England, every part of America has its own favourite regional cuisine. Ask around at the hostel to find what the locals are gnawing on.

In addition to the above year-round foods, there’s one American food tradition that bears special mention: Thanksgiving.

Taking place during the latter part of November and always celebrated on a Thursday, Thanksgiving is a holiday where families gather over a huge feast, often with a healthy serving of football on the side. A turkey is the quintessential staple of any Thanksgiving dinner, with cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and mashed potatoes also making regular appearances.

American Culture

Travel the USA long enough, and you’ll realize that it’s really a medley of different cultures from all over the world stitched together. Sure, Americans have many things in common, but the country is so large in size and population that there is a huge difference between culture in, say, the deep South versus the California coast.

American values

The USA is currently experiencing one of its more politically divisive eras, so any attempt to define a unique set of American values is a bit tricky. With that said, there are some things that most Americans care deeply about. Perhaps most famously, Americans tend to value freedom and liberty, even if they can’t agree what those concepts mean. Remember, the USA got started when it rebelled against a monarch!

Americans also tend to be religious (especially in the interior of the country), with Christianity being the most popular religion. Many religions are represented in the USA, though, and more and more people are calling themselves agnostic or atheist these days.

backpacking USA - statue of liberty

Liberty Island

?: Jenny Marvin

American Traditions

No matter where you grew up in the world, you probably learned at least a bit about American traditions from watching Hollywood films. Ever seen the movie Groundhog Day? That stems from a bizarre tradition that takes place every year in upstate Pennsylvania involving a groundhog who may or may not see his shadow, indicating whether spring has arrived (yes, we know how weird that sounds).

Anyway, here’s a few other traditions you can expect to counter during your trip backpacking the USA:

Tipping

Americans tip widely and in higher amounts than anywhere else in the world. For servers at restaurants, at least 15-20% is customary; but we also tip bartenders, housekeepers, taxi drivers, bell hops, and just about anyone else providing a service. Many food servers and sit-down restaurants with table service depend on tips as an essential part of their wage. Budget accordingly!

Halloween

Easily the most fun American tradition, Halloween is celebrated on October 31st and involves everyone getting dressed up in costumes. Children go door to door to “trick or treat” for candy, while adults often throw costume-themed parties. If you’re in the country on this date, you absolutely must participate!

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is celebrated at the end of November and involves a ton a feasting on turkey, pumpkin pie, and cranberry sauce.

Fourth of July

America’s Independence Day holiday is traditionally celebrated with lots of red, white, and blue fireworks shows. It’s a real spectacle to behold!

backpacking USA - Fireworks over NYC

Fireworks over NYC

Barbeques

Whether it’s in a backyard, a park, a parking lot, or the side of a lake, Americans love to gather around the grill and down some beers on a warm afternoon.

Football (and Tailgating!)

In much of the United States, football is practically a religion. The season takes place in autumn, so if you’re backpacking the USA then, it’s definitely worth finding a local NFL or college game to attend. Just be sure to come early and tailgate (which basically means to have a barbeque in the parking lot before the game).

Facts About the USA

There’s a lot to learn about the USA, but here’s a few fun facts to help you win that next round of trivia at the hostel bar:

The USA uses the imperial system for measurement

  • Why are there 5,280 feet in a mile, you ask? Look, metric-heads, don’t try to make sense of it. It’s better if you just roll with it.

The 13 stripes on the American flag represent the original 13 states

  • And the 50 stars in the blue box are for the states currently in the union.

The USA is the third largest country by land area and by population

  • That might explain why everything is so big here!

A third of land in the US is owned by the federal government

  • But that’s also why there are so many great national parks to visit on your USA backpacking trip!

The US is home to the longest cave system in the world

  • The appropriately named Mammoth Cave can be found in Brownsville, Kentucky.

An American, Neil Armstrong, was the first person to walk on the moon

  • And he immortalized it with the words: “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”

Alaska has more miles of coastline than the other 49 states, combined!

  • That’s a lot of (frigid) beaches to check out.

The land now known as the USA was first settled by indigenous people over 15,000 years ago

  • It wasn’t until 1492, that European colonists arrived (and tragically proceeded to drive almost all Native Americans from their homelands).

backpacking USA - NASA launch, Kennedy Space Center

NASA launch, Kennedy Space Center

?: NASA

Is America Safe?

With so many tragic events in the global news, you may be wondering:

Is it safe to travel America?

The short answer is: yes, the USA is quite safe for travel provided you take reasonable precautions.

You may have seen the terrible news stories about mass shootings and gun violence in the United States (the USA does have very high rates of gun ownership). Those tragedies are terrible, but they are not necessarily reflective of the overall safety situation for your average traveller. Bear in mind that every year 75 million visitors travel the United States without incident.

The most likely criminal issues you will encounter might be petty theft such as pick-pocketing. The biggest safety issue for most travellers is not crime, but accidents from collisions with cars, so always buckle up and be sure to drive safely.

USA Travel Advice

If you’ve made it to this point in this giant USA backpacking guide, you’re practically an expert on how to travel the USA already!

But, before you go, here’s a few random morsels of advice that will help make your journey backpacking the USA a bit smoother:

Try not to over-schedule yourself

Can you technically tour New York City, the Grand Canyon, Miami, Yellowstone, and San Francisco in two weeks? Well, yes. But you won’t have much time to really enjoy any of them. The USA is so big that you must remember that you can’t conquer it all in one go. Plus, you can always come back!

Backpacking USA - blue hammock

Taking a load off in Supai 

?: Jeremy Bishop

Sort out a plan for travel insurance

The American healthcare system is ludicrously expensive. So, if you end up ill or with a twisted ankle and are left to fend for yourself, you can quickly rack up thousands of dollars in medical bills (or even more!) with just a single visit to the emergency room.

Be sure to stay in the country’s awesome hostels

What would a USA backpacking trip be without hostels? Whether you’re in LA or NYC, Miami or Austin, there’s sure to be an awesome hostel just waiting to welcome you among its friends!

Conclusion

Wow, that was a lot of information, right?

But here’s the thing: nearly 10,000 words later and we feel like we’ve not even cracked the surface of the many places to visit on a USA backpacking trip! We barely covered Alaska and Hawaii (but you totally should if you have time), not to mention Nashville, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Charlotte, Mount Rushmore, the Great Lakes, the Alamo, and the entire freakin’ Appalachian Trail!

We could write an entire book on how to backpack the USA and still have to leave out a lot of great stuff. But look on the bright side: no matter what kind of USA backpacking itinerary you craft, you’re sure to have a truly epic time. You’re also sure to find some incredible hostels just waiting to open their doors to you along the way.

So pack those bags, book those tickets, and build up that road trip playlist because it’s time to party in the USA.

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