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I'm going to be visiting eastern Idaho for work in July. I'd like to take the time at the weekends to visit the National Parks of western Wyoming - Yellowstone and Grand Teton. As it's pretty high tourist season, a lot of the accommodation appears to already be booked over the weekends, or where available, very expensive. It occurred to me that I could probably find a store to buy a cheap tent and stay at the camp grounds. My question is how practical/money saving will this be.

I'm flying out to the US, so I can't really take much gear with me (and aside from some tools and a sleeping bag, don't have much). So I'm likely just to have my clothes, wash stuff, a tent, a sleeping bag and a car.

Is this going to be sufficient?

I'd rather not have to buy cooking gear, so will there be other opportunities near the major campsites for food?

As someone who's never spent time in bear country, are there precautions you need to take against bears even at the tourist (as opposed to backcountry) campsites?

How practical (if you just need a small spot, no hookups) is it to just arrive in July and expect a pitch to be available?

I can see from the National Park websites which sites have washing facilities etc, but it's hard to judge how suitable (or not) each is for the poorly equipped visitor.

  • Popular campgrounds will also be fully booked. – gerrit Jun 12 '15 at 15:18
  • See also The Great Outdoors. – gerrit Jun 12 '15 at 15:19
  • What are you planning to do while in the parks, and how close are you to them? Day-trips are certainly possible, and you might find lodging on an interstate within a couple of hours. – kdgregory Jun 14 '15 at 12:20
  • @kdgregory Do? Sightsee, hike (within reasonable limits because I'm alone, but I presume good mapping is available of popular spots like these), possibly swim. I know that 3-4 hours each way is often considered "day trippable" by US standards, but I'd really rather not if it can be avoided. Staying nearby but not in the parks is perfectly acceptable though. – CMaster Jun 15 '15 at 9:24
  • OK, so generally "touristy" things (albeit a bit more active than the typical Yellowstone tourist -- be prepared to be depressed). In that case I'd suggest Idaho Falls, which is two hours away and has enough major roads converging that I'd expect it to have a good population of "Days Inn" style hotels. There's also Jackson WY: I remember grabbing an end-of-day hotel room there on a motorcycle trip 20 years ago, for under $50, but Googling just now showed "budget" accommodations for $150+. In either case, reserve a room before you go. – kdgregory Jun 15 '15 at 11:15
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The Camping page for Yellowstone National Park describes two types of campgrounds: reservation and first-come-first-served. Obviously for the reservation type, you need to make a reservation; at peak times I would expect them to be fully booked. Summer weekends are probably the most popular times of all. For first-come-first-served, you would need to arrive at the campground in the morning, and even then it is possible it will already be full. You would want to have an ironclad backup plan.

Note that people are allowed to stay at a site for multiple days, so arriving on Saturday morning is probably futile, since almost everyone who was there on Friday night will be staying through the weekend.

At a typical campsite in a developed campground, you can expect: a parking spot, a picnic table, a fire pit or barbecue, and a flat space to pitch a tent. Drinking water and toilets should be within walking distance.

In bear country, each campsite will usually have a "bear box", which is a sturdy wooden or metal box with a bear-proof latching mechanism (example). You should use this for all your food, toiletries, and anything with a scent, all the time. Do not store such things in your car; bears can and do break into cars. Popular tourist campsites are usually the most active areas for bears, because that's where there's the most food and the bears know it.

Most people who stay at campgrounds do prepare their own food. National parks generally don't have restaurants within their borders, so you would have to leave the park to get a cooked meal; that might be an hour's drive or more. In some cases, there may be a very small grocery store near the campground; expect limited selection and inflated prices. If you don't want to have cooking gear, you may want to think about meals you could eat cold.

In addition to a tent and a sleeping bag, here are some other things you would probably want:

  • A foam or inflatable pad to put under your sleeping bag. Otherwise you are sleeping directly on hard and possibly rocky ground, which is not very comfortable.

  • A tarp or waterproof ground cloth to put under your tent, if it doesn't come with one. Summer rain is common in the US Mountain West, and if the ground is wet or muddy, you don't want moisture to soak through your tent and sleeping bag. Tents are generally not waterproof; at best they will shed rain.

  • At least one good flashlight. Campgrounds are not lit at night.

  • Check the weather for the time and place you are going, and make sure your sleeping bag is sufficiently warm. Even in summer, the dry air and high altitude in areas like Yellowstone means that nights can be surprisingly cold. Your sleeping bag probably has a temperature rating; down to the rated temperature, the bag should keep you from hypothermia, but you might still be uncomfortably cold. If you are particularly bothered by being cold, choose a sleeping bag with a rating considerably lower than the temperatures you expect.

  • A large bottle or jug for water. You don't want to have to walk clear across the campground to the one water tap every time you are thirsty.

  • Appropriate clothes for protection from sun, rain, cold, and insects.

(Note that this answer addresses "car camping" at developed campgrounds. Backcountry camping, where you carry all your gear and hike several miles to your camp site, is quite different; but it doesn't sound like you are equipped for that, so I haven't addressed it.)

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    US national parks don't have restaurants? If there are any lodges, they'll have some sort of dining facilities attached to them. They may be reservations only, so you'll need to check. A very popular NP like Yellowstone will have multiple restaurants and cafeterias, but possibly not within easy distance of a campground. – mkennedy Jun 12 '15 at 23:18
  • There are lots of restaurants in both national parks. Some within walking distance of some campgriunds, others a short drive away.... Two campgrounds in Yellowstone are hard side only, no tents.... Bear bxes are shared by campsites, not one per. They are intended for campers without hard sided cars. It is ok to store your food in your car trunk, but not in roof top boxes or in convertables or in pop up campers or in tents of any sort. – user13044 Jun 13 '15 at 2:32
  • Yeah, I'd also bring/buy a roll mat or thermarest or similar. Sleeping on the ground is not fun. Flashlights and general outdoor gear I have and isn;t a problem to fly with, so I will have with me. My current sleeping bag is good for any temperature I can imagine in the summer, but might be time for a new one anyway. – CMaster Jun 15 '15 at 9:26

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