While we are on this road trip, we will effectively be what many people might refer to as "homeless," in the sense that we will not have a house, apartment, dwelling place, permanent address, or anything related. We will have a storage unit for our bed, kitchen table, and dresser, but it turns out they don't let you live at your storage unit, even if you are rightfully renting it.
I'm sure at this point some of you are thinking, "That's why hotels exist," and, "What about campgrounds?" These are certainly useful options for the intrepid traveler and are great when you're on the road for a short time, but they don't always do the job very well when you're on a budget and out for weeks at a stretch. Luckily, there are a few alternatives. While you're actually on the road, going from one place to another, a lot of useful habits can be gleaned from truck drivers.
You will soon discover that truck stops are your friend. They are typically a relatively safe place to sleep (though you have to watch out for the occasional crazies). Many offer showers and sometimes laundry. If you're at the nice commercial ones like Flying J and Pilot, the bathrooms are usually pretty clean and you won't get weird looks for brushing your teeth there.
Lacking a truck stop, rest areas may or may not be a good place to make a quick stop. Technically, you aren't supposed to stay at them overnight, but there are plenty of people who do. The trick is to find one that is relatively untraveled (but still has a couple semi-trucks parked there overnight), sleep underneath a light but not right in front of the bathrooms, and arrive late and leave early. It's not the best for a good night's sleep, but if you just need 5 or 6 hours sleeping in the seat of your car until you're ready to drive again, it's a good option. I have yet to have any trouble with them.
Middle of Nowhere
Another quiet option if you're traveling out west is to pull off the interstate and park in the middle of nowhere. Similar to the rest stop plan, this isn't going to afford a great night of sleep, but it works in a pinch. I was quite surprised to discover on my first big trip out west that there are exits off the interstate with literally nothing there. We pulled off the interstate in the middle of Oklahoma, parked on the side of the road, crashed for about 5 hours, and woke up at dawn to see a line of semi-trucks parked behind us that were not there when we went to sleep.
Finally, there's Wal-Mart. The rumor is that one of the Walton's is psyched on RVing, so camping is allowed at Wal-Mart parking lots if it doesn't interfere with traffic to/from the store. Plus, Wal-Mart loves it because you pretty much always go into the store when you wake up to use the bathroom, get a drink, and hopefully buy stuff. While I am not a huge fan of Wal-Mart, I have no problem taking advantage of sleeping in the parking lot, using the water and toilets, and not buying anything. In my head it's my way of "sticking it to the man," though I'm sure in reality it doesn't matter either way.
The above strategies are useful cards to have up your sleeve, but they're not what I consider as my "plan A" for long-term stays. For that, I prefer free camping. Enter the BLM and USFS. These two government agencies regulate and administrate vast tracts of public lands that we pay taxes to support. As a tax-payer, I choose to take advantage of the free camping options.
US Forest Service
On the east coast, U.S. Forest Service lands frequently come with lightly regulated free camping. Check the specifics for the area you are planning to travel, but in general, you can camp anywhere you want on Forest Service land within the following regulations:
1) You are at least 200 feet from all water, roads, and trails.
2) You are not immediately/obviously visible to other land users.
3) You do not build any fires except in preexisting fire rings.
4) You do not occupy the same place for more than 2 weeks at a time.
5) There are not posted restrictions that otherwise prohibit camping where you intend to stay.
And this is the big one:
6) You are actually on Forest Service land!
My typically strategy is to identify USFS land on a map, find the nearest road into it from where I am at, drive along it until it turns to gravel, and then start parking at pull-offs until I find one that has a campsite within a short walk from the road. This requires a small time investment on the front end (and daylight never hurts either!), but you will frequently be rewarded with fairly well-established sites within easy walking distance from the car that are perfectly legal.
Bureau of Land Management
The Bureau of Land Management dominates the scene on public lands out west. The acreages they regulate are sometimes unfathomably large and frequently might as well be considered lawless for all practical purposes. BLM lands are multi-use areas, open to human-powered recreation, off-road vehicle travel, ranching, hunting, fishing, potential mining, development, and industrial uses, and all manner of other things. However, depending on where you go, the vast expanse of the land may mean that you won't see another soul for your entire stay.
Camping regulations on BLM land are similar to those on USFS land, and except in special cases, camping is totally free. My tactic for BLM land is pretty close to that on USFS land: drive until I'm afraid the car won't make it back out the way we came, park, walk a couple hundred feet, and camp. It works like a charm.
With both USFS and BLM free camping, you can count on absolutely no facilities, which makes it all the more important to come equipped with your own water. You should also adhere to Leave No Trace practices, especially with regard to trash, food garbage, and human waste. Finally, you should have the skills necessary to take care of yourself in the expected conditions since help or civilized amenities may be many hours away. Keeping those things in mind, I greatly enjoyed the feeling of freedom of camping and recreating off the beaten path.