9 things you need to know before you go to Oregon

When I tell people I grew up in Oregon, I can almost see the stereotypes going through their heads. Depending on how familiar with the state they are, people seem to think I grew up camping and hiking (I didn’t), that I love beer (I don’t) or that I drive way too slowly (my parents would tell you quite the opposite).

What they don’t guess is that that I’m utterly confused when I have to pay sales tax in other states; that I abhor pumping my own gas; and that although I grew up in Oregon there are parts of the state I’ve yet to see.

One thing I can say for sure, however, is: we do things a bit differently in Oregon. Here are the key things you need to know before you come for a visit. 

Oregon is vast and you’ll want time to stop and enjoy it © Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

1. Give yourself plenty of time to explore Oregon – the state is bigger than it seems

Covering an area of just under 100,000 square miles, Oregon is really big (bigger-than-the-entire-UK big) and many of the state’s roads­ – particularly in the national forests, the Columbia River Gorge and along the Oregon Coast – are ridiculously scenic. It’s wise to give yourself extra time to stop at viewpoints and take it all in.

2. Don’t assume you can pump your own gas

While you’re expected to pump your own gas in most of the US, that is not the case in Oregon. From 1951 up until 2023, it was actually illegal to pump your own gas in most of the state (with a few exceptions). While some gas stations are now allowed to let you take control at the pump, many still have attendants on staff to do the fueling for you. Others allow customers to pump diesel, but nothing else. If you prefer a DIY experience at the gas station look for signs that read “self-serve” ­before you rush out of the car.

Backpackers standing on a scenic lookout near Bend, Oregon
With hiking and camping so popular it’s best to book permits in advance © Jordan SIemens / Getty Images

3. Reserve campsites and hiking permits in advance

Most of Oregon’s biggest cities are cool and rainy throughout most of the year, which means we only have a few months in the summer to make up for lost time outdoors. Camping, hiking, and backpacking are all wildly popular among Oregonians and visitors alike, and many people set alarms in order to book campsites as soon as they become available (that is: first thing in the morning, six months in advance for both state parks and national forest campgrounds). You’ll need a permit to hike or camp in parts of the Central Cascades Wilderness between mid-June and mid-October too. Typically, 40% of permits become available in early spring while the remainder go live for online booking one week in advance.

Plan your outdoor adventures in Oregon with this guide to the best state parks. 

4. Don’t put cans and bottles in the trash

Spend much time in urban Oregon and you’ll likely see someone leave an empty pop-can on top (rather than inside) a public garbage can. Plastic, glass and aluminium beverage containers (but, oddly, not wine bottles) all have a bottle deposit in Oregon. Buy most bevies at an Oregon store and a 10-cent deposit per bottle will be tacked onto your bill. You can later bring your bottle back in return for your dime. However, most people either save their bottles up and do a big redemption drive once they have collected a good amount, or simply leave their valuable recyclables out for someone else to pick them up.

5. Don’t worry about sales tax

Oregon is one of only a handful of states in the nation that doesn’t have sales tax. Bottle deposit aside, when it comes to pricing, what you see typically is what you get. This makes Oregon a great state for shopping and if you’re in the market for an expensive electronic device or a high-end handbag, it’s often worth waiting until you reach Oregon to buy. The only major exceptions to this rule is cannabis dispensaries and hotels, where industry-specific taxes are typically tacked on.

Two women drinking wine in the sunshine in a vineyard
While locals seem casual, avoid being too direct with Oregonians © Ashley StGermain / Getty Images

6. Keep it casual on the road

Oregon is an incredibly causal place, both when it comes to how you dress and how you interact with others. People tend to stand out when they dress too formally and while it’s fine to dress however you feel want, overt displays of wealth are typically viewed as vulgarly ostentatious. By the same token, referring to someone who looks under 80 by Mr or Ms, instead of just by their first name, might raise a few eyebrows. Also note: people in Oregon tend to be a little less direct than in other parts of the US (and yes, passive-aggression is a thing here). While it’s fine to be straight with people, make sure to pad any “real talk” with extra niceties in Oregon.

Have car, will travel: here are the best road trips in Oregon. 

7. Slow your roll – and know Oregon’s rules of the road

Oregonians are often stereotyped as overly polite drivers, sometimes to the point where it’s almost dangerous. I’ll be the first to admit that I think many of us could learn to be a bit more assertive on the road, especially when it comes to zipper merging. There is a big difference between driving with confidence and driving like a jerk.

In Oregon, people will typically let a car out of a parking lot and onto a road or for you to merge onto the freeway, even if it means having to move over one lane or slow down. If you plan to drive in Oregon, remember to be polite, even if it costs you a few more minutes on the road. On that note, speed limits are slower than other destinations in the Western US – you’ll rarely see a speed limit above 65. Oh, and U-turns are illegal except when “U-Turn Allowed” is explicitly posted.

Old Mill District in Bend, Oregon with snow
Snow can disrupt travel plans in January and February © Nate Wyeth / 500px

8. Snow can (and does) shut down much of the state

We have somewhat regular “Snowmageddons” in Oregon, particularly in the western regions where most people aren’t accustomed to much snow. What this means is that if it snows even more than a few inches, schools close down, restaurants shut, cars get abandoned and all but the bravest souls (and transplants from states where snow driving is a normal part of life) hide away in their homes. If you come to Oregon in January or February, you too may get to experience the end of days, particularly if you come to Portland, where salting the roads has only been a thing since 2017.

9. Don’t leave valuables in your car, especially in Portland

While Oregon’s big cities are far from the most dangerous in the nation, one thing that we do get a lot of – especially in Portland – is car break-ins. While thieves in the city are unlikely to do a smash-and-grab for your library books or a pile of old CDs, your gym bag, lunch bag and power bank are all enticing objects. Catalytic converters used to be a hot-ticket item, too, so much so – in fact – that the state senate passed a bill in 2021 making it illegal for scrap metal sellers to buy them. To avoid becoming a target – try to park in brightly lit, public areas when possible and don’t leave valuables on show.

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