[Canyonlands National Park, Utah]
How to plan an Extended Road Trip and Live out of your Car: Frequently Asked Questions
I’ve seen a few posts on the internet about taking extended road trips and living out of your car, van, or bus, and some of the same questions come up each time. I’ve tried to address the most common questions here.
What do you drive?
There are a few things to consider when choosing a vehicle or deciding if the one you already own will work. Some of them are obvious, like how big a rig you want to move around in, and some are less obvious.
[River Road in Big Bend National Park, Texas]
Sleeping outside your car in a roof top tent or regular ground tent will free up storage space inside your vehicle but you won’t be able to set them up in urban areas.
If you sleep inside your car on a bed or folded seats you will give up storage space, but gain security and the ability to “stealth camp”. Many RV parks do not allow tent camping, and I got myself out of a couple sticky situations by being able to sleep in my car and technically qualify as an RV.
The longer your trip, the more important it is to make your bed easy to deploy. If your vehicle is small you will have to take time every night to move your stuff out of the way and set up your bed. This may sound like a minor inconvenience, but it becomes a hassle when its raining, when you’re “stealth camping,” and especially especially especially when you’re dog tired from the trail or feeling homesick.
[North of Destruction Bay on the Alaska Highway, Yukon Canada]
Adventure vehicles, AKA Overlanders (think zombie apocalypse), are rising in popularity, but you don’t need a high ground clearance 4-wheel-drive vehicle to travel cross-country.
I love off-roading. It’s exciting, and you get to see more remote landscape. However, a large, off-road capable vehicle is going to get worse gas mileage. It will take more effort to lift equipment into and outof. They will be less reliable mechanically, and they will require more expensive repairs.
I reasoned that an off-road vehicle would have tempted me to take rougher roads that I had a higher chance of breaking down on. Actually completing my trip unassisted and on a budget was a higher priority than seeing landscape that was exclusively 4WD accessible. A little counter intuitive, I agree, but that was my reasoning.
[Capitol Reef National Park, Utah]
The common perception is that you have to get a big van or heavy duty truck to travel cross-country. I lived out of a light SUV for 10 months, and @Walkusa has been doing it for over a year. A friend of mine lived out of her Subaru Outback for a month. Another photographer friend did 15,000 miles while living out of his Prius for 6 months.
Lastly, the only way to know if your vehicle will fit all your equipment is to throw it all in there. There is no shortcut. Organize things by assigning each of them an “accessibility value”. Keep food and clothes easily accessible. Jumper cables and laundry detergent can be stuffed deeper down.
[Highway 24 near Caineville, Utah]
Where do you sleep?
Ideally you sleep for free, parked on a remote wilderness side-road, lulled to sleep by the sweet sounds of wind, water, and wild animals – but that’s not always possible.
Walmart – I slept 1 out of 4 nights in Walmart parking lots. It’s not glamorous, but hot-damn is it convenient. Being able to grab breakfast, brush your teeth, and have a morning sit-down is great. Be ready to deal with the occasional loud turbo-diesel truck, zippy rice-rocket, or thumping bass music at 3am. Some Walmarts in big cities don’t allow overnight parking – call ahead. (comfort = 2; convenience = 3, sketch factor = 2)
Rest stops, truck stops, and casinos – they can be noisy and showers are expensive (Showers at Flying-J cost $10). Truckers run their generators at night and they can pull up right next to you at any odd hour. (comfort = 1; convenience = 3; sketch factor = 3)
National Forests – Camp for free at least 300’ away from paved roads and waterways. (comfort = 3; convenience = 1; sketch factor = 1)
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – Camp almost anywhere. (comfort = 2; convenience = 1; sketch factor = 1)
Residential Neighborhoods – See “Stealth Camping” (comfort = 2; convenience = 3; sketch factor = 1)
Parking Garages – See “Stealth Camping” (comfort = 2; convenience = 2; sketch factor = 2)
[Camping gear in black box, cooking gear in clear bin, tool box and stove folded vertically.]
[Bed unfolded with end flap flipped out.]
[1 weeks worth of clothes and 2 weeks of underwear in the clear totes. Firewood up top]
[To set up my bed I fold the seats forward, flip the hinged flap out, and screw in two legs.]
[Cooking set up accommodated by pivoting bike rack]
This website is a good tool for finding campsites on late notice.
If you know exactly where you’re going to be a week ahead of time you can stay with locals using https://www.couchsurfing.com/.
And lastly, if you’re in a pinch, don’t feel bad about paying to stay at a hostel or motel. If the weather is crumby or if you’re feeling wiped out or weirded out then recharging under a solid roof on an actual mattress with other travelers might be just what you need.
[Red Mountain Pass (Highway 550) south of Ouray, Colorado]
When you just don’t want to spend the time, effort, or money camping legitimately you can try your luck parking in an urban (city or residential) setting.
It’s best to scope out your options before dark. Finding a good spot is a balance between a few things. For example, it’s tough to sleep under bright lights or near noisy traffic, but you don’t want to park so far away that you stick out to police or troublemakers. When you find a good spot, park nearby and stake it out for 15 minutes to get an idea of the car/foot traffic.
Make your sleeping arrangement as simple as possible to deploy. It will save you everyday effort, and you don’t want to attract attention. If you’re going out for a drink or to a show I suggest you set up your bed beforehand. That way you can simply hop in at the end of the night.
I had good luck staying behind supermarkets, in bar or restaurant parking lots (if its not the weekend), and on residential streets in more rural areas. Some people stay in parking garages. Avoid city parks and vacant industrial parks because you vehicle will stick out to local police. Use a window sunshade for privacy. Crack your windows, and lock your doors.
[Memorial Union Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin]
But isn’t it illegal to “Stealth Camp”?
I was discovered by police 5 times. Most times they didn’t even realize I was sleeping inside. They were just checking out a suspicious looking vehicle.
After I got out of my car and explained that I was just passing through and needed a place to sleep, they were able to relax a little. They still call in your license plate number and check your registration, but it is not an intense situation if you have your paperwork straight
Three out of five times they let me stay where I was. Twice they had me follow them to a better place to park for the night. All of my police interactions were good experiences. Frustrating, yes, but they’re just doing their job.
Get in late and leave early, and you won’t have much trouble.
[HIghway 20 through the Cascade Mountains east of Winthrop, Washington]
How do you decide on destinations?
For this question I have to turn it around and ask one of my own: What are your hobbies or interests? I recommend you find a theme, make a list of destinations, and stick with it.
I read about a guy who went to a baseball game in every MLB stadium. I talked to an Imgur user who wants to go to a handful of railroad museum in the U.S. -> Maybe you can go to every major city? Take a picture of every state bird? Go to every hot air balloon festival you can. Drive the Pacific Coast Highway.
I decided to spend at least one night in every state and to see as many National Parks as I possible, and those 10 months exceeded my raddest expectations.
Pick a theme and schedule in enough “fluff” time to do the interesting things you inevitably come across on your way
[Highway 1 through the Ouachita Mountains, Arkansas]
What do you eat? How do you cook?
Preparing your own food is a huge money saver, but it is made more difficult without refrigeration and running water.
[Fresh Dungeness Crab in Anchorage, Alaska]
I bought a high quality cooler ($250) that allowed me to keep leftovers and dairy products for longer. It was durable and it could keep a 5 pound bag of ice for 3 or 4 days too. One nice thing about living on the road is that you can stop in at grocery stores frequently so you don’t have to stock up.
I used a propane camping stove and a cast iron skillet with a few spices and sauces. Dirty dishes are the bane of every campers existence which makes cast iron appealing. You can scrape it clean(ish) without water. I used disinfecting wipes for my metal utensils and threw away disposable plates and bowls.
It’s fun to incorporate fresh regional food that you might not otherwise cook with, and cooking can help bridge the boring parts of your day – or it’s a chore. Frame it however you like.
[Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California]
How do you shower?
Beyond being a necessity, showers are a huge morale boost. You can only wipe yourself down with a damp rag for so many days before you start to lose your gusto.
Here are my shower strategies listed in descending frequency.
– Nationwide gym membership (PlanetFitness was the cheapest and second most widespread provider – $20 per month)
– Community centers and public pools.
– Hostels and Motels.
– Oceans, Rivers, Lakes – Better than nothing, I suppose.
I averaged about one shower every three days. The longest I went without a shower was nine days. After day four you stop noticing.
[Iron Horse Mud Ranch just south of Perry, Florida]
How do you get internet?
Without a doubt my favorite place to find internet is at public libraries.
They’re relatively quiet, and they have desks you can spread out on. Most public libraries appear to be on a tight budget so I started donating $1 for each visit. One major critique people have of those who live on the road is that we never give back to the public spaces we use so frequently. I want libraries to continue providing internet access and quiet working spaces, so please consider supporting them. Plus all those little ol’ lady librarians just the sweetest.
There are apps for your phone that can show you where free wifi are located. They’re kindof hit or miss so call ahead and ask.
Places like McDonalds and Starbucks have internet, but it’s super slow and you have to buy something.
[2015 Christmas Tree Burn somewhere in the Mojave Desert, California
How much does it cost?
This one is a biggie. My 10 month trip cost me $20,000 USD, which comes out to $66 per day. That’s may sound pricey, but when you factor in what I saved on rent and all the fun stuff I got to see and do, I think it’s a reasonable figure.
[Wild horse at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland/Virginia]
Fuel: $6,000 (36,000 miles with 18 mpg at $3/gal)
Food & Booze: $6,000 ($20/day – includes ice, and propane)
Vehicle Repair and Maintenance: $1,700 (Regular 150,000 mile service ($800), 7 oil changes, tow truck and replaced alternator, replaced shattered rear window)
Tickets: $1,600 (Museums, Tours, Ferry Rides (*except Alaska), concerts, toll roads, parking)
Lodging: $1,200 (Campsites, Hostels, x2 Motel nights)
Ferry to Alaska: $1,200 ($830 for vehicle, $370 for personal ticket – Dang, right?)
50 New State Flags: $1,200
Souveniers: $700 (gifts, books, postcards, stickers)
I already owned my car and much of the camping gear so this $20k figure doesn’t include those. My platform cost me about $500 to build and upholster.
I recommend keeping track of your expenses in Excel. Collect receipts and bulk enter them every few weeks.
[Saguaro National Park, Arizona]
Interesting Financial Notes
I only spent 1/3 of what I budgeted for lodging. My three week trip to Alaska cost me $2,000 total. My budget for gas was developed assuming $4 per gallon (just before the price per barrel dipped in late 2014), but I actually averaged $3 per gallon.
I didn’t keep any of those gas savings though. I just drove more places.
[Farm roads in Mississippi]
Why road trip travel?
It’s “convenient” – you likely already own a car, and your adventure begins as soon as you leave your front door.
It’s “inexpensive” – you can prepare your own food, sleep for free, and experience the great outdoors on a budget.
It’s immersive – Destination travel is awesome, and being plucked from wherever you live – and placed wherever you’re going – is as close to an actual miracle as exists in this world. But if you can afford the time to connect those dots overland you experience a fuller spectrum of landscape and culture.
Just like anything else, road tripping can be both frustrating and rewarding – both boring and exhilarating. I like it for its variety.
The bad times etch the good times in greater relief.
[Cherry blossom trees in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia]
What practical steps can I take to plan a road trip now?
Print out a map of your route and pictures of your destinations and tape them somewhere you’ll see it often – bathroom mirror, refrigerator, cubical, etc. I’m not huge into the belief of “Put it out into the universe and she will provide =D”, but if you keep your trip in the front of your mind the odds of it happening are much better.
Test out your set up.
Taking weeks off of work or quitting your job entirely is a daunting proposition. Build confidence in yourself and your camping equipment/methods by taking a shorter “pilot” road trip. I took two 7-day road trips before my 10 month one and they helped me prove out my rig and validated my love of life on the road.
[Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia]
I have written out a detailed step-by-step guide for how to plan your route and budget on my website (link at end of post). I show you how to use Google Maps to create a route that goes through multiple waypoints, and how to create a budgeting table in Excel so that you can adjust individual variables like “trip length” and “daily food expense” to see their affect on your overall budget.
(1) Select your destinations.
(2) Determine a total distance via Google Maps.
(3) Use your car’s fuel economy and the total distance (2) to estimate total fuel cost.
(4) Determine how many miles you’d like to drive per day (120miles/day or 190km/day for me personally)
(5) Divide the total distance (2) by your daily drive distance (4) to get the number of days it will take for you to complete your trip.
(6) Estimate your daily budgets for food, lodging, and local attractions individually, and then multiply each by your total number of days (5).
(7) Add together your gas expense (3) and personal expenses (6) to get your total cost estimate. If you set up an Excel table you can adjust each variable in separate rows to see how they affects the total cost.
I know everyone hated word problems in math class, but take heart – I believe in you.
[Bison in Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota]
Money constraints are the most common reason for not traveling, and that is completely reasonable. However, I encourage you to sit down and spend 30 minutes crunching the numbers so that you can confirm or dispel your expectation that this is too expensive. And if it is too expensive scale back your trip scope.
My greatest anxiety before taking this trip was the unknown.
How much would it cost? How long would it take? Where would I sleep? What would I eat? Attack each of these questions one at a time. I’m confident your trip will sound more manageable the deeper you get into the planning process.
[Wood bison heard on the Alaska Highway, British Columbia]
Here are a few relevant Imgur.com galleries I’ve collected:
– List of underrated national parks (http://imgur.com/gallery/prJkF by @PresidentLeslieKnope)
– Living out of a Compact SUV (http://imgur.com/gallery/1LTyw by @Walkusa)
– Husband and wife drive through North and South America (http://imgur.com/gallery/C8igF by @onnani)
– Astro van conversion (http://imgur.com/gallery/6e0Xz by @gonavy2023)
[The Carolina Cup in Camden, South Carolina]
I want this post to be a resource for anyone who wants to know more about life on the road.
If you have any other questions ask them in the comments. If you have ever lived on the road please help answer these questions – I only have my one perspective.
[The Loneliest Road in America – Highway 50, Nevada]
Further Reading: Route Planning
– List all your destinations
– Use Google Maps to determine approximate Total Distance.
- Google Maps > My Maps > Create New Map
- Click the “Add Directions” button below the search bar
- Add all your destinations (A, B, C, etc..)
- Pro-Tip: If you want to take a different route between destinations than the fastest route (which is what Google Maps defaults to), click on the blue route to select it. A white dot should appear on your route. Click and drag this detour dot to your preferred route.
- Click the “Layer Options” button (3 vertical dots) and select “Step-by-step directions”
- Enter the destinations and their associated distances and drive times into an excel spreadsheet.
- Sum the distances and times to find Total Distance (TD) and Total Time (TT).
- TD and TT estimations will help you determine things like how many days you’ll be on the road and how much you need to budget for gas.
– Consider printing this map out and posting it somewhere you look everyday. Visualizing your trip is key.
You probably have an idea how long you have to take this trip (two weeks, two months…). Take your TD and TT and divide them by the number of days you’d like to be gone for. TD/#days = Distance per day [D/day]. Likewise, TT/#days = Time driving per day [T/day]
Obviously people are going to have different preferences for how long they want to be couped up in a car but here are a few general guidelines:
These are my recommended daily distance and time ranges:
100 miles/day < [D/day] < 250 miles/day
(160 km/day < [D/day] < 400 km/day)
2 hours/day < [T/day] < 5 hours/day
Further Reading: Budget Planning
Organize your budget by making an excel spreadsheet. I set mine up so that I could enter my daily budget for each different expense categories. This will allow you to see what happens to your overall budget when you adjust your daily budget in each expense category.
Now you can use the route you planned and the daily distance and drive times you came up with to get a better idea of how much this trip will cost you.
– Create another tab on the same Excel spreadsheet. Label it “Expenses.”
– Create a table that looks something like this:
*Red indicates that the value was calculated
|Miles per day
Gas cost per day
– Then create your budget table, and estimate the upper and lower limits of your food, lodging, and miscellaneous expenses. My “Baseline” row calculates how much the trip would cost if I used the high limits for each expense column.
Don’t get too hung up on the specifics. The purpose of this table is to get you acquainted with how each expense contributes to your total trip cost. Play with the values and see what happens.
|Gas ($/day)||Food ($/day)||Lodging ($/day)||Misc ($/day)||Total ($/day)||Grand Total ($)|
|Low food $||25||10||30||15||80||$2,400|
|Low lodge $||25||20||10||15||70||$2,100|
|Low Misc $||25||20||30||5||80||$2,400|
– If your Grand Total is too expensive even at the lower limit of your budgeting then you need to go back to your route and reduce your trip distance or time.
I realize that none of this Excel work is too fancy, but I am convinced that laying out the cost as clearly as possible is key to reducing anxiety and propelling your trip further into a reality
[Rocky Springs Campground off the Old Natchez Trace, Tennessee]
Best of luck,