A How-To Guide for Fun (and Cheap) Life on the Road

If you check out my Instagram, you’ll see a lot of posts in the last year featuring a little blue Vanagon known as Diego. (Disclosure: not my Vanagon.) My favorite way to spend in-between time when I’m in a life transition (which happens frequently for this nomad), or to make the best of it when life doesn’t go as planned is to take an extended road trip. At the end of this winter I hit the road for a little over a month, living with a friend in his Vanagon, Diego.

Bet you didn’t notice there’s a person in this picture. #camoflage

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this classic vehicle, here are the highlights:

  • Diego doesn’t like to drive faster than 55 mph. And he has good days and bad days. There is no mechanical explanation for the good days and bad days.
  • Diego has a pop-top, which means he boasts an upstairs and a downstairs sleeping quarters.

  • The pop-top now hosts the newly-installed solar panel, which powers the fridge and radio, and allows me to charge my laptop and phone so I can keep working on the road.

  • Diego’s owner decided that a few days before departure was a good time to take the sliding door completely off and make some adjustments. While this created a time-crunch at the end, the door works better now! (Budget your time, home-mechanics!)

  • Diego’s kitchen is sufficient in size for cooking relatively simple meals for two.

Our route traversed from Central Oregon to Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, California, and then back to Central Oregon. Perhaps you have already spotted recommendation #1.

Recommendation #1) Balance your ratio of drive-time and down-time. In a van that doesn’t go faster than 55mph, our route was too long. We both ended up wishing we could have spent more time being somewhere and less time driving.

Since we were working with a tight budget, we stayed away from every expense we could avoid. The question of where to sleep is always forefront when planning a road trip.

Recommendation #2) Plan the trip to include at least one place where you can stay with friends. It’s nice to get off the road for a couple days, have a shower, and not be stuck in the same tiny space with the same person.

Camping is of course the first choice for primary lodgings. You can park and sleep (whether in your vehicle or on the ground) on most public land, including BLM, Forest Service, and National Grassland. In most places, camping is available for a fee (and via reservation) in State Parks, National Parks, and National Conservation areas. If the park requires a fee to get into for recreation, you probably have to pay to camp.

View of Mt. Whitney from Alabama Hills, CA, one of over a hundred free campsites I’ve enjoyed.

Recommendation #3) Freecampsites.net is my favorite for locating camping just about everywhere I’ve camped in the U.S. which at this point excludes the southeast. (If anyone has data on camping in that region, leave a comment below!) On Freecampsites, users can drop a pin where they have camped and describe it (the type of land, what the area was like for camping, access, etc.) Recent campers can leave updates on the space. Parking lots and rest areas that allow van/car/RV-camping are also listed. A handful of questionably legit sites turn up, so if you’re not sure the campsite you want is on public land, double check on another map or choose a different site. Campendium and HipCamp are also good resources, but I generally find that if it’s not on Freecampsites I’m not going to find it elsewhere.

If you’re planning to be in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana in February, as we were, and winter camping isn’t your jam (it’s not mine), Airbnb is always an option. However, there’s another (potentially better) option if you’re really trying to get to know a town.

Recommendation #4) Couchsurfing. We were in Bozeman so I could scope it out before relocating there soon. We used Couchsurfing for accommodation. It’s a similar premise to Airbnb in that you are staying in someone else’s home. But Couchsurfing is free and much more interactive. Hosts are generally eager to share their hometown experience with guests, and a certain amount of socializing is the norm. As the name implies, you might find yourself on a couch, or even on the floor. It’s a great option if you’re really looking to integrate into a place over a short period of time.

Bozeman, March 2019

Eating is always a particular consideration for me for allergy reasons, not to mention I love to cook, so I’m a huge fan of Diego’s kitchen. It’s just plain easier than cooking on a camp stove or even a fold-up two-burner. Diego’s stove runs off a 5 gallon propane canister which can be refilled. MUCH cheaper and more eco-friendly than those tiny green tanks that powered my two-burner stove of the past. I’d like to recommend this to everyone, but unless you are really committed to living large chunks of time in your car it might not make sense. But I do have a recommendation for meal-planning on the road:

Recommendation #5) Plan your meals around grocery store stops. Car-living doesn’t include the luxury of a fridge like van-life does, so it’s important to plan your meals around your ability to keep food cold. I like to hit a store every 4-5 days so I can spend the intervening time away from towns. At the store I’ll stock up on perishable and non-perishable foods. Days 1 and 2 might mean eggs for breakfast and turkey sandwiches for lunch, whereas days 3 and 4 are oats for breakfast and SunButter for lunch. Bonus points if you shop at a grocery store whose loyalty rewards points reduce your price at the gas pump (on western road trips I use Safeway/Albertsons and Chevron).

Van meal! Steak and onions in in garlic butter, quinoa, and sautéed zucchini.

So that covers camping, lodging, food, gas, and drive time. What you actually do on your roadtrip is up to you! But if you’re itching to hit the trails, check out my recommendations for trail running in the Southwest.

Disclaimer: nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. Be sure to check out my upcoming blog post entitled, “Budget Airlines, Couchsurfing, and Sketchy (SKETCHY) Campgrounds. What could go Wrong?”

To make sure you catch that post, join the email list here. To see more of our adventures in Diego, follow me on Instagram and Facebook.

Think you’d like to spend some time on the road, but not sure how to make it happen? I can help with that! Maybe you need an escape plan from your job (even if only temporarily). Maybe you’ve never road tripped and need help planning logistics. Maybe you just plain are intimidated by the expanded world of nomads and van-dwellers and can’t see how you’d ever fit in. You can overcome all of that and start your adventure today. It’s so much easier than you think. Want to chat about it? Send me a message.

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