Cross Country Road Trip On A Budget
“Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer.” A very true statement that helps to make it easier to justify spending a lot of money on travel. But that’s not how it has to be. Brandon and I sought out on a road trip to as far West as Utah, all the way from Baltimore. We covered 6,237 miles, which including driving through 16 states, 7 national parks, 4 national forests, and 2 state parks. The trip lasted a full two weeks, and we spent only about $2,000 total. Here’s my few standout tips on how to do a budget road trip.
Public Land Is Your Best Friend.
We truck camped our way across the United States during this trip and we wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way. Truck camping gives you the freedom to drive as far as you want without ever having to worry about finding a bed. You do have to find a place to park, but that’s where public land comes in. Public land is land, mostly on the western half of the country, owned by the US Bureau of Land Management for purposes such as conversation and recreation, including hiking and free camping. BLM land is a win-win-win. It’s free and is more private than a campground, while also having better scenery. We were on the road for 13 nights, and stayed at 10 free campsites. I can only imagine how much that would’ve cost if those nights were spent at campgrounds or hotels! Way too much, with a lot less experiences.
BLM has the campsites this country has to offer, but first you have to find them. Our #1 resource for this trip was www.freecampsites.net. The website has the feature to search BLM campsites by area. This was super helpful when we were going from park to park. The website also sometimes features reviews of campsites where others give tips on what the terrain is like, how accessible it is, tips on finding the spots, and even how much cell service they had while they were there. (Gotta keep the ‘gram updated, right?)
I would always jot down the coordinates to the sites and take screenshots of the descriptions so that we could find them even if we lost cell service. But what we couldn’t plan for was when things change and you won’t be in the area you anticipated for that night. We realized that a lot of the Utah parks (aka where we spend about a week of our time) didn’t get much cell service, so we decided to go old fashioned. An atlas. The National Geographic Road Atlas to be exact. It cost about $20 and features pretty much every road in the entire United States. And even better all of the BLM land was highlighted yellow on the recreation maps, which was so amazing because even with out cell service we were able to find out where we needed to/ were allowed to be.
The main thing to remember when camping on public land is to take care of it. Don’t start fires where there’s not already a fire ring, make sure your fire is completely extinguished, don’t drive off the trail, and always pack-out all your trash.
Skip the shower.
It sounds hard at first, but it will get better (or maybe we’re just natural dirt balls). Although I said it was free, having great free camping does come at a price. That price is no facilities. Yup, no electric, no showers, no toilets. Electric — we got from the truck while it was running, toilets — we used at any rest area, gas station, or food establishment we stopped at, but shower — they aren’t as easy to find. You can find them at hotels or campgrounds, but that would get very expensive. So my pro tip is to suck it up and go without it. Depending on when and where you travel anyway, due to low temperatures, the thought of having a wet head is more daunting than going without a shower (trust me).
Clear and clean river water serves as a great substitute for hair, and body wipes are a life saver for getting the important spots feeling clean. You may start to look like a bum (I mean, you’re camping across the US, you pretty much are at this point) and a hat will become your best friend but this camping style is totally worth it. We both showered the Saturday morning we left, and made it until the next Friday without a real shower. On that Friday we were lucky enough to drive past a climbing shop in Zion, UT with a giant “SHOWERS” sign. Yes, please! We stopped to check it out and they charged $5 for 7 minutes of showering. Totally worth it.
Be a cheap date.
We learned on the road that you don’t actually need as much as you think you do. You learn that a full meal at breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a specialty beverage at each really isn’t as necessary. When I’m living the 9-5 grind, my next meal and snack is what consumes my thoughts more than it probably should. But when on the road, you’re too busy to over eat. We substituted protein bars and bagels for SO many meals. It may not be the healthiest to maintain long term, but for a two week trip? It’s perfect — saves you money, fills you up, and gives you more time for the important things.
Also, don’t waste your money on water. Get a multi-gallon container (ours was 5) and keep reusable water bottles full. Not only does this reduce waste (don’t get me started on one-use water bottles), but once you have the containers, it’s free! Every national park we visited had water refill stations, with clean drinkable water. You’re going to have to be “that guy” and take a good ten minutes filling up for 5 gallons, but it’s still the smartest way to go.
All this being said, the occasional frappuccino or burrito is still very welcomed while roughin’ it — just in moderation.
Invest in a National Park Pass.
Seriously, just do it. These parks are so renowned for a reason. They have some of the most gorgeous and famous views you can find. And even if you’re not a hiker, most of them have overlooks that you can enjoy by car, and a lot of times you can actually drive through the park and take in the views on the way to your next destination. So once you decide you’ll be checking out any National Park you can, the next logical step is to buy an America the Beautiful pass. It’s a money-saving (and just in general) road trip essential. It’s good for a whole year, gets you into any National Park and some National Monuments, and only costs $80. Individual parks average about $35 each. You literally only have to go to 3 national parks in a year to get your moneys worth — we went to 7 in two weeks.
(Pro tip: A park pass is an awesome thing to put on a wedding registry. That’s how we got ours!)
Work With What You Got
This is where I struggle sometimes. Like yes I could use the gear I already have, but new gear is so much more fun! For traveling on a budget, it’s good to have a “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality. If you already have it and it’ll get the job done, even if it’s not new and pretty, don’t go buy a new one. An example of this is with our truck build. I was literally about to leave to go buy a foam mattress to go on top of our storage box, when Brandon said “what about our old futon mattress?” Boom, that’s $100 saved right there. And don’t be afraid to ask people to borrow either. It can end up saving you hundreds. And remember, if your trip is anything like ours was, everything is going to end up in with a layer of dirt over it, so think carefully about what brand new things you would want to expose to that anyway.
Pack smarter, not harder.
When camping, be prepared is very important. And you can never be too prepared, but you can over pack. Don’t go out a buy a bunch of food with the ambition of cooking these large fancy meals, because road tripping is hard work and that likely won’t happen. We were so tired after exploring and driving all day that most nights instead of cooking on a campfire, we would pull up, eat a bar, and go to sleep. We didn’t use the dutch oven or pie irons we brought once.
The same premise about food also works with gear. Don’t go out and buy it unless you know that you’ll use it. For example, we got an awning for the truck thinking “well, we’re going to be in the hot desert, and we have a fluffy dog so he’ll need shade.” We pulled the awning out one time in 14 days. That wasn’t an expense during the trip, but it sure would’ve saved us some during prep.
On the contrary, do always bring the essentials such as bear spray, a first aid kit, hats, gloves, flashlights, and extra batteries even if you don’t think you’ll need them. Chances are, they’ll be way harder to find and more expensive along the way.
There are things that you can budge on, and things you don’t have a choice about. Tolls and gas are going to be a big expense that you can’t cut corners on no matter what. It’s important to be realistic about those types of expenses. And to be realistic that your Google Maps-ed plan is not going to have your route’s exact mileage, and that your not going to be able to precisely calculate your gas expenses. Most of the time, it’s going to cost more than you plan for. Keep that in mind in general for the trip and be realistic to the type of person you are. For example, if you stop and get coffee every day at home, chances are, no matter how much you want to cut costs on your trip, you’re probably still going to stop for those drinks. Whether they’re in your budget or not. Be realistic with yourself and set yourself up for success.
My advice is no matter what your situation is, just save up and take the trip. Excuses will always be there and who knows if our public lands will. Executing a trip like this is totally achievable, you just have to take that leap and do it.
For our two week trip, we spent about $100 to build our sleeping/storage platform, about $1200 in gas, about $100 in tolls, and about $100 in lodging. The only thing to add to that is souvenirs and food/drinks.
For the amount of things that we saw and the amount of places we traveled to in two weeks, $2,000 give or take was completely worth it. Budget is different for every one and that’s completely understandable, but I just wanted to share that travel doesn’t have to be crazy expensive just to go to one destination.