Tips for a budget campervan trip around the USA
My husband and I spent six months driving around North America a couple of years ago. Five months of those were spent in the USA.
To the right is a map outlining where we went.
We often look back on these memories with fondness. Never had we felt so free! We spent the days driving where we pleased, visiting a different National Park every week or so, sleeping in our van and cooking in the wilderness over an open fire.
Looking back, I can now see that it was this journey that made us realize that we wanted to be digital nomads for as long as possible. After tasting this freedom, we haven’t worked for anyone but ourselves since. Driving on wide open roads and spending each day as you please can cast a spell over you. You won’t want to return to the regular 9 to 5, trust me.
But anyway, this post isn’t about how our road trip changed our lives, it’s about giving you tips to have the most epic road trip you possibly can. And let me tell you – sleeping in a van throughout North America for six months certainly taught us some camping and road tripping hacks!
The practicalities of campervaning
When we tell people that we bought a van for our road trip, many are shocked. Why would we spend that much money? But in all honesty, if we were to rent a van for $30 a day – which is a good rate, mind you – within three months we would’ve already covered the cost of our van. (When I say van, I mean a people-mover or family van. You can see our van in the photograph to the right.)
Going on a short road trip and want to rent a van for cheap or even free? If your destinations and dates are flexible, you can always move a campervan from one location to another for a campervan company. Websites like Transfer Cars US allow you to rent RVs for as little as $5 a day – provided you take them from a certain city to another in a particular time frame.
For us, we ended up buying a Pontiac Montana van from a dodgy second hand car salesman in Toronto. It cost $2,250 Canadian dollars. And I stand by my advice – if you plan on road tripping for three months or more, I would certainly contemplate purchasing a vehicle rather than renting one.
But this brings me to my second tip – make sure you know about cars, or get someone who knows about cars, to look over your vehicle before you purchase it. We didn’t. Big mistake. As we were one and a half hours out of Toronto the morning after we’d bought our van, it broke down on the motorway. It caused us endless problems and ended up costing us a further $2,500. All of this could’ve been avoided if we’d had an independent mechanic take a look at the vehicle before we bought it.
Convert your van into a camper
We’d recommend that you purchase a van rather than a car or a campervan. It’s better than a car because it gives you more room for sleeping in it. And it’s better than a campervan because it’s much cheaper. (Although if you have the budget, an RV is very comfortable!)
But how do you convert your van into a place to sleep? It’s much easier than you think, and it’s cheap. It cost us less than $300 for everything we needed for our road trip, and we bought all our materials from Walmart.
Firstly, remove the middle seats from the van. If you are returning to the same starting point on your road trip, then you can leave the seats behind. If not, do what we did and wrap them in a tarpaulin outside each time you set up camp.
Next, purchase four large plastic storage containers / tubs from Walmart.
They are handy for storing your things in, but more importantly, they make up your makeshift bedframe inside your van. Before you buy them, ensure you measure the dimensions of your van so you know they’ll fit inside with the seats out. Also measure the height of the back seats when they are folded down so you know how tall your containers should be. Buy the sturdy containers that’ll be able to hold you while you sleep without cracking.
Finally, pump up a blow-up mattress and place it across the containers and the folded chairs. And voila! You have a bed.
The great thing about this bed is that you sleep on top of all your belongings, meaning it’d be near impossible for someone to break into your van and rob you while you slumber. (This does happen!)
In order to sleep in past sunrise, you’re going to need some curtains. We made ours by purchasing some bungee cords and stringing them up around the van. Then, we hung our clothes and towels on these bungee cords to block out the light. Curtains that cost $4. Winning!
One of the most annoying things about road tripping is that it is essentially like living out of a suitcase 24-7. (Unless you have a fancy RV with a built-in wardrobe.)
To help you organise your gear more efficiently, we came up with some tricks while we were road tripping.
First of all, pack your gear into Ziploc bags and label them. Or use breathable packing cubes, which you can purchase from any outdoor store. (I swear by these.) Label your bags and then store them inside you larger plastic containers with related gear.
For example, we had one container for clothing, one for electronics (laptops, cords, cameras), one for kitchen utensils such as plates and Tupperware containers, and the last box was for bedding.
We then labelled these large containers so we could access everything easily without having to turn our van upside down.
We like to cook a lot, and this didn’t change on our road trip. We’d whip out our little camping stove whenever we got the chance, or light a campfire. It saved us money and allowed us to eat healthy food. We’d make soups or stir-frys, which were easy and nutritious. To make our cooking tastier, we would often use dried herbs and spices. We would store these in old tic-tac containers to keep them tidy.
Speaking of cooking, if you plan to cook while you camp, bring lots of foil because you can bake nearly anything wrapped in foil over the campfire. Small chopped vegetables wrapped up with salmon and spices, for example. Another delicious recipe is wrapping your favourite ingredients into a breakfast burrito and placing it in the coals to bake.
For cold storage, bring a cooler to keep your food cool. Before we set off on our trip, we would freeze water bottles and then pack them in to the cooler. This had a double benefit because when the ice melts you can also drink the water. Every time we checked into a hotel or motel (which we often did in cities where camping wasn’t so easy) we would re-freeze more water in the small freezers inside the minibars.
For washing up your cooking utensils, purchase a small tub from Walmart and a reusable water dispenser. We also bought some microfiber towels – these were a lifesaver for us because often we’d only be camping in a place for the night, and with quick dry towels we didn’t have to worry about travelling with wet gear.
Budget saving road trip tips
If you want to cook, you will probably be lighting campfires frequently. For kindling, we were purchasing expensive firelighters, until we met a couple who told us about the secret of dryer lint. This is the perfect kindling! (Which makes sense, as we all know it’s very flammable.) For easy storage, pack it into empty toilet rolls, and then use a toilet roll of lint each time you want to light a fire. It’s an easy and budget friendly to get a campfire blazing in no time.
It’s not just firelighters you’ll want to save money on – petrol for your car will be a main expense. To help you save cash at the pump, download the Gas Buddy app which will tell you where the cheapest gas station is in your area. Simply type in the ZIP code or city you’re in and it’ll tell you the cheapest gas station in your area. To help you budget, you can also enter your start and end locations of your road trip, plus the model, make and year of your vehicle, and it’ll calculate how much gas costs will be for your journey.
One of the ways to limit your use of gas per mile is to ditch anything you don’t need. Any extra weight in the car will burn more gas each leg of the highway. Travelling light is always a good idea when camping anyway – trust me, you’ll be happy with less in the car!
To track our spending on gas and other things like groceries and campground fees, we downloaded the app Trail Wallet. This app has saved us hundreds, if not thousands, over the years. You enter your budget and your home currency, and then everything you spend you input into the app, tracking expenses as you go. It’ll tell you immediately if you run over budget, allowing you to rein in your spending when needed.
If you plan on visiting a lot of National Parks on your road trip (and you should – these natural wonders were often the highlights of our journey) then it’s best to buy a National Parks pass. We only did this halfway in and regretted not doing it sooner. The pass is only $80 and all your car’s occupants will be allowed entry into each park on the one pass. Some of the major parks, like the Grand Canyon, are $25 to visit, so it’s good value to get the pass, even if you’re just visiting four parks.
We didn’t plan all that much when we went road tripping and sometimes we regretted it. We were road tripping mainly through the summer months, and some National Parks were seriously overcrowded. This could pose a problem with finding campsites for the night. In some of the more popular parks, like Yellowstone, campgrounds are booked out months in advance and sometimes we were caught short.
Have a backup plan for your itinerary too. When we visited the Grand Canyon it snowed so we decided not to camp there. But unfortunately, the only affordable accommodation we could find was an hour away! If you’re road tripping in the winter, check the weather reports, as some roads are closed due to adverse weather.
You should also consider visiting some of the lesser known parks, or the state parks, if you want to avoid the crowds. We were pushed out of the National Parks when the government shutdown happened and so road tripped around a few of the state parks instead. We were pleasantly surprised with them – look at this gem of a park we found in Utah!
To help you plan, one app I’ve discovered recently and wished we had during our road trip is the Road Trippers app. Enter your start and end points and pick what you want along the way – hotels, attractions, natural wonders or weird stuff. The app will tell you these locations on your route so you can map out what you want to see and do as you road trip.
When planning your route, also consider venturing off the highways and on to the back roads. These routes are much more interesting than the humdrum highways that all look the same after a while.
When you’re road tripping, you’ll also drive past a lot of Welcome Centers – every time you come to a new town at least. Don’t dismiss these. Not only is it a free and often clean place for a restroom stop, they also give out free maps and have information on the best things to do in the local area.
Trust me, you will be wanting a physical map in some rural places – 3G doesn’t work everywhere in the US. Although, we managed to last without using 3G at all during our road trip. Instead, we relied on our satellite navigations system that we bought from a friend for cheap. But if you don’t have access to one of these, it’s a good idea to download a satellite navigation system app that works offline. Here’s a great list of reviews of the best from WIRED Magazine that’ll get you started.
Mapping out your itinerary in advance will also help you to adequately budget for your trip. If you know where you’re going then you’ll have a good understanding of what you want to see and do and what towns you’re going to be spending the most time in. Chicago will be a lot more expensive than a rural town in Wisconsin!
For the more expensive cities, like San Francisco, we opted to stay in Airbnbs or Couchsurf. Not only did this save us money, but it ensured we met local people who could show us around town. One of our Airbnb hosts even turned into a client of ours!
You don’t really want to be sleeping in your van in these large cities, as it’s illegal in many places and you could get in to trouble with the police, so make sure you seek out accommodation under a proper roof. It’s not very safe to sleep in your car in these big metropolises either. Speaking of safety…
Safety is paramount during a road trip. First of all – know the road rules. This might sound completely obvious, but don’t take it lightheartedly. A simple breach of the law while you’re driving can catch you out bigtime, and if you’re a foreign visitor, it’s especially easy to do.
And that’s exactly what happened to us – we were slapped with a $950 fine. What happened? Well, we didn’t realize that if a school bus stops on the other side of the street, heading in the opposite direction, you have to stop too. We were pulled over and the fine was crippling, especially considering we were travelling on a budget. So avoid our mistake and ensure you know the road rules before you go. Keep in mind that they sometimes change in different states too!
To avoid a speeding fine, use cruise control when you’re travelling long distances. As an added benefit it should also help you cut down on gas use too.
Keeping your vehicle safe is as important as knowing the road rules. Stop in at the mechanic and make sure your vehicle is serviced before you head off. Get them to change the oil, pump the tires, and do any other basic maintenance.
If your car breaks down on the road, ask locals on advice for the best mechanic to use. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong with our Pontiac Montana and neither could any of the mechanics we visited. Finally, we went to a mechanic recommended by local people we met and they fixed the problem. Local advice is frequently the best advice!
You also want to ensure you’re covered in the case of a breakdown, or in the case of an accident. Have appropriate insurance and join the AAA so that you won’t be in the lurch if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Or better yet – learn how to change a tire so that you can fix a minor problem if it arises. It’s also a good idea to get a breakdown kit and store it in your car in case of a problem.
You want to be prepared for the worst case scenario, so have plenty of water with you in case you do break down.
Another preparation tip is to carry with you a first aid kit at all times. Even small things like headache tablets can be a lifesaver when you’re camping in a remote park in the middle of Utah and the nearest pharmacy is a long drive away. Ensure you have bandages and saline equipment in your kit too, in case you happen to injure yourself hiking.
Hiking safety also extends to always letting people know where you are. Some hikes in the national parks require you to sign in – always do this because if you get lost then a search and rescue team will know the rough vicinity of where you went.
I always make sure my family know where I’m staying, as a further safety precaution. Not only is this in case something happens to us, but also if my family need to contact us in the event of an emergency, such as a sudden death in the family. Sharing your location continuously can be difficult if you’re road tripping, but one of the best methods I’ve found is to enter our itinerary plans onto Google Calendar, and then share the calendar with my family.
There’s also a handy app called Glympse you can use, which allows you to share your GPS location with friends and family, wherever you are.
And finally, while we’re touching on safety, make sure you acquaint yourself with the poisonous bushes. When we were in a campground in New Hampshire, we brushed up against some poison ivy – ouch! After that we studied up on poisonous plants, and what they looked like, so this didn’t happen to us again. Some of the main ones to look out for are poison oak, ivy and sumac.
Road trip ready!
And there you have it – a summary of all the things I’ve learnt from our road trip adventure, and many tips I wish I’d known before.
But hopefully you can put them to good use so that your road trip runs smoothly the first time around.
Do you have any road trip tips to add? Let me know!
Carmen is one half of the couple behind Double-Barrelled Travel, a travel blog focused on vlogging. Carmen married Dave three years ago and they quit their journalism careers in mid-2013 for a life on the road.
Hi, great article with lots of really handy advice!
I am curious if you remember how many miles your van had on it when you purchased it?
My and my fiance are looking into purchasing a van for a long US road trip (maybe even up to a year), and we were wondering just how old of a van we should be considering. We understand that maintenance on the road is inevitable but we want to try to limit that if possible!
I know this article is a couple of years old now, but any advice would be greatly appreciated!
I’m the site editor and this was a guest post. You’ll have better luck if you contact the author directly, as she probably doesn’t check these comments. There is a link to her own travel site at the bottom of the article. Best of luck. -Roger