Last fall my fiancé and I left our full time desk jobs in pursuit of adventure and in hopes of discovering unknown opportunities. To kick off this new, exciting and most certainly uncertain chapter in our lives, we decided to take a month-long road trip, starting from our home in San Diego, up through California, across Nevada and Utah, down into Arizona, finally making one giant loop back home. We did this traveling and sleeping in our own Mazda 3 hatchback. It was the best month of our lives.
Of course, both being unemployed, we couldn’t afford this grand trip to break the bank. Thus, in our planning, it became a fine balancing act between not spending all the money we saved yet maintaining as much comfort as possible while on the road. In the end, we did manage to return home not completely broke. Whether you’re planning a week-long outdoor vacation or month-long excursion, here are some budget-friendly tips I learned while road trip prepping that won’t sacrifice all the creature comforts of home.
The key to actually following your road trip budget is to make a plan. For a longer trip, determine a weekly spending amount for food, gas, campsite fees, and any other miscellaneous supplies you may require along the way. We created a Google spreadsheet with two separate tabs, one that listed the cost of supplies and items we needed to purchase before the trip and the other a detailed itinerary of the trip where we tracked campsite fees, food purchases, gas, mileage, etc., for each location. But also keep in mind that pesky surprises could be lurking, ready to sabotage your trip at any moment. For these instances it’d be wise to set aside an emergency stash and have a plan B at the ready.
This can be a huge money saver depending on your car situation. In our case, our Mazda 3 hatchback had great gas mileage with only 40,000 miles on it. Plus, it could fit all our supplies and comfortably double as our bedroom—which involved a creative systematic shuffling of items from back to front and shoving bags underneath seats (or wherever we could fit them). However, if using your own car is not an option or could prove more costly, then looking into a rental van or car could be worth the expense, especially on shorter trips. Most importantly, get your car checked out before embarking on your adventure to prevent any car mishaps that could totally derail the rest of the trip (and your wallet).
An extra warm insulated sleeping bag, a cushy foam mattress topper (we found one for less than $30 on Amazon that was easy to roll up and store in the car), durable tent (if you don’t plan to sleep in your car), and portable camping stove all make a significant difference when being on the road. Establishing a cozy sleeping space will avoid the temptation to check into a motel even in bad weather, and the camping stove provides easy-to-cook and delicious meal options, limiting the need to eat out. Sure, all of these items can be an pricey initial investment, but consider buying most of them second-hand at a discount or borrowing for free from a friend.
There is so much to see and too little time! Only true if you’re cramming your itinerary with an ambitious amount of places to visit. When planning for our road trip we had to cut the initial destination list in half, and I’m relieved that we did because it meant we could take our time to fully explore the places we truly wanted to experience and to set up a homey car/camp base to return to after a day of hiking or climbing. I’d also suggest mixing up the type of outdoor destinations to visit. For example, popular national parks can have expensive entrance and camping fees (unless you have an annual pass) and staying on BLM land, state park campsites, or private host campsites could balance out the cost. If you’re planning on visiting three or more National Parks in one year, the $70 annual pass will be worth the investment (and encourage you to explore more!).
Sure, we can all get by on cheap and fast junk food while on the road, but it isn’t the most sustainable option. Plan out meals for the week and prep the ingredients at home ahead of your trip. No need to get fancy here. My go-to food items consisted of chicken, any veggies you can grill easily or eat raw, canned beans and tuna, pasta, eggs, bananas, apples, trail mix, loaf of bread, and peanut butter and jelly. All of these foods are simple to cook in camp (especially if you have a stove), nutritious, can be stored in bulk while traveling, and end up costing you less than repeatedly dining out.
Road trips are a great opportunity to connect with old friends you’ve been meaning to visit. And after a week or two of living on the road, staying at a friend’s home for a night can feel very refreshing. On our trip we made pit stops at three different homes (usually after a week of road tripping) where we were able to shower, restock on food supplies, reorganize the car, do laundry, and sleep in a warm bed for free. Bring a bottle of wine or a souvenir from your travels in exchange for your friend’s gracious hospitality, and send them a handwritten thank you note when you return or a postcard from your travels for a more personal touch.
It is a trip after all and you should be enjoying yourself! During the last leg of our trip—a weekend in Las Vegas—we’d spend the day climbing in Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area (about 20 minutes outside of Vegas) and indulged in the evenings by staying at a nice hotel along the Strip and stuffing our faces with extravagant buffet food. Whatever your version of this may be, heed the famous words of Pawnee’s splurging expert Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) from the T.V. series Parks and Recreation, and “treat yo self.”
Emily Polachek is a freelance writer and editor based in San Diego, where she runs, hikes, climbs and kayaks all year round. She seeks creativity from exploring the outdoors and traveling to new places. (But also enjoys being a homebody with a captivating book and her two grey tabbies). Follow her adventures on Instagram @epolachek.
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