Recently I completed a 12,000 mile journey that took me through a majority of the states west of the Mississippi River. Over the seven weeks I learned a lot about life on the road and the challenges associated with outdoor excursions. Being a recently graduated, and quite poor, I lived a dirtbag existence that was low on luxuries but high on fun. Here’s my guide for saving money while spending time outdoors.
Step 1 – Loosen your grip on your lodging budget
The most important rule for the budget road tripper is to never pay to sleep. It’s easy to allocate money for a bed and shower but money spent on Campgrounds, hotels, Airbnb, etc. add up pretty quickly. If you are looking to camp, use dispersed campgrounds within national forests. They are free and allow camping, on average up to 14 days. They normally don’t have facilities, but have all the necessities to cook/eat and sleep. Freecampsites.net is another great resource and, although the interface can be frustrating, the content is great. If you are not camping, avoid hotels and instead sleep in your vehicle or at a friend, family member, or tinder match’s house. All are acceptable ways of avoiding lodging costs. Of the 40 nights I spent away from home I paid for a place to sleep only twice.
Step 2 – Don’t spend money on parts you don’t need
I understand that right before your trip you may have the urge to order that new winch or lift kit you’ve been saving your pennies for, but in the interest of fun over retail therapy, I suggest you keep that credit card away from the off-road catalogs. Although you may think that you need these bits I suggest finding the limit of your vehicle first, and use that cash for craft beer and other essentials. You may be surprised, like I was, to find that your stock rig is more than capable of the trails you may tackle with aired down tires and some careful driving. Although a little battered I found my Xterra to be more than enough to tackle the majority of the Alpine loop near Ouray despite having a bike rack on the back. You may get some funny looks from the off-road elite but ignore them.
Step 3 – Travel with friends
There’s power in numbers, and what I mean by that is the greater the person to vehicle ratio, the less money you spend and the more miles you go. Sacrificing a little privacy and comfort in your rig allows you to load up with some smiling faces and extra wallets. You will be able to have more fun, more food, and do more miles at a time than you would alone. There is also the insurance that if something were to go wrong, you have people to help push.
Step 4 – Cook your own meals
Life on the road does not have to mean limiting yourself to hot dogs, baked beans, and fast food. With the right tools, cooking outdoors is an excellent way of saving money and eating well. Keeping meat, milk, and other perishables cool is an essential step. Invest some money in a good cooler or fridge so you don’t have to make a trip to get ice every day. I spent some money on a YETI Tundra 35 that kept block ice up to a week. For cooking, a Coleman propane stove is the best way to cook meals, and while they can be pricey when purchased new, you can easily score a used one (I paid about $20 for mine at an REI gear sale). Keep meals simple and plan out your grocery stops. Although crude we ate well during the trip cooking up salmon, steaks, and lasagna for dinner.
Step 5 – Spend more time at each location
It’s easy during a trip to spend more time traveling between, than spending time at, your destinations. During this trip and others, I’ve spent one day at many locations before clearing off to the next one intent on seeing as much as I can. Unfortunately you spend more money traveling than staying put. This coupled with the monotony of setting up and breaking camp each day can start to get old. Spend some time really researching where you want to go and the many features of each location. Keep your one night stands to a minimum and give yourself time to recover before venturing out for another multi hour stint on the freeway. Quality over Quantity.
With these steps I hope everyone can be a bit more dirtbag-y and enjoy their road trips just a little bit more. Finally, just remember one thing, showers are overrated.