By Matt Dyer
About five years ago, I decided to take a little road trip, as cheaply as possible, just to get the hell out of L.A. for a few days. It ended up being an awesome, life-changing, two-week trip up and down the West Coast. I slept in my car and visited a lot of random places without any particular plan.
It was so exhilarating that I decided to do this full time for a year, going coast to coast and back. I recommend going during the fall or spring, as the more extreme summer and winter months can be unpleasant for sleeping in your car. At any rate, from that experience, here’s what I learned about traveling the USA on the cheap:
What You’ll Need:
-A few days worth of clothes
-Plenty of blankets
-2-3 gallons of water
-3 days worth of food
-First aid kit
What You Don’t Need:
First, let’s talk about the plan: you don’t need a plan. Airplane tickets? Nope, you’re taking your car. Hotel reservations? Your car is the hotel—just put all of your blankets and pillows in the back and make a little nest. Food? Grab whatever is in your pantry and pack it in. There are grocery stores in other towns that will gladly sell food to you. Definitely bring a toothbrush and enough clothes to keep you warm at a wide range of temperatures; after all, you are essentially going to be camping. You could also bring a tent and do some traditional tent camping if you’d like, but a car is more than adequate.
1. Bring a Lot of Blankets (You Are Sleeping In Your Car).
Cars, like tents, are not well-insulated, so it can get pretty cold sleeping in them at night in the winter. Conversely, it can get unbearably hot in the summer. The dead of winter is doable with a really warm sleeping bag and a lot of blankets, whereas summer is just too damn hot and there are too many bugs. Spring and fall are the best. Personally, I think the ideal time for a sleep-in-the-car road trip is in November; just bring a lot of blankets. How many? Too many is almost enough. The great thing about late fall/early winter is that it’s cold enough to sleep comfortably but it’s not freezing, there are not many bugs flying around, the weather is pretty calm, food doesn’t spoil immediately in your car, and the longer nights give you more privacy and more time to sleep in.
2. Find Makeshift Campgrounds
Where can you park your car in order to sleep? The ideal situation is to park in a campground. Obviously, I’m not talking about the kind of campground that charges a fee, as in a National Park (a night in the Grand Canyon costs more than some motels!). I’m talking about the kind of informal, primitive, FREE campground that you can find in many of the obscure National Forests that you’ve never heard of.
Take the road less traveled! Sometimes it’s just a turnaround on a dirt road that’s big enough to park a car. If you have the good fortune to come across BLM land (Bureau of Land Management) in the middle of nowhere (i.e. central Nevada), you can usually just park anywhere and camp for the night. I always tried to park out of sight of the main roads, just to avoid any Deliverance-like situations, and I made sure to not block any roads. Even out-of-the-way dirt roads in the middle of the desert can have a maintenance truck drive down them at 7 a.m., as I experienced multiple times.
3. Make Your Car Look Like a Hobo’s Lair
Things get a little sketchy when you’re passing through more developed areas and need to stop. In general, if I stayed anywhere other than a campsite, I would never stay for more than one night, just in case I was breaking a law or pissing someone off without realizing it. The good ole mainstays for me were 24-hour Walmarts, truck stops, and, when worse came to worst, highway rest areas. You’ll need to use a thick blanket, sleeping pad, or piece of cardboard over your head if you stay in one of these parking lots, both for privacy and for shielding out the bright ass overhead lights. I wouldn’t park in a completely empty lot outside of a closed business because it could attract unwanted attention. While I never had any problems, there is a genuine risk that someone will want to break into your car if they see you in there, or if it looks like you have some nice stuff to steal. To deal with that contingency, I tried to make it look like the back of my car was just full of trash. This became easier over time as I accumulated actual trash to put over my nest.
4. Get Ready for Bed In a Different Location Than Where You Will Be Sleeping
Occasionally, I stopped on a residential street, but I had to be smooth to avoid the attention of any paranoid neighbors. Here’s how to be smooth: get ready for bed somewhere else—if you’re going to brush your teeth, eat dinner, use a bathroom, or rearrange the stuff in your car, do that at a gas station, or at least in a different neighborhood. When you’re all ready, get in your car and drive on until you find a quiet block that has other cars parked on the street. Drive at a reasonable, non-creepy speed. When you see a place to park, pull over quickly, turn off the car, and casually look around to see if anyone is watching you. If the coast is clear, crawl back into your nest and bury yourself in the pile of pseudo-garbage that is your urban camouflage. If you’re young and bright-eyed and innocent, and you don’t have a creepy mustache or the like, I doubt that people would give you much trouble, but I think it’s still a good idea to keep a low profile in these situations. When you wake up in the morning, check to see if anyone is standing around, and if you’re good, then crawl out of your nest, drive away, and eat breakfast somewhere else.
5. Have Only a Few Days Worth of Food at a Time
Speaking of breakfast, eating at Denny’s every day can get expensive. You’ll need to get some groceries if you really want to be cheap. There is a temptation to gather the whole journey’s stockpile of food before you even leave home, but I recommend that you only start the trip with a few day’s worth of food (unless you’re going straight into the wilderness to camp). The reason is that shopping for groceries at
an unfamiliar store in an unfamiliar town is an interesting experience. You get to see with new eyes something that is very mundane, and you may gain a better understanding of yourself and your habits. That is the essence of traveling, and you don’t have to fly around the world to experience it.
For food recommendations: Search online for camping food ideas that don’t involve much or any cooking.
Keep in mind that, since you’re not backpacking, you can carry heavier things like canned food, and you can stop at grocery stores frequently to get fresh and healthy food (i.e., you’re not relegated to eating canned chili 3 times a day). If you have a cooler, you can keep filling it with ice to keep perishables fresh. You should definitely have at least 2-3 gallons of water with you at all times, especially if you’re in remote areas. In general, if you’re going to be in remote areas, be prepared to get stuck there for several days, just in case. It wouldn’t hurt to have some jumper cables, fix-a-flat, and a first aid kit—you should have those in your car anyway.
6. Truck Stops are Great for Showering
The great thing about traveling in cold weather is that you don’t need to shower that much or even change clothes often, especially if you’re out in the wilderness. But let’s say you’re driving toward a city and you want to shower before re-entering society. You can use a private shower in a truck stop for about $3 to $15, depending on how nice the shower is. They’ll even give you a clean towel. You should know that truck stops with showers are usually located way outside of cities on major highways. If you’re already in a city, you’ll probably have to rent a motel room, unless you happen to find a public pool with showers. As with grocery shopping, showering in a weird place gives you a new take on an everyday experience.
7. Get Creative with Bathroom Time
With the exception of severely crowded cities like San Francisco, finding bathrooms is no problem. Since you need to stop for food and gas pretty regularly, there are always opportunities to go. It can be strangely liberating to rely exclusively on public restrooms for an extended period of time.
In addition, when you’re out in the woods, you can enjoy the splendor of copping a squat in the middle of the wilderness. If you’re a dude, you can use an empty gallon jug for those times when it’s too cold or awkward to get out of the car to take a leak. The tricky part is emptying a jug full of
urine without embarrassing yourself—you’ll figure that one out.
In addition, when you’re out in the woods, you can enjoy the splendor of copping a squat in the middle of the wilderness.
8. Find Interesting Ways to Have Fun
With the basics figured out, the last question is, “What do you do?” That’s up to you and who or what you happen to encounter. Walking around is a good, cheap, go-to activity in any location. So is talking to random people—there are a lot of friendly folks when you get out into the hinterland. Sometimes taking care of basics, like getting an oil change or buying some lettuce, is the activity.
9. Keep an Open Mind
Overall, the key to an interesting, fun, and cheap road trip is simple: Keep an open mind. Most people decide to go to famous, expensive places because they have no imagination. There are a million places out there that you haven’t heard of, and many don’t even have names. These are the places where there are no entrance fees, no fences, and no crowds because no one even thinks of them as “destinations.” Indeed, you’ll probably find that it’s difficult at first to recognize that these places are—well, places-—because your mind habitually seeks out what it already knows and ignores what it doesn’t know. Take the road less traveled. Learn to keep an open mind, and you’ll have a rewarding trip.
It’s free out there—in more ways than just financially. Out in the middle of nowhere, you can experience a level of freedom that the average city dweller might not be able to comprehend. Some of these places are beautiful, some are ugly; they are all yours to discover. The challenge, and indeed the fun, of this kind of minimalist road trip is in learning how to explore the unknown… the mundane… the destination that is not a “destination.” Just keep an open mind.
*Please keep in mind that I was a male in my late 20s. It might be different experience with different challenges if you are a female. This isn’t for everyone as there are inherent dangers to sleeping in your car.
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