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  • Writer's pictureMarina Neal

Top Tips for an Epic Western Road Trip

It’s 4 pm and I’m laying in the bed in the back of my friend’s Tacoma truck. There’s golden light starting to filter in through the branches above us and I’m watching a desert mouse creep closer and closer to our lazing forms. We’ve chosen to camp near Joshua Tree, on dispersed land right outside the park. There are sweeping views of dry hills, Joshua trees spattered around, and it’s absolutely empty. Plus, it’s entirely free.

Joshua Tree National Park
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

Campsites like this make national park road trips affordable, and give a sense of wilderness that you can’t quite get in RV parks or motels. My friend and I went from the Southwest national parks all the way through Joshua Tree and Ojai, California, and then up to Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite. We hiked, we surfed, we climbed, we sat in hot springs for too long, we saw sunsets, we cracked our eyes open for sunrises, and we made a lot of instant coffee. It was an absolutely beautiful reminder of the variety of epic places the West has to offer.

I did a ten-day trip with two people for about $1200, even with gas prices at an all-time high! Here’s how I did it.

Zion National Park
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

1. Get an America the Beautiful pass.

This is absolutely essential for a road trip through National Parks. The America the Beautiful pass costs $80 and gives you unlimited free entry to all National Parks for a full year. It also gives you free entry to national recreation areas (like Red Rocks Reservation in Las Vegas), national forests, and grasslands! When you consider the $35 day-use entry fee to most National Parks, and the prices that can come with other government-managed areas, this is a fantastic deal.

This will save you a ton of money, and allow you to hike your little heart out across the country.

2. Be prepared to camp.

And I’m not talking about expensive KOA or national park campsites. These places can cost up to $40 a night, which I was not willing to spend. Public lands are going to be your best friend during this trip. If you want a more comprehensive guide on camping on public lands, check out our blog post here. Apps like iOverlander and Gaia GPS are also great tools for finding BLM camping and forest service roads! My biggest tip for ease of camping? Set up a bed in your car.

Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

It feels safer, and it’s often just less of a headache to sleep in your car. When thinking about setting up a bed in a car, visions of fancy vans and wooden build-outs come may be what first come to mind. This absolutely does not need to be the case.

For two sweet summers, I slept in the back of my Mazda Protege. I put my feet in the trunk and folded the backseat down. I put a sleeping pad on top and called it good. This is the kind of ease I’m talking about. Get to a campsite, and just crawl into the back of your car. It’s perfect, warm, safe, and comfortable.

3. Grocery shop in advance.

Man cooking in sailboat kitchen
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

Road trip food grows tiresome. After a week of eating salty snacks, gas station coffee, and fast food anyone would feel horrible. At the beginning of our trip, and in each additional city, we stopped at Trader Joe's to stock up on easy food, snacks, and fruit.

While I’ve traveled with a Coleman stove before (great idea if you have one), this time we only had a pocket rocket. So our meals were limited to one-pot ideas. Favorite cheap meals included rice/beans/spinach/salsa or pasta and red sauce! A big bag of apples and peanut butter ruled our mornings, and dried mangoes fueled our afternoons. Check out more of my favorite recipes to find inspiration!

Another easy pro tip is bringing dehydrated meals you love. Usually reserved for backpacking, these are actually great things to have on the road. Boil water and fill up for a quick lunch, or delicious dinner. I used the Farm to Summit meals (take it from a backpacking guide, these are the tastiest dehydrated meals I’ve ever had).

All in all, this is a big part of saving money for us. With the gas prices so high, we couldn’t save much in terms of driving but we could eat cheap!

4. Bring along equipment for your favorite adventures.

Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

Who needs expensive tours or guided experiences when walking is the best feeling ever? Spend your time in these beautiful places exploring in your favorite way. For us, we hiked almost every day and climbed whenever we could. Whether your favorite way to move is biking, hiking, or romping around on rocks, doing the movement you love is a great way to see the places without breaking the bank.

Want to do your favorite sport but don’t have the gear? Requipper is a great site for used gear of all shapes and sizes. Plus, used gear is good for the planet and extremely affordable. It’s a win-win.

5. Plan ahead for logistics.

Planning ahead is a great companion to saving money. As much as I love taking off on trips with no idea where I’ll sleep that night, these are usually the times when I absolutely can’t find a spot to sleep and end up crashing in a Walmart parking lot or filling up on gas at the crazy expensive sole gas station in the middle of the desert.

Before heading out on the trip, I look around each National Park I plan to visit for dispersed camping spots, and previous visitor’s tips for the area. I make notes on where I want to camp, and what towns I should fill up on gas/groceries.

Mammoth Lakes, CA
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

Congrats! You’ve got yourself a cheap vacation. Final tip, don’t forget to give yourself some wiggle room. Try the famous local breakfast sandwich! Buy yourself a pair of earrings from the tiny artist outside the park! Get an iced coffee after a long drive! Figure out how much money you want to put aside for fun spending and then don’t feel guilty about treating yourself.

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