Dear GoMad Nomad,
I have a lot of time but not very much money. I’ve got a reliable car and want to take a road trip in the U.S. Do you have any suggestions to keep my costs low and extend my travel as long as possible?
-Ready to Hit the Road
Dear Ready to Hit the Road,
Traveling by car on a small budget in the U.S. means a few things. You’ll need an economical car. Gasoline in the U.S. is at an all-time high, so to keep costs low, you’ll want to pack light and try to bring along as many friends as possible in order to split gas expenses. But before you or I start complaining about gas prices, it’s still way cheaper than in many other parts of the world, especially Europe. (But remember cheap gas comes at a price.)
If none of your friends are into road-tripping on the extreme cheap, find like-minded individuals on Couch Surfing’s Ride Share USA (or find a ride if you don’t have a car).
Another thing you’ll be doing is camping. But if paying the $12-$30 per night to camp at your average campground is too much, you’ll have to know these three magic words: Bureau of Land Management. The National Forests are managed by the BLM, and wherever you see their lovely brown signs, it means you have the forest to yourself for free. Yes, that’s right, “dispersed” camping is free in the National Forest as long as you pitch your tent 100 feet or so from the road and promise to Smokey that you will put your fires out completely. Alternatively, you can pay about $12-18 at the official National Forest campgrounds which provide a pit toilet, (usually no water), a fire ring, and a flat spot to put your tent fairly close to your neighbors.
This free camping on BLM land gets tricky when you’re back east, because federal lands are fewer and farther between. But hey, there’s always the Walmart parking lot where you can crack the windows and recline your seat for the long evening.
You will also be cooking yourself. I got this cheap, simple-to-use Coleman propane stove to boil rice, cook pasta, and make tea. Perfect for preparing dinner in the cozy pine forests and for cooking oats in the morning. Don’t forget the cooler to keep your cheese, milk, and beer cool.
If your road trip takes you through the western U.S., and chances are it will, you will want to buy the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands annual Pass. It costs $80 and gets you and all those in your car into the National Parks (or the lifetime pass is only $10 if you are over 62!). The western United States is saturated with outstanding natural beauty and historical interests. From Death Valley and Joshua Tree in California to Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, the national parks system is your best value. Sticking to the park system will help you avoid tourist traps (like paying $25 to drive through a Redwood tree) and keep your costs in check.
So those are my ideas for keeping your budget to a minimum while road tripping. Use the comments below to share your own ideas and suggestions.