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6 Ways to Experience #Vanlife Without Breaking the Bank

Hit the road and discover the landscapes of the West.

By
Kristin Luna
Picture of an RV with a picnic table and chairs overlooking the ocean
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Photo: Arina P Habich / Shutterstock
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Hit the road in an RV or camper van to experience the West's beauty in a whole new way.

#Vanlife is the latest chapter of a long-standing American tradition: exploring America in an RV, camper, or trailer. Since the advent of the Airstream trailer in 1929, Americans have been canvassing every nook and cranny of the United States by taking their homes along with them. Post-war optimism and prosperity in the mid-1940s and a national investment in the interstate highway system in the ’50s only served to ramp up individual exploration of our diverse lands in a traveling home.

According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, now more than 9 million households own an RV in the U.S., and that number has climbed more than 16 percent since 2001. Alongside this growth, camper vans, particularly retro Westfalias and fully kitted out Sprinter Vans, have come back into fashion. Fueled by social media, the vanlife craze has swept the nation and inspired people of every generation to leave behind their houses and travel full-time in their roving homes.

But you don’t have to be retired or a social media influencer to afford such a mobile lifestyle; the ability to work remotely and piled-up vacation days can open up the road. Here’s how to get behind the wheel and out into the jaw-dropping landscapes of the West without spending a cool $100,000 on a camper van conversion or using up your savings on your first extended road trip.

Ease Into It

Before considering selling your house (along with everything in it) and hitting the road full-time, make sure you and your family are well-suited for the lifestyle by traveling in short bursts or long weekends.

“If you want to see what an RV is all about, you don't have to go out and buy your own right away,” says Crazy Family Adventure blogger Bryanna Royal, who has been traveling full-time for more than four years with her husband, four kids, and two dogs. “Instead, you can rent an RV from an owner through a company such as Outdoorsy or Mighway. It’s like an Airbnb for RVs and [it’s] a great way to see if this lifestyle is right for you before purchasing your own.”

You can also rent camper vans and trailers through Outdoorsy and local rental companies.

Read More: Vintage Trailers: Hotels on Wheels

Picture of a woman eating lunch in a camper van looking towards mountains
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Photo Gary Parker / Stocksy
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For more experienced vanlifers, "boondocking"—or camping for free in the wilderness—takes you entirely off the grid.

Lengthen Your Stay

The amount of time you spend in one place can help reduce your overall campground fee, says Phoenix-based blogger Andi Fisher, who spent a year and a half traveling in an RV with her husband before settling in Arizona.

“The longer you stay at an RV park or campground, the cheaper it is. Most places have weekly and monthly rates,” she says. “You may find that reserving for a week and only staying four days or reserving for a month and only staying three weeks will actually be cheaper than a reservation for your exact dates.”

Setting up camp for longer stints can also help you slow down and deeply explore an area. You’ll save on gas, too, since you won’t be driving to a new spot every couple of days.

Go Wild

“Boondocking”—or going off the grid and camping for free in the wilderness—is a rite of passage among long-time RVers and vanlifers who have learned the ropes.

“After you’ve had your RV awhile and you feel comfortable with how it functions, one of the best ways to save money is by boondocking,” Fisher says. “This type of wild camping allows you to get closer to nature and be away from the crowds. You won’t have water, electricity, or sewer, but you will have more money in your wallet because boondocking is free!”

Royal agrees, “You can find many free boondocking locations out West and throughout the country on Bureau of Land Management land. There is some prep and planning that goes into this since you won't have access to power, water, or sewer, but it’s totally doable and there are some really amazing places you can stay.”

The Bureau of Land Management oversees a tenth of the land in the United States—or 245 million acres—a map of which is available on the BLM’s website. You can also camp for free in National Forest dispersed campsites and along many National Forest roads.

Before setting up camp, always ask a ranger about the best sites in the area, current condition of the roads you’ll be traveling (finding out too late that there’s nowhere to turn your 40-foot rig around is not the best introduction to boondocking!), and any restrictions that may be in place, such as a campfire ban. You’ll also want to make sure you have ample water and enough power to get you through your days away before going off the grid. Many of the best boondocking locales are remote—in other words, no cell service—so be prepared for anything, and pack an emergency kit with all first aid, navigational, and roadside tool needs. You are responsible for carrying all of your own trash out and leaving without a trace.

Read More: The Best Places to Rent Camping Gear

Picture of a white camper van driving along a winding road through the woods
Photo credit
Photo: Luke Mattson / Stocksy
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The more you can downsize your necessities, the better. Once you hit the road, you'll realize you don't need much.

Strip Your Belongings Down to the Basics

Part of the beauty of adopting a roaming lifestyle is clearing away the clutter and getting rid of everything that’s not a necessity. But a slimmer lifestyle is also better for your wallet.

“You can save lots of money and heartache in the long run by not being overweight,” Fisher says. There are weigh stations and certified CAT scales at truck stops and diesel gas stations across the country, and often, full-timers will invest in their own portable RV scale.

“Overloaded and overweight vehicles not only use more fuel but if you’re in an accident and your RV is found to be overweight, it may nullify your insurance policy,” Fisher adds. “You’ll quickly find once out on the road that you need far fewer personal possessions than you ever imagined. The point is to get away from it all, not take it all with you!”

Focus on Free or Cheap Activities

When traveling long-term, you can save money on the small stuff by cooking in your camper or on a gas camp stove instead of eating out, and finding free or low-cost activities that you and your travel companions enjoy. Royal advises not getting lured into the mentality that you’re constantly on vacation—because, ultimately, you’re not.

“The hardest part about budgeting while traveling full time is realizing you aren't on vacation all the time, even though it kind of feels like it,” she says. “You can't go do every attraction or try every restaurant when you visit a new location.”

Instead, look for the free things to do nearby and visit local parks. Hiking is always free, and it’s a great way to get to know an area intimately. Royal also suggests keeping an eye out for restaurants at RV parks and resorts that serve regional specialties at subsidized prices. Otherwise, pick and choose where you’ll spend your money at each stop to help you stick to your budget.

Take Advantage of Memberships

Fisher utilized discounts at many RV parks through her AAA Membership on her 18-month trek around the U.S. “We received AAA discounts at nearly all the RV parks we stayed in,” she says. “If you don't belong to an RV Club, which may be expensive, this is the best way to get a campground discount, and at [Kampgrounds of America parks], it was usually on top of the discount we got with our KOA card as well, so more savings!”

Your membership can also help you save at major attractions like museums, in addition to cutting costs on vehicle repairs and roadside service. Additionally, the U.S. National Park Service sells an America the Beautiful pass, which allows a family into every park for just $80 a year. NPS also provides discounts for seniors and free annual passes for U.S. military and their dependents so you can visit more places for less.

Up Next: Retreat to These Glamping Yurts Around the West

This article was originally published in October 2018. Some facts may have aged graceslessly. Please call to verify information.