Road trippin’ around USA’s Western States
Back in late 2015, we concocted the idea of our first international trip together being a road trip around the Western states of America. A huge amount of research and planning went into making that trip happen. This isn’t a post about where we ventured (that post will come later). This article is about how we did it, and how you can too.
Finding the right van
We checked out some typical RV’s, which were WAY outside of our budget. Also, we can’t parallel park. We had previously done short road trips in New Zealand using Wicked Campers. A quick Google search revealed that Los Angeles had its own branch of this company. These are much smaller than your typical camper vans, and they each have their own custom paint job (in New Zealand, Wicked has previously garnered a lot of negative attention due to their obscene paint jobs). These vans were within our budget, so we went with them, and we don’t mind obscene.
If you’re not up to sleeping in a van for an extended period of time, there are still plenty of options to keep accommodation costs down. couchsurfing, Airbnb, and cheap hotels will be your best bet. You can also camp if you have the equipment!
We took our backpacks, but two normal sized suitcases would fit in comfortably. You could always ask for the dimensions from your van rental.
Figuring out where to sleep for free/cheap
Next up we researched how to freedom camp in America. Turns out Americans call it boondocking. Basically it’s staying overnight somewhere without power or hookups. This could be anywhere from the side of the road to designated free camping sites.
Each night we would stay in a different place, except for when we camped in Yosemite National Park for a few nights. We found side streets that we could park overnight, and that looked safe and quite (one night we unknowingly parked up under a flight path! Needless to say, we moved on from that spot pretty quickly). We would check google maps for park/grass areas for places to park up when we were out of the cities. In Las Vegas, we parked overnight in casino parking garages. They weren’t the quietest of places, but nobody disturbed us. The best place we found was right by the ocean in a tiny town along the Pacific Coast Highway.
There a few occasions when we were woken by the police, and told to move on because we were parked somewhere we shouldn’t have been. Some of the nicer ones even pointed us in the direction of more suitable places to sleep.
San Francisco was probably the most difficult place to park up. We learnt to wait until dark to find an empty park on a quite side street, and hope that we wouldn’t get moved on in the middle of the night. Even better if it wasn’t under a lamp-post, as the vans paint job was a dead giveaway that it was a camper van.
During our research, many people said they stayed in Wal-Mart’s car parks. Laws had apparently changed in California, making it illegal for vehicles to be parked overnight. We tried it once, but they had security patrolling the car park so it didn’t last very long.
No judgement, okay? We weren’t exactly able to shower everyday or even second day. We survived by using swimming pool showers and baby wipes for times of desperation, because, there is no need to smell like a sewer. When we first arrived, we purchased a solar shower. It only ended up getting used once in Death Valley, as it was kind of inconvenient for us to use in the places we were parked up. If you are embarking on a van life road trip, a solar shower could be a good idea if you aren’t going to be in super public places.
Our van didn’t have a toilet, so it was public toilets, fast food restrooms and anywhere else suitable we could find. We have read countless articles about freedom campers in New Zealand popping a squat in all sorts of places, which is gross. This is the kind of thing that gives freedom campers a bad rep, so we avoided that at all costs.
This we didn’t skimp on, because who wants to be wearing four-day old undies?
We bought a small foldable laundry bag from home, a travel clothes lines, and laundry soap. All we had to do was put some clothes in the bag, add water and soap, and shake it vigorously. It dried in no time at all. When something wasn’t drying quickly there was always the dashboard of the van. A couple of times we splurged and used a laundromat. They aren’t expensive, we just didn’t need to use them often.
We Gotta Eat
Wicked provided us with a small cooking stove, utensils, pots, chilly bin and some cute camping chairs and a table that folded away to make up the bed. We cooked most nights which was entertaining in itself. Nothing fancy, just basic food like noodles, pasta, and soup. The van had a lot of storage for our luggage and food. We ate a lot more fast food than we care to admit, because it was cheap. Occasionally we would eat at restaurants (Toni loved The Cheesecake Factory).
Our first trip to Wal-Mart was an experience! We don’t have anything like this in New Zealand, so we might have gotten sidetracked in the confectionary aisle. Seriously, those giant bag of m&m’s made their way into the van a couple of times.
We were generally warm enough, but I am such a wuss and needed another blanket. In Lake Tahoe the temperatures dropped down to -4oC overnight, which was definitely felt.
Unfortunately, homelessness is something that we saw a lot of. New Zealand is pretty sheltered in terms of this. Don’t get us wrong, it’s there. It’s just slightly more hidden, and we don’t have the sheer number of homelessness that we witnessed in the States. If we ate out and had left over food, we would have the restaurant pack it up and we would give it to people in need. We also donated our blankets and pillows to people who needed them at the end of our trip. We’re not saying this to toot our own horns, but to let you know that this is a simple way to give back, while also reducing your own waste.
The Day Neil Died
We were making our way to San Diego going through Phoenix, Arizona, when Neil (that’s what we named the van, for obvious reasons) started losing power!! Oh shit. Luckily a Wal-Mart was never too far away. We pulled in and he died, just stopped working. Fortunately Wicked has a free call service. They took care of it from their end. However, we did end up losing a day waiting for Neil to be fixed.
All in all, we traveled through 4 States, visited 5 National Parks, and clocked up over 3,500km over 6 weeks.
Would we change anything? Yes. Learn how to light a fire so we could cook hot dogs. In the future we definitely plan to do another road trip (for longer!) There was so much we didn’t see that we wanted to see. Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, Havasu Falls, Arches National Park, and those are just places on the route that we took!
We will write a blog post detailing where we went and what we did during these six weeks soon.