Van Life Guide for Beginners: Traveling Around the United States in a Campervan
The best way to see North America is on a road trip. Whether you’re planning a road trip and plan to rent a campervan or RV or you’re considering becoming a full-time van lifer, we have you covered. We’ve put together a full guide covering do’s and don’ts, great tips, and expert recommendations for traveling around the United States by road.
Budget Travel Tips to Save Money on Your Campervan Trip
Campervan Travel Guide – Road Trips To Consider
Best Campsites or RV Parks to Visit in the US
Van Life Tips – Best Places to…?
Watch the Sunsets
Best Campervan Rentals
Fridge vs. no fridge – lots of space vs. not so much space – proper campervan vs. minivan … decisions decisions decisions.
Renting a car or campervan for the first time can be pretty daunting, and with so many options out there, it can be hard to decide on what’s the best van is for you. Read on for top tips and expert advice on how to find the right vehicle for you.
Answering those simple questions will help you to decide between renting a campervan or minivan.
These dependable vehicles are cheap, reliable, and, most importantly, easy to pick up all over the country. We recommend minivans for:
Travelers who are happy to fold down the seats and throw a mattress in the back of the van. Packing a tent is also an option.
Travelers on a budget – minivans are cheaper vehicles to run than campervans or RVs.
Groups of people who are traveling together (this is a great way to save on the cost of fuel)
People who are planning to mix it up between camping and staying in hotels.
The perfect vehicle for groups of two who are planning on living on the road, experiencing the van life, for the length of their road trip.
We recommend campervans for:
People who have a bigger budget to spend on a vehicle
Travelers who prefer their home comforts such as the fridge, kitchen sink, and gas stove.
Travelers who are planning on sleeping in their vehicle every night, and are looking for a little more room.
Travelers who are considering van living as a lifestyle
*Bonus – Some campervans have solar panels! Having solar panels means you have less of a need to stay at a powered campsite to recharge the batteries for your fridge & lights!
Tips for Campervan Travel
Traveling around in a campervan is a brand new experience to many people, so we thought we’d put together some tips to ensure that your trip around the USA with Travelers Autobarn is the ultimate, stress-free road trip!
Plan Out Your Route
The United States is vast, and you won’t be the first road tripper to look at Google Maps and underestimate how long it will take you to drive from one place to another. But, while you still want to keep some degree of spontaneity in your trip, it’s ideal to have a rough idea of where you want to travel to, the route you want to take, and how long it will take you to get there. If you are going through larger cities, try to avoid rush hour traffic, or you may get delayed for hours.
Have a rough plan of where you want to go, your must-see sites, and where you plan to stay each night will help you stay on budget, be more relaxed and have a more enjoyable trip. Bring a map of the United States too! You never know when you may hit a stretch of highway without services, so be prepared!
*Bonus – when you rent a campervan RV or minivan from Travellers Autobarn USA, all of our vehicles come with FREE UNLIMITED MILES! So even if you detour from your original plan, we have you covered!
Be Prepared On the Road
Food & Water
The hotter it is, the more water you need. You don’t want to get stuck in Death Valley National Park without water!
We recommend you carry at least 4 – 5 liters of water a day per person. You also need to think about bringing some extra water should you break down and are stuck overnight. Most supermarkets stock 10L bottles of water – so make sure you stop off to pick up as many as you need.
It’s also crucial that you pack some non-perishable food to keep you going should you break down – think cereal bars, nuts, and dried fruit. Try to avoid snacking on salty snacks – it’s just going to make you even thirstier and could speed up dehydration.
Weather – Know the forecast!
Knowing the weather forecast is extremely important! Depending on the time of year and what parts of the country you plan to campervan through, Mother Nature may have a different plan for your road trip. Winter months can bring on harsh temperatures, slippery roads, high winds, and road closures. Knowing ahead of time can save you from having to turn around or from being stuck in a stressful situation.
In some parts of the United States, you will need to be aware of hurricane season and pay attention to tornado warnings. The Weather Channel app is a great way to check the forecasts before you set off on the open road each day.
Our flexible drop-offs and unlimited miles are extra helpful in these situations. Don’t be in a rush!
Although many of the highways and roads in the United States are in good condition, you may end up on a gravel or dirt road.
If you have rented a campervan or car from one of the big cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or San Francisco (to name a few), then you might find that the insurance policy you took out does not cover you when you are driving on unsealed or unpaved roads. Make sure you read the small print.
Parts of North America is famous for its wildlife – buffalo, grizzly bears, mountain lions, moose, elk, and deer, to name a few.
When you’re driving, be aware that collisions with these animals are frequent, as well as cows and other animals, particularly at nighttime, dawn, or dusk. If you are pulling a night shift at the wheel, then try to ensure that the passenger next to you stays awake and alert to help you watch out for any animals on the road.
And please don’t try and take a selfie with or pet the wild animals! Not only is it against the law in certain parts of the country, but it is dangerous and could result in serious injuries or even death.
Boondocking – Dry Camping – Wild Camping
Solar panels come in very handy when you need to dry camp. If you are running out of steam and need to pull over in the middle of the night, or you can’t find a campground for the night, make sure you are in an area that allows the campervan to be parked. If you are in or near a larger city, it should be reasonably easy to find a Walmart, gas station, or truck stop that will allow you to use the parking lot for the night. Make sure it is 24-hours in the event you need to use the bathroom facilities. If you are in the middle of nowhere, make sure you don’t park on private property or where there is a “no trespassing” sign.
Must-Have Travel Apps
GasBuddy – An excellent app for travelers on a budget! Gasbuddy helps locate the cheapest gas near you so you can compare prices and save. They have a rewards program that allows you to earn points towards free gas, as well.
RoadTrippers – Planning a long road trip has never been easier. Roadtrippers helps plan out your route and gives suggestions for must-see stops along the way. They recently launched a Plus version, which allows for collaboration with your friends who are road tripping, offline maps for when you are without service, discount offers to help save money, with no advertisements popping up while you’re trying to use it.
Google Maps or Waze – Real-time GPS apps with live traffic alerts. Both apps are popular, so it comes down to preference.
The Weather Channel – The Weather Channel app has a free version and is great for current and extended forecasts across the United States. If you are heading to a new location, make sure and double-check the weather forecast. You may need to change your route, stop and restock your water supply, or give yourself additional time due to slippery roads.
First Aid: American Red Cross – The First Aid app is a must! We hope you never need it, but in the event, you have a first aid emergency or need to prepare for a weather emergency, the content is preloaded, so you have access to safety tips, step by step instructions, videos, and access to 911 no matter your location. And it’s free!
HipCamp – Hipcamp is an awesome app for finding and booking campsites, RV parks, and more.
Campervan or Minivan Maintenance
Remember that you are responsible for the campervan while it is in your possession. You should treat it like it is your vehicle and carry out basic maintenance checks every 300-500 miles. Basic maintenance includes checking things like tire pressure, and oil, washer fluid, and coolant levels.
If you’re driving a campervan, then make sure you know the height of the vehicle and be wary of driving into parking garages, under bridges, or low hanging branches if you aren’t sure.
Forest fires and brushfires are unfortunately very common in parts of the United States. They can be dangerous – so always make sure you adhere to the guidelines.
We recommend that you visit the check the fire danger rating in the area and make sure campfires are permitted where you are staying (particularly in summer).
If you start a campfire, then you must always make sure it is entirely out at the end of the night and have at least 10 liters of water nearby in case it gets out of hand.
Just because you are camping doesn’t mean you have to stick to cups of noodles, hot dogs, or cans of beans. Get creative and meal prep before you head out on the open road. Here are a few prep tips for cooking in a campervan.
Cook your bacon ahead of time. This way, all you need to do is heat it in the morning, throw it on a sandwich for lunch or crumble it up to top off your meal for dinner.
Cut up your chicken, beef, or pork and toss them in the seasoning or sauces before you pack up. Not only does this help with cleanup in the campervan, but it also saves space. If you season the meat ahead of time, then you don’t have to pack spices or bottles of sauce, and the meat will be full of flavor! You can even go one step further and cook the meat ahead of time.
Wash, cut, and put your fruits and veggies in a gallon bag. Again, this saves time and space on the road and makes it easier for snacks if you are traveling with kids.
Pack Reynolds Wrap and grilling bags. These are great for preparing meals over the campfire. Toss in your preseasoned steak strips, potatoes, veggies and add a little water, seal or wrap it up tight and throw it on the fire. Quick cleanup, easy to throw together and delicious! Foil is also great for cooking breakfast burritos, shrimp boils, teriyaki chicken with peppers and pineapple, fish, and Banana S’Mores, to name a few.
Precook a few pounds of ground beef! Ground beef is very versatile. You can throw together some tacos, taco salads or nachos, add to some pasta sauce for a quick spaghetti, or use it for breakfast burritos or hobo packets in the morning. If you aren’t a red meat eater, then chop up some sausage or ground turkey, or mushrooms if you are vegetarian/vegan.
Campervanning = Minimalism so Pack Smart
It’s no secret that traveling in a campervan comes with less storage and smaller space than a motorhome. Dollar stores are a great place to find travel-size toiletries for your road trip, and it’s easier on the budget.
Another great packing tip is to save condiments from fast-food restaurants. If you know you are going on a campervan road trip, plan to keep any extra condiments from eating out. Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, salt, and pepper packets take up a lot less space than full-size bottles and don’t require refrigeration. This not only saves space for additional packing items but doesn’t take up space in the campervan fridge.
Budget Travel Tips to Save Money on your Campervan Trip
One of your biggest outgoings is going to be the cost of your fuel. As we mentioned earlier, one of the best apps we recommend is GasBuddy. It’s convenient for finding the cheapest gas prices in your area. Having an app like GasBuddy or Waze can assist you in not only finding a gas station nearby but also which station has the lowest fuel prices.
*Pro-tip: Having the A/C on all the time will eat into your fuel tank – so if you’re trying to save some money settle for opening the windows instead.
Hit a supermarket with a grocery list in hand!
Once you have rented your campervan, you will likely be departing from one major city, so we recommend that before you hit the road, you stop by a supermarket to stock up on all the essentials (and we don’t just mean beers and sausages for the barbie!). Have a list! We all know that we spend more money in the grocery store without a list frequently buying food or supplies we don’t need and forgetting items we do.
Buying food and supplies from gas stations and small local stores on the journey can hit your traveling budget hard.
National Parks Pass
If you plan on visiting more than 3 National Parks, then we highly recommend you invest in an annual America the Beautiful pass! The cost is $80 and gives access to over 2,000 National Parks and National Refuges. Typically each park has around a $35 entrance fee, so an America the Beautiful pass is an excellent deal for travelers planning National Park Road Trips. If you are 62 and older, they have an annual Senior Pass that is significantly cheaper. If you are a current, or veteran, member of the US military or if you are a US citizen or permanent resident with permanent disabilities then you are eligible for a free pass.*
*Please confirm prices and terms have not changed for these passes at NPS.gov.
San Francisco to Denver and back – You won’t regret this roundtrip campervan adventure! Our itinerary takes you through some of the most famous places in the western United States.
Best Campsites or RV Parks to Visit in the USA
The United States has so many amazing places to visit. Traveling around in a campervan lets you see the most popular destinations, plus all of the beauty in between. You’ve decided which campervan is best for your road trip, you know all of the tips and best travel apps, we’ve given you a few road trip itineraries to consider, so now all that is left is where to stay.
The US is full of campgrounds and RV parks with a variety of amenities. However, if you are on a tight budget, you may want to look for free campgrounds along the way. Just be prepared, many of the free campsites come with no facilities or amenities so you will need to plan accordingly. Some of these sites are within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in parking lots of larger retailers like Costo, Walmart, and Cabelas, and truck stops and rest areas. Make sure and do your research so that you don’t get ticketed.
Here are 5 of our favorite RV Parks to visit:
North Pines Campground, Yosemite National Park, California
Glacier Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana
Zion River Resort, Zion National Park, Utah
Mesquite Spring, Death Valley National Park, California
Paradise on the River, outside Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Whether it is the Grand Canyon in Arizona, inside of a gigantic tree in Redwood National and State Parks, overlooking the Pacific ocean with the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, or hiking the Narrows in Zion National Park, we know travel selfies are a must! Here are our top 5 selfie spots.
Antelope Canyon in Arizona – We already mentioned places like the Grand Canyon & Zion above, but add Antelope Canyon to your list. It is particularly incredible and something everyone should experience.
Glacier National Park, Montana – Lake McDonald, Grinnel Glacier, Going to the Sun Road – GNP should be on everyone’s bucket list!
Redwood National & State Parks, California – The enormous redwood trees are not only a site to see but are fantastic backdrops for the avid selfie-taker.
San Francisco, California – Hawk Hill is a great spot to take a selfie with the Golden Gate Bridge and the city in the distance.
Las Vegas, Nevada – There are too many spots to list, but the fountain at the Bellagio Hotel is a great place to start.
Pro tip: Any US National Park is a spectacular place for selfies.
Travel outside of the bigger cities, put your phone down, and stargaze into the incredible nighttime sky.
Here are our top 5 places to stargaze.
Arches National Park – Utah Bryce Canyon – Utah
Death Valley National Park – California (make sure to go during the milder seasons)
Joshua Tree National Park – California
Rocky Mountain National Park – Colorado
Sedona – Arizona (don’t plan to stargaze during the late summer months. Early July to late August is monsoon season.)
Watch the Sunset
Who doesn’t love a good sunset? Below are some of our favorite spots to take in some of the most magnificent sunsets in North America.
Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona – The south rim, in particular, provides not only an exceptional sunset experience but a view of most of the canyon itself.
California – Pick a place! Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Joshua Tree National Park. California is full of beautiful sunsets locations.
Montana/Wyoming – Glacier National Park, The Grand Tetons or Yellowstone National Park. The clean mountain air and the sun setting behind the mountains – you can’t go wrong.
Santa Fe, New Mexico – Old Fort Marcy Park is an incredible experience for those willing to hike.
Arches National Park, Utah – When the sun sets, it changes the colors in the sandstone arches making a spectacular visual experience and a prime opportunity for incredible photos.
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