Road trips do not have to be expensive. With gas prices where they are, now is the time to travel across the country on a budget. If you’re willing to be a little uncomfortable while saving a lot of money you can spend your nights at free camp sites across the country, shower at gas stations or camp grounds, and cook for yourself. We’ve compiled a list of essential items for your affordable road trip packing list.
This summer we spent an entire month and 5,500 miles road tripping through the great national parks in the western US. We wanted to see as much as possible on our road trip, but also test the limits of budget traveling. Below is a list of items that we consider essential to traveling the open roads on a budget.
Road Trip Packing List
Coleman Sundome 2-Person Tent (~$45): Why spend $60+ a night at hotels around the country when you could just as easily camp in the great outdoors? The Coleman Sundome pays for itself in one night of free camping. There are free campsites available across the country and many websites that help you find those free sites. Our favorite resource on our road trip was freecampsites.net, which was essential for us to budget travel.
Intex Inflatable Fabric Sleeping Pad ($~9): A sleeping pad is essential for getting a good night’s rest while camping. Since you’ll be driving to all of your destinations, you don’t have to worry about how heavy the sleeping pad is and it makes sense to buy cheap.
Inflatable pads are much more comfortable to sleep on than foam pads and can be found for good prices. The Intex Fabric Camping Mattress is thick and durable, making it a good, cheap choice for your road trip packing list.
Coleman Bottle Top Propane Stove (~$20): If you’re going to road trip on a budget you need a quick and easy way to cook on the go. We saw many people using Coleman stoves on our road trip and they come highly recommended. The Coleman Bottle Stove is cheap, does’t take up a lot of room in your car, and you can use the pots and pans you already own for cooking. Don’t forget to buy the fuel as well.
LED Camping Lantern (~$13): You’ll need something to help you see at night because when road tripping you’ll inevitably run behind and have to set up camp at night. The LED Lantern is the perfect solution to this problem. It gives you great visibility in a lightweight form.
Coleman 48 Quart Cooler (~$22): To save money (and not feel like crap) you need to avoid processed and fast food and get a good dose of fresh food. A good cooler is essential for keeping your fresh eggs, dairy and vegetables cold while on the road. We bought a $2 foam cooler and it lasted us 24 hours before beginning to leak so we recommend something a little more durable.
Coleman Camping Chair (~$20): We went on our trip without camping chairs and definitely missed them. Many of the free campsites available on freecampsites.net do not have seating so the camping chairs are nice to have as you relax, set up camp and cook at the end of the day.
If you’ve never been on a car camping road trip the above is what you need to get started. The essential items I’ve listed cost less than $200 for two people, which is equivalent to 2 nights stay at a cheap motel and is significantly less expensive than most of the tents you can buy at REI! We’ve also listed some other essential road tripping items that you probably already own.
- Day pack – any old book bag will do as a day pack for hiking and adventuring away from your car while on your budget road trip
- Car USB – charge your gadgets while you drive, instead of waiting around by the nearest outlet for things to charge. Most cars these days give you the ability to charge your USB powered gadgets, if your car does not have a USB charger you can buy a car lighter charger for $10 on Amazon or at Walmart.
- Camera – Document your budget road trip- ‘nuff said!
Water Jugs – if you don’t have water jugs, a couple of $1, one gallon jugs from any grocery store will do. We carried 2 one gallon jugs and refilled them at rest stops and gas stations. Why did we reuse these instead of getting bottled water? Because bottled water is almost always just tap water anyway. Save money, save resources.
- Water bottles – don’t own a water bottle for day hiking? Buy a 1 liter Smart Water bottle or two at a gas station and you’re good to go.
- Blankets and pillows – why buy a fancy sleeping bag when you can make do with what you already sleep on at home? Pack some blankets and pillows you don’t mind getting dirty or roughed up, toss them on the blow up mattress and enjoy a good night’s sleep!
- Pots, pans, cups, plates, and silverware – the Coleman stove will work with any old pots and pans you have lying around, no need to get fancy.
- Toiletries – Unless you’re driving a SmartCar, you should have plenty of room in your car for full size toiletries. No need to buy expensive travel size versions!
- Towels – A towel is always handy to have, and if you’re planning on doing some swimming, bring one for everybody. Like the blankets and pillows, bring ones you aren’t afraid to get a bit dirty.
- Clothes – if you don’t own rain gear a trash bag or cheap poncho from any big box retailer will do for when the rain hits and you can’t get to your car.
- Ear plugs – Light sleeper? Things that go bump in the night, other campers, or road noise are common at many public camp sites. Use ear plugs while you sleep to avoid waking up at every little noise.
- Maps software – if you don’t already have some sort of offline maps software then I recommend maps.me. This application lets you download offline maps that you can use even if you don’t have cell phone service.
- Suitcases/Organizing containers – Without a way to organize things, the car can quickly become a gigantic junk drawer on wheels during the road trip. Stay sane and bring some form of organization to keep things separated and out of the way.
That’s all for our road trip packing list!As you can see, road trips don’t have to be expensive, in fact, they can be really cheap! This list should help you start planning your next road trip on a budget. If you want to get more serious about camping and/or backpacking, check out our Post-Pacific Crest Trail Gear Reviews. The gear on that page was tested over our 1,500 miles of backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail.