If you don't have one yet, get a Rewards Card. Every major credit card company has multiple cards you can apply for, each with different bonuses. I opted for the Capital One Quicksilver Card, which gives me 1.5% back on all purchases. I used this card for 90% of the purchases I made over the course of my roadtrip. When I finally got back home I had over $100 in cash-back. Not much, but it's free money! There are plenty of other options to choose from, check out this article from Nerd Wallet for more information.
For you photographers out there, I highly recommend getting a car-charger kit for your specific battery type. I used this Watson Car Charger on my roadtrip. It worked great! This is especially handy if you don't have access to wall outlets often while on the road. This charger also has a USB port on the side, so I could charge my phone and a Nikon battery at the same time. It has a wall plug too, which is great if you happen to lose your normal phone-charging adapter while on the road.
On my 2017 roadtrip I finally bought a power inverter for my car. This device allowed me to finally charge my laptop on the road! I really wish I had bought this sooner! Finding a wall outlet on the road, especially when you're living and sleeping in your car, is hard to do.
If you are bringing along any expensive camera gear, laptop, or nice electronics consider buying a Pelican hardcase. I use this case for carrying / storing most of my camera gear. These cases are a great way to protect your gear from the elements. I would normally leave mine in the trunk. Out of sight, and easy access to all of my gear! Plus that case is the size-limit for carry-on luggage, a huge deal if you are going to be flying with expensive camera gear at some point.
If you don't have insurance for your camera gear yet, consider getting some before you leave. If you already have home owners or renters insurance, you should check with your agent to see if they offer protection. I use the Rand Insurance plan, through NANPA. After talking with other traveling photographers, this was the highest rated and most secure plan I found. On my 2017 roadtrip I broke my expensive Gitzo tripod in an accident while photographing waterfalls. My insurance agent responded very quickly and really helped me out! I highly recommend going through NANPA for camera insurance after my experience using them!
Make sure you have a decent synthetic sleeping bag or a warm blanket. If you have to spend a few nights in the car, this will really help. I used my older backpacking sleeping bag to keep warm when sleeping in the car.
It's also a good idea to have sunshades for your car. I only had one for my windshield, but it would have been helpful to have side-window sunshades too. This will obviously keep your car cooler on a hot, sunny day; but more importantly, it will keep lights out of your face if you need to sleep in the car.
You may also want to tint your car windows. Before leaving on my 2017 roadtrip, I got all of my windows tinted. This made a huge difference! Not only did my car stay relatively cool, even on the hottest / sunniest days, but it provides privacy. I spent almost every night sleeping in my car, and I was thankful to have the window tint. A strong tint will also deter any potential thieves, since they won't be able to see inside the car easily.
If you intend to do any camping along the way, I highly recommend purchasing the Ultimate Public Campground App. This app is a life saver if you plan on camping a lot. It shows thousands of campsites across the country, from dispersed National Forest sites, to RV campgrounds, to State / National Park campgrounds. I used this app nearly every day on the road! It even shows you all the information about the campsites: if they have shower facilities, if they are closed in the winter, how many campsites are available, the cost of staying there, and more! The only problem is that when you lose your Data Connection (a common occurrence when traveling out West), the map does not load. Therefore, I recommend finding your campsite for the night and taking a screenshot of it's location. If you lose connection on the way there, you can always refer to the Screenshot. This was necessary when finding random dispersed campsites deep in National Forest land.
If you plan to camp in the National Parks, good luck! The standard car camping sites usually fill up early in the morning, especially during the summer. The park may have a reservation campground too, where you can only stay if you reserved a spot months in advance. I never had much luck finding car camping spots in the summer. Even in September and October car camping spots were hard to find, which I couldn't believe.
Most National Parks also have backcountry camping. You usually have to visit the Visitor Center or Backcountry Office to obtain a permit first. Some parks have free backcountry camping, like the Great Sand Dunes, while others can charge over $20 a night! One of my favorite spots to camp is the Great Sand Dunes, you can hike out onto the dunes and spend the night under an incredibly dark sky for free! Glacier National Park also has wonderful backcountry sites, however they charge ~$10 per night. Most backcountry sites have a pit toilet, food prep area, and 2-3 designated camping spots. You can learn more about backcountry camping by visiting the National Park's Website.
Oh, and don't try to camp in the backcountry without a permit. Especially in the more crowded National Parks, backcountry rangers do check the campsites daily. If they catch you without a permit, you're in a for a bad time. I remember once in Glacier, we had reserved our site and hiked over 20 miles to get there. When we arrived, there was already a tent in our spot. We figured the owner would be back any minute; he never showed up. As we were eating breakfast the next morning, he finally showed up with the ranger behind him. Apparently the ranger caught him the day before and hauled him out! Then the ranger brought him back the next morning to collect his gear.
I recommend camping on National Forest or BLM land when possible. Unlike Northeast Ohio, the Western US has plenty of Public Land that you can explore and enjoy. These free public lands are also usually found around the National Parks. The general rule for National Forest / BLM camping is that you can set up a tent anywhere you want, as long as you are at least 150 feet from a road or water source. This is great for overnight backpacking trips if you want to get deep into the woods. Most National Forests also have random pull-offs where you can park your car and camp. These are generally referred to as dispersed campsites. This is how I camped for the majority of my roadtrip. Again, if you use the UC Public App, these sites are usually marked. I love this camping style because I can normally find a quiet spot to myself, which is impossible in a big National Park campground. I also have quick access to my car, luxury camping! Plus it's free!
If you are traveling between October - May, keep in mind that most campgrounds will be closed. This includes: National Forest campgrounds, National Park campgrounds, Private Campgrounds, and backcountry sites. The National Forest roads may also be impassable due to snowfall. However, provided the roads are still clear, you can always do the free dispersed camping on the National Forest lands.
Over the course of my 4 month roadtrip I spent at least 2 months sleeping in my car! I drive a 2004 Chevy Classic (Malibu) and I am 6'3". Very rarely did I have a comfortable night's rest in that car. But I did learn some valuable tips.
You can freely park in Walmart parking lots for the night. I had to do this a few times. If you have to use the bathroom at 3am, you should be able to head inside and go. However, the parking lot lights are very annoying if you don't have the best window covers. I only do this when I have no other options.
I also spent a few nights in church parking lots, residential streets, library parking lots, and at some local parks. Your success will vary from town to town. My hometown is very uptight and I guarantee the cops would be called out in all of the areas listed above. However, I found people out West are much more laid back. I never had any issues while sleeping in my car. As you get more comfortable living on the road, you'll be able to pick out spots where you should be safe to spend the night. I prefer to find a quiet spot outside of town, if a National Forest is nearby.
If you spend all night in the car without any ventilation, everything will be damp in the morning. Be sure to crack a window or sunroof to let some air escape. I met another traveler who had these screens she could put over her car windows. This allows for a nice airflow and keeps the bugs out!
Once you find your parking spot for the night, you're gonna have to cover up your windows. It almost feels like building a fort. Hopefully you have some towels and jackets you can use to cover the side windows. For the windshield I used one of those solar reflectors. Since I was living out of my car, I had enough stuff inside to block the rear window as well. There's nothing worse than constantly waking up to bright lights if you don't have a way to cover all your windows.
You can usually sleep on the side of the road too, provided you find a nice pull-off. I spent a few nights sleeping on the side of the road when I was driving down Highway 1 in California. You should see dirt pull-offs every so often, most of which you can spend the night without any problems.
The worst part of living on the road is a lack of hygiene. When I was traveling I showered once a week, at most. Sometimes I would go 2 weeks without a shower. I didn't want to pay for a hotel room every week, and my schedule (or lack thereof) prevented me from couch-surfing effectively.
I learned that many private campgrounds have shower facilities that you can use. They generally charge ~$5 for a shower, which I think is a good deal. Again, if you use the UC Public App listed above, it should say whether or not the campsite has shower facilities. I once drove over 2 hours to a campground in the middle of nowhere, just because they had shower facilities. Totally worth it. If you're lucky, you can find also find the occasional State Park campground that has shower facilities.
Make sure to keep your deodorant in a separate zip-lock bag. Mine melted within 2 days and leaked all over the place.
I highly recommend picking up some Dr Bronner's soap for the road. This stuff will last you a long time! It is very concentrated, so you don't need to use more than a few drops. The Peppermint soap is great too, you can really feel the cooling sensation after you clean with it. Plus, this soap is biodegradable, perfect for camping responsibly. You can even use Dr Bronner's as toothpaste in a pinch. And it's a great way to clean your pots and pans if you cook. I lasted the entire roadtrip on one bottle of Dr. Bronners.
During my 2017 roadtrip I found a great alternative to showering. These body wipes do a great job of removing stink and dirt, although I usually needed to use 3 or 4 wipes as a shower replacement. They smell kinda weird, but apparently that's eucalyptus. If there are no cheap shower facilities nearby, these are a life saver!
Buy the $80 Inter-agency pass! Once you buy this pass, you can get into every National Park for free! Otherwise you'll be getting ripped off, big time! Most National Parks charge upwards of $30 for a 3-5 day pass! If you travel to Oregon or Washington, they also expect you to buy a State-wide pass to visit certain areas. If you have the $80 Inter-agency pass though, you will be covered! You can purchase the Inter-agency pass at any National Park entrance gate.
If you can't afford the $80 pass, you could always visit the National Parks after dark. Usually by 6pm the entrance gate employees have left, meaning you can drive into the park free of charge.
Make use of the visitor centers! Especially if you are on a long-term roadtrip, these can really be useful. My favorite visitor center was by Estes Park, at Rocky Mountain National Park's east entrance. The bathrooms were open 24/7 and there was a water bottle refill station outside. National Park visitor centers are really hit-and-miss. Some are great, others...not so much. Most visitor centers lock up by 6pm, including the bathrooms.
Keep in mind, many National Park roads close in the winter. For example, Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park and Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park are usually closed from November to June. These two roads are the main way to get from the East side of the parks to the West side. Once they close, you have to find an alternate route around.
Winter normally closes the campgrounds as well. Most campgrounds are open from May - October.
If you don't already use Google Maps, I highly recommend it. Maps also has a Save feature which really comes in handy. I used this to plot out my trip. By "Saving" every location I wanted to visit, a route started to form on Google Maps. You can see below all the places I marked on my roadtrip. Thankfully Google Maps has an offline function as well, so whenever I lost data connection I could still navigate. It couldn't hurt to have an old school GPS in your car as well. When my phone broke in Forks, Washington I had to pick up a replacement in Seattle. Without the backup GPS, I never would have found my way through Seattle's maze of roads.
Google Maps is also a great tool for finding places to eat! You can search your local area, wherever you're at, and find the best rated restaurants in town. I felt like I had my own Travel Channel TV show, since I got to visit the best places across the country! Then again, food costs made up over 1/2 of my overall trip cost.
I also made heavy use of Maps to find libraries around the country. Libraries were essential on my trip, as I needed to keep up with my photo editing. Libraries became my safe havens when traveling. I knew I could always find one in just about any town and at least get a free internet connection. If you're lucky, the Wi-Fi will also extend to the parking lot. This can be a life saver if you find yourself without a cell phone data connection in more rural parts of America.
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