This page is intended to be a resource for those of you who are interested in embarking on you own truck life or van life adventure one of these days. It was written both to document our practices and to serve as a useful tool for someone with limited experience. With that in mind, please forgive us if at any point it sounds overly detailed or obvious.
~ Initial Investment
This depends largely on what activities you are planning to engage in, what gear you already have, what quality of equipment you are okay with, and your vehicle situation. The rig can be the largest single cost, and can be a tricky one especially with two people. We decided the simplest way would be for one of us to own the truck, Which cost about $10,000 after all was said and done. You could easily go cheaper, but might end up with more expense down the road or would have to be comfortable building in significant time for doing your own maintenance. We each purchased a significant amount of high quality gear for paddling, climbing and biking, which cost us each at least $2,000. If you were planning to do fewer activities, if you already owned a lot of the necessary gear for your activities of choice, or if you did not have our expensive gear tastes, this could certainly be lower.
~ Gas – $700/month
Gas was our single largest expense after startup costs. We spent anywhere from $400 to $1,100 on gas in a given month, depending on how much driving we did. To calculate your anticipated fuel costs, divide your estimated mileage by your average mpg, and multiply the quotient by the estimated average cost of fuel per gallon. Estimate a little high on mileage and fuel costs, and a little low on mpg and you should be golden. Our equation looked like this: (20,000miles / 15mpg) x $4.00 per gallon = $5,333 (Estimated total for our 5.5month trip, but more than we actually spent, which was closer to $4,000) We did a ton of driving – you could spend less on gas monthly if you had a vehicle with better mileage (keeping stuff off of the roof would help) and traveled shorter distances over longer periods of time. We spent about 700/month on gas.
~ Food – $550/month
We spent an average of about $550/month on food between the two of us, which is about $70/person/week – not cheap by any means and we were fairly budget-conscious shoppers. The nature of our trip was such that we were extremely active almost every day, which meant we were burning far more calories than we would have been at home. If you want to continue to eat a healthy diet but are burning more calories than you’re used to, that will mean an increase in quantity and therefore price. A couple of tips to keep costs down: Shop by weight to maximize the bang for your buck – most grocery stores will put a cost per ounce or per pound on their price tags, which can help see past confusing packaging and misleading “bargains”. Also, count calories. That is, if you have to decide between two similar items that are the same weight and cost, go with the one that has more calories per serving.
A few other factors are: eating out, receiving food, and offering food. We ate out occasionally, which can be an important way to get a feel for an area’s culture through cuisine (and is usually really tasty), but is hard on the budget. We were also fed or given food by many of our hosts and friends that we met along the way, which our numbers don’t reflect. On the flip side, we often cooked nice meals for folks that we stayed with. Also don’t forget snacks for your activities. GU and Clif Bars are not cheap if you are eating them all the time, but they can also make all the difference between having a good, long ride or bonking half way through. Food is important, budget accordingly!
~ Lodging/fees – $60/month
We made a very conscious effort to pay for as little lodging as possible, and the same with fees, but they are both factors. Over the whole trip, we spent about $150 on camping since we either tried to camp for free or stay with someone. We mostly paid fees for things like park entrance and trail access, as well as bridge tolls and the like. We spent about $150 on this as well.
~ Random – $200/month
It is important to factor in a significant chunk of change for anything random that might come up along the way. We dished out a few hundred dollars on truck maintenance and the odd piece of gear. Things like guidebooks we chose to purchase individually so the cost is not included here, but those should also be taken into account. I’d estimate that about $100/person/month would cover most random costs pretty comfortably
Total Monthly Cost of Truck Life for Two People = ($700+$550+$60+$200) = $1,510/month
2000 Toyota Tundra V8 access cab with bench seat and cab-height canopy
We used a hanging system with a thick wooden dowel cut to the exact width of the back seat above the grab handles. We hung everything from jackets, shirts, and pants to bike helmets and some random odds and ends. We used bags to organize and contain our technical clothing, socks and underwear, and our dirty laundry. We stacked these on top of shoes, and suspended riding packs and toiletries from the bars of the headrests. There is a lot of space in a back seat if you maximize it efficiently. It’s okay to jam things into corners, slide them under seats, and stow them behind your clothes, as long as you know which things are in which corners.
~ Roof Rack
We got the widest crossbars that Yakima sells, along with two Yakima High Rollers for the bikes and the vertical Yakima Bigstack for the kayaks. We also had an older bike rack that we used as a spare and an old-school Yakima Quickstand that came in handy.
~ Divided Bed
We built a platform out of plywood and 2x4s that divided the bed in half where the canopy meets the truck itself. We covered this with carpet to avoid splinters and add some insulation. In inclement or cold weather we could both sleep on this platform in relative comfort.
~ Bed Organization
During the day, we stored our bulky crash pads on top of the platform, and at night we moved them to the cab or under the truck when we wanted to sleep in the bed. Under the platform we stored all of our climbing and boating gear in totes, along with a box of miscellaneous equipment, a toolbox, a kitchen box, a propane tank, a six gallon water jug, a big NRS cooler, along with a big box of GU and a few odds and ends such as laundry detergent, engine coolant, a small hand broom and a trash box. To move all of these bins around we used a broom handle with a hook drilled into the end of it – worked like a charm.
The biggest problem with living out of a truck versus living out of a van is that cooking inside is not an option, which can be a bummer when it’s snowing or pouring rain! While not as good as being inside of the vehicle, a solid tarp setup can definitely help mitigate inclement conditions. We generally opted for a pretty basic A-frame setup, using one of the High Rollers (bike racks) for the ridge line on the truck side and either tying the other center line off to a tree or tying it out to our hook stick. The four corners we staked down to the dirt on either side and this gave us enough room to cook and move around a little. An 8×12 tarp worked for us.
~ Sleep Systems
We used a variety of sleep systems depending on weather, bugginess, and what we were feeling that day. We slept in the bed of the truck with our sleeping bags and pads in cold, windy, or rainy areas as it offered the most protection. In dry, bug-free areas one of us would often sleep on the crash pads out under the stars. We both had hammocks and rain flies that we used regularly, and Bennett used his small tent when we got to the hot, humid and buggy east coast. I opted for the truck in these areas to keep the mosquitos away – note that they can be very tenacious and I had to be vigilant about sealing the truck or they would squeeze in through the cracks. For hot, humid, and buggy locations, I would recommend each having a tent or having a single tent with plenty of room for two. Later in the trip we each got one of Aire’s Landing Pads, which are burly, waterproof, comfortable, and excellent for tossing down under the stars.
We used a large cooler from NRS, which proved to be a valuable investment. We could fit several days of food in it, sit on it, and trust it to withstand general abuse from ourselves and whatever nocturnal visitors we might have at camp. We divided it in half to keep the perishables all together and separate from the dry goods, and we laid a plastic grate at the bottom of the cooler so that when the ice melted we had some time to drain the water out before it actually reached any of our food.
Our set consisted of a propane-powered, two burner Stansport stove, a two-pot set from REI along with cooking utensils, wash bins, sponges, paper towels, soap, knives, a cutting board, kitchen towels, a measuring cup, oil, seasonings, a couple of plates and bowls and the all-important pot scraper.
How you shop is a very personal decision. We opted to keep all of our food in the cooler, so we were shopping every few days to re-supply. This meant that we could generally stay pretty well-stocked on fresh fruits and veggies, but also that we didn’t have a ton of backup food. We were burning a lot of calories, so we were buying considerably more food than we would have at home.
The pot scraper, mightiest of tools. Inexpensive and simple, the pot scraper is used to remove as much food from your dishes before you start washing them, to keep dishwater cleaner longer and to keep solid material out of your grey water. At first, we used the classic three bucket soap, rinse, bleach dish system, but eventually abandoned it for the most part. We switched to just adding soapy water to the largest pot and using that to scrub the rest of the dishes before rinsing them all off and broadcasting the grey water out over the dirt or gravel. This kept water usage down, eliminated the need for busting out the large wash bins, and generally simplified matters. If we were really low on water or if our meal had been especially greasy or oily, we would sometimes wipe the dishes with paper towel before washing.
We used a square, six gallon water jug that we refilled every few days. It is quite possible to acquire potable water for free all over the country if you know where to look and how to ask. First, look for spigots in public places like trailheads and parks. Campgrounds and picnic areas are very reliable sources, and no one ever hassled us for getting water from campgrounds at which we weren’t staying (but I still wouldn’t recommend making a big scene about it). If those sources are unavailable, try asking folks at outdoor stores and bike shops if you can fill up using their sinks or spigots – we found that they are usually happy to help. If you’re uncomfortable asking directly, we generally found that when we asked folks at shops if they knew of a trailhead with a water spigot (because we were out or low), they almost always offered to let us fill up on the spot. When it comes to water, fill up early and often so that you have the flexibility to choose your next fill. If none of the above work, you can always buy a little water from the grocery store or use a commercial filter to treat some river water.
~ Free Camping
Over the course of our entire trip, we paid under $150 for campsites through a combination of staying with friends along the way, a strong resistance towards paying to sleep, and effective use of resources and knowledge. Generally, free camping is easier to find on the West Coast than on the East Coast (since there is so much more public land), so a lot of this advice applies more to the Western region. freecampsites.net is a resource that we found extremely valuable, though as it is a user-built site it is not always complete or totally accurate. However, it can be a very good way to find a free spot to camp for the night and we used it regularly throughout the trip. Another great option is to inquire with the folks at the local bike shop or outdoor store, as they generally have a pretty good idea of what public lands are around. If you’re unable to get any good ideas from freecampsites.net or the local outdoorsy folks, a close look at the map and a little luck are the next best bet. Often, free, dispersed (i.e. not in campgrounds and without facilities) camping is permitted on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land and National Forest or Forest Service land, though this varies from place to place. That said, these areas typically appear in green on google maps, so if you are navigating on your phone, aim for one of those big green blocks and look for a forest service road. In many cases these aren’t on the map, but if they are they will usually have names like, FSR 3453 or NFR 5867 or Forest Road 56. Luck comes into play because not all BLM, National Forest, or Forest Service areas contain these roads, or they might contain them but do not permit camping upon them. If you do find a road that you think might be appropriate, look for these clues that it might be fair game for camping: Dirt or gravel road, signs that mention a 14 day camping limit (or some other camping limit), signs which insist that your campfire be dead out, spots where people have obviously camped before (fire pits, beer bottles, etc), and make sure that there are no signs saying “No Camping” or “No Trespassing” or anything along those lines. All of the above methods are totally legit. Sometimes, however, none of these options are available, in which case your good judgement will be your best friend. Another possibility is urban camping, which we never needed to do, but could definitely come in handy when you are not having any luck finding camping out of town or if you pull into town late and don’t want to go searching for an empty forest road. Check out this great article from fellow traveler @63mph, in which he goes into detail on his own rural camp process and talks about how to successfully urban camp (which is a bit simpler with a van) http://63mph.com/post/94534670378/stories-from-portland-or-496-days
If all else fails, pay sites are available most places, and if they are full, try making friends with someone who already has a spot and splitting it with them.
While regular showers are by no means a necessity on the road, staying clean and stink-free are both very important. People are much more likely to be friendly and helpful if your stench is not offensive, and keeping yourself clean will keep your gear clean longer and help keep you from getting sick. You have plenty of options for staying clean. If you have the opportunity to take a shower, capitalize on it. If not, use a washcloth and a tub of water – heat it up if you’re feeling fancy. If there is a (clean) creek, river, or lake nearby you just hit the bathing jackpot. People have varying opinions on whether or not it’s okay to soap up in natural waterways. Personally, I think if you’re using Dr. Bronners or something similar then big rivers are okay, but best to avoid sudsing up in creeks or lakes. That said, if you scrub well it’s not really necessary, and if you really feel like soaping up, best to do it on shore.
Our friends at wheresmyofficenow.com have a sweet mobile shower system that they rigged up, with full instructions on their website.
Again, if you’re staying with someone with a washer/dryer setup, see if they’ll let you throw some dirty clothes in there. If not, scrub off your clothes in a river or a bucket and let them hang dry. If you don’t mind paying, there are always laundromats.
Staying with People:
Whether or not you stay with people often will depend directly upon your personality and the style or purpose of your trip. For us, staying with people was part of the experience we wanted, and we enjoyed the opportunities it provided to make new connections and strengthen existing ones.
~ Finding hosts
Primarily, we stayed with family, friends, or friends of friends, which all make for fairly simple, comfortable situations. If no such people exist in a given area but you really want to stay with people, there are other options. couchsurfing.com is a website that is designed to connect travelers with hosts all around the world. It’s definitely hit or miss, but it’s always worth a shot. If you can plan ahead a ways (if, for instance you knew you were going to be in Whistler around a certain time weeks in advance) that will generally help give potential hosts the time to get your message and respond. If you want to go the old fashioned way, try to make a local friend and crash with them (this will probably be more likely if the weather is clearly miserable). In both cases in which you’re staying with strangers definitely use your discretion and don’t stay with anyone if it doesn’t feel right.
~ Respecting hosts.
We took some very simple steps to be good guests, and people definitely notice and appreciate it. We did our best to be respectful and engaged with our hosts, kept our impact minimal by not bringing a ton of stuff into the house and by tidying after ourselves, washed dishes, and often made food or brought beer for people we stayed with. None of these things are especially difficult or complicated, but they go a long way in making your hosts feel happy to have you, and in turn making you feel more welcomed and comfortable during your stay. A final note: know when to go. For most hosts, a few days is about as long as they want to have guest, even if they might say and even believe otherwise. Feel it out, as every person and situation is different.
Generally, the local bike shop is a great place to get trail beta. You can also connect with local IMBA chapters or local clubs and then you might even get someone to show you around, which is always fun and makes it so you don’t have to stop to navigate all the time. Websites and apps like MTB Project, Bike Pirate, and Mapps can also be useful tools, as can a simple google search of “mountain biking in _______”. Whether or not to buy the local trail map depends on many factors: How much is it? Is it any good? How long will you be there? Will you be back? Can you find your way without buying the map? Is the trail information you need available for free? We only purchased a map in a handful of locations – for the most part we used online resources, step by step directions from locals, free maps from shops, or went with someone who knew the way. Granted, we did get lost once or twice, but we always managed to find the way back (and plenty of people get lost even when they do have the map). Also, don’t hesitate to take pictures of maps at trailheads or take screenshots of online maps. Ultimately, it’s your call. If you want to get into it and buy a map in every place you ride, go for it! Just know that it will take a toll on your budget.
~ What to pack
As a general rule for riding somewhere you’ve never been, bring more than you think you’ll need. This applies especially to water and food, and of course means that you should always have a spare tube, patches, a pump and multi-tool at the very least. A spare derailleur hangar and cable wouldn’t go amiss either. We relied heavily on GU and Clif bars to get us through long rides, which worked well for us. Other people generally opt for sandwiches and such. Stick to your standard fueling, just bring extra.
Guidebooks are especially relevant to climbing, and it really can be hard to find your way without them (or with them for that matter). That said, if you really don’t want to buy guidebooks, there are certainly alternatives that can be very effective (or not). The Mountain Project website and app are both extremely helpful in some areas and next to useless in others. The local outdoor store will often give you beta, but if you’re not going to buy the book its generally courteous to let them know right off the bat so they can choose whether or not to spend the time giving you info, knowing that it won’t result in a sale. Alternatively you can seek beta from folks at the crag or ask to borrow a guidebook from someone and see if they’re cool with you taking pictures of relevant pages. Some outdoor stores rent guidebooks inexpensively, and the American Alpine Club has a rental program for members. Rock N Road is a huge volume that includes brief descriptions of climbing areas all over the country, which can be hit or miss but is something worth checking out.
Your best bet is to go with someone who knows the river, but a close second is to get really good beta from a local paddler. If a town has a kayak shop, that’ll be a great option. If not, try the outdoor store or turn to Google.
~ Play Parks
Since there were generally only two of us and we are only intermediate paddlers, down river boating did not always seem like a safe option, and was often logistically challenging. The bulk of our days on the water were spent on play waves at various whitewater parks. We found play parks to be a great option for getting some time in the boats, mixing up our biking/climbing routine, dialing in our paddling technique, and staying relatively safe and hassle free. To that end, unless you are a burly boater and will be running some serious whitewater, you might consider bringing a play boat or at least something with well-defined edges.
Hope that helps in planning your truck life or van life adventures! Please don’t hesitate to use the comments or our contact page to get in touch if you have any questions. If you come up with your own sweet setup or system, feel free to post or send us some pictures!