How do I live in my car for a while?
December 13, 2015 8:10 AM   Subscribe

So, as posted last week, I'm taking a big trip through the southwest. I'll have a car (Jeep grand cherokee) I can sleep in, a tent, a propane cookstove of some sort (plus pots and such), a good ice chest, some money, and clothes. What do I need to know to successfully survive this trip?

I'm not really sure how to cook/feed myself with just a stove. I can do oatmeal and hotdogs and hot chocolate and canned pasta, and not much else. Sandwiches.

How do I shower? I know they make camping ones, and I think you can rent a shower a truckstops and sometimes national parks.

How do I not get arrested if I have to sleep in my car a few dozen times? I hear walmarts will often let you 'camp' in their parking lot. I know not to have any open containers in the car.

Just.... what else? Everything? I'm admittedly nervous. While fairly independent, this kind of roadtrip/traveler lifestyle is new to me. I know its not completely risk-free, either. Help?

Thank you!
posted by Jacen to Travel & Transportation (34 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
If possible, be in actual camping places. State and National parks will have campsites, many with toilets and showers (thank goodness.)

KOA has campgrounds all over the place. Truck stops might let you hang overnight, just ask. Places NOT to catch Z's. Rest stops. Your best bet for Wal-Mart is the 24-hour locations. We took students on a 7 day field trip and I parked my car at the Wal-Mart for the entire time.

As for the camp stove, if you see no real use for it, why bring it? There are plenty of places along the highways and byways of these United States to get cheap eats and I'd rather do that than fuss with propane, etc. Also, If you're camping, many places will have barbecue areas if you feel the need to roast a weenie.

Get AAA. That's my advice.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:16 AM on December 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Reddit's r/vagabond section may be a source to tap.
posted by mr. digits at 8:29 AM on December 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Did this in 1998 - it was great.

Organization is key. Pay attention to the things you are reaching for most often, and the things you always find hard to find. After a few days, stop and think through an optimal organization of your stuff, with the most-used stuff on top/within reach and the least-used buried underneath. Always religiously put everything back in its place. It sucks when you lose track of a key thing that you lose all the time -frustration ensues.

We didn't really cook that much. I had the same cooking rig you did, and we used to make coffee (and OValtine...for the vitamins). I also brought along a big thing of Bisquick, which you can use to make pancakes, biscuits, "pizza," etc.

You can Google up simple camping recipes. They are all over the place online. There are whole blogs devoted to this topic. Maybe pick a few good looking ones and do them in rotation. It really is good to be able to cook something for yourself, because you aren't always going to be in a developed area where you can shop, and also you get tired of road food.

Seconding AAA.

Bring postcard stamps. You can send postcards from anywhere you go without a side trip to seek out a post office. Even if you don't want to send them to other people, jot a few words on the back of a postcard every couple days and send them to yourself. When you get home, you have an awesome ready-made time capsule of your trip that you can stick in a photo album if you like.

Showers - lots of state park campgrounds have great amenities, usually better than national parks which are more stripped down. Truck stops also have pay showers and they are great.
posted by Miko at 8:32 AM on December 13, 2015 [6 favorites]

If you have AAA as Ruthless suggest hit up a AAA location and stock up with maps and travel guides for those rares times without online access. Download a compass app or get a real compass.
posted by sammyo at 8:33 AM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Get AAA. That's my advice.

Please yes. My family would still be stranded in Canyonlands to this day if we didn't have AAA.

Meats like summer sausage don't need much tlc as far as keeping well in a car and are great for slicing up and making cracker and cheese sandwiches when you're hungry in a car but can't cook.
posted by phunniemee at 8:34 AM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's starting to storm like crazy in California, so I would have good rain and snow gear. Lots of flashlights, spare tire, and tire chains if you're going to be in Northern California, Oregon, or Washington. A really waterproof tent and a couple of tarps for underneath. In California, they warn us when camping, not to leave food in your tent or car because of bears; use the bear lockers.
posted by gt2 at 8:44 AM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I do this a lot. Usually I have a cooler with some basic proteins but usually car camping is more (for me) about traveling and less about eating. I'd usually start the day with coffee and something small, have a lunch of nuts, string cheese, sausage, fruit, crackers, sandwiches and then eat something out on the road for dinner (good to see other people). Have a print map and rechargers handy in case you wind up losing battery on whatever your main nav device is. You can buy food at basically any place you can get to off of the highway and many GPS devices will point you towards restaurants and things like drug stores and supermarkets.

I would sleep in Walmart parking lots, in rest areas (in many places in the middle of the country it's totally okay to sleep in your car at a rest area, check out specifics) or in low cost campgrounds (AAA used to have campbooks, I'm not sure what they have now). Some of this will depend on whether you want to be spontaneous about where you stay or not and just how budget-y you want to be. You can often stay in small towns in motels for $40 (seriously) for a night so maybe plan a night a week to have a good solid non-hobo bath shower and wash clothes and whatever, depending on how long you are gone for. It gets colder at night than you would think and dampness is the worst so make sure you dry out your sleep stuff during the day (even laying it out in the car while you drive) will help keep it from being clammy at night. Have window blocking screens that you can put up when you are sleeping or when you are out for the day so your car isn't an oven on a sunny day. Be very mindful of the weather.

Pack the car with a mind to getting at some stuff easily (cooler, toothbrush, map) and other stuff deeper in. Use the passenger seat for things you want to have handy. If you really are going to sleep in your car have a way to reorg the stuff inside it so there is a place for you to sleep with all your stuff still being inside the car. If it's warm where you are going, invest in some window screens so you can crack a window when you are sleeping.

Don't carry a lot of money with you, just in case. I mean have cash on hand but you can basically get $$ from ATMs wherever and the odd "convenience charge" is better than having your nest egg stolen somehow. Some campgrounds that are thinly staffed will only take cash however. Have an emergency kit in your car (space blanket, emergency food and water, tire chains and KNOW HOW to use them, basic repair stuff, duct tape) as well as a print map and a bag for trash. Take out the trash frequently. Stay in touch with someone so if you do run into trouble people know where you loosely are. Consider calling a MeFi meetup I'm sure there would be people interested in your project.
posted by jessamyn at 8:52 AM on December 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

If you have a smartphone, you'll want the Allstays app. Look for Flying J/Pilot truck stops for overnight stays and high-quality showers, and they also have an app. Truck stop showers tend to be pretty great, and generally better than even swanky RV park showers.

There's also a Facebook group called Roadtreking that you may want to join, which is a mix of RVers, truck drivers, and other mostly-US roaming travelers.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:00 AM on December 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yes AAA! They are an excellent resource.

I know you wanted to have no agenda but you should have someone you can check in with every day. Tell that person "I'm in Albuquerque this morning. I'm driving to Santa Fe today on I-25 and staying at the KOA there." Someone who will call the cavalry if s/he doesn't hear from you within an agreed-upon time.

Write down your emergency contact info and put it next to your drivers license and a copy with your insurance card. Give a list of your DL number and credit cards and 24-hour credit card numbers to your emergency contact in case your wallet is lost/stolen.

WRT camping, boondocking is the search term you want. Our experience with Wal-Marts and camping is that they are subject to local ordinances so you may or may not be able to sleep there - ask first. (Camping World is also another place to ask.) If you are sleeping somewhere you shouldn't, you will just be told to move along. You are unlikely to get arrested unless you argue or come across as intoxicated. In fact, if you are stuck somewhere and really need to get a few hours sleep, ask a police officer/sheriff where a safe place for a solo woman can be found - occasionally they will let you sleep for a bit (not camp out) in their parking lot.

If you have an iPad or iPhone (not sure about other brands), a couple of good camping apps are AllStays and Campground Locator.
posted by Beti at 9:01 AM on December 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

A cheap but well-rated power inverter still sits in the compartment under my car's arm rest from a trip like this. It has real outlets (useful if you want to forgo the stove and use a tiny rice cooker or hot water heater), and charges my electronics about 3-4x faster than via any USB adapter port. I don't think it cost me more than $20.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:06 AM on December 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

As for food, canned food is pretty much made to be heated in a pot, as is any non-tray frozen food. Most proteins can be cooked in a skillet. While rice needs a pretty good boil to cook through (parboiled rice like Minute Rice and other brands does not, and of course now there's packet rice and quinoa ready to eat), pasta actually only needs fairly hot water and a little extra time. As long as you stick to simple preparations, you can easily eat meat + 2 veg + starch every night, with one or both vegetables cooked. You can also get cooked frozen meat like chicken or beef strips that you can let thaw a day in your cooler and then just heat up rather than worrying about obtaining/cooking/eating protein from raw.

But it's up to you to decide whether you really need to cook on the road or if it would be simpler, cheaper, and less wasteful to make judicious ready-to-eat food purchases. You can carry cereal and milk for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch, and then eat dinner out (use Yelp as your guide) wherever the local students like to go, or grocery store delis, buffets, happy hours, taco stands, and in a pinch truck stops, the big convenience-gas stores in the Southwest, or the old $5 Footlong at Subway.

If this trip is soon, you need to be prepared for it to be really cold and potentially deal with ice/snow. Even if you're taking the southern route through AZ-NM-TX, some of that is high desert, some of it is mountain, and ice storms do hit as low as I-10 in parts of Texas. You will need a four-season sleeping bag. I don't know that there's a way to safely use something like a catalytic RV heater in a car without then venting all your heat straight back out, but you might at least want some chemical hand warmers and maybe a hot water bottle for dangerously cold nights.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:39 AM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have done such trips many times over the years, and I would absolutely not recommend this for solo women travelers because:

- You're inexperienced.

- Road travel is inherently dangerous because of unpredictable car breakdowns. You would be stranded and at the mercy of others.

-Some road people actively prey on solo women travelers, unfortunately.

-Truckers are not always your friend.

I would instead suggest you first do this with an experienced male friend, and then start slow over smaller geographies. The Southwest is nothing to mess with or take lightly.
posted by Tanzanite at 9:45 AM on December 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

In addition to all the great advice above, I love the Ultimate Campgrounds app. Lists not only state and federal campgrounds, but county & municipal campgrounds, too. Many campgrounds have showers available either free or for a nominal fee, wear shorts and slip-on shoes to the shower so you don't get your pant legs wet.
posted by Floydd at 9:47 AM on December 13, 2015

So, about AAA; get the best one you can afford. Get the best one they offer.

I holed the engine block of an old Subaru on the border of Nebraska/Wyoming (right in front of that "welcome to Wyoming!" sign…terrible). This was even after two mechanics gave the car the OK to drive across the country. I was faced with a $500 tow bill just to get it to Cheyenne. The tow drivers were great, but had I paid another $45 bucks a year for better AAA coverage, that particular tow would have been free.

AAA is absolutely useless until it isn't, and its pretty cheap insurance. Just be firm about them when you cancel your stuff; they'll call you for a year and change after you don't renew.

Oh, and if you can, call them from a payphone or some landline; there's a weird quirk about AAA that they send your cell number to your local branch. So, my 503 number would send us to the OR/WA/ID office, even though I was living in Maine, and breaking down in Nebraska. It often took a couple phone calls to convince them where I was. It was really stupid.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:08 AM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass = $80 and is good for entry to BLM, National Forest, Fish and Wildlife Service, etc.

Water, lots of water, dehydration kills people in the southwest in otherwise simple mishaps. If you are near Tucson, the Desert Museum is the best of lots of things to see.
posted by ridgerunner at 10:19 AM on December 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

I can suggest Better World Club as a possible alternative to AAA that (in my experience) does the same thing just as well but has some nice eco-friendly tweaks that some people might appreciate.
posted by flug at 10:39 AM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I did something like this as a solo woman traveller (in a Jeep Cherokee too, no less!) in my early 20s many years ago. Drove from Grand Junction, CO to San Francisco to LA to Tucson to El Paso to Houston. And I've done Houston to Lansing, MI to Ithaca, NY and back as well. I was going in early fall so bad weather like ice and snow was not an issue.

I planned to spend lots of nights in state parks/campgrounds, and I did some of that, but personally I ended up staying in motels a lot more than I originally planned. (This is despite having a lot of camping experience.) I also stayed with friends whenever possible. Cooking food on a little portable burner just doesn't seem worth it compared to how cheaply you can eat on the road. I was vegetarian at the time, which made things harder, but as mentioned above a Subway foot long is cheap and at least has vegetables in it. I had a cooler with lots of snacks and things, so generally I was only eating dinner at restaurants and the rest was snacks and sandwiches.

Safety-wise, I probably wasn't as safe as I could have been, and this was in the age when cell phones were pretty new. I had one I got primarily for this trip and my parents' peace of mind, a big old brick of a thing, but coverage was spotty at best. Some dude at a highway rest stop did drop his pants and start masturbating at me, but I was in my car so I just locked the doors and sped off.

I wouldn't say you shouldn't do it or insist you bring someone with you, but I would say that if money is an issue to where you can't just change your mind and eat in a restaurant and/or stay in a motel last minute due to exhaustion or weather or other safety issues, you are in a much tougher spot.

I love road trips to this day, and traveling solo across the country is a pretty great experience. But I do think you either should have the camping experience and background OR have the financial means to bail on the true vagabond experience (whether that means just for a meal or a night or on the trip altogether) on short notice.

Good luck and I hope you can make it work and have fun!
posted by misskaz at 10:41 AM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've done this plenty. Always stay stocked up on water and gas, as on the west coast there are stretches of insanely desolate roads. Never go below 1/2 a tank. has lots of info on where to camp. I hate to cook, so just don't. I would just pick up some food and put it in my cooler every now and then. Lastly, I always camped near other people that seemed safe. Not too close, but if I saw a family camping, I would camp close enough to be heard if I had to yell for help.

No, actually lastly is bears. When you are at a campground that has a bear box, use it. If the bears smell food in the bear box, they know they can't get on, so they don't bother. If they smell food from your car, they will give it a try, even with the doors shut. (Don't ask me know I know...)
posted by Vaike at 10:42 AM on December 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am a woman and I have traveled a lot alone like this.

Put some kind of temporary tinting film over all of the rear windows so that you can see out but others can't easily see in. Rig up a curtain between the front seats and the rear out of plain dark cloth so it's more inconspicuous, velcro is your friend. Figure out a way to put screens on windows for hot weather sleeping. I have vent windows in the back of my minivan, I open them and use some thin voile curtains as screens; I tape them to the window openings with temporary painter's tape.Get rid of all bumper stickers.

Have a wide mouth mason jar with lid to pee in in the middle of the night if needed. Bring enough toilet paper, paper towels, and wet wipes.

I've brought little stoves along and rarely used them. I just eat a lot of sandwiches, fruit, veggies.

In addition to state and national parks, and national forest campgrounds, there are often county parks with camping and showers. I've run into a couple of places that specifically forbid sleeping in your car unless it's a real camper. If you have a tent bring it, just in case you run into places like those. I've set up a tent and then slept in the car.

I always put all of my sleeping gear away in the morning so that anyone looking in my car would not necessarily guess that I was living in it. Keep the whole car as tidy as possible.

Feel free to email me with questions.
posted by mareli at 11:04 AM on December 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

I used to work in outdoor education and therefore used to live out of my car every summer. I'm also a woman. Here are some tips:

You can sleep inside your car at rest stops on the highway if you get there after dark and are willing to get up pretty early. I had a Subaru, and I figured out I could let the driver's side seat back down as far as it went and sleep in my sleeping bad in that seat. I usually picked a rest area that was sort of busy and slept near-ish to the bathroom building, in-between two street lamps. It's not the best night's sleep, but I never had any trouble with anyone or anything.

That being said, I think campgrounds are a much nicer place to sleep. A primitive campsite (i.e. just tent camping, no RV) will cost about $10-20 a night. Look up Forest Service campgrounds and state park campgrounds; they'll be cheaper than KOA campgrounds, which cost about $30 a night (also not awful in a pinch). Some campgrounds have showers. All of them will have water and bathrooms. When you go to a campground, I like to go and introduce myself to the person running the campground (often they'll come by and say hello before you get around to finding them).

After a week of driving around, you'll have a better sense of how to organize your car, because you'll know what has been bothering you. So at that point, I would recommend picking a sunny day, going to a campsite early and unpacking and re-packing your car to your liking. In my experience, it's good to have these things easily accessible: your raincoat, a sweater, your flashlight, your tent, your stove, a water bottle and some snacks. If you've got them, bring a couple of extra cheap duffel bags or stuff sacks, because it helps with organizing stuff. Once you figure out your system, always put stuff back in the place you got it from. That way you can find it again even if you get into your campsite at midnight, your flashlight decides to stop working, and it's raining buckets, etc.

Always keep a gallon or two of extra water in your car. You'll be driving through the desert and it's good to have extra water in case your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere or something.

Bring your car to a mechanic you trust before you leave and have them look it over. Tell them you're going on a long car trip.

If you've got a propane stove and two burners, you can cook a lot of things that you also eat at home. Normal pasta dishes like spaghetti or macaroni and cheese, soup, stew, rice and beans, curry, stir fry. When I'm on the road, I eat a lot of pseudo-Mexican: make some rice, heat up a can of black beans, cut up a tomato, open a jar of salsa and add some black olives and some avocado if you've got it.

Finally: traveling alone as a woman means you will probably feel uncomfortable or vulnerable sometimes. I deal with that feeling by trying to objectively asses if I'm in a legitimately sketchy situation, or if it's just such an unfamiliar one. It's not always an easy thing to do, but it gets easier with practice. If you're ever feeling freaked out, I find that campgrounds with lots of people feel safer than really empty ones.
posted by colfax at 11:09 AM on December 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm a woman and I travel solo like this all the time. There's lots of good advice upthread. I strongly second the recommendation to keep your gas tank full, have extra water on hand, and keep your vehicle as clean as possible.

I cut vinyl "curtains" in the shape of all the windows on my camper shell (front, back, and sides), and then glued velcro patches to the outside border of the curtains and the windows. They're easy to put up and pull down, fold flat, and provide essential privacy and light-protection.

I always travel with a little cooler. Gas stations will let you fill water bottles with ice and/or water for free, so just keep up on that and you'll be able to keep some food cold. I also travel with all my camping and backpacking gear, so I use my camp stove to make coffee/tea/oatmeal/soup, and keep a box of crackers, fruit, etc. for snacking. It's amazing how cheap traveling can be if you don't eat out.

Staying in campgrounds is really nice, especially if you're concerned about safety or want to be near other people. I tried a Walmart parking lot once but it was too bright and loud for my taste. AirBnb is another option- they have a wide range of prices and accommodations. Whichever option you choose, make sure to decide on it and settle into it well before it gets dark.

Showering is actually easy! Truck stop showers are usually quite good (Flying J and Loves are the best), and you can often get away with using a campground shower even if you aren't staying there. Bring lots of quarters. My number one tip for showering though is to purchase a day pass to a gym.. $10 gets you a workout and a luxurious shower afterward, and you get to feel good for the rest of your day behind the wheel.
posted by scrubjay at 12:24 PM on December 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also: drive defensively, trust your gut, and enjoy yourself! You're on an adventure!
posted by scrubjay at 12:26 PM on December 13, 2015

Quick note, maybe Captain Obvious: Don't use the stove in the car with the windows closed. (It can be very tempting to do this when it is cold outside). A bunch of kids where I grew up died this way. The CO builds up and gently sends you to sleep, then it kills you. You can't tell it's happening.
posted by anonymisc at 12:47 PM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

If your hair is short, you can skip the occasional shower. Do a sponge bath at a private sink, wash your hair in the sink and change into clean clothes. Just a change of clothes can make you feel cleaner.

Learn to pee in the bushes standing up. Bend your knees a bit but do not squat down. Bend your knees, drop your pants down to mid thigh and hold them out of the way with one hand. Clean up with tissue with the other hand. It helps if they are something like sweat pants instead of jeans. With practice, you learn how to stand such that any downslope is behind you and you don't end up standing in a puddle of urine. Clean up afterwards with hand sanitizer.

Carry hand sanitizer and spray peroxide and baby wipes or other wipes. Each one has a slightly different use and there is almost no situation you cannot handle even with any running water.

Carry hearty snacks like beef jerky and Babybel cheeses. As long as the wax is unbroken, Babybel cheeses do not need refrigeration. Unless you are really in the middle of fucking nowhere, grab one hot meal a day at a grocery store deli or a fast food place for not too much money. I would plan to use the stove as little as possible. Washing dishes will be a big challenge. Getting one hot meal a day and eating healthy snacks, like nuts, seeds, granola, etc, is not at all difficult to pull off and doesn't create a stack of dirty pots and pans.

Carry disposable plastic cups and just throw them away after drinking rather than trying to wash a cup. It will be easier to stay not sick that way.

If you are in trouble, two strangers who do not know each other will keep you safer than two people who are strangers to you but not to each other. Even if they are both serial killers, they don't want witnesses and they want prey as vulnerable as possible. Seek out public places with traffic if you get in a pickle.

Stock up on cheap snacks and drinks at places like Walmart. An hour down the road, the mini mart in the middle of nowhere will charge you two to three times as much for snacks and drinks.

Develop some routines that will help you stay safe and keep track of important items, like your wallet. So, keep your wallet in the same place in the car, don't set your cell phone down on a bathroom surface where you might forget it, etc.

Don't be too chatty in a way that undermines your security. If you don't announce that you are traveling long distances alone, people don't automatically know that. You could be running in to grab snacks while the bf sits in the car. You could be visiting relatives. "Loose lips sink ships." If social isolation is making you crazy or just have to tell someone about your trip, do it by phone or online. Don't dump too much on strangers.

In addition to the Walmart and highway rest areas, dirt utility roads tend to have low traffic and are a decent place to spend a night.

Ziploc bags can help keep electronics dry, store leftover snacks, etc.

Flannel and wool will help keep you warm even when wet. This can save your life in cold, wet weather.

Pay attention to microclimates, wind breaks, deep shade, etc. I am currently sleeping in a tent and have seen plenty of nights with ice on the tent. I have caved to the cold conditions and added socks to my sandaled feet and am generally dressing warmer. But I can get away with dressing relatively lightly in cold weather and camping in freezing temperatures with minimal bedding because I know a lot of little tricks and I pay a lot of attention to where the sunshine is warming things up, what spots are sheltered from the wind, etc.

Hypothermia and dehydration are deadly. Do not let yourself get too thirsty or too cold. Cheese, nuts and other foods full of healthy fats can help you warm up better than non fatty foods. If your hands and feet are cold, a bit of caffeine can help improve circulation. A hot meal in cold weather makes a big difference.

If you aren't in bear country, leaving drinks on the cold ground outside your tent overnight can keep them cold. Things that normally need to be refrigerated can sometimes survive a day or two this way. Cold soda chilled this way is qualitatively different from pouring it over ice. I far prefer soda chilled that way.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 1:47 PM on December 13, 2015 [7 favorites]

Buy a portable air compressor (random example). These little beauties are lifesavers when you have a flat tire and you're away from a gas station and are very easy to use. I keep one in the trunk at all times.

Also, learn how to change a tire and do other on-the-road repairs. Then actually change a tire and do the repairs to find out if there are tricks you need to use (e.g., my friend found out that she had to jump on the lug wrench to get enough force to start the lug nuts turning). (Tip: if the engine overheats, turn off the air conditioning and turn on the heater to full blast to divert some heat away from it. It's surprisingly effective. Also, make sure the bottle of engine coolant you're keeping in the trunk is the pre-mixed kind.)
posted by bentley at 1:59 PM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I did this in a minivan a couple years ago, had a fabulous time, felt pretty safe, highly recommend. I'll see if I have my packing list.

Safety: cover the windows. T pins will hold a piece of twine or light elastic to hold curtains, or cut cardboard or reflectix to size and velcro to the window itself. You don't want people looking in. I had a curtain behind the front seats, too. Most Walmarts are fine; they'll generally be posted if not. I've overnighted at 24 hour McDonalds or at Starbucks - free wifi - at rest stops, convenience stores, and places where I could just go undetected. Wherever you park, be a good neighbor; bad behavior is locking travelers out of some places. Truck stops are hella noisy and brightly lit. I made sure my keys, with the emergency alarm, were at hand. Never used it. My bed was plywood on top of storage crates, topped with foam pads. I have a down comforter and was never cold in bed. Sleeping bags are a bit confining. I bagged up the bedding during the day; you don't want a cop to think you live in your vehicle. I had my little dog with me - he adds little safety, but was good company.

Coffee is critical to my happiness so I had a cig. lighter immersion heater that ran off an emergency battery charger that I kept charged. I had a cigarette lighter travel mug that would cook oatmeal or rice in an hour or so. My minivan had a cig. lighter in the back - way useful. I also had my propane camp stove and used it a lot. Rice and canned soup is not a bad meal. If there are canned vegetables you like, that's a good option. I like beets with some vinegar, and I added canned veg to soups. Food's easy; nutrition takes more effort. Chinese restaurants have fresh, tasty, affordable vegetables. I used to stop at McDonalds for bathroom/ wifi visits, buy a large orange drink or coffee, and bring an extra drink cup to fill with ice for the cooler. I ate more fast food than I wanted, but went to grocery stores when I could. Granola bars, dried fruit, nuts, are healthy, reasonably affordable and don't go bad. Plan meals - food storage is limited.

Bring a 1st aid kit. And one for the car - oil, brake fluid, coolant, basic tools. If the roads are bad enough for trucks to need chains, I don't want to be on the road. prett ymuch every state has travel advisories on the web. I had solar and battery LED light strings and an LED headlamp. I'd bunch up a light string, and with that and the head lamp, I could read in bed. And when I camped, I could put up a string of lights to find my way home from the bathrooms. I also had a couple candle lanterns, nice for the campsite. I had a smoke/ Carbon monoxide alarm, which I recommend highly if you think you'll run the engine to stay warm.

You can heat water on a campstove. You can wash your hair in a bucket of water, with an extra jug of clean water to rinse. You can clean your body with a washcloth and that not very dirty water. A 5 gallon bucket (I like the square cat litter ones) becomes a comfy potty seat if you add a foam pool noodle to the edge. You pee into a plastic jug; get a widemouth water bottle at Goodwill. You empty it on a bush or in a bathroom, not in a parking lot or sidewalk. (I read lots of blogs, some people are inconsiderate.) Carry wet wipes. Carry a couple gallons of water. Truck stop showers are clean, pleasant and safe and cost 8 - 12 bucks.

Bring a folding chair for campsites, because that driver's seat gets wayyyy too familiar.

You may want to get an inverter to plug in to the cig. lighter to charge a laptop. Harbor Freight has them, as do truck stops.

McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks, Panera, Home Depot, Lowes and libraries have wifi. Bring books, plus music and podcasts for long stretches of road. Don't rely on your data plan; some places have terrible or no cell service. Keeping my phone and laptop charged was a pain. I used the GPS all the time, so the phone battery needed lots of charging.

I wore skirts, tights and sweaters and comfy shoes. You need layers because it will be warm some places, cold other places, often in the same day. Otherwise, bring far less clothing than you think you'll need. Keep a hat, gloves, rain jacket and fleece close at hand.

If you have a hobby or interest, looks for groups or locations on the way. I went to meetups and had fun with like-minded people, and it helped to feel a sense of community. As much as possible, I stopped for local interest stuff, went to national parks when at all possible. There are all sorts of RV/ van-dweller/ nomads on the road. Be cautious but open. Great forums on and you don't have to be a full-timer. Have fun, learn a lot.
posted by theora55 at 4:04 PM on December 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

Don't carry a lot of money with you, just in case. I mean have cash on hand but you can basically get $$ from ATMs wherever and the odd "convenience charge" is better than having your nest egg stolen somehow.

But do carry some cash. If you are used to living in a city, it can be surprising how many small restaurants don't take credit cards in some areas. I ran into this just the other week when I tried to stop for lunch in nowheresville Idaho, had no cash, and had to drive almost two more hours before finding another place to eat.

You can often stay in small towns in motels for $40 (seriously) for a night

In the small towns I go through the cut-off seems to be about $50; below that there is a better-than-even chance that it is a meth motel, but even those can be totally safe to stay in, just kind of sketchy. Glancing at the vehicles in the parking lot will tell you what kind of motel it is -- contractor vehicles and sedans with out of state license plates usually mean a cheap-but-ok place, while vans on blocks tell a different story.

Personally I use rest areas for when I'm trying to make time, when you drive until you are too tired and then get a few hours of uncomfortable sleep. The only dangerous rest area I have ever seen in the west was in California; all the others I stop at are well lit, patrolled, and clean. (I have seen some not-great rest areas in the midwest, and the term seems to mean something different in the east.) Sleeping at rest areas seems to be fine as long as you look like a tourist, but not if you look homeless or like you might be staying for a while.

For a pleasant trip, campgrounds are the way to go. There is a fantastic network of public campgrounds in the west on Forest Service, National Park, BLM, and state lands. They are usually clean and safe, though once in a while you will find one that is party central. More and more often now I see people staying in them who are obviously homeless or living in parks long term (as compared to being on vacation) but the only negative experiences I have had have been from drunk middle aged guys having a loud party. Trust your gut and be willing to drive on to the next campground or to pack up and leave if things don't seem great.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:12 PM on December 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

There is great advise here but I'll add just a few suggestions.
Plan, plan, plan. I like to make great maps - I make them up with must sees and places I would like to go if there is time or I need it... I keep them in something like this .
I have pages for legs of my travel. Keep them in a book until you are on that leg. It's nice because I can make notes as I go and also tuck in souvenirs in the pockets even though I have passed that area. Order maps from the state tourism boards where you are traveling.

If you are feeling a bit nervous about the trip, there is nothing like being really prepared. A great map with hours and hours of research behind it will be a good start.

I would use my map to look at the most expensive areas and nice looking athletic clubs (places where decent motels are expensive). Look for clubs you can get a day pass. You can usually get a pass between 8 and 15 dollars. There is nothing like soaking in a pool, hot tub, and then showering while your laundry is drying in a near by laundromat. I used to sneak into hotels while I camped, but my guess is that's not easy these days. Make a ton of them on the map so if you do need one you can find it.

Get a good toiletry holder for showering. You normally don't want to bring a bag into a camp shower. There's never a good dry place. Just bring towel, clothes you are going to change into and toiletry you will need while showering.

The easiest way to feed yourself with a stove is by eating stuff you just add water to. Cup O noodles isn't the healthiest thing, but it's tasty and easy for when you don't want to do much and don't want to clean pans after. The thing about road tripping like this is no fridge, so you cant have cheese and butter and ingredients. Keep a few jugs of potable water in the car. Good for filling a water bottle, rinsing things off, washing up, and brushing teeth.

I would get the car organizers that can hang over the seat - something like this. You can keep sunglasses, journal, toll money, bug spray, sun screen, etc in it. Anything you would like handy while traveling.

Have fun!
posted by ReluctantViking at 5:56 PM on December 13, 2015

I'm reading through this, but quick question: I have USAA, and they include jumping and door unlocking. Is there a USAA service I can/should upgrade to, or should I get AAA? What all does AAA offer?

Thanks everybody!
posted by Jacen at 6:40 PM on December 13, 2015

If you wanted to go even cheaper than a cheap motel and plan to be in somewhat urban areas at least part of the time, you might consider the cheapest gym-chain membership that lets you visit any branch. It would be a good place to at least get a non-sketchy shower and clean up after sleeping in the car, maybe keep some stuff in a locker in a central (relatively) location. Planet Fitness has unlimited any location use for $20/month, it looks like.
posted by ctmf at 8:52 PM on December 13, 2015

I also have USAA. The big deal from my perspective is that if you have AAA+ (which is $76) you get 100 free miles of towing up to four times a year. As well as jumping, door unlocking, free maps, free passport photos and a few other things. I use it specifically because of the towing which is otherwise super expensive especially if you are in the middle of nowhere. And the benefits go with the CARD (not the car) so if you are with a friend at some future point and your friend gets a flat you can use your AAA to help them out as well.
posted by jessamyn at 8:55 PM on December 13, 2015

You might confirm if this is still the case, but the first time we needed a long tow, the driver had us call AAA and upgrade right then and it was no big deal. So you might just start with the regular membership.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:35 AM on December 14, 2015

Be aware that a lot (all?) of the national forest campsites close over the winter. This may be true of state parks too- check before you go. I went to a conference in March in Las Vegas last year and rented a mini van to drive around southern Utah and was planning to camp but ended up in motels the whole time as the national forest campgrounds were closed and the national/state park campgrounds were full- you have to make reservations these days. I suspect they won't be full this time of year but you might want to check. I really wasn't interested in staying in Walmart/truck stops, it was quite cold (snowed on me at Brice) and private campgrounds can cost almost as much as a motel. I could have camped free on BLM lands but ended up chickening out as I am a solo women and I just ended up feeling alone and vulnerable out there. I do have a lot of camping experience and solo travel experience but solo camping (not in a campground) did feel different somehow.
posted by morchella at 10:46 AM on December 14, 2015


Check the weather. Check the weather. Check the weather.

Whether you drive in it or sleep in a tent out in it, you need to find local radio stations or get out your cell phone and pull up a weather site. Make this a daily habit.

Depending on where you go, you may be able to get better than usual rates on hotels because it is the off season. The only time I went to Yellowstone National Park was crossing the country to move in winter. We stayed in a very nice hotel for half price because it was the off season. The park was largely deserted. We drove to the only open eatery we could find in some small town. So, yeah, some stuff closes in winter. That has its good points and bad points.
posted by Michele in California at 11:39 AM on December 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

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