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The Ultimate Guide to Frugal Living on the Road - 14 Tips from a Veteran (PT 1)

Ready to road trip. 
Pictured: Chris Surette
Thinking about heading out on the road? Traveling on a budget? Maybe you need make your car your home for a bit? After two+ years living in my car and traveling to the far corners of this great continent, here's the knowledge I've gained. For more in this series, read Part II and III of tips for the road.

P.S. If a product is mentioned, it's because I've tried it and found it works. Links are provided to help you get prepared (and they help me in return!).

Don't Break the Bank

Photo: The Regular Guy
1. Download the "Gas Buddy" app. Gas can be expensive. This app will help you locate the cheapest gas in a defined radius from your location. Just keep in mind that the further you have to drive to get to the cheap gas, the less you're actually saving to get it. ;)

2. Find a cheaper place to camp. Camping at National Parks costs a lot. National Forests usually border National Parks and generally have cheaper, or even free, tentsites. If you're in an urban setting, check out Walmart, a 24-hour fast food chain or a hotel parking lot. 

3. Set your GPS to "avoid tolls." This is especially useful in the Northeast U.S. where tolls can be in excess of $6 per station. Ferries are an even bigger expense and are common in the pacific northwest, Alaska, and coastal Canadian provinces. I use a Garmin which allows you to set avoidances like tolls and ferries (easy to find yourself suddenly very unprepared if you don't know about them!) and allows you to choose route preferences like gas-saving or fastest possible route. 

4. Slow down. Slower speeds mean better gas mileage. If you are on the interstate, stay near the speed limit. The difference between a traveling few miles over the limit can mean a big decrease in your gas mileage (and you won't get to your destination all that much faster). Bonus: no frivolous spending on tickets. Trust me, they aren't fun on a budget. 

Food on the Go

1. Eat easy. My meals and snacks are routine procedures that have been boiled down to the basics. Almonds and craisins make a great snack and are perfect for keeping you awake on long drives. Seaweed sheets (used for sushi) taste great for your greens. Almond milk, cocoa powder, peanut butter and non-GMO soy protein shakes (also budget friendly) are perfect for breakfast and lunch or dinner — just stick it all in a BlenderBottle and shake, shake...drink. 

Not only do none of these have to be refrigerated, but they provide everything I need to fuel skiing, climbing, mountain biking and trail running.

2. Ditch the 3 squares. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are constructs of the working world. Before that, we were grazers. And if you live on the road, you should be, too. Eating 3 big meals is more expensive than feeding yourself throughout the day because we tend to think in bigger quantities and with more complexity than if we graze.

3.  Forget food safety. Well, kinda. Some US food guidelines are unique to our overprotective culture and can be disregarded (with some common sense). Take eggs, for example. These fill you up and are cheap (assuming you have a camp stove to cook 'em with). They don't need refrigeration— ask any farmer. Cheese, same thing (up to a few days). Some cultures even let raw meat sit out at room temp to let the flavor heighten. Neither I nor my travel companion got sick from doing this; after 24 hours, we just made sure to cook it well. Leftover meals with meat can be eaten the next day without being reheated or cooled. Milk, though it doesn't taste as good warm, will be ok for a couple of days without refrigeration. 

Common sense word: Make sure you're not in Red River Gorge, Kentucky in August trying these tricks. Keep food as cool as possible and out of the sun — the trunk is a good spot or try your car while you have the AC on. 

4. The Dollar Store is your friend. If you know where to look, you can luck out on closeout food items that are still good but are nearing expiration. Side note: dish soap and scrubbies are cheap here— great to clean out your BlenderBottle with.

No dollar store? Buy items that are on the lowest level at the grocery store; that's usually where the bargain brands are hiding out.

5. Drink water. You hear it all the time, but now is the time to heed that advice. On the road it's easy to forget to stay hydrated and it's hard to keep those bottles filled if you're out for several days. Get yourself a few slim but large-capacity water storage containers and fill 'em up. Trust me; on extended trips you're gonna love 'em.

I prefer the style I linked to for the screw on lid (no spills) and its puncture resistance.

Stay Fit, Stay Clean

Your childhood friend is back
Photo: Livestrong
1. Harness the sun. If you've got a bit o' privacy and are longing to get your tresses washed, try a solar shower. It squishes down flat when not in use and heats up nicely when laid in the sun (try your car's dash while you're out mountain biking). This 5-gallon version allows for two to take a quick dip or one to relax a while longer. 

2. No shower? No problem. Action Wipes to the rescue. These adult-sized wipes (no babies here!) work perfectly for the times you can't find a hot bath. And that's pretty often on the road. I and my male counterpart used these on a six month climbing trip and can testify how well they work. Keep things pleasant. Stay clean. No excuses.

3. Stretch your legs. On long drive days, it's important to get out and move. It helps your brain stay focused and alert and keeps you from developing cramps (or worse - clots). Something as simple as a jump rope will suffice. Get out every few hours while filling up and jump rope for five or ten minutes. Try pushups against your car if you don't want to get down on the ground. Get creative, but get moving.

4. Borrow a gym. Passing through or staying nearby a community? Check out subdivisions. Many will have a clubhouse with a gym and if you're lucky, it's open. Bonus: shower and maybe even some wifi time. 

5. Get clean in a pinch: No privacy? Ran out of Action Wipes? No subdivisions? There are always gas stations and fast food joints somewhere along your day's path if you're driving. If you're lucky, there will be single-person lockable stalls. 

Prioritize: Wash your nether regions and underarms first by using toilet paper or paper towels and soap. Hair: use the sink and your shampoo (or their handsoap, if needed) to do a quick touch up around the greasiest strands (usually near the face and ears). Use this time to shave if you choose (ladies, you can too). Slap down some water and soap on the area, smooth it up with your razor and then rinse off residue with moistened paper towel. 

Still have time? Wash some underthings. That's right — right there in the sink. Scrub some soap into them, squeeze out excess water and lay 'em across the back seat of the car where the sun will hit em. You're as good as home. 

. . . 

Want more on staying safe, fit and entertained (along with other odds and ends) on the road? Check out Part II and III of this series. 

Have a tip to share? Something that works for you? A question? Add to the vagabond community by sharing it in the comments. :) 


  1. Gina, you live quite the life! I am sure you'll have lots of good stories to tell. Way to be an adventurer!

    1. Thanks Sabrina! That's what I'm hoping for- lots of grandkids to listen to my stories. Hmmm...guess I should probably get going on having that first kid if that's gonna happen, eh? ;)

  2. Want a real shower without paying for a hotel or camping? In a lot of cities (and even small cities to medium towns) $6 can get you some playtime in a pool (possibly with hot tub) with showers in the locker room!

    1. A dirtbagging splurge! Nice- always good to treat yourself once in a while. It keeps you sane. :)

  3. You could also take eggs to a 7-11 or other convenience store and microwave them. 

    1. That would save on propane for the camp stove! :) Good frugal tip!

  4. We always used convenient store bathrooms to clean up. Great tips!

    1. Glad to hear I am not the only one getting creative out there! :)

  5. If you do have to buy ice & use a cooler, get blocks instead of cubes, it lasts longer. Keep the cooler in the shade.

    If you've got camp neighbors and they leave for good, scope their campsite for things like firewood.

    Visitor centers often have free wifi, and are a good resource for finding cheap showers (or have 24 hour bathrooms which work for dirtbag showers).

    1. Good tip, Ed! I hadn't thought of that, but it makes sense (block vs cubes). I just went to a visitor center along the Appalachian trail and lo and behold - showers for $1. I know Smith Rock campground has them as well - included in your $5 camping fee! We even got a free meal from a group of campers there in the communal area (great dirtbagger place to hang!)

  6. Gina, your exploratory homeownership inspires me. Thanks for the tips! I'd love to see more on these topics. These are versatile enough to be used for a vagabond like yourself or someone just on a few days drive.

    1. I will never stop laughing about "exploratory homeownership." so good. And another post will be coming up, Zane!

  7. I used to grab two paper towels in public restrooms. I'd wet one done, keep the other one dry. With the wet one, I'd add soap to one end. Then I would scrub with the soap end, rinse with wet end, and 'towel' off with the dry one. I would also look for restrooms with Purell dispensers as this makes for good deodorant.

    1. Oh my! That's exactly what I do! ha ha ha! Hi5 on simple ingenuity... but I had no idea about the Purell; will have to give that tip a try!

  8. Traveling on a budget looks difficult especially for a long-distance trip. Yet, you are right. We can always make adjustments to save money.

  9. Loved this post Gina! Learned a few things too, which is always great. :) I'll second Beth's comment about the showers at community pools. Here in Joe's Valley, it's only $4, and swimming is an amazing rest-day activity - makes your body feel GREAT.


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