As our kids get older our list of places we want to take them in the US is growing larger and larger so I knew we had to narrow down road trip expenses even more if we wanted to keep up on road trips the next few years. (Don’t think you can afford a camper or travel? This is our saving for travel method here.) Although we have talked about the idea of a buying a camper for several years now and saving for it we just never pulled the plug until this year. And in the next 2 years we will have already saved the money on travel that we spent on our camper.
Our kids are 9, 7, and 1. Soon they’ll be teenagers with jobs, extracurricular schedules, and then grown and out of the house. This was an investment in our family. Remember how I said we hit the road hard in the summers? Well this summer we are camping all the way around Lake Michigan with some pretty epic adventures planned. Next summer we’ll be roadtripping it through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Utah (think Yellowstone, Arches, Grand Tetons, Craters of the Moon Ntl. Pk., etc), and the following summer we’re hitting it HARD. We’ll be doing all of Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway, Glacier National Park, Mt Rushmore, Badlands, Crazy Horse and everything in between. Add up the cost of lodging and the ability to make all of our meals instead of eating out 3x’s a day and there’s the cost of our camper right there- without needing to unpack and repack every night.
However when we bought our camper we quickly learned there were a few more expenses than we had planned on. So if you’re considering purchasing a camper here are a few things to keep in mind that I wish we had know before buying.
1.. Future Trip Expenses – This was the most obvious thing we considered. A camper is WAY cheaper per night than a hotel hands down (from free to $30ish/night, but sometimes it’s more than tent camping. (more below on overnight costs and tips) Sometimes there are different fees and options for hooking up (electricity, water, etc.) and of course if you have a bathroom in your camper you’ll need to consider the possibility of dumping fees (although many places include dumping for free). But you’ll also need to factor in the difference on gas mileage, maintenance (tires, windows, seals, screens, awnings, etc.). Also consider if you’re like us you may take more mini trips closer to home than you normally would because “it’s so cheap” – but it’s still an additional expense to consider.
2. Hitch & Tow Capacity – Ah yes, did I tell you we drive a mini van? Typically they don’t tow much – at all. This was the biggest thing holding us back (aside from cost of course) the past several years. We couldn’t figure out what exactly our vehicle could handle. After talking with several mechanics, referring to the car manual and reading a zillion online forums we finally put together what our vehicle could handle. However, in order to tow most vans will need an additional towing package installed. Along with that you will need to have a ball hitch on the back of your vehicle. (obviously) This setup can run another $200-$600 if you don’t have one. For our specific make and model Town & Country we also would have needed to install a specialty transmission cooling system which would have run about $600 except that again, we lucked out BIG time and found out that ours was already installed when we purchased it. If you need to modify your vehicle the expenses can add up.
3. Sway Bar & Stabilizer – As newbie campers we found out about these things after buying our camper and giving it a spin in town. Although not required you may find yourself in need of at least a stabilizer depending on your vehicle and possibly a sway bar. So when we hooked up our cute little camper to our minivan we found that the van sits so low to the ground (compared to a big truck) that our camped leaned into the van and the middle tongue joint was dangerously low to the ground (I’m talking just a few inches off the ground). Any bump we went over would hit the concrete. Although we were able to partially adjust this by cutting pipes we will definitely need to purchase a stabilizer before heading on any longer trips. (a stabilizer will help redistribute the weight so that the tongue joint sits up higher off the ground) TIP – if you find this to be your problem try flipping your ball hitch around – it’s made to sit higher on one side! It helps at least a few inches. A good stabilizer can easily set you back a few hundred dollars and so can a sway bar.
4. Taxes, Title Transfer, & Insurance – Ah, the nitty gritty legal details. YES – even if it’s a pull behind camper it still needs to be insured! At least in my state – double check your state laws. You’ll have to pay taxes based on the purchase amount, fees for title transfer (although usually nominal) and insurance costs each year. For us it added about $100 annually onto our insurance policy. Not a deal breaker but something to factor in.
5. Propane – If you have any appliances or heater in your camper that runs on propane this will be an added expense. Or of course if you decided to use a propane grill. We have decided to use as much electricity as we can when we hook up at campgrounds to save on propane costs but don’t forget to factor in the possibility of this cost! We are even bringing an this electric air/heater on the cold/hot nights instead of running the gas all night. We also do a lot of cooking on this electric stove top we just set on top of our propane stove to save the extra expense.
6. Filling the Camper – This isn’t necessarily a cost you think of when considering the purchase of a camper but it’s definitely one to keep in mind – especially if you’re on a strict budget or tight income. Depending on your camper you may need things like sleeping bags, bed sheets, RV safe toilet paper, storage containers, pots/pans, dishes, towels, flashlights, Command strips, camping chairs, cooking utensils, tarp, rope, screen/vinyl repair kits, camper locks, and a myriad of other supplies you may need while traveling. These are mostly all great to buy second hand and items you can purchase while you are saving for your camper.
A Few Thoughts on Lodging:
I’m not going to go into huge detail on lodging because there is plenty you can find by looking online but a few thoughts and tips that might be helpful.
National Parks – If you want to stay at a National Park (like Yellowstone, Redwood Forest, etc.) I recommend getting a reservation as EARLY as possible – like 12 months before if you can. There are many places that don’t take reservations and you can try your luck at driving in to see if they have open camping spots for the night but with smaller kids and the amount of miles we put on a road trip we personally want our reservations set in place. Note that many locations do NOT have complete hookups.
State Parks – This is where we have the most reservations right now since we only spend a night or 2 in one spot before moving on. These are typically CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP! I’m talking about $15-$20 a night. Some high traffic areas cost more but overall extremely affordable. Again make sure you see what kind of hookups the park offers, bathrooms, showers, electricity, dumping, etc. And some states (like Wisconsin and Michigan) require you to have a state parks pass in order to enter the parks including for camping.
Boondocking & Dispersed Camping – We don’t have much experience with this yet but we will! It’s absolutely FREE, there are no reservations, and they are usually outside of campground areas in the middle of nowhere. Great for peace and quiet, but remember there are no bathrooms, trash cans, water, electricity, etc. so it is primitive. Plus camping on forest park service land is free!
Parking Lots – Need a free night or somewhere to sleep in a pinch? ALWAYS double check first but most rest areas, visitors centers, Walmart, and other large retail stores or outdoor stores (like Cabela’s) will allow you to spend 1 night in their parking lots. Again do some research and look around. It’s always a good idea to ask the location before you set up camp for the night of course. Just know that high traffic area means more lights and more noise at night – but free is free.
Private Campgrounds – I use google and Roadtrippers to search for other nearby campgrounds. Not always but typically these cost a little more a night ($30-$40ish) per night but also have better amenities which can be a huge bonus if you are traveling with kids or staying put for a while. Sometimes it’s fishing, tubing, laundry, playgrounds, mini golf or other family friendly activities. (Note that not all of those amenities are free activities!) Another big bonus is laundry facilities (although we’re considering this portable washer for our camper)! You can always look for a KOA or Jellystone campground but again, a little pricier. Also check out AirBnB to see if you can park in someone’s backyard.
Extended Camping – If you are looking to just chill out in one location it’s much cheaper to pay for a monthly or weekly rate than move around often like we do!