PICK A PLACE, PREP YOUR STUFF.
On one cool evening last September, we sat by a fire, drank some scotch, and Chris made an elegant spreadsheet detailing everywhere we want to go in the continental US and all the pertinent information we may need–distance, region, state (so we can make sure we visit them all), etc. First on the list was Texas. Chris spent a decent portion of his childhood in San Antonio and still has family there, so we used the Thanksgiving holiday as an opportunity to visit family and embark on our first official trip together in the Taco.
Emily: I’ll be the first to admit that I can be a chronic over-planner. I knew how many days we had for this trip (9) and I initially tried to squeeze as many places into that timeframe as I could. I always want to see everything and do everything, and this is how I’m used to traveling overseas with tour groups, hopping around from one place to the next every day or two (FYI, this kind of traveling is only a good idea if you want to be stressed out for your entire vacation based on self-imposed time constraints). Chris offered a gentle reality check–why not thoroughly enjoy one or two places, rather than getting a small glimpse at several? In the end, we dropped from about 7 stops to just 3: Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, Big Bend National Park, and San Antonio. We didn’t get to see everything we wanted to even with our reduced list of stops, but that’s okay. We plan on returning, and this was an exercise for me in enjoying the present moment and eradicating the ridiculous notion of FOMO.
Chris: Given that I like to spend as much time behind the wheel as I can on trips, analyzing the first list of stops for this trip really got the gears turning when accounting for fuels stops, park hours, suitable rest areas if a nap is needed, the list goes on. I can easily drive for 24-36 hours when my sleep habits have been steady; however, those hours may not coincide with parks and destinations, keep that in mind when planning road travel. Keeping costs down was definitely something on my mind with this trip, I put my brain to work on a list of vehicle prep items to make sure that our biggest spend was used as efficiently as possible. I checked tire pressures regularly with fuel stops to ensure optimum tire pressure on the Taco, I also checked oil and other fluids. Most people don’t notice how their habits change when driving in different landscapes, for example: In Illinois, steady speeds and hiding behind another vehicle are your best bet to pick up 2-3 mpg, in Oklahoma, I was constantly monitoring altitude and being gentle on the accelerator while ascending hills, this gave me a trade-off in Texas, while descending from Amarillo, I was able to hold a solid 70-75mph and achieve similar mpg because we were going down and not up. Habits and awareness like that gave us a 2mpg higher average with a truck loaded almost to the GVWR for the entire trip, than we get around town unloaded. Around town this may not matter, but on a 3,600 mile trip, in a vehicle that get’s 15 mpg average and 17mpg at best, this can be an extra 30 gallons of fuel that doesn’t need to be purchased.
Our biggest concern for this trip, as with all our trips, was cost. The Taco averages around 16-18 MPG when fully loaded up with all of our stuff, and we knew we had to allocate most of our trip budget to fuel. Everything else–food, lodging, any incidentals–had to be done on the cheap. With this in mind, we took several precautions to save money:
-We brought all of our food to eliminate fast food stops, and we did it for under $150 for 9 days. This averages out to just around $8/person/day, considered a miracle given Chris’s appetite. We even spent two of those days gorging ourselves on a Texas Thanksgiving dinner and the subsequent leftovers, so we actually ended up needing less food than we packed.
-We also brought ample, healthy-ish snacks that we both enjoy to avoid gas station stops (our go-tos were cheese and meat with crackers, hummus, chocolate covered almonds, and mini bell peppers with spinach dip). Our only cheat was a stop at In-N-Out burger on the way home. We also brought along bulk supplies of the things we often stop at gas stations for, like our favorite beverages (for Chris, this meant a 32-pack of Monster Zero that didn’t quite get him to the last day).
-We spent about $75 total for accommodations the whole 9 days, all of this on entrance fees and permits for camping.
We did make some investments into new camping gear both before the trip and along the way, including this awesome Napier Outdoors Sportz Truck Tent. We could (and most likely will) devote an entire post to how functional and kick-ass this tent is. It sets up in minutes and kept us off the ground for the entire trip. We also purchased new camp cooking supplies and borrowed an EZ-up and camp stove from Emily’s work, both of which we now plan to purchase.
Our point is that these big, epic overland/camping trips you see can be done for under $1,000 if you’re willing to prepare yourself and avoid unnecessary expenditures. Someone you know probably owns equipment they may be willing to lend you, and if you save your pennies for a few durable, high-quality purchases per trip, you will slowly build a collection of reliable equipment. We’ve started keep a running wish list of what we’d like to add to our stockpile.
WHAT WE TOOK WITH US
- Truck tent
- This Weber camping grill that worked just fine as a stove.
- Two camp chairs borrowed from family.
- Collapsible table. This was a godsend–don’t underestimate having a workspace. This one was cheap and lightweight.
- Air mattress. This was comfy to sleep on, but not the easiest to insulate. Keep in mind that if the air outside is cold, so is the air in your mattress.
- These ground pads to insulate our air mattress. After a chilly night in Oklahoma, we had the “d’oh” realization that there wasn’t enough protection between us and the frigid air inside the mattress, and these were purchased at a Walmart.
- Sleeping bags. We brought two that laid totally flat for a warm base layer.
- This nifty hanging light/fan that kept air moving in our tent.
- Many comfy blankets and pillows.
- Rechargable USB battery back.
- This USB solar charger (borrowed).
- Dry goods and snacks (mentioned above).
- 2-3 cases of water.
- A cooler full of pre-made meals.
- Tote 1 – Cooking supplies: a mess kit, a cast iron pan, a pot, paper towels and washcloths, a wash bin, dish soap, a percolator, coffee, spices, tongs, a sharp knife, a cutting board, tin foil, skewers, and Clorox wipes.
- Tote 2 – Ancillary camping stuff: heavy-duty trash bags (multiple uses), extra propane, lighter fluid, a blue wrench, bungee cords, duct tape, zip ties, and first aid supplies.
- Multiple rechargeable flashlights.
- An all-purpose ground tarp.
- Backpacks for in the car, duffel bags for our clothes.
- A backseat organizer for all of our snacks, like this one.
Surprisingly, all of this fit snugly in the Taco. We’ve talked about finding a better way than duffel bags to store our personal belongings in future trips, but thats a conversation for a different post. For our first trip, we were pretty proud of how organized we ended up being.
To save time and space, we pre-made most of the food we ate and did our best to keep everything super cold. The only thing we didn’t prep ahead was breakfast (we both like bacon too much to give that up). We also brought a supply of brats and burgers. These are the make-ahead recipes we used:
- Foil chicken skewers
- Potatoes in a pan
- Hawaiian roll sandwiches
- Meatballs in Foil – make these meatballs and heat them up in foil.
- Stuffed peppers
It was a challenge to keep everything cold in Big Bend, and one item we did constantly stop for was more ice. In the future, we’re planning on purchasing a heavy-duty cooler.
This was pretty much our whole prep process–we recommend storing as much as you can in totes or dry bags (that’s what we’re going to use next time instead of duffel bags) to protect from weather, etc. especially if you have a truck and can only protect so much from the elements. Stay tuned; our next blog post will be all about our first stop at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge!