Van dwelling: The cost of parking

How much does it cost to live in a minivan camper?

Before we hit the road in Red Delicious, we researched this cost question but got few answers. A blogger even asked us this in an interview for Yahoo! about van dwelling. It’s the question on everyone’s mind!

Most full-time travelers are tight-lipped about their income and expenses. (The Professional Hobo is an exception.) It’s probably because people are uncomfortable airing their finances, but it is more likely because:

It just depends. There is no definitive answer.

…Until now!

What We Pay for Campsites and Other Accommodations

We’ve been tracking the costs since January 11, 2015 and, in the spirit of helping current and future van dwellers, here’s what we spend: a quarter of what we spent on housing alone in San Francisco.

(Keep reading for the story behind the numbers and average cost per category.)

 

 

What We’ve Learned: The Story Behind the Numbers

When we first started van living, we weren’t sure where we’d be parking. Stealth camping in urban areas? Dispersed camping on BLM land? State and county parks? So we experimented.

After doing this for eight months so far, here’s what you should know:

  • Geography matters. The west has been cheaper overall. Parks in the south and southeast cater to RVs which need water, sewer and electric, making cheaper, tent-only sites scarce. Also, we’re doing this in the U.S. — we’d likely spend less elsewhere.
  • Save for a rainy/freezing/lousy day. You never know when you’ll hit a couple days of 25 degree weather and need to grab a motel room. #toocold
  • Know your travel style. We like to get Airbnbs every so often. This brings our average nightly cost higher, but it’s worth it to us to meet locals and explore a town.
  • Avoid RV parks and private campgrounds like the plague. They’ll try to lure you in with Wi-Fi, but, trust us, it doesn’t work. Sometimes you can’t avoid them though. You’ll be crammed in like a sardine with very few trees because they block RVers’ satellite TV.
  • Be realistic. We could spend less by doing more free camping and staying off the grid in the wilderness. We would love to do that, but it’s harder for us to work that way. Spend money to make money, as they say.

 

Valley of the Rogue SP

Our campsite at Valley of the Rogue State Park in Oregon

 

Rule of Thumb: Camping/Parking Costs by Category

  • Hardcore Hobo (Free-$5/night)
    • Stealth camping in neighborhoods
    • Walmart parking lots
    • Dispersed camping on BLM or Forest Service land
    • Highway rest stops
    • Trailheads
    • Casinos
    • Homes of friends/family
  • Penny Pincher ($6-18/night)
    • Some county parks
    • BLM campgrounds
    • Forest Service campgrounds
  • High Roller ($19-30/night)
    • Some county parks
    • State parks
    • National parks
  • Hardly Counts as Camping ($30+/night)
    • RV parks
    • Privately owned campgrounds, e.g. KOAs

What Do You Think?

Do these numbers surprise you? How would you cut parking costs? Upset we’re hating on RV parks and KOAs? Let us know in the comments. Thanks!

 

Logs San Juan Islands

Tugboat pulling some logs near the San Juan Islands in Washington

 

Tillamook

“That cow has glasses!”

 

Tillamook factory

A look into the Tillamook cheese factory

 

Messy Campground

Nightmare campground neighbors

 

Smith Rock SP

Climber rappelling off world’s most phallic rock at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon

 

Smith Rock SP 2

Smith Rock State Park in Oregon is like a mini Grand Canyon

 

Crux Bend

With our friends Eliza, Jon and Marjo in Bend, Oregon

 

Crater Lake

Crater Lake, one of the deepest, clearest lakes in the world

 

Pinnacles Crater Lake NP

The Pinnacles in Crater Lake National Park, where volcanic gasses escaped and formed permanent formations

 

Chris Crater Lake

Chris celebrates 35 with a spiked hot cocoa at the Crater Lake lodge

  22 comments for “Van dwelling: The cost of parking

  1. 2015-09-08 at 6:51 pm

    I always read and rarely comment but just wanted to let you know I LOVE that you share what you do. WE love high priced campgrounds with all the amenities but in actuality rarely use the stuff they offer. We aren’t van dwellers…just sometime van campers…but appreciate low cost overnight camping and clean showers:)

    • Tamara & Chris
      2015-09-08 at 7:29 pm

      Thanks for reading and commenting! It means a lot. We do enjoy the high priced campground now and again specifically for the showers…although they are not always clean! And sometimes privately operated campgrounds are the only option for being in urban areas. Everything is a trade off! Have fun on your next trip 🙂

  2. Breton Phillips
    2015-09-08 at 11:01 pm

    These posts are cool!

    Being a formal Internal Auditor at Davita Dialysis and working as a Consulting Financial Analysis it’s great to see some financial details and info on finding a night to sleep on the safe and cheap.

    So these numbers shown are only sleep areas. If you have plans to share more information could you add more financial details?..not a balance sheet or statement of cash flows but 5 to 25 pages, Excel tabs of expense catagories for the finacial geek in me? I’m talking every expense/resource like gas at each stop, tires replaced, broken gaskets, meals from berrys to a friend taking you to the Ritz in Boston (is one there?)…how much the room costs your friend…birthday cards, stamps, medicine’s. Cash, Cedit, Debit, PayPal, apple pay, goggle wallet…everthing by month…sorta like the Presidents’ Campaigns funding required disclosures.

    OBVIOUSLY, you choose what to disclose and so with myself getting close to becoming a CPA a half decade ago I know no amount of info can tell the whole picture but only fairly present the financial story.

    I’m sure if you continue on as Nomads you’ll gain rediculous experience working from the moving home and maybe you’ll find your niche not in financial data, reviews of places, or how to get out of a pickle/pinch (depends where you are in the USA which word you choose), but in describing some (physical or college major) area yet to be discovered…could be a journal or magazine.

    You’re doing great! I like the logo. You guys are awesome 🙂

    • Tamara & Chris
      2015-09-09 at 7:16 am

      OK, Breton. We’ll make sure some audited financial statements are available by year end. 😉 Thanks for reading!

      • Breton Phillips
        2017-01-18 at 3:34 pm

        You kept your word!!! Thank you for sharing this information!

  3. 2015-09-16 at 3:30 pm

    Correct me if I am wrong.

    I presume that all nights are accounted for?

    I see the dates but am not sure if that means the first night in ___ area so between dates would represent the entire stay, not just one night?

    This is fantastic information as I am planning on becoming a van dweller next year and wondered about the cost of parking.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2015-09-16 at 3:41 pm

      Great question, Mark! Glad this info is useful. Yes, when you see dates skipped, it’s because the amount we included on the first day was for the entire stay somewhere. Like for the Airbnbs. When we first started tracking we would do that because it’s easier record keeping, but going forward we’ll list each night separately because it’s easier for calculating averages, etc. Good luck with planning and let us know if we can help!

      • 2015-09-27 at 8:15 am

        Excellent, thanks for verifying this for me. That’s one hazard of spreadsheet, they can expand to track more data. You are right about the ability to calculate averages though. I can see you started doing this with the past few months so it really helps.

        At first, I was surprised to see county parks costing more than a state park before I realized it was “lumped” together in the beginning. Now that it’s broken down daily, it makes it easier to visualize the cost for one night.

        Thanks again.

        • Tamara & Chris
          2015-09-28 at 8:46 am

          You got it, Mark! Just a heads up that, thanks to your comment, we’ve gone back and updated the spreadsheet to remove the lumped together stays and it is now broken down nightly. (One note about county parks is that they are sometimes more/just as costly depending on location or amenities. Sometimes that will make you frustrated because they’ll be overpriced, but sometimes it’s worth it!)

  4. 2015-09-17 at 3:51 pm

    When RV parks are your best bet for one reason or another consider joining Passport America. I think they currently charge $47/year but it gets you into some good parks for 50% off. A few night a year pays for the membership. I stayed at a lot of Walmarts when traveling but sometimes paid to camp to be able to dump my tanks. But my van was a conversion van with a bathroom so dumping was mandatory. PA parks have limits on when and for how long you can stay but the one I stayed at in Austin, Texas, while learning how to live in my van was well worth my membership.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2015-09-17 at 3:54 pm

      Thanks for sharing that tip, Linda!

  5. curt smith
    2015-09-26 at 3:16 pm

    You are an inspiration to me. I had a beat station wagon when I was in the service years ago and did this sort of thing. the plethora of old minivans floating around began to give me ideas. I can’t wait to get started. Thanks, Curt.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2015-09-26 at 3:18 pm

      What a kind note! Thanks, Curt, and we wish you the best of luck as you get started. Let us know if there’s anything else that’d be helpful! Happy van-traveling 🙂

  6. Tina
    2015-09-27 at 2:43 pm

    Hi,

    This is great information, really appreciate you sharing the money details. Would also like to know the cost of gas if you are willing to share that. I’m looking at maybe getting a small cargo van or maybe just convert my SUV and use a tent for camping.

    Have you thought about doing some house or pet sitting? I’m in the bay area and still have a home, but do this on the side right now and am making some money along with having a house to stay in. I started with a $50 membership to a Pet Sitter website and then from word of mouth have gotten several jobs.

    Agree with the above comment about looking in to Passport America.

    Really enjoy following your travels, thanks so much for your posts! 🙂

    Take care,

    Tina

    • Tamara & Chris
      2015-09-28 at 8:43 am

      Hi Tina: Great idea about gas spending. It would be easy for us to go back and analyze because 99% of it was paid for on credit card in order to get rewards points. We’d need to think about what to share and how, since gas spending varies depending on how much we’re moving around. For example, the week we hustled to get from Savannah, GA to San Francisco, CA was very pricey, but a week spent traveling southern OR is less. In any case, it’s a good idea — we’ll think on it!

      Here’s an article about someone who converted their SUV into a camper in case it’s useful as you make your decision.

      Finally, great point about house sitting. We’d tried doing that about a year ago, but it was when we still had our best furry friend Holly, so people weren’t really excited about having an unknown dog in their home while someone was supposed to watch their dog. But perhaps we’ll try it again!

      Thanks so much for following and for the great tips, comments and ideas. Happy travels! 🙂

  7. William Prince
    2015-11-25 at 4:29 pm

    Hello from England,
    I think your ideas are brilliant.
    What is, or are, “Airbnbs” please?

    • Tamara & Chris
      2015-11-25 at 7:59 pm

      Hello, William! Thanks for writing. Airbnb.com is a marketplace for renting out spare rooms. Check out the website!

      • Tamara & Chris
        2015-11-25 at 8:01 pm

        PS: Sometimes you can rent full apartments or houses too. Thanks for reading and happy travels!

  8. Harry
    2016-05-19 at 3:42 pm

    This is all fantastic info Guys! I’m an aussie who has already traveled through the states in my Chevy van but I did it on a big budget and spend plenty of money unnecessary. Later this year my girlfriend and I will be taking off from maine and heading all the way to the bottom of the west coast then up to Canada (big drive I know). My biggest question is about state parks. I was told I could get a year round park pass for the whole country? Is this a thing? Also any major hints or tips would be appreciated. I have read through your posts and found all the info fantastic. Safe travels guys and I hope my girlfriend and I can become as successful at van life as you have!!

    • Tamara & Chris
      2016-05-30 at 8:54 pm

      Hi Harry! Sorry for the slow response — sometimes the spam filter is overzealous… Your drive later this year sounds fantastic! Sounds like lots of fun.

      In the U.S., you can purchase what’s called an America the Beautiful Pass. It’s $80 and will allow you and your girlfriend (and anyone else in your vehicle) entry to any of the country’s national parks. This includes national forests. You’ll still have to pay for camping or other amenities as needed, but you won’t pay any entrance fees. If you plan on visiting at least four parks in one year, it’s worth the cost.

      But, the pass doesn’t work in state parks. Those are maintained by the states, not the federal government, so they have their own budget and pass system. If you’ll be spending a lot of time in one state, you can purchase an annual pass, but it’s only good for state-run parks in that state and likely won’t a very good deal because you won’t be in each state long enough. But, if you’re camping in a state park the entry fee is usually included in your camping fee. And if you’re camping at one state park and visit another one for a hike you won’t have to pay twice. (At least that’s the case in some places we’ve been, like California and Oregon.) Happy travels! 🙂

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