Budgeting for a 4-Month National Park Roadtrip

Here at Capitol Reef to answer your questions...
Here at Capitol Reef to answer your questions…

On the road, we get a lot of questions that are some combination of, “How long are you going to do this?”, also disguised as, “So, when are you coming back to reality and getting a job?”, or “How can you afford this?”. I haven’t exactly figured out any of those answers yet, but I have taken a long hard look at the last four months to figure out just how much our trip cost. And, of course, I’ve translated my sweet spreadsheet into even more exciting graphs. (Which doesn’t mean I’m quite ready to go back to work yet, people!)

Before I get into the real numbers on trip cost, I wanted to admit that writing this post made me a little uncomfortable for two reasons. One is that I don’t really like talking about money, especially openly on the internet. The second reason is that while I can be pretty matter-of-fact about our spending,  I have to acknowledge that Adam and I are incredibly lucky to have had the resources to make this trip work in the first place. If we hadn’t been able to spend so many days and nights relaxing with our friends and family and enjoying all the comforts of home, our trip would’ve gotten a lot shorter or a lot more expensive in a hurry. However, I hope people will find this interesting and helpful, and if it gets anyone one bit closer to departing on their own adventure, it will be a huge success.

So anyway, here’s the numbers. If you just read this blog for the pretty pictures, you can safely skip the rest of the post.

Over our four month trip (just counting April through July since August was wedding and house-sitting season and therefore not very representative) cost us a whopping $18,216, which is $4,434 a month, or about $145 a day. This seems like a lot. However, it included normal spending, fun stuff, and REALLY extra fun stuff.

I chose the really fun, fun, and basic split because you really only need the basics category to have a pretty awesome adventure.

In the chart, the “Really Fun Stuff” includes the $1,400 we spent to ride the AmTrak across the country as well as about $2,240 mostly spent by me on weddings and bachelorette parties. I’m sure no one’s surprised to hear that jet- and train-setting to parties all around the country isn’t cheap. I suspect most people wouldn’t include this in their trip.

The Fun portion of the pie chart includes going out and entertainment along the way. Most of that chunk was spent in bars and restaurants, while the rest is entertainment, sports, taxis, and occasional other fun things. (Beer and wine that we purchased to drink at camp or at home counts as a basic necessity because I will cut food before we stop buying beer.)

Budget_FunStuffMost of the money we spent on “Fun Stuff” was at bars and restaurants. In restaurants, I included everything from the nicest dinners to the road trip stops at McDonalds and Subway. The entertainment bucket is everything we rented or bought tickets to see, and includes largely museums, sporting events and kayak rentals. The last of the bucket is the presents we gave to some people along the way for various reasons and also the occasional taxi while we were in cities.

If you wanted to tighten your roadtrip budget belt, it would be easy to reduce this “fun” category of spending significantly just by drinking beers at home or at camp and avoiding restaurants. Of the $3,868, only $308 was spent on fast food or coffee. The rest we spent at nice places or on going out to bars, especially with friends we were visiting.

Now for the spending on the basics:


While the categories above are probably pretty self explanatory, let me note that groceries includes all the beer we bought to drink at home or camp ($386 worth!). Insurance includes an Obamacare health insurance plan ($469 a month from BCBS Illinois), renters insurance and car insurance. Supplies includes gear and clothing. We only spend $70 a month on two t-mobile pre-paid cell phone plans. And, finally, most of our coffee shop visits were stops to enjoy the wifi and figure out plans or reconnect with the world.

Digging a little deeper, wBudget_CostPerNightTablee spent $3,267 on sleeping. Here’s what it looked like over 120 days, depending on our location and excluding our nights on AmTrak. While camping averaged $20, it ranged from $0 on BLM areas to over $40 in some state parks. When I added it all up, I was surprised we had spent as many nights with friends and family as we had, but we did always have a hard time leaving those spots.

For supplies, the $1,097 included three big purchases: our original packs for $360, a $170 Chromebook for Adam from BestBuy, and a discounted replacement pack from REI at $135 after his was stolen from the car. The other $415 we spent on new shoes and wool socks for Adam, warm pants for me, and small things like propane canisters, water tablets, hiking maps, and bear canister and spray rental.

I also looked at how much we spent when we were camping, compared to staying with friends or at hotels. Again, it’s not surprising that the camping days were the cheapest and the hotels were most expensive. There are just not usually many bars or other things to spend money on near campsites and National Parks.


For this chart, I counted the money on the day we spent it and grouped it by where we slept that night. I didn’t spread big grocery runs across multiple days, and I only pulled out the insurance and phone bills since they were constant throughout the trip.

The final items I want to caveat about the trip budget is a few items we didn’t spend much money on that really helped us out:

  • The Mazda started in good shape and we only spent ~$300 on maintenance during the trip, though we did spring for the $150 stereo upgrade with the auxiliary cable plug and then were forced to spend another $140 to replace a broken window
  • Camping gear – We already had most of what we needed including a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pads, Coleman Stove, tarps, and headlamps.
  • We had a few discount cards – The National Park Pass ($80) which covers admission at all the parks was a gift from my mom, and we also already had a Costco card which helped for occasional groceries and cheap gas

I’m excited to see how much we spend once we get to Vietnam on September 15th, and how long it will take us to “breakeven” compared to our US trips when we factor in the costs of the flights over there.

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