Tips for Planning a Campervan Road Trip
May 16, 2021
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I did my first campervan road trip in the US during the fall of 2020 and absolutely fell in love with this style of travel. Van life style trips, and even the long term van lifestyle, have gained a lot of popularity over the past few years. As a travel blogger and avid traveler, I am so used to long haul flights and international overnight buses. Living out of a van for a week or more was still a foreign concept to me, but I loved the idea of it, and I loved actually doing it even more!
So it was no surprise that I quickly booked another campervan road trip in the Southwest US in the spring of 2021. For this 10 day campervan road trip I partnered with Cabana Vans, and couldn’t say more positive things about the experience. I mean there is nothing that I love more than having my kitchen, bed, and bathroom with me whenever I go!
What is a Campervan?
A campervan, or camper, is a van that is converted to accommodate both driving and sleeping. What this means is that not only can you drive your van around from day to day, but there is also a bed to sleep in when you park at night (or for your midday post-hike naps). They are similar to RVs but are often much smaller, and easier to drive! Many campervans also have kitchen areas, toilets/showers, and plenty of storage for your stuff. Campervan road trips have been popular for a long time, especially in places like New Zealand and Australia. However, in recent years it has become more and more common to rent a camper van for a United States road trip to visit the National Parks.
Why Rent a Campervan?
In my opinion, renting a campervan is the best way to explore North America, especially if you’re visiting the US National Parks. It will help you to avoid spending additional costs on hotels and lodging, and may help you not to spend as much eating out as you can prepare your meals in the van. However, renting a campervan is so much more than possibly saving some money. Taking a campervan road trip is one of my favorite things to do because you get to travel and see so much. But also you essentially get to take your home with you wherever you go – or in the case of Cabana Vans, a hotel on wheels!
Here is just one example – many of the parks or hikes we explored on our road trip require you to arrive quite early in order to get in (or to get a parking spot). This sometimes requires arriving as much as an hour before a parking lot open just to sit and wait. Sitting and waiting is a whole lot better when you can be snoozing your alarm in bed or making breakfast!
A campervan road trip is a safe way to travel that allows you to see so much more than a traditional road trip where you’re staying in hotels. It is also more flexible than traditional campsites because you don’t need access to any amenities (or have to hike into a primitive camping spots).
How to Choose a Campervan
Deciding which campervan company to rent with is going to depend on a number of factors including price range, location, and preferred amenities.
If you’re starting and ending your trip in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle, I definitely recommend Cabana Vans. I partnered with this awesome company during my Southwest US campervan road trip and loved the vans. What I loved the most about Cabana Vans for a campervan road trip is that all of the vans have a toilet and shower. Having a flushable toilet for long drives and camping nights was a serious luxury! You can use code TAYLOR50 for 50% off your adventure for trips before 8/3/21!
Another factor to consider when figuring out which campervan company to book with is the size of your group. Some vans can only accommodate two individuals, a driver and a passenger, whereas other vans can fit as many as 4-5 people. These types of vans often have a bed inside the van and an additional pop-up tent on top of the van. A few other companies to check out in Cabana Vans is not in your area include Native Campervans and Escape Campervans. Cost per day for each of these van rentals will obviously differ based on amenities.
Choosing a Campground for your Campervan Road Trip
The cool thing about taking a campervan road trip rather than just any old road trip is that you can park your van anywhere overnight parking is allowed. However, because you have everything you need in your van, you don’t need campground amenities such as restrooms, showers, etc.
The Dyrt is a free app, with a premium paid version that helps you to find campsites. On their app you’ll find everything from established campsites and RV parks to BLM sites and dispersed campsites.
BLM is the Bureau of Land Management, which offers a range of camping opportunities from super primitive free camping spots to more established campgrounds. Just about all BLM sites are first-come first-served, but costs vary from site to site You can learn more on the BLM website.
National Parks and State Parks
If you’re visiting the US National Parks or any State Parks, the parks often have their own campgrounds. Many of these are either first-come first-serve or fill up months and months in advance. For example the Zion campgrounds open new slots exactly 2 weeks before and spots often sell out in minutes.
Most campgrounds at National Parks cost a fee, typically between $20-35 USD but some as many at $50 USD. However, with this cost comes the convenience of staying right within the park. This can save you a ton of time and help you reach those epic sunrise spots without getting up quite as early.
Tips for Planning a Campervan Road Trip
Learn How to Empty Any Waste
If your van has a sink or toilet, or really any form of running water, you’re most likely going to have to learn to empty the waste if your trip is more than just a day or two. This can feel extremely intimidating if you’ve never done it before, but I promise that it is not difficult. At least if you understand the basic logistics of how waste is emptied from vans, you’ll be in a better place than I was my first time. Let’s just say the season RV-goers had a few laughs at our expense.
No matter what van company you are renting from, they should have a comprehensive guide of how and where to dump. Just make sure that you have the correct guide for your specific van, and that you download any instructions ahead of time because you may not have any cell reception when the time comes to dump.
Where to dump is also super important. It is illegal to dump your waste, especially your black water from the toilet, at a site that is not specifically designated as a black water dumping station. Most RV parks and many establish campgrounds have dumping sites available for you to use. If you are booked at the site, they are often free for overnight guests. Otherwise, there may be a small fee, usually less than $10 to fill up your van with freshwater and dump any black water and gray water waste.
While many vans, like Cabana Vans, have closets and great storage space, it is still important to not overpack. Remember, you are going to be eating, sleeping, and driving in the same space you don’t want it to be over cluttered. Shoes are the biggest thing that take up space in the van, as they are harder to store once they are dirty. I recommend being super selective with what you are packing and actually not packing that 4th pair of shoes or millionth pair of leggins that you know in your heart you aren’t actually going to use. That said, there are definitely some essentials that you should have on any campervan road trip, which i’ll cover more thoroughly down below.
Turn off Electronics and Lights When Not in Use
Most van rental options get their battery power through two main sources: 1) solar power and 2) running the engine of the van. This means that at night you’ll need to make sure that you have enough battery to use for anything you might need. If you are driving everyday, battery shouldn’t be an issue at all for you. However, if you are staying in one place for a few days, you may need to be a bit more conservative with your battery usage. A great way to get some light and conserve your electric is to bring along battery-operated fairy lights. Honestly, even if conserving battery power isn’t a concern for you, hanging up some fairy lights is still an awesome way to create a fun ambiance. Definitely a campervan essential for your next road trip.
Download an Offline Map
For any road trip, I always recommend downloading the offline maps for any areas that you plan on visiting. I found that the pre-downloaded offline Google Map works well for me! You can also check out maps.me.
Make Sure to Pack the Essentials
There are a number of essentials that you’re going to want to make sure that you pack for any campervan road trip. I’ve got a full guide on the top 10 things to pack,‘ but here are a few important ones not to forget:
- First Aid Kit – make sure to have the basic essentials including bandaids, antibacterial cream, allergy medicine, and any other Western medicine that you take regularly.
- Cooking Essentials – I definitely recommend booking a van with a kitchen or kitchen add-on option. If so, you’re going to want to make sure that you have any cooking essentials including, but not limited to, a sharp knife, small cutting board, basic spices, tupperware/Stasher bags, and cutlery. We also used our Stojo cups and bowls every day – as they are perfect for meals in the van, packed lunches, or simply for storing food.
- Comfy shoes – pack a pair of comfy shoes, whether those are slippers or flip flops. This will allow you the opportunity to pull off your hiking boots and let your feet relax in the evening. I recommend something easy to slip on for getting in and out of the van. Plus, flip flops are always a good idea if you’re using public showers at campgrounds.
Choose the Right Campground for Your Needs
As I mentioned above, there are a number of different campgrounds that you can stay at. Much of how you choose where to stay will be dependant on your personal travel style and preferences. Renting a Cabana Van allowed us to relatively self-sufficient, but we did need to fill up on fresh water and empty our waste a few times. Having showers at the campground is also helpful, being using the van shower is a luxury, but does use up the water tank quickly if you’re not hooked up to water.
For our 10 day road trip we only booked 2 of our campgrounds ahead of time, and 2 others while we were on the road. The rest were all first-come first-serve, either paid or free spots. When we booked ahead it was either through the National Parks website, for example for the Zion campground, through HipCamp, or through a proper RV park website such as KOA (like the one we stayed at in Monument Valley). For all of these nights the exact location was super important to us, so we didn’t want to take any chances with first-come first-served spots. That said, the off the beaten path, free camp spots were definitely our favorite. We found some great free options around Sedona, Arizona and Moab, Utah that were seriously magical.
Buy a National Parks Pass
If you are planning a campervan road trip in the US, then make sure that you buy a National Parks Pass. Like seriously, if you don’t already own one, stop what you’re doing and go buy one right now! The America the Beautiful pass costs $80 and gives you access to all of the National Parks, plus a number of other parks as well. A single park entrance fee can easily set you back $30, so even if your trip is just a few days long, the pass is worth it. Plus, it is valid for a full calendar year and can me assigned to two different users. Trust me, it’s worth it!
Where to Go on a Campervan Road Trip
My first answer is anywhere and everywhere, but we all know that wouldn’t be a helpful blog post for anyone. So instead I’ll list out a few different destinations that I have visited on various campervan trips and I love! I’ll eventually have full guides to each of these destinations, so if they’ll not all already linked when you’re reading this, make sure to bookmark this page and circle back soon!
Moab shouldn’t be on any outdoor adventure loving individual’s bucket list. With two incredible National Parks, Arches and Canyonlands, as well as Dead Horse Point State Park located in Moab, it has so much to offer. Plus, there is a ton of free, primitive camping options in the area for you to park your van. We stayed at a primitive campsite about 10 minutes off the main road heading towards Dead Horse Point State Park, past the Lone Mesa Group sites. We checked out this area after our initial plan to snag a first-come first-served spot at Horsethief Campground didn’t work out.
I would recommend giving yourself at least 2-3 days to explore this area, especially if you’re visiting during the high season. We attempted to visit Arches around noon on our first day, as were turned away due to excessive crowds in the park. I would recommend arriving no later than 7AM to ensure that you get into the park before it gets too busy, or too hot. The heat is another big factor for exploring these parks, as temperatures can soar into the hundreds during the day. Because of a little hiccup in our plan we ended up having to visit Canyonlands during the middle of the day. While the park was still amazing, it was incredible hot and busy. I would personally do a sunrise start in each of the main parks, and visit Dead Horse Point at sunset.
I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who visited Zion NP and didn’t love it! It’s definitely busy and most commercialized than other parks that I’ve been to, but it is seriously such a beautiful place. We spent two nights at the South Campground, which is less than a 5 minute walk from the Visitor Center. I highly recommend staying within the park if possible to maximize your exploring time! The park is quite big, so it is best to cut out any unnecessary driving in the early mornings to get on the trails before they are too busy.
If you’re planning to include a stop in Zion on your campervan road trip itinerary, you’re going to need to do a bit more planning than for other parks. This is because the park currently requires you to take the shuttle to access any hikes, with the exception of the Canyon Overlook Trail. Because of this, you’ll need to book your shuttle tickets in advance, when they are released twice a month. If you miss the window to purchase tickets, you can snag some last minute ones the night before, but obviously that is not ideal. In order to board the shuttle you can park your car at the Visitor Center, in Springdale, or at one of the nearby campgrounds if you are spending the night. If you’re planning to hiking Angel’s Landing, you’ll want to make sure to be on the earliest shuttle.
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Valley of Fire State Park is such a hidden gem in Nevada. Located less than 2 hours away from Las Vegas, it feels like you’ve transported yourself to another planet. The park is small so one day is enough time to explore more of the hikes and scenic spots. I would recommend spending at least one night in the park though, so you can experience it at sunrise. We stayed at the Atlatl Campground which is first-come first-served. We lucked out arriving in the late afternoon as it was midweek, but if you’re visiting on a weekend you’ll want to arrive early to snag a spot at the campground. Highlights in the park include:
- Atlatl Rocks
- Mouse’s Tank Rd
- Fire Wave
- Pink Canyon
- White Domes Hike
Unlike the other spots on this campervan road trip guide that include national and state parks, Sedona is a bit different. That said, it offers some of the best hiking in the country and is one of the best places to visit by campervan. The best hikes in Sedona get busy early, so sunrise is going to be your best bet for avoiding the crowds. The highlight of my stay in Sedona was finding a free spot to camp along Forest 525 Road. There is plenty of camping along this road, but it definitely gets much more beautiful the further down you go. We stayed here on the first night of our 10 day road trip, and it was probably my favorite campsite (and best sunrise) of them all).
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Similar to many of the other parks on this list, I would make sure to dedicate at least 2 nights in Yellowstone National Park. 2 nights will give you enough time to see the main sites, but you’ll need more time if you plan on doing some of the longer hikes.
There are a number of campsites in Yellowstone that you can reserve ahead of time. Sites book up super early to make sure to reserve a few months in advance. We got lucky with a cancellation and were able to snag a spot at Canyon Campground for our first night in the park. If you are able to get multiple nights here, it can easily be your base for the entire trip to Yellowstone, as it is super central. Here is a list of campgrounds that you can reserve ahead of time:
- Bridge Bay
- Grant Village
There are also a number of campsites that are first-come, first-serve, but you’ll want to arrive super early. We arrived at Indian Creek Campground by 5am to grab a site for two nights. It felt a bit ridiculous when we were the first to arrive, especially since the campground office doesn’t open until 8am, but by 5:30/6am there was a line of about 30 cars/RVs. Indian Creek is not as central, as it is located about 20 minutes south of Mammoth Hot Springs, however it was a great site and only costs $15/night.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
I visited Grand Teton National Park on my first campervan road trip and absolutely fell in love. I’ve got a few different guides that you can read through, including the best Grand Tetons hiking trails. I would recommend allotting at least 2-3 days for the Tetons on your travel itinerary, but I actually ended up staying 4 days and could stayed much longer. The best time to visit Grand Teton National Park is from mid-May to late September, when you’ll typically experience good weather. You can still visit the park during the winter but some roads and trails may be closed, which could be tricky in a van.
There are campsites available within the park that I definitely recommend booking for your campervan road trip. All of the campgrounds in the Tetons are first-come, first-serve, so you’ll want to make sure that you arrive early. Jenny Lake Campground is the most popular, and campers typically start lining up as early as 5am so secure a spot. If you aren’t looking to get up quite so early, I recommend checking out Gros Venture Campground. While Gros Venture Campground is not quite as central as Jenny Lake Campground, it typically doesn’t fill up until a few hours later. You can check out the latest fill times online, but remember that you’ll want to arrive at least an hour before that fill time as there will most likely be a line.
At any of the campgrounds you’ll find dump stations, fresh water, fire pits, and restrooms. The typical rate for any of the sites in the park is $33/night.
Exploring the US by campervan? Here are some other resources to check out:
- 12 Campervan Essentials for your Road Trip
- Grand Teton Itinerary
- Yellowstone National Park Itinerary
- Sedona Hiking: 6 Best Hiking Trails in Sedona, Arizona