How Much Does a 26 Day Road Trip Cost?

Have you ever wondered what it would cost to take a month off of work and see part of the United States? 

I recently took a 26-day road trip across 14 states, though I really only explored about 8 of them. The rest were states I drove through on my way to the others. 

Before leaving, I was not sure what the cost of the trip would be, but driving 5,000+ miles, I knew it would not be cheap. My back-of-the-envelope calculation for fuel alone was about $750. 

If you are interested in taking an extended trip, this post is for you. I’ll break down why I took the trip, where I went, how I traveled, and a detailed breakdown of the expenses. 

The Narrows in Zion

Why Did I Take the Trip? 

There were many reasons for the trip. My fiancée started her Internal Medicine Residency in Wisconsin, which meant moving across the country from Seattle. On top of that, I was burned out from my job. After 10 years of sprinting, working long hours, not receiving much administrative support, and for many other reasons, I decided to give my notice. I needed a break and some time to unwind. Since my prior employer did not offer a sabbatical, and I couldn’t unplug during vacations, this would be a great opportunity to create my own form of sabbatical. 

I would have preferred to take a few months off and travel internationally like my friend and her boyfriend did a few years ago. It sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime type of experience; however, with the pandemic, I did not want to navigate the different and ever-changing rules of different countries, as well as risk getting locked down in a foreign country. 

The point of this trip was to be mobile – to go where I wanted when I wanted. I’m a planner by nature, which meant this was an intentional choice to be less of a planner. I wanted to see what it would be like with a rough outline of where I wanted to go, but not plan how many days in each location or where I was staying far in advance. 

Also, over the past few years, I had heard from numerous people that Utah is beautiful. As I heard more and more about it, it kept rising farther up my travel list. This trip would be an excellent opportunity to spend an extended period of time there, hike, and explore what Utah had to offer. 

Where Did I Go?

In total, I traveled to 14 states:

  1. Washington state
  2. Oregon
  3. California
  4. Nevada
  5. Arizona
  6. Utah
  7. Colorado
  8. New Mexico
  9. Texas
  10. Oklahoma
  11. Kansas
  12. Missouri
  13. Iowa
  14. Wisconsin

Out of these states, I had never been to Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, or Iowa. 

I spent nights in the following states:

  1. Washington state
  2. Oregon
  3. Nevada
  4. Utah
  5. Colorado
  6. New Mexico
  7. Texas
  8. Kansas
  9. Wisconsin

I drove through these states without staying a night:

  1. California
  2. Arizona
  3. Oklahoma
  4. Missouri
  5. Iowa

I have been to California many times. I likely would have stayed the night, but the wildfire smoke was bad, and since I couldn’t explore their National Forest land because they closed all their National Forests, I decided to quickly go through it.

Sleeping Arrangements

Before leaving, my friend and his brother-in-law helped me build out a sleeping platform in my Subaru Forester. I wanted to stay in National Forests and BLM land for a good portion of the trip because it is free to camp. I wanted not only to save money, but also to enjoy the outdoors. I used a combination of iOverlander, Google Maps, and Gaia GPS to find places to stay. iOverlander shows you where others have camped for free. Google Maps satellite view is a valuable resource to see what the terrain is like where I wanted to stay. Gaia GPS can show US Public Lands, as well as hiking trails, smoke forecasts, and cell service. It’s a very handy app when traveling. 

I’m not usually one for camping because I sleep poorly, and I hate setting it up each night and taking it down each morning. It’s time-consuming. 

I liked the idea of sleeping in my car because there is little setup each day and leaving in the morning would be easier. I also had seen others build out sleeping arrangements in their cars. SUV RVing has great resources. There are many, many others.    

There are many different designs and after looking at 5+ designs, we combined them into one and made it up as we went. We certainly didn’t draw it, cut the wood, put it together, and call it a day. There were some creative solutions at different points. 

You can see the final design below. 

Subaru Forester Sleeping Platform for Road Trip

Basically, I needed a sleeping platform to store stuff below me and then six inches of memory foam. You could get by with a backpacking sleeping pad, which I had with me in case I decided to backpack or stay in my tent, but I really enjoy memory foam. 

We contemplated taking out the back seats but decided not to because I wasn’t sure how I would get them to Wisconsin, and it did not look like it would give me much more space. 

I’m a little taller than 5’9”, and I could lay completely flat with the passenger seat pushed all the way forward. 

The first few nights were very claustrophobic, but after that, I slept fairly well in the car. I enjoyed the feeling of having everything with me that I needed and being able to sleep along the way. The platform was a huge success. 

Subaru Forester in Desert

I knew I did not want to sleep out of my car the entire time and would supplement the sleeping in the car with a hotel here and there. I aimed for every three nights in the car and one in a hotel. 

Out of the 25 nights, I spent 9 nights in a hotel or Airbnb, 4 with a friend, and 12 in my car. Two nights were at an Airbnb in Denver, which was a nice change of pace from staying in hotels. 

I tended to stay in hotels after days of hiking, when it was really hot, when I did not want to worry about driving late at night, or near cities. 

For example, I got a hotel in Utah because I had been on three hikes and had about eight layers of sunscreen on my skin. Another time, I got a hotel outside of Las Vegas because the overnight temperature was not going to drop below the high 80s. I stayed at a hotel when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park because I wanted the flexibility of staying late in the park or waking up early without trying to find a spot. I also stayed at a hotel in Denver because there are not many options to camp close by.

When camping, I always tried to get to my location for the evening prior to dark. I only broke that rule once, and it worked out fine. In general, I would recommend trying to find a place to disperse camp before dark, in order to not disturb others already there and for your general safety. I cut it close many other evenings. One tip I’ll recommend is to know how much daylight you still get after sunset. Depending on the time of year and where you are located, it may be 20 minutes or it could be 40 minutes. Know how much daylight you have because it’s still usable time if you are in the desert as opposed to a heavily forested area. 

I won’t go into my complete packing list to make my car comfortable because there are plenty of better resources available online, but I did carry wet wipes, black-out screens for all my windows, and a variety of sandals and other shoes for different activities. 

Although a Subaru Forester may not look comfortable to sleep in, I actually found it quite comfortable and won’t hesitate to use my sleeping platform in the future. I found it a great way to travel. 

The Highlights of the Trip

I saw a lot in 26 days. I could have spent 26 days in a few locations, but I wanted to see as much as possible and make a list of places I would return to. 

In total, I visited 11 National Parks:

  1. Crater Lake National Park
  2. Death Valley National Park
  3. Zion National Park
  4. Bryce Canyon National Park
  5. Capitol Reef National Park
  6. Canyonlands National Park
  7. Arches National Park
  8. Rocky Mountain National Park
  9. Great Sand Dunes National Park
  10. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  11. Big Bend National Park

Where are the parks and towns to which I would return? 

Without a doubt, I would return to the following places:

  • Oregon Coast
  • Bryce Canyon National Park
  • Canyonlands
  • Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park
  • Carlsbad Caverns
  • Durango, CO
  • Big Bend National Park
  • Austin, TX

I almost left the Oregon coast off the list because I grew up visiting it as a child and took it for granted, but it’s spectacular. If you ever get the chance to drive the 101, do it. 

I fell in love with Bryce Canyon. I’m still unsure why, but I think it’s a combination of beautiful hiking, accessibility for people, and that it was calmer than Zion, which I visited before. 

Canyonlands is a vast area. I’d love to muster the courage to outfit a Jeep or other 4×4 and go off-roading with friends. I saw some of the coolest outfitted rigs near Canyonlands. 

Rocky Mountain National Park had incredible wildlife. I’ve seen more elk in a day than I’ve probably seen in my entire life. 

Deer in RMNP
Elk in RMNP
Elk sunrise in RMNP

Great Sand Dunes National Park was not on my original list, but wow, it’s beautiful. I have no way to adequately show the scale of how large and vast the dunes are, but I felt small hiking them.

Carlsbad Caverns was not on my original list, but I’m glad I stopped. Watching bats fly out of a cave for 30 minutes nonstop and knowing there were more to come was a surreal experience. More than 400,000 bats live in the cave and fly out each night. It was absolutely incredible. 

Durango is a wonderful small town. I met a mentor of mine who lives there, and it was the type of small town with a great downtown and has access to wonderful outdoor recreation.

Big Bend National Park was something else. It’s out there – really out there. The stargazing was like nothing I had ever experienced. I saw a bear for the first time and a giant tarantula walking down the road. I kayaked Santa Elena Canyon. This is another place where you could spend a good deal of time and only scratch the surface. Plus, there is a giant state park nearby. This would be another great place for a 4×4. 

Big Bend Stargazing

Austin is a place I love visiting. I have a friend who lives there, which makes it easy to visit. Tacos, BBQ, and other great food call Austin home. I tried Franklin’s for the first time. Let me tell you – the hype is real. I reheated brisket the following day, and it was still moister than fresh brisket. 

Brisket from Franklin's in Austin

The Detailed Expenses Breakdown

What was the final damage? What did the trip cost? 

The 26-day road trip cost me $4,548.92. The cost was elevated by about $1,000 because while driving near Big Bend, a rock flew up, hit my windshield, and sent a crack through about ⅓ of it. The crack has grown to about half the windshield, so I am having it replaced. This was a huge bummer because if the rock had flown even an inch to the right, it would have missed the windshield. 

Although cracked windshields are a hazard when driving thousands of miles, without it, the trip would have been about $3,548.92. 

How do those expenses break down? 

Gas & Fuel$     768.55
Hotel$     942.56
Groceries$     232.48
Restaurants$     633.89
Entertainment$     469.68
Auto & Transport$  1,458.11
Sporting Goods$      43.65

There were other upfront trip expenses, but I am not counting those because I can use them in the future. The big upfront expenses were a fridge and a battery to power the fridge, as well as recharge electronics. 

My estimate for gas was almost spot on. I averaged about 30 MPG, give or take a few MPG depending on the terrain. I certainly was not getting 30 MPG driving up some of Colorado’s peaks. 

The hotels were slightly above $100 a night. I tried to stay at places in the $70-90 range, but after taxes and fees, it usually came to around $100. Utah hotels are very expensive because there are not many around. 

As you can see, I did not do much cooking. I had a camp stove with me and thought I would do more cooking, but for how quickly I was moving from one destination to the next, it was tough to justify spending a couple of hours each day on setting up, cooking, and cleaning. 

I tended to eat yogurt with granola for breakfast, a peanut butter and honey sandwich with some fruit for lunch, and ate out for dinner. I’d supplement my diet with protein bars, beef jerky, trail mix, and other snacks. 

Food costs were about $33 per day. I did spend about $200 on BBQ in Austin for my friends and me because I had wanted to try Franklin’s for years, which increased the overall cost. There are certainly ways to cut down on costs if you are trying to do it more cheaply, but I favored convenience and trying local. Plus, I had BBQ a few times, and it is not cheap. 

Entertainment was a mix of a concert in Denver at Red Rocks Amphitheater, guided kayaking in Big Bend, rental in Zion (boots, walking stick, and neoprene socks for The Narrows hike), camping in Big Bend, train ride in Durango, and the reservation system on for timed entry into Rocky Mountain and a few other parks. 

Auto and transport is my new windshield combined with regularly scheduled car maintenance. I normally don’t drive very much, but I had to service my car once on the trip and will need to do it sooner than normal again. 

Overall, I felt good about my purchases. The only purchase I felt stupid about was parking outside of Zion. Since the signs said the national park lot was full, I parked in town and paid for two days of parking because I thought it would give me a better rate, but then I went into the park and saw open spots. The next morning, I decided to hike early, which also meant I could park in the normal lot. $40 down the drain. Oh well, the purpose of the trip was to be less planned and this was a side effect. 

You may be wondering about sporting goods expenses. Despite all my best planning, I lost my silverware on my way out of town and stopped at REI to get new silverware and a few other items. I did find the silverware when I arrived in Wisconsin. I accidentally hid it in my clothing bag. 

Summary – Final Thoughts

I don’t know when I’ll get an entire month off again. I feel very fortunate and thankful to have taken this trip. 

I enjoyed seeing different parts of the United States. Utah was beautiful, and I hiked about 50 miles over the course of a week. I was amazed by the wildlife in Colorado. Seeing oil country in New Mexico and Texas was different than anything I had ever experienced. 

Although it was not the cheapest trip, I’m happy about how I spent money. Not staying in hotels the entire trip was a big money saver, and now I have a setup to use in the future. Being on the road was a great way to unwind for a month. 

If you ever get the chance to take time for yourself and explore, I’d recommend it. 

Disclaimer: This article is for general information and educational purposes only and should not be considered investment, financial, legal, or tax advice. It is not a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security or investment advisory services. Please consult your own legal, financial, and other professionals to determine what may be appropriate for you. Opinions expressed are as of the date of publication, and such opinions are subject to change. Click for Full Disclaimer