This is part two of a two-part series about living on the road. First, we looked at various means of funding a nomadic lifestyle. Here, we detail the financial costs.
What’s your preference: local brews or water? Beans or meat? A crusty old minivan or the latest high-end Sprinter? As we previously explored, nomadic climbers come in all forms: from techies to blue-collared laborers to inheritors and everything in-between. This also means widely differing budgets. Generalizing the expense of living on the road is, therefore, a tricky task and your experiences may differ. But, this post should provide a general framework to understand the costs entailed.
Below, I combine my personal experience with observations made through meeting hundreds of vehicle dwellers over the years. Van life does not have to be a major cost; in my experience, it offered considerable savings. Having previously paid about $1,000/month for a California studio (half of an old man’s garage), I saved an estimated $36,000 in rental payments over the course of my time on the road. Undoubtedly, nomadism was a great financial decision for my circumstances. But before you dive in, let’s explore the costs to decide if it makes sense for you.
Financial costs of life on the road
Van/car/truck-life necessitates a large upfront investment along with expenses that vary depending on the style and duration of your travels. Let’s take a look at how this breaks down …
Vehicle and conversion
Est. cost: $7,000-$50,000+
The greatest cost to living on the road is the purchase and equipping of your rig to power your travels. This might be a crusty old minivan, a climber-favorite Tacoma, or a brand new super-rigged SportsMobile. We’ve detailed the best vehicles for living on the road here.
You’ll also have to factor in the costs of a build. These expenses vary from $1,500 on the scrappy low end to $5,000+. The costs of the build don’t fall within the scope of this article, but you can check out the equipment I used and explore the buildout costs of my friend’s Sprinter over at One Chick Travels.
I opted for a Dodge Ram ProMaster that cost about $26,000. It came with a warranty and I invested $3,000 into the build, which I’ve detailed here. Converted vehicles hold their value well, especially in hot markets like the US west coast. I’ve met plenty of climbers who have purchased an old vehicle or Airstream, completed a conversion, and later sold the home on wheels for a profit. One climber I met even funded his travels this way for several years: buying vehicles in weaker markets, outfitting them, then traveling and climbing for a few months before selling out west for handsome profits. I’ll mention it again: with creativity, the ways to fund a nomadic climbing lifestyle are endless.
Est. cost: $50-$150/month
The cost of your vehicle will heavily influence the price of your insurance. Use an online quote calculator to get a general idea of what you can expect to pay.
I paid about $110 per month for insurance on a 2017 Dodge Ram ProMaster.
Est. cost: $10-$20 per day
How scrappy is your diet? Although ill-advised, a diet of ramen, rice, and beans will sustain your body and budget. But veggies are helpful and optimal nutrition is key for climbing performance (in addition to general health and well-being). It’s also useful to be mindful of eating out: you’ll quickly blow your funds with visits to the Bishop’s Black Sheep, although I might suggest it’s worth it!
I maintained a food budget of $10 per day. I dined out rarely, with the exception being local coffees. My typical breakfast consisted of oats and peanut butter; lunches and dinners were often veggie and rice stir-frys or bean tacos.
Est. cost: $0-$15/night
When you get settled into a destination and learn where to park, you’ll often find free camping. This has changed some, as the number of vehicle dwellers has exploded over the past few years. In some areas, permitting systems to limit crowds and offset the expenses of clean-up are becoming more popular. Of course, remember to always practice Leave No Trace principles in the wild.
I rarely paid for camping. I stuck to free BLM (Bureau of Land Management) sites as much as possible and I wasn’t too concerned about sleeping on city streets. Large shopping complex parking lots (like Walmart) are typically fair game. When I did want to stay in a park and at a campsite (it’s usually much more pleasant, after all) I’d split the cost of the site with another party. If you’re going to be in an area for a while, you might also consider working out an arrangement to park on a local’s property and gain access to their restroom facilities. This might cost $150-$200/month, but it could make for a much more comfortable arrangement.
Est. cost: $0-$infinity
I suggest you don’t spend all your money on post-climb crag brews, but some climbers do.
Est. cost: highly variable
A lot of travel will certainly put a dent in your wallet and let’s not forget the environmental impact, either. The price of fuel is extremely variable based on the amount you travel, your vehicle’s fuel economy, and the fluctuating prices of gasoline and diesel.
Given what we’ve discussed above, I suggest spending time to gain an estimate of how much you’ll need. Give a shot at the formula below:
Cost = Vehicle Investment + (Food Budget * # of Days) + (Fuel Cost * (Miles Travelled/Vehicle MPG)) + Beer + Other Monthly Expenses
Other Monthly Expenses may entail: health insurance, cell phone bill, rest day shenanigans, vehicle insurance and maintenance, health products, climbing gear, and unforeseen circumstances. These expenses are unique to your situation and therefore must be accounted for individually.
A number of factors — whether you purchase your vehicle new or used, converted or as a shell, do the build yourself or hire professionals — will play an important role in how much of your investment can be recouped upon selling. If you play it smart, buy used, and have the capabilities to complete the build on your own, you can surely reap a profit.
Throughout my travels, I found that most van dwellers spent between $700 and $1500 per month. In my experience, I kept my total monthly financial costs (including monthly vehicle payments of $300) to $1,000 while living on the road. I sometimes refrained from eating out with others and I didn’t indulge on my rest days. This budget kept my needs sufficiently met and enabled a long-term, sustainable lifestyle on the road.
Now that we’ve explored popular means of funding life on the road and the costs associated, can you make it happen? Do a little napkin math (and mental contemplation … this is a big decision!) before you take the plunge. I highly suggest working toward a replenishing financial arrangement rather than an until-my-money-runs-out approach. The latter — an ever-approaching deadline to the dream — will contribute to stressful financial circumstances; the former, however, will give you the freedom to travel long-term and pursue your greatest nomadic dreams.