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#HughesYourOwnAdventure: The Day-to-Day Challenges and Triumphs of a Life on the Road

10/9/17 by Melinda Hughes

We’ve been following Aaron and Melinda Hughes on their North American tour over the last few months. In their previous post, they shared how they made the switch from living a typical American life to finding themselves unemployed, living out of their car, and looking for the next place to call home.

When we set out on our road trip adventure, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into or how it was all going to work—which was actually part of the fun. Now, with about five months of highway behind us, we’ve found a flow. For example, waking up, cooking breakfast, tearing down the tent, and packing up the car takes less than half the time that it did when we first set out. Sure, there’s still lots more to learn, but we wanted to share some of the tricks we have found to make life on the road run a little smoother. Our way is by no means the only way, but it works for us, and our hope is that you might be able to use our experiences to help you find your own rhythm.

Everything in its place.

We have systems for storing everything, and how it all fits into our vehicle.


    Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes
We have systems for storing everything, and how it all fits into our vehicle. Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes

Depending on every road tripper’s choice of adventure-mobile, space can vary greatly. But regardless of how much room is available, being able to access what you need, when you need it, is key. For us, travelling in a mid-size hatchback, having a place for everything is essential. Anyone who has ever lived in a small apartment can tell you that a tight space can quickly feel like a disaster, even if there are only a few items out of place. This effect is compounded when the backseat is your closet, the trunk is your kitchen, and the roof is your garage. It’s taken awhile, but now we’ve reached a point where just about everything we own has a place to call home (except my headlamp, which always seems to pop up somewhere new).

The strategy that has helped us the most is compartmentalization. Loose items get lost easily, sometimes to mysteriously never be seen again, so keeping our stuff separated and contained makes it more accessible. We each only have one duffel bag for all of our clothing, shoes, and toiletries. Something else that’s been a huge help: packing cubes. We purchased a couple sets before we left, and by separating shirts from bottoms and outerwear, our bags are able to function more like a chest of drawers than a laundry hamper. For the most part, our clothes also stay folded and neat until we’re ready to wear them.

We have a similar strategy for food and cookware. To keep our kitchen sorted, we built a chuck box that easily fits in the back of the car next to our 30-quart cooler. This keeps our stove, pot and pan, dishes, utensils, and a few odds and ends ready to be put to use whenever we need them. Making our own simple chuck box was a relatively easy project, and it’s something even the most novice carpenter can tackle. All of our food, water, and kitchen supplies fit in the back of our car, keeping it separate from our clothing and allowing each to be accessed without getting in the way of the other.

On top of our car, we carry two mountain bikes and a medium-sized cargo box that mostly holds camping and bike gear. Tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, helmets, and other miscellaneous equipment can all be stored separately from clothes and food, which comes in particularly handy when we camp in the rain and mud or go on a especially dirty bike ride. It lowers our gas mileage a little bit, and a strong cross-wind can lead to some surprise lane changes, but it’s worth it to have the gear to do the activities we enjoy. Everything we keep on the roof locks securely, so we feel confident leaving it up there no matter what trailhead we park the car at.

The balance of planning and spontaneity.

By incorporating flexibility into our plans, we can follow adventure to wherever it takes us.
    Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes
By incorporating flexibility into our plans, we can follow adventure to wherever it takes us. Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes

In our past life, I created a color-coded Google map with hundreds of things to see, do, or eat scattered across the states we hoped to visit. Our plan was to use this as a guide through our travels to help cut down on time spent researching while on the road. We haven’t looked at it in months.

As we became more comfortable with life on the road, we leaned on that resource less and less. We usually have a general idea of the direction we are headed and some of the major highlights we want to see, but for the most part, we have been able to go without booking or reserving anything in advance. Not having a set itinerary gives us the freedom to stay however long we want, wherever we want, and change our route and plan if needed, like the time we were invited on a spontaneous camping trip with family in Montana. We ended up having so much fun that we followed them back to their home to kayak, ride bikes, and swim in the river for the rest of the week.

The biggest challenge with not knowing where we will be in advance is the stress of finding a place to pitch our tent every night. First-come, first-served campsites are ideal in our situation, but we run the risk of getting to our destination and finding a "full" sign at the campground entrance. To avoid this, we seek out less popular campgrounds and try to arrive right before checkout time. The very first first-come, first-served campground we tried to stay at in Sedona said it was full, but we took a chance and drove in anyway. After talking to the host, we found out there was actually one spot left. From then on, we always double-check for open sites, even if the sign says there weren’t any available.

Camping on public land means we get to share our campsite with the locals.


    Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes
Camping on public land means we get to share our campsite with the locals. Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes

One of the most invaluable skills we have developed in our time on the road is the ability to track down free, dispersed campsites. Staying in organized campgrounds can really add up, and fortunately, the United States is full of public land with amazing views, few crowds, and easy access to some of the best cities and parks we have come across. Finding these sites is not always intuitive, but tracking them down has led us to find some of our favorite camping spots. Learning what public land we could and could not camp on and deciphering the maps to get there took a lot of trial and error, but we feel confident now that if we are near a national forest, we can usually find a place to sleep for the night.

One of the most helpful ways to do this, as we’ve learned: simply picking up the phone and calling the local forest service office. When we tell them that we are looking for dispersed camping, and in what area, they are usually able to give us some direction. Once, they even gave us the cell number of a ranger out on the forest who gave us up to date information on available areas and road conditions.

Once we have a place to sleep, one of our favorite things to do when visiting a new park is to bee-line to the visitor’s center, where we pick out the friendliest-looking park ranger and ask for the inside scoop on the area. More often than not, we walk away with a good idea of some hikes and activities that will get us off the beaten path and away from the crowds.

We’ve also been surprised by how many people, after seeing our out-of-state plates, will strike up a conversation asking what we are up to. Many times, this leads to them sharing some great local intel on the best nearby trails, swimming holes, and the all-important taco truck. By not having a set agenda for every day of our trip, we can work in these suggestions and sometimes spend an extra night or two to fit everything in.

Housekeeping and chores.

Even with hikes like this filling our days, we still have some chores to attend to. 
    Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes
Even with hikes like this filling our days, we still have some chores to attend to. Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes

As different as our day-to-day lives are now compared to a few months ago, we still have some recurring chores: laundry, car washes, paying bills, grocery shopping, and equipment repairs, to name a few. But even though we don’t have easy access to conveniences like a washer, dryer, and shower anymore, accomplishing these everyday chores is not as hard as it may seem.

Occasionally, we try to stay at a campground that also has shower facilities. When that hasn’t been an option, we have been pleasantly surprised to find a couple of laundromats that also have showers. And if we are truly off the beaten path, we put our pressurized camp shower to use, and we’re not afraid to strip down in the woods and spray off with that. In between showers, jumping in a nearby river or alpine lake is a fun way to rinse off after a day on the trails. But in all honesty, it didn’t take us long on the road to become a lot more comfortable with a lot fewer showers.

Pretty much every town, big or small, has at least one laundromat, and we can usually wash and dry everything for less than $5. Often, one of us will supervise the clothes while the other runs a quick errand or makes a phone call to catch up with family. Another pleasant surprise about laundromats? Every one we’ve been to, even the oldest one in the smallest town, has had free wifi, so we always try to take the opportunity to get some work done while our clothes get clean.

Keeping up with expenses.

We still have work to do, but at least the new office comes with a view. 
    Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes
We still have work to do, but at least the new office comes with a view. Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes

Unfortunately, hitting the road didn’t mean escaping all of our monthly expenses. A few of the things we have to make sure get paid regularly are our storage unit, insurance, cell phones, and most importantly, Netflix. At the beginning of every month, we find a quiet place with wifi to sit down and go over all of our monthly payments. Most bills are set up on autopay, but we still like to keep an eye on where our funds are going.

A large part of the decision to use our trusty Subaru hatchback as our adventure-mobile was based on its reliability. We’ve been fortunate that after five months, the biggest mechanical issue we’ve faced is a burnt-out headlight. We make sure to stay on top of routine maintenance like oil changes and tire rotations, which come up much faster for us now, since we average about 900 miles a week. Aside from that, we make sure to keep our gas tank full and our windshield clean and we’re good to go!

Treat yo’ self.

Some outdoor adventures are worth paying for.
    Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes
Some outdoor adventures are worth paying for. Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes

Most of the time, we keep our costs low by cooking our own meals (like a delicious pb&j for lunch every day), camping for free, and saying no to almost all paid activities. But we have found that there is a time and place to treat ourselves. After all, we want to really experience all of these amazing places we are so fortunate to visit, and it’s hard to do that if you are hell-bent on not spending a dime.

When we pull into a new town, one of the ways we get to know the culture of the area is to pick a couple local favorite restaurants to try out while we are there. It’s nice to break away from our cycle of repeated camp meals. While we have found that visiting places like National Parks is best done during the week when crowds are smaller, we prefer to be in cities on weekends to get the best feel for the vibe while everyone is out and about.

We may save eating out as a special treat, but without fail, in every town you will find us camped out in one or two local coffee shops. We like to think that instead of paying for coffee, we are actually paying for wifi and a comfortable place to work and relax for a couple of hours, with the added bonus of a caffeinated beverage thrown in. This time is mostly used to research our next destination, find camping options, edit photos, and update my journal.

An interesting side-effect of our "treat yo’ self" mentality is that things that we took for granted before now seem like a special treat. Finding a clean bathroom with hot water and soap to wash our hands, having ice in our drinks, and enjoying a comfortable, cool indoor spot have all become luxuries.

Establishing good road relations.

For better or worse, we’re in this thing together.
    Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes
For better or worse, we’re in this thing together. Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes

Prior to setting off on this trip, Aaron and I had never experienced 24/7 togetherness for more than a couple of weeks at a time. We have always been selfish about our time together, turning down invitations to hang out with friends in favor of takeout burritos and a quiet evening on the couch, just the two of us. So, we were excited for this chapter to begin and to not have to share our time with jobs and other obligations. It turns out that spending this much uninterrupted time together has a bit of a learning curve.

I once heard someone describe life on the road like this: "The highs are unbelievably high and the lows are painfully low; everything is magnified when your world is as small as your car." I can confirm now that that summary is spot on. When we started this journey, a setback like struggling to find a campsite had a way of causing our frustrations to get directed toward each other, even though we were fighting for the same goal. With no one around except the two of us, a bad mood easily became contagious and could tarnish even the most amazing experience.

On the flip side, being together on this journey has brought us so much joy. We get to experience every new wonder through each other’s eyes as well as our own, be there to lift the other up in a challenging spot (sometimes literally), and celebrate our victories, big and small, together.

We have by no means mastered the art of so much togetherness, but by being conscious of our situation and how we respond to each other, we are headed in the right direction. In such a small space, I try to carefully consider how I respond to challenges, compliments are given more freely, and we always have to be ready to laugh at ourselves—which is especially helpful in getting us through the tough times.

Sustainability.

We’ve learned to enjoy and respect our public lands.
    Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes
We’ve learned to enjoy and respect our public lands. Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes

By nature, living the way we do has an incredibly small impact on the planet. We produce a fraction of the garbage we used to and use far less water. Our biggest impact comes from driving, although our mileage is just a little more than someone with a long commute.

When we had a house, it was easier to get disconnected from the natural world, but by essentially living outdoors, we are constantly aware of how our actions directly impact the land around us. Whether we are hiking, camping alone in the forest, spending the night at a developed campground in a national park, we make it a priority to leave no trace. Even making small efforts, like picking up a stray wrapper from the ground, can make a big difference.

For us, this road trip is not permanent, but living this way has shown us that even small changes in our daily routine can have a big impact on the planet. Once our trip is over, and we go back to living a more conventional life, we plan to make a conscious effort to bring these habits with us.

Looking ahead to the next chapter.

We hope our story encourages you to find your own adventure.
    Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes
We hope our story encourages you to find your own adventure. Photo courtesy of Melinda Hughes

When we started seriously moving forward with this crazy idea, we had a really hard time finding validation and encouragement from anyone who had done something like what we had in mind. There are #vanlifers everywhere, but we couldn’t track down many folks who were doing it on a smaller scale. But since hitting the road, we have found those kindred spirits, from couples who drove off in search of their ideal home decades ago, to people on the verge of setting off. We hope that by sharing our story and some of the things we have learned, other budding road-trippers might find that bit of encouragement they need to set off on their own adventure.

This small portion of our story is just the tip of the iceberg, because if nothing else, living on the road is just one big learning experience. From living without our house and most of our belongings, to sleeping on a different piece of dirt every night, to making everything fit in our small car, to managing to cook meals with some nutritional value on a camp stove, we have come so far since we set off. We want to be a resource to you and your dreams, whether that comes in the form of logistical specifics, destination recommendations, or if you just need a virtual high-five and a nudge out the door. If nothing else, we would love to connect with you so we can follow along while you #liveyoursomeday.

Get in touch on Instagram @hughesyourownadventure.

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.