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How to live out of your small car on the road trip of a life time
There really isn’t a better way to see the world around you than to drive through it all, stopping to explore all the cool places you find. Living on the road is exciting and makes for some amazing memories.
We lived out of our small Daihatsu Sirion for over two months on an epic road trip around the South Island of New Zealand. We wanted to share our experience and prove that you don’t need a big van or camper, or lots of money, to take off on an adventure!
Plan and prepare your road trip
Driving off into the sunset on the adventure of a lifetime sounds pretty awesome but hold your horses just a minute. Some important decisions need to be made before you head off.
Where will you sleep?
If you have a van or camper, your sleeping arrangements are sorted. Our car was far too small to sleep in comfortably, so we took a tent. If your car is larger, you may be able to work around this. Keep in mind when taking a tent that it should be compact, weatherproof, and easy to assemble. We pitched ours and took it down again almost every day for two months, if you’re stuck with a crappy tent that needs a giant instruction manual to put together, it’ll be taking up a lot of your time (and patience!). Hostels and motels are also an option now and again. But they do push up the budget, and it detracts from the outdoor experience.
How will you eat?
Restaurants and takeaways every meal will make for an expensive and potentially unhealthy trip. Some campgrounds we stayed at had good kitchen facilities, but many did not, especially as we headed off the beaten track. The best solution we found was to take a gas cooker. We could then do our groceries almost as normal and cook our own meals 90% of the time, saving dining out for special occasions and culinary must-dos.
Where will you go?
Having some routes roughly mapped out is a good idea, that way you won’t miss anything important along the way, or waste gas driving the long way around. You can find some pretty cool road trip routes online that include all the sights. Our South Island road trip itinerary is coming soon!
Where will you shower and wash clothes?
If you’re staying for an extended time like we were, hopping from one rural campsite to another, showers and washing machines are few and far between. You’ll need to plan ahead a bit where you can get your washing done. A good campground app providing info about facilities is really useful for this. We used Wikicamps, which we would highly recommend if available in your country.
What should you take?
We’ll get to this in more detail later, but you should make a thorough list before heading off, as getting out to the middle of nowhere and realizing you’re missing something important is no fun. We had to bang our tent pegs in with rocks every day because we forgot a hammer. Once you’ve got everything, play around with trying to fit it in. Find everything a place. It’ll definitely come in handy later.
Do a trial run
We took two short trial runs before the big trip. The first was a one-nighter where we forgot almost everything, including a pan, so we couldn’t cook anything. The second was for four nights, and we had just about everything right, with just a few minor tweaks to make. These trials really helped us make sure our system was running smoothly, and that it would indeed be possible to live comfortably out of our small car on the road. It also gave us a good idea of what we did and didn’t need to take with us, helping to avoid carrying too much extra weight (and taking up too much space in our little car!)
What we took
For two people for two months, in summer
- Two man tent, tent pegs (a hammer also would’ve been good)
- Bedding: two self-inflating foam bed rolls, one sleeping bag, one blanket, and two pillows (perfect for summer, we would take more in winter)
- Gas cooker and full bottle of gas (ours had two hobs for pots and pans, plus fold down sides to protect the flame from wind)
- Lighter/ matches
- Picnic blanket
- Picnic type bag containing: cutlery, two plates, two bowls, two mugs, small frying pan, small pot, tin kettle, two containers for leftovers, spare Ziplock bags, sharp knife, chopping board, can opener, thermos, scrubbing brush, cloth, dish liquid, salt, pepper, basic spices, oil, tea bags
- Small cooler and ice packs
- Washing powder, small portable washing line, pegs
- Clothes for about two weeks, including raincoat, windbreaker, and swimwear, organised into packing cubes in our bags
- Sneakers, hiking boots, and flipflops
- Personal toiletries
- Small day pack each
- Two beach towels and two small microfibre towels
- First aid kit
- Portable power bank for charging electronics
- Plenty of large empty water bottles to fill up when we had good water, carrying usually about 5-10L.
- Swiss army knife
- Offline road maps
- Sunscreen and bug repellent (a real must for NZ, especially down south)
- Flashlights and a small light for inside the tent
- Lots of spare plastic bags for wet clothes, dirty shoes etc.
This obviously won’t work for everyone, as it really is very space dependent. But, just to give you an idea:
Everything fit just perfectly, the car wasn’t too loaded up and you could still easily see out of the back window. We knew where everything was all the time, which was really stress-free and satisfying. Plus, we got really fast at setting up camp and packing it back away into its place.
In the boot we had the tent neatly packed away at the bottom, along with the cooler, picnic bag, food, gas cooker and spare water. Pillows and the folded blanket went on top of this. On the back seats, we had the two mattresses tightly rolled up, the sleeping bag also packed away and our two back packs. It was absolutely essential to keep these tidy as we didn’t have the space for clothes spread everywhere. We had some packing cubes inside to help with organisation, and a dirty laundry bag.
We had the app Wikicamps, which we found great. We’ve only used their NZ version so far, but have heard there are others overseas. This let us check out the amenities and prices of all the rural little campgrounds well before we got there, so we could try and find one with showers every few days, and washing facilities at least once a week. We never had to wash anything by hand, but that would’ve also been an option. It also showed whether tents were allowed, as a lot of camp sites were camper only. This saved a lot of driving, and the app was super well updated with recent info, as well as other user comments and ratings.
We did almost all of our own cooking from very basic ingredients. Breakfast was oats with fruit that we found growing along the roadside. Lunch and dinner were often things like stir-fry, pasta, chili, or meat and vegetables. It depended a lot on what we could find on special in the grocery stores. This saved us so much money and was a really fun thing to do together every day over our little camp stove. It also meant we were absolutely guilt free when we did feel like going out for a burger on the odd occasion.
Entertainment was pretty easy, the views were fantastic, and we’d always be pointing cool things out to each other. We mostly talked the whole way, but often played our predownloaded music or listened to the radio. We also brought some books along that we were reading together. Whoever was off driving duty would be reading out loud. Podcasts or audiobooks would’ve also been cool.
What it cost
Unfortunately, we didn’t keep an exact record of what we spent. Our main expenditures were definitely gas, food, and campgrounds.
- Gas: we had a small, old and not hugely fuel-efficient car. A full tank of gas cost us about $50NZ and got us about 400km. We drove 4000km, so that’s a rough estimate of 600NZD (300GBP, 350 euros, 400USD). Minus gas discounts, as NZ has a cool system of gas coupons with grocery receipts. (You can read more about it in out article here)
- Food: we really tried to budget here, averaging around $10-15NZD/ day (for us both) when we cooked our own food. This was of course was a lot higher when we bought lots of snacks or ate out. At a guess, our total food expenditure would’ve been about 1200 NZD.
- Campgrounds cost us on average $8 per night, including lots of free campsites, giving us a total of about 500NZD.
- Activities: were usually stuck to free things like hiking, swimming at the beach or looking at scenery. Sometimes we also did some cool activities like bus or boat tours, and paid museum entry etc. We didn’t spend too much here, it’s really one of those things where you can spend as much or as little as you like. We probably spent about 500NZD.
This brings our road trip total up to about 2800NZD, or an average of 14NZD per person per day. It could’ve been done cheaper, and certainly far more expensively. It really depends how long you go for, how far you drive, and how you eat.
What we learnt – tips
Bedding took up by far the most space. If we were to do it again, we’d probably ditch the duvet and large pillows and invest in some more compact camping bedding. But hey, it worked, and it was comfortable.
It would’ve been a total nightmare with stuff flying around everywhere, so we would highly recommend keeping at least a bit organised. It’s also useful to work out what you’ll likely need to get out often (like food) and have this somewhere easy to access. You don’t want to be pulled over at the side of the road frantically unpacking the whole car to try and find something.
Effectively packing clothes and personal items got to be quite an art on all our travels. Our packing guide is coming soon!
Find a good app that gives plenty of info about the campsites you’re looking at. We drove to a long way to a few that we just looked up on online, only to find out that they were camper only and had to drive all the way back again. After this we did our research on Wikicamps beforehand, always having the campsites for the next day or two planned out. This saved a lot of stress and hassle.
Pre-download road maps on your phone or make sure to have detailed maps in the car in case reception goes. This happened lots on our road trip, but luckily, we were prepared.
Make sure to take the weather into account. Sometimes things don’t go to plan. We had to wait out a few bad storms down south, and had a few sleepless nights when the wind threatened to blow our tent away. Bring warm and windproof gear, even if the forecast looks good.
Make the most of washing machines when campgrounds have them. Same goes for showers, a lot didn’t have any, or they charged way too much. Be prepared to go a few days without showering!
Fill up water bottles and charge electronics when you have the opportunity. We also had portable power banks, and adaptors for the car to charge while we were driving, which made things much easier.
To live as cheaply as possible: drive economically, look out for gas discounts, cook your own food from basic ingredients, and stay at freedom camping sites or cheap campgrounds. This does require a fair bit of planning, but it will save you heaps. Living this way was what made our trip possible!
Make sure to fuel up before hitting long stretches of road, especially if its hilly. Don’t want to get stranded. We were cutting it very fine a few times, and it was pretty stressful.
Pre-download music, podcast episodes or audiobooks to listen to on the go. There’s nothing more annoying than the same overplayed pop songs every five minutes on the radio if you’re driving all day long.
You can basically do this with as much or as little gear as you want, especially in summer. We didn’t splash out on anything fancy, although we were fortunate enough to be able to borrow the camping gear from family and friends. A lot of times what we had wasn’t necessarily the best solution, but we got by.
Our final verdict
So, how did we find living out of a small car and pitching our tent every night for two months?
To be totally, completely honest… fantastic! The bedding was comfortable enough, the cooking was fun, we had all the amenities we needed, and we certainly didn’t get bored. It was never really a chore to set up or take down the tent. It only took 15 minutes or so, and quickly became a challenge of how fast we could do it each time. Best of all, we made some of the most amazing memories ever. It was an absolutely incredible experience, and we’re looking forward to going on another big road trip soon!