What to Expect on an 8 Day National Park CamperVan trip
With so many options (pre-pandemic) for international travel, it can be easy to forget how many beautiful sites there are to see within America’s borders. For Josh and my honeymoon, we had originally been thinking somewhere exotic like Bali or Fiji. As we were looking at a September 2020 timeline, COVID-19 had our options limited domestically.
Traveling in a RV/Campervan had been on my travel bucketlist for about a year or two, as had seeing some of the Wild West like Yellowstone National Park, and Montana. So we decided to give the open road a whirl and rent a Camper Van.
As someone with absolutely zero camping experience I didn’t entirely know what we were getting into. We ended up doing 8 days in the Camper Van and covered Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Bozeman Montana, Big Sky Montana, parts of Eastern Idaho, Northern Utah and more.
This was part of a larger trip where we also did Denver, Glacier National Park, and Park City, Utah. It was a diabolical experience which I’ll go more in detail on in a future post. For now, I will cover the Campervan Experience and the expectations I had going in vs. the realities.
Expectation: Finding a camper van to rent out West is easy
Reality: False. For our September 2020 I started looking for a van about 2 months out. I thought I would just google RV and there would be a ton of options, but it took some logistical leg work. With the pandemic Camper Van travel was very popular so there was very limited availability. It also took some investigating to figure out what kind of vehicle we wanted. In terms of options, the short story is you can get:
- An RV – These are the big ones
- A Camper Van -which has the van part and the living space combined and can be smaller than RVs
- Conversion Vans – These are Cargo type vans converted into livable space often with limited amenities
- Camper to tow
For two people a Camper Van made the most sense because it seemed to be the most efficient size and could have a kitchen and a bathroom.
There are certain cities that have more Camper Van options than others. Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Boise, Denver, Los Angeles, and Bozeman Montana were a few of the spots that seemed to have the most options in terms of Camper Vans. Since there wasn’t a ton of availability for finding a van I had to search around. In terms of trip planning I would rent the van and then book flights around that. We ended up renting from Kellville Vans in Salt Lake City. They had the right kind of vans that I was looking for.
The big decision points for us were:
- Size of Van – Not too big so that driving was difficult
- Whether there’s a kitchen set up – Sink, refrige, cook top etc.
- Bathroom Situation – A lot of vans don’t have showers, and some have only a compost toilet or no toilet
- Size of Bed/sleeping arrangements
- Overall Look/Design
Quick Tour of the Van we Got:
Expectation: The Logistics of Renting a Camper Van are Easy
Reality: Somewhat true, somewhat false. If you have a regular license you actually don’t need to know much before renting a Camper Van.
Not a One Way Trip… One thing that tripped me up in terms of planning was that you more than likely need to drop the van rental off in the same place that you picked it up. There were some big RV places like Cruise America were this wasn’t necessarily the case. Some of the trendy millennial rental companies offered an option for a fee to drop it off in one of their few locations. When looking at a large scale road trip covering hours and many miles, it took me a bit and a lot of google mapping to figure out a loop that made sense.
We ended up with a loop starting in Salt Lake City and ending in Salt Lake City. SLC is about 5 hours from Grand Teton which was our first jump off spot.
Expectation: Camper Van is luxurious and comfortable
Reality: Partially true. We got a really nice van, a 2021 Winnebago Solis. Its features included:
- 19.5 Long – Could fit in a Standard Parking Space
- Cook Top, Small Refrigerator, Kitchen Sink, kitchen utensils included
- Table and 4 Seats in total counting the drivers seat and front passenger seat – enough space to eat at the table, play cards etc.
- Queen Size Bed – Quite stiff and uncomfortable, but enough space. We planned to get a foam crate to make the bed more comfortable but didn’t really have an opportunity to stop so just ended up sucking it up.
- Pop Top Tent – Pretty much like sleeping on top of a car with a thin mattress layer, so also pretty uncomfortable. However it was cool to be up there and this could sleep 2 more people.
- Toilet and Shower – Shower was pretty tight but it worked. It was probably 5’10 tall so if you are any taller than that you are bending down.
- Electricity & Heat – Both of these worked really well, it was always warm enough when we were parked and we could charge devices easily.
- Solar powered – Because of this we never had to hook up to an electricity source over 8 days
- Gas – Took regular unleaded gas, ~16 MPG
Overall I was very impressed with the sophistication of the vans systems and design. It somewhat claustrophobic as could be expected. What’s not entirely luxurious is if you consider that the van is entirely self contained. Meaning, that there are tanks that hold the “black water” (newly learned camping term) from the bathroom, as well as the used shower and sink water, and that has to go somewhere when it fills up.
Expectation: Experience ultimate freedom, no need to make plans.
Reality: This is somewhat true. One of the reasons I wanted a Camper Van was not to have to book an 8 night itinerary of hotels and then be stuck to a schedule and have to be anywhere at a certain time. I wanted to roll with what we felt like doing and book things as we went and that was accomplished. More advanced Camper Van people probably know where to park for free, or take advantage of America’s Public Lands. For us, we booked campgrounds. This was a little more challenging than expected, both in terms of places having restrictions due to COVID-19 and due to limited availability.
For the most park the National Parks had camp grounds that could be booked and then certain camp grounds that were first come first serve. Grand Teton had a few first come first serve camp grounds, one of which we utilized by arriving on a morning and waiting in line to get registered. There is a website that indicates when they book up each day.
The places that could be booked had been booked like a year in advance so no luck there. Yellowstone had less of the first come first serve. Not only was Yellowstone booked up, but the towns on the outskirts of Yellowstone were tough to find an available campsite. While at Yellowstone we ended up staying in towns on the outskirts, Gardiner, and Island Park Idaho. On the last night we were calling around West Yellowstone and heard we would have to drive 45 minutes into Idaho to get a site. We were heading back to SLC at this point so booked a hotel in Idaho Falls.
Expectation: Get rid of most earthly possessions and purchase and move into camper van immediately upon return and go on perpetual exploration of North America.
Reality: We won’t be doing this lol. While the Campervan experience was excellent, I did not feel this urge. Its just a little too tight, and the cost is not as endearing as I would expect.
Expectation: Spend almost no money.
Reality: Renting a Campervan was more expensive than I thought. On a day to day basis we didn’t spend much money. We did have to pay to stay at campgrounds. To buy a comparable Van to what we had was around $100K. Which seems like a lot but then not a lot if you were to live in it full time. However if you lived in it full time would need to have hook ups at some point.
Cost of the van for 8 nights: with all the add ons it ended up at $350 a night. That doesn’t factor in gas and then the cost of a campground each night which was between $20-$115 per night. So average out to a little under $400 a night and you could easily get a hotel and a rental car for the same amount.
The van included 100 miles a day, if you go over the limit it was around 30 cents a mile. We ended up going almost 800 miles over, which was another couple hundred bucks.
Expectation: Live carefree bohemian lifestyle – bathe in streams etc.
Reality: False lol. There is work with the Camper Van. Luckily our van had solar so we didn’t have to worry much about recharging it. The water for the shower and the sink has to come from somewhere so there is a tank that needs to be refilled every so often. One tank actually lasted us the whole time. Also, gross, but the bathroom waste is stored in a tank as well so that needs to be emptied out as well.
Expectation: The van will be hard to drive
Reality: Not really actually. Josh did all the driving, but it wasn’t much different than driving a big SUV. You are really high up and it’s easy to navigate. There was a back up camera. You can fit in a regular parking spot. The thing you need to keep in mind is that it’s longer than being used to drive a sedan so need to keep this in mind especially at gas stations (where we did sideswipe the van)
In summary, I can’t think of a better way to experience America’s beautiful West than hitting the road in a Camper Van. Will I be moving into one? No. Would I do it again? Yes, but perhaps for less time than 8 days, maybe more like a 5 day stint. It is definitely a good choice for certain kinds of trips. As mentioned it may not be the cheapest way to go but certainly is an experience worth having!