On the way to capitol reef NP

Travelling hacker style

I.e.: sleeping in a Toyota Prius

I bet some of you wonder if it is even possible, the short answer is yes, even I could fit my 6'1" self in the back comfortably. Okay, the long answer is a bit elaborate, so let me go through the pros-and-cons.

We like to travel lean and free. Not having a fixed trip itinerary may frighten some, but we really love it. You can pivot your trip any way you want to. We have practiced it in Europe for several years and at least a good 50 thousand miles. Last year we managed to get 5 weeks leave from our jobs to travel the US west coast. Back at home the preparation was easy, we just packed our car, aimed at a region (say the french riviera) and just drove.

As a lean traveler you cannot constrain yourself with pre-booked hotel rooms, so you have to manage on the run. Apart from the obvious price benefit of avoiding hotels, sometimes it is not even feasible: without a plan you can quite easily end up in the middle of nowhere when night falls. However if you cannot sleep in the car comfortably, you will inevitably plan your days to end in motels, which becomes a restriction. In the end we slept most of the time in the car: 20 vs 14 nights in hotels.

Why a Toyota Prius? First we wanted to have a small camper (e.g. GMC Safari) from lostcampers, but they turned out to be too expensive for us. After that we were lost for some time, until we realized that the Prius has fold down back seats, and even better, they fold down flat. This, as you can imagine, is a must for comfortable nights. Many cars may provide this, however when you’re renting you are never exactly sure what type of car you will end up with (apart from the approximate size), so this is a nightmare to plan with. Given the hybrid status of the Prius, when renting one you can be sure that you won’t get something else.

On a side note about RVs: they are even more expensive than a small campervan,plus the mpg is extremely low. Not to mention that they are hard to drive, hard to park and slow (all in all not much fun). We might change our minds once we retire and have time for year long trips, but under 30 we just didn't feel like it. The bottom line is that they are costly, but we will get to the finances later on.

Gearing up your Toyota Prius: you will need an Exarby mattress from the nearest IKEA. Be sure to check availability before you show up at the wrong IKEA and then waste 2 hours driving to another one, on the exact opposite side of town (toll bridge included) - true story. The sleeping quarters of the Prius are nice and flat, so you can get away with less cushioning, but this mattress fits perfectly and is very comfortable to sleep on. Just throw in your sleeping bag and a pillow and you’re ready to go. There is a slight drawback: it is not possible to sit up in bed due to the aero shape of the car.

It’s time to find your first night’s spot. This is easy in Europe, basically you can park overnight in any parking lot. We prefer motorway rest areas, restrooms included :). When planning the US trip, we knew that there would be limitations,in places like national parks where sleeping is forbidden in ordinary parking lots. But we weren't prepared for the extensive number of signs prohibiting overnight parking in the most beautiful spots. Out of the 20 nights spent in the car, we used campsites 8 times, the other 12 just here-and-there.

First-come first-served campgrounds in State and National Parks were the coolest places, as you had grills, tables and a lot of space (compared to the cramped European campsites). However we cannot give you fail-proof tips for the here-and-there part. We searched the web before the trip, and the general conclusion was that national forests and Walmart parking lots are a safe bet. We never slept in any of those :). We stuck to our European habits and used highway rest areas most of the time. Those weren't as widespread and generally had 8 hour parking limits (luckily not checked, so they worked for us). Apart from those we just parked in nondescript roadside places. We found a super spot in SF, which is at… sorry we just can’t tell you, it would surely ruin it :).

Back to the pre-sleep preparations! Not having to put up a tent every day is such a joy - you only need ten minutes to convert your car from driving to sleeping arrangement.

From daytime storage to nighttime bed

Basically you move the front seats forwards, pack everything from the back to the front, and you’re ready to sleep. The only critical part is to pack just the right amount of stuff under the head of the mattress, to keep it balanced. At home we also have an extensive array of sun blinds to make it cosy, but you can manage without them.

There you have it, dare you do it? We can only encourage you to experience your own freestyle road trip! For more inspiration check out our video compilation of the trip.

To help plan your journey, here is the breakdown of all our expenses. We spent 39$/day on accommodation, including the mattress as well as the hotel/campground fees. Using only hotels this would have been somewhere around 75$/day.

Renting the Prius was 47$/day, which is quite a lot. However we saved a lot on gas, as our real consumption was a good 50 mpg. We got the Prius with only 300 miles on the clock, and returned it with over 8300. That amounts to 235 miles/day, I know, we’re crazy :). We still managed to keep the fuel bill under 600$ (160 gallons). If you plan to do the same in the EU, just double the petrol price.

Food was 30$/day, which would be hard to beat: we ate mainly fast food with fresh groceries for breakfast and dinner, topped off with the occasional grilling in the campsites. We spent 15$/day on entrance fees which could be reduced to barely 0$. Just visiting the National Parks is an unforgettable experience, for that we strongly suggest getting an America the Beautiful pass, which was 80$ well spent. But it is very hard to resist the temptations on the road, like visiting the USS Midway in San Diego or the Boeing factory in Seattle.

Ok, we admit, we’re data freaks. All prices are calculated for the two of us and are based on our 5 week road trip on the west coast in mid-summer 2012.