I have to admit, I’m enamored with van life as much as the next person. The idea of being able to pick up and go in a tiny house on wheels, no worries about clutter or cleaning, sounds absolutely fabulous. But our family is stationary during the week these days, and our goal is to save 50% of our incomes this year. So while vanlife – especially not the glamorous #vanlife you see all over Instagram – isn’t in our near future, #trucklife most certainly is.

Truck Bed Camping

We just got back from another long weekend of truck camping out on the Olympic Peninsula as an extension of our son’s birthday celebrations. Instead of lots of stuff, we go on lots of mini adventures instead.

Since we set the truck up with the canopy and air mattress back in September, we’ve been out camping quite often. Even if we go for just one night, it’s a lot of fun to pack up the truck and just go. It’s especially easy this time of year because it’s off season so there are no real ferry lines and there’s always campground availability. Other than the fact that the low temperatures hovered around 34 degrees, there really is no downside to traveling in the winter.

We got to the campsite Thursday evening after work and then parked the truck to have a full weekend free of driving. Jefferson County actually has a pretty good transit system, so we hopped the bus from the campground at Fort Worden to downtown Port Townsend, where we spent some time walking around the beach and then headed up to check out the library.

Pretty little marina

In the afternoon, we headed back to the campground and hiked the trails around the old fort before cooking up our one pot fancy ramen for dinner while sitting around the campfire. We prep camp dinners ahead of time before we leave so we have really good meals that take no time (and only one pot) to cook, since washing a ton of dishes isn’t a fun way to spend a vacation.

High class #vanlife

Saturday night, a family with two young children rolled in to the campground with their brand new Winnebago Travato camper van. If you aren’t familiar with this van, it’s base retail price starts at $102,348, which means you know most people walk away from the dealership spending quite a bit more than that.

This van is so pretty. From the dealership website:

“At 21 feet long, and only 9 feet tall, the Travato is unbelievably agile, while still offering a full feature RV experience that is perfect for the adventurous explorer.

With swivel cab seats, LED lighting, GPS touch screen navigation with SiriusXM satellite radio, a split dinette, and an abundance of features, the Travato delivers a whole lot of fun for less. It has all features for a full RV experience, including a 2,800 watt CumminsOnan gasoline generator, Coleman Mach 10 quieter 13.5 BTU high efficiency AC, Truma Combi hot water and heating system, refrigerator and freezer, and microwave and convection oven that will allow you to bake, brown and roast just like a traditional oven!”

Or you could walk down to the beach and take in this fabulous view

This van is basically the high class #vanlife dream. However, it also comes with that hefty price tag. I found one for sale online for $107,062. Using the 4% rule, that same $107k could buy you almost $4300/year in perpetuity (and that’s if you bought the van outright instead of financing it).

Beyond just the initial price tag, there’s the cost of maintenance, insurance, fuel, license plate tabs, and any other incidentals (like taking the ferry – the cost TRIPLES once you pass the 22’ length threshold).

I’d argue that if you’re planning to sell your home and are going to live in the van full time, then this purchase might make sense. But if it’s just a weekend and occasional road trip adventure vehicle (which this one was, I asked), then perhaps there’s a way to get the same value from something that costs a whole lot less.

Truck vs campervan vs trailer

The craziest part is, there was a second one of these vans just two campsites down on the other side of us. I have to wonder how much the glamorous Instagram #vanlife stories have suckered people in to spending huge amounts of money to get that experience. One that is just as accessible if you spend just a fraction of that number.

Enter #trucklife

For our family, the key to happy camping in the wintertime is a warm, comfy place to sleep. Beyond that, we visit places to explore, be it at breweries downtown or on trails through the woods. Very little of our time is spent inside. So what does the cost of that setup look like?

1. Vehicle

My husband works in construction and regularly hauls quite a few tools and supplies to the job site in his truck. We also use it to take home loads of firewood, piles of garden soil, and other home maintenance supplies (hello backyard fencing) from time to time.

I’d argue that the truck itself isn’t a direct additional expense to our truck camping costs because we have it anyway, but there is extra maintenance, fuel, and wear and tear due to driving it on our adventures.

2. Canopy

Like the truck, the canopy was something that was purchased for work, but we also had camping in mind before we got it. My husband found a great used one for $1,100, taxes and install included. While we could have found a cheaper one if it was just for hauling tools, but since we expected to camp in it as well, we got one with extra head height and some basic carpet insulation.

Cozy interior with LOTS of blankets

3. LED disk lights $22.32

We picked up some LED disk lights with a remote originally for another purpose, but they ended up inside the truck canopy. We have them spread out around the perimeter and they work great to have light to read by before bed (and the remote to turn them all on at once is just convenient). Since we are camping without any sort of generator or vehicle power for use when not in motion, having these lights is seriously key to having a cozy bed set up. This is especially important on short winter days when the sun sets before 5PM.

4. Air mattress $173.57

When we initially tested out the truck bed camping option, we just put some inflatable pads we already had in the bed in between the wheel wells. This would work well enough if it was just one or two of us sleeping in the space, but it was pretty snug with all three of us wedges between the wheel wells.

We ended up cruising around on Amazon and found this awesome air mattress that’s made to go over the wheel well and makes it so we have the full width of the bed to sleep on. Plus it’s an air mattress, so considerably more comfortable than our thin camping pads.

5. Electric blanket $75.91

Our most recent splurge was this king size microplush electric blanket. After camping in 34 degree temperatures for three nights this past weekend, I can say without hesitation that my husband was absolutely right to encourage this purchase. Of course, for now this only works if there is site power, but it seriously made cold nights not a big deal.

The view is the same regardless of which vehicle you’re in

Fighting against hedonistic adaptation 

After previously camping without the air mattress or the electric blanket, our current setup feels totally luxurious. If you haven’t read this Mr. Money Mustache post on hedonistic adaptation, go read it, and you’ll see where I’m going with this one. We’ve previously considered renting a trailer for the weekend to see if we’d like one some day, but there’s a slippery slope to continually updating to nicer and nicer accommodations to the point it’s no longer really camping.

Camping in the truck also forces us outside – hiking, bonfires, breakfasts down at the beach – because we don’t have an interior space beyond just a bed. We go camping in part to save money but also to connect with nature and enjoy the outdoors. The more comfortable of a space there is inside, the more likely that’s where you’ll be. With the truck, where we want to be is outside except to sleep.

Dinner around the campfire

Off road dispersed camping 

The really big upside to truck camping – beyond just the price tag – is the mobility that comes with not having a trailer or a large van to haul around. We took a trip back in September up six miles of rough forest roads to a dispersed camping area that was absolutely gorgeous and deserted. Plus, dispersed camping is absolutely free.

Really, the beauty of it is to more or less get the experience of backpacking locations without having to haul a toddler (and his stroller and diapers) up a mountain. We’ll get back to backpacking soon, as there are places that can only be accessed that way, but dispersed camp areas that are 4WD accessible can be pretty awesome as well.

Frugality doesn’t mean deprivation 

Back to this most recent trip, and the inspiration for this post. Ultimately, there was nothing we couldn’t have done this past weekend if we had overnighted another way. We cooked, spent time in nature, and hung out at breweries. We spent only our sleeping hours in the truck, which makes for a really great weekend.

Running down the trails behind the campsite

I’d argue we actually had a better trip because the more minimalist sleeping arrangements pushed us outside first thing in the morning until it was time for bed at night. Like our Hawai’i trip, this mini vacation couldn’t have been any better with more money spent.

If you’re considering buying a van, do you think a truck bed setup could work for you? A simple minivan conversion could work much the same way. I’d have you think long and hard before spending large amounts of money on the more glamorous option. 

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77 thoughts on “Our Family’s Frugal Alternative To Instagram #Vanlife

  1. Well your truck set-up may not be as sexy as that gorgeous van (omg that’s like buying a house—or most of one anyway—in some areas of this country!), but you’ve still got some pretty Instagrammable moments happening there 😉

    You’re totally right too about your setup forcing you go to exploring instead of lounging around in your fancy van, which you could do in your driveway without the cost of gas/the ferry/the campground/etc!

    1. If you want to talk about costs like buying a house, there are RVs out there that go for $500k+ 😳

    1. Such a beautiful area! There’s definitely a reason we keep finding ourselves back there.

  2. Very cool! We go tent camping so it’s a bit too cold right now. It’s be great to have an electric blanket. That sounds like an awesome splurge.

    1. Best $75 we’ve spent lately (other than the $75 for the 3 nights of camping of course). We’ve done it this time of year with just a pile of blankets, but the electric one makes it seriously luxurious.

  3. Big F250’s like that are a great way to do vehicle camping. I love your comment about hedonistic adaptation. You see people spending massive amounts of money to make a vehicle camping experience as comfortable as their home. What’s the point then!! Stay home! You’re supposed to be camping and the whole point is that it’s different from home. Not uncomfortable per se, but not cushy either. There’s a balance.

    You enjoy home a lot more and appreciate what you have when you go camping, either vehicle or tent, and come back.

    1. Exactly true! Stay home, or just rent a house because you’re still likely to come out ahead financially (the cabins where we camped started at $129/night). And so true – you never appreciate a warm bathroom so much as the day after you’ve been out camping 😉

  4. Hey I like that truck setup you had for your camping trip. Their is enough room to fit everyone with the air mattress. I would do that over the campervan for a trip but I agree with you, those camper vans are more ideal if you lived in there and traveled cross country.
    Cool idea using those LED disk lights inside the truck.

    1. It’s a great set up 🙂 the LED lights and the electric blanket are definitely what make it extra awesome.

  5. Yay Ford trucks! I totally loved the creeper pic with the pimped out van in the background. Lol. I would have been all in awe, kept staring and wondering, “whyeeee the fancy van for camping y’all?!”

    Love the more natural camping experiences – agree, you get to be a part of so much more. Nice trip!

    1. Hahaha yeah I definitely kept staring at (both!) vans near us. I have *lots* more to say on that decision, but I tried to keep things mostly positive for the blog 😊

  6. This is awesome! One day I’m gonna do the travel the US by RV thing, but I guarantee it won’t be in a 100k RV! That’s insane! I love the idea of camping out of a pick up for short trips though

    1. We’ve definitely talked about taking longer RV trips some day. I think it makes sense if you’re talking a month or longer (but yeah – still not $100k!)

  7. Hoping to travel cross country one day! Though likely will tent it since we already have that gear. Electric blanket sounds like a wicket good purchase if you have access to power when camping. Love your solution for using the truck instead of spending more money on a camper.

    1. The only downside is that since it’s also a work truck, we can’t actually build anything out permanently in the back. A fair price to pay for a multi use vehicle though I think!

    1. Oh he absolutely loves it. He was pretty mad about having to stay inside once we got home 😂

  8. That sounds like a brilliant way to camp! For the price of one camper van, yall can have YEARS of relaxing weekend getaways. We would totally do this, if we didn’t have to buy the truck first 😉 Will have to stick to our CRV and a tent for now.

    1. Ha yeah, a little more difficult without the truck. But the truck only cost $10k, so even if you had to, it would be waaaaay cheaper than the van 😉

  9. This is so wonderful and inspiring! Experiences over material things is always a great way to go, especially with kids! <3 Keep up your amazing work, I'm looking forward to reading more about your frugal adventures!

  10. Wow I had no idea those Winnebagos were that pricey!
    I’m impressed you went camping in the winter!! I can’t wait to go camping this year in the summer, last year I missed out as I was swollen and heavily pregnant.

    1. Yeah, I was pretty shocked at the price because I see them everywhere there days. I did one backpacking trip while pregnant and it was pretty miserable. I’d say you made the right choice to skip last summer lol.

  11. I believe they call what that person was doing “glamping”.
    Your truck bed canopy looks rather comfy. You guys really pimped it out! I may actually be able to sleep in that. I tried to sleep inside the cab of my husband’s truck once while camping and felt so claustrophobic that I nearly got sick. We had a tent, but SOMEONE got too drunk to put it up and I had no idea how. Rule #1, put the tent up BEFORE drinking any beer!

    1. Yeah, though glamming in one of those super fancy tents some state parks have does sound super fun for one trip. Rule #2 – learn how to set up the tent! But yes – tent goes up/truck is set up before anything else happens for exactly that reason 😂

      1. I didn’t know the rules at that point because that was my first time camping! But I learned quick! Lol

    1. We’ve done plenty of sleeping in tents, but we just love camping in general. But yeah, we definitely have friends who won’t camp because they don’t want to sleep on the ground.

  12. I totally agree with your frugal or minimalist camping philosophy. Fun isn’t proportional to the price of the toy, like most seem to think, and being out in nature should not be about spending time inside whatever you have. I own a 4×4 F250 and am leaning more towards a RTT that can be put on and off by two people. By the way, you can run that blanket on a small electrical system (batteries/inverter – panels/solar controller) without breaking the bank. Two deep cycle batteries (AGM or sealed if kept inside the camper) with a 200 watt suitcase type panel(s) would be sweet… add an inexpensive PWM controller and a 400 to 600 watt inverter, done. Make it portable/removable. If I am to have a certain friend with me camping, being cold isn’t an option, so the electric blanket is worth its weight in gold.

    1. Thanks for the tips. There’s a good chance we’ll go that route eventually, but not this year since the weather should be warming up soon. And since it’s a work truck, removable is key 🙂

  13. This looks so fun but since I’ve only ever been camping once when I was young, I might be too high maintenance for it haha but I love the appeal of not having to make travel arrangements and just doing whatever you feel in the moment!

    1. If camping isn’t your style but still want to do the outdoors kind of thing, there are lots of state parks with little cabins and glamming tents – with beds and all!

  14. My husband and I have talked about converting a utility van for camping, but now we have a truck that we’re looking for a camper for. We’ve also got a free long bed trailer we could convert for using as a camp trailer. So many options besides just the “luxury” lifestyle.

    1. That is so true! Lots of great options out there that don’t cost crazy amounts of money.

  15. I appreciate your style and goal. I remember more than a few decades ago when we camped and had a great time. Maybe as good a time as we have now and spent just a fraction of the money. Traveling and having fun need not cost a lot. All the best.

    1. Thank you! And I completely agree. We travel to explore new places, not to hang out in a house anyway 😉

  16. I know it is fun to make yourself feel better about your own decisions, while deriding others. I do it, so I’m not immune. But do be careful. From what I can tell, you three are young and healthy. Not every family is. We had a daughter with lots of health problems. So we made choices that might have looked crazy to people with healthy kids. But the ‘luxury’ other people made fun of was the only way we could have done ‘normal’ things other families did.
    If you had a sick kid like mine, you couldn’t truck camp. You couldn’t let her be outside for 10 hours a day. You would need some extra ‘luxury’, and you would have to pay for it. It was all worth it, believe me.
    Anyway, I do like the ideas you bring up. Just be careful being critical of others.

    1. I wouldn’t say I was deriding others in this post – if you read, I say there are reasons to do things differently, but for us, it wouldn’t make sense. Regardless of the fact that there are MUCH cheaper options out there for a camper van or similar, I did talk to this family quite a bit, but out of respect for them, I kept things more general.

  17. Love this post! I have been considering doing full-time camper living. I’m on the ropes because I would have to buy the truck and camper. It’s great to see that you just use the truck for this. I often see people spending tons of money on setups just so they can get outdoors more. When you are living proof you don’t have to spend a lot to have a great experience.

    1. Ah yeah a little more difficult when you don’t already have the truck. We would just keep tent camping I think otherwise, though you can get dirt cheap trucks out there as well.

  18. My sister lives in Montana and bought a truck last year, to help her navigate the snowy drives between Whitefish and Browning where she works on an indian reservation. She also purchased a canopy because she intends to camp out of it. Sent this post to her as I know she would love it. I’m not even a truck camper and I was so inspired by it! Love this.

    1. Thank you!! Feel free to have her send me any questions she might have as well 🙂

  19. We, too, are enamored and even think of trying to DIY a used Sprinter. The ones we see used, even with over 100,000 miles are already in the very high teens to $30k range though. Then there’s the cost of the buildout. It’s just a lot no matter how you slice it.

    These days our current plan involves us buying a 13′ Scamp, at a much less costly $10k (used) to $15k range (new). But even then, we’re not sure that the cost is totally worth it unless we really use it a lot.

    We’re on the fence about all of this but we have some time to decide. And thankfully these things can be sold without taking much of a bath if we change our minds.

    1. Yeah, it’s amazing how expensive a good van is. The A frame we’re looking at now is ~$16k.

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