Short answer: It depends.

There is never one “best way” to travel. It all depends on where you want to go, how long you have and on your personal preferences. Here are some things to consider while you’re planning long-term travel in the US and trying to decide how to get around.

Note: For the purposes of this article I consider “travel by car” to involve sleeping in your vehicle for the majority of the trip. There’s a lot of resources about it on the web, (my website is A Year in a Car.) Try searching for vandwelling, car living, or urban camping.

Logistics

If you’re interested in a trip that hops from one city to another, public transportation between the cities is going to be easy and driving between them is going to be long and boring. (Though there’s nothing like driving all day to put the map into perspective.) Yes, even Los Angeles, the birthplace of car culture, has good public transportation. Driving around an unknown city and getting lost or stuck in rush hour will definitely cut down on the fun of the trip. Traveling between cities is much more fun if you don’t have to do the driving.

If you dont feel like hiking in, the best way to reach Olympic National Park is by car.
Nearby Seattle has excellent public transportation, but If you don't feel like hiking in, the easiest way to reach Olympic National Park is by car.

While public transportation in and between cities is easy in the US, most of the country isn’t urban. Travel by car will be the easier option if you’re visiting Carlbad Caverns in New Mexico, Point Reyes in California, Zion or Bryce National Parks in Utah, or any of the other approximately fifty million other cool spots in the US. If you have two or more people to share the driving that’s even better. You can split the cost of gas and pay for your own tickets.

Traveling by car also means you don’t need to plan ahead so much. You have no timetables to keep track of. If your car is your hotel there are no reservations to make. You can stay easily stay longer in a place if you like it or leave earlier if find you don’t.

Money

Assuming you use your car as your accommodation, travel by car is significantly cheaper. The cost of gas may be more than the cost of public transportation but cutting the cost of hostels and hotels out of the equation more than makes up for it. Traveling by car also makes it easier to adjust your spending to fit your budget. Your main fixed costs become gas and food, both of which can be easily cut by staying put exploring an area more deeply. Get a campstove and buy more food at grocery stores than at restaurants.

The social scene

For ease of meeting people, backpacking and hostels has got vandwelling beat, hands down. Not that it’s not easy to meet people while living in a vehicle, but while staying in hostels it’s practically forced upon you. If you’re a shy person hostels are a great way to break out of your shell. If you prefer being able to easily have alone-time then a car is great. For more tips on meeting people outside of hostels while traveling check out this previous ITP Article.

Safety and comfort

After two years of living on the road I’ll fully defend the idea that living in a car is just as safe (if not more so) than backpacking, for both your own personal safety and your property.

Personally, I prefer sleeping in my own bed each night. I like not being bothered by someone snoring or stumbling into the room at 3am. The car can sometimes feel like tight quarters, but they’re my quarters and I don’t have to share with anyone.

There is something very elegant about living out of a backpack.

There is something very elegant about living out of a backpack. It’s a nod to simplicity to know that everything you need you can carry in your best backpack. But if you want to be lazy about the planning, if you want to carry enough food and water so that you can randomly boondock in the woods for a week, or if you’re a voracious reader, photographer, obsessive crafter it’s nice to have the extra space for luxury items.

What works best for you is going to depend on your situation and the kind of trip you want to take. If you live in Los Angeles and want to spend one month in Boston driving there is not a good idea. But if you live in Los Angeles and have a month to travel around northern California then taking a car is your best bet.

I highly recommend trying out both on short trips (or better yet, try both on long trips). There is no “right” way to travel and the only wrong way to travel is not to do it.

Your thoughts on "US travel: car or backpack?"

  • If there's something to be said about the elegance of living out of a backpack, then the same is true of the inelegance of living out of a car! I mean, I've done it. A lot. But where the backpack has limited me to the bare essentials, the car always seems to attract more and more stuff!

    on July 29, 2009 at 7:30 pm Reply
  • Hiya Well, I'm pretty old so the thought of sleeping in a car sure isn't appealing to me! Mind you, sleeping in a hostel doesn't appeal either. I've definitely reached that age and stage where I like my creature comforts and am prepared to pay for them. ...that being said ... I guess one thing that people have to be aware of is just how large the US is (and if you're thinking of including Canada, we're even larger). How much of it do you want to see? How much time do you have? What season of the year are you travelling in? There are huge areas of the US & Can that would be very uncomfortable to back-pack in between Oct-Apr because of the cold, snow, rain & ice. If you traveled by car it would be pretty easy & inexpensive to get some basic camping gear and use national, state/provincial, municipal and private campgrounds along the way. Mostly they are near the scenic places that many tourists are interested in visiting and offer showers, toilets, often electricity as well as fire pits for cooking, etc. On the back-packing front, I think you'll find that there are huge regional differences. Some places you'll find it easy to get rides. In others, it may be a long, lonely wait by the roadside before anyone will stop. Another factor to keep in mind is how spread out and rural much of the US/Can are. If you are from Europe or NZ you may find you underestimate distances and challenges of getting from location X to location Y, even though it looks like a straight line on a map. Do your homework. Aussie's aren't as likely to find the distances a challenge because Australia is roughly the same size as mainland US. Don't know if that helped much. But sometimes the questions are more enlightening than the answers. Best of luck, Gwen McCauley

    on July 30, 2009 at 1:55 am Reply
  • i can't even imagine sleeping in a car - but now we have a family, so that wouldn't really work for us. great article on these options!

    on July 30, 2009 at 2:17 pm Reply
  • HI all , seems there is a huge differnce in what people think 'backpacking' is. To me this blog is talking about what we in downunder New Zealand would call hitch-hiking. (separated by our common language & spelling!) Back packing is more about attitude - a traveler rather than a tourist. It does not even mean low-budget always: have you heard of 'flash-packers'? These are people who often stay in v cheap hotels/motels and /or hostels. These people want to get to know locals, to spend more money on travel and 'doing' things rather than on accomodation - they just want to sleep at night. As a travelwriter, i know many countries find that backpackers / free-independant-travellers leave more in a country than hotel stayers who usually only travel for days not the weeks or months a backpacker does. backpackers often have a car too ... either hired or bought (in NZ especially): in fact most backpackers never hitch-hike. check my blog on what is a backpacker?http://kiwitravelwriter.wordpress.com/2008/12/24/what-is-a-backpacker/

    on July 31, 2009 at 10:38 am Reply
  • Great tips, thank you Jessica. It is always a pain to decide and someone's experienced advice is very welcome :)

    on August 20, 2010 at 7:12 am Reply
  • As someone who’s traversed the US many times by car I have to agree with your assessment that there’s no cheaper or more freeing way to see the states. You do end up saving quite a bit of cash on accommodation, even if those savings might end up being offset by gas expenses, but nothing beats making your own schedule and heading off in whatever direction the wind blows you.

    on October 18, 2010 at 8:20 pm Reply

Would you like to leave a comment?