Do you love the great outdoors? Do you itch for adventure on the open road? Have you spent a good portion of your morning daydreaming about campfires and scenic mountain vistas? Are you reading this van life road trip article right now instead of doing something productive, like paying attention to the meeting you’re in?
You, my friend, might be a closet van lifer.
If you’re curious about van life, a road trip is a great way to get a feel for the lifestyle. And even if you’re not considering full-time motorhome living, a road trip is still a fun (and inexpensive!) way to get out, see the world, and check some things off your bucket list.
5 Best Van Life Road Trips for Any Time of Year
I’ve outlined five of my favorite van life road trip itineraries. I included two for winter—one for people interested in snow, one for people trying to avoid it—and one for every other season. Each road trip takes you through a different part of North America.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Snow: Denver, Colorado
Trip length: 5 days
Don’t miss: Denver, Glenwood Hot Springs, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Estes Park Pie Shop
If skiing and snow sports are your thing (or, failing that, hot springs and hot chocolate) Colorado has you covered. A 5-day road trip from Denver into the surrounding areas and back will take you to major ski resorts, incredible rock formations, pristine lakes, waterfalls, and epic winter hiking.
Make sure your winter safety gear is in tip-top shape before you embark on any kind of winter van life excursion. That means snow chains, road salt, winter tires, a heater for your van, and warm clothes. Wintering in a van is more challenging than in summer months, but you will be rewarded with less crowded campsites.
No Snow: Florida Panhandle to the Keys
Trip length: 1-2 weeks
Don’t miss: Grayton Beach State Park, Miami Historic District, Everglades National Park
Not a fan of snow? Sub-tropical Florida is warm year-round. In fact, winter is a great time of year to visit if you want to avoid hurricane season (and you do.) Start your trip in Destin and head down to the keys, then loop back up through Miami, Orlando, and Jacksonville.
Note: It can be tricky to find free public lands camp spots on the east coast, including Florida. Use these van life apps together to increase your chances of finding as many free spots as possible.
You can find excellent kayaking in India Key, and you’ll see tons of wildlife in the Everglades. Just make sure to watch out for sharks and alligators! Don’t forget to try Cuban food in Miami and take in the incredible architecture and street art.
Zion National Park, Utah
Trip length: 6 days
Don’t miss: West Rim Trail, Grafton Ghost Town, Tuacahn Amphitheatre
Make Zion National Park the center of your spring road trip through Utah and Nevada. Start in Springdale, where you’ll spend a couple of days in the park before heading to Snow Canyon State Park, then on to Cedar City, Dixie National Forest, and finish in Slot Canyon near the Arizona border.
I have visited Zion numerous times and it’s breathtaking; I feel like I’m in Jurassic Park. In fact, you don’t even need to go into the park to catch beautiful views. Use these van life apps to post up at tons of gorgeous (and free) camp spots in the surrounding areas!
Spring and fall are the best times to visit, as winter is freezing and summer is scalding (and over-crowded.) The dramatic, red rock vistas are not to be missed, and you’ll find plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten path, hike, bike, climb, and explore.
Note: If you’re feeling REALLY brave, dare to take on Angel’s Landing–Zion’s most famous hike! You will have to apply for and receive a permit to hike it, though, as of April 2022. Angel’s Landing is not for those with a fear of heights!
Pacific Coast Highway
Trip length: 5 days
Don’t miss: Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Santa Cruz
One of the most iconic stretches of the West Coast, the Pacific Coast Highway, or Highway One, runs from just south of Orange County in Southern California, to just north of San Francisco. The trip can be completed in one or two days, but I recommend taking your time and spending about five days, as the road can be slow in some places.
Some epic BLM free camping spots can be found in Big Sur, and you won’t find better surfing than Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz. There are plenty of beachside state parks along this route—but make sure to plan ahead and reserve a camping spot because they fill up quickly during summer.
To extend the adventure, pick up CA-1 south of the border and hit up all the taco spots along the Pacific coast of Baja California, Mexico as you make your way to Cabo San Lucas (check out my Overlanding Mexico Guide!). If the northern climes are more your style, join up with I-5 north of San Francisco to head up into the Pacific Northwest for spectacular drives through Oregon to Seattle, Washington, and beyond.
New England Foliage Route
Trip length: 1 week
Don’t miss: Cog Railway, Green Mountain Byway, Mohawk Trail
If you’ve never seen the colors change, I highly recommend you get out to the East Coast and check it out. A road trip starting in Maine, heading through New Hampshire and Vermont, and ending in Massachusetts will give road trippers an incredible taste of the lush fall colors this region has to offer.
The Rangely Lakes Scenic Byway in Maine is a good starting point—a 52-mile stretch of highway that runs along the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains. From there, head to the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire, which the locals call “Kanc.” You’ll wind through the White Mountains as the highway runs along the Swift River. Your trip will also take you along the Green Mountain Byway in Vermont, and the Mohawk Trail in Massachusetts.
As a born and bred New Hampshirite, I’m biased towards the New England foliage. Even Utah’s Park City’s foliage can’t rival it! The foggy weather as seasons change and thick forest make New England’ autumn extra spooky as well, if you’re into that! Oh, and…PACK LAYERS and make sure your van has good insulation! It gets cold fast in New England.
This part of the US doesn’t have as much free camping or BLM land as parts of the West Coast and middle America do, so you may need to research which businesses will allow you to park overnight in their parking lots. More places are friendly to van lifers than you might think—it’s not just Walmart!
Tips on How to Choose a Campervan Rental
Once you’ve figured out where you want to go on your road trip, the next step is renting a campervan. Read on for some van life tips that will ensure your campervan rental process goes smoothly.
Note: If you think AWD or 4WD will be a necessary feature on your van, check out my roundup of top-rated 4×4 campervans for rent (pro tip: there’s a VERY high chance you don’t need it, though).
Know What You Need
Before you rent, make a list of things you need from your campervan. Do you absolutely need an indoor shower? (Van life tip: you probably don’t!) There are lots of ways to shower on the road. How about a stove? How many people will it need to sleep? Do you need winter tires or snow chains? Are you bringing a pet?
Having this list put together before you start looking will save you major headaches and hassles down the road.
Know Where to Look
There are three ways to rent road trip vans: through a national rental outfitter like Monterra, through a peer-to-peer van rental company (personally, I love Outdoorsy!), or through a local company in the area you’re going to.
Outdoorsy is like Airbnb for van rentals. The company connects you with a private individual, from whom you rent a campervan or motorhome. It’s slightly cheaper than going with a rental outfitter like Moterra, plus you can find some really fun, unique vans that will make your experience more memorable (I’ve been renting out my van on Outdoorsy for a year now!).
The other nice thing about Outdoorsy is that the owners walk you through everything you need to know about the van, and the company offers roadside assistance and insurance.
National Rental Outfitters
If you go with a national rental outfitter, you may find newer vehicles (like sprinter vans and luxury vans), but you will find fewer options than at a peer-to-peer service. But a big potential benefit of going this route is that you may have the option to drop off the van at a different location than where you picked it up.
Going with a local company is a little risky, as you will be dealing with a somewhat unknown company without a national reputation—however, you will be supporting a local business and contributing to the economy of the area you’re visiting.
Check out local travel guides to find recommendations on van rentals in the area if you decide to go this route.
Know What to Expect
If you rent a van through Outdoorsy, expect to pay between $100-200 per night for the van, depending on how many nights you need it for, the model you want, and what kind of amenities you need.
Renting from a national outfitter like Moterra can cost anywhere from $275-400 per night depending on the model you select (they offer three options) and the time of year you want to rent (prices are typically higher during peak months.)
How to Prep for Your Campervan Road Trip
Before heading out on your very first van life road trip, there are a few things you should absolutely do:
- Make sure you know where the gas stations and camping spots are along your route (use these van life apps)
- Pack layers (if you’ve ever been backpacking, you know how important this is!)
- Download any Google maps so you can use them offline
- Get a lock box to secure valuables while you’re not in the van
- Do a thorough walk-through of the van with the owner or rental company
Summing It Up
A road trip is an excellent way to dip your toes into van life without having to commit to full-time “travel in a van” living. Make sure your first-time van-life experience is epic by choosing one of these van-life road trips as your next vacation!