This entry is a part of a series. Check out the rest of the Road Trip Survival Guide for more valuable information.
Finding the Economical Choice
If you have decided to forego hotels in favor of cheaper accommodations, then you’ve also decided to forego room service. And that’s a good thing, because any long-term journey that relies on room service is going to bankrupt you before you can say “mini bar!”
Most travelers away from their kitchen will instead opt to eat out at restaurants for the duration of their trip. This is an option, albeit an expensive one. I don’t eat at fast food restaurants often, but the few times I have, I’ve never gotten out of one for less than $7. And that assumes that you want to eat nothing but fast food (yuk!). It is said that the average cost for one commercially-prepared meal is about $12.75, and that number sounds about right from my experience. But if my grocery bills are any indication, I’m spending less than $10 per day to prepare my own meals.
It’s no surprise that preparing your own food is the cheaper option. I think most of us know this intuitively. Dining out is nice for a social experience, or to treat yourself with a meal that you can’t make at home. But eating out at a restaurant every day, 2-3 times a day would add up – and fast!
Preparing Meals Without a Kitchen
Some of you may be travelling in campers that come with a small kitchen – a mini fridge, a stove and oven, a sink with running water, and even a microwave. You probably don’t need much guidance. Cooking is the same for you whether you’re at home or in your camper, except at home you have a little more space to move.
But what about someone who doesn’t have a camper? What if you don’t have the money or the space in your vehicle to install a kitchenette? What are your options, then?
Well, the first approach is the basic camping approach. Have an alternative form of refrigeration – such as a cooler that you keep filled with ice. And have some form of heat – such as firewood or a plug-in hotplate.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. I always bring a small cooler with me on long trips (and sometimes on short trips, too), and I’ve been known to carry firewood, fuel, and lighters with me if I know I’ll be camping in the woods.
Relying on Non-Perishables
However, in the middle of summer, I’ve found that no amount of insulation protects my cooler for very long. Admittedly, it’s not a very good cooler. 10 pounds of ice typically only lasts me one day – two days if it’s a bit cooler outside. At $1 – $3 per bag of ice, that adds up. It’s certainly more than I want to pay for frozen water. Also, having to allocate space for both food that needs to be chilled and food that needs to be kept at room temperature – in my opinion – is a colossal waste of space.
Moreover, I’ve never been terribly successful when it comes to building campfires. I’ve been lucky a few times and made some really good fires with little or no fuel. But 99% of the time, I could pour gasoline on my firewood and still struggle to get a good flame going. (If you’ve ever tried to ignite gasoline, then you understand my frustration. If you’ve never tried, please don’t – it’s stupid dangerous.) Sometimes, I can blame it on soaking wet firewood. But mostly, I just suck at building fires. I wouldn’t want to bet my life on my ability to cook food in the wild.
Electric stoves or gas-powered stoves are valid alternatives, too. But both represent added equipment (more weight and more cargo space consumed) and added expense.
Instead, I prefer to rely upon non-perishable foods that don’t have to be chilled or cooked.
A Word About Nutrition and Health
If you have special dietary requirements, you should probably consult a doctor, nutritionist, or some other professional to discuss how you should approach eating on a long road trip. To put it bluntly, I don’t give a fuck if you’re vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, or allergic to peanuts. I would be here until the end of time trying to address each of these diets. And since like 40% of the Internet is dedicated to these diets, you can get that information somewhere else.
My only concern is to teach you how to not starve while you’re on the road and to give tips for meals that are cheap, won’t spoil in the absence of refrigeration or cooking, and will be somewhat nutritious.
I don’t pretend for a moment that eating processed, preserved, and non-perishable foods is the healthiest way to eat. Canned foods are high in salt and the preservation process ruins a lot of the vitamins and proteins. Given the choice, I’ll take fresh food over processed food any day of the week. But that’s not always financially feasible, and when you’re on the road, fresh food is difficult to keep fresh.
Finding non-perishable foods at a grocery store is relatively easy. Just stick to the inner aisles, and you’ll get 99% of what you need. The trick is finding food that is at least a little bit healthy.
For breakfast, I favored granola bars, nuts, and dried fruit. If weather conditions aren’t too extreme, you can keep certain fresh fruits okay for a few days. But on my road trip last summer, a high of 85°F was considered a cool day, so I had to rely heavily on dried fruit. You can get almost any fruit in dried form, but I personally found dried cranberries, dried blueberries, and dried mango to be the best. As healthy as nuts are, they can get to be prohibitively expensive. Peanuts (and peanut butter!) are economical choices, but I always preferred cashews for their flavor and almonds for nutrition and energy.
If you want some DIY ideas for granola or trail mix, check out these 21 trail mix recipes.
My dinners were mix-and-match canned meals. I would typically mix one grain with one veggie and one meat to create a meal. Canned potatoes are the default canned grain. The only way I am aware of to find canned rice or pasta is to go for canned soup or canned ravioli. (Which I did because one grows tired of canned potatoes pretty quick!) It’s not too difficult to keep fresh bread on the road, even in extreme heat or cold. Just keep it wrapped and away from moisture to prevent mold. Crackers and pretzels can work pretty well, too. Just don’t rely entirely on salty snacks.
Canned meat is pretty easy to find. Chicken, turkey, ham, tuna, and vienna sausages are all relatively inexpensive. Like any beef product, preserved beef is expensive and even tough to find. Your best (and cheapest) bet to find canned beef is to look for no-bean chili, ravioli, corned beef and hash, or soup. If you get sick of canned meat, jerky and smoked sausages are good alternatives, though jerky is insanely expensive for how little you get.
What I find most disappointing about canned produce is a lack of variety. My favorite vegetable – broccoli – isn’t available in a can. In fact, the only two vegetables that come in cans that I can stomach are green beans and corn. And I’m not even all that wild about corn. Carrots come canned, but fresh carrots hold up pretty well on the road.
You’ll note that there is no mention of dairy or cheese in this list. I never succeeded in finding a good, non-perishable alternative for these things. I tried both condensed and evaporated milk, but even watered down, I found both of them to be thoroughly unappetizing.
Most people would prefer to cook a meal made out of canned food, and again, that’s certainly an option. But if you’re unable to start a fire or generate heat, these canned meals are edible and safe to eat without cooking. Just check first to make sure that the can has not been compromised and that the food hasn’t spoiled.
Changes in Digestion
Be prepared for consequences to long-term changes to your diet. I imagine that every person is different and some people might not experience any problems at all. But it does happen to some people, and you should be prepared for the possibility that you will be affected.
About a week into my trip, I was in Missoula. Worried that my new “rabbit food diet” was leaving me malnourished, I decided to eat one meal at a restaurant in the hopes that I would replenish any nutrients I was lacking. A few hours later, I became violently ill while driving through Glacier National Park. It seems that in adjusting to my new travel diet, my body became quite intolerant of ordinary food. After my trip was over, it took several weeks to gradually work my way back to ordinary food.
A Kwik Compromise
I was pretty good about sticking to my travel diet of granola, nuts, dried fruit, and canned meals for the first several weeks of my trip. Around the time I reached Moab, though, it became clear that I needed to add a little more variety and fresh food into my diet.
Given my pace, I was stopping at a gas station almost every single day, and very often twice a day. Since I had to make the pit stop anyway, I decided to buy single serving items of certain foods – usually a hot sandwich, fresh produce, and/or a bottle of milk. I used my “rabbit food diet” as my main source of energy and nutrition, but supplemented that with the occasional fresh food item from the convenience store. It upped my food bill ever-so-slightly, but it was worth it to get more complete nutrition.
Not every gas station has fresh food. Locally , we have Kwik Trip that’s pretty good about putting out fresh food and hot food that is relatively cheap and healthy (compared to fast food). I’ve also found decent food offerings at 7-11, Pilot, Love’s, and a few other chains whose names I don’t recall. I can’t remember ever going into a Citgo, Mobil, Shell, or Chevron and finding anything besides day-old hot dogs and donuts.
Short Road Trips
On shorter trips (read: weekend trips of 2-3 days) where overall nutrition is less of a concern, I opt for road trip comfort foods. Fruit, nuts, granola, and trail mixes are still excellent ideas for shorter road trips, but it’s okay to indulge in guilty pleasures.
Foraging, Fishing, and Hunting
One option for free food is to go back to our species’ roots as hunters and gatherers and forage for your own food. This isn’t anything I’ve done much of because I’m so terrible at it.
There are a lot of guidebooks out there for finding edible plants in the wild. But after seeing how easy it is to screw up in Into the Wild, I think such skills are best taught under the supervision of an expert. Consider consulting guides such as Gone Feral.
Hunting wild game is an option, but a heavily-regulated one. For example, if I wanted to shoot a deer for dinner here in Wisconsin, I’d have to…
- pay money for a license and tag,
- do it during a short week-and-a-half window of the year,
- do it only during certain hours,
- do it only in certain locations and away from population areas,
- only shoot certain genders depending on where I am,
- have it checked for chronic wasting disease,
- only use certain types of firearms, and
- obey other regulations concerning camouflage, high-vis gear, and bait.
In fairness, I’m choosing one of the more heavily regulated forms of hunting (big game with a gun) to make an example out of. Other forms of hunting are not so stringently regulated. But in all the years I hunted, I never successfully took a deer. I had a few shots, but for one reason or another, they were illegal to take. I would never bet my life and ability to avoid starvation on my ability to capture an animal.
Since hunting regulations vary from state to state, it can be very difficult to be educated and in compliance with hunting rules, especially if your road trip takes you through several states. Unless you’re absolutely sure that what you’re doing is legal, I would recommend restricting yourself to small game and using non-projectile methods (such as trapping) to catch your prey. Not only are you more likely to be in compliance with local regulations, but even if you’re not, you’re less likely to draw attention from game wardens this way. And unless you’re feeding a small army or have space for a large cooler, you’ll only be able to manage the meat of a small animal anyway.
Though fishing is also regulated, like trapping small game, it isn’t too difficult to be in compliance. It’s probably easier to catch a fish than to catch a mammal, too.
Just be sure to receive training on how to gut and prepare any prey you do catch. And while I have no moral objection to eating animals (sorry PeTA), do try not to waste the animal. You are taking a life. Don’t waste the body.
There are lots of ways to eat well while on the road. You might even want to visit local diners, restaurants, cafés, and pubs as a part of your road trip experience.
But in my opinion, preparing your own meals using non-perishable foods is economical and does not require you to spend money or valuable cargo space on refrigeration or cooking appliances. It isn’t the healthiest or even the most nutritious food in the world, but you can readily cure such deficiencies with the occasional stop at a good convenience store for some fresh food to supplement your main food supply.
Road Trip Shopping List
Below is my own personal grocery list. Obviously it’s modeled after my own tastes and preferences, but the point is that it illustrates a diverse variety of (mostly) non-perishable food.
- Dried Mango
- Banana Chips
- Dried Blueberries
- Dried Cranberries
- Canned Green Beans
- Canned Potatoes
- Peanut Butter
- Little Debbie Snacks
- Sour Patch Straws
- Heath Bars
- Nestle Crunch
- Beef Sticks
- Campfire Wieners
- Canned Ravioli
- Canned Ham
- Vienna Sausages
- Corned Beef & Hash
- Canned Chili
- Cheese Curds
- V8 Splash
- Toasted Oat Squares
- Nature Valley Granola Bars
Have I missed anything? What road trip super foods do you know of that I forgot to include? Do you have questions? Do none of these solutions work for you because of specific circumstances that I haven’t considered? Whatever you’re thinking – I would love your feedback! Help me make this Road Trip Survival Guide the best it can be.