Though it’s easy to make traveling purely about the destination (because we get excited about new places!), if you have the time to commit to a roadtrip, it’s an ideal way to refocus your travel around the act of traveling itself- that is, the journey. The way roads wind through landscapes, the roadside vegetation, the climate, the people-watching- these are all things I love about roadtripping. And as someone who’s made their way across the country via automobile a few times, I like to think I know what I’m talking about.
I’m planning a few roadtrips for this summer too- one from Wyoming to New Mexico, another from New Mexico to North Carolina, and then one from North Carolina back to Wyoming. Mapping out potential routes is almost more fun for me than the actual trip itself, but looking at Google Maps got me thinking: what advice do I have to aspiring roadtrippers? (I know you’re out there!) So below I have some advice organized by stages of the planning process, and then at the end I’ve included my abridged packing list to spark some wanderlust-y ideas for you!
Planning a Roadtrip:
- Map out your route, starting with the quickest way between your start and end points. Are there nearby cities, national parks, historical sites, or other places you may want to stop that aren’t on this most direct route? If you’re planning on making your way quickly, try not to plan a day of driving longer than 8 hours. Though that doesn’t sound like a lot, when you throw in eating and bathroom breaks (and sightseeing!), that’s absolutely a full day. If you’ll be trading shifts behind the wheel with a partner or friend, you can of course do longer days, but even then be mindful of how cranky several full days of sitting can make your body feel. Also try to avoid large cities around rush hour– that is, unless you love traffic.
- Get AAA! Or figure out if your car insurance company or car manufacturer offers roadside assistance. These programs are lifesavers should your car break down. In addition, AAA members get discounts at campgrounds and hotels all over the country. To note, if you’re roadtripping with a friend, only one of you needs to have AAA because they’ll provide roadside assistance to their members even if that member is a passenger in someone else’s car- of course speaking from personal experience.
- Try to make reservations ahead of time, if possible. During the summer especially many campgrounds (both private and public) book up months in advance! Websites like reserveamerica.com allow you to search for campgrounds and pay online. If you’re considering a private campground, check for reviews on websites like yelp first to ensure the amenities you want are available, like potable water, toilets, or showers. KOA campgrounds aren’t the most scenic, but they often have laundry facilities and other conveniences available. For any campground, try to arrive before nightfall since it can be practically impossible to find your campsite in the dark. If you lean more toward hotels, consider setting up an account with a website like hotels.com, which gives you 1 free night at member hotels for every 9 nights you book through them. If you don’t want to shell out for hotels but still aren’t psyched on camping, check out websites like airbnb and couchsurfing, which allow you to stay with locals and within the bounds of your budget. If you’re bringing along a furry friend, you’ll need to check whether all the places you plan to stay are pet-friendly. Certain hotel chains are pet-friendly, but typically charge extra fees for the service.
- If you’ll be traveling through or spending time in wilderness areas where predators like bears or mountain lions live, educate yourself about how to behave in these animals’ territories and what to do should you encounter a bear or mountain lion. For example, if you’ll be backpacking through grizzly bear country, buy some bear spray and learn how to use it. Being in bear country also affects the way you store any scented goods like food or lotions- here is a good list of tips for traveling in grizzly bear country.
Right Before You Leave:
- Call your credit card company/ies to let them know when and where you’ll be traveling. I forgot to do this once, and when I tried to buy breakfast at a cafe in San Francisco the first morning I was there, my card kept getting declined. After a brief call to my credit card company I was able to use my card again, but only after I was a little annoyed and thoroughly embarrassed. Communicating your plans ahead of time will ensure your card works throughout your trip.
- Get a phone charger for your car so you aren’t reliant on electricity, which is great if you’re planning on camping. This way your phone can charge while you drive!
- Bring physical maps with you, whether you buy a road atlas or just print out copies of your directions from Google Maps. There will likely be many instances in which you won’t have cell phone service or LTE/4G to help you navigate.
- Get a simple first aid kit outfitted with things like bandages, antibiotic ointment, alcohol swabs, tweezers, gauze, medical tape, and painkillers. You can find a complete kit like this at a drugstore or a store like Target or Walmart. You might also consider adding small packets of antihistamine medication (in case you struggle with allergies on your trip) or caffeine pills (if you get tired behind the wheel)- you can get these smaller packets at most gas stations. Obviously stock up on any medication you use regularly and bring that along, too.
- Consider buying or borrowing jumper cables, a small jack, a spare tire, and a headlamp or flashlight. These items will seriously help you out should you encounter any car trouble.
- While we’re on the subject of your car, schedule an oil change and get any timely maintenance your car may need BEFORE you leave, such as tire rotations/new tires, new belts, new brake pads, fluid flushes, etc. Your car can’t take care of you if you’re not taking care of it!
- Make a fun playlist! Not only does this keep you excited about your trip, it will also prevent you from messing with your phone or iPod while you drive. Bonus: if you select songs to which you can sing along, this will keep you from getting sleepy behind the wheel (speaking from personal experience here, obviously). You can also utilize driving time to catch up on great podcasts or audiobooks.
- Stock up on yummy snacks that won’t require refrigeration and won’t melt in the backseat like nuts, dried fruit, M&Ms, pretzels, veggie chips, granola, protein bars, jerky, little cups of fruit or applesauce, etc.
- Tell someone you trust your entire itinerary in as much detail as you can provide including where you’ll be when, the route you’re taking, how to contact you, and where you’re planning to spend each night. Provide them with your car’s make and model in addition to your license plate information if they don’t already have it. If something happens and you aren’t where you planned on being, this person will not only know, but will be able to provide authorities with crucial information about your plans. Also tell this person where/when you anticipate not having cell phone coverage, if applicable.
On the Trip:
- OMG you’re doing it! Take all the photos! Fill up your journal with tales of your adventure! Eat all the food! Stop at all the cool, weird, beautiful places!
- Be mindful of possible delays on your trip like road construction, traffic, weather, and accidents. Many roads in more mountainous or remote areas close seasonally, so check the Department of Transportation’s websites for each state you’ll be traveling through for relevant information, especially if you’re traveling in the winter or spring. Additionally, if you’ll be driving anywhere at 5,000 feet above sea level or higher, no matter the time of year, bring a big coat and a warm hat. High deserts, prairies, and alpine areas and campgrounds can get below freezing temperatures even in the summer.
- Some basic ground rules: don’t text and drive– use a friend, voice recognition software, or just pull over if you need to. In this vein, please don’t drink and drive either. Consider only drinking when you’re set up for the evening, or when you’ve arranged alternate transportation (e.g. walking, public transit, taxi, or designated driver).
- Give yourself time to eat and move. Though it can be tempting to drive all day and eat fast food in the car, try to take a break for lunch, maybe eating at a non-chain restaurant. Websites like yelp and tripadvisor can guide you toward unique eateries. Take regular breaks not just to use the bathroom, but to walk and stretch. Our necks and shoulders can get particularly tight in the car- here are some useful stretches you can practice on your trip.
- Only access sensitive information on secure WiFi. In other words, avoid checking your bank account balance or your email on public, non-password protected WiFi networks, like those at restaurants.
- Trust your gut. If something seems off, it probably is. Don’t be afraid to pack up and leave because the guy in the next campsite is acting creepy, or to change your plans entirely when the motel or diner feels off. You’re not obligated to chat with or help someone if you feel unsafe or if you don’t have the time. This is your trip! You don’t owe anyone anything except to keep yourself safe.
- Keep in touch with your trusted person! Tell them at regular intervals where you are and how you’re doing. Use a payphone or a landline if necessary. Send them amazing photos and make them jealous!
Finally, here’s my abridged roadtrip packing list for this summer:
- Journal + pens
- Approximately 50 books
- Cell phone equipped with some audiobooks + earbuds
- Laptop + charger
- Sunglasses (maybe 2 pairs since I seem to always lose 1 on every trip)
- Bug spray
- Lip balm with SPF
- Face/body wipes (I like Burt’s Bees and these Yuni shower sheets)
- Scentless lotion
- Dry shampoo (these two are my favorites)
- Extra ponytail holders
- Hand sanitizer
- Toothpaste & toothbrush
- Travel towel (like this one)
- Toilet paper
- Sandals for driving (wearing close-toed shoes in the car? ugh!)
- Hiking boots + wool socks
- Rain jacket
- Warm jacket
- Comfy driving clothes (aka NOT JEANS)
- Travel yoga mat (I have this Manduka one that folds up into a little square)
- Camera + battery charger
- Headlamp + extra battery
- Sleeping bag + sleeping pad
- Swiss army knife or multi-tool
- Camp kitchen like this one (including stove, gas canister, eating utensils, etc.)
- Sponge + biodegradable soap
- Paper towels
- A few plastic shopping bags to serve as trash bags
- Water bottles + Camelbak bladder
What does your ideal roadtrip look like? And what would you add to my tips or packing list? Let me know! Happy travels.
Love to all.