For my sister’s high school graduation, my gift to her is a road trip around the country. I know what you’re thinking — how very Crossroads — but we have neither Britney’s talent nor her crimped blonde locks so you can forget that thought before imagining the ‘I Love Rock n’ Roll’ karaoke scene.
Before setting out on our adventure, I took it upon myself to plan every mundane detail (truthfully, I’m much less Jack Kerouac and much more Rory Gilmore). Careful attention in the planning stage of a trip allows for more freedom while living it. In my research, I found some helpful tips for those of you looking for some planned-yet-spontaneous exploring of your own. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Pick Your Travel Partner(s) Wisely
Though I don’t have to struggle with this, it’s a big question, considering you will spend endless hours with this person. It’s helpful to have a co-traveller with a license and some navigational and map-reading skills. If you’re heading for the great outdoors, encourage your Wilderness First Responder pal to come along. If you’re more interested in seeing the cities, travel with your food-and-culture-junkie friend who’s heard about all the secret spots. If neither is able to join you, ask them to send tips and suggestions your way.
Map it Out
Pick your Spots
This has been the most challenging part for me. My sister and I have spent the past few months incessantly tagging each other in the comments of Instagram posts of amazing natural wonders we want to visit on our trip. While we’re touring a handful of western US national parks, it would be impossible to see all there is to see in the two-week time slot we’re working with. We’ve had to make a lot of hard decisions about where we want to visit and the parks we’re willing to put off until our next trip; we narrowed down the list so we can spend some serious time getting to know the places we want to explore most.
Build a Schedule
After picking the places and taking into account the amount of time you have for travel, map out the order and a timeline. Roadtrippers is a great resource for this part of the process and allows you to plan your route, showing you attractions, hotels, food, and other points of interest along the way. Check out Mary’s list of other helpful travel apps and websites.
Plan the stops you’ll need to take—don’t just assume you’ll stop in any town you fancy along the way at a hotel, hostel, or campsite–there are “towns” on the map that consist of only one stoplight. Many national parks don’t legally allow you to camp outside the designated campgrounds. Make reservations in advance, depending on when and where you’re visiting, to ensure you’ll have a place to pitch your tent. Do your research and plan accordingly based on the number of miles you hope to travel each day and be conservative about that number.
Don’t go into your trip planning to stick to the schedule 100%. Plan for a degree of flux—traffic and storms and accidents and human fatigue are all very real things. Keep in mind that it’s all a part of the experience of traveling, and you will likely have to alter your glorious, slaved-over plan.
Budget Time for the Back Roads
Plan for spontaneity. Give yourself a little extra time as a buffer. Whether you’re venturing to new cities, national parks, or anywhere else, it’s worth spending time on back roads. While, yes, you want to get to where you’re going, a huge part of the fun and adventure of wandering across the country is the actual wandering part. Budget some extra time for the scenic routes—which happen to be listed on almost every map or atlas.
Buy a Physical Map
Believe it or not, there are still places in the US that don’t get a GPS signal, and it’s always good to know where you are without technology. Paper maps will never crash or die on you and are helpful when asking locals for directions when you inevitably get lost.
Some Important Preparations
Make a Packing List
Minimizing your cargo will reduce the weight in your car and the amount of gas required to get you where you’re going. For food, bring non-perishables and plenty of water. Many people recommend bringing a small cooler for perishable items with a plan to replenish at grocery stores along the way when necessary. This is generally much cheaper and healthier than stopping at road-food restaurants and gas station convenience stores. First aid items are also essential. Invest in a kit larger than your average car first-aid kit if you’re going on an extended trip.
If you’re planning to camp, many national parks have suggested packing lists available online. I also recommend buying a field/traveller’s guide for the region where you’re headed and getting know it inside and out—what berries to avoid, what snakes to run away from screaming, how to avoid starting a wildfire, etc.
Take Care of Your Transportation
If you don’t already have it, purchase a roadside assistance plan. Having something go wrong and paying for a tow from the middle of nowhere is budget-crushing and dream-draining.
Before you leave, take your car for a check-up. Depending on how regularly you maintain your car, this might be pricy. You’ll be thankful when you don’t encounter any problems with your battery or transmission halfway through your trip. Make sure you have whatever tools you need with you on the road. I always carry necessities for changing a flat, an extra quart of oil, and a funnel in my trunk.
When you’re trapped on endless highways or in deadlock traffic, you will get bored, or frustrated, or both. Have easy entertainment on hand from the get-go: road games, playlists, podcasts, audiobooks, etc. Consider subscribing to Spotify Premium or something similar so you can make playlists before you leave and download them to your phone for offline listening. Podcasts are mostly free, and many local libraries have downloadable audiobooks for rent through apps.
Keep in mind that you’re planning now for the sake of future spontaneity. The more thoroughly you prepare, the more likely you’ll have a successful and stress-free road trip. Happy travels!