For me, I’ve always been in love with traveling. However, a few years ago traveling in my eyes meant getting on a plane and adventuring to lands far, far away. Looking back this was a very naive way to approach travel because there are plenty of places to explore right here in the U.S.
Road tripping has become increasingly popular over the last few years. After seeing countless photos on Instagram dedicated to living on the road, I fell in love with the freedom that they portrayed and after so many years of having a path to follow I wanted to get lost.
In two years I took six extensive road trips through the United States. My longest one was two months. These trips taught me more about myself than I thought possible and gave me a better sense of who I am. For those of you thinking about taking a road trip, it isn’t as easy as you might think. Yet, it will forever be one of the most rewarding things I have done. The sense of wonder, and excitement outway all of the inconveniences that arise with this kind of travel, and with the 20 tips below you will be well on your way to having a successful time on the road.
1. Clean your car before and during the trip
This will save you a lot of time. The more organized everything is the easier it is to set up camp at the end of the day, make food on the side of the road, if you need to, and find the things you need most right when you need them. Everyday I would set aside time to organize everything. Take it from someone who did a two week road trip with four people crammed into a Ford Focus; you’ll want things to stay clean.
2. Always have at least a quarter tank of gas
It goes without saying that gas is the most important part of your trip. Without it, you aren’t getting anywhere. Always, always, fill your tank before heading into a National Park or any area where you may have trouble finding gas. Or else you could end up waiting three hours for AAA to come and give you gas in the middle of the night in Yosemite Valley. Despite being able to star gaze it is definitely worth skipping out on this kind of experience. You can also download the app gasbuddy which will allow you to find the cheapest gas options along your route.
3. Pack the right food and have it within easy reach
When you are on the road it’s a lot easier to avoid hunger when you have the right snacks to eat. Snacking will always save you money as opposed to eating out. On my first trip getting dinner at a restaurant/fast food place every night became our biggest and most unnecessary expense. Have a canvas bag hanging from one of the front seats with things like trail mix, water, peanut butter, crackers, freshly cut veggies, and dried fruit. Avoid the perishables. We bought milk for mac & cheese once and kept it in our cooler, but it still soured in a matter of hours with the hot sun. You can eat as sparsely or as well as you’d like, all it takes is a little planning and creativity. My road trip staple foods are soups, beans, and lots of tuna fish.
4. Ride by sunrise park by sunset
One of the things I loved about being on the road was not living by an alarm clock. My body quickly became used to rising with the sun. If you head out to your next destination early in the morning you can beat the crowds both on the road and at the place you are going. The best memories from my trips came from the hikes we did just as the sun was rising with no one else around. It was utterly peaceful. Also, make it a habit to be where ever you have planned by sunset. It’s much easier to get yourself settled when there is still light in the sky. Doing this also gives you a chance to go to bed early and get enough rest for the next day.
5. Get a national park pass
Best investment I ever made! It gets you into all 58 National Parks within the U.S. for free as well as over 2,000 federal recreation sites. This saves a lot of money for anyone who enjoys hiking. It’s good for one year and costs less than $100. I visited 20 parks on my first trip and all together the costs for entrance would have totaled more than $500! Buy this year’s America the Beautiful pass here.
6. Sleep for free & legally at Walmart
On the long-haul trips you will get exhausted. It’s important to take the time to pull over and sleep in your car. To save money, you should have an idea of where you can do this safely for free. Walmart parking lots are always an option, so are some rest areas in certain states. It’s even worth looking into religious buildings. Remember, it’s only to get some rest at night for a few hours. I did this countless times when driving through bigger states like Montana, and Texas, and while I have my fair share of interesting encounters to tell it is certainly better than falling asleep at the wheel.
7. Local everything
Talk to the locals and find the best known spots in the area. I always remind myself that I’m only in this small town for a short amount of time so I want to experience it as authentically as I can. In Oregon, at Cape Kiwanda beach I jumped in with some locals on a Sunday morning and got to try Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines dance, acro, and music together with an opponent. I was super nervous, but it ended up being a lot of fun and something I’ll always remember about that sunny day on the Oregon coast. You’ll also get shown and told about some cool secret spots if you befriend the locals. In Colorado we were given directions to these hot springs that are actually along the side of the road and tourists can never find them.
8. Take Your Time
If there’s one thing I regret about my first and longest road trip it would be that I rushed it. I had two and a half months to drive across the country, complete the entire Pacific Coast Highway from Seattle to San Diego and head back to Massachusetts. I finished two weeks ahead of schedule and I wish I could go back and tell myself to slow down! If you find that you are ahead of whatever you had planned, then take extra time in a different place. I think a lot of us feel panicked and we want to see as much as possible, but you’ll never be able to see everything, so spend the time you have enjoying the places you’re in.
9. Know Where You Want To Go But Keep It Loose
I’ve done two kinds of road trips with various friends. The one where you over plan every minute of every day into exhaustion, and the let's just see where we end up. The first kind of trip worked for a little while, and because I’m such an organized person I thought it was a great idea, but I was actually preventing myself from so many other cool opportunities because I had a “schedule” to stick to. Don’t get me wrong you should always do your research before heading out on the road, but it’s better to have a loose outline of where you will go and what you will see so that there will always be room for change. Who knows, you may arrive somewhere unexpected and find out they have the oldest dinosaur bone in the U.S. and you feel like seeing it. If something catches your eye or interest then let yourself go and check it out that’s the fun of being on the road.
10. Use gallon sized ziplock bags for clothes to keep it organized
Trust me on this one, you will thank me later. You can also use suitcase organizers. I brought all my clothes in a big hiking backpack and it was much easier taking everything out when my clothes were all nicely rolled in ziplock baggies. It made my life a lot easier. You can even bring many bags and organize each bag according to day to day outfits if you want.
11. Have tons of quarters
Like...I mean a lot. Quarters are very handy for practical road trip things that you wouldn’t normally think of. For instance, it’s nice to have quarters to put air in your tires, to pay for tolls that you can’t avoid, and to afford the luxury of quarter operated showers. I did all of my road trips on a very tight budget, this meant camping every night. Whenever the opportunity presented itself I would use my quarters for a shower. One night in southern California I only had dollar bills and I couldn’t find anyone to give me change so I had to skip my beloved shower that night. I settled for washing off in the ocean which is not as effective. You could also buy a bag shower from Walmart. It’s Coleman, five gallons and costs less than $20. When you are desperate it’s a nice alternative.
12. Learn to embrace the freedom
Originally, I had a really hard time with this. I was so used to having a rigid schedule my entire life. I felt untethered at first. Then I became excited at the idea of not knowing where I would be sleeping that night. It’s a great way to put your life into perspective and realize all of the things you have been putting off because you don’t have the “time” to enjoy them.
13. Appreciate the small things
It’s not all about one exciting moment after another. There is a lot of down time while out on the road. Being aware of those small luxuries, like a hot shower, a warm cup of coffee as the sun rises, and going to bed warm and dry at night, are things that you wouldn’t even think twice about longing for before taking a road trip. Road trips put into perspective the common things that we often take for granted.
14. Take turns driving
For some people this won’t be possible if they decide to do a solo trip. However, if you are with a group of people or even just one other person then do your best to come up with a fair driving schedule. When I was with my friends we would alternate drivers every 1-2 hours depending on how far we were heading that day. This works out pretty well, no one feels like they always get stuck driving, and you may even volunteer to drive for longer stretches of time when you get used to the long hours. I once made it six hours through the night when driving through New Mexico and Texas. Knowing your limits is the best advice, and making sure you always switch drivers or pull over when you feel yourself fading.
15. Agree to turn off the music
Hear me out. Yes, it’s important to have the right amount of tunes and entertainment while driving, but when you are with friends make a pact to drive without music for one hour each day. Enjoy each other's company, talk about whatever comes to mind, roll down the windows and let yourself take in everything passing by. I made it all the way from Massachusetts to Colorado in three days with no music. I drove with my parents and we talked or sat in our own silences at times and it’s an experience I would never trade. You’ll be surprised at how much you grow used to no music.
16. Embrace that rest stop dinner
You won’t have time or even energy for these gourmet meals, or even beautiful picnic looking dinners. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled over to a rest stop, parked near a picnic table, and made lunch. Typically it was some sort of pasta dish. I would do pasta, tuna fish and hard boiled eggs together, and then kielbasa with red sauce. Just be okay with eating in strange and awkward places and you’ll always have a great time.
17. Learn how to use the bathroom outside
This is important especially when you sleep in the car. Bathrooms won’t always be readily available, but your bladder won’t care. Once you overcome the awkwardness you feel about going outside, it’s a breeze.
18. Camp as often as possible
This is the cheapest option. I invested in a nice two person North Face tent, and North Face sleeping bag and I was set. My favorite memories came from camping with my friends in the desert of Arizona, or along the coast of Washington. It’s truly the best way to live life on the road. However, always know where you can and cannot camp. We once got kicked off of these dunes in Northern California at 10 p.m. Needless to stay we slept in the car that night. My top ten sunrises were made possible by cool camping locations. I think it’s always worth the extra effort.
19. Have the car essentials
I’m talking spare tire, AAA membership, warm blankets, flash lights, and snow chains in case you are out west during the winter season, because you won’t be allowed to travel on some roads unless you have them. Know how to change a tire, and how to check and refill your fluids. I had to do this in the desert a few times and the first time wasn’t pretty because I was very unprepared. So save yourself the stress and always make sure your car is ready for an extensive trip, be prepared for unexpected problems, but don’t be too worried about them. If you’re lucky everything will go smoothly.
20. Be in the moment
My last piece of advice is to remain in the moment. Try not to look too far ahead or worry about what you need to do next. Unexpected situations will occur, roll with them. Handle them with patience, and the idea that it’s another challenge that you are better for taking on. After all it’s all about the journey not the destination and you have many miles to go.
Now you're ready so...GO! It's more than worth it.