Extended road trips are basically the greatest thing ever. Weeks on end of driving and exploring and hiking and camping … it’s glorious! You can explore — in detail — entire sections of the country. And, with a little bit of foresight and planning, you can do it in both comfort and style.
Rebecca and I have taken several multi-week road trips in the last 18 months, and have had some great successes and some rather appalling failures. So, in an attempt to save you some of the pain, here are our six best tips for making your extended road trip comfortable, exciting, affordable, and as hassle-free as possible! (And to spark your imagination for your own road trip, all pictures below were taken on our road trips!)
Let’s get the super-obvious (but sometimes overlooked) stuff out of the way. Bottom line: breakdowns and blowouts are a bummer. They add stress and and frustration to to your trip — not to mention expense. Yeah, I know, “it’s all part of the adventure” and whatever. The way I see it, that’s a great way to face an unexpected problem, but a super lousy reason to not prepare adequately.
Keep in mind, if you’re roadtripping, you’re likely going to spend time driving through some pretty desolate areas. Help can be very far away, and if you’re in an area with no cell service and little or no traffic, you’re going to be hiking a pretty far distance if you can’t solve the issue yourself. AAA can’t come to the rescue if you can’t even call them.
So, plan accordingly and prepare your vehicle. For about $70, our mechanic performs what he calls the pre-trip check. It’s basically a high level inspection where they check and top off all your fluids, check your brakes and lines, examine your tires (make sure they check the spare!), lights, and a variety of other items to make sure your car is in the best possible shape for the road. This can help spot potential catastrophes BEFORE you’re in the middle of nowhere. Have them change the oil and filter and top off your tire pressure while they’re in there, and you’ll be ready to roll. Extra points if you do all this yourself!
But realistically, things still happen. Luckily, some of the most common road trip vehicle issues are also some of the most foreseeable and avoidable — as well as easily fixable: tire leaks and blowouts, dead batteries, running out of gas, overheating … all manageable. Here are a few things I keep in my truck to be ready for anything:
- The Fat Max 350 amp jump starter and compressor. With a simple once-a-month charge, this bad boy will jump your battery, fill your tires — even charge your electronics! We bought it this spring, and have absolutely loved having it.
- A small mechanics toolbox with wrenches, pliers, allen keys, screwdrivers, etc. It’s amazing how much you can get done with a few basic items.
- A roadside emergency kit with flares, extra flashlight, emergency blankets, jumper cables, tire patches, and a small first aid kit. This AAA kit isn’t the one we have, but has the things we like to carry.
- A few miscellaneous items I like to have: mechanic’s gloves, zip ties, duct tape, and a head lamp.
With just a few preparations, you can set out on the open road with confidence!
Let’s just go ahead and say it: car or truck camping is WAY better than tent camping when it comes to extended road trips. How so, you ask? Let me count the ways:
- It requires way less setup and breakdown. We got into truck camping two weeks into a six week road trip when I decided that I never, ever, ever wanted to set up that tent again. Once we switched to truck camping, it’d take us less than 5 minutes from arriving to rearrange our food and clothes containers, and have our pads and sleeping bags set up and ready. It saved me HOURS the first week alone. When you’re setting up and breaking down every day, making those processes as quick and easy as possible lets you focus on the actual fun part of road trips: exploring and sight-seeing.
- It’s dryer. Your car roof and windows. You know, the ones that keep out the rain when you’re driving 60 miles a hour down the driveway? They actually still do that even when you’re parked. So if you’re sleeping inside the car, and it rains, you don’t get rained on! MAGIC.
- It’s warmer. We probably should have understood this conceptually, but we were really surprised by how much warmer we were sleeping in the truck than on the ground. With the lack of draft, and all the insulation in the truck, plus being off the ground, it was really cozy. That said, neither was it stuffy in warmer climates.
- It’s safer. We switched to truck camping when we were in the PNW, and I was pretty glad to put steel and glass between us and the bears, mountain lions, and ginormous raccoons that were in the area. That, and if you’re out boondocking somewhere in the middle of nowhere, its nice to know if someone tries something sketchy, they’re gonna have to work pretty hard to get in, and you can just jump in the front seat and bail.
- It saves you money. When we’re on a long road trip, we’ll get the occasional hotel for a chance to take a break from camping, have showers in the room, and just lay in bed and watch tv. Obviously, this is much more expensive than camping. However, when we went from tent camping to truck camping, we cut the number of hotels we got by over 75%, just because we were so comfortable in the truck. In fact, the only time we got a hotel on our last big road trip was because I was sick and wanted to just rest up in a real bed for a few nights.
This one we had to learn the hard way. On our first big road trip, we’d plan to put in tons of miles, and feel pressured to pass by cool-looking attractions. We’d get into camp after dark, which made setup more difficult. We’d have to cook in the dark, rarely meet anybody, and often, it just felt too late to even bother with a campfire. Let me say that again. We were too busy to have a campfire. On a ROAD TRIP.
So, we wised up. If you keep your driving days shorter, you’re leaving room for the real road trip magic to happen. I remember saying to Rebecca when we started travelling more extensively, “When we road trip, I’m going to stop when I want to stop. No more of this A to B as fast as humanly possible stuff.” Planning shorter driving days allows you to stop and enjoy crazy views, take pictures, explore dirt roads, linger in cool towns, and stop at surprise attractions. We generally keep our driving days around 3-4 hours, and we’ve had some of our coolest adventures because of it.
Another upside is that if you get into camp earlier, you can pick better campsites! Better views, closer to amenities, and it’s easier to avoid campers who look like they might be less-than-ideal neighbors.
Which brings us to our next point …
Maybe this seems like another obvious point, but bear with me. We’ve found it’s really easy to get so into the sightseeing and adventuring part of road trips that we start neglecting the camping part. But cool things happen when you enjoy camping! You can make new friends, take advantage of lakes and trails nearby, read books, take naps, drink beer — downtime is a part of the adventure!
Some of our favorite road trips spots have been state and national parks that had a tremendous amount to explore, only minutes from our campsite. One of my all-time favorite spots was Fort Stevens State Park in Astoria, Oregon. We got in with plenty of daylight left, grabbed a campsite, drove down to the beach — and right out onto it! — watched an amazing West Coast sunset, and still had time to read books around the campfire. We even capped it off with a viewing of the most recent Fast and Furious movie, enjoyed with wine from the comfort of our sleeping bags in the truck! So bottom line — don’t forget to make the most of your camping experience.
… or, at the very least, relationships. In every relationship, there is the hangry one. This person, when exactly one minute too many has elapsed since the last mealtime, morphs into a growling, salivating monster until sated. (Spoiler alert: It’s me.) However, all that bristling and howling at the moon can be avoided with some creative meal planning. And not only that, it can save you a tremendous amount of money, and obviously, you can eat much more healthily!
My lovely and clever wife has become an absolute expert this. She is a master at creating meal plans that include a a variety of both quick-and-easy and more traditional breakfasts, easy-to-make-and-eat-on-the-road meals, delicious fireside dinners, and a bevy of healthy and filling snacks. (And she just agreed to write a post on her road trip meal plans soon, so stay tuned for that!)
Our advice — save your money for restaurants that you suspect are truly worth it. Our first road trip, we wasted a ton of money on incredibly overpriced, and very mediocre, restaurants. Do yourself a favor and avoid that mistake.
That said, the occasional Micky D’s breakfast sandwich never killed anybody, and my g-free, vegetarian wife will even admit that their salads aren’t half bad in a pinch.
Rebecca and I have discovered a personal inviolable rule of road trips: If we make camping reservations, we will NOT make it to that campground that day. Ever. So, between that, and the sheer wild joy of flying by the seat of our pants, we generally figure out the day of where we’re going to camp. This is not necessarily the smartest way to go, as campgrounds do fill up. Still, it’s only bit us in the butt once.
We generally start our search with our awesome atlas, the National Geographic Adventure Edition Atlas. It has all the state and national parks mapped, which is nice — but even better, it sticks a little tent icon on any parks where there is camping available! Super cool stuff.
If that doesn’t get us what we need, or we’re in need of more detailed info, we head on over to Recreation.gov. Over there, national parks, state parks, Corps of Engineer, AND Bureau of Land Management properties are all listed in detail. It’s an awesome resource, and generally is all we need to find a good site for the night.
Occasionally we get in a bind and can’t find anything, or need a break night from the truck but don’t want to spend the money on a hotel. When that happens we sometimes head for a KOA and get a cabin for the night, using the points we accrue when we’re running around with our camper. KOAs, while generally not very woodsy, invariably have great hot showers, camp kitchens, hot coffee, and laundry facilities, all of which are necessities from time to time on the Great American Road Trip.
So there you have it! There are our top tips for planning an awesome, stress-free extended road trip. What about you? What do you do to make long-term road trips fun and enjoyable? We’d love to hear all about it in the comments!