2014 was the Year of the Road Trip. I went on 5 of them, all of which were lovely except one (you’ll see why in a minute). Road trips teach you a huge amount about yourself, the country you’re driving through, and about people in general… and there’s no way I could include everything I learned on my various journeys in a single blog post. But on snowy, frigid days like this one, I find myself thinking back and quantifying a few salient lessons that are worth passing on.
- Do your research
There are two kinds of travelers: Order Travelers and Chaos Travelers. A lot of folks I’ve met think of road trips as wind-in-the-hair, devil-may-care, this-is-America-land-of-the-free adventures. Which is true! But you can only enjoy yourself for as long as there’s gas in your tank. After that, you’re stranded in the Wyoming wilderness, and it’s getting dark.
Ideally, you have a little bit of chaos within an ordered framework; that way, you can be spontaneous without dying alone in the middle of nowhere. If you’re going anywhere upwards of 100 miles, you should have a map, places to stay, and a plan, even if it’s a vague one that includes wiggle room for side projects. If you’re super intense/more of a Chaos Traveler, pack a tent and camp out instead of constraining your schedule with motels/friends’ couches. I personally have never done this, but I know people who have, and they are still with us and in possession of all of their limbs.
- Decide on an eventual endpoint
It’s good to have a goal, even if the trip is about the journey and not the destination.
- Know your vehicle
Know your car’s highway gas mileage and know how much the engine can handle. Fact: my cross-country-USA road trip ended in the Middle of the Mojave Desert, Utah because I pushed my car too hard in 100+ degree heat and the engine failed. Breaking down is a real concern (especially if you’re taking a long trip), but it’s also somewhat avoidable if you’re careful.
- Don’t depend on cell phone coverage
Especially in the United States… when you get out West, service is spotty at best.
- Check the weather
This sounds obvious, but when traveling it is often the obvious things that people forget to consider. I didn’t check the weather on Road Trip No. 1 of 2014, which is why it was so miserable. A huge snow/slush storm, moving at approximately 60-65 mph, followed me the entire way from Chicago to Pittsburgh (that’s a 461-mile drive. Imagine 461 miles of 10-ft visibility). I felt like Charlie Brown in that one strip where he has a raincloud hovering over him the whole time. Except it was orders of magnitude worse because I was in a tiny Honda Civic coupe, alternately crying and praying my way through the Allegheny Mountains with Pennsylvania drivers on my tail. My shoulders were so tense after that trip that I couldn’t lift my arms for three days. Moral of the story: check the weather. You won’t regret it. And even if it’s going to be a terrible drive that you can’t avoid (which is what my situation was), at least you’ll know what to expect.
- Pack light
It’s tempting to put your life in the trunk and haul ass outta town, but avoid it. You’re vacationing, not moving house. Generally, the less stuff you need to drag around, the better. If you’re worried about clean underwear, pack some travel-sized (biodegradable!) detergent packs and do laundry in a motel sink and/or some boiled river/lake water (depending on how rugged your journey is). Or, stop at a laundromat as you drive through a town or city.
- Have food and water
Generally, if you’re taking a road trip, you’re on a budget. You don’t want to waste money on prepared food (again, in the USA, food gets extremely expensive once you leave population centers). So, canned soup is your friend. And beans. And dried fruit. And crackers. Also, have a 48-pack of bottled water in the trunk. Even if you don’t drink all of it, better safe than sorry. Believe me, I was glad to have more water than I could drink when I got stranded in the Mojave.
- Be prepared for emergencies
Well, let’s be real, you can never really be prepared for an emergency. But having a First-Aid kit, some cat litter, warm blankets, and road flares in your trunk can greatly alleviate a bad situation.
- Have loads of fun
Road trips are the absolute greatest, regardless of whether you’re going solo, bonding with a friend or two, hitting the backcountry roads, or cruising on I-80 from coast to coast. Remember to enjoy the ride and take time to wander off course… we don’t get to do that often enough in life.