5 Tips for Planning the Imperfect Road Trip

So, you want to go on a road trip. Maybe you have a craving to know the land outside of your home area. Maybe you want to see if those lakes and rivers feel as delicious as they look.

Maybe you’re like me—fresh out of school and restless to get on the road before life begins to solidify.

Whatever your reasons and whatever your expectations, I have a secret for you—your trip begins now. The second you fueled your search engine with the words “road trip,” you started a journey that will prove almost as thrilling and and just as exhausting as the moment those mountains appear through your windshield. Now is the time when you start to plan, and plan well.

And the more time you spend planning now, the less time you’ll have to spend chasing campsites or ferry routes while you’re on your trip.

Here are five tips to help you in planning your road trip.

1. Start Early

If you hope to make any campground or hotel reservations, make them now. There is nothing more frustrating than finding the perfect campground in the exact location you’re looking for, only to find it has already filled.

2. Read up on the region

Don’t rely solely on tourism websites or other media that has a vested interest in your visit. Sometimes this is just a matter of common sense—rain forests mean rain, and snow festivals require cold weather. Look for reviews from people that are similar to yourself: if you’re an urbanite with a taste for the outdoors, you’ll benefit much more if the person reviewing your trail comes from San Diego than from northern Montana.

3. Plan your space

However long you plan to be on the road, the one constant will be the home that you take with you—your vehicle. Keep everything accessible. I used a plastic chest of drawers to organize food and dishes, and hung curtains around the inside of our van so that we can sleep or change in the car. Remember, the more stuff you bring the more difficult it will be to find what you need, so do yourself a favor and don’t over pack.

4. Use the right tools

Planning a stop can take days, or it can take an hour. It all depends on the tools that you use. Here are some of the tools I found most helpful:

  • Google maps: Undeniably the best tool for planning a road trip. I found Google maps especially helpful as a way to find lodging—just search for “campgrounds near [your destination],” and you’ll save yourself a lot of time on park websites.
  • AAA: Consider getting a membership if you don’t have one already, especially if you have an older vehicle. Yes, it costs some money, but it’ll pay for itself the first time you need a tow. I upgraded to the plus membership, which allows for 100 mile towing, and was very grateful when my car needed to be towed 60 miles later that week (a tow that could have cost me over $400). The travel agents in the office can also generate a really nice TripTik route, and their maps are excellent.
  • Reserveamerica.com or Recreation.gov: most reservations you make will be through these sites. Unfortunately, they charge a fee with each reservation ($6-8 per night), but if you’re coming into a place late in the afternoon or on a busy weekend then the fee might be worth knowing you have a place to sleep.
  • Technology: I’m a paper map kind of person myself, but I’ve come to accept that technology can provide a good fallback when you’re hopelessly lost or really want to find that one taco stand you read about online. Of course, you don’t need a smartphone to have a great road trip, but if you choose to go paper just be prepared to do some extra planning beforehand.

5. Be flexible!

The best way to prepare for a road trip is to plan as much as you can beforehand, and then wait for all of your plans to fall apart. I left for my road trip at 4:00 am on a Tuesday. Our coffee was hot, our expectations high, and our curtains tied back with crisp bows. The high lasted for about 60 miles until our transmission blew up. AAA towed our car back home, and our trip was postponed for a week.

When you’re driving across the country, you will have problems—bad weather, overfull campgrounds, car repairs. The key is to see it all as a part of the adventure. If you’re stuck on the side of the road, look out for wildlife. Have hot soup in your tent when it rains. Sleep in the car and call it an experience. Be ready for anything. Make plans and break plans.

Ultimately, your road trip isn’t about the boxes you can check off of your bucket list. It’s about you, a place, and the way you come to know each other. To have the best road trip, you need to be at your best. Your own experience is what you will take away. So plan for wonder. Plan on falling in love with the world. Plan on chasing opportunities, taking unknown roads, re-learning what it means to be wild. Plan to be amazed.

And then go out and see what happens.

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