Taking a road trip is hands down my absolute favorite way to travel!
Nothing makes me happier than driving down an open road, stumbling upon hidden gems and small towns, rolling the windows down, blasting Blink-182 and letting my hair flow majestically in the wind.
Taking a road trip allows you so much more freedom and control than flying or taking a train does. You get to pick where you go, how long you stay there, what time you arrive and depart. The whole shebang. It’s all up to you!
If you’re new to the road trip life, all this freedom can sound pretty scary at first. I know you have a million questions popping into your head, because I was there once too. Where do I go? Where do I sleep? What if something happens to my car? How do I go about planning this whole thing? Where do I even begin?!
Relax. I’ve got you. You’ve got this! This blog post is a step by step guide on how to plan your road trip. If you’re new to the #roadtriplife, you’ll learn everything you need to know to ease your worries and embark on your first road trip!
If you’ve done this a thousand times, you’ll learn some new tips! I’ve also included a downloadable packing list so you never forget your toothpaste and phone charger ever again!
In This Blog Post You Will Find:
- Step by step instructions to plan your route
- Apps to download that will make your life 10000x easier
- How to prepare your car for a road trip, and what to pack in your emergency roadside kit
- A complete downloadable packing list!
- Essential tips for your journey on the road
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Planning Your Road Trip
Pick your start and end point, and how long you plan on traveling for. Then plug them into Google Maps and start figuring out which destinations you want to visit along the way. Figure out how long you want to be in each destination. Do you want to stop for lunch, spend a day, or a weekend there?
You can do an out and back road trip or a loop. This means that you drive from your home to your destination and back the way you came, or travel in a circle. Personally I prefer doing loops so that I don’t see the same scenery twice, but some destinations don’t always allow for that. If you are going to do an out and back road trip, I’d recommend stopping at some of your destinations on the way there and different destinations on the way back.
Pro tip: If you’re planning on hiking in an area, research the trails ahead of time! Be sure to add in any extra time it may take to get to the trailhead. Sometimes trails are located in town but sometimes they’re off dirt roads that can take a few extra hours out of your day, so you want to be sure to plan for that in advance.
Keep in mind that these plans are most definitely going to change multiple times!
Planning Your Route
Check the weather along your route. A million times. Every day before you leave, and the day of. Only checking the weather in your town and your destination is not enough. Nobody wants to get stuck in an unnecessary storm if they can avoid it, and nobody wants to be unprepared for it. Especially if you’re going to be driving through mountainous areas, the weather can be unpredictable and change rapidly, so keep an eye on it.
However, don’t obsess over it! Weather apps are not super accurate if you’re checking too far in advance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen snow for days leading up to my trip but the day before I leave or on the day of it all goes away.
Figure out how long you realistically want to drive each day.
Driving constantly can get really old really fast. Are you okay sitting in the car for a few days or would you prefer to break it up into smaller chunks of a few hours to a day? Are you going to be the sole driver or you going to rotate driving time with somebody else? These are important questions to ask yourself when planning how far apart your stops are going to be and how long you are going to stay in your destinations.
Personally I really love driving and do mostly off-roading trips, so I’m used to being the only driver and driving for 12-14 hours a day. I can tolerate that 2-3 days in a row if I make sure to get out and take a walk around the campsite at night or go for an early morning walk.
Be mindful of the time of year.
The summer always sounds like the best time to take a road trip but it’s also the busiest and sometimes it’s difficult to find campsites or get into National Parks.
In the spring and fall there can be road closures. In the winter you need to be weary of potential snow and ice.
Personally I don’t think there is any bad time to take a road trip though! In the summer you can go swimming, visit higher altitudes, and comfortably sleep at night. The spring and fall are less crowded and the leaves in the fall are stunning. I wouldn’t drive anywhere cold in the winter time just because of the possibilities of inclement weather, but that’s a great time to take a road trip in warmer states!
Tip: The summertime is the only time I’d recommend booking your accommodations well in advance, but make sure the dates and cancellations are flexible.
Photo By: Hannah Nelson via Pexels
Apps To Download
Google Maps: You MUST download your navigation offline in case you lose service at any point.
Waze: I personally prefer to use Google Maps however I know a lot of people really love this app so I definitely thought it was worth mentioning! Waze tracks traffic information in real time, so it will update your route to navigate you around any roads that are backed up with traffic (great in big cities) or closed for any reason (many roads at high altitudes are only open in the summer). You can also check for directions at a future date and time. When you save the trip, it will send you a notification when it’s time to leave, so if traffic is unusually bad it will tell you to leave earlier.
AllTrails: I always recommend AllTrails if you’re going to be doing any hiking! Be sure to check directions to the trailhead and check the reviews to see if there are any road closures (common in the winter time) or if 4WD or high clearance is recommended, etc.
RoadTrippers: This is a great app to download to plan your road trip. You can collaborate with the people you’re traveling with to plan your stops and find fun destinations along your route!
GasBuddy: Helps you find cheap gas stations!
Spotify: No road trip is complete without an epic playlist! Collaborate with your friends so you can have never-ending jam sessions on the road, and make sure you save your playlists offline so you can still access them if you lose service.
Yelp: You probably already have this on your phone, and it’s the best way to find restaurants nearby.
iOverlander: Great for finding campsites! I usually switch between this and freecampsites.net. Both tend to show different campsites, and I just pick a few spots (in case some are taken or not ideal) to check out for the night.
Photo By: Megan Fine via Lost & Found Travel
Preparing Your Car For A Road Trip
Brush up on how to change a tire or any other mechanical problems you’re worried about running into. I usually just search for these things on YouTube. Most common issues are an easy fix!
But you never know what can go wrong with your car on a road trip. I got into a car accident and then my engine completely failed on a roadtrip once, and it was not a fun time. However I now have a checklist I go through and a homemade emergency roadside kit I bring with me at all times.
Bear in mind that I am no mechanic or expert by any stretch of the imagination, but after roadtripping almost 30,000 miles both on the highway and off-road in a notoriously unreliable car in one summer (love Jeeps but hate them at the same time) I have learned a basic thing or two.
Before you go, check:
- Under the hood to make sure nothing is out of place. I usually find a wire out of place or some things that need to be tightened in my Jeep, but if you don’t drive an off-roading vehicle you most likely should not have any problems here.
- Your tire pressure. If you don’t know what your tire pressure should be at, it’ll tell you on the sticker inside the driver’s side door, but for most common sedans it’ll be roughly 28-34 pounds.
- Your oil, wiper fluid, coolant, and if you have 4WD: differential fluid. I usually just get an oil change before I leave for a road trip because they check all of these things and I have them top anything off if necessary.
Tip: Tire pressure fluctuates due to changes in altitude and temperature. Your tire pressure light is most likely going to come on at some point during your road trip. Don’t freak out! Just find a gas station to stop at and top off your tires whenever you get a chance.
If something like your check engine light comes on I’d definitely recommend getting that checked out as soon as possible. You can check the codes yourself if you have a code reader, or else an AutoZone or O’Reilly will read the codes for you for free! If your check engine light starts blinking, you need to stop driving immediately and find somewhere nearby to get it checked out. However it normally will not blink unless it’s been on for a very long time. Like literal months.
Photo By: Alexis Kunde
What To Pack For A Road Trip
I have a complete list at the bottom of this blog post (that you can download!) which goes over every item you’ll need for your road trip. Here I’ll go through each item in my emergency roadside kit, and the essentials that are most often forgotten.
For your emergency roadside kit
- Your car’s user manual
- Jumper cables
- A toolkit in case you need to change a tire or something
- A tire pressure gauge and (optional) a code reader
- Some gas, oil, or any additional fluids you may need along the way
- Extra water (I usually just keep an extra gallon in my trunks at all times), snacks, and blankets in case you get stuck
- Satellite phone (if you get stuck in an area where you do not have service, you can use this to call for help or a tow truck)
If you’re off-roading:
- Tow straps
Decide if you want to stop for food along the way or bring your own meals. I prefer to bring most of my own meals for days where I’ll be in the car and try a couple restaurants at my destinations. Don’t forget you can always stop at a grocery store whenever you get into town!
My Favorite Food and Snacks
- Beef jerky
- Lunch meat
- Apples, bananas, and oranges
- Peanut butter
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Oreos, cookies, and/or s’mores
- Potato chips
- Maybe some crackers
- Cooler and ice
- Meals & snacks
- Tent & sleep system
- Garbage Bags
- Fire Starter and/or propane
- Bag for dirty laundry
- Dry bag for wet clothes
Photo By: Megan via Lost & Found Travel
Personal Items Most Often Forgotten
- Phone/laptop/iPad chargers
- Headphones (me, always)
- Portable chargers
- Extra contacts (if applicable)
- Spare key!!!
- Have a good playlist!
- Mattress toppers add an extra layer of comfort and are very easy to fold up
- A hammock and a good book
- For dogs: Bring a long camping rope! I usually keep my dog off leash, but like to have a rope for her when it starts to get dark
Tip: Pack seltzer water or Dramamine if you have a tendency to get car sick. Do not take any medication until after you’re done driving for the day though, because they can cause drowsiness.
Photo By: Megan via Lost & Found Travel
On The Road
Deciding Where To Sleep
There are a few different options for places you can sleep. The most common are going to be: Parking lots and rest stops, campsites, hotels, or airbnbs.
If you’re driving a van or are planning on sleeping in your own car, be sure to look up campsites beforehand. It’s not normally too difficult to find campsites on the fly when you’re driving your car, unless you’re trying to stay in a busy area in the peak of summer. In that case I’d recommend booking your campsites well in advance! I’ve never had a problem finding a campsite in a non-busy area though, even in Colorado in the summer.
Vans and RVs definitely need to make sure they can find a campsite with hookups, so you’ll definitely want to check for those in advance as well.
Tip: Harvest Hosts is a membership-based app that allows you to find breweries, wineries, farms, cider mills, etc to stay at overnight for free! They’re often small businesses that have stunning scenery. As a bonus, a drink after a long day is right outside your bedroom door!
If you’re in town or you just don’t feel like searching for a place to sleep, try a rest area, an overnight parking lot, gas station parking lot, a Walmart parking lot, or something similar. You can generally sleep in pretty much any parking lot unless there is a sign explicitly telling you not to, but definitely double check each specific location to be sure.
If you’re looking to stay in an accommodation like an airbnb or hotel, make sure you plan those a couple of days in advance. Hotels are great if you are looking for a place to stay last minute, or want to be fed. Airbnbs are great if you’re looking for amenities like a kitchen, or want to experience the area like a local.
Both may or may not have laundry services, just be sure to check the websites for that information!
I personally sleep in my car in the woods most of the time, so I prefer to look up campsites on freecampsites.net and plan to sleep somewhere I find on there.
This was actually by far the top concern you all brought up when I asked on my Instagram what concerns you had about taking a road trip.
Get used to brushing your teeth and taking sink showers in gas stations. A lot of gas stations have showers available for truck drivers to use and you can pay to use those if you’re really concerned! I can usually go about 4-5 night before feeling like I need a proper shower, so I usually just plan to stay at an airbnb on the weekends.
You’ll always feel just a little bit dirty to be honest but you get used to it pretty quickly! Wear deodorant and spot clean yourself in the sink whenever you stop and you’ll be just fine. It’ll make that airbnb or hotel shower feel that much better!
Some Extra Tips:
- Stop for gas and to use the restroom before you think you need to.
- If you need to grab firewood, do so at a gas station near the area where you will be camping and leave behind any firewood you do not use. Using firewood from other areas has the potential to bring foreign bugs or debris into the area, which is not good.
Photo By: Megan via Lost & Found Travel
The Best Gas Stations To Stop At In The US
A random thing about people in the US… we are loyal as hell to our gas stations! Some gas stations are sub par and some are basically full on super markets (I’m talking about you Buc-ee’s). Below is a list compiled from my own road trip experiences, my Instagram followers’, and my brother (who toured around the entire US in a bus for 3 whole summers):
All Over The US: Love’s and Pilot
East: Wawa and Sheetz
Midwest: Quik Trip (the best gas station on planet earth) and Casey’s General Stores
West: Nobody in the west really has any specific gas stations that they’re crazy about. Through my own road trips in the west I can also say nothing has ever particularly stood out as good or bad, but I’d consider Sinclair (the one with the dinosaur on it) and Conoco to be pretty safe bets.
How To Deal With Setbacks
First thing’s first, you have to always keep a level head and stay calm whenever issues arise while you’re traveling! Nothing good ever comes out of panicking, fighting, or giving up.
Realize that plans change all the time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun anyway!
Minor mechanical issues likely will come up. You may experience some bad weather, or a destination stop may not go as planned.
At the end of the day you just have to control the things that you can, and let go of the things that you cannot. Cherish the good moments. There will be plenty! You’re on vacation!! Enjoy the journey that you are on, instead of getting down on yourself when things aren’t going the way you want them to.
I promise you’ll have a much better time if you stay positive!