6 Essential Tips for a Stress-free Road Trip

7 Min. Read
6 Essential Tips for a Stress-free Road Trip

How to Have the Perfect Road Trip

A road trip. That great tradition of hitting the highway and seeing where it takes you. Tunes on the radio, smooth black top for miles, and the uniquely American assortment of strange roadside attractions. Road trips are pretty much a rite of passage. Throw a global pandemic into the mix and the self-contained nature of car travel is even more appealing.  Wherever you’re headed next, the following road trip tips and essentials will help make the long days and miles stress-free.

1) Safety first

Before you go, make sure your car or truck is up to the task. You don’t necessarily need a 100-point inspection but at least check that your tires are properly inflated and your fluids (especially oil and windshield) are topped off. Pack a small collection of roadside safety items like jumper cables, a decent flashlight with fresh batteries, a safety vest, and some basic tools. Also double check that you have a jack, all of its parts, a tire iron, and an inflated spare, just in case.

2)  Keep the essentials handy

Keep items that you’ll need regularly close by. Think snacks, a water bottle or cold beverage, the charging cord for your phone, sunglasses, napkins, things like that. Each time you get in and out of the car, take a moment to restock and reorganize.

It’s hard to refill a water bottle or replenish snacks if you don’t have something to refill or replenish from. That’s where a road trip cooler and a jug of water prove clutch. On longer road trips, I’ll bring two coolers. One stays readily accessible and that’s where snacks, a cold LaCroix, or the sandwich I made the night before live. The other cooler keeps items I don’t need until the end of the day like cold beer, dinner fixings, and the like. If it’s really hot out, a cooler is also key for storing non-food things that melt like lipstick or crayons, along with things you don’t want exploding all over your car, like sunscreen, lotion, or even shampoo.

For water, I’ll bring a three- or five-gallon jug if I have the space. If not, a 64 oz. growler will refill my reusable water bottle several times without taking up too much space. Having some extra water in the car also spares you from buying bottled water at a gas station out of desperation.

Having ready access to driving directions, hotel or campground reservations, park passes, or other materials is also smart and easy to do with a bit of forethought. Yes, most of that can be stored on your phone. But I’d still recommend downloading or snapping a screen-shot of reservation details, admission tickets, or other key items in advance, so you’re not relying on potentially sketchy cell service when you finally get where you’re going.

Car camping in Utah

3) Pack to unpack

Sure, you can just chuck everything into the trunk, backseat, or roof box and head down the road, but having a plan and some basic organization will make your trip much more enjoyable.

While it’s tempting to pack one large suitcase or duffel with all your clothes, splitting things into smaller bags (if you’re especially organized, color-coded bags are even better), can be a smart strategy – especially if your road trip includes a few different activities or sports. I like to keep street clothes, toiletries, and some other basics in a small suitcase or duffel and then split my other activity-specific gear and clothes up into a few smaller totes.

For example, if you’re planning a gear-specific activity late in the trip, like a rafting day trip, it doesn’t make much sense to lug all of your paddling clothes and gear in and out of a hotel room or campsite for the entirety of your trip. Pack that gear in its own container, shove it in the bottom of the trunk, and then pull it out when you actually need it.

If you’re car camping on your road trip, then you’ll need to be even more organized, both when you first leave your driveway and each morning when you break camp and head back on the road. Strategic packing is super helpful here, especially if the weather gets iffy or you pull into a campground after dark. A few extra moments on the packing side can save anxious and fraught minutes on the unpacking side. Basically, pack things up in the order you’ll need them when setting up camp. For example, you’ll need to set up your tent before you lay out your sleeping bag and pad, and you’ll need a ground cloth before you start setting up your tent, so pack your car with these thoughts in mind.

Trunks and backseats can quickly become stuffed to the brim with gear, so investing in a roof box or other gear hauler may be worthwhile. Sure, hard, lockable roof boxes are great, but they’re pricey and you need roof racks to properly install them. Collapsible, or soft rooftop carriers, are a good, budget-friendly option. Just be sure they’re safely secured to the roof and that they’re fully closed before you rip down the highway.

4) Breaks are beneficial

Slogging long miles day after day isn’t as physically taxing as, say, a backpacking trip, but it’s not without its challenges. Sitting can be tough on the back, legs, and shoulders. Taking breaks to move around and stretch can make a huge difference for your body. Google a few yoga poses that loosen hips, shoulders, and lower back and spend a few moments each time you stop to do them. While you may look a little strange stretching in a gas station parking lot, your body will thank you.

Breaks can also lead to exciting discoveries and opportunities for exploration. Don’t limit yourself to highway rest stops, give yourself the time to drive a few miles into a random town. Walk through a neighborhood or check out its downtown. Roadside interpretive signs are also a great way to break up highway monotony. Stop at the scenic pullouts and interesting sites. Read the interpretive signs along state and county highways. In other words, stop and smell the “road-ses” (sorry, I couldn’t help myself…).

Road Trip Tips: Breaks are Beneficial

5) Don’t count on the radio

Audio entertainment is key to any road trip so I’d discourage relying on the radio. While cell service is pretty good on federal interstates, it’s not perfect, so relying on streaming isn’t the best idea either, especially if your route includes smaller highways and off-the-beaten path destinations. There are audiobooks (many free options are available online or available to rent from libraries), most streaming music and podcast services offer downloads, and of course CDs work just fine without a cell signal.

6) Plan, but don’t over plan

Just because you’re organized, well packed and have some stops in mind, doesn’t mean your road trip can’t be spontaneous and flexible (unless you’re doing a national parks road trip, in which case, I would definitely have set dates and advance reservations).

My wife and I recently wrapped up a seven-day road trip through southern Utah. We left the house with a general idea of where we wanted to go and with an assortment of gear strategically packed in the roof box and back seat. When the weather at our first stop didn’t warm up like we wanted, we shifted gears and headed farther south where the sun was shining and the flowers blooming. It was so nice where our detour led that we stayed a couple of extra days rather than meander home as we’d originally planned. When it was time to get home, we blasted back up the Interstate in a marathon day-and-a-half of driving.

It was perfect. Well, almost perfect…I left my wallet at home. Which brings me to my final road trip tip. Make sure you have your wallet/driver’s license/credit cards before you leave the house for a week of driving!

Photos: Utah road trip photo by Johnathan Ciarrocca on Unsplash; Rock art in Utah – James Kaiser; Car camping in Utah – Photo by Emma Smith / Unsplash


Greg M. Peters

Greg M. Peters writes from Missoula, Montana. His work has been in Adventure-Journal, Down East magazine, National Parks magazine and Big Sky Journal. Find more at gregmpeters.com.

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