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How to Plan the Ultimate US Summer Road Trip

Preparation is the key before you take your next adventure

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Table of Contents

  1. 1. Vehicle Prep
  2. 2. What to Pack
  3. 3. Apparel & Gear
  4. 4. Where to Go
  5. 5. Where to Stay
A full cross-country road trip is an incredible experience, but it can be taxing – especially if it’s your first time.
– Sarah Engstrand, travel writer and consultant

Snacks? Check. The ultimate Spotify playlist? Check. Smartphone mount? Check. According to the 2019 Portrait of American Travelers survey facilitated by MMGY Global, road trip adventures have increased by 64% since 2015. In fact, 2 out of every 3 travelers said they would head out on a road trip within 12 months. Although the idea of a road trip sounds exciting in theory, seasoned travelers recommend doing your homework prior to heading out.

Vehicle Prep

Before you hit the gas pedal, taking your vehicle in for a check-up with a local mechanic is a critical step in the road trip planning process. “My dad’s a mechanic, which may make me a bit biased here, but the last thing you want is to have something avoidable happen to your vehicle while you’re on the road,” shares 29-year-old veteran road tripper Kate Morgan, who embarks on a new adventure every few weeks. “Before you head out, get an oil change and a tire rotation. If your tires are close to the ends of their lives, spend the money to replace them. Ask your mechanic to check your spare, too, because you will probably need it – if it’s a summer trip, remember that hot roads equal blowouts! A brake job is not a bad idea, either, especially if you’ll be road tripping in the mountains,” she offers.

Now, once your car is cleared by a mechanic, consider adding some vehicle tools into the mix. Morgan recommends a lithium-ion battery jump box, which takes up minimal space and is ideal to have on hand if you accidentally leave your vehicle lights on too long and wind up with a dead battery. Additionally, pack a tire-changing kit and pressure gauge, a spare pair of headlight bulbs and fuses, and a flashlight with batteries. “Some problems can take 5 minutes to fix if you’ve got that stuff on-hand, but could derail you for a whole day if you have to go in search of it.”

What to Pack

Packing for a road trip may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. “Before each trip, I make an incredibly detailed set of packing lists and break them down by category,” says Morgan. Think: clothes, work equipment (if applicable), various gear, toiletries, and tools, to begin with. Make sure to start on the set lists a few days before you pack, so you can provide a cushion for anything you’ve missed. Once the items are laid out, place them in piles, according to category. “It never seems like a ton of stuff until you see it all in front of you. And once you do, you can start narrowing it down,” she explains.

Meanwhile, in case of an emergency, along with your vehicle-related items, a first-aid kit is non-negotiable. Make sure to pack items like bandages, gauze, alcohol wipes, antibiotic ointment, and itch cream. Morgan also advocates for sunblock and bug spray, as well as allergy medication. “Even if you think you don’t have allergies, you might find yourself in a new region where the native flora does not agree with you,” she says.

In addition, other essentials to pack include a cooler, paper towels, rags, tissues, a roll of toilet paper and baby wipes, as well as hand sanitizer and an emergency jug of water. An extra water jug should remain on reserve for vehicle issues or human consumption. Also, you should always have a stash of extra snacks and water to remain fueled and hydrated, in case you get stuck or lost in the middle of nowhere along the way.

Apparel & Gear

“With apparel, the key is to bring the least amount of clothes that do the most amount of work for you,” Morgan suggests. Consider versatile items you can wear while in transit, during activities, and for sleep. And, wool, an odor-free “miracle fabric,” according to Morgan, is always great to have on hand to keep you cool in the heat and warm in the cold.

“As far as gear, if you can rent it, plan to rent it!” Morgan urges. However, if you are traveling to a remote area without access to rentals, your equipment is customized for you or the sport is the purpose of your road trip, stash the gear in your car. If you’re worried about space, consider compact versions (like inflatable boat options), or invest in a car-top cargo carrier. While a carrier is a great option, if you have limited space in your vehicle or multiple passengers, the added weight can ultimately lower your gas mileage.

Where to Go

The US is vast, which can make it difficult to choose your summer route. “There’s no way you’re going to do or see absolutely everything, so you have to be realistic and set parameters,” shares travel writer and consultant Sarah Engstrand, who has been taking road trips her entire life – thanks to her parents’ fear of flying.

First, Engstrand recommends developing a trip theme, like visiting friends, checking out state parks, driving a specific route, or just getting to one destination. Next, figure out any time constraints and how many miles per day you need to drive to keep on schedule. “I find 600 miles is about my limit when I’m driving alone,” Engstrand says. Then, utilize the Google Maps app to chart your course and drop pins as markers to give you a rough idea of where you’re going to be stopping each night. “I also use the ‘Explore’ function to find cool places near my route and drop pins there, too.” That way, if you feel like you need a stop, just take a look at your map to see what’s nearby. 

Pro Tip: Print out backup maps ahead of time, in case you experience a GPS malfunction.

“I’m also guilty of just making random detours that seem interesting,” she admits. “I always leave wiggle room to let life happen in between.” Sometimes, this can mean an extra few days for a festival, visiting a friend along the way or stops at random roadside attractions, “I’m looking at you, Pez Factory,” Engstrand jokes.

On your first shot, don’t worry about going the distance. “A full cross-country road trip is an incredible experience, but it can be taxing – especially if it’s your first time,” says Engstrand. “Road trips are about the journey, but if you’re excited about where you’re going, the miles won’t seem so long.”

Where to Stay

When it comes to figuring out lodging, the first step is to take your budget into account. If you are not looking to spend much, camping is an affordable option. Make sure to chart your course ahead of time. Consider the parks and sites you want to see and call in advance to reserve a spot at a campground, if possible. “And, always check the weather,” urges Engstrand.

However, if you want to rent an RV, keep in mind that while you will save money on lodging, you will have to deal with maintenance, like monitoring the septic system. You may also not be able to take the RV everywhere you want to go, depending on its class and size.

“If you’re just trying to get somewhere and the budget is flexible, find lodging as you go,” offers Engstrand. Pull over at a rest stop to do a search on or the Hotel Tonight and Airbnb apps. “I've stayed in a yurt by the mountains with an outdoor shower, a mud-and-straw house, a converted church, and a Civil War-era farmhouse in the middle of a field,” shares Engstrand. “The last one was definitely ‘roughing it’ – there was no water or electricity – but it’s one of my favorite memories.” 

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