Planning the Road Trip

The planning can feel overwhelming. Below, I’ve tried to break down the process into digestible chunks. Take on one piece at a time, and don’t rush or stress.

The process is supposed to be fun – if anxiety doesn’t overcome your enthusiasm.

First: buy a large, updated road atlas. Combined with online mapping services like Google Maps or Bing!, you can spend a week tinkering the itinerary. Please, do not rely solely on the online maps! They help foresee day-to-day travel options, but an atlas makes big picture planning easier (like calculating miles and time between destinations.)

On that note, while having a GPS can be an absolute lifesaver, at atlas never runs out of batteries, never requires a signal, and doesn’t scream “Steal me!”

The GPS is a luxury, the atlas is a necessity.

The Itinerary and Route

Creating a solid itinerary starts with the right questions:

  • Where will you start and end your trip?
  • What specific cities/towns do you want to see? Why? What’s your passion? Designing the itinerary around your passion immediately brings the trip into focus: national parks, music, breweries, sushi joints, etc.
  • Who do you know along the way? Road tripping is a great opportunity to touch base with friends you haven’t seen in forever.
  • How many miles or hours can you spend on the road per day? As a rough guide, calculate 50 mph on roads east of the Mississippi, and 55 mph on roads west of the Mississippi. It’s conservative, and accounts for rest stops and light traffic.
  • Lodging logistics – are you crashing with friends, at hotels, or camping? If it’s the latter, how close are your destinations to campground sites?

Spend the time on research. Wrangle in concrete answers to these questions, and the itinerary takes its own shape. If you understand your own comfort levels, your route will reveal itself to you.

Yes, I know: Baltimore is not on the way to California.


You’re about to take your car on a 3,000-plus mile journey: spend the time and money to ensure she’s up for it. Make sure the inspection is up-to-date, your insurance papers are intact, the tires have good treads, and the oil has been recently changed.

Do you know where your jack and spare tire are? Do you know how to change a tire? If not, learn, and learn how to do it quickly.

Check your fluids: motor, transmission, coolant, brake, steering and windshield.

Does your auto insurance provide roadside assistance? Do you have AAA membership?

Other notes to remember: check your Entertainment Book for coupons on national motels and auto body shops, notify your insurance company and credit card company you’ll be traveling, and buy a National Parks Pass for $80 if you plan on touring the parks.

Do you have the emergency contact numbers for everyone in your car in your wallet and on your phone? Do these contacts know the car’s make/model and license plate?

It’s also a good idea to keep a copy of your medical insurance card and recent photos of you and your travel mates in the car as well

Packing for the Road


Keep three sets of clothing and a jacket accessible for the drive. If you plan on going out, include a dress shirt and shoes. Anything else pack away deep into the trunk.


If you don’t feel like making three dozen CD’s, buy an mp3 player and make sure you have a tape hook-up or auxiliary hook-up to your car’s stereo.

If you don’t have one of these, consider making one yourself.

Double-check you packed your camera.

Also, cigarette lighter à outlet converter comes in handy.

Generally, a laptop is pretty useless on the road unless you’re actively trying to write. A smart phone and data plan does come in handy, however.


Camping will save you money – whether it’s at National Parks, State Parks and Forests, or just pulled over on some side road in Utah. But you’ll need some things:

In a Field, Utah

  • A cooler – which can be a hard cooler, or a cooler bag, with a refreezeable ice pack.
  • Extra plastic, zip-lock bags for leftover food and miscellaneous items.
  • Buy a tent – the ALPS Mountaineering Zephyr 2 Tent 2-Person 3-Season Tent serves well and costs around $90.
  • A sleeping bag.
  • A sleeping mat is a nice addition to elevate yourself off cold, rock surfaces. Check out – the ALPS mountaineering lightweight pad.
  • Other miscellaneous items: knife, matches, toiletries and toilet paper


Spending 8 to 10 hours in a sedentary position, staring off into the void called Illinois or Kansas doesn’t burn many calories, so you’ll eat less.

If you don’t require much variety in your diet during the trip, you can really save money on food. We got away with two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches per day per person, a few bags full of nuts, some fruit, and plenty of water and coffee.

Or, you can splurge and eat out every time you stop – with food you can really spend as much or as little as you want.

Nowhere, Illinois?

Nowhere, Kansas?

For more Road Tripping Resources, click to jump.

Continue to Post 5: A Road Trip Breakdown

Return to Post 3: Packing

Photo credit: Sven

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