Road up from Panamint to Death Valley Proper

12 Road Trip Travel Hacks & Tips for Adventurous Travelers

Road Trips

Let’s be clear, not all road trips are the same. For most people the drive is about getting somewhere to do something and then go back… yawn! The way I see it, the drive should be as much of an adventure as the destination, even if that means going way out of the way to find a new route or sights worth seeing. Where you’re going is just one place and there’s bound to be plenty of others on the way.  I’d rather wake up earlier or arrive later than spend my entire day passing right by things and places with nothing to show for it.

So, if you’re still with me, let’s talk about the best way to turn that trip from A to B into one all sorts of adventurers along the way (and a safe arrival too).

My basic route... Only 30 miles on the big roads.

One of my routes from a west coast trip… Only 30 miles on the big roads.

  1. Don’t book what you can’t change. One of my first posts here takes place during a drive through Northern California. There I am, headed to Portland for the night when I see a sign for Lava Beds National Monument… a place I’d never even heard of.  Had I booked hotels or set exactly plans, I’d have passed right by but I left my stops free so instead, I got to spend the afternoon exploring caves.  How to do it: With apps like HotelTonight and Priceline, you can find a place to stay pretty much as you pull into a city.
  2. Bring a sleeping bag and perhaps a tent. To build off point #1, a great road trip is about going with what you find and if you’re off the beaten path, being able to pull over in a national forest, cough up $5 at a local KOA and pop a tent for a few hours is a killer option for both budgeting and unique experiences. This is four times more true if you’re following my next point about taking back roads as small towns can mean roach motels just as soon as charming inns.  How to do it: Research local camping rules before you travel or ask at a country market / sporting goods store and you’re sure to find a place even near the big city.
    The middle of no where is where you want to be, but also where you want a place to stay.

    The middle of no where is where you want to be, but also where you want a place to stay.

  3. Look for roads that go places over roads that go fast. One of my goals on long trips is to avoid major freeways as much as possible and instead stick with state routes or smaller throughways when I must. This sort of traveling is how I’ve seen ghost towns in Nevada, spent nights at county fairs outside Shasta and met some of the most amazing people in small rest stops up and down the country. How to do it: Use Google maps on a desktop and you can plot out a general course with dozens of stops. Print and drive along, sorta.
  4. When you do pick longer stops, find more interesting places. I love my Hilton perks and points and if my budget allows, I’m all for reliable, known places with solid wifi and breakfast along the road but when I get to some mountain scene, the last thing I want is the same room I have in the city. How to do it: AirBnB, VRBO, or a hostel search site all provide great ways to find individual properties over chains. I look for views first myself.
  5. Trucker stops are the best stops. After enough driving, you really should stop but where? Truckers get a nasty wrap for some reason but they know the roads and where they go is almost certainly to be open late, well lit, heated and have some food options too. Plus truckers know the roads for tips, just be nice!
  6. Heading into the outdoors? Find a mountain shop. Whether it’s a local outfitter or REI, mountain shops tend to be staffed by people who play in the outdoors week in and week out and can tell you where to go and also how to get back safely.  On my most recent adventure to Glacier National Park last month, I stopped by Rocky Mountain Outfitters who told me the grizzlies were up, sold me some bear spray and gave me better ideas on where to go… phew!

    Rocky Mountain Outfitters in towntown Kalispell is the local mountaineering / outdoor shop for any last minute gear up needs.... and bear spray.

    Rocky Mountain Outfitters in towntown Kalispell is the local mountaineering / outdoor shop for any last minute gear up needs…. and bear spray.

  7. Traveling with others? Laptop, wifi card, and a lock. Driving passes time well, sitting does not. My solve is to plug in, work on my blog post from the last stop or research the next stop to make. Of course my laptop is rather important to me so in addition to tucking it under the seat, I lock that sucker to the frame of my Jeep.
  8. Small cooler = better eats, less spending. I like to stop at just about everything interesting but stopping for food gets old real fast and gas stations are not known for their fine dining. With a small cooler, I can stock up on better snack options, save that left over half burger and keep a cold caffeine supply nearby. How to do it: Freeze waterbottles to double as water and ice or just suck it up, get a big cooler and find some BBQ pits!
  9. Use social. Find fun! While there are still plenty of places on my trips that don’t get the web or don’t even have signal, I’ve had some great invitations and experiences by connecting up to places along my intended route long before I ever got there. How to do it: Ask questions on your favorite interest network, turn a dating app into a meetup app or join an actual meetup for an afternoon.
  10. Navigation screens beats phones once you leave the city. I love tech but tech doesn’t love the middle of no where, where as my car knows where I am at any point. Hard maps work too and I almost always have one around though a screen is easier to follow. How to do it: Garmin or a map, always… don’t assume you get signal.

    Never leave home without a map that works when cellphones do not.

    Never leave home without a map that works when cellphones do not.

  11. Things to bring: Day to day your car doesn’t need much more than a charger and jumper cables to bail a friend out. After a week, that’s kinda of limiting so think about these essentials:
    • Febreeze for your car.
    • Twice the chargers your planning on.
    • Single serving laundry detergent.
    • A six pack of whatever for making new friends.
    • A deck of cards for entertaining said friends.
    • A lot of Advil for when you have to leave at 6am the next day.
    • A flashlight for when you arrive super late the next night because you didn’t leave at 6 or 9 or 11.
  12. And please, prepare your car for your conditions. If you’re going through cities, bring sealable containers to keep clothing nice and clean from the road dirt. If you’re headed out to no where, get towels and rubber mats (Costco!) . Trash bags beat stuffing wrappers in cup holders. And assume the worst will happen… tire jack, flares, cold weather gear in winter, extra water at any time. Having gear for yourself lets you have more fun too… so you can stop and play in the snow, not stop and wait for a tow out of it.

And the golden rule: don’t pass up new opportunities. Staying next to the strangest looking bar? Go. See a sign for a historic spot? Always go. Have a few extra hours of daylight left? You got it, keep on going!

From nearly the start, highway 12 out of Missoula is filled with cool cliffs, forests and river views.

Another mile on a road I’d never heard of… before seeing the sign for the upcoming pass that is.

This post originally appeared on @Quora though the contents have been modified since then. Share your own tips there or below as well too!