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Lessons from the road

Updated: Apr 17, 2019

Before starting our adventure neither Joel or I had taken a lot of road trips. Particularly not a multi-state, multi-month quest like this one. We went into our road trip with some ideas and assumptions of how it would go and tools that would serve us on the road: our own little road trip protocol.

Turns out some of our preconceived notions and ideas were accurate and some were completely wrong. So, we present the things we wish we had known before we started our road trip and a few things we planned for well. We hope this is helpful for anyone else planning to hit the road briefly or for a big adventure.

Enjoy the Road….by Resting Strategically!

When planning our road trip we did not plan any rest days. Quite quickly we realized we needed to slow down and spend less time in the car! And sometime just chill in a city instead of pack the day with activities and exploration! Also known as rest.

Turns out, road trips can take a toll on your body physically and be a bit of a mental slog as well. We recommend you add in enough rest time during your trip so that you don’t find yourself dreading being back in the car. Rest time is more than stopping to stretch and use the bathroom (which is important): it’s actual days off where you are not driving at all. Days where you are sleeping in, doing laundry, checking your email, calling your parents, having a leisurely breakfast, and engaging with "normal" routine just a bit. Make time for this on your adventure.

On driving days, take lots of breaks to stretch and move your body! Take a brisk walk around the neighborhood before you get in the car. Entertain each other at rest stops with newly invented yoga moves and toe touches. These things truly help.

Cut the Hours in the Car, Increase the Length of Stops

For us, the perfect length of drive was about 3 to 4 hours long. Anything over 5 hours was a drag. Staying for a minimum of 3 nights in a place helped us maximize and enjoy our time in that place. We felt rushed when we arrived in a city, fell into bed and then had only one full day to explore before getting back on the road.

We learned this the hard way as we had planned a lot of two night stops and tons of drives between 4 to 6 hours. Learn from our mistakes and you will definitely enjoy your road trip more and feel much less drained!

Stay Hydrated - Duh

Have plenty of water in the car to stay hydrated during drives and for worst-case-scenario situations. Bring your own water bottles – yes, multiple bottles of water. And bring your own reusable coffee mug – nobody wants gas station cups building up in the backseat.

Expect the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Even if it’s not fun to think about, it’s always nice to have a plan for road trip nightmares such as flat tires, getting lost or stranded, your phone dying (yes this counts as a very bad thing), getting caught in a storm, and so on. We suggest the following items:

· a map, road atlas, or navigation app that doesn’t rely on phone data

· a phone charger that plugs into your car and/or portable charger

· a gallon jug of water

· jumper cables

· emergency rations (for us: bars, dried fruit, apples, nuts, jerky)

· sunscreen for your window facing side (thanks to expert road tripper Sarah for suggesting this)

· a roll of toilet paper (yup)

· and, if you feel fancy (we did), an all-encompassing car safety kit like this one

We had no flat tires on our road trip, never had to utilize that roll of toilet paper, and had only one awful drive – an ice storm in Texas, if you’d believe it – but we still were glad to have our just-in-case supplies.

Reduce Lunch Emergencies

One of the worst things on the road is finding yourself a few hours from your destination and grumpy-hungry. Packing a lunch on driving days is generally a good idea. Don’t rely on what you will find along the road. Those days were an unpleasant surprise for us!

We brought a few containers like these on our trip (to be honest, a much cheaper version we found in Target clearance, but you get the idea) and we packed them with crunchy veggies, apple slices, cheese, meat, and nuts. We could eat this style lunch while driving – in a hurry – or pull over and enjoy leisurely at a rest stop. And, while budget friendly, it allowed us to sample meats and cheeses from places we visited! Which we think is fun!

Special Items from Home

Joel insisted on bringing his pillow on the road trip and while I teased him at first I came around quite quickly. It’s important to know what items will improve your overall experience even if they seem like a waste of precious space in your vehicle. For Joel, his own, special pillow helped him feel like he could get a good nights rest wherever we landed – and that’s important!

Special Items from the Road

You don’t have to buy souvenirs from every place you visit – or even at all for that matter! On our whole trip we bought just a few items that we liked – things we thought we would use or put in our house when we got off the road. For the record the things we bought ourselves are: a cutting board a host made, a chili wreath from the Santa Fe farmer’s market, an artist-made t-shirt from Meow Wolf, and a few books.

As an aside, because we were staying with people throughout the country, we bought small gifts for our hosts, usually edible treats from previous places on our route (chocolate, jam, fancy vinegar, etc). This was fun and a nicer way – for us, personally – to channel our souvenir energy into gratitude for the people who made our trip so special.

Packing Light

While good to know the items that will improve your overall road trip that you do want to make room for in your car (looking at you, pillow), you probably don’t need 10 paperback books, a dozen pairs of shoes, or an abundance of outfit “options” (looking at you, self).

Let’s just say we are glad we did a test load of our car a few days before leaving…we reduced our packing quite a bit from that experiment. And yet – a few days in – we realized we had still over packed! Trust us when we say you need less than you think you do.

A road trip is a great opportunity to practice downsizing your day-to-day “necessities.” A week+ worth of underwear is still probably a good idea and having a plan for doing laundry will cut down on road stink – and your co-pilot will thank you.

Take Care of your Car

Car love 101: Get a tune-up before departing, plan on getting your oil changed a few times during your road trip (depends on trip mileage of course), replace your wiper blades to something a bit more top notch to help with safety during stormy driving, keep the wiper fluid full, and check tire pressure regularly. Also: wash your car more frequently than you do when not road tripping. It feels better to be traveling in a clean car instead of dragging the literal and metaphorical muck from one state to the next.

You Can’t See It All…And You Probably Don’t Actually Want To

You aren’t going to see every “important” attraction or “must see.” We enjoyed learning about the quirky and weird things in the places we were visiting (for many examples check here)…and missed seeing the majority. And that’s okay. Take some pressure off. Focus on the things that are important to you, not the things you feel obligated to see.

In nearly every city we visited – from Portland, OR to Portland, ME – our well-meaning hosts told us, “Our city has a great art museum!” It became a wink and a smile between me and Joel on the trip. The thing was, we didn’t care to see another art museum; instead we wanted to walk around, discover neighborhoods by foot, pop into bookstores, find cute cafes, enjoy parks and nature, and occasionally visit an important historic site or museum. And that’s okay! Your trip, your must sees!

If you are traveling with a partner or friend: negotiate, strategically use solo days if you have different sightseeing goals, and be kind if one of you wants to spend a lot of time in obscure comic stores.

You Can Only Plan So Much

Leave room for spontaneity, re-routes, and moments of inspired adventure.

Because we were staying with hosts on our trip, we had a very clear plan and left little room for spontaneity. This is the number one thing I would change. If we were to do it again, I would work with hosts to give an approximate timeframe we would be arriving instead of an exact one. In this way we could build more flexibility into our route.

The further we got into our road trip the more fun we had letting go and allowing the road to spill out in front of us, unsure of what was around the next bend. We wish we had embraced the joy that can be found in uncertainty from day one of our adventure.

These unplanned moments - good and bad - are the moments we talk about most. A trip to the Michigan sand dunes, a drive up the Maine coast, Joel's literal fever dreams (#boycold) in a motel in Santa Fe followed by our shared metaphorical fever dream at Meow Wolf, our spontaneous detour to Colorado canyon country, the addition of a New Year's eve retreat at a clothing optional hot springs in Oregon.

Don't plan so well that there is no room for these types of surprises. The highlights of a road trip usually occur when there is space for the adventure to find you.


Wherever the road takes you, we hope you have a safe and memorable trip. We would love to hear your road trip suggestions in the comments!

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