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Solo Cross Country Road Trip Survival Guide

Solo Cross Country Road Trip Survival Guide

I spent many years avoiding solo cross-country road trips.  If my destination was more than a five hour drive away, I got on a plane. But while I was living in Portland, I realized that there are a lot of National Parks and other destinations that are not near an airport.  Sure, you can bring a friend and switch drivers.  But how many of you have put off a road trip because none of your friends were available?

I decided to go back to Florida with my car.  I didn’t have the money to ship my car.  I looked at a map and saw tons of destinations I’d otherwise never get to see: the Pacific Coast Highway, southern Utah, the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe.  I was sold.  Time to face the wall I had built up in my mind around cross-country road trips.

PLANNING

  • Do you have an origin and a destination?  When I started my trip, all I knew was that I was going to Dallas, TX by mid-November.  I didn’t know where I was going beyond that. And that’s ok.  But it makes things easier if you know your origin and what direction you want to travel.
  • Once you have a rough idea of what direction you’d like to go, look for points of interest along the path.  Some points of interest might be on a short detour.  If it’s something you’d really like to see, try to make it work.  It can be a National Park, Theme Park, or any other place you’d like to visit.  Feel free to think outside the box.  I’ve been to the Pulse Nightclub Memorial in Orlando, FL, and Kurt Cobain’s house.  These points of interest may change along the route, and that’s ok.
  • Figure out your maximum daily distance.  You don’t want to end up exhausted and needing to stop while you’re on a really long stretch of highway with no exits.  Are you a road warrior that can drive 12 hours straight?  Great!  You’ll be way ahead of me!  For me, I can’t drive more than five hours before I get stir-crazy.  Knowing this, I kept each daily trip under 300 miles.  Make sure to leave enough time to spend at each destination.  Keep in mind, you might have some days where you won’t be driving by any of your chosen points of interest.  This would be a good time to check what’s in the area and try something you might not otherwise do.  For example, I wasn’t excited about stopping in Amarillo, TX.  But I found an awesome gym, had a great workout, and made some lifelong friends!  If your trip has too many days with no points of interest, try to find a more interesting route, if available.
  • Want to avoid snow?  Or tornados?  Know your limits, and make sure to avoid anything you can’t handle.
  • Look for places to stay, but be flexible.  I knew I wanted to go through southern Utah.  I searched for hostels, and it turns out there’s only one.  But don’t book immediately.  Make a note of it, but stay flexible in case a local makes a stellar, must-do recommendation.

Make sure everything fits in your car. Do I really need two camping chairs on a solo trip?

GETTING READY

  • Check your car’s maintenance schedule.  Will your car require scheduled maintenance while you’re on the road? If your trip is longer than 3000 miles, you might need an oil change during your trip.  Don’t avoid maintenance when you are on the road!  Check your tire pressure before you head out.  If your tire pressure is off, you might not get optimal gas mileage, which goes a long way on a long trip.  Also, double check that your registration won’t expire during the trip, and that you have car insurance cards that are up to date.
  • Pack your car.  What do you need to bring?  Will you be going to the beach?  On a ski trip?  Will you go camping in the backcountry along the way?  You don’t want to have lots of unnecessary stuff taking up space (and weight) in your car.  But you also don’t want to be camping in the snow without a sleeping bag or jacket.  I organized my car with plastic storage containers, and that ended up saving me lots of time (and preventing me from tearing apart everything in my car).  Make sure items you will need most often are most easily accessible.
  • Consider meal planning.  Are you planning on eating fast food every meal?  Make sure there are restaurants available throughout your trip.  Are you going backcountry camping?  I always looked ahead on my trip to figure out when’s the next time I’ll be near a grocery store. I’d stock up for a few days at a time, especially when I went hammock camping in the redwoods for more than one night.  There were no restaurants or grocery stores nearby.  Also, pack non-perishable snacks and drinks for when you are driving.  I brought fruit, granola bars, and gallon jugs of water.  The water also came in handy when I went backcountry camping with no running water.
  • Make sure you know your route.  You want to know where you’re going, even if you lose GPS signal.  Are you taking Route 66 all the way to Santa Monica, CA?  Are you taking I-10 from Los Angeles to Jacksonville?  Are you going off the beaten path?  If you know your route, it will be easier to deviate from it when you find unexpected must-do detours.
  • Be your own DJ.  Get together some music, podcasts, or audiobooks to listen to.  I get my audiobooks from the library on my phone.  Then connect to my car’s sound system via bluetooth or an AV cable.
  • Check for gas stations along the route.  This may seem silly, but I have been on road trips where there were no gas stations in any direction for a hundred miles.  And almost ran out of gas in the snow in Oregon because it didn’t occur to me there might not be gas stations.

The rare self-serve gas pump in Oregon.

ON THE ROAD

  • Be flexible.  Ask locals for recommendations.  Taking a detour to follow local recommendations turned out to be the best part of my trip!  Don’t miss out!
  • Take pictures!  You’ll want to remember this.  And show your friends.
  • Be safe!  Don’t leave valuables visible in your car.  Be aware of your surroundings.  I put my blanket on top of my plastic storage containers, and then a Love Conquers Hate poster leftover from Pride on top of that.  When I went camping, I used a headlamp to pitch my tent if I arrived after dark.  I never felt unsafe, except when I got harassed by people telling me it’s “unsafe” for women to be alone.

 

The path to one of many lookout points at Capital Reef National Park.

HACK THE TRIP

  • Look for cheaper accommodations.
    • Hostels are great for areas that have lots of attractions.  Usually they have free guided tours, and you get to go with other travelers.  It’s a great way to do group activities while traveling solo.  Bonus: some have discounted tickets to popular attractions.
    • Paid and free campsites are great when you are in the wilderness.  I stayed at a few throughout my road trip.  The data is populated by other users, so sometimes the information is inaccurate.  But many entries have links to official park websites.  I found some spots too difficult to find in the dark, but the one in Mississippi was magical.  I will definitely go back to that campsite on future road trips.
    • AirBNB and an outdoorsy version, hipcamp, are great when cheaper options are not available.  However, I have found some really cool places for under $20/night on AirBNB.
    • If you’ve never tried CouchSurfing, it’s probably not what you think.  It’s NOT sleeping on a stranger’s couch for free.  It is a social media site where you meet other people who love travel.  Chat with potential hosts and get to know them first.  Maybe they’ve been to your dream trip destination.  This is not free accommodation – it’s more about a shared experience.  That being said, it’s nice to get them a gift from your hometown or from somewhere along your road trip.  Or cook them dinner.  Due to the time it takes to exchange messages with a host, this method will require a little more planning ahead.  I have used CouchSurfing on my road trip from Cleveland to Atlanta.  I had an amazing time in Knoxville, TN.  I plan on trying it again on my next road trip.
  • Look for apps that connect users with couriers.  Maybe someone will pay $100 for you to bring a guitar or suitcase from your origin to a place along your route.  If so, it could pay for gas money.

Have fun, and make sure to slow down and enjoy the journey!

 

What are your favorite road trip tips?

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