I’m always whittling away at that ever expanding bucket list. Thing is, it’s getting longer faster than it’s getting shorter. The locations to explore far outweigh the amount of time most of us actually have available to travel to them. For this reason, I’ve put together some tips to maximize the use of that time, while enhancing the experience along the way.
First, I want to talk about why I choose to do camping road trips, instead of staying at hotels. First, it’s affordable. Snagging a campsite for a week will likely save you hundreds of dollars verses staying at a hotel. Not only that, but campgrounds exist practically everywhere, making them very convenient. Every major city, every national park, ever state park, large body of water or vending machine, has a campground within commuting range. It may not be as convenient as a hotel in the middle of Los Angeles, but if you’re reading my blog you’re likely more concerned with nature than shopping miles. Being outside of the cities will not only get you away from the crowds, noise and expense, but it will keep you outside and will better envelope you in the destination. They often provide local hiking, swimming, food, and other activities too.
Choose your location wisely
Choosing a location is often one of the hardest aspect of planning any trip. The location will dictate your drive time, the activities that are possible, costs, and even times when you can go as some areas may shut down entirely certain times of year. My suggestion is to make a list of things that you enjoy the most, and find a location that caters to that list. What’s the point of going somewhere if you’ll not be doing something you love? For me, it’s largely hiking, backpacking, kayaking, eating, and of course camping. Because of this I’ve chosen Maine as the destination for my next big trip, which has all of these activities and then some. I absolutely adore the mountains, so deciding to travel to Illinois doesn’t make a lot of sense. So make sure that your passions align naturally with the destination.
If you’re having trouble finding a location, head to a bookstore and grab a travel magazine of some sort, but only one! Grab a recent issue of Backpacker, Travel, or just whatever your local store has in stock. Limit yourself to choosing a destination from that particular issue. This will greatly narrow down your search and ease some of the stress of digging through never ending sources of information like the internet. Maybe consider picking up a book that details excellent travel destinations, and work your way through that particular book. It’s a fun challenge and narrowing the choices is surprisingly liberating.
In the end though, don’t stress too much about the location. It’s less about where you’re going, and more about what you intend to do when you get there. More on that later…
Go in the off season
There is no better time to go than when no one else is. I may be biased, as I’m a bit of an introvert, but I’ve always found that I can wring the most enjoyment out of an area when it’s perceived as less enjoyable to do so. Crowds get in the way, create lines, waiting, and often make traveling within an area a real chore. If you go in the off-season you’re likely to score better rates, avoid mobs of people, dodge influxes of insects if it’s a hot area, and enjoy an area that’s more true to itself , as many touristy areas ramp up the festivities during peak season, which can bury the real local sights and sounds in the chaos. Instead, find an off season that suits the area. Using Maine again as my example is a wonderful place to go in the fall, as it’s too cool for most, but the trees will shower you in color, the trails are free to explore and all the activities, short of swimming, will still be possible.
Once you’ve hammered out a location, start considering your drive time. You essentially have two options if you’re traveling any considerable distance. Are you going to marathon your way to your destination, only stopping to eat, refuel, and un-eat, or are you going to bide your time and stop at destinations along the way, soaking in the millage. My suggestion? If you’re driving more than 8 or 10 hours, you should definitely stop on the way to explore and recharge. My next journey is a rigorous 17 hour trek across the Eastern United States to our primary destination. There is no way to marathon this awkward amount of time without being totally exhausted (aside from swapping drivers) and arriving at an awkward time during the night, and there are infinite possibilities along the way for fun and adventure. We will be stopping along the way instead. I’ve decided to chunk it up into two drives over the course of three days. One ten hour drive at which point we’ll stay outside of New York, we’ll spend an entire day inside the city, leaving that evening to a second stop just an hour north of there, and finally a 6 hour drive to the final destination. This will provide an entire day of down town between my drives, resetting my clock and allowing for ample exploration. This minimizes long drives, nets me time in a city I’ve never been to before, and affords me plenty of beauty rest along the way so I’m not wrecked when I actually get to Maine. The way back home will likely be a long drive with a quick stop and snooze along the way at a campground along the same route, but we’re keeping an open mind to stopping again too.
Whatever you do, consider the fact that the journey itself can be, and should be, the destination itself. You don’t want to arrive to your dream campsite completely exhausted, cranky, and devoid of all enjoyment of the experience. Instead, plan the trip in a way that’s enjoyable, relaxing, and adds to the adventure. Find a museum along the way, a waterfall, a beautiful park, anything you can that will add some enjoyment to the travel.
Time spent in one location
My advice here is to simply take your sweet sweet time. Spend far more time in an area than you need. If you think you need 3 days to see everything, consider spending 4 or even 5 days. This will not only allow you to properly take in whatever activities you have planned, but it will also add in a buffer for all of the necessities that always take longer than you expect (commutes, lines, traffic, supplies, eating, etc) which would otherwise take time from your plans. Having a day or two of down time will allow you to relax, explore, and discover the real gems in the area that you’ll likely not know about beforehand. As an example, I anticipate that I’ll need 3 full days in Maine to see everything that I want to see. I have a reservation for 6. Why? There are cities surrounding the area that I know nothing about. There are endless miles of ocean to explore, tours to take, food to try, birds to ID, and activities that I’m not even aware of yet. Sure, I have an itinerary, but having all of this extra times allows me to change my plans based on my needs, the weather, or even just my mood. Constructing a trip in this way offers up true freedom that cannot be planned for. Having a tight schedule isn’t a plan, it’s a task. Open it up and allow yourself some room to breath, to get bored, and you’ll find yourself on a true adventure where you truly do not know what’s going to happen next.
Don’t try to do too much
Tying back into the above, don’t try to squeeze a weeks worth of adventure into three days. You’ll be exhausted, possibly overwhelmed, and you may even lose the desire to continue on your trip. Instead, keep it simple. Plan to do a few things, and if you have extra time, squeeze some more in those gaps. Even better, leave a lot of open time to just relax and take in the sights. Find time to take a long picnic, to watch a sunrise and sunset, gaze at the stars or go birding. A few hours at camp reading or playing on your handheld can be incredibly relaxing, especially when you know that there is nothing else to do. Don’t plan a full itinerary. Chances are, you’ll not be able to get to all of them anyway and you’ll feel like you’ve missed out if you don’t.
Leave room for new things
This is a very important tip. Often, the best part of a road trip is going to be something that you didn’t plan to do. Perhaps you’ll find an amazing local restaurant on the way, or you’ll stumble across a trail you’ve never heard of, a secret swimming hole will appear, or local park rangers will be hosting a nature walk or presentation that could open your mind to an entirely new biome. Maybe you’ll find a campsite that’s so amazing you’ll need an extra day just to soak it in. You never really know, and that’s the best part. Leave some time in your adventure to find these things, to discover new activities, and to experience something that you hadn’t quite planned. An adventure, after all, isn’t much of an adventure if you know what’s going to happen, right?
Leave some things left undecided
Don’t over plan your trip. This is a bane to many, as they try to control every aspect of their vacation before they ever leave the home. Sure, things like where you’re going and where you will stay are always good to plan, but other details like where you’ll stop along the way, where you’ll eat once you’re there, and what activities you might try while in transit are often better left to be discovered on the fly. Keep your eyes open fore new opportunities, ask the locals what they do for fun, and always be willing to try something new. One of my favorite vacations ended with me skim boarding for two days at the ocean. Sure, I banged up my toe pretty bad and I’m pretty sure I stepped on a turtle once, but it was a memorable experience that I didn’t even realize was an option until I saw one standing before me. Leave options for yourself. You’ll thank me later.
Set what money you will spend aside in advance
And now for something a little more practical, set what money you will spend on your trip aside in advance. Do some calculating first, figuring up how much gas, hotels, campsites and the like will cost, and then save up whatever you can that you can spend on whatever you want. Of course, you’ll want to make sure you’re bills are covered first, but having all of this set aside ahead of time will make spending it a bit more relaxing. Just knowing that your expenses and bills are already covered, and this small (or large) lump sum it set aside just for this particular adventure is oddly liberating. Do the math ahead of time and only plan to spend what you can without putting a financial burden on yourself. You’ll reduce your stress levels and you’ll not have to micromanage your account along the way.
Things rarely go completely as planned. A recent trip had be planning to spend several days in the Citico Wilderness, exploring beautiful balds, camping atop high peaks, and relaxing for a long day in an open meadow that was promised to be there. The problem? When we get there the trail is all but non-existent and impassable, there was a raging river that couldn’t be crossed that time of year that was never mentioned in the guide I was following, and we were left with no route and a plan that collapsed at our feet. Instead, we skirted along a separate trail and set up camp, came up with a new plan, and instead spent the next couple of days exploring a nearby city and their local hiking trails. I discovered an amazing dragon sculpture, crafted from a shrubbery, engulfed the best shrimp po-boy that I’ve ever had, and we explored a city that I barely new existed. It was fun, but it was certainly not what I had planned. That’s O.K. Don’t get hung up on one particular idea or fantasy. Instead, keep the randomness part of the fantasy and realize that changes sometimes must be made.
So, those are some pretty basic tips that I use personally every time that I plan a road trip. I’ve been applying these simple fundamentals to adventures for over tent years now, and each time they’ve paid off and have always added to the experience. Whatever you do, where ever you go, just make sure to enjoy it to the fullest.
Do you have any tips or comments you would like to add? Drop them below.
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