In case you’ve only got ten seconds, here’s the short answer to how I plan a long road trip—I don’t. Well, not too much, anyway.
Most people want to know where I’m going (no idea) and what my plans are as I prepare for my next road trip. I’ve been fielding questions from my friends and my attempt at coherent answers usually falls short. It goes something like this:
Well, I’m not quite sure. I know I want to see the solar eclipse on August 21st, so I think I’m headed toward southwestern Idaho. After that, maybe over to Oregon—but honestly, I don’t know where I’ll be and what I’ll see aside from my one goal to see the eclipse.
I find that most people are uncomfortable with this level of uncertainty. And, in some ways, I am, too—yet I find it just too taxing to make a concrete plan.
My reasons for this lack of planning are twofold: One, much of my work life is hyper-planned and organized (most of the time). I have deadlines to meet and clients to keep happy. Managing my workload requires systems, accountability, and the ability to meet the needs of others.
The second reason is this: I know from previous road trips that anything can happen and it will. If I plan to be somewhere on a certain day, factors like inclement weather, camping spot availability, breakdowns (both my van and me), and keeping my dog, Milo, comfortable, take precedence over previous plans.
Road Trip Planning Like a Minimalist
So, my plans, while yes I do make them, are loose and allow for lots of flexibility. But, you didn’t come here for my not-planning, so without further delay, here’s how I plan a road trip:
1. First, I decide on a timeline and an approximate departure date, which are subject to change as go time approaches. Changes to the plan are due to factors such as my workload, the weather, my whims, and new information I might acquire.
2. Once I nail down a general route, I select areas that look promising for camping that are approximately three hours away from one another. I don’t want to drive for long periods of time. Yes, I’ve done some 8-hour days, which I do not recommend, but I prefer to drive 3-4 hours in a day. I like to get to where I’m going early in case I can’t find a place to sleep and need to make a plan B, C, or D.
3. I research towns/areas I might like to visit and make a point to look for coffee shops, vegan/vegetarian restaurants, and coops/natural food stores. I’m not much of a tourist, so I’m just happy sitting in a park or café and watching the local color. Also, I search for dog-friendly places to dine as I can’t leave Milo for long, if at all, in the van. I make my meals most of the time, though.
4. I create a Trip Note in the Notes app on my iPhone for each trip. I keep track of towns, coffee shops, and anything of interest in Trip Notes and I include addresses or GPS coordinates. That way, it’s easy to pop open the Trip Note and add to it, or click the address and have the maps app (Google or Apple) kick in to make navigation easy.
5. I make a supplies list of everything I want/need for the specific trip. I base my trip supplies list on an ever-evolving master list that I use for all trips. Once I’ve made my list, I take inventory of everything in the van and determine what’s missing.
6. Once I decide what I need for my road trip, I gather or purchase items I don’t have (gathering means packing my clothing and food for Milo and me as I leave much of my stuff in the van—makes spontaneous trips easy).
7. Finally, I check my free camping resources (see below) and I add a few spots per area to my Trip Notes.
How to Find Free Camping
Free camping is abundant in the U.S., but some spots require high-clearance vehicles or four-wheel-drive. Despite the hard-to-access areas, there are many other options to get away from it all (all includes campers with their loud generators and campgrounds with their smelly pit toilets).
Free or dispersed camping, also called Boondocking, is allowed for up to 14 days, but rules vary by region. Also, check with the local ranger station—you may need a burn permit, there may be firewood restrictions, etc. Rangers are helpful; they can tell you if certain areas are crowded, if a storm front is rolling in, and more. And always pack it in; pack it out (Leave NO Trace).
The two most important websites to search for dispersed camping are:
Handy free apps/websites for locating places to camp (free or pay):
- Free Campsites
- Casino Camper (Yep, camp in casino parking lots)
- Oh, Ranger! (Federal & state parks. Camping and other activities—website and app).
In addition, some retailers allow van/car campers and RVers to stay overnight. Call the store manager to verify, and buy something from the store—it reflects positively on all travelers.
Here’s a list of retailers that may allow overnight parking:
- Cracker Barrel
- Camping World
- Flying J Truck Stops
- Pilot Travel Centers
Ultimately, the best way to plan for an extended road trip is to take weekend trips. Pay attention to what you use and what you don’t use and for ideas, check out my evolving gear list. If you’re new to van life or road trips, I guarantee you’ll end up with way more than you need at first. As you gain road trip experience, you’ll plan like a pro—and you might even adopt my minimalist planning style.