The Ultimate Road Trip Survival Guide

Submitted by on Thursday 7th October 2010
In this article
  • How to prepare before you hit the road.
  • What to do while on the road.
  • How to get the most out of your trip
The Ultimate Road Trip Survival Guide

It's 2,886 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it.

"Sometimes, there's nothing better than a road trip." You, a few buddies or your Sharpgal and not a care in the world. You’re free, you’re heading off to the unknown and the road is your friend.

While road trip fantasies generally involve a spontaneous take-off, the fact is that a bit of planning can go a long way towards helping you avoid breakdowns and speed traps, making your trek everything it was meant to be. So check out this SharpTravel guide to the Ultimate Road Trip:

Planning Your Trip

The car is your friend. Before you hit the road, take a minute to pull into a gas station and check out a few of the systems that you’ll be counting on while on the highway. Check the oil in your vehicle and make sure all fluids are topped off. For winter road trips, be sure you have ample antifreeze (not water) and functioning windshield wipers. (Check out Checklist for a Winter Road Trip for more cold weather tips.) Do your blades suck? Most gas stations can replace them for you in about a minute.

While you’re there, also check your tire pressure (and consider packing along a spare and car jack), blinkers, lights and any other part of your car that may have caused you problems in the past.

Wanna know what else can make a difference on the road? The following is a short list of useful additions to any trip into the unknown:

  • Emergency kit, with flashlight, candles, matches, first aid material (band-aids, gauze pads, bandages, aspirin).
  • Rope, bungee cords, jumper cables.
  • Flares.
  • Windex and a roll of paper towels. Traveling in the summer? Mosquitoes and gnats tend to smear when you run the wipers over them. Plus, having a squeaky clean windshield takes a lot of the eyestrain out of night driving.
  • Two bottles filled with water. For summer road trips in hot climates, a couple of water bottles poured over an overheated radiator can save you time and money.
  • A multi-tool, like the Swiss Army Knife or our favorite, the Leatherman Wave.
  • Cell phone (with fully charged battery or car charger), pager or other forms of emergency communication.
  • Road maps (see information on AAA below).
  • Clothes for all occasions (cold, rain, snow, heat, humidity).

The point is, when traveling cross country, expect the unexpected.

Food and Beverages

Following in the traditions of all great road trips, on your next trek you’ll likely stop at the Greasy Spoon in Podunk, Kansas, or Ma Bell's kitchen in Any Town, U.S.A. No need to skip the venerable "road food" tradition. Of course, to stave off hunger until you make it to Ma Bell’s, or to avoid losing time by stopping every time the munchies hit, consider bringing along some road food of your own:

  • Water, water and more water, especially if you're driving in the desert or anywhere humid.
  • Instant lemonade powder or iced tea mix, Gatorade or any other sport drink. You'll save big bucks by packing your own and not buying on the road.
  • Pretzels, granola bars, cereal bars. Eating can be a great way to kill the monotony of driving. Pretzels are good, since they won't make your hands greasy and, unlike potato chips, you don't end up covered in crumbs.
  • Fruit, fresh or dried. It's good for you, and you'll need the energy boost on the long road ahead. Plus, it keeps you, uh, regular, something you'll need after sitting all day.
  • Great coffee. If you're a coffee connoissour, consider packing a thermos and bag of ground beans. Getting it on the road is just not the same taste as at home!

Make It Fun

If you’re planning a long trip, consider bringing along some diversions to diminish some of the monotony of driving through central West Virginia or across Idaho:

  • Burn some CDs or make a few tapes of your favorite songs. Radio stations will come and go, but those tapes and CDs will get you through the silent patches.
  • Books on tape. Audio books can take your mind off the miles, and most are pretty entertaining. Choose one you’ve been meaning to read anyway.
  • Road games. Bring trivia cards, crossword puzzles (passenger only, obviously) or games designed for playing in the car. Remember those Madlibs games? This may be your eBay moment to find them.
  • Mix things up. Take turns driving and sleeping. Ideally, a driver should always have the navigator to keep him awake and take over when he’s tired. If you’re traveling in a group of four, consider breaking up into teams and shifts, each with a driver and a navigator. The driver and navigator each drive for two or four hours (switching between them), while the second team sleeps in the back until their turn.

Additional Tips for the Ultimate Road Trip

  • Bring a good, reliable camera and plenty of film. In a road trip, the best pictures are often taken in the car. Be ready with film on departure. This also prevents you from having to resort to overpriced disposable cameras — if you can find them.
  • Pack in small bags. Try to break up your packing into several smaller bags, rather than one large suitcase. This way you won’t have to sift through every belonging in order to find the item you were looking for. Smaller bags also make for easier loading and unloading at stops.
  • Be flexible. There's a lot of good stuff to see in North America, most of which you won’t know about until you stumble across it. The key is to be flexible with driving and stopping times, otherwise you may end up missing some great stuff. One way to maintain flexibility is to avoid making lodging reservations. Simply stop when you’ve had enough. Of course, the down side to traveling off-the-cuff is a late night arrival with no rooms available.
  • Join AAA. The American Automobile Association and Canadian Automobile Association can be your best friends on the road. AAA and CAA provide roadside assistance, advice and information in places you would never believe. They are to the road what the Coast Guard is to the ocean. Also check out AAA and CAA "Triptik" mapping service: tell them where you’re going and they’ll "build" a map just for you.
  • Pay attention to the weather. Pick up a regional newspaper, listen to the local weather report, or watch the local news at your hotel. Bad weather can play a big role in whether you reach your destination.
  • Stay calm. Once you’re away from your home and office, you won’t be able to control every variable. Don’t let minor surprises and setbacks get in the way of your good time. The unexpected is what road trips are all about. Just take breaks when needed, and never drive when you're tired — especially at night.

Check also SmartMotorist.com for find clear, informative articles on subjects like automobiles driving guidelines, security systems and safety equipments.

This article last updated on Sunday 12th February 2012
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