The wide open road. Alone time. Complete control over what music you get to play in the car. Going on a road trip alone can be one of the best adventures you can take. You don’t need to cater to anyone besides yourself, which means you can leave as soon as you want. You can leave right now if you really wanted to.
I went on my first road trip the summer of 2016 after graduating from college. I had just come back from a quick post-grad Euro-trip with some of my friends and was a bit unsure about what to do next. Should I start applying for jobs again? Should I do anything at all to remotely attempt to sort my life out? Nah. I was 21 and feeling free, so I bought a hammock, filled up my gas tank, and started driving my (highly fuel efficient but not necessarily road trip efficient) Chevy Cruze out west.
My parents were like… are you going to survive? Being outdoorsy is a passion that I wish I had when I was growing up, but the fact was I was a total nerd. I survived, but in hindsight, there were so many times that I probably did not deserve to survive.
Camp out in the freezing Rocky Mountains in just a hammock, with no warm clothing or knowledge on how to build a fire? Check.
Get lost in the desolate southwestern desert in 118 degree weather for five hours? Check.
Think you’re outsmarting the bears by storing your food in your car just ten feet away from your hammock? Check.
I could go on and on, but the point is that there is a lot of stuff you need to know before taking on any adventure. When I rolled up to the ranger’s office outside of Rocky Mountain National Park and asked for backcountry camping permit, I was optimistic and in high spirits. Cozied up in a little hotel room in Cheyenne, Wyoming after hammocking it up at Yellowstone for my last night being a wild man, I was simply happy to be alive.
It was an unbelievable experience that I will never forget, and still stands out to me as easily the most adventurous thing I have ever done. From the deserts to mountains to oceans to volcanos to lakes and everything in between, I got to see a lot of what coined the nickname “America the Beautiful”.
Despite how glamorous I can make it look on Instagram and YouTube, the road trip had more than its fair share of obstacles, and it was far from all fun and games. From the constant driving to the cold nights, there was a lot of things I wish I could tell my past self before I disembarked in my clueless optimism.
Let’s start with the big ones.
Bring some extra gallons of gas
As I was breezing through the seemingly endless desert highways in Nevada, I passed a sign that would instill a feeling of dread inside of me for the next hour and a half.
Next gas station: 97 miles
My 62% reliable display said that I had 108 miles remaining. Cutting it close, definitely, but I was going to make it, right? I had no phone signal, and the temperature was creeping up steadily towards 120 degrees. You were lucky to see a car every 30 minutes. I watched in terror as my gas crept down to the even more terrifying “low fuel range”. It didn’t say how many miles I had left in the tank, which is normally frustrating, but in this case, exponentially more frustrating. What was worse was that I was certain I had gone the 97 miles to the closest gas station but there was now a fork in the road. Neither one said which one had the gas station, so I took a leap of faith and started driving towards a town called Dyer.
Because I was in Dyer need for a gas station. Ha. But this wasn’t a joke.
Thankfully, I made it to a gas station that charged me “ha ha this price is totally unfair but we are the only gas station for 100 miles” dollars per gallon and almost cried tears of joy. I had my bike strapped to the back of my car and was just envisioning different scenarios of what to do in case I ran out of gas. All of that anxiety and stress and worrying and make-believe scenarios could have all been avoided if I brought a couple of extra gallons of gas.
Bring a lot of extra. You’ll be beyond thankful when it comes in handy, or even when you are running low at a national park and just want to avoid paying $4-5 per gallon. National Parks are ginormous. You might be driving for twenty miles before you even get from the entrance to the parking lot.
Get your car checked up before and after the road trip. Make sure you trust your car.
Like I said earlier, my Chevy Cruze was great for the wide open highways but it met a lot of its own challenges. From driving up extremely rocky roads to offroading through the woods to get to dispersed campsites, there were a lot of times that I wasn’t sure it was going to make it.
There’s definitely different situations where different types of car would excel, but you can’t exactly just go and buy a new car for a road trip. Renting one is still pretty expensive, but you should absolutely get your car checked and fine-tuned to make sure that it is in optimal condition to carry you for thousands of miles.
You do not want to have your car break down when you are in the middle of nowhere. I racked up a mind-blowing 14,000 miles on my car during my road trip. That’s a lot of room for a breakdown or an accident. Don’t risk it.
Bring blankets, sweaters, jackets, gloves, hats, wool socks, etc.
I don’t care if you don’t think you’ll need them. It is so easy to underestimate how cold it gets at night. I was freezing in the Rocky Mountains. I was freezing at Yellowstone. I was freezing in my car at Lake Tahoe. I was freezing in the forests of California. I was even freezing in the damn desert at night.
I didn’t bring a blanket at all on my trip, and almost every night I said to myself “I’m buying a blanket tomorrow”. Then every morning I would forget how cold I was and tell myself that I definitely did not need one. Repeat this process for every national park.
Even sleeping in my car got very cold. Blankets would have helped. Trust me. They don’t even take up that much room, and everybody feels a lot more comfortable when there’s a blanket around.
^ towards the end of the trip, I actually started wearing warm clothing !!
In terms of importance, this probably should have been above blankets but also bring water.
In case your car breaks down and you’re stuck in the desert in 118 degree heat.
In case you’ve been hiking for three straight days and kind of just want to dump a little bit of water on yourself to make you feel slightly cleaner.
In case you have to drive for eight hours straight with very few gas stations or convenience stores in between.
I could go on forever with all of the scenarios that having water will save your life in.
For everything else you might need, here’s a full packing list for a road trip.
It sounds silly in this day and age but learn how to use a compass
When I was lost in the Southwest Utah desert for five hours, I gave up hope and thought I was going to die there. There was literally no one else there when I finally made my way to the parking lot. I got cocky and did not think I needed to follow the cairns that marked the trail. I wandered around aimlessly for so long. The stupid desert looks the same everywhere you looked.
I had no signal so I couldn’t just pull up Google Maps or ask Siri how the heck I was to supposed to get out of there.
Then, I had the brightest idea. The fact that it took me three hours to come up with it actually kind of shows how dumb I am, but I will give myself the benefit of the doubt and say it was a bright idea. My phone had a compass, so I pulled it up and searched for northwest. I knew the desert was to the southeast of the road, so surely heading northwest would help me find my way back to the road.
It did, and I have thankfully lived to tell this tale of how to not die in slot canyons.
I was actually to supposed to meet a friend there, but they hit a deer en route to the slot canyons and I decided to go alone. When I was three or four hours late for meeting up with them, they actually told me that they were getting pretty close to letting the police know that I was missing. Thankfully, they knew where I was going and knew the general timeframe that I would be there. Which brings me to my last and probably most important point.
Always tell someone where you are going and how long you plan on being there.
My parents have become really chill about me traveling all the time. It’s gotten to the point that my dad simply just checks my Instagram to see if I have posted recently, and if I have, then there’s no need to worry. I once went three days without posting while I was on a tour of Bolivia’s Salt Flats. When I finally got signal after three days, I was met with several frantic texts from my dad, one of them literally saying “pls answer… you haven’t posted on Instagram. I’m worried.”
That sense of freedom has kind of stopped me from telling my parents, or really anyone, where I am going. If you’ve seen the movie 127 Hours, James Franco gets stuck in a slot canyon and it takes him forever to be found. He even has to cut his arm off. 127 hours is over five days long, and in brutal conditions, it is tough to survive for that length of time. The end credits say something along the lines of, he now always makes sure to tell his mom and dad where he is going.
Don’t think this is important? If you go missing or get stranded somewhere, it is a hell of a lot easier for people to find you if they know where you were going or where you were supposed to be. The morning that I got lost in the deserts and slot canyons, I drove about three hours before even starting the hike. I would have to drive another three to get to where I was supposed to sleep that night. Imagine going missing, and leaving police only the knowledge that you could be anywhere within a six hour span of time.
It doesn’t hurt to text your dad something as simple as “hey, I’m going to Spooky Gulch slot canyons. I’ll text you when I’m done around 2PM.” It really could save your life.
I know I’ve kind of built up the whole idea of a solo road trip as some sort of horror story now, but I totally didn’t mean to. I promise that if you approach it carefully and intelligently, you will have an unforgettable time. Being smart about it can be the difference between having the time of your life or ending up like Alexander Supertramp and Aron Ralston.
If this post helped you out, show some love and support for the blog and help keep my adventures going by buying me a beer! My adventures are entirely self-funded, so any show of support is greatly appreciated, and allows me to keep writing helpful travel guides and creating travel content to help you all travel the world on a budget.