I wrote a similar article about how to prepare for going on a solo road trip but I quickly realized that things go very differently depending on the season of the road trip. Currently at the tail-end of my late-fall/early-winter road trip, I had my fair share of “why am I doing this” moments. Pushing through snowstorms and driving on icy roads was all worth it when… everything worth looking at is covered in dense fog. The weather where I was going was extremely inconsistent and the late-fall road trip quickly turned into a nightmare winter driving experience.
Preparation is key. Normally, I advocate for winging it every chance you get (mostly because I’m too lazy to plan) but not on road trips.
First, ask yourself what the purpose of your road trip is. This sounds deep but I’m not talking purpose as in like “oh to find myself” or “I shall be one with nature”. I’m talking about literally just what are you going to be doing.
Are you going on a camping trip with a lot of hikes? Are you off to see dope nature or mostly hop from city to city? I was driving up to the Canadian Rockies in Alberta but was hoping to get a lot of other stops in along the way. Some National Parks I passed were closed, including Yellowstone and most parts of Glacier National Park. A lot of cities that are popular during the year see a dip in tourism towards the colder months. Some towns literally seemed built up just for tourists and were ghost towns when I drove through. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. Jackson, Wyoming was in the awkward time when Yellowstone and Grand Teton weren’t busy but the ski resorts had not opened yet. It was nice having some hikes to myself and being able to hang around the cool little city without struggling for parking or crazy prices. Other towns, there wasn’t even a point to stopping at them. So basically, if you’re going to “find yourself” on a national park road trip, make sure they are open.
The next thing you should check is what the weather is like in your destination during that time of year. I used to worry about this all the time because I’d hear terrible stories of how “rainy seasons” ruined people’s trips. After a few trips during the rainy season to Central America and South East Asia, I realized that it didn’t take too much away from my trips. Maybe this made me too confident because I downplayed how much snow would affect my trip. I was also a bit optimistic in assuming that there was very slim chance of snow during November… in the freakin’ Rockies. My first road trip was in the summer, and aside from hellish temperatures reaching 120, the weather was tame. I encountered snowstorms every step of the way on this current road trip.
That’s why you need to make sure that you know which roads are open. During the winter, conditions can vary wildly. Driving through Montana and Wyoming, their road conditions websites were life-savers for me. While my summer road trips seemingly breezed by, driving on winter roads took a lot more focus. In some areas of Montana, I was going a painfully slow 20-30 miles per hour for long stretches. Even though the roads still weren’t fantastic, I was able to avoid any unnavigable roads.
Make sure to always keep the essentials in your car, even if you don’t think you’ll need them. Bring spare tires, a jump starter, ice scraper, extra gas, tire chains, and whatever else you think you might need. A few blankets and extra warm clothing never hurt anybody either. Food and water is also dope. As a wise man (me) once said, it is better to have snacks and not eat them than to not have snacks at all.
Another big thing that I’ll stray from my typical philosophies from is staying connected. Normally, I’m all about disconnecting and living in the moment, but even if you want to “get away from it all”, you should have a way to contact “it all” just in case something happens.
In the U.S., I have cellular data in most places, but my latest road trip took me to Canada. I did get a free 1/2 gigabyte of international data allowance through my wireless provider, but yeah, that vanishes pretty quickly when you’re a ~social media STAR~. It’d sometimes be gone before noon and I don’t even know how. Having a global Wi-Fi hotspot that I got through TEP Wireless was absolutely essential in keeping us from getting lost and helping us plan stops along the way. Considering that I used to pay $10 a day to use my phone plan internationally, having Wi-Fi that can be used by multiple people for less than $10 a day was a much more budget-friendly option. Honestly, if I discovered TEP a bit sooner, I definitely would have been using it on my international trips. If you want to get your own Teppy, you can check out their website here.
If you don’t have a data plan or don’t want to have a Wi-Fi hotspot, you should definitely have some maps pre-downloaded to your phone. I know that Google Maps gives you the option to download very thorough offline maps. However, those take up a lot of space so if you wanted something with just the basics, Maps.Me was my go-to while traveling in South East Asia. You could also just go with a good old-fashioned physical road map. I’ve found that most rest areas in the U.S. have maps that you can grab if you need them.
While summer weather makes it the best time of year to go on a road trip, there are plenty of benefits to going on a trip during the other seasons. Catching some fall foliage away from home really makes you appreciate the everyday beauty around the world, even when you aren’t at a world-class tourist attraction. Seeing forests burdened with fluffy snow and jagged mountains blanketed in white can turn an average view into a spectacular one. Seeing the same place in different seasons sometimes feels like seeing completely different places.
Going on a winter road trip is definitely worth the challenges that come with it, and it can be an entirely new adventure.