Road Trip Planning 101 – Plan a Road Trip
By Carly Eisley
Hooray! You’ve decided to hit the road for your next vacation. Now what? Planning a road trip can seem like a pretty daunting task. The planning is riddled with questions like: Whose car to take? Should you rent a car? Should you rent a van? Where do you go? Should you camp? Where should you camp? What things do you need to think about that you don’t know you need to think about?!?!
Don’t worry! I’ve got you covered with some of my go-to tips full of resources to help you plan a road trip full of nothing but FUN.
To start, let’s simplify the trip by ensuring you’re heading out on your road trip in a campervan. You’ll be able to travel anywhere on the road you’d like, all while remaining extremely comfortable while camping. It solves the two most difficult decisions in planning a road trip at once.
Plan a Road Trip Step 1 – Choosing an Itinerary
Now that you know how you’ll be traveling, and where you’ll be sleeping, your next step is deciding where you want to go. You may have a general destination in mind when you book your campervan, like a major national park, but it’s time to focus that plan a bit more.
Sit down with your calendar and open up an online mapping program of your choice (I like using Roadtrippers or Google Maps). Mark anywhere you are thinking about going on your trip and start plugging in destinations to get a rough idea of mileage and drive times. Whenever possible, choose the scenic route! This is quite literally the time to embody the idea that when you plan a road trip, the journey matters as much as the destination.
No matter the mapping website you use, it will likely want you to take the most direct route, but cruising the highways isn’t exactly the point of a road trip. In Google Maps you can make adjustments to the route simply by dragging the blue line somewhere else. Be sure to calculate your mileage and drive time based on these more scenic routes which are certain to be require more drivetime and mileage behind the wheel.
Bear in mind the climate and terrain of the area you will be exploring as well. Not everyone is used to driving in desert or mountainous regions. Another thing to remember? Check the altitude and weather of the areas you plan to visit before you finalize your route. For example: In planning our most recent trip to Arizona, we had initially planned on camping and hiking in Flagstaff in early May. Temps in southern Arizona are in the 90s. A little bit higher up in Sedona, temps are comfortably in the 70s and 80s. Flagstaff is at much higher altitude, so there is still some snow and the campgrounds I was eyeing there weren’t opening until mid-May. Whoops!
Playing it by ear and keeping plans fluid and spontaneous is great and makes for a lot of fun (we’ve found some of our favorite places on earth just by wandering there by happy accident). Just be sure you have a little background on your destination of choice before you roll into town.
Plan a Road Trip Step 2 – Collecting and Sharing Information
Some people can just hop in the van with no structure or plan to their trip, and just see where the road takes them. I am NOT one of those people. If you are a planner like me, read on and get ready to organize and plan your way to some spectacular adventures!
My favorite ways to organize my trips is by using a Google Document. Google docs are easily accessible from anywhere and on any type of device; download the mobile app and/or access from your computer for a customizable trip plan on the go. Traveling with friends? Share your google document with them and everyone can add their own edits and ideas.
My Google document usually starts out as a bit of an information dump; a place to jot notes, paste pictures or websites, and centralize all of the ideas and recommendations I pick up along the way. Next comes a loose itinerary with trip dates laid out. The final product is a day by day breakdown of anticipated destinations with the estimated drive time, campsite reservation info, points of interest, activities for the area, etc. Screenshots of the document pages and a printed version come with me – everything all in one place, ready to go!
Plan a Road Trip – Internet Planning Resources
Wondering where to get all of the information for your budding Google Doc? Here are some of my favorite places to go for camping and adventuring intel.
(These sites have a little bit of everything.)
- Escape Campervans site: staff, prior renters, and blog contributors (like me!) have helped to build a wealth of information about road trip planning, packing, itineraries, and more. LOTS of helpful information here.
- Yelp: people will review anything and everything… which can sometimes be a little bizarre – but is helpful if you’re looking for restaurants, tour companies, etc. Take reviews of campgrounds, parks, etc. with a grain of salt though; I’ve found that information to often be less than helpful.
- Tripadvisor: similar to Yelp!
- Google blog/image search: the more specific the better! There are a ton of outdoor and travel bloggers out there who have experienced and written about just about everywhere you could think of. Campgrounds, hike reports, touristy attractions, and anything else you could think of. Many will happily answer your questions via email, so don’t hesitate to reach out!
- Social Media: While my feelings about social media and its impact on our wild spaces is mixed, I have found plenty of trip inspiration online. My personal favorite is Instagram – who doesn’t like pretty pictures? The option to save posts and categorize them is one I use a lot during my planning. I’ve gotten great camping and hiking ideas and intel from my friends (and some complete strangers) on there – it’s worth a scroll.
- US-Parks.com: road trip route ideas linking national parks
- Roadtrippers.com: road trip planning site… map your route and add things to see along the way
- Google Maps: the best way to plan out a route, in my opinion (well, on a real computer anyway – doesn’t work on iPhone, etc). But very easy to map and save a route, save favorite places on the map, etc.
Park Information, Hiking, Etc.
- National Park Service: invaluable information on all of the parks – info about entry fees, maps, camping, weather, directions, things to do… you name it, they cover it. A must visit if you are planning a trip to any of our national parks
- National Forest Service: A wealth of recreation knowledge for anyone visiting National Forest Service land. Information on Ranger stations, road closures, fire restrictions, camping areas, hiking maps, etc.
- Bureau of Land Management: A must-visit site for anyone thinking about boondocking it (aka free camping on federal land). There is also very valuable information about hiking, mountain biking, and other recreational activities
- National Geographic Trail Maps: My favorite trail maps; Waterproof, tear-resistant, and accurate trail maps for a wide variety of National Parks and trail systems across the country.
- James Kaiser: author and photographer who has written some great guidebooks for Acadia, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Joshua Tree National Parks. I’ve found his website and books to be a very helpful addition to my visits to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.
- The Outbound Collective: A fantastic site full of recommendations for a variety of adventures in the outdoors. Searchable by location with information provided by a community of locals well versed in the best places to play outdoors in their areas
- Outdoor Project: Another great resource site with outdoor adventures curated by local contributors
- AllTrails: Trail maps and descriptions with a companion phone app that allows you to download trail maps that can be used without cell service. NOT a replacement for paper maps, etc. – but a handy resource to have!
Campgrounds and Camping Resources
- FreeCampsites.net: Maps and reviews of free camping areas around the country
- Hipcamp: the skinny on the best campsites, from public campgrounds to private glamping sites. Helpful reviews on campgrounds to help choose where to stay
- Campendium: campsite reviews with more of an RV focus
- The Dyrt: more campsite reviews + an app!
- CampsitePhotos.com: want to get an idea of what your campsite looks like before booking? This site has a pretty extensive collection of photos of campsites from campgrounds around the USA.
I hope this was useful in helping you plan a road trip! And remember: NOTHING can take the place of talking to real humans. Chat up the NPS staff and Forest Service/BLM Rangers. They are a wealth of knowledge about their areas and can give you insight and tips that no google search ever will. Want information before you leave? Call or email them directly!
Good luck, happy planning, and happy adventuring!!