8 Tips for the Ultimate U.S. Road Trip

Travel has always captured people’s imaginations, but nothing has seemed as exciting as simply driving away on an open road, especially in the United States, where the idea of a road trip is quintessentially American and an intricate network of roads connects all corners of the country.

So, in May 2015, my roommate Jeremie and I packed up my VW GTI and left with one main objective: to stand in all 48 contiguous states. Along the way, we planned to film and photograph a documentary project called Boston and Back, in which our visuals would be paired with interviews from the interesting people we met on the road.

Over the following 40 days, we traveled 12,672 miles, visiting numerous cities and parks around the country and meeting many captivating people. While we had a rough route planned beforehand, based loosely on Randy Olson’s optimal map, much of the road trip came from spontaneous decisions. Here are a few of the things we learned while wandering around the U.S.

Credit: Justin Hawk
Credit: Justin Hawk

1. Decide on a route

Make a list of reasonable stops you would like to visit during your road trip, and then, connect the dots to create a vague route. You’ll come across signs for amazing sights you never realized existed, as well as the dreaded detour sign, so plan to have flexibility. The last thing you want to do is miss out on sights because of a rigid schedule. Have a rough plan, but set nothing in stone.

2. Take advantage of on-the-go campsites

While we spent the majority of our nights camping in a tent, we rarely knew where we’d be sleeping until later on. Typically, we would drive until around 9 p.m. but would decide on a final destination a few hours prior. After finding a realistic stopping point for the day, we would look for campgrounds in the surrounding area, either online or in our atlas.

Credit: Justin Hawk
Credit: Jeremie Go

3. Maps and guidebooks are your best companions

Get comfortable using maps and guidebooks. Often, the best sights are on the roads less traveled, so get off the highway and hit the back roads. That’s where you’ll see the most interesting things—from the vastest of landscapes to some of the oldest towns in America. We also kept a paper atlas in our car for whenever cell service would disappear or when looking at a physical map was more beneficial.

Credit: Justin Hawk
Credit: Jeremie Go

4. Follow the quarter-tank rule

Never, ever, let your fuel meter run past quarter tank while you’re on the road, especially when you’re driving in isolated areas. Seeing the meter approach “empty” is a gut-wrenching feeling, especially when you don’t know where the next gas station will be. Gas up as soon as you can, and always keep an eye on that meter.

5. Watch your speed

Always be aware of the road rules wherever you are driving. It’s common to catch yourself carelessly going over the speed limit. There were often times when the speed limit would suddenly drop more than 30 MPH when we transitioned from open-road to town. Watch the signs, because some police officers love targeting out-of-state plates.

Credit: Justin Hawk
Credit: Justin Hawk

6. Eat well

Make sure you’re always stocked up with quick snacks and maybe some peanut butter and jelly. You’ll thank us later when you’re hungry in the middle of nowhere with nothing but beautiful scenery and a delicious PB&J in your hand. If you plan on camping, a portable stove and some basic supplies can really make a difference. Waking up to the smell of fresh coffee and eggs at your campsite is an energizing feeling. Also, re-stock your water and snacks whenever you can.

7. Take care of your car

What’s the worst thing that can happen on the road? Your car suddenly breaking down. Always check your car’s oil, tire pressure, engine coolant, and brake fluid levels whenever you gas up, and have all the supplies you’ll need to quickly change a tire or top-off your oil while on the road. It’s also a really good idea to get your car checked out before the trip.

As you travel, routinely throw out trash and reorganize whenever you make stops. You’ll accumulate a ton of junk and some minor filth along the way. Your car is where you live for the duration of the road trip, so unless you’re Oscar from Sesame Street, clean it up often.

8. Stay entertained.

You’ll be driving through areas where there’s no cell service, no reachable radio station (or one that’s enjoyable, at least), and miles upon miles of beautiful winding roads ahead. Make sure to load up on entertainment options: CDs, downloaded music, stand-up comedy, audio books, and podcasts all keep the drive interesting. Oh, and don’t forget to bring your chargers.

 

So, go pack your bags, load the car, and just drive, because there is nothing quite like staring down an open road with the only certainty being that a new experience awaits you. For more information about Boston and Back, check out our trailer and website.

Credit: Justin Hawk
Credit: Justin Hawk