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I spent 3 months road-tripping: These are the 5 worst mistakes you can make

These road trip tips and tricks will make your trip even better

For the past several months I’ve been road tripping my way through Western Canada—Vancouver to the Badlands (Drumheller, in particular) to Banff to Jasper then back down via Glacier and Whistler—and while that long list of destinations implies the more exciting aspect of life on the road, the reality that the van life Instagrammers don’t show is that it tends to be something of a slog. Tedious at times, stressful in others, with plenty of distance between the things you actually hit the road to see in the first place, you learn as you go how to alleviate the most aggravating aspects of what more or less amounts to living in your car for weeks or months on end.

It takes experience to learn how to deal with the long miles cruising the asphalt, the nightly search for places to rest your head, and the endless array of practical tasks you’ll have to manage as you go along. Here we’ll discuss a few such strategies. In the past three years I’ve road-tripped nearly 40,000 miles across the United States, Mexico, and Canada, and here are a few road tip mistakes I will never make again.

The open road.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

1. Packing too much stuff

When you’re initially packing, it seems like a smart idea to bring along all the comforts, conveniences, and “just-in-case” possibilities you can. But down the road, you’ll find that you’re only using a fraction of all the crap you now must dig through every time you need to find anything. Locating a can opener turns into fifteen minutes of riffling through a box of fancy camping kitchen gear that you’ll be too mobile to deploy.

Load up your vehicle a few days before your journey with all the reasonable and stupid things you think you’ll need but absolutely won’t, then cut out 40% or more. Really Marie Kondo all that junk. It’s only going to waste time, space, and fuel efficiency.

2. Not taking breaks

Once I get my momentum up, I hate to let it stop. This is especially the case when I have a long distance to cross, like when I’m trying to blast ten hours in a day. Early in such a marathon, it makes sense, but it doesn’t dawn on you until it’s too late—half a day later once you’ve worn your eyes and your nerves raw and you’re barely paying attention to the road at all anymore—that this was a mistake.

Taking the occasional break not only gives you a must-needed rest, but ensures that you actually experience the landscape you’re cruising through. It’s worth the lost hour or so over the course of the day.

My goal for these long drives is to stop at least once every two hours and to try to get in at least one longer stop during which I take a walk or otherwise do something active. A short hike is an ideal option.

3. But also taking too many breaks

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that you will overcorrect and stop so often that you never get where you’re going. This is a particular concern when you’re attempting to see a vast region in a relatively short amount of time.

Sometimes you need to cover ground above all else. Before your trip, take a minute to choose the essential experiences along your route, and schedule milestones that must be hit by certain dates. Fly by the seat of your pants between those fixed points, but when their time on the calendar comes, be sure you’re there.

A guy at this camp.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

4. Don’t go straight for the popular iOverlander spots

The iOverlander app is a great way to find on-the-fly camping opportunities. Primarily used by the van-life crowd, it shows you where to find wild and established campsites along your route. Some have bare-bones information and a single review, while others have plenty of photos and dozens of reviews.

Don’t waste your time on the most popular sites. They’re usually popular for a reason, like a good view, but that popularity means that you’ll more likely than not end up camping alongside a bunch of other vehicles, or not finding space at all. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bounced my way up some long gravel road only to find that the amazing site I’m seeking is full of rowdy campers.

A better strategy involves risking the places with decent but fewer and less ecstatic reviews. For every time I’ve been unable to stay at one of the hot spots, I’ve chanced a site with no photos and a single tepid review only to find that I have some glorious corner of nature all to myself.

5. Forgetting to download tunes

These days most people listen to music via streaming services, which—while hyper convenient—becomes impossible the moment you drive out of phone service. That’s when you realize that for some reason the only albums you’ve downloaded are the ones you least enjoy listening to.

Spend some time downloading your favorite albums before you hit the road. I’m not just talking about a few. Get a wide range of artists so that you’ll have plenty to listen to on the long drive between here and there.

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Nick Hilden
Nick Hilden is a lifestyle and culture writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Afar…
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