Essential Road Trip Wisdom

Yeah, some of this is pretty obvious. But it's also just what you need to hear.

The open road is a great place to be, unless the unexpected happens and you're not prepared.     Photo: Steve Wilson/Flickr

A good road trip involves a certain amount of improvisation. But the best ones require the right strategy and a few essentials. These eight pieces of advice will start you on the right path.

1. Arm your phone

The best app for a long haul is Roadtrippers, which will plan your route, estimate fuel costs, and suggest itineraries (free; Android and iOS). But the trustiest route assistance remains the Rand McNally road atlas ($14). It doesn’t require batteries or a signal, and it’s the best inspiration for our favorite part of any journey: the impromptu side trip. (Is that a lake or an ink spot? Let’s find out!)

2. Pick the right route

Avoid big cities and highways and stick to two-lane roads for the most scenic drive. Unpaved roads are even better.

3. Be prepared

A tire-repair kit and air compressor could be your best friends when you turn onto that enticing gravel lane. We recommend a kit from Trail-Gear ($21) and a Smittybilt 2780 compressor ($80). Keep a set of jumper cables and a jack in the trunk for emergencies, and always carry a couple of extra gallons of water.

4. Pack smart

You can get by with minimal clothing: a few T-shirts, a couple of pairs of socks and underwear, a pair of jeans, a fleece, a rain jacket, and a swimsuit. If you’re traveling with more than that—tents, days’ worth of food, bikes or boards or other toys—invest in an aerodynamic roof box like Thule’s Sonic (from $550).

5. Know where to find shelter

When you’re far from a hotel, open your road atlas and head for the nearest green space. Most national forests and Bureau of Land Management acreage are open to dispersed camping for up to 14 days unless posted otherwise. No public land nearby? Check out FreeCampsites.net, a database of hundreds of grounds around the U.S. and Canada.

6. Stay clean on the go

For when you’ve gone into the wild and it’s starting to show, pack an eco-friendly soap like Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile (from $3.19) and a portable camp shower like Nemo’s Helio Pressure ($100), which heats up when left in the sun. 

7. Refuel often

Never let your fuel gauge drop below a quarter-tank, and if you’re going into wild country, carry an extra can in the trunk. Too late? If you have cell service, download AAA’s TripTik Mobile app and sign up for roadside assistance on the spot (free; Android and iOS). If not, state troopers will take you to a gas station. Or head to the nearest sign of civilization. Even in Wyoming—the least populated state in the country—ranchers usually have gas. And they accept $20 bills.

8. Bring the essential road trip tool

Gary Paulsen was right: a hatchet is a damn useful thing to have. Bring along the Gränsfors Wildlife hatchet ($112).

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