The van is packed up and ready to go, but where do you start? Too many options can make planning a long-term road trip challenging. Not having a specific end date or place to go can only add to the stress. Van life is supposed to be stress free and fun, so we don’t recommend over planning. That being said, it is a good idea to have a general direction in mind. Here are a few techniques we use to plan our road trips.
Follow the weather
One of the first things to look at when planning out a trip is the weather and time of year. Poor weather will quickly kill the fun when you’re out in it so is important to keep this in mind. Aim to head south in the winter and north in the summer. Summer heat can be unbearable in many states, so you don’t want to find yourself stuck in Phoenix, Arizona during that time of year.
In addition to weather, some states have bug seasons that would be nice to avoid. Mosquito season begins hitting Minnesota in mid-May, so perhaps that is a good time of year to head to a drier climate. Ticks are also the most active from May-August on the east coast of the US. You won’t be able to avoid all bad weather and bugs, but with appropriate planning you can make the trip much more enjoyable.
Plan for shorter drives
This is not a necessary step, but if you have the time we recommend planning for shorter drives each day. There is a lot to see out there, and if you’re shooting through the states in a couple of days you will miss out on a lot of the things smaller towns have to offer. We have found stopping at visitor centers gives us a lot of insight on things to do in the area. They can provide you with maps, upcoming events and even local discounts. Some welcome centers even have free coffee! Spend time eating at local restaurants, visiting parks and walking around the town center.
Not only will shorter drives give you more time to find good camping spots, but you will feel less exhausted at the end of the day. Keep in mind, if you have the time not every day has to require driving. Sometimes it’s best to stay in an area for a few days (or weeks) at a time. We recommend adding a buffer to your trip so if something looks cool you won’t feel rushed to leave right away.
Using Pinterest to plan a road trip
We’ve found Pinterest to be one of the best resources for finding picturesque and little-known places in each state. You will of course find all of the most popular destinations on Pinterest, but many people upload their best shots from travel on there and it is a gold-mind of information.
Setting up a Pinterest account is free and easy. Once you have one, you can create boards for places you want to visit, or upload pictures of places you’ve already been. On our Pinterest account, we’ve created boards for every state in the US and some European countries. Pinterest has been one of our go-to solutions for road trip planning and has allowed us to find destinations we haven’t seen listed anywhere else. With Pinterest, you can be as specific or as broad as you want when searching for places to visit.
When we were looking for places to go in New Mexico, Pinterest led us to the Bisti Badlands. This turned out to be one of the most unique and out-of-this-world places we’ve ever visited. Because the Bisti Badlands is a Bureau of Land Management wilderness area, it was not listed in many other places. You will not find the Bisti Badlands when searching for National Parks, in adventure maps, or “Top 10 Things to Do” lists. And because it was BLM land, we were able to camp for free and explore anywhere we wanted. We would have never found the it without Pinterest!
National Parks Passport book
Visit any National Park, and for just a few dollars you can purchase a “Passport Book”. Passport books are a really fun way to keep track of your travels. In every US National Park, you can go into the gift shop or information area and find a kiosk with free stamps representing the park.
Each morning the park ranger sets the date on the stamps so you have a ready-made souvenir with the name of the park, city, date and a little picture. We have found this to be a really fun free souvenir. The front of the book also has a map of all of the National Parks, Seashores, Monuments and other cool places to visit. We often use this book to blindly visit map dots when we’re not sure where to go; and have been pleasantly surprised with the places we’ve seen.
If you plan to use a National Parks Passport book to help guide your travels, I highly recommend picking up a yearly National Parks Pass as well. The National Parks pass is very affordable, covers everyone in the vehicle and pays for itself after just a few visits and can be bought at any of their visitor centers.
Visit friends and family
This is probably one of the more obvious ways to plan a trip, but don’t forget about your friends and family along the way! This is also a great way to take advantage of some free showers and a laundry machine. We make sure to always mark down friends and family in the areas we plan to visit.
Locals have the best lay of the land, so they’ll be able to let you know what the best restaurants, museums or parks are along the way as well. If you don’t have friends or family in the area, utilize online forums or Facebook groups to find someone who is. They will be able to give you a good idea of “can’t miss” destinations where you are going.
National Geographic Road Atlas – Adventure Edition
One of the most unexpectedly useful things we had purchased at the start of our trip was a National Geographic Road Atlas – Adventure Edition. We weren’t sure how valuable a paper map was going to be, but we’ve been using it the entire trip. The atlas is big and detailed, it has a sturdy cover and lists all 50 states in the US. Not only does it have the roads marked out, but because it is an adventure edition map, it has extra sections dedicated to explorers. Throughout the atlas, you can find little red dots that indicate points of interest. Many of these points of interest are quite well known. However, we have found quite a few destinations on this map we hadn’t seen listed in our initial searches of the area.
Catwalk Canyon in New Mexico, for example, was something we decided to stop at on a whim because we were driving by one of those red dots. This turned out to be a fantastic find! Catwalk Canyon is a scenic walk along waterfalls and pools built around an abandon mine. We never would have thought to visit this canyon without the map.
There are also a few pages in the front of the book that point out the best destinations for hiking, climbing, paddling, winter sports, biking and birding in each region of the US. These are not the most detailed descriptions, but it does give a good starting point further research. Campsites are also listed in the map, but we found other resources for finding campsites more valuable.
How to map out your trip
Using the Adventure Edition Road Atlas, we’ve found that we like to plan a trip using sticky notes. Before headed to our next state, we check out Pinterest, the National Parks booklet, and ask friends and family where to go. We write down each destination on a different colored note and stick them to the map. Then all we have to do is connect the dots!
Placing sticky notes on the map allows us to make visual clusters of the areas we might want to spend the most time. We don’t like to travel too strictly, so this gives us a good overview of which areas of the state our destinations are located.
On top of this, we will search freecampsites.net or our other camping resources to figure out if where we want to go is going to have places to stay overnight nearby. If there are no free accommodations, we’ll decide if it is worth staying in a paid campsite, or driving further to visit the places we want to see. This keeps the costs down and prevents us from having to unexpectedly travel a few hours for a campsite.
There are a lot of great apps out there, but you can’t always rely on an internet connection for a long-term road trip. Sometimes it’s more fun to visualize it the old-school way and discover things without the use of an app.
If you have a few destinations in mind and are looking for a more efficient way to travel, Roadtrippers.com is one of the best websites out there. All you have to do is create a trip, put in a list of destinations, and it will automatically re-order the list, mapping out the fastest route to get to all of them. I like to add cities to my list then leave notes about what I want to do there.
Roadtrippers.com has a fantastic user interface with pictures of the most popular destinations and suggestions on other things to do in the area. If you decide to put in extra information such as your vehicle and gas mileage, it will also give you an estimate of how much you will spend on gas!
Roadtrippers.com can be used without creating an account, but we recommend creating a free one to save your trips. On a smartphone, you can download the free roadtrippers app and it will sync everything from your desktop to multiple phones. The app often saves enough data to work well even without internet service.
I prefer to add my destinations in a desktop where I can explore the area, then save the trip and access it on my phone as we’re driving. Clicking on destinations within the roadtrippers app will open up directions in either Google or Apple maps making it easy to get where you want to go.
One of the disadvantages of Roadtrippers.com is that you can only add 50 destinations at a time. This may sound like a lot, but those destinations add up fast when you are travelling long term. I prefer to make a couple of maps for each region that I’m traveling.
Road trip planning with Google map tricks
Google maps may not be the best way of exploring an area, but there are a couple of tricks that can be helpful while you travel. Did you know you can save a section of a map for offline use? Not every area is going to have great cell reception, so as we approach a new city, we like to save a large section of the google map for offline use. This will store all of the roads and addresses in your phone for 30 days and allow you to access it even with no service.
How to save an offline google map:
- Open up the app on your phone and click the three lines on the top left corner of the search bar.
- Select ‘offline maps’ on the left sidebar
- Select ‘custom map’
- Draw a square around the area you want to save
- Select ‘download’
Downloading a google map for offline use can take a long time, and the larger the map the longer the download time will be. We recommend doing this over wifi or with a strong connection. Depending on the size of the map, it could take up a lot of space on the phone. Because of this, we only recommend downloading areas you know you are going to be. The offline map will be automatically deleted from the phone after 30 days from the app.
Star google map destinations
Maybe you’ve recently found an awesome free camping spot and you want to remember where it’s at. Maybe there is a place that a friend told you about that you really don’t want to forget. Google allows you to save your favorite places directly on their maps for easy access later.
How to star a google map destination:
- Open up the google map app on your phone
- Select a location or donation on your map
- Select ‘save’
- Select ‘stared places’
How to open starred places on a google map:
- Open up the app on your phone and click the three lines on the top left corner of the search bar.
- Select ‘your places’ on the left sidebar
- Select ‘saved’
By opening up saved places, you will see stars all over the map of locations you would like to remember. Keep in mind that the number of destinations that you can star is limited. This is different for each user, but 200 locations has been a common maximum number, so use this feature sparingly.
How to transfer a google route from your desktop to your phone
Sometimes it’s just easier to plan your route using a desktop computer instead of a phone. If you decided to plan a complex route using google maps on your desktop, there is an easy way to transfer that plan to your phone.
After creating a map on your desktop computer, simple go to the left sidebar and click ‘send to your phone.’ This will send your phone a text message with a clickable URL that opens the full map right in your phone app.