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Recommendations For Driving
I've been on two long (>4000 mile) and a number of medium-length (>1000, but <4000 mile) drives now. Here are my recommendations based on my experiences so far:
When to Travel
There's a good reason that the summer months are the most popular time for vacationing: the daylight hours are longer. I went on my first drive at the end of October 2006, and even though I was on the road by sunrise, it was a constant challenge to fit everything in before sunset. In addition, many places of interest have reduced services after late September, and some are closed entirely during winter months. Even if one of your destinations is open, the roads to it may not be depending on weather conditions.
There are certainly some amazing sights to be seen in the other three seasons; my recommendation would be to visit them individually as opposed to doing a long drive, unless most of your destinations are indoors.
One potential advantage of ignoring this advice is that during the colder months, most potentially-dangerous wildlife will be hibernating, or at least staying in its den/cave/tunnel. My 2006 drive was through many states with supposedly enormous rattlesnake populations, but I never saw any.
What to Bring
- A map (preferably several). For long drives, I've printed (very large) maps of my route, so that I can chart my progress using a highlighter. I have an old laptop with a GPS receiver and mapping software to capture an electronic version of the actual route, as well as provide guidance if I leave my intended route. If I'm entering a state I haven't been to before or am unfamiliar with, I'll buy a laminated map from a gas station as a third level of redundancy, because getting lost is not fun. There are two main manufacturers of these maps - Rand-McNally, and Universal. Rand-McNally's maps are of much better construction, so I recommend buying those exclusively because they're generally the same price as Universal's. Most gas stations will only stock one or the other. These maps don't provide as much detail as a large, unlaminated map, but they won't fall apart in the rain either. Many states have free, detailed paper maps at the "welcome centers" or rest areas near their borders, so you can usually pick up one of those too if you like.
- A wide variety of clothes. I grew up on the west coast, which has a mild, temperate climate. Inland areas are not like this, at least in the US. Not only do they have more extreme summers and winters, but the temperature on any given day will fluctuate dramatically. When I was at Yellowstone in the summer of 2009, it was hot enough during the day that I almost needed to wear shorts, but at night it was so cold I had to wear two shirts, a jacket, a hat, and gloves inside my sleeping bag to keep warm.
- Gloves. I recommend bringing a pair each of thin and thick gloves. I'm a big fan of Blackhawk!'s "special operations light assault glove"; they're warm enough for most non-winter weather, they're very thin, they provide a good grip, and they're very well-made. In a pinch, they can be used in even colder weather by wearing a pair of exam gloves underneath (I had to do this a few times to put chains on my tires in the snow). I have a pair of typical "bulky winter gloves" that I also keep handy for the few situations where the Blackhawk! gloves aren't enough.
- A warm hat. I am not really a "hat person", but they really are helpful for keeping warm. My sister Lydia knitted me a hat that finds frequent use during cold nights. If you are a "hat person", they're also good for keeping the sun off of your head and out of your eyes.
- At least two flashlights, with extra batteries. If you're going into a cave, bring at least three. Being stuck in the dark with no light source is a recipe for disaster. I keep a D-cell-powered LED flashlight in my car, another in my backpack, and a compact LED flashlight in one of my pockets.
- A roll of quarters. You never know when you're going to run across an unexpected toll booth, or need change for a clothes-washer/dryer.
- A tent, a sleeping bag, and a pad. During my early drives, I often slept in my car, but this gets really uncomfortable after awhile unless you have an enormous vehicle. I use a Cascade Designs Therm-a-Rest self-inflating pad underneath one of their Synergy 40 sleeping bags.
- Nail-style tent pegs, and a hammer. Most tents (especially for budget-conscious campers) come with flimsy L-shaped, unsharpened pieces of metal that are difficult to get into hard ground and bend after a few uses. I recommend replacing them with the kind that look like large nails - Coleman makes one that is inexpensive and can be found almost anywhere. Be sure to bring a hammer as well; I use a long-handled framing hammer, but any hammer is better than a rock or your foot. The time saved and aggravation avoided will be well worth the purchase price.
- Bear spray (if you are spending time in bear country). Bear-grade pepper spray is an effective last-line deterrent against aggressive bears. I started carrying a cannister of it with me after reading that the Sierra Club wanted a law to be passed requiring all visitors in bear territory to have one (even though I think such a law is excessive). Fortunately, I've never had to use it.
- Several gallons of drinking water. If you are stranded in the desert, this could save your life. It could also get you out of the desert much more quickly if you need to use it to temporarily refill your radiator. This is another thing I am lucky enough to have not had to use, but I still make sure to pack 2-3 jugs into my trunk before heading out.
- A notebook and several pens. My sister Amelia made me a great journal to write about my trips in. If you don't write it down at the time, there's a good chance you won't remember the details later, especially if you travel by yourself like I do.
- Insect repellant. It's hard to bring too much of this. Lyme disease, west Nile virus, etc., make for poor vacation memories.
- Sunblock. Even if you spend a lot of time out in the sun, it's likely that you'll encounter some areas where sunblock is at least a good idea. This is especially important at higher altitudes (Yellowstone, etc.) because there is less atmosphere between the sun and your skin to filter out ultraviolet light. If (like me) you live in a lowland area, you will likely be surprised at how quickly you tan and sunburn in these areas.
- At least two pairs of sunglasses. Sunglasses are easy to lose or break.
- An inverter. These devices connect to the 12 volt DC "accessory power" (formerly "cigarette lighter") socket in a car and output 120 volt AC (or whatever is the standard in your country of residence). This means you can charge your cellphone/camera batteries, run a laptop, etc., while driving. When choosing one, try to make sure its rated output can be fed by the circuit it's connected to in your car; the accessory power circuit in my car has a 15-amp fuse, meaning that assuming no losses during the DC->AC conversion (which is impossible), an inverter will blow the fuse at around 180 watts. The recommendation that I've seen elsewhere is to assume a limit of 150 watts output from such a circuit. Unless your car is wired for 30 or more amps through the accessory socket, there's no real reason to buy a higher-output inverter. Do not simply put a higher-current fuse in the socket of a car wired for a 15A accessory socket! The wiring is not rated for it, and you could easily cause damage to your vehicle and yourself.
Optional Things to Bring
- A laptop, a flash-card reader, a DVD-writer, and blank DVDs (if you are a photographer). Being able to back up your photographs is great insurance, and it means you shouldn't have to worry about running out of flash cards for your camera. Some photographers use rewriteable storage devices for this purpose, but I like the relative permanence of DVD-Rs. If you're very paranoid, you can encrypt the contents (using e.g. 7-Zip), burn one copy to keep with you, and a second to mail home to yourself from the next post office you find (in case your flash cards are lost or stolen later in the trip). It doesn't have to be a fancy laptop - mine is an old Pentium 3-based model that I got for free from the junk-pile at work. It doubles as a GPS-mapping system and a backup mp3-player in case I run out of mp3 CDs that I want to listen to or the CD drive in my car's stereo wears out in the middle of a trip.
- Non-perishable food. I don't like taking time away from seeing new things to eat at restaurants (other than a few special exceptions), so I bring lots of nuts, dried fruit, Clif bars, and other similar food. If you do this and are traveling through bear territory, be sure to bring something that will hold all of your food (and toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) - a backpack is generally fine if you're staying in a campground with bear-resistant lockers or have a rope to hang it from tree branches, otherwise look into speciality bear cannisters.
- Bungie cords. If you're storing some of your equipment in the passenger compartment of your car, this is very important. Make sure it's all bungied in place; hopefully you won't be involved in an accident, but in case you are don't make it worse by leaving your tripod or suitcase unsecured and capable of cracking your skull in a crash.
- Anti-theft devices for your car. My car was stolen once, and it was a huge hassle. It would be even more of a headache if it had left me stranded in a different state. It is now equipped with three anti-theft add-ons. They are not infallible, but should be enough to convince potential car thieves to choose a target that has fewer (or none).
What Not to Bring
- Anything illegal. A lot of state troopers (particularly in Minnesota) like to find any possible excuse to pull over and search vehicles with out-of-state license plates. Unless you are a lawyer (or have a lot of money to hire one) and like to fight lengthy court battles over unreasonable searches, avoid the potential for problems entirely. Remember that "illegal" can have different definitions by state - if you're bringing firearms along for any reason, you probably don't want to travel through California unless you've made absolutely sure that your weapons (and storage methods for them) comply with that state's tight restrictions. If you have prescription medication, keep it in the pharmacy-labeled container. If your car has aftermarket modifications to the lighting (undercarriage neon, replacement head/taillights, etc.) make sure it can be (and is) disabled or reverted to standard colours while you're outside of your home state. Blue lights of any kind are illegal except on emergency vehicles in most of the US, and red lights on the front of the vehicle generally are as well. Undercarriage lighting is illegal or at least heavily restricted in most of the western US.
- Anything valuable that you can't store in the trunk or keep on your person. You'll be away from your car frequently, so don't put yourself in a situation where you have to leave your collection of Fabergé eggs on the back seat. This applies also to things that some people may think are worth money even though they're probably not; I got my laptop for free, but I also keep it in the trunk when I'm not with my car.
Things to Remember
- Some of the most interesting places are away from civilization - you are likely to be on your own. A lot of people who've grown up in cities come to take quick-response emergency services for granted. Out in the middle of nowhere, you may not even be able to call for an ambulance, and if you can it will usually take a lot longer to arrive. Don't take excessive risks. Learn some basic first aid.
- Wild animals are unpredictable, and many of them are potentially very dangerous. If the national park you're visiting has signs posted all over the place depicting a stick-figure flying through the air after being gored by a bison, it's probably a good idea to stay well away from.
- Keep your car in good working condition. If you do any of your own work, remember to bring the manual and a set of tools. If your car breaks down 50 miles into the desert, it could be hours before anyone even drives by, let alone offers to call a tow-truck for you. There is a very good chance that your cellphone won't have coverage if you're venturing into sparsely-inhabited areas. If you don't do your own work, have your car serviced before the trip.
- Different states have different traffic laws. For example, in most of the midwest if there is a vehicle on the shoulder with its emergency/hazard lights on, drivers are required to move out of the adjacent lane unless it would be unsafe to do so. Some states allow right turns after stopping at a red light, but others don't. Some police officers are willing to let visitors from out-of-state off with a warning, but they are not legally required to do so. Most police cruisers nowadays are tied into computer networks that let the officer look up information on you, so if they find that you were already issued a warning about the same offence previously, don't be surprised if you get a ticket.
- You're taking time off. Even if you have a smartphone with data coverage, turn it off (unless you need to look up local busineses or points of interest) and don't check your email. The internet will still be there at the end of your trip.
- Plan for a realistic schedule. Knowing your limits is very important. Don't put together a plan that requires you to drive 16 hours a day unless you know you can do that safely. Even if you can do it safely, is that really going to give you time to stop to see everything of interest?
- The United States is huge. If you are from Europe or another densely-populated part of the world, you are probably used to geography on a much more compact scale. The stars of Top Gear drove from London to Scotland and back on a single tank of gas. You probably won't be able to do the equivalent in North America. South Dakota and Kansas (to pick two midwestern states) are both about 400 miles wide, and that's if you take the interstate non-stop. It took me about two weeks to do one loop through the top half of the middle of America; I can't see hitting all 50 states in a single trip of less than 4-6 weeks. Personally I wouldn't even want to attempt that, because it would be too much to take in.
- Culture careens around wildly as you travel through a country as big as the US. Other than my tattoos, I don't look that unusual anymore, but I still get some odd looks in the midwest and rural areas. Years ago when I still had hair and visited Tennessee, I was considered a truly bizarre sight even though few people even look twice at blue (or green, purple, etc.) hair in Seattle. When I lived in Vancouver, BC in the late 1990s, some goth/industrial girls I knew visited the South (in the US, not Canada) and said that when they walked into a bar, the record player literally scratched to a stop like in a film as the DJ cut the music off. If you are uncomfortable being the center of unwanted attention, consider wearing a "normal person disguise" in the style of Invader ZIM.
- Don't plan your trip in too much detail. Part of the fun of a long drive is the unexpected elements that are introduced when your plan intersects with the real world. I would recommend leaving at least 2-3 "spare days" at the end of the trip before you have to be back home, so that if you decide to spend an extra day somewhere or take the slower scenic route between two cities it won't mean having to drop some other destination. On the flip-side, don't feel compelled to visit everything on your list if you are feeling pressured for time; if you're not going to enjoy it fully, it's better to save that place for another day. This is especially true if (like me) you try to do a "grand tour" and hit a large number of destinations - after 12-14 days, I start to feel as though I can't absorb any more new sights, and I'd rather come back later when I can appreciate the remainder propertly. That having been said, if you're on the fence about stopping to visit something, I recommend erring on the side of stopping, especially if the something in question is a long way from home. On my drive in 2007, I made a note in Oregon to come back the next year to visit the Upqua National Forest, because it was only about 400 miles from home (and I did go there specifically in 2008). I stayed an extra day in New Mexico to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park because it was about 3000 miles from home and I didn't know when I'd be in the area again.