How to Plan a Cross-Country Road Trip

I recently returned from a 4,000 mile road trip from Alaska through Canada and the western U.S. I set up camp every night, slept on the ground, cooked my own meals, packed my own snacks, and mapped my own route. I explored national parks and monuments, interpretive centers, trails, and small mountain-town main streets. After over 80 hours of driving, I learned how to live on the road.

If you’re interested in living by car for awhile, whether it’s for a week or a month or more, you can. Having the drive (pun intended) to make it happen is the hardest part. After that, the rest is fun! Anyone can embark on a road trip. It will be thrilling, affordable, and challenging, and the stories are worth every penny.

Here’s how to do it.

Pack Less Than You Think You Need

Moving to a new destination every day has taught me just how many clothes I need to live (hint: it’s not many–I’ve barely touched half of the items in my entire suitcase).

For a 14 day trip, 4 pairs of pants, 6 tops, and as many underwear as you find necessary (I won’t regulate those) is plenty of clothing. Bring layers, depending on the season or location. Make sure your clothes are comfortable for driving and walking. Challenge yourself to bring less than you need. Odds are, whatever you initially pack can easily be cut in half. Having too many clothes along is not only unnecessary, but a burden. And worse case scenario: you find a laundromat or campground to reset your wardrobe along the way.


Have a Strategy for Finding Shelter

It’s extremely likely that a couple of extra bathroom breaks or sightseeing stops can set you behind schedule. So if you’re camping, keep your tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad in an accessible place in the car just in case. That way, it’s all easy to take out for a late-night pull in. Resources like or the app WikiCamps are useful for searching campgrounds. Also remember to check out the National Park Service website and for U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management camping opportunities.

Truth be told, you don’t need to have every night of your road trip planned before you leave the driveway. I tried to have a general idea of where I wanted to be at a given time of the week. Certain campgrounds I decided to book or plan ahead of time, others I chose the day of the drive. It’s all up to you and how flexible you want the trip to be.

Hostels are also an inexpensive option and provide a great opportunity to socialize and meet other fellow travelers. If staying in a dorm-style room isn’t for you, many hostels also have the option to book a private room for a little bit extra. I guarantee that it will still be cheaper than most hotels, and (bonus!) you can cook your own food in the community kitchen.


Photo by Lindsey Taylor

Eat Your Own Food

This is by far the easiest way to save money on a road trip and it is completely customizable to your own diet. You have flexibility, too. Whether you are eating dehydrated backpacker meals or chopping your own veggies, eating at the campsite is more satisfying and more fun.

Foil packets are an easy way to cook rice and vegetables over the camp fire. Add some butter to the bottom of a piece of foil, then potatoes, peppers, zucchini, garlic, onions–whatever you prefer! Top the mixture off with some seasoning and pop it in the embers or over a fire grate, cook until tender.

Photo by Dan Edwards

Bring Along the Safety Essentials

You may think Mom is annoying for shoving an extra blanket in the car, or Dad is obnoxious for giving you a tool kit or jumper cables. But truthfully, these are things that can save you in case of an emergency.

Leaving a light on in the car accidentally can kill your battery overnight. Most people don’t check the air pressure in their tires (especially their spare) before setting off on the trip of a lifetime.  The Stanley Jump Starter can be a life saver for either yourself or a stranger on the road–it includes an air compressor, a light, and jump starter cables with a battery that can also charge your personal devices in an emergency.

Flashlights—real flashlights, not the app found on your smartphone—are also an essential, especially when camping. Even more convenient? A headlamp!

Find Places to Explore That Fit Your Interests can be a great resource to find places of interest, nightlife, attractions, restaurants, state parks, and more. If you’re traveling with a group, get input on what your fellow travelers want to see. You may experience something outside of your comfort zone.

Photo by John-Mark Kuznietzov

If you can plan all of this, you’re set! As long as you have food, shelter, and gas in your car, your trip can be whatever you want it to be.

Happy trails!

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