Many of the things that make road trips so great — the feeling of freedom, the focus on the countryside, the solitude — are magnified when you set out on a solo trip. For a brief interlude, it’s just you, your car, and the road. It’s wonderful, but it can be daunting too.
Looking back, I realize I’ve always had a soft spot for road trips, starting with a magical trip to the Oregon Coast in the family station wagon when I was 7 years old. I remember gazing up at giant redwoods, splashing in the ocean for the first time, and climbing massive sand dunes.
Up until recently, though, my road trips were somewhat sporadic and often taken with family or friends when flying wasn’t practical. That changed in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic severely limited travel options for me and everyone else. All of a sudden, the only reasonable way to travel seemed to be by car. For me, that meant solo road trips.
I’ve since taken road trips to every corner of my home state of Arizona, the California coast, Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, southern Utah’s many state parks and national monuments, New Mexico’s White Sands National Park, Texas’s Big Bend, and the Guadalupe Mountains national parks.
My trips have all been great adventures, but there have been a few lessons as well. Here are 9 things I’ve learned road tripping solo.
1. Pre-Planning Is A Must
Without navigational input from a fellow traveler, I’ve found that it’s imperative to identify my routes and study the details (the main highways, major turns, and interesting points) before I head out.
I usually start by searching point A to point B on my laptop computer, check out the two or three alternative routes, and then program my preferred route into my phone’s mapping app. I use the Apple Maps app, but many people prefer the Google Maps app.
Another obvious reason for having a set itinerary is safety. By letting someone know your route before you go, you have some backup in case you run into trouble along the way. It’s also wise to check in with those people when you arrive at your destination.
2. Booking Hotel Stays In Advance Is Advisable
Central to a solo traveler’s pre-planning should be hotel, campsite, or short-term rental reservations along the way.
These days, especially in the summer, you’re likely to find yourself with no place to stay without proper planning. Road trips are more popular than ever, and many hotels along major highways become booked weeks in advance, while camping at national parks sometimes requires booking months in advance. The stress of looking for accommodations en route is compounded when you’re alone because you don’t have another person to research vacancies while you drive.
Pro Tip: I’m a big fan of my Marriott Bonvoy rewards card and I usually try to find a Marriott brand hotel for my nights on the road. There are plenty of other loyalty and rewards programs to check out as well, along with VRBO for short-term rentals, and Hipcamp for camping sites.
3. Frequent Gas Ups Provide Peace Of Mind
My car gets about 40 miles to the gallon, so I could conceivably drive more than 500 miles before I need to gas up. For my peace of mind, I never wait anywhere that long and usually stop to fill gas every 250 miles or so.
Part of the reason is that gas station stops give me a chance to stretch my legs, get a cold beverage, and take a restroom break. Another part is the uncertainty of when I’ll be able to fill up again. Especially when I’m driving on remote roads in Texas, Arizona, or Nevada. I never take a chance on waiting for the next gas station.
Pro Tip: Cellphone apps like Gas Guru can help you determine where the next gas stop will be, and the lowest prices.
4. Having Complete Control Over Your Trip Is A Blessing And A Curse
Yes, solo road tripping offers a feeling of freedom by giving you complete control over your route, your stops, and the length of your stays. Remember that the tradeoff is that it also means you have total responsibility for all of the driving and little decisions along the way.
There are definitely times when I’d like a second opinion on a route or become bored with the drive. That’s when pre-planning comes in handy.
5. In-Car Entertainment Is Crucial
Whether it’s music, audiobooks, or podcasts, having something to keep my mind occupied as I drive makes all the difference in the world on my solo drives.
For me, nothing beats an audiobook to help pass the hours. Not only do I become immersed in a fascinating story, but I’m able to transport myself to faraway places. Some recent audiobooks I’ve loved for road-tripping are Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway, Elin Hilderbrand’s 28 Summers, and Lucy Foley’s The Paris Apartment.
I also like to check out the channels on my SiriusXM subscription. On one memorable summer trip through Arizona and Nevada in 2020, I listened to the entire countdown of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Top 100 hits on the Tom Petty Channel. I’ve also been known to tune in to Comedy Central Radio’s hilarious sets and The Pulse’s recent hits.
Pro Tip: Free loans of audiobooks are available with a library card at many public libraries, via the Overdrive or Libby apps. I always keep my Overdrive account stocked with books so that I have plenty of choices on my long drives.
6. A Well-Serviced Car Is A Life Saver
As a road trip approaches, I make a point of getting my car in for service — if possible, by timing my regular oil changes with my trips. Then, I always mention to the service technicians that I have a big road trip coming up and ask them to check out crucial elements like the tires, brakes, windshield wipers, air conditioning, and fluids.
If and when unforeseen emergencies do come up, having a roadside assistance policy is crucial. To cover all my bases, I have towing coverage through my car insurance and also have a membership with AAA (American Automobile Association).
7. It’s Important To Pack Strategically
Although I typically subscribe to the mantra that it’s best to pack light, I believe a solo road trip is an opportunity to overpack a bit in the interest of being well-prepared. After all, you have the whole car to yourself!
I usually pack a jacket or two, along with an assortment of jeans, capris, blouses, sweatpants, a hat, and swimming suits. As a hiker, I like to have plenty of shoe choices, including hiking sandals, hiking boots, sneakers, flip-flops, and a couple of hiking packs.
I don’t like to carry everything into my hotel room each night, so I keep the shoes, jackets, and packs in separate large-size packing cubes that I leave in my car where they’re easy to grab, as needed.
Pro Tip: To deal with issues that come up on the road, I keep a supply of handy gadgets and products in my car, including jumper cables, a solar flashlight, disinfectant wipes, bandages, and duct tape. I also pack camping gear, including a tent, a sleeping bag, a pillow, and an air mattress — just in case.
8. Don’t Forget The Snacks And Drinks
To ensure that I have a supply of cold drinks, fresh fruit, and veggies for snacking, I keep a large 5-day ice retention Igloo Max cooler in the cargo area of my car, and a small cooler in the front seat where I can easily access it while I’m driving. I regularly replenish things from the larger cooler into my small cooler and add ice to both.
I like to stock my coolers with bottled water, sparkling water, soft drinks, and snack-size baggies full of grapes, orange slices, and mini carrots.
9. Finding Your Comfort Zone Enhances Safety
I’ve found that I can comfortably drive 8 to 10 hours in a day, but anything beyond that becomes taxing. As I map my route, I keep that in mind and make my hotel reservations accordingly.
It’s important to find your road-tripping rhythm, personal comfort zone, and never continue driving when you’re tired. Sometimes a quick nap in your car at a rest area can do wonders, but always remember to choose your spots with safety in mind. I carry small window shades that attach using suction cups to the glass to provide some privacy.
Pro Tip: The adage of “it’s more about the journey than the destination” is never truer than on a road trip. For that reason, I remind myself to be present, take it all in, and stop often to smell the roses (or the daisies or sunflowers or lupine). I recommend programming at least two hours of leeway into each day’s schedule to allow time to explore unexpected scenic byways and charming downtowns you encounter along the way.
For more tips on solo travel, check out these articles: