grace + gravity

How to Plan (or Un-Plan) a Road Trip



Much to the judgement of my friends and family members, I am an obsessive planner when it comes to trips. It's true, I do get my kicks out of learning and consuming everything I can about where I'm planning to travel. But what most of them don't know? I get just as many kicks out of crumpling my plan up and tossing it out a window in the first moments of said trip!! It's weird, I know. But it is so satisfying!


Naturally, when I finally set a date to launch my road trip this August, I immediately launched into planning mode. For all of you plan-lovers (or plan-lovers-then-defiers) out there, here are the steps that I have followed to plan my trip so far: 


Step 1: Pick a route.

First, I bought myself a National Geographic Road Atlas (the adventure edition, featuring maps of all North American national parks!) and celebrated its arrival with so much glee! It was like Christmas. I laid trace paper out over the USA and I coloured in the areas of parks that I want to visit. Then I connected the dots, estimating a driving route to fit them all in. 


Step 2: Build a dream trip.

Once I had a good idea of the direction I wanted to travel, I went through state by state to determine if there were highways that I could follow to actually maintain the route I had identified. Again, I laid trace paper over each state, drew in the national parks and major forests, monuments or cities I want to get to, and then I traced the highways that could get me there. This new road route is what I called my "dream trip" - it included everything I could hope to see if I had unlimited time and funds, and could make it to every state that I was hoping to. 


Step 3: Estimate the travel time.

Based on major cities and stops along my dream route, I entered my dream route into google maps, and had it tell me how many kilometres the driving route would be. It also told me how many hours of driving my dream route worked out to. I determined approximately how many kilometres and hours of travel I would be comfortable traveling per day (based on a really fun four-day trial road trip I did back in April), and divided Google's total by this factor to get the number of days it would take to travel my route. Then, I added in days for certain activities: an extra day for exploring a smaller park, two or three days for a large park; I added in a couple of rest days, and at least two days for visits in major cities to resupply, maintain my vehicle, etc.


You can take me anywhere in a passenger seat - mountains or deserts. I'll ride (or drive!) wherever.

Step 4: Evaluate dream vs. reality.

After this, of course, I was given a number of days which my dream trip would ultimately require, and it was much larger than the number of days I am planning to take for my real trip. Based on this discrepancy, I determined how many days of travel I would need to eliminate, and went back to my original map of parks. Being able to visualize my route helped me to prioritize areas that were most dense with exciting adventures, areas that were more out of the way, and even where I was starting to feel most drawn to travel. I decided that some areas could be eliminated from this trip (and made into future trips), and by cutting them out, I could reduce my trip by 3 days to a whole week at a time.


I think it's worth noting here, as an element of reality, that anything can happen. I always have to remind myself how important it is to not get too attached to my routes or plans, dream or real. I fully accept that I might end up in a park or forest or off of a beaten trail where I absolutely just fall in love with the area. I may decide that I want to stop somewhere for an entire week. At the other end of the spectrum, I may plan to spend three or four days in an area that I end up hating - maybe it's way too busy, maybe the weather is rotten. I always resolve not to force myself to either stay or go, just because it's part of the plan. Be prepared for anything - bad weather, great weather, car troubles, an exciting new relationship, the discovery of something compelling or revolting, or just way too much fun! In any case - never jam your trip into a perfect number of days. Definitely leave yourself some flex time; expect the unexpected.


Step 5: Itinerize.

I am confident that itinerize isn't a word, but it really should be! This is where my strong organizational and explorative skills come into play big time! I have been planning my trip day by day, and night by night. I've been organizing where I expect to be traveling on which day, what I intend to explore or where I want to hike, and where I'm hoping to sleep. It includes travel distances, estimated travel times, highway travel directions, major stops or cities, notes regarding road tolls and park fees, campground check-in and check-out times, campground fees, and I make notes about which areas are without potable water, are best for dark skies at night (chances to see the Milky Way!!) or whatever else I find particularly interesting while researching. All of this detail makes it really easy to organize other important aspects of your trip - like budgets (which are a whole other post - I love budgets).


Step 6: Photocopy + distribute.

My dad is probably the worst offender for teasing me about my obsessive planning. Especially when it comes to adventure; he is of the camp who would rather just fly by the seat of his pants! Which is so brave and bold of him. But he is also the first person to ask me for my itinerary when I am heading out on an adventure. So, dad, here you go. I burn off a couple copies of my itinerary just for him. Even if I do toss my entire plan out the window, if I skip a state or reverse my route, if something happens to me, at least he has a general idea of the areas I was expecting to travel and where I might have considered staying. I can't stress enough - if you are traveling alone, it is so so so important to let someone else know where you'll be.


Don't get me wrong - I do recognize the value of unstructured fun. I do really appreciate being able to go with the flow. I do like to occasionally get lost, and I appreciate the fun and challenge of that too! I just like to have the resources, and to know that in my back pocket, I have a good idea of what I would like to see or do. I like to know how the bits and pieces might best fit together. And once I'm on the road, I would rather spend my time hiking or stargazing, not driving back and forth because I forgot or missed something. Or camped out in a coffee shop, borrowing wifi, because I'm bored and I don' know what's up.


I know myself well enough to know that if I come back from a trip and find out that I was just 10 miles away from seeing or doing something absolutely brilliant, because I had no idea it was there or where I was... I would be so disappointed. Or, as I expect with this trip, if I hadn't done the research and discovered that you can get a national parks pass instead of paying admission at every park I plan to travel, well... I would be fixing to spend A LOT more money! 


So, I tell my dad to think of it as if I am simply arming myself. It's all preparation, not marching orders. I'm still going to stop to smell the roses! (But you can't stop to smell roses if you don't know where you might find them, right??)

Photos are my own. Please do not reproduce without my written permission.

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