14 Tips for Planning Your First Road Trip

As I write this, I am currently finishing up a road trip through Bali that was preceded with a one month road trip through New Zealand (covering 5000 kilometers in 30 days).  Last year we did an 11-week road trip through the Western U.S. (covering 5000 miles) and the year before that we did a six-month road trip through Europe (covering 10000 kilometers).  Needless to say, we have pretty much mastered the ability to road trip and to plan road trips.

Our road trips have come in various forms.  In the States, we live in our 30 foot Class C motorhome (click here to read our story) and alternate between standing still for a few months at a time in San Diego, and adventuring on longer road trips through the Western U.S. and Canada (we still haven’t made it to the East Coast but it’s high on our priority list).  In Europe, we rented a caravan for four months and rented a car and tent camped for two months.  Last year, on a 6-week road trip through southern France and northern Spain, we also rented a car, but instead, we had Airbnb’s lined up for the whole trip.  

With that being said, we have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.  I hope to shed some light on some of the questions and fears you may have about road trips with this blog.  

1. Expectations could be the secret to success

They say the secret to happiness is low expectations and if you knew my husband you’d agree.  Happiest guy- very low expectations.  I’m not sure if I should be worried or flattered.  But who cares?  I have too many trips to plan, rocks to climb, and waves to surf to worry about that.  The fact is, all this crazy road tripping and adventure travel is my obsession and he’s happy that he’s the one I choose to drag all over the world.  (I think he’s even starting to like it!)

With that being said, just because it’s your dream to explore, don’t assume everyone else in your family is going to fall in love with it and vice versa.  Yes, we all need a dose of adventure in our lives, but adventure can also be code word for hardship, uncomfortableness, and confronting fears.  

Road trips are huge bonding opportunities when done right and aligning your family’s desires with your values will make travel go much smoother.

I think the best thing a family should do before a road trip is to sit down and talk about what they expect from themselves, from each other, and mostly from the experience itself.

Get everyone’s opinions on what they want to see and do and make sure to connect it back to the real reason you are investing time and energy with this trip.  It’s very likely that you are hoping to create a lot of wonderful experiences and memories and while it’s easy to give in to cries for ice cream and burgers when everyone is tired and hungry, it’s better to have a plan ahead of time for these types of treats.  Be proactive and everyone will be happier.

But remember to be reasonable with your expectations. You can’t expect your kids to sit still for hours on end, just like you can’t expect them to hike up a steep mountain for eight miles.  However, you can encourage them to adapt to new experiences like staring out a window taking in the scenery or hike a bit farther than they have in the past.  Set up your expectations to challenge them a little bit at a time and you’ll be amazed over the long run how much they learn and grow.  And this goes for yourself too.  Go ahead and push yourself a bit on the road to try new things, just don’t expect to be perfect your first go around.

camping in Norway, 14 tips for planning your first road trip

2. Have An Open Mindset to Change

“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” -John Steinbeck

I’m not sure if it’s the change of time zones or the difference in atmospheric pressure in different parts of the world, but when your physical body starts moving, your cells start behaving differently.  Your neurons fire in new ways.  In new patterns.  Your perspective begins to change.   Your awareness expands.  Your tolerance increases.  Your experiences become richer.

The rate at which change occurs varies among individuals, but I will argue that no one travels and stays the exact same person they were before traveling.  When you set out with the desire to see new things, to meet new people, to experience more, the universe will conspire to make it happen.  

It’s not always rainbows and sunshine.  It will require some persistence and hard work at times, but when you confront roadblocks, setbacks, failures or inconveniences in your plan, you’ll be much better at rolling with the punches and finding humor in the mishaps

And there will be mishaps.

For example, when we discovered campgrounds in Hawaii, I felt like I stumbled upon a gold mine.  This was awesome.  I could visit one of my favorite places on earth for less than ten dollars a night!  Don’t get me wrong, camping here is not easy.  The bathrooms are old, the showers are cold, and there isn’t even a picnic table at some of them.  But it is beautiful.  And for us, it provides a great place to sleep after spending the day surfing and hiking the island.  Three days at a time is about my limit for camping here, but if you do the math, that saves us about nine hundred dollars!  The last time we camped here I think I was up in the middle of the night two out of the three nights.  However, instead of getting upset over my lack of REM sleep, I changed my perspective and sat outside my tent admiring the incredibly clear night sky and focused on how lucky I was to be experiencing the Hawaiian islands.  It all comes down to aligning perspective with your values.  As long as surfing in Hawaii with my family is worth the lack of sleep, then we’re good.

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3. Act Capable

No one starts RV camping and is excited to dump the shitter.  No part of that is fun, but I’ll tell you after having to dump the tiny cartridges they have in European RVs, you will appreciate that the U.S. made RVs that have large dump tubes (don’t forget to buy gloves).   

Sometimes we have to drive really long days to get to our first destination.  No one really loves being stuck in a car for eight+ hours.

But believe me on this one...Think you are capable, believe you are capable, and act capable. Click To Tweet

More importantly, teach your kids that they are capable.  That they can endure.  That life doesn’t have to be all fun and entertainment.  

That’s not to say you should let your ego get in the way and create a bigger mess, but modern life rarely gives us the chance to figure things out.  We are an inventive race.  When put in stressful situations, we rise to the occasion, develop a plan, and act brave. You are capable of more than you think.

tent camping in Ireland

4. Overcome Fears

“Being brave isn’t the absence of fear.  Being brave is having that fear but finding your way through it.”- Bear Grylls

There are so many parts of road tripping, camping, and RV-ing that are intimidating, but don’t let your fear keep you from experiencing all the great parts of travel and the outdoors.  I remember worrying about getting lost on a hike, getting attacked by animals, being bitten by poisonous spiders in our sleep,  but like most fears, the fears of the outdoors are often irrational.

When Victor first started rock climbing he hated the idea of swinging.  When you are on top rope you really aren’t in any danger of falling, however, if your route wanders right or left too much and you don’t have directionals put in, you could take a swing laterally if you do slip.  The prospect of swinging laterally, the possibility of hitting his head on the swing, or the adrenaline of the G-force of the swing, kept him from climbing.  

Climbing At Smith Rock, Things to do in Bend in summer

This is climbing

Everyone grows at a different rate and often that rate of growth is directly linked to how many of our fears we are ready to address. Click To Tweet

It took awhile for Victor to rationalize that fear, but now he willingly climbs and is the first to encourage others to participate in the sport.

You can do it.  Address your fearsAccept them as normal human emotion.  Get to the root of what the actual fear is that you are struggling with.  Logically decide if it’s a real risk or a phantom one.  If it’s something that is unlikely to happen, set it aside, and go be brave

You’ll be amazed at what you’ll discover!  And while you are at it, tag #braveforadventure on IG so we can applaud your bravery!

5. Have a Mishap Fund

My husband and I always say that if we had a little bigger budget, our trips would have been so much easier.  I tend to be cheap and too idealistic, which often means buying less food when everyone is starving or pushing the gas gauge far into the red to save ten cents a gallon by fueling up further down the road. 

If it’s your first trip, try to budget a little higher than you think you’ll need so you can throw money on things to be more comfortable.  

Keep in mind too, there is a lot you can throw money on to help get over some of your fears.  Maybe not to pay someone to dump your poo for you, but creating a little cushion in your budget for unexpected mishaps can give you peace of mind.  Try having a small fund for things like flat tires, a hotel room for if you get really tired, buying extra snacks when someone gets “hangry”, or hire a guide to take you rock climbing.  Our natural instinct is to spend money to prevent being uncomfortable, but I recommend budgeting in a way that forces you outside your comfort zone knowing that you have some reserve funds if you need to retreat back into your safety net.

6. Ask for help

I’m amazed at how kind the world is.  I’ve been in need all over the world and someone always steps up to help when I need it most. 

My husband sliced open his face while surfing in France and a stranger on the beach took us to the hospital and to his follow up appointments over the next few days.  Now when we return to France, we have a new friend to visit 🙂

Our dear friend Jean-Marie, 14 tips for planning your first road trip

Our dear friend Jean-Marie who helped Victor when he was hurt

When you travel and start letting people into your life, you will be amazed at how many kind-hearted and wonderful souls you will meet.Click To Tweet

That’s another thing I love about camping.  Campers are usually excited to lend a hand.  When we first bought our fifth wheel trailer we needed a truck to pull it, so I bought a 1999 Dodge diesel truck that had huge tires and a big liftIt looked really cool, but it was really hard to turn the wheel.  The first time we tried to back the trailer into a campsite we couldn’t do it and one of the other campers in the campground had to come to our rescue and back the trailer in for us.  Yeah, it was a little embarrassing, but in reality, it made it a really fun afternoon for everyone at the campground and made for a good story. 

Next time you are in a bind, put your pride aside and ask for help if you need it.  You never know, you just might find your next friend for life!

7. Make it active, but realistic

I’m a little prejudice on this one.  You can have a great time on a road trip and stick to exploring cities, but just for kicks, I’m going to try and persuade you to make it an active trip (I mean that’s the reason we travel after all).

We love centering our travels around various hikes, climbs, swims, bike rides, and surfing

Life thrives in movement.  Click To Tweet

There have been numerous studies that show how learning is improved after movement.  Do your kids and yourself a favor and find ways to move more through your travels.

By centering your travel around activities, you will keep your kids engaged and help them burn off the endless energy they seem to have, you will help your family be healthier, and the activities will add more fun to your life

Decide as a family what activities sound fun to do or find ways to compromise so everyone gets a little dose of the things they enjoy doing.

I do love to go into cities to sample and stock up on artisan foods, but I find that half a day in a city with young kids is about all they can handle.  If your kids are older than that, of course, a full day is possible (or even two days). 

Cities also mean spending money and every meal that you eat in the city will add a lot to your budget.  When we go into cities we try to sample lots of different foods instead of going to one restaurant and stuffing ourselves.  For example, in San Francisco we had a full eight hour day of fun, walking all over the city without ever sitting down to a full meal.  We sampled pastries at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf, chocolate at Ghirardelli, coffee at Beacon Coffee & Pantry, pizza and salami in North Beach, baked goods in China Town, and sipping chocolate and desserts at Dandelion Chocolate.  By the end of the day, we had walked over six miles, but spent only $100 for all seven of us.  

Super helpful tip: If you have to take your RV into the city, do so early before traffic and parking become an issue.

8. Eat Healthy

Feeling good and having energy will make a huge difference in how successful your trip feels.  It’s easy to go on a road trip and just stop at every restaurant along the way, but finding a way to cook wholesome foods while traveling will not only help you feel better, it will save you a lot of money, and prevent brain fog. 

I am a huge fan of Trader Joe’s and can stock my RV with a week’s worth of healthy and nutritious food for less money than it costs to eat out for two days

Grocery shopping ahead of time is very important because you don’t want to waste a day tracking down a grocery store and if you wait until you are hungry to find one, you will probably just give in and go out to eat instead.

Space for food is limited while road tripping, making sure you have the right amount of food is key. 

In an RV you will have a little fridge and pantry area, but if you are tent camping you will need to pack a cooler (if you have room, carry two coolers, one for meats and one for drinks and produce).  Remember to keep a supply of well-sourced protein, raw nuts, and a little dark chocolate on hand to get you through your activities and on long drives.

Storing all the food can be tricky and I keep an empty plastic bin in the under storage to store all the snack foods so they don’t get eaten the first day and to make sure I have snacks on hand for the days we are hiking and climbing.

When we hit the road, we are looking to hit the crag, trail, or waves early in the morning so we don’t waste much time on breakfast.  However, when we are done with our activity we like to come back to a big meal of salad, meat, sautéed veggies, and a big loaf of organic sourdough bread if we can find it.

Cooking our own food every day, 14 tips for planning your first road trip

9. Learn To Relax

As a mom, I’m always trying to juggle way too much and part of that means constantly picking up after everyone and cleaning. 

Moms, try to resist.  There will always be a mess.  Ask for help, hang up a hammock and grab a good book and get some high-quality rejuvenation.

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This may not seem like a necessity to you, but nothing screams relaxation like a hammock.  This two person ENO hammock has seen a lot of forests and is fought over with feverish passion between family members.  Your mission: To find the perfect trees![/caption]

10. Pace yourself: Finding the optimal length of a road trip

It’s very important to be realistic about what you and your family can handle each day.

If you ask me, road trips should be as long as possible- meaning until you run out of money.  However, most of us don’t have that luxury (including myself) so I have a general rule that you shouldn’t average more than 100 miles per day

Since moving from place to place with an RV takes a little longer than a car, I feel that two hours of driving a day is the most I like to do and still be able to enjoy the places I am visiting.  If you are traveling by automobile (car, truck without trailer, or van) you may feel comfortable stretching your average to 150 miles per day.  Remember, this is your average daily miles.

If you know you will be driving 200-300 miles in a day, make sure you are sitting still in the departing or arriving city for two to three days to try and find some balance.

As exciting as it is to be on the open road and keep pushing to see more, if you push too fast you, your family will not end up enjoying the experience.  Remember, it’s about the journey, not the destination. 

You don’t get a trophy at the end for the number of places you see, but you do get the memories of the experiences you create along the way, so enjoy the process of movement with flexibility and compassion to everyone’s needs.Click To Tweet

Personally, I like to build in a two or three day cushion because I’ve been known to stumble upon towns that I really enjoy and want to stay a few extra nights in, but I realize that’s not realistic for most people.  If you are traveling during off-season times, then you have the luxury of not needing to book campsites and can set up a much more flexible itinerary.  However, if you are traveling in the summer or during holidays, and especially if you are going anywhere near the coastline, you will have to decide ahead of time how many days you want to spend at each location because many of these campsites fill up months in advance and finding an alternative campground can make your trip a lot more stressful than rewarding. 

Related Blog: Things To Consider Before Buying an RV 

Camping in Zion, 14 tips for planning your first road trip

11. Account for your own oddities

Deciding when to drive is important also.  I like to wake up, drink my coffee, then start my activity right away (surfing, climbing, hiking).  That means that I like to be at my destination the night before so that I don’t have to waste my favorite part of the day driving.   

I hate traffic, so if I have to drive through an area like Los Angeles, I always drive through late at night.  Having a motorhome makes it easy to do this.  If you are a morning person you can easily drive at sunrise. 

When we have a long distance to cover, I always prefer to do a late nighter and pull over at a rest area to sleep when my eyelids start getting heavy.  This drove Victor crazy at first. 

Talk to your spouse ahead of time to avoid extra stress while traveling.

When we travel abroad with just tents, we still end up doing the same, which means we often set up in the dark so having a couple of headlamps was crucial.  But it took a lot longer to get everyone ready and the campsite packed up before we could move to our activity.

12. Keeping your kids happy

Regardless of how much you plan and compromise, it gets tough being crammed together in a vehicle while trying to get from one place to the next. 

Creating a “we’re in it together” mentality helps a lot.  It’s much easier to compromise, be bored, and tolerate uncomfortableness if you are doing it for something you are all excited for in the end.  Click To Tweet

With that in mind, remember my first tip, involve your kids in the planning process. This way they are more motivated to do whatever is needed to enjoy the process of getting to the destinations.  Not only does this make them feel more in control of the situation, it also teaches them to be more accountable for their own actions.  I find this has helped my older children find hobbies that, not only entertain them, but also has helped lead them to discover their talents (writing, drawing, and photography).

While we are driving, keeping my older kids entertained is never an issue.  We’ve done this so long that they enjoy just staring out the window, reading, drawing, or listening to music.  

For my younger two, it’s a different story.  They do a little of that too, but mostly they just watch movies (the same ones over and over again). I have tried to integrate coloring, board games, etc, but I really enjoy seeing the places we are driving through.  For me, I’d rather let them watch a movie while driving and save the games for when we are parked in a campground.

Ipads/Kindles can be helpful to keep little kids entertained.  Make sure they are charged and loaded with appropriate apps beforehand since finding WiFi on the road can be challenging.  One of the best things we have in our RV is a converter so we can charge devices while driving. Also, make sure you have the right car adapter chargers for phones/devices.

The other thing my kids do a lot while we drive is eatTry to plan ahead for this and have healthy snacks/meals to give them. 

The worst thing to have is grumpy kids with low blood sugar while you drive.  The next worse is to have kids hyped up on sugar and nowhere to go to burn it off.  Nuts, fruit, salami, cheese, veggies, and hummus are some of our snacks that I keep on hand for while we are moving.Click To Tweet

13. Do it for the memories at the very least

Even if you have trouble coming up with specific values— to see other cultures, hike new mountains, taste different foods— the desire to create memories can be a great starting point.

Regardless of how much curiosity and adaptability you may be starting with, I can promise that the one thing you will get is a lot of memorable moments.  

Moments when everyone is happy like:

  •  The kids are busy reading, playing, or exploring and you finally have time to breathe and appreciate the little things and the big things
  • When you all sit down for a meal, enjoy delicious food, and talk about the awesome adventures you did that day

Moments of laughter like:

  • When your husband freaks out on a hike because he thinks he hears a mountain lion in the bushes, but it ends up being a squirrel, (in Victor’s defense, there had been a cougar sighting on that trail a month before and we were the first ones on the trail that morning so it was eerily quiet)
  • When your walking on an easy trail and your clumsiest son trips while walking on a log and you can’t help but laugh (we felt bad for him too but don’t worry he wasn’t hurt)

Moments of frustration like:

  • When your dad doesn’t lock the fifth wheel axis into the hitch and you take a U-turn too fast and the fifth wheel comes sliding into the bed of the truck
  • When you lose your whole family’s passports in Spain for 24 hours only to realize that they were in a hidden pouch of your backpack all along (it’s as stressful as it sounds, read the story here)

And moments of pure joy like:

  • When you all cuddle together on one tiny RV couch to watch a movie for the hundredth time, knowing that your kids will spend the next week quoting parts of the movie over and over again.  
  • When you all gather around a campfire in a scenic, isolated campground, and stare up at the biggest sky full of stars you’ve ever seen 

It’s hard, it’s fun, it’s frustrating, it’s joyful, it’s tiring, but regardless, it’s memorable.  And isn’t that what we really want from raising kids?  A whole bunch of great stories to share when they come home for the Holidays.”

Camping on a farm in the Netherlands, 14 tips for planning your first road trip
Camping on a farm in the Netherlands

14. Safety

Last, before you head out on your epic road trip, you should definitely do maintenance on your vehicle to make sure it’s running properly.  Please ignore the fact that I never have.  I probably have too much of my dad in me and figure we will deal with the flat or the broken hose when it happens.  I don’t recommend following in my footsteps.  Be safe and get everything checked so you can enjoy your trip and not waste time at a repair shop.

We do carry an emergency kit with jumper cables, reflectors, and other helpful items.

One thing I do before we head out on the road is start from a clean slate.  I clean it out the RV completely before I start packing it up with all our gear to get rid of things that we won’t be using.  I like to travel as light as possible and this is one element of that for me.  

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