How to Plan a Camping Road Trip

Hit the open road with these top travel tips

Motor home on a highway traveling in Utah
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If you want to see the country this summer, the best way to get out on an adventure is to pack up the car and go on a camping road trip. The thrill of hitting the open road and heading where the wind blows is pretty appealing, especially when you'll be camping in the great outdoors to boot. A spontaneous road trip can offer some of the best experiences and memories that you’ll ever have, but a road trip with no plans can also be a disaster. With a little research before you go, however, you'll be able to maximize your time and see some great sights.

Have a Destination in Mind

It's possible that you just want to see where the road takes you, but it doesn't hurt to set your compass towards a great destination. You don't have to have plans entirely set in stone, but a general idea or theme is a great starting point. If you're unsure where you want to go, consider visiting a national park. Often called "America's Best Idea," the U.S. park system preserves the natural splendor of the country and is a must-see for every American. Many parks are close together or surrounded by national forests and wilderness areas that are ideal for camping. Buy a map of the region (it doesn't hurt to have a hard copy as back up) that you want to explore and start doing some research on the top camping areas.

Know When to Go

Once you have a destination in mind, consider the time of year and the seasonal climate of the regions you'll be camping in. Summer months and holiday weekends can be quite busy on the highways and popular campgrounds are usually booked up months in advance. A spontaneous road trip might sound great, but during peak travel times, a trip with no plans can be disastrous.

If you decide to travel outside of the summer, research the weather and average nightly temperatures of your destination during the months you'll be traveling, before deciding whether or not you'll want to spend the night in a tent. For example, even if you're camping in a desert environment like Joshua Tree National Park in sunny Southern California, nighttime temperatures in the winter can drop below freezing.

Consider How Much Time You Have to Travel

The biggest mistake most road trippers make is trying to drive too far in too short a period. Map the mileage of your planned route and consider how many days you’ll have on the road. You don’t want to spend the entire time in your car, so plan your route according to the number of miles you are comfortable driving each day and consider having days without travel so you can relax and take your time at key destinations. Just because you can technically drive hundreds of miles in a single weekend doesn't mean you should!

Notify Your Bank That You Will Be Traveling

Driving hundreds of miles each day, filling up on gas, and buying groceries in different towns can be a red flag to your financial institutions. If you aren’t carrying much cash, the last thing you want to deal with is having your account frozen with no cash in the middle of nowhere. A quick phone call to let your bank know the dates you’ll be traveling will prevent this problem and save you a big headache.

Have Your Car Serviced Before You Hit the Road

Among all the things that could go wrong on a road trip, your car breaking down might be one of the worst possible scenarios. Unfortunately, this does happen with even the most well-maintained vehicles, so a basic tune-up is always a good idea before you go for an extended drive. Always have the oil and filters changed and do a basic service on your vehicle before you hit the road.

Pack Light

You don’t need a lot of gadgets and accessories to have a good road trip. Of course, you'll want your basic camping gear and a few extras to have a good time, but don't overstuff your car with items you don't need. Not only are you weighing it down, which burns gasoline, but trying to find the Frisbee or cookstove in a fully packed car can be difficult and frustrating. Many items you can also pick up on the road somewhere if you decide you really do need them halfway through the trip.

Know the Roads

Though many cars and smartphones have GPS mapping systems, it helps to see the big picture on a real map, so make sure you have the correct maps and that your planned routes are free of major construction or closures. If you're visiting an area that gets a lot of tourists, you can usually find a guidebook or resources online with recommended sights, activities, and informational background on the destination. If you can’t find a guidebook before you go, try to find a visitor's center or regional office where you can get free information on area attractions.

Reserve Campsites in Advance

If you have a detailed route, consider booking campsites before you go. Knowing that you have a place to go each night will help ease the stress of traveling, especially during busy summer months. You don't want to be driving around until midnight looking for an available campsite. If something comes up and you have to find a campsite at the last minute, camping apps can help you find an available campsite and reserve it on the same day.

Shop Local

Rather than stocking up with two weeks' worth of food before you go, pack only the non-perishable essentials like oils, spices, and coffee. For your fresh ingredients, shop at local stores and farmer’s markets near your campsite. One of the best parts of traveling is the regional cuisine and seasonal food that you may not have available where you live. Shopping local also supports the communities in the towns that you visit.