Eight Things to Know Before Taking a Cross-Country Road Trip

By Lori Kackenmeister

Whether it’s your first road trip or you’re a seasoned veteran of America’s highways and byways, there are a few things that everyone should keep in mind before packing up the car and hitting the open road. A little forethought and planning can help avoid a breakdown of Griswold-esque magnitude while on the road.

We discovered this beauty in death valley national park. Decisively NOT road trip ready. 

  1. The United States is big...really, really big. This makes for an incredible amount of cultural and geographical diversity - something that should serve as a major source of pride for Americans. They’re amazing lands to let loose and welcome adventure. The best road trips give you the opportunity to explore the unknown, so put down that iPhone and embrace the journey.

  2. Sometimes you have to drive a long time to get to your next destination. Chris and I drove eight-plus-hours on five consecutive days during our road trip/move from San Francisco to Maryland. Prepare plenty of diversions to get you through the tougher moments: break out your high school CD collection, play classic car games (a few rounds of “20 Questions” or “Spot the Cow,” perhaps?), and download a few fun podcasts before the WiFi disappears on you somewhere in the Rocky Mountains (Need a podcast suggestion? Check out our recommendations.)

  3. You can never have too many snacks. After five hours of sitting in a cramped car staring at rolling plains and a never-ending string of religious billboards (we’re talking to you, Kansas!), there’s nothing like a little Trader Joe’s Kettle Corn to reinvigorate spirits. Additionally, keeping handy a few apples, sandwich bread, and peanut butter will help you make lunch on the go, cutting down on meal expenses and long pit stops at Subway.

  4. Space is limited. No surprise here: you’re in a car, which is inherently limited in size (albeit about as big as a Manhattan studio apartment). What this really means is that you must be very thoughtful about everything you’re packing. You will probably need much less than you think. If you’re camping and/or hiking along the way, plan to layer your clothes: bring an all-weather jacket, activewear for daytime activities, and don’t forget warm pajamas (or additional clean, comfortable activewear) to keep you cozy in your tent or budget lodging.

  5. Shower when you can. Showers may only come every few days if you’re camping. Not all campgrounds have them, and when they do, be prepared for a nominal cash-only fee for use (typically starting at $2 for about eight minutes of hot water). Unless you plan to glamp or stay in hotels, you’ll need to let go of this daily cleanliness ritual and say hello to your new best friend...baby wipes. (Tip: Be sure to do your research in advance - often public showers have limited hours and close by 6 or 7 PM).

  6. Eat your greens! Fresh fruits and veggies can be hard to come by while on the road. It may sound simple, but when you see a grocery store, stop. Endless stretches of highway and country roads usually aren’t the best place to pick up a bag of mixed greens, so take advantage when the opportunity presents itself. Chris and I prefer to cook our own meals while camping and find that seeking out a new supply of perishables every three days works well.

  7. Plan a little. There’s something freeing about just getting on the road and letting chance lead the way, but a little research can go a long way towards helping you make the most out of your trip. Knowing the best times of year and top attractions can help you budget your time appropriately. And, not to toot our own horn, but that’s what Over the Map is here to help you with, right!?

  8. You’d better really like your travel partner. 24/7 one-on-one time can be trying for the most solid of relationships. By the end of your trip you’ll know that person very intimately - whether you want to or not. Be prepared to learn more than you ever hoped to about another individual’s bathroom habits, personal hygiene routines, and all of their quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Still, even with the aforementioned considerations, a cross-country road trip can be an amazing once-in-a-lifetime (or maybe twice) experience. If you’re preparing for a U.S. road trip or just looking for a reminder of how great America (already) is, check out our some of the location-specific posts we’ve cultivated for you, including an overview of Death Valley, our favorite National Park to date.