Image: Elise Renfrow

Bri, how in the heck are you always traveling?

 

Its a question I get asked CONSTANTLY - but for good reason. 

5 times since spring 2017 + currently planning a 6th.

That’s how many times I’ve been out west and only one of those I flew. Now, I’m not saying that to brag, I’m saying that to show you how possible it is to do this.

Just a little context, I’m in college and do freelance work - so yes, it is easier for me to just put a pause on my life for weeks at a time - but I’m telling you that so you realize that I don’t have an obnoxious amount of money pouring in, I don’t have a salary, I work my butt off in preparation for whatever trip I’m planning. Also, I’m a planner and a goal setter, which I think really works in my favor when it comes to this. When I turned 20, I set the goal of going to all 50 states by the time I turned 24 and all National Parks by the time I turned 25, with every intention of keeping that goal and I told myself that I wouldn’t allow any excuses. So, whats my progress? I’m 22, I’ve been to 42/50 states, and 32/59 National Parks.

 

Why am I telling you this? To show you that anything is possible if you set goals and stick to them.

Below, I’m going to break down my steps and the order that I go about them. Reading through at first it may seem like I’m doing things in a weird order - but trust me I’ve gone about this in so many different ways - and this is the order that I’ve come up with that makes the most sense. At the end - I’ve made a list of all of my favorite apps for road trips/hiking as well, they ALL get used, I promise.

So, where do I even start?

 

    1. Decide how long you can do this trip for. This needs to be done first, not money, THIS. Your entire planning process and trip are based on how long you have. When I went out for four months, the planning was obviously way different than when I went out for 2 weeks, and even different from when I went out for 3 weeks. If you’re driving I would suggest no shorter than 2 weeks - its probably possible to do it in less, but it’ll likely be stressful, because you have to keep in mind, to drive to the Grand Canyon from Cincinnati takes 1 day and 7 hours with no stops, to drive to the coast in California, takes 1 day and 10 hours, and to drive to Seattle takes 1 day and 10 hours as well. So just say two days. Two days out, two days back, that's four days alone

    2. Then decide when you’re able to do this. This is the second most important part if you can do it in the winter and you’re wanting to go north - that takes different planning, then if you were going to Washington/Montana/North Dakota in July.

 

    3. Where do you want to go? I have a list of places in my notes (let me tell you, utilizing your notes on your phone when it comes to trips and planning this kind of thing, is probably my number one tip) that I mark off when I go to them - so I look at my list and mark down what I want to try and see. I suggest planning where you’re going based on the best weather to be in that area - yes, it sounds great to see Washington when there's snow - but you have to keep in mind, campgrounds won’t be open, National Parks only operate when weather is good (visitor centers won’t be open if there’s bad snow, roads won’t be cleared), and on the other side - Joshua Tree National Park is HOT in June/July/August, so plan accordingly. A lot of the National Parks have roads that are only open certain times of the year as well, Yellowstone only has the bottom 10 -15 miles of the park open during winter, Yosemite closes the only road that goes straight through the park from the first snow to mid May, Sequoia also closes the main road through when it snows, The Grand Canyon only has the South Rim Open in the winter, etc so just be sure to research that and check what parts of parks are open if you’re planning to go on off seasons. The parks are still beautiful and worth it, but it will affect your trip so it’s something you need to plan for.

    4. Now you get to plan the route. Pull up a map, Google My Maps is my preferred map for planning (though I use maps when I’m actually on the road - I’ll explain later on) and look to see how close the places I’m wanting to see are to each other. Then I slowly start planning and the best route through the places.

    5. Then I get on Instagram and start searching through inspiration pics and mark down exact places I want to see. I’ll create a new note for this and mark down places by state/national park. This part I suggest taking your time on this, researching it a lot, use Pinterest as well. OVER plan things, come up with more things than you’ll be able to do/fit into how long you plan on being gone.

    6. Next, I go through and add in my inspiration places on my map on Google My Maps.

 

    7. This is where the amount of time you have comes into play. Sit down and plan how long you have and how long you want to be in the places. If you’re just planning on driving through the parks/places and stopping at viewpoints one day per place is probably fine - but if you’re wanting to hike and actually do tours and such - I’d suggest giving yourself two days. I’ve done trips where we packed everything we could into two weeks. We saw/did 12 different places/parks in a little less than two weeks - and let me tell you it was a lot and stressful. Though on the other hand, I’ve done 16 different days/places in a little less than 3 weeks and it was great. A little bit of time makes a lot of difference once you’re already out there.

   

    8. If you’re hiking at all or doing tours, nows the time to research that. Come up with the hikes you want to do and how long they will take. I use All Trails (explained below) for all of that information.

 

    9. Make the plan. This is the fun part, sit down and plan where you’re going first, the route you’re taking, the things you want to see along the route, the hikes you want to do, what parks/cites you want to stay at overnight. This part takes the longest - but be thorough. Look up how long it takes you to drive from point a to point b (I add 30 min - an hour to anything that's out west from experience), factor in how long the hikes take, how long you’re wanting to stop at places, bathroom breaks and getting gas (I typically add 15 min per stop, sometimes it’s shorter but), food stops. In my experience, I over plan here. I plan every minute, I plan everything we’re going to do, what order we’re going to do it, etc. No, I don’t always stick directly to that plan, but if you over plan and add in extra time, you’ll usually end up ahead of schedule, not rushing, with room for extra plans, changes of plans, and you’ll ultimately not be stressed about it. I also suggest looking at alternate routes than what the GPS gives you. If you’re going to Utah - a GPS is going to bring you out 70, which is horrible and boring, look at the southern or northern route (I’ll talk more about this below).

 

    10. Next comes how are you getting out there? Are you driving (my personal preference) or flying. At first, flying may seem cheaper (you can fly round trip to Vegas from Cincinnati for about $80 on a good day), but you need to factor in that renting a car is expensive, if you’re a camper - you have to factor in that you have to fly all of you gear out there, etc. If you’re driving, go back to how long you’re going to be out there and then if you have options on cars (rather you have multiple, there are multiple people going and all of their cars are an option, etc), plan out what you think will be the best option. I’ve lived in my Subaru Forester for about 3 months with my friend Melody and it worked, I’ve also driven across the country in a Honda Element with 3 other girls for two weeks (it was crowded but also worked), I’ve been in a Honda Element for 3 weeks with one other girl and it was perfect, and I’ve also traveled for a little over a week with one other girl in a VW Jetta. All possible just depends on how much you’re wanting to bring (we’ll get to that), what your options are, and how comfortable you want to be. Also, keep in mind, gas prices are different in different cars - I went ahead and estimated the costs in a few common car sizes for you from Cincinnati to Los Angeles via US 40 (the best route out in my experience) just for reference all on cars that are 2010’s. Subaru Forester (26mpg on the highway) - $398.96. // Honda Accord (31mpg on highway) - $306.77 // Toyota 4Runner (22mpg on the highway) - $430.53.

 

    11. Money. I do money now and not at the beginning because there are some factors that go into play that you need to figure out first. How long you’re going to be gone for, rather you’re going on an offseason or busy season (some campsites cost more during busy season), what you’re going to see, how far you’re going, etc. Now that you all of that planned - you can use Gas Buddy Trip Calculator to come up with how much you’re going to spend on Gas for the trip. This will likely be your biggest expense (unless you’re sleeping in hotels). Gas Buddy is pretty dang accurate - but I always add $100-150 extra on just for some security. Aside from gas, the other expenses you’ll need to factor in are car maintenance (how many miles are you going/how many oil changes), National Park’s Entrance Fees (if you’re going to more than 3, by the parks pass - it’s $80 and gets your entire car into every national park), food (for two weeks, an average of $200 is pretty average IF you’re not eating out - so figure out how important that is to you), are you camping in established sites or not (established sites run you on average $25 a night if you’re in a National Park, at a tent site), or are you staying in a hotel? Next - is the stuff you don’t NEED to spend money on, but it’s the fun stuff, budget in how much you’re wanting to spend on souvenirs (for reference, in the National Parks gift shops, a t-shirt is about $25, a hat is anywhere from $20-25, stickers are around $5, and pins are about $8), if you’re someone who wants to try out breweries, factor that in, me? I love coffee and I love trying out coffee shops, so I factor in $5 a day for that. Figure out what you’re wanting to do/see and factor in those costs.

 

    12. Figure out where you’re sleeping at night. This part can sort of be done before the money part, but it depends on how strict you’re being to a budge - if a budget isn’t a huge worry do it after - if you’re sticking to a strict budget - do it before. This is also the part that determines if you’re going to have to stick to your time plans pretty strictly or not. If you’re going to areas on their offseasons, and you’re planning to pay for camping and/or being in established campsites, you’ll likely be able to do sites that you don’t have to book ahead of time. (Though, you need to research if the campground is even going to be OPEN, and if they are are they RV only?. Also, if you’re around cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, etc - no matter what time of the year - RESERVE IT). If you’re sleeping in your car - you basically don’t have to plan anything at all, because if it comes down to it - and you really CAN’T find a place to sleep you can always sleep in a Walmart parking lot. Therefore, keep in mind - if you have reservations/or are sleeping in hotels, etc - you’ll have to stick to your plan more strictly, whereas if you don’t have plans as to where you’re going to sleep at night other than a general area - you can more-so go with the flow. Though, if you’re planning on say, adventuring in Zion National Park for four days - book a campsite for those three nights - it’ll be nice to be able to set your stuff up and not worry about it. If I had to pick, reservations vs. not, I suggest the later, I’ve done both and having reservations puts some stress on things. Some campsites have check-in times and late fees, all have fees if you don’t show up, some even LOCK gates at certain times so you can’t get in - it’s just something to look into and consider.

 

    13. Now, you get to figure out how you’re packing. No matter what car you’re bringing - I HIGHLY suggest plastic bins to organize EVERYTHING. It worked great when I was out there for 3 months and it worked great when I was out there for 2 months. Seriously, make a plastic bin for everything, I suggest the normal shoe size bins for everything but clothes and food, but that's a preference thing and up to you. The next thing I suggest is that you and whomever you’re going with become “one”. Share everything that is possible to be shared, but everything together (minus clothes), it takes a little more work when you get home to separate everything, but while you’re on the trip it makes the most sense and it saves the most space. I’m going to list out the bin organization that I use (it’s worked great for two trips, but also a preference thing and you can completely ignore this - below I’m going to list out specifics on what goes in what bins - and keep in mind I bring the same amount of stuff that I would bring no matter how long the trip is). A kitchen/cooking bin, emergency bin, junk bin (trust me it comes in handy), electronics bin, personal/medical bin, dry food bin, and a camping bin (this bin will typically be slightly bigger). We typically do one bin per person for clothes, shoes, jackets, and whatever else you have that you just can’t share with anyone else, I’ve done it where two people share one bin - and it quickly becomes a pain and becomes a mess - it MAY be able to be done but be aware. Also, when it comes to clothes - no matter how long the trip is - only pack for a maximum of two weeks - you can alternate clothes, use Fabreeze spray, find laundromats, etc, just make sure you know what weather you’re dealing with a pack appropriately.

 

    14. The actual packing comes next. I highly suggest (like do it or else you’ll be miserable), packing cubes for your clothes. It keeps your bin organized and you know where everything is. I have no tips as to packing the other bins though, try and try again until it fits haha. As for your car, keep in mind that you’re going to need into some bins - so keep the cooking bin easily accessible, medical bin easily accessible, and camping bin somewhat easy to get to. We typically always all have a “day bag” that we keep up front with us, that has all the things you’ll need daily like, all your stuff to get ready in the mornings (toothbrush, deodorant, brush, etc), chargers, and the night before we get the clothes out that we plan on wearing the next day and put them in that bag. If you’re coming to the realization that everything isn’t going to fit, I suggest looking into a top carrier for your car first, even if you have a hitch - when you’re out west, there are lots of not great roads that you’re going to be on that having something on the back of the car becomes a pain. Just keep in mind, a top carrier kills your gas mileage a little (in my experience, not a lot - but it does affect it).

 

    15. Next, comes the final details. Be sure to call your banks, let them know you’re traveling so your card doesn’t get flagged, make sure your campsites are booked (if that’s the route you’re going), double check that you have everything (unless you’re doing extended hiking trips - there will always be a Walmart if you forget something), be sure to have cd’s, music or podcast downloaded - you lose service a LOT out west no matter who your carrier is, buy some maps of the states you’re going to and KNOW HOW TO USE THEM, as I said, you lose service a lot - so they can come in handy, double check the weather the before you go, double check your car, make sure you have the spare tire (not the donut, the actual tire), extra oil always comes in handy, as well as antifreeze - you’re driving over mountains out there, not like what we have here, know how to change a tire, or at least have AAA or something along those lines.

Other tips/tricks to think about:

  • If you’re camping in/around National Parks in established sites, during their busy seasons - you need to be planning at least 6 months ahead, those campsites go fast.

  • You can always dry camp/primitive camp (exactly what it sounds like, no water, no toilets, and likely not designated spots) in any National Forest or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands for free as long as you’re 10 ft off the road and not affecting the land. Some states you can even make fires in these spots, you just may need a permit that is free online - just check the laws for the states you’re in.

  • Start to learn the major highways, 90, is the northern highway that runs from Seattle to Boston, 70 goes straight across the US, through Kansas and Missouri - it’s boring as heck, seems like it goes on forever, and gets closed when there's serious snow storms, 40, goes across the top of Oklahoma and Texas, and goes straight through New Mexico and Arizona - and is my preferred route out, you also get to follow along Route 66 and actually be on it at some points.

  • Know the time zones, when you’re driving out, they work in your favor but back, not so much. When you get into Illinois/half of Texas and Tennessee (Nashville is an hour behind), you gain an hour, again right about where Colorado/New Mexico/Wyoming/Montana are, and then again at about Nevada/California/Oregon/Washington... Arizona is a little weird, so look up where you’re at in the state and see if they do their own thing or not. California is 3 hours behind for reference.

  • Use the Notes app on your phone - we typically break down everything as I said - we make lists of what to pack, food, what we need, etc - they’re nice because you can share them between multiple iPhones. If my crazy organized notes are something you’d like to see - email me and I can send you screenshots.

  • When it comes to hiking backpacks - I will always choose Osprey - yes a little more expensive, but let me tell ya their policies on returns/broken items are INSANE. They will ship you a replacement anywhere, anytime, no matter how long you’ve had it/ how you bought it for FREE.

  • When it comes to hiking boots - go and try them on. Always. Try on TONS - being comfortable and them fitting you correctly is very important.

  • Invest in a good water bottle - you’re going to want to stay hydrated and a good water bottle that will keep your water cold all day is important. Yes, Hydroflasks are expensive - but I swear by them to the point that I bring two. One for water, one for coffee.

  • Always remember, some of the best stuff for hiking/outdoors isn’t always the cutest. Go for comfort/functionality. My FAVORITE hiking boots aren’t the most fashionable - they look like normal hiking boots and my FAVORITE shoes for hiking in Joshua Tree also aren’t cute..but they’re both GREAT and I would 100% buy them again.

What I pack:

There’s going to be a lot of information here, but when I first went out, I would’ve loved to come across a list like this, because let me tell ya WE OVER PACKED. Now, keep in mind - this list is what I brought when I went out for 3 months and is basically the same list that I used when I went out for 3 weeks and is the list we are basing out next 12 day trip off of. A lot of this is no brainer stuff, but trust me it’s nice having it listed out.

Camping Stuff: Long lighters, tent, sleeping bags, pillows, TONS of blankets (this obviously depends on when/where you’re going), sleeping pads (seriously they make a world of a difference when you’re sleeping on the ground for days at a time), camping chairs, lamp/camping lantern, propane and butane (the only downside of both of the stoves, they use different fuel), axe/way to cut wood (if you’re planning on doing some back country stuff and don’t want to just buy it), rope/paracord, first aid kit ( be thorough with this, you never know what you may need), headlamps, fire starters, bucket (for cleaning dishes + we can do a hand load of undies or socks or whatever, walmart has a cheap collapsable one), Stanley French Press (up to you, as I said before - coffee is important to me haha), cooler (my three month trip - we didn’t have a cooler - so up to you), flash Light, tarp (MANY TARPS - if it rains you will want at least two), water purification tablet (or a life straw - I have one and love it), hammocks, hiking backpacks with camel backs in them, hiking sticks, bug spray and sunscreen

Kitchen Stuff/Cooking: Spices (Walmart makes a nice little camping spices thing!), cooking knives ( I have a 3 piece ceramic set that stays with my camping stuff), one set of utensils, plates/bowls each, mixing utensils, cast iron, pocket rocket stove, single burner stove (we bring both - just because we’ve discovered its nice to have both - the single burner stuff can hold a cast iron, and a pocket rocket takes up no space and is good for hiking), propane and butane (the only downside of both of the stoves, they use different fuel), pots/pants set (I have a collapsible camping pot that is GREAT), small cup for coffee if need be, I have a rollable cutting mat, and an old pot holder, aluminum foil.

Food/Dry Food: Dried fruit, nuts/seeds, granola bars, beans, canned veggies, soup, peanut butter, tortillas, coffee, spices, coconut oil, crackers, condiment packets, tortillas.

Personal Hygiene/Beauty: Face wash/body wash/laundry soap (I bring a bottle of Dr. Bronners - and use it for EVERYTHING, cleaning the dishes, clothes, my body, face), shampoo/conditioner (I use the bars from Lush), deodorant, toothbrush/toothpaste, mouth wash, dry shampoo (I typically don’t wash my hair the entire trip - gross I know, but its really good for your hair), contacts holder/solution/extra contacts/glasses (if you don’t need any of this, I’m incredibly jealous), sunglasses and extra sunglasses (you never know), face lotion/sunscreen (your skin gets SO DRY), chapstick, baby wipes (let me tell ya - go to Costco and buy a big box they come in handy for EVERYTHING).

Emergency Stuff: Bear pepper spray (depending on where you’re going), towing straps, bungee cords, emergency blankets (the silver blankets that fold up super tiny), emergency car kit (jumper cables, etc), compass/emergency whistle, waterproof matches, pocket knife, multipurpose tool, Bite/itch relief, zip ties, tent repair kit, hydrogen peroxide, isopropyl alcohol (both small containers but just in case).

ETC: Maps, scissors, tool kit, towels (bath towels and cleaning), duck tape, coins (you hit a lot of tolls and laundry), batteries (most camping lights take the big ones!), laundry bags/ dry bags (trust me you’ll want your dirty clothes in one of these), car power adapters (this is basically a NEED - you can then use normal house outlets), rubber bands, cameras and laptops if necessary, cords, a deck of cards, portable chargers.

 

 

My favorite products (linked):

  • Stanley French Press - Walmart

  • Pocket Rocket Stove Kit - Amazon

  • Single Burner Stove - Amazon

  • Sea to Summit Collapsible Pot - REI

  • Dr. Bronners - Amazon

  • Weekend Pack - REI

  • Daypack - REI

  • Waterproof Hiking Boots - Merrell

  • Camp Towel - REI

  • Bear Spray - Amazon

  • Hydroflask - REI

  • Thin Base-layer leggings - Columbia

  • Thick Base-layer Leggings - REI

  • The BEST Beanies - Eddie Bauer

  • Chaco Sandals - Chaco 

  • Chaco Closed Toe Sandals - Chaco

  • Water Shoes (also work GREAT for hiking in Joshua Tree) - DSW

My favorite apps/websites (linked):

  • Google My Maps - My favorite app for physically planning out the route - it allows you to put in your start and end destination and then move the route around if you don’t plan on following the exact route that google gives you.

  • Maps - Obviously use your preferred map, but this has seemed to be the most accurate for me. I use this to come up with times (I typically add an hour to whatever it says if I’m west of Colorado just from experience) and mileage.

  • Gas Buddy Trip Calculator - This is the best and most accurate way to plan your gas prices. Be accurate, if you’re planning on getting off the highway to go in and visit a city, add it. I typically add $100-150 on whatever it gives me just for comfort - but it’s usually within $20-50 if I stick to the original plan.

  • All Trails - After searching a lot, this is in my opinion, the best app for trails. It gives you pretty accurate level rankings, times, reviews, maps, and pictures. It also allows you to download the trail map info if you pay, as well as organize by park/place for free. Very worth it if you’re not planning on doing trails that are all within National Parks, those are typically a little harder to find pamphlets and maps on. Paying and downloading also allows the app to work when you don’t have cell service - which is a LOT out west.

  • Campendium - This was originally my preferred app for camping and though I still love it, there are a few better options as well. That being said, It’s still really useful. It shows you MOST campgrounds paid and free, gives reviews, pictures, and pretty dang accurate directions. Be SURE to read reviews if you don’t have 4wd/AWD. This is still my preferred app if I’m tent camping and want some decently established campgrounds (toilets/MAYBE showers).

  • iOverlander - Oh, how I love this app. It was specifically made for people who live in their vans/campers/cars, so keep that in mind. You will find some INSANE campgrounds, with INSANE views - but most will be boon-docking sites aka no amenities (not always but most of the time). I wouldn’t recommend this if you’re tent camping, most spots are just enough space for a car/van.

  • Freecampsits.net - Exactly what it says, it's a free campsite website. Which is the biggest downfall - it’s a website, NOT an app, and it’s not exactly the most user-friendly thing ever BUT, if you can get it to work and plan ahead when you’re at a computer you’ll find some SWEET campsites. There’s a lot that are great for Vans/Cars, but also A LOT of actual campsites that have good spots for tents. Some will have picnic tables and fire pits, and heck some will even have REALLY clean bathrooms and maybe even showers.

  • recreation.gov - This is the website you’ll use if you aren’t trying to do free camping. It has all campgrounds including the ones within the National Parks - their customer service is really good as well!

  • Reserve America - Same as above, sometimes you’ll be able to find sites here that Recreation.gov has said are full!

  • Instagram - I couldn’t plan a trip without this, which sounds really lame, but oh well. Just search the area you’re going, click places - and scroll through photos, you’ll see insane photos of the places, usually tagged (then you can have the exact spot), and get some great inspiration.

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