9 things I learned on the solo road

Many of the things that make road trips so great – the feeling of freedom, the focus on the countryside, the solitude – are amplified when you go on a solo trip. For a brief interlude, it’s just you, your car, and the road. It’s wonderful, but it can also be intimidating.

Looking back, I realize I’ve always had a thing for road trips, starting with a magical trip up the Oregon Coast in the family station wagon when I was 7. I remember gazing at giant sequoias, diving into the ocean for the first time, and climbing huge sand dunes.

Since then, I have taken road trips to virtually every western state in the United States, as well as the Canadian Rockies and the Sea of ​​Cortez in Mexico.

Until recently, however, my road trips were somewhat sporadic and often taken with family or friends when flying was not practical. That changed in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic severely limited travel options for me and everyone else. Suddenly, the only reasonable way to travel seemed to be by car. For me, that meant solo travel.

I have since taken road trips to every corner of my home state of Arizona, the California coast, Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, the many state parks and national monuments of southern Utah, White Sands National Park in New Mexico, Big Bend in Texas and the Guadalupe. Mountain National Parks.

My travels have all been great adventures, but there have also been some lessons. Here are 9 things I learned while traveling alone.

Pre-Planning an Arizona Road Trip

Photo credit: Cindy Barks

1. Pre-planning is essential

Without navigational input from a fellow traveler, I’ve found it imperative to identify my routes and study the details (major highways, major bends, and points of interest) before setting out.

I usually start by finding point A to point B on my laptop, check out two or three alternative routes, then program my preferred route into my phone’s mapping app. I use the Apple Maps app, but many people prefer the Google Maps app.

Another obvious reason to have a set route is for safety. By letting someone know your route before you set off, you have a backup in case you run into any issues along the way. It is also wise to check with these people when you arrive at your destination.

2. It is advisable to book hotel stays in advance

Hotel, camping, or short-term rental reservations en route should be central to a solo traveler’s advance planning.

These days, especially in summer, you may find yourself with no place to stay without proper planning. Road trips are more popular than ever, and many hotels along major highways are booked weeks in advance, while camping in national parks sometimes requires booking months in advance. The stress of finding accommodation along the way is compounded when you are alone, as you have no one else to search for vacant accommodation while you are driving.

Pro tip: I’m a big fan of my Marriott Bonvoy rewards card and usually try to find a Marriott branded hotel for my nights on the road. There are plenty of other loyalty and rewards programs to check out, as well as VRBO for short-term rentals and Hipcamp for campsites.

3. Frequent gas refills provide peace of mind

My car goes about 40 mpg so I could possibly go over 500 miles before needing to fill up. For my peace of mind, I never wait that long and usually stop to refuel every 250 miles or so.

Part of the reason is that gas stations allow me to stretch my legs, grab a cold drink, and take a bathroom break. Another part is the uncertainty of when I will be able to refuel again. Especially when driving on isolated roads in Texas, Arizona or Nevada. I never take the risk of waiting for the next gas station.

Pro tip: Cell phone apps like Gas Guru can help you figure out where the next gas stop is and the lowest prices.

Northern Arizona road trip

Total control on a Northern Arizona road trip

Photo credit: Cindy Barks

4. Having complete control over your trip is a blessing and a curse

Yes, the solo road trip offers a feeling of freedom by giving you total control over your route, your stops and the duration of your stays. Remember, the trade-off is that it also means you have full responsibility for all driving decisions and small decisions along the way.

There are definitely times when I would like to get a second opinion on a route or get bored with the ride. This is when advance planning becomes useful.

5. In-car entertainment is crucial

Whether it’s music, audiobooks, or podcasts, having something to keep my mind occupied while I’m driving makes all the difference in the world on my solo rides.

For me, nothing beats an audiobook to help pass the hours. Not only am I immersed in a fascinating story, but I am able to transport myself to faraway places. Some recent audiobooks I’ve loved for road trips are by Amor Towles The Lincoln Highwayby Elin Hilderbrand 28 summersand Lucy Foley The Parisian apartment.

I also like to check out the channels from my SiriusXM subscription. On a memorable summer trip through Arizona and Nevada in 2020, I listened to the entire countdown to Tom Petty’s Top 100 Hits and The Heartbreakers on the Tom Petty Channel. I’ve also been known to listen to hilarious sets from Comedy Central Radio and recent hits from The Pulse.

Listening to podcasts is another entertaining option that many travelers swear by. Two fascinating choices to check out are Serial and This American Life.

Pro Tip: Free audiobook loans are available with a library card at many public libraries, through the Overdrive or Libby apps. I always keep my Overdrive account stocked with books so I have plenty of choices on my long drives.

Well maintained car on a road trip in the Valley of Fire, Nevada

Well maintained car on a road trip in the Valley of Fire, Nevada

Photo credit: Cindy Barks

6. A well-maintained car is a lifesaver

As a road trip approaches, I make it a point to get my car serviced — if possible, timing my regular oil changes with my travels. Then I always mention to the service techs that I have a big road trip coming up and ask them to check crucial items like tires, brakes, wipers, air conditioning and fluids.

If and when unexpected emergencies arise, having a roadside assistance policy is crucial. To cover all my bases, I have towing coverage through my auto insurance and I’m also a member of the AAA (American Automobile Association).

Fill the chest strategically

Strategic packaging

Photo credit: Cindy Barks

7. It’s important to pack strategically

While I generally subscribe to the mantra that it’s best to travel light, I think a solo road trip is an opportunity to overload a bit in the interest of being well prepared. After all, you have the whole car to yourself!

I usually pack a jacket or two along with an assortment of jeans, capris, blouses, sweatpants, a hat, and bathing suits. As a hiker, I like to have lots of shoe choices, including hiking sandals, hiking boots, sneakers, flip flops, and a few hiking bags.

I don’t like hauling everything into my hotel room every night, so I keep shoes, jackets, and bags in separate large packing cubes that I leave in my car where they’re easy to grab, if needed.

Pro Tip: To deal with problems that arise on the road, I keep a supply of gadgets and handy products in my car, including jumper cables, a solar flashlight, disinfectant wipes, bandages and duct tape. I also pack camping gear, including a tent, sleeping bag, pillow and air mattress – just in case.

8. Don’t forget snacks and drinks

To make sure I have a supply of cold drinks, fresh fruits and vegetables for snacks, I keep a large 5-day ice retention Igloo Max cooler in the cargo area of ​​my car and a small cooler on the front seat where I can easily access it while driving. I regularly restock things from the larger cooler into my smaller cooler and add ice to both.

I like to fill my coolers with bottled water, sparkling water, soft drinks, and little pouches filled with grapes, orange slices, and baby carrots.

Finding a comfort zone for safety in Arizona

Find a comfort zone for safety

Photo credit: Cindy Barks

9. Finding your comfort zone improves safety

I found that I could comfortably drive 8-10 hours a day, but anything beyond that got taxing. When planning my itinerary, I keep this in mind and make my hotel reservations accordingly.

It is important to find your driving rhythm, your personal comfort zone and never continue driving when you are tired. Sometimes a little nap in your car at a rest stop can do wonders, but remember to choose your spots with safety in mind. I wear small blinds that attach with suction cups to the glass to provide some privacy.

Pro tip: The adage that “it’s more about the journey than the destination” is never truer than on a road trip. Because of this, I remember to be present, to absorb it all, and to stop often to smell the roses (or the daisies or the sunflowers or the lupine). I recommend building at least two hours of wiggle room into each day’s schedule to allow time to explore unexpected scenic drives and charming town centers you encounter along the way.

For more solo travel tips, check out these articles:

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