Over the past few decades and more than a million miles, we’ve learned—sometimes the hard way—about the many things that can go wrong on a road trip and how to plan for them. One of us has even slept in our car on the side of an interstate in rural Wyoming after a breakdown.
Here are some must-have tips to stay safe and comfortable, no matter what the open road throws your way.
Pack for safety
Unexpected delays and breakdowns are part of the game, and if you plan for them, they’re easier to deal with. Here are basic items to pack, as well as some extra things that are helpful to have on hand.
What to bring for your vehicle
- Small tool set for basic roadside repairs, including a few wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers, a tire repair plug kit, shop rags, duct tape, and a can of Fix-a-Flat
- Extra windshield washer fluid, coolant, oil, and transmission fluid
- Spare bulbs for headlights, taillights, brake lights, and blinkers
- Basic roadside breakdown kit with flares, a reflective vest, jumper cables, a tire pressure gauge, a bright flashlight, and a pair of work gloves
- Comprehensive and up-to-date paper maps of your intended route and destination
- If you’re off-roading, bring traction boards, a come-along hand winch, heavy-duty tow straps, a battery jumper box, an electric inflator that runs off of the vehicle battery while the engine is running, and a heavy-duty bottle jack in addition to your stock jack.
What to bring for your safety and comfort
- Enough food and water to sustain you and your passenger(s) for at least 24 hours (suggestions include trail mix, cans of beans or SpaghettiOs, tuna packets, apples, peanut butter, and crackers)
- Protection from the elements, including a sleeping bag, small tent, towel, raincoat, good walking shoes, sun hat, winter hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen
- Toilet paper and a small trowel to dig a latrine hole
- First aid kit including bandages, pressure dressings, antibiotic ointment, and a sting/bite kit
- Can opener, knife, and/or multi-tool
- Phone charger and power bank
- Rope or twine
- Bear spray for safely repelling curious bears or bad people. Note: Bear spray is very potent, so read about how to use it safely (and don’t put it somewhere you might accidentally hit it—we learned that the hard way, too).
Extra items you might want
- Portable CB radio
- Handheld GPS device
- Satellite phone or emergency locator-communication device like a SPOT
- Area lighting—like this inflatable solar Luci light (it also charges your phone)
Prepare your vehicle
Before hitting the road, check your tire pressure, wiper blades, and light bulbs, and make sure your fluids are topped off. If you’re not mechanically inclined, have a shop give your car a once-over with special attention to tire wear, belts, and hoses—and don’t forget an oil change. Also, check to make sure your spare tire is inflated and that your lug wrench, jack, and jack handle are all where they’re supposed to be.
Plan your route
Whether you’re spontaneous about routes, or a meticulous reservation maker, the Roadtrippers app can help you on just about every level. Beyond that, keep in mind holidays and localized events that can make driving through a city or finding a place to stay difficult. For example, driving through Miami at rush hour, or trying to get from Vegas to Los Angeles at the end of a holiday weekend can be frustrating and is usually avoidable.
Don’t forget a paper atlas. There are many areas where a phone-based GPS doesn’t work, and other times when you’ll need to find alternate routes. Plus, it’s fun to browse un-traveled sections of a map to plot future adventures.
Know what to do in a weather emergency
Anticipate what sort of weather and other conditions you might encounter—including tornadoes, flash floods, wildfires, dust storms, blizzards, and extreme heat—and research how to get through each situation safely, without panicking. This is when a weather radio is important.
Avoid dangerous encounters
It’s easy enough to figure out what wild animals you might encounter, like bears, and take precautions for them. But also keep in mind nefarious people. If you’re traveling solo in an area that makes you uneasy, set up two camp chairs, or even put a second bicycle on the back of your vehicle, to give the appearance you’ve got backup.
You can even run a heavy chain from a tree to under your van and put out a large dog bowl for appearances. Also, if you do not feel safe where you are, then relocate. Trust your instincts.
One of the biggest problems you’re likely to encounter is getting drowsy at the wheel. To stay alert, get plenty of sleep each night, nap when you get tired, take regular breaks and walk around, have spicy snacks and caffeine drinks on hand, and don’t eat a big meal before driving.
If you do need to pull over for a break, you can do so at a rest area. Here’s a list of states that allow overnight (or extended hours) parking.
- Sign up for real-time, current-location alerts on your weather app, or check Weather.gov for weather stations on the radio.
- Keep up your situational awareness, as in don’t leave your car unlocked when you go into the convenience store.
- Keep your gas tank (or electric vehicle battery) at least halfway full, especially in remote areas where gas and charging stations are less frequent.
- Practice defensive driving.
- Stay alert for wildlife on the road, especially after dark and on secondary roads.
- Pull over or change lanes if there’s a line of traffic behind you—not only is it annoying, but you’re creating a hazardous situation where people will likely try to pass you in dangerous places.
- Pay attention to the mile marker signs on the side of the road, as well as the county, so you can accurately identify your location for emergency responders or roadside assistance.
Recreate wisely as you travel
It’s easy to think you won’t get hurt on vacation, but it does happen. While enjoying the sights outside of your vehicle, don’t take a selfie with a yak, avoid swimming in Yellowstone, and look both ways before crossing Bourbon Street—among other things.