My best friend Adam and I tested the limits of our friendship by spending 26 days together on the open road. We visited 15 national and state parks, accumulated more than 3,300 miles of driving, and hiked more than 150 miles. We made amazing memories along the way and the trip went very smoothly, which is quite a feat for such a long trip with so many destinations. While it helps that we spent 8 months planning—and had both been on similar road trips—what made this trip so successful came down to the five C’s: compatibility, cost, changeability, communication, and commemoration.
Choosing who you road trip with is very important because you’ll be spending a lengthy amount of time with them—driving long hours, camping in close quarters, and not always smelling your freshest. Adam is an old coworker and we used to spend every day together working on projects and eating lunch, and we’d also spend several days a week outside of work doing various activities. He is someone I can be myself with, have a lot of fun with, and it helps that we enjoy a lot of the same activities.
Though we share similarities, we had to ensure we were both expecting the same things from this trip, including the length of the trip, the sights along the way, and the intensity of the schedule. Aligning early and setting our expectations clearly made it so that we knew what we could plan and what would be off the table. The open dialogue established during the planning process helped us create a schedule and intensity that worked for both of us, and if either of us had planned the trip alone, it probably would have looked radically different. But by compromising, I felt pushed to do some tougher hikes than expected, and Adam learned to rest and recuperate more than he would’ve on his own.
Money is an unavoidable topic when it comes to planning a road trip as there are fees for housing, parks, gas, food, and most attractions. It’s important to have an open conversation about how much you are willing to spend to prevent potential resentment later.
Adam and I are both frugal people, so we were in line with what we intended to spend but would still check with each other before booking anything so we could both sign off on it. We made sure to budget more for food because we’d be burning a lot of calories, but we balanced that expense by staying at more campgrounds. I requested that we not spend more than 7 days in a row camping—so we could shower and sleep better, which is a good example of how we compromised despite the higher cost. When it came to activities, we splurged a little in a few areas, but we never had an issue where we weren’t aligned because we knew each other’s expectations.
When we began planning the trip, we started a shared Google sheet to track expenses. Depending on your activities or destination, you might need to purchase new equipment beforehand in addition to trip costs. When we made purchases for both of us, we decided to split up paying for each by category based on our credit card rewards. Adam has a good travel rewards card, so he paid for the hotels and campgrounds, while I have a good restaurant and gas rewards card, so I paid more during the trip.
It’s vital to keep receipts organized—in a designated pocket or folder, or to take pictures of them. It’s helpful to know that you trust the other people to pay you if you spend more so that you can focus on having fun instead of how much money you might be losing. We made sure to remind each other often that whoever owed the other money, we would make it whole in the end. This helped keep everything equal.
When we planned our road trip, we made sure to mix up the schedule from day to day so we weren’t always working the same muscles and seeing the same surroundings. For example, we had a lot of hiking built into our trip, but we mixed up the scenery by going to different areas with canyons, waterfalls, arches, forests, and mountain peaks. We made sure to schedule a challenging hike one day, followed by an easier one the next day so that we could recuperate.
On some of the lighter days we built in a driving day, booked a cave tour, went whale watching, watched a Dodgers baseball game, or chilled at the beach. Road trips are a great opportunity to try new activities, so being open to each other’s ideas of fun helped us compromise and find new things to enjoy.
We met up with a few of Adam’s friends once we got to California, and they joined us for several legs of the trip. We also made a few friends along the way during hikes and even met up with some of those people later where our schedules intertwined.
Despite an overall successful trip, we did have some hiccups that sent us off course. Knowing we already had a solid foundation of friendship, we jointly reworked our plan to accommodate the issues as they arose. We changed course a few times during the trip by skipping a location or adding a new one. Booking free-cancellation housing and having our offline maps downloaded were two things that helped make this flexibility possible.
Strong communication is necessary, especially because spending such a long time with the same people without a break can create a lot of opportunities for disagreements. Adam and I had “spats” during the trip, but we never let them get out of hand and worked through them right away to continue our fun quickly.
We also agreed early that if either of us needed rest, we would say something and the other would help. We promised to never leave each other stranded, and if we were ever separated, we made sure to have a plan to meet back up. To help avoid someone feeling burnt out, we took turns driving based on who had more energy and then let the passenger take a nap. If both of us were tired, we pulled off to the side of the road so we could both nap. Injuries were also a concern, and while we both had some bumps and bruises, I got the shorter end of the stick and hurt my knee on an early hike. Luckily, I’d thought ahead and brought a knee brace which helped me continue with the hikes and heal more quickly.
We spent most of the trip in very remote areas so we each had a few people who knew where we were at all times. We would let them know when we should be checking in again, and if we didn’t check in at the proper times, they could contact the authorities if necessary. To make light of it, we took a daily POTD (picture of the day) to send to friends and family. As a bonus, we ended up with some great photos of us in the end.
One of the best parts of a road trip is the lasting memories. While being in the moment is essential, we didn’t want to forget to capture that joy along the way. When commemorating trips, Adam likes printing out canvas photos for his apartment, so I took some high-quality pictures using my camera. I collected keepsakes like hotel keys, restaurant business cards, campground tags, and park maps. After trips, I like to buy a map of the states I visited and trace out the route with all the stops along the way, layering on pictures and keepsakes for the final product.
If you’re willing to spend a bit of money and the places you go have a gift shop, stickers, magnets, a deck of cards, postcards, and other souvenirs help keep the memories alive long after the trip ends—and inspire you to start planning your next adventure.