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Photo ljcybergal

AS A DOGGED COPILOT who tries never to take the wheel, I’m often in charge of much of the road trip planning when out on the long road. I’ll happily put together snacks, map out road eats, suggest sidetrips, play word games with kids and other willing participants, dj, and provide long, fascinating stories at times when I can tell the driver is flagging.

Whether you’re the driver or the copilot, or any of a cast of characters rotating through the various seats of the car (but hopefully not the mid-backseat hump), here are some catchall ideas for keeping your roadtripmobile and its inhabitants in good repair.

Photo: Jimmy_Joe

Map or GPS?

For in-the-city navigating and finding particular hard-to-find landmarks and supermarkets, a GPS can be terribly useful — or just terrible. Learn how to use it before you’re on a long trip.

For ease of on-the-go road trip planning, and seeing the (literal) big picture, my money is on a (paper) road atlas. I love tracing my finger across the giant pages, giggling as I hit unexpected town names like Podunk.

Using a map (especially with someone to read it for you) is also faster than GPSing in the case of having to find an alternate route, though some GPS units will warn you of traffic congestion / construction and how to avoid it. Local radio is also a good bet for this information if you’re tech-averse.

Choosing your Route

Serendipity is beautiful. Staring at the backends of 18-wheelers for hours is not. Keep in mind that the best route between two points is often not the most direct one, especially if you’d like to leaf peep in the fall or catch some snowmelt waterfalls in the spring.

A few different road atlases list points of interest just off the highway. Or use a site like Roadsideamerica to find quirky attractions not far from where you are. Like the Dr. Seuss Memorial Garden in Springfield, MA, or an exhibit about the history and popularity of the sock monkey in Rockford, IL, at the Midway Village & Museum Center.

Keeping Entertained

But not everywhere along your road trip route is going to be filled with interesting statuary and diminutive primates made of socks. Much of road tripping is driving, driving, driving. And while the silence of the long road is a great place to have long talks, at some point you’re going to want a little external stimulation.

Here you’ll have to rely on local radio (often interesting, but on some stretches, nearly absent), and your own mp3 road trip playlists for music.

Try to be fair — for instance, on a 4X4 trip through the southwest of Bolivia, we let our driver listen endlessly to Charly Garcia (almost) without complaint because the driving was terrible and it seemed to keep him content.

For anyone other than the driver, and especially kids, handheld video games and DVD players can do the trick, but it’s also fun to go old school and play a few road trip games. My favorites are the license plate game (building words out of letters on license plates), and collecting license plate sightings from as many states as possible. Children will (unfortunately) not tire of I-spy, either.

Photo: kthread


A cooler is ideal — stop at the occasional grocery store to stock up on easy car-eats. I’ve ridden with people who insisted they liked fast food, but for most, a supersized meal or two is plenty. When you’re ready for some local specialties, follow signage or use a site like, with more than 1,500 eateries listed for the United States.

The site will tell you (among other things) how many recommended barbecue joints, po’boy sandwich shops, and waffle houses there are within 70 miles of Biloxi, MS (26, if you were wondering). The site also has forums where you can trade culinary notes with other road-foodies.


At some point, you’re going to have to spend the night (or morning, or whenever you see fit to sleep somewhere).

The cheapest independent option is tent camping, with National Forests offering spots throughout the country, for “dispersed ” (wild) camping. Check out their website to locate a National Forest near you. The U.S. government-run also links to available pay and free campsites.

Another possibility is Couchsurfing, and outside the big cities you shouldn’t need too much advance notice, though at least a few days is always advisable. Couchsurfing is free, and in many places acts as a giant meetup community in addition to providing a free place to sleep. Couchsurfers may offer themselves as local tour guides even if you choose to stay somewhere else.

Hostels are another easy, reasonably cheap option, with many hostels offering family or private rooms. Check out for availability, prices, and reviews of places on your route. Roadside hotels and motels tend to be quickstop affairs, but sometimes come with a decent breakfast that can help to justify the price.


If you’re sharing expenses, it’s easiest to just have everyone put a set amount of money in an envelope for shared snacks, gas and tolls. This minimizes resentment among the crew, and ensures equal payment.

On the off chance that there’s money left in the envelope by the time you get where you’re going, you can use it for a much-deserved beer.


A great way to ruin your road trip is to spend a bunch of it standing on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck. Make sure your vehicle is in a good state of repair, fluids topped up, and a jack, spare, tools, flare, emergency blanket, water, and food all easily available.

It wouldn’t hurt to actually know how to put the spare on, either, and keep in mind what kind of weather you’re likely to encounter and try to plan accordingly, with ice scrapers for the morning if you’ll be at altitude or traveling during the colder months.

Bathroom Breaks

Perhaps the most inconvenient of all road trip truths is the fact that no matter how good time you’re making, at some point one of the members of your team is gonna have to hit the can. There are gas stations, fast food restaurants, rest stops, and myriad other possibilities on the road, occasionally none of which are available when “I kind of need to go” turns into a “NOW.”

Men will tend to find this operation easier than women, though I counted no fewer than five “female urination devices” for sale that allow women to expose minimal skin and remain standing while relieving themselves. In an area with little or no cover, in the cold, or where it’s hard to get away from crowds, this might be a good alternative.

Shewee and GoGirl seem to sell well and get good reviews. Handwashing supplied not included.

Community Connection

Check out Matador’s Road Trip Focus Page for more advice.

Road Trip Guides


  • darmabum

    Great article! Having sold my truck four years ago, this brought back many long-forogtten joys of Road Trips. To the list of entertainment, I might add the Kindle, or other reading device. I hemmed and hawed and adopted waaaaay too many reasons why I’d never “go there” (to a Kindle), but when I did, those reasons evaporated. I love mine.

    As for fast food – did an experiment once on a drive from Seattle to northern Wisconsin (on Route 2, GREAT road) – every meal at McDonalds, that’s three a day for four days. The internal and intestinal consequences of that experiment reminded me of what I intuitively knew going in – not a real good idea :)

    And maps – I Love maps. Though the Kindle has made me (to a point) forget the feel of a paper book in my hands, maps for me will never be replaced.

    Sleeping – I’ve had some exquisite nights on the road in rest areas. Had in mind at one time writing a guidebook to the best rest areas across the country. Not all of them are user-friendly, but some (one in New Mexico stands out now) are well landscaped with enough room to get away from the lights.

    Thanks for the memories :)

  • Bearshapedsphere (Eileen Smith)

    Sounds like you know your way around roadtripping. I have actually never spent the night at a rest stop, and am not sure I’d recommend it, but an e-reader does seem like a good idea to keep packing light! I should also have mentioned the desirability of a good copilot, but that just sounds like I’m asking for people to drive me around, which isn’t necessarily the case.

  • darmabum

    Yeah, I don’t think I’d “Recommend” sleeping in a rest area either. As a single male, it’s different, and most of my road trips were in the 70′s-90′s . . . a different road culture then. Also a great time for a book on tape. My last Great Road Trip – from Virginia to Santa Barbara, CA I had an exquisite experience with two great books – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and, my favorite – On The Road, read by Matt Dillon. I drove two hours longer than I’d planned on the Dillon-Day, just to get it all in in one sitting.

  • Casey Siemasko

    Great article! My fiance and are are spending 7 weeks to road trip across the US this summer after we get married and you hit on a lot of points you’ve been discussing. We have our itinerary up on our blog, and would love advice on specific cities/places :-)

  • Rebecca

    Great post! Road trips can be fun, especially when you have a couple of people along for the ride. I did a couple of road trips by myself and being the ‘sole’ driver was grueling. I did sleep at a couple of rest stops but that was uncomfortable. You can find cheap hotels/motels along the way. Happy travels!

  • Andrea

    Great Post and it brings back great memories. We used a AAA guide and a map to cross from San Franscisco, CA to Albany NY with a 3 year old who hated car rides. We would wake at 3 am, drop a sleeping boy in his car seat and ride as far as we could before he woke up. We would stop in the smallest town for a great breakfast. Then on the road again until he couldn’t stand it…around noon. We would pick a small town with some kind of road side attraction and have a ball. We saw a museum of sod houses in Nebraska, a hotel whose owner raised show chickens somewhere mid country, we went to a great farm museum with 4 centuries of working farms starting with Native American to the 1940′s in Iowa. Hobo museums, and the all time favorite…riding behind a truck full of pigs. Earlier, as a childless couple we did a similiar trip (SEattle to Albany) camping the whole way…there were wonderful places to camp.

  • Scott – Quirky Travel Guy

    Great tips… I used pretty much all of them on the road, but I wish I’d known about!

  • Marc Latham

    Nice article, road trips are great, and so is planning them.

    I miss them when I’m not travelling, and finding the names of new places and what they are like when I get there, so I plan trips I doubt I’ll ever take for my veggie werewolf alter ego, the Greenygrey, and write up imaginary experiences:

  • Hal Amen

    Can’t wait to start planning this summer’s 5,000-miler. Great resources in here to get me going. Thanks Eileen!

  • Historic Tamarack Lodge and Cabins


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