How to Hit the Road

One reader candidly lays out a cross-country road trip step by step, from what clothes to bring to where to rent the van
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Mar 4, 2015 | By Christopher Martin

fter 25 years of traveling with my parents and friends, I decided that it was time to set out on my own.

I got the idea in my head a few years back — I'd tour the states in a van with a group of friends, doing it up like the good ol' days. We'd hop in, camp everywhere, shower in rivers, and live off the land. But after I'd talked with two separate groups of people, I realized that things weren't going to be as easy as I'd envisioned, and it would be up to me to make this happen. So instead of waiting around, I struck out on my own, quit my job and rented a van for 41 days to drive around the country.

I saw a lot of things. I took a lot of photos. I got a good taste of #vanlife. And now, I want to share the "do's and don'ts" of it — maybe, hopefully inspiring someone here or there who's stuck doing something they aren't passionate about to get out in the world and experience amazing things. 

Enterprise Rent-A-Car can be expensive, but it's the best rental option for the Midwest. You can usually work with them on the price, and they have brand new cargo vans for rent. If you're looking for a blank slate to work with, this is the place to customize a van to fit your needs. 

If Enterprise isn't your speed, there are a decent amount of already-tricked-out vans online — like Escape Camper Vans — that you can rent for a few months at a time.

I found it best to pack a lot of your items into bins or bags separated by categories: camping gear, hiking gear, camera equipment, tops, bottoms, socks, and underwear. I can’t tell you how many times I couldn’t find something because it wasn’t in a bin and instead was buried in a box of random, unorganized stuff. Also make sure you have a bag to keep all your dirty clothes in.

It also helps to have some rope and bungee cords at hand so you can loop and hang things to the structure of the van; when you’re going off-road, you don't want your equipment flying all over the place. If you have the time, I recommend building a platform for your bed so you can store items underneath.

Setting up curtains to block the cockpit and rear windows is prime for keeping away the peepers as you sleep or leave the van unattended. 

Music is key, so pick up an FM transmitter, an AUX cord, and a device that can store music on it so you don't have to rely on streaming in places with poor service.

Since you'll be on the road a lot, a disposable eating set is great because you don’t have to worry about having water to spare to do dishes. Be sure to constantly keep plenty of water on hand. And if you plan on stocking up on groceries between stretches of highway, bring a cooler and refresh the ice as needed.

A bike or another form of transportation is a nice diversion during your down time, and could be of critical importance in case you get stranded somewhere without service. Bring hiking and camping gear. Depending on what month it is and where you're traveling, bring plenty of blankets. It's nice to have a bed and some emergency thermal blankets or a bivy sack.

Unless you don't want to get lost (wait, why wouldn't you? Getting lost is the best part of the trip!), don't travel with a GPS. Keep it old-school and just buy an atlas or a good set of maps.

Now take your budget and double it. That’s probably about how much you'll spend.

For 41 days on the road, I needed: 10 pairs of underwear, 10 socks of different thicknesses, four tee shirts, one hoodie, one sweater, one pair of swim trunks, five pairs of pants and shorts, one beanie, one hat, two coats of different thicknesses, a pair of hiking boots, two pairs of shoes, one pair of flip flops, and one pair of gloves.

That may seem like a lot (or not very much, depending on who you are), but it'll probably work out that you won't want to change clothes as much as you think. Even still, it's nice to be prepared. 

It might sound like a simple task, but not everyone wants an unfamiliar van parked in their neighborhood with curtains hanging up over the windows. The best places you'll come across are often hotels, where it's safe, quiet, and people are usually there to sleep. If you're lucky, you can sneak in in the morning, use their bathrooms, and even get a sneaky continental breakfast out of the deal. [ed. And if you get busted, just don't tell 'em you heard about it on Huckberry.]

Other few random pointers: never park at a bar; it’s too loud and drunk people may hit your van while they're leaving. Gas stations have people coming and going too often and normally open too early for you to take off if they were closed the night before. Parking on a hill with the van running to stay warm is dangerous because the CO2 will work its way back into the van. Most beaches are chill but sometimes patrolled. 

Looking to hit up a lot of national parks? Look into getting an annual pass. An AAA membership is always a good idea, plus it means that you can get all the free maps you want. Be sure to use credit cards that will give you miles, points, or gas credit for all your on the road purchases — that way, you can cash in on plane tickets when you get home and start planning your next adventure. 

Document your trip in any way possible. Don’t be afraid to take wrong turns. Plan out your trip as much as possible before you leave but also leave room for the unexpected because you have no idea what awaits you. Travel as long as you can; 41 days wasn't long enough for me. Say 'yes' to anyone that offers you a place to stay. Talk with strangers and bartenders to figure out what to do in the area. 'Do' more, see less. Don’t try to drive 600 miles in one day. Ask park rangers what potential dangers there are nearby and what you should do if you find yourself in that situation whenever you enter a national park. Collect things along the way. Take lots of photos. Take more photos. 

Badlands National Park. Maine and Acadia National Park. Devil's Tower in Wyoming. Drive the 101 from Portland to San Francisco. Visit the Valley of Fire in Nevada and hit up Red River Gorge in Kentucky. Don't miss Yellowstone National Park. Joshua Tree is unreal. Make it to Chicago. And don't be afraid to stay awhile in Columbus, Ohio. [H]

Christopher Martin is a snowboarder and photographer who calls Columbus, Ohio home. 
Visit his website to find out more about him, and to see more photos of his epic trip around the United States