Road Trip Survival Skills

Licence plate collection, (photo by Richard Nowitz)
Licence plate collection

The Serious Stuff

It is important to learn about the area in which you are traveling, including weather and road conditions, and be prepared to change your plans at the first sign of potential danger, such as blizzards, thunderstorms, flooding, or tornadoes.

It goes without saying that you should drive a reliable vehicle and carry plenty of supplies, including any medications, first aid kit, spare tire and gas, a gallon of water per day, nutritious food, emergency flares, warm clothing, and a cellphone.

The single most important precaution you can take is to tell someone your destination, route, and expected time of arrival. Check your tires carefully before long stretches of driving to make sure they are in good condition and inflated to the correct pressure. Also check the levels of coolant, brake fluid, and washing fluid before you set off.

Desert Driving

If you’re driving in the desert, remember that heat builds pressure, so make sure your tires are at slightly below normal air pressure. The desert’s arid climate makes carrying extra water – both for passengers and vehicles – essential. Carry at least one gallon per person per day. Keep an eye on the gas gauge. It’s a good idea to fill up whenever you have an opportunity. Remember, if you should have car trouble or become lost, do not strike out on foot. A car, visible from the air, is easier to spot than a person, and it affords shelter from the weather. Wait to be found.

Mountain Driving

Mountain drivers are advised to be vigilant. Winter storms in California’s Sierra Nevada, Washington’s Cascades, and Colorado’s Rockies occasionally close major roads, and at times chains are required on tires. Conditions often change quickly, so check the weather forecast and phone ahead for road conditions before you depart. You might see road signs advising you to tune into a particular radio frequency for road information – it’s always a good idea to follow these suggestions. If you’re traveling in winter, carry a shovel, boots, gloves, and a coat in the car with you. Some people suggest also carrying a bag of gravel or kitty litter, to provide grip beneath your tires should you encounter particularly slippery conditions.

Hurricanes and Floods

Although most visits to the shore can be pleasant, don’t forget to observe the emergency evacuation routes, which are usually signed in all beach communities. You’ll normally have a few days notice of a big storm approaching, so take action and remove yourself to a safe area. Flooding, on the other hand, can frequently happen in an instant, particularly in valleys during the spring snow-melt. Never stop under a bridge during a severe rainstorm, as this is where flash-flooding frequently occurs. If you see a flash flood developing, immediately seek higher ground, even if that means abandoning your vehicle and scampering up a hillside.

The Fun Stuff

You don't want to hit the road without being prepared for the serious stuff, but sometimes it's the fun stuff that can make the difference between "10 hours stuck in a car" and having an amazing roadtrip experience. A little bit of advance planning can make the time fly by as you pass some beautiful scenery.

Use the byways, not the highways

Around the country, some 150 smaller routes are officially designated as National Scenic Byways. From the West Cascades Scenic Byway in Oregon to the Great River Road along the Mississippi River in Iowa to the Florida Keys Scenic Highway, these roads take in incomparable landscapes and vistas. There’s also plenty of history and cultural heritage, from Kentucky’s Country Music Highway to the Southwest’s Trail of the Ancients to the Journey through Hallowed Ground Byway in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.  Rather than fly around the country on the Interstate system, take the next exit and find the scenic route. It might take a bit longer, but you'll enjoy the journey so much more.

Stock up on snacks

Having the right road food is key to a good experience. You don't want to end up eating every meal at the golden arches, and heaven forbid your only choice is the candy-bar aisle at the nearest truck stop. We suggest stocking up on dried fruit and nuts - they won't go bad in the car, and they provide lots of nutrients that you'll need to keep up your stamina. A bag of trail mix once helped the settlers on their way west, and it can help you as well. EIther buy a pre-mixed bag, or choose your own ingredients.

Take some tunes

Most cars these days come with MP3 players, iPod docking stations, and the latest in connective gadgets, so don't forget to come up with your own playlist before leaving. If you're stuck with a CD player, make sure you bring enough variety to keep you occupied. There's nothing worse than listening to the same 12 songs over and over, unless of course you're limited to the local radio, which can quickly ruin your emotional momentum as you cross the country. There are wide expanses of the US that don't get decent airwaves, so you'll spend hours twisting the dial, desperate to find a friendly voice.


Plan your US road trip


To read more about what to see in the United States, visit our USA destination pages. See also our guides to the Northern route, from east coast Boston to west coast Washington state, and the Atlantic route, from New York City to Key West, Florida.

Or choose from one of our fantastic USA travel guides.



This June we're exploring the highways and inroads of the United States of America as our destination of the month. For more updates keep following the Insight blog, or check us out on Twitter @InsightGuides or on our Insight Facebook page, or why not look at some lovely travel photography on Pinterest.

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