Planning an extended road trip? Thinking about traveling long-term? Yeah, we’ve got some thoughts about that… We’ve been living on the road for the past six months, have traveled over 15,000 miles, and visited 11 states and two Canadian provinces. While it feels like we’ve been doing this for a long time, we’re still learning something new about travel every day.
The first couple of weeks on the road were rough for us. Our cubicle daydreams just didn’t match the reality of living on the road. Needless to say, there were some definite growing pains as we adapted to our new way of life. But, we’re finally getting into the groove of things. So for anyone thinking about hitting out the road, here are few of the things we’ve learned over the past six months.
1.) Go slow
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu At the beginning of our trip, we felt unstoppable. We had just quit our jobs, moved out of our apartment, and sold most of our possessions. We felt incredibly light, totally energized, and ready for anything. But after a few weeks, our boundless enthusiasm met the hard limitations of reality. We wanted to see everything and do everything, but there were still only 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week. Quitting our jobs didn’t create any more time, it just allowed us to spend our time differently. And looking back, we were spending it like crazy people. In almost every regard, we were trying to do too much, too fast. And despite our abundance of “free time,” we always felt rushed. Our biggest mistake was never spending more than one night in a single location. There were exceptions of course, but that was the general rule. There was always another MUST SEE place we had to get to the next day. As soon as we had a chance to settle in and unpack, it was already time to leave. This forced-march tempo might be fine for short sprints, but for a long-term traveler, it’s totally exhausting.
Because we were in a constant state of motion, everything had to be researched on the fly: where to camp, what to cook, where to buy groceries. All day long, we lurched from one logistical challenge to the next. What’s the fastest route? Are there any parks in the area? Where should we stop for lunch? Meanwhile, on the business side of things, we had overloaded ourselves. We took on so many freelance projects and guest posts, that we barely had time to keep up with our own social media and emails – never mind updating our own blog! After a month we started to feel burnt out. We tried on multiple occasions to restart the pace of the trip, but it was hard to kick our habit of over scheduling. Who knew it required so much discipline to maintain a relaxed lifestyle! Thankfully, our mini-break during the holidays allowed us to take a step back and reassess how we wanted to approach the second part of the trip. Obviously, most people don’t get a second chance at taking a trip of a lifetime, which is why we are so happy we took this intermission. OUR ADVICE: For any road trip longer than two weeks, we would suggest taking it slow. Like way, way slow. Over-budget your time, give yourself a chance to really experience a place. In fact, give yourself a chance to feel bored. It’s only when your mind is free from distractions that you can really appreciate a place for what it is. Otherwise, you’ll be rushing for one photo op to the next without actually experiencing anything.
2.) You can see a lot, but you can’t see everything.
One of the major takeaways from the first part of our trip was that we can see a lot, but we can’t see everything. The country is just way too big. Looking at a road map and a blank calendar might give you the false impression you can fit it all in, but start filling in the dates and you’ll find it’s impossible. There are so many fantastic places out there it would be impossible to visit them all in a lifetime, never mind a year.
Looking back, we spent way too much time “driving to a place” and not nearly enough time “being in a place.” That ratio is something we’re being a lot more mindful of on the second half of the trip. The car is the vehicle, not the destination.
One of the new strategies we’ve adopted is to not drive more than two hours a day. There might be something really cool on the other side of the state, but we’re not going to spend six hours driving over there to check it out. If we can incorporate it into our route, great. But if not, we need to be okay with saving it for “next time.” OUR ADVICE: Quality over quantity. While it might sound super impressive to tell somebody you visited all fifty states during your month-long road trip, we can assure you the quality of your visits will be extremely limited. Forget ultimate road trip itineraries and definitive lists: All the state capitols, every national park, etc. Long term travel can be so much more than just checking off boxes on a list. Besides, if you take it slow, the boxes will start to check themselves off.
3.) Pack less
In the months leading up to our trip, we felt like we were walking through a dream. This big trip we had talked about for three years and actively planned for six months was really going to happen. All of our hopes, all of our fantasies were coming true. But while anything is possible in a dream, you simply can’t pack for that.
Of course we wanted to do it all. We wanted to bring our bicycles, a four person tent, a giant shade shelter, big comfy camping chairs, all the board games, and a dozen other wish-list niceties. At some point, we were discussing buying Oru kayaks and strapping them to the roof. And that was just the gear. When it came to packing clothes we were even worse! What if we need business attire for a meeting? What about something nice for a night out? Should we bring our cycling spandex and clipless shoes? What about our rock climbing shoes? Our ski apparel? The list of What Ifs went on forever.
We were on the road for just a few weeks before we started mailing things back, donating them to friends, or just throwing them away. We brought so much stuff that not only were things not getting used, but they were actively getting in our way. Each time we wanted to access the hatch, we needed to remove the bikes and bike rack. If things weren’t put away exactly right, the top box wouldn’t close. If our clothes weren’t folded perfectly, they wouldn’t fit in the duffel bag.
The way we began to look at it was: “If we need to move it more than we use it then we should lose it.” There’s no point in dragging something all around the country if you’re only going to use it a handful of times. Even if we had the space, it’s not worth wasting the mental energy required to keep track of something you so rarely use.
OUR ADVICE: Go on a shakedown run before your trip. A great way to approach this is to pack the absolute bare essentials and wait for the “need” to arise. It’s remarkably easy to pack for every imaginable circumstance, so wait until the circumstance comes to you before you address it. You’ll discover that you can get by with a lot less than you think.
4.) Don’t skip breakfast!
A lot of people have asked us, “Living together in such close quarters, do you guys ever get into fights?” The answer is, of course, yes. But 99% of the time we can trace the reason back to an ill-fated decision to skip breakfast. (We’ve also found that skipping lunch yields a similar result.)
Despite being painfully aware of the risks, we kept making this mistake over and over again during the first part of our trip. A lot of it can be tied to the “get up and go” mentality, but sometimes it was because we didn’t have supplies with us or the weather wasn’t cooperating.
But we’ve learned a lot since then. We’ve found that when you take a little extra time in the morning to eat right, it results in a smoother ride through the rest of the day. We’re less irritable, we make better decisions, and we just feel better when we start the day off with something to eat. So listen to us, the people who run a food blog: “Eat your breakfast!”
OUR ADVICE: The first step in making breakfast a priority is to always have the right supplies with you. You don’t need to have bacon & eggs every day, but your pantry should always have oatmeal, cream of wheat, or corn grits in stock. If you’re pressed for time, get some instant oatmeal packets or packaged granola. And if you’re really in a hurry, at least eat a Cliff bar. We guarantee it’ll pay big dividends later in the day.
5.) Don’t put off until later what you can do now.
Should we get gas here or look for someplace cheaper? Should we buy groceries now or find someplace closer to camp? Should we eat lunch at this park or try to find someplace more scenic? These are the dilemmas that confront us almost daily. Each one gives us the option to either take care of the problem now, or, put it off until some theoretically optimal period of time in the future. The former is obviously the correct answer, but you would be amazed how many times we chose the latter. OUR ADVICE: Don’t put off until later, what you can take care of now. We know it sounds incredibly simple, but it’s something we still struggle with. Whenever you’re faced with a question like this, it’s best to think about the worst case of either scenario. Example: If you stop for gas now, worse case you might overpay by a few cents per gallon. But if you don’t stop for gas, worse case you run out of gas and have to call AAA. Not stopping for gas presents the greater risk to your overall happiness and enjoyment. So stop for gas. The same thing goes for buying groceries, stopping for lunch, refilling your water, using the restroom, and countless other logistical iterations. Life on the road is a life of full of uncertainty. Don’t place your faith in later. Now is the only time you can bank on.
6.) Figure out where you’re sleeping first, then go play.
Our friend Brian, who went on a similar long-haul road trip, coined a term for the feeling when it’s getting late in the afternoon, the sun is starting to set, and you have absolutely no idea where you’re going to sleep. He called it “The Night Fear.” And we can tell you from experience, you want to avoid the night fear.
It might not be so bad for vandwellers, but for anyone without a self-enclosed living space like ourselves, setting up camp in the dark is no fun. The first stage of The Fear is frantically searching for a free or reasonably priced campsite on our cell phones, which invariably has spotty service. The second stage is driving way out of your way to the campsite only to discover the campground is full or the road is closed or it’s totally sketchy. Finally, there is finding a spot and setting up in the dark and feeling completely exposed in an unfamiliar setting. And, of course, all this is done while you’re completely exhausted and hungry.
OUR ADVICE: If possible, research where you want to stay the night before. But even if you’ve got a good place figured out, you’re still going to want to arrive by mid-day. Give yourself plenty of time to scope out the scene and possibly divert to an alternate location. On too many occasions, places we’ve found online ended up being closed, inaccessible, or excessively sketchy.
So figure out where you’re sleeping first, then go off and explore. The comfort of knowing you have a place to go back to at night will offset the time spent checking it out in person.
The Never Ending Learning Curve
These are just a few of the lessons – out of probably thousands – that we learned during our first six months on the road. Who knows what we’ll discover after another six months! Or six more after that! Traveling is a constantly evolving process that can never be fully perfected.
If you’ve been out on the road and have any lessons you’d like to share, please let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear it! Who knows, maybe we’re still doing it all wrong!