Last March, I was lucky enough to be a part of my school’s spring break whitewater kayaking trip across the Southeastern U.S. Over the course of the adventure, we paddled for eight days in West Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina. Between all those beautiful rivers, we drove… everywhere. We drove on highways, through small towns, and on dirt roads that tested the limits of our trucks’ suspension. Once, we got lost and drove for miles in the wrong direction. Often, we drove without actually knowing where we were going, assuming that someone in the other vehicle had a new destination in mind. They rarely did. Through all those hours cramped in a truck cab with four other unshowered paddlers, I learned a few unspoken rules and pieces of advice that apply to any adventure requiring long hours behind the wheel. So, without further ado, here are some tips and things to keep in mind to ensure you have the best time on your upcoming road trip!
1. Stay safe, be prepared
This first one should be obvious. Regardless of the outdoor activity you’re pursuing over spring break, the most dangerous part of your adventure will be driving. Putting in lots of driving over the course of multiple days only makes this commonplace activity even more risky. To combat these inherent dangers, share the responsibility of driving equally, stop for regular breaks, and don’t take unnecessary risks. As my driver’s ed teacher once told me, drive like everyone else on the road is terrible at driving!
In addition, prepare for the kinds of conditions you might experience during the trip. You probably won’t need a snow shovel or cold weather gear if you’re driving toward the Deep South, but you’ll definitely want one if you’re going backcountry skiing in the Rockies. Emergencies happen, so jumper cables, food, and overnight gear are all important things to have in your vehicle while on an adventure.
2. Do your job, and nothing else
Within every vehicle lies a rigid hierarchy, and each trip member must know their role and execute it without question. As the driver, your job is simple. DRIVE! Don’t navigate, don’t dig through your bag searching for things, and certainly don’t look at your phone. Your job is to keep everyone safe, and you have a car full of people to do those other things for you.
If you are sitting in the shotgun seat, congratulations! Not only do you get bonus legroom, you also get to serve as the driver’s personal assistant. That means staying awake and attending to any and every little need your driver has including, but not limited to: navigating, climate control, playing music, helping the driver shed a layer, helping the driver add a layer, providing thoughtful and engaging conversation, feeding the driver, communicating with any other cars on your trip, and giving the driver exaggerated and undeserved praise at regular intervals. Oh, and if you sit in shotgun while I’m driving, you also have to laugh at my jokes. Sorry.
If you have found yourself in any of the back seats, you need to rest and recharge till it’s your turn up front again. Nap, read, do whatever you need to do, until the driver demands a shoulder rub from you. In that case, wake up and follow your commander’s orders.
3. The driver has the final say on music
This one is crucial. While the shotgun passenger controls music and should feel free to play whatever they and the rest of the car would like, they must remember that they serve at the pleasure of the driver. At any moment, the person behind the wheel has the authority to demand a song be added to the queue, or even to shift the car’s musical direction entirely. If, for instance, the driver demands to hear only mid 2000’s pop-rap and Katy Perry’s early work (I have no shame) for the duration of their shift, the DJ must comply, and all the passengers are expected to enthusiastically sing along with their leader, especially during the chorus of “Teenage Dream.”
4. Keep your vehicle clean
If your road trip lasts multiple days, your car will become your second home for the near-future, so treat it with love! If you’re not careful, your mom’s lovely hatchback that she so-kindly loaned to you and your friends for the week will turn into a hellscape, a wasteland littered with wet gear, loose trash, and stray GORP. Do yourself (and your mom) a favor by keeping your ride clean!
5. Abandon your fine-dining sensibilities
Once you hit the road, your food choices drop drastically. You could stop the car regularly every day to find exquisite cuisine or to prepare and cook your own healthy and delicious meals, or you could get to your destination within a reasonable timeframe. As most choose the latter option, you will likely have to surrender any hope of eating your traditional diet of organic squash and free-range kale chips. Instead, you will likely be eating plenty of fast food and gas station snacks. Be sure to mix-up your snack choices and, to prevent yourself from entering a grease-induced coma, go grocery shopping before you leave to add some simple and healthy alternatives into your road trip diet. After several straight meals that included french fries, a crisp apple or a handful of carrot sticks will go a long way.
6. You will learn to love the gas station
During your drive, when you’re not in the car or exploring, you’ll be at a gas station. If you’re doing your road trip right, these spots will become so much more than just a place for a fill-up and a bathroom break. After many hours in the car, the gas station provides a much-needed place to buy a snack, stretch your legs, and get outside for a moment. If you’re feeling restless, take the time for a parking lot dance party and/or cross training session before you get back on the road. Other motorists might judge you as you and your friends throw in a core routine and some curbside burpees, but they’re not having nearly as much fun as you are.
7. Don’t stick to the Plan
My friends and I drove South to experience some of the finest whitewater paddling the country has to offer. So why then, did I find myself tarp-sledding and snow kayaking at a West Virginia ski resort one day and mountain biking some seriously technical North Carolina singletrack the next? We changed our plans, that’s why! Though we initially planned to paddle a new river every day, the sunny days, 80 degree temperatures, and solid water levels on Georgia’s Chattooga River kept us down there for three full days. We loved every single one of them. If you are lucky enough to have a flexible itinerary on your road trip, take full advantage of it. You will likely encounter opportunities and unforeseen obstacles on the road (like the time I accidentally locked the keys inside our truck while at a Pennsylvania rest stop…), and you will have the best experience if you can adjust your plans to suit these changes instead of forcing a trip that only existed in your mind in the first place.
8. Embrace the old cliché
Some condescending person probably once told you that “life’s about the journey, not the destination.” However, their tired advice still holds true in regards to road trips. Whatever adventure you’re headed on over break, it’s likely that the driving part is merely a means to an end, a way to get you somewhere so that you can do something you actually love. The drive can be more than a necessary evil, though. The act of sharing a small space with the same group of people for a long period of time can be challenging, rewarding, and hilarious in its own right. You will likely learn a great deal about yourself and your companions during those long drives and, hopefully, grow from the experience. There are incredible sights to see from the highways, your friends have music they have never gotten to share with you, and a gas station Coke after a long day’s adventure should be considered one of the finer things in life. Your outdoor adventure is just around the corner. Till then, enjoy the drive!
Bonus Tip: “My Cows” is the greatest road trip game you will ever play
If you see a group of cows, yell out “my cows!” If you are the first person to do so, congratulations! You now have cows! Count how many cows you saw and add them to your total cow quota. If the total number of cows you just claimed is too large to quantify, estimate the size of the herd (this approximation must be a number unanimously accepted by all parties playing) and award yourself that many livestock.
If you are the first person to see a church of any faith or denomination, say “marry my cows!” Huzzah! You have just DOUBLED your total amount of cows.
Stay alert, though, because if anyone sees a cemetery, they can declare, “kill your cows,” and reset any one player’s cow quota back to zero. Be extra vigilant of the potential church-cemetery combo. These can change the tide of an entire game.