10 Tips for An Epic Winter Road Trip
Have a case of the winter blues? Feeling generally meh? Want to avoid air travel? We get it. That’s why we’re fans of hopping in the car and taking a winter road trip. Road trips tend to be thought of as more of a summer thing, but why do we love winter road trips? Let us count the ways.
1. Fewer crowds and competition — Imagine yourself at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon with a light dusting of snow on the North Rim, and it is blissfully… quiet. Crisp, clear nights with an infinite sky of stars (see our stargazing post!). Lines and traffic to get into anything? Not a thing. Total win.
2. Some places are literally better in the winter – Hot springs to Joshua Tree National Park to volcanoes (hike up and snowboard down Mt. St. Helens, anyone?), there are spots where the best time to visit is winter. This is your chance!
3. Change of scenery – It’s so easy to hibernate in your cozy, warm abode, binge watch your favorite TV shows and movies, and dream of summer. But getting out into the world, and doing something different is enough to get you through to spring.
Inspired? Here are some ideas and advice to get you from here to there (in no particular order).
TIP 1: Plan Ahead
Pretty basic, this one. Choose your destination. Plot your route. Book whatever needs booking (lodging, activities, hiking permits, reservations).
Not sure where to start or want some help? Check out Roadtrippers, an app and site that does the hard work for you and makes planning easy. Not all of us love the planning part. If that’s you, go ahead and do it the easy way!
If you’re the type who loves to pore over maps, obsess over routes, and find things on your own, this is your time to shine. Assemble your road trip buddies (or family), and come up with a plan together. If there happens to be food and beverages at this planning party, all the better.
TIP 2: Or Don’t Plan (Hardly) At All…
This option’s not for the faint of heart, but sometimes no plan is the best plan. Pick a direction (North, South, Southwest…) or a highway (Route 66, say, or Highway 101). Play spin the compass on a map, and see where it lands. Decide you want to travel a certain number of miles or cross into a nearby state. Set a beginning date and a return date, and find a trip that fits those parameters. Then just go.
Sure, there are risks. Can’t find a place to stay because of a massive conference for underwater basket weavers? Just passed the last gas station for another 200 miles? Only semi trucks on the snowy mountain pass, and you don’t have tire chains? (Okay, so a little planning is still necessary.)
But there are also opportunities. The only room left is in a sweet little B&B. There’s one place open to eat, and it’s a spectacular fish and chips food cart. Magic happens this way. And you never have to worry about things not going according to the plan, because there isn’t one. Serendipity.
(Dirtbag Duffle that doubles as a backpack.
TIP 3: Pack Wisely
Be sure you have an emergency kit in your car that matches up to the conditions you’re traveling in. There are tons of places online to figure out what to pack, but here are some ideas to get you started: Blankets and warm clothing layers. Plenty of snacks and water. It’s a good idea to bring an external phone charger just in case you can’t charge it in the car. And in case you get stuck and need to wait for a tow truck or help to arrive, have some handwarmers around.
Because we’re KEEN, you know we care a lot about having the right footwear on our adventures. For a winter road trip, we’d bring a pull-on waterproof boot that’s convenient to get on and off, and will keep your feet dry when you hop out of the car to explore (like the Greta Waterproof Chelsea boot or the Anchorage III Waterproof boot). And for a comfy slip-on driving shoe, check out the Howser collection.
TIP 4: Play Tourist In Your Home State Or Region
There are always those places in your area that make you think, “I really need to check that out.” Instead of going far, go somewhere nearby. Look up travel recommendations for your area or state. Are there places you’ve never thought of? Cool things you’ve heard about from friends? A great adventure doesn’t have to take you far from home.
TIP 5: Venture Into The Unknown
This is the perfect opportunity to go somewhere new or do something different. Like what? Maybe a snowshoeing excursion that ends in a polar plunge? Doing something you’ve never tried before makes the road trip into a special memory. The destination isn’t always the point of the trip. An experience could be the territory you explore.
TIP 6: The Unexpected Will Happen
Take some extra precautions to be ready for it. Make sure you have all the auto care basics and know where they are (things like a spare tire, tire iron, and jumper cables). It’s a good idea to do a thorough car check before you head out. Take it in to check the oil and antifreeze. Plan ahead for road conditions along your route. Be sure to get a weather app on your phone or check TripCheck (or similar services in your state).
Along those lines, winter driving is a big thing to consider before you head out. Some roads may be closed for the season or require chains or winter tires. Chains are not one-size fits all. It’s a good idea to make sure you not only have the right size but you also know how to put them on before you go on your trip. Add other winter specific things to your packing list like a snow shovel or bag of sand, an ice scraper, and de-icing windshield fluid.
If you’re planning to camp along the way, check out our guide to fall and winter camping to be prepared. But remember things can always go sideways. For example, you might plan to camp on the Alvord Desert playa in Eastern Oregon, and then be surprised how very, very cold it gets at night (we’re speaking from experience here). Sometimes it’s best to change gears quickly and head for the nearest motel. That funky cabin you need to rent might be more expensive than sleeping in your tent, but all the stuff that goes wrong is sometimes what you’ll laugh the hardest about later.
TIP 7: Have Fun On The Journey
A good road trip is all about kicking back and enjoying the ride. Listen to podcasts in the car. Try to spot a license plate from every state. Call someone you haven’t talked to in a while, and chat as you drive. Turn off the GPS for a bit, and try to navigate old-school style. Play Cards Against Humanity (for adults) or Apples to Apples (with kids) in the backseat. And of course, always be eating snacks.
TIP 8: Take Detours
A road trip is only as good as its detours. So pull off the highway. Take the scenic route. Read that historical sign by the side of the road. Plan a local tour to discover what a place is known for. Sample the local cuisine (French fries with cheese and gravy? Huckleberries? The best burger for miles?). What wines are grown there? Is there a local brewery (or several)? Are there any quirky landmarks (like the world’s largest Holstein statue) or an unusual museum (blown glass paperweights) or a historical house (a steel baron’s mansion in the middle of nowhere)? You need to see them!
TIP 9: Pick A Theme
A theme can help you narrow your focus and keep your momentum up. Road trip part of the Oregon trail, or go on a Lewis & Clark expedition (there are trails in every state). Pick a resort you’ve never been to, and make a snowboarding destination plan along the way. Or go whale watching up and down the coast. And of course, winter is the perfect time to warm up with a hot springs tour (don’t forget your towels!). Or maybe you’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights. Or learn a few new constellations. Pro tip: Dark sky regions of the country also tend to have observatories.
TIP 10: Switch Up Your Mode of Transportation
Rent a vehicle like an RV, camper van, off-roading Jeep, or even a convertible. It’s cheaper than a plane ticket, and it’s a novel way to change up your entire perspective on the trip. It’s not just a fun option, it’s sometimes the safest option. Is it possible to drive your Prius to Tahoe in winter? Maybe. Is it the most practical decision? A rental car can be a more road-worthy choice for those of us who depend on compact city cars.
You can also experiment with some fun ways to get around outside of your car. Rent a Segway, a moped, or electric bicycle to explore a new city. Or even a plane! In many areas, it’s surprisingly easy and affordable to rent a pilot and small airplane. Before or after you arrive, find a local airport, and check into pricing and details. For as little as (approximately) $100 a person, you can fly over the ocean and spot sharks from the air. Or charter a float plane. Or take a helicopter tour of Mt. Rushmore. Live in the Pacific Northwest? Check out this site to see how affordable and easy it is.
So, what are you waiting for? Get your playlist together, grab your crew (or go solo, but always share your itinerary, just like you would on a solo camping trip), and hit the road this winter.