In January’s cold, dark days, a summer road trip might be the farthest thing from your mind. Without the need to book a flight or coordinate other transportation, it’s easy to rely on spontaneity for a last-minute escape once the weather warms up. The beauty of a road trip is its structured freedom: you can do anything you want, just as long as you are willing and able to drive.
But pushing off your planning until sunnier days could affect your vacation down the road. Investing a little time now will go a long way toward making the most out of your summer.
Map your route
If plotting a course feels daunting, start by clustering destinations that will you give you something concrete to plan around. Depending on the number of days you expect to be gone, you can add or remove stops along the way.
For example, a trip through three national parks in New Mexico and Texas – White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains – could be knocked out in a long weekend. Tack on Big Bend National Park for an additional few days to account for the extra mileage and time to explore.
A classic way to plan a road trip is to follow one of America’s best-known vacation drives, like Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway, or the Lewis and Clark Expedition Trail. Though they may seem cliché, these drives are still famous for a reason: They capture the history of America. You can use social media to find modern attractions along these well-tread routes.
Search for geotags along the route for crowdsourced advice on what to visit while you pass through. Use hiking apps like All Trails to explore what nature recommendations people have outside of national park suggestions. Start following accounts of bloggers or local experts who post about the areas you’re visiting. To keep yourself from overcommitting, keep a list of these potential food, entertainment and nature stops along the way to reference when you need options.
Whether you’re planning to follow a well-known path or keep a looser schedule, try to become familiar with your major waypoints by April. This will give you time to research lesser-known sights and dig for local suggestions. By the time you hit the road, you’ll have the confidence to make quick (but informed) decisions.
Make reservations at national parks
While reserving a spot inside a national park isn’t the only way to camp near popular nature sites, it is well worth the foresight if you can book a few nights ahead of time.
Every park has its own schedule of openings, reservation requirements and campsite availability, so the best advice is to closely track a few parks for announcements. While some national parks save a portion of their campsite reservations to be released a week before booking, most park reservations open six months in advance.
Most National Parks reserve a few spots per campground as a first-come, first-serve option. They can be impossible to predict, so do not rely on their availability if you are set on camping inside the park. Note that reservations often become available at 8 a.m. in the time zone of that park. Permits for popular hikes and activities also become available at this time at Recreation.gov.
Timed entry reservations will still be required at a handful of popular parks during the peak summer months: Yosemite, Arches, Zion, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, and Haleakalā National Parks will all require some reservation to enter. To the National Park Service’s credit, these required dates cluster around the most popular weeks and holidays, and there are usually exceptions, like entering a park before 5 a.m., that still allow for some flexibility if you can’t score a reservation in time.
Buy gear on sale
January is a great time to take advantage of post-holiday and end-of-year sales before summer gear starts hitting the shelves.
A backpack with a bladder, good walking or hiking shoes, and sun protection are all important regardless of how much outdoor activity you’re planning. It’s not just the outdoor gear to keep an eye out on – road trip essentials range from storage options to electronics.
Even if you’re not sleeping in your vehicle or camping, you’ll likely be spending a few days at a time in the car. A cooler, a large water jug and items for prepping and storing food are essential for even one long day on the road.
Be sure to stock up on household items: a small trash can and bags, tissues, baby wipes and a first aid kit are all good to keep on hand.
Check your vehicle
Don’t forget about a checklist for your wheels. A tire pressure gauge, jumper cables and a roadside tool kit can all come in handy, even if you’re driving someone else’s car. And always keep a paper atlas on hand in case you’re out of cell service range.
Beyond the typical under-the-hood checks – oil, transmission fluid, coolant, washer fluid and brake fluid – be sure to check your lightbulbs and brake reactivity, even in rentals. Spending hours on the road can decrease your focus and reaction time, so ensure that the vehicle you’ve chosen will be a safe and comfortable option.
The biggest investment to make in your pre-road trip vehicle is a new set of tires, especially if you tend to only drive in the city. If you’re planning on driving or pulling a camper, van or RV and have been putting off upgrading your tires, consider buying tires with a longer tread life or thicker tread for more diverse terrain.