Tips for the Road Trip or Nomad Newbie

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Recently a friend went on road trip covering 1,500 miles and crossing four states. It wasn’t her first road trip, but it was the first long one that she did alone. She wanted to arrive at her destination as quickly as possible, as safely as possible (in the time of COVID, no less), while spending as little money as possible. As we discussed her trip and I offered advice, I realized I had lots of tips I’d picked up from my years as a rubber tramp. Whether you’re going on a weekend road trip and plan to return to your sticks-n-bricks on Sunday evening or if it’s your maiden voyage as a full-time nomad (or even if you’re at some stage between the two extremes), these tips can help make travel in your vehicle safer, cheaper, and more enjoyable.

#1 Remove some seats, or fold them down. The minivan my friend drove on her road trip had seats that folded completely into the floor to create a totally flat surface. My Toyota Sienna did not offer such technology so I pulled all the back seats out as soon as possible. With seats out of the way, you’ll have more room for luggage, coolers, camp stove, and most importantly, space to sleep.

#2 Make yourself a place to sleep. On anything longer than a day trip, you’re going to need to catch some Z’s. (Even on a day trip, you might need to take a nap.) Camping can be fun and staying at a hotel/motel/Airbnb is a luxury I wish I could afford, but if you’re just trying to make it from point A to Point B, consider sleeping in your vehicle. With the seats out or folded away, you should have room to make a comfortable sleeping area for yourself.

My friend had a twin size futon mattress that she threw in her minivan for maximum comfort. If you don’t have a mattress that fits your vehicle, you could use an air mattress, a pad intended to go under a sleeping bag, the squishy mats that go on the floor of an exercise or play room, a yoga mat, or even a pile of blankets. If you don’t have a sleeping bag to go on top of your padding, just use sheets and blankets from your bed at home. Don’t forget your pillow.

If the seats in your vehicle don’t fold down or can’t be removed, consider using a car air bed. According to Noelle Talmon‘s article “Best Car Air Beds: Our Top Picks for Back Seat Comfort” on The Drive website, a car air bed is

…designed to be placed on top of a vehicle’s back seat to provide a more comfortable sleeping spot…

Air beds are designed to universally accommodate the back seats of most cars, including compact cars, sedans, and SUVs. A back seat bed includes two separately inflated “feet” that support the mattress, fit into the spaces in front of the seats, and contour around the console. Made out of lightweight, synthetic PVC, the beds weigh around 6 to 7 pounds…

A car air bed can be had for around $30 for a basic model, or you can spend $60 or more for all the bells and whistles if you desire optimal luxury. If you plan to spend several nights in your car, especially if you can’t get your seats out of the way, a car air bed may be a wise investment. For less than the cost of one night in a motel, you can buy yourself many night of car sleeping comfort.

By sleeping in your vehicle, you’ll not only save money (no camping fees, no charges for a hotel room), you’ll interact with fewer people if you’re dodging communicable diseases.

#3 You might be wondering where to park if you’re going to sleep in your vehicle. I wrote a whole post about blacktop boondocking you might want to check out, but I’ll give you a quick rundown here.

If you’re simply concerned with getting some sleep between Point A and Point B, truck stops, sometimes called travel centers, and rest areas are your best bets. Lots of people are coming and going at these places, and you probably won’t be the only one sleeping in a vehicle.

I prefer truck stops over rest areas because at truck stops you can fuel up, get a snack (maybe even a slice of pizza or a fresh cinnamon roll) or have a hot meal, get caffeine if you need it, use the restroom, or even take a shower. (Of course, you’re gong to pay dearly for truck stop snacks, drinks, and showers, so try to plan ahead so you won’t need such things.)

Truck stops to look for include Flying J (my fave), Pilot (now owned by the same corporation that owns Flying J), Love’s (The Man’s fave), TA (TravelCenters of America), and Petro. Beware: both Love’s and Petro have locations that are only gas stations/convenience stores and others that are truck stops/travel centers. Make sure a location is actually at truck stop if you’re looking to stay overnight.

Rest areas are shown on paper maps. (You are traveling with a paper map, aren’t you? If you have no idea why you might need one, read my post “In Praise of Paper Maps“.) Check out your route on your map to see if there are any rest areas on the way. You can also look at a map of rest areas on the Interstate Rest Areas website.

Each state has different rules about how long you can stay at a rest area, so do your research before you decide to spend the night at one. Even if you are not allowed to stay overnight at a rest area, you can usually get at least a few hours of shut-eye at one.

If you’re on a leisurely trip and think free camping (often known as boondocking) might be fun, use the Free Campsites website and Campendium to find cool places in nature to spend a night or more. Before boondocking, be sure to read my post “10 Fundamentals for Boondockers.”

#4 Once you’ve decided where you will stay for the night, you might wonder exactly where to park your vehicle. On her first night at a truck stop, my newbie road tripper friend texted me, Was I supposed to park with the trucks?

The answer is no, don’t park with the big rigs unless you are driving a big rig yourself or maybe if you’re driving a giant Class A motorhome, but even then, try to avoid it. Typically there are more truckers who need to take a mandatory break than there are spaces for them to park in at a truck stop. Do not take one of the limited spots an 18-wheeler can fit in. If you’re in a passenger vehicle, park with the other passenger vehicles.

The ideal spot for your rig (in my opinion) is on the end of a row so you’ll only have a neighbor on one side. If you’re away from light shining on you, all the better as far as I’m concerned, although some people feel safer parked under lights. I’d try to avoid parking next to pet walking areas, trash cans, entrance/exit doors, or anywhere with lots of foot traffic.

Now you’re parked for the night. What next?

#5 Use your windshield sun shade to block light and provide privacy at night. We all know a windshield sun shade helps reduce the heat in a vehicle when it’s parked during the day, but it can also provide you with some privacy at night, as well as keep the light from parking lot security lamps out of your face. You may not want to hang curtains in your vehicle. Maybe the windows are tinted enough to give you the privacy you need. Since the windshield is not tinted and it’s a big piece of glass, it’s easy for people to look right in. Pop your sun shade in the windshield at night and you’ve just made your vehicle more private. The sun shade will also block the light that otherwise pours in all night and can disturb your sleep.

#6 If the windshield sun shade doesn’t give you all the privacy you need, hang some easy curtains. The side curtains in my minivan hang from bungee cords and attach to each other with clothespins. The back curtain is pinned up with clothespins. When my friend went on her road trip, she made a “tent” within the back of her minivan with sheets and binder clips. You could also cover windows with a sarong, a skirt, a sweatshirt, a bath towel, or a pillowcase. My point is that you don’t need an elaborate, permanent system to cover your windows. Plan ahead or make do with what you have in a pinch, but covering your windows can really increase your coziness.

#7 I’m a big believer in locking the doors. I just sleep better knowing no one is going to open one of my doors during the night. I can use the remote lock on my key fob to lock all of my doors from the inside of my minivan. I can then manually unlock doors from the inside as needed. Experiment with your key fob if you have one to find out what works for you.

#8 The first rule of vanlife is always know where your keys are. This is a tip for both night and day, but I always sleep better when I know I can grab my keys in an instant if I need to.

My friend the newbie road tripper was going to sleep with her keys under her pillow, but thought better of it. She worried she might move in the night and hit the button for the alarm or the one that unlocked all the doors. She found another spot that felt more secure. You will have to find the spot that works best for you, but you want to be able to reach out and grab them without much thought or struggle.

#9. We’re about to get real here. If you’re sleeping in your vehicle, having a pee bottle/jug/bucket is going to come in handy. Trust me, once all your curtains are up and you’re snuggled under blankets or in your sleeping bag, you are not going to want to find your shoes, pull on some pants, get our of the vehicle, and walk across the parking lot at 2 o’clock in the morning. A way to pee in your rig is super convenient. (For lots of info about using the bathroom when there is no bathroom, read my post “Going to the Bathroom in Your Van, Car, Minivan, or SUV.”)

People with male anatomy probably know all about this, but as a reminder, use a bottle with a lid that screws on tightly, such as a disposable water bottle, a Nalgene bottle, or a juice or milk jug. Just make sure you don’t confuse your pee bottle with a bottle you drink out of. (Yuck!)

The process is not as easy for people with female anatomy, but it can be done. Ever squat to pee when you’re out camping or hiking? What you’ll be doing is the same principle, but without a tree to lean against and into a container instead of on the ground. I use a tall plastic coffee can with a snap-on lid. Any wide-mouth, leak-proof container is a possibility. If you already use a stand-to-pee device, try using it in conjunction with your container.

In the morning when you emerge from your vehicle, carry the container into the restroom and dump the contents into the toilet.

Photo by Nico Smit on Unsplash

#10 To save money and time, pack snacks. I mentioned liking truck stops because snacks are available there, but I can’t remember the last time I bought food at a truck stop or a convenience store. Snacks bought in those places are so expensive! If you’re going on a road trip or travel vacation, pack snacks you already have at home, or buy some at the supermarket, discount store, or dollar store before you go. You can save a lot of money by purchasing food before you hit the road.

You can save more money by not eating restaurant meals while you travel. If you have a camp store, you can stop at rest areas or city or county parks and cook meals on-the-go. There are soups, noodles, oatmeal, and mashed potatoes you can prepare with just hot water. Often you can get free hot water from coffee dispensers at gas stations and truck stops, so you don’t even have to drag out the camp stove. (If you’re not sure if the water is free, just offer to pay for it at the cash register.)

If you bring a loaf of bread and pack cold cuts and cheese in your cooler, you can slap together a sandwich and call it a picnic wherever you stop. Peanut butter and jelly works the same way. You could also stock the cooler with pizza and boiled eggs if you don’t mind eating those cold. Maybe some fruit, nuts, or trail mix eaten while you’re driving would be enough to get you through.

There are lots of options less expensive and healthier than a fast food burger and fries or a meal in a sit down restaurant. (Learn to save even more cash while on the road in my post “How to Save Money While Visiting Tourist Attractions.”)

#11 Are you a night owl or an early bird? In either case there are some real benefits of driving from dark to light.

A very wise woman shared this concept in one of the lady van groups I’m in. If you get an early start, even before the sun rises, you’ll be able to more easily handle any problems you might encounter. If your vehicle breaks down, mechanics and auto parts stores will be open in the daytime, but probably not in the middle of the night. If your tires goes flat or has a blow out, tire shops and sales locations will be open in the daytime. Driving in the daytime tends to work better for me because driving at night puts me right to sleep. Also, it’s getting more and more difficult for me to see well while I’m driving at night. I’d much rather get an early start, stop and see cool attractions along the way, and still get to my stopping point before dark.

I hope these tips for anyone just starting out on the road are helpful. What did I forget? What do you wish you had known when you were starting out? Please share your favorite road trip tips in the comments.

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