“There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it.”
Charles Dudley Warner
In “Planning a Road Trip, Part 1” we explored how to choose your routes, balance your budget, get your ride ready, and other ways to plan your epic trip before you’ve even left the driveway. Here, in Part 2, it’s time to hit the road for your own van-camping road trip adventures!
Get Off the Freeway … and Find the Blue Highways
Travel writer William Least Heat-Moon coined this term in his seminal road-trip novel, “Blue Highways,” to denote those smaller secondary roads and byways which offer so much more than the larger national freeways.
While freeways and Interstate highways are often faster, they also offer seemingly endless monotony and the boring sameness of truck stops, strip malls, and fast food places.
If the whole point of a road trip is to get away from all that, then steer off the beaten path to find the best scenery and small-town charm. Look for scenic routes and byways, often indicated on printed maps by an orange dashed or dotted line (another reason to carry paper maps and road atlases to augment smartphone navigation apps).
Besides, modern freeways are designed for high volume and high speeds, while the Vanagon was made for a slower pace and simpler times. Like life, you’re passing through here only once, so enjoy it!
… But Have an Escape Plan
Back roads can be the spice of any road trip, but sometimes you just need to get somewhere. Fast.
Whenever wandering the back roads, always know roughly where the nearest Interstate highway or freeway is, and keep it in mind like a handrail. If your backcountry route gets rough or the family cranky, use the larger faster motorway to make up for lost time.
Divide Your Labors
Like keeping everything in its place (see “Packing for the Road” and “The Routine,”) trips go more smoothly when everyone—including kids—has a few ways of contributing to the cause. Especially in the confined space of a VW camper van, it’s easy to step on the toes of others, so divide your assigned duties between front and rear, or inside and outside.
For example, each morning after breakfast, by the time I’ve stowed the camp chairs, hammock, gray-water bag, and extension cord in the rooftop luggage rack, I find that my partner has put away the dishes and food, packed the sleeping bags and converted the bed to a seat, and is already working out the day’s driving route.
A good road trip is built on good teamwork.
Anticipate Problems, but Keep a Positive Attitude
I don’t know if Lewis & Clark’s expedition boat had a “Sh*t Happens” bumper sticker on it, but they knew enough to hope for the best and expect the occasional trouble. Captain Lewis wrote in his journal: “As I have always held it a crime to anticipate evils, I will believe it a good comfortable road untill I am compelled to beleive differently.”
Delays, bad weather, boredom, discomfort, breakdowns either mechanical and emotional, all can put a damper on an otherwise great trip.
Like keeping the nearest freeway as a mental handrail, always have a Plan B. If a thunderstorm opens up just as you’re heading out on a hike, go to the visitors center or museum instead. If you find Old Faithful crowded with tourists, get ice cream while you wait for front row seats for the next eruption.
If the hot monotony of a long drive across the Great Plains puts the kids (or you) on the verge of a mental collapse, stop early for a nice air-conditioned motel room with a pool and mini-golf.
Your best tool is always flexibility.
Don’t Let the Kids Drive … You Crazy
Kids are perhaps even more reliant on their digital devices than grownups, so if you’re inclined, provide them with games, music and movies (See “Load Your Phone …” in Part 1).
Assign each child his/her own pack to help organize their ‘travel kit’ and personal items.
Dole out periodic snacks, treats, and other rewards for good behavior and to help break up the long hours.
Teach kids to help navigate while en route: “If we’re 200 miles from Glacier National Park, and we’re driving 60 MPH, what time will we arrive? Please provide half-hourly updates.”
The whole point of a road trip is to see new and interesting things, especially valuable for young and growing minds. Encourage the kiddos to put away the phone games and look out the window and tell a story to explain the odd and interesting place names they see along the way.
See “Best Car Games for Kids” for more ideas to banish backseat boredom.
Know When to Pull the Plug
Even with the best laid plans, a good crew, and a flexible schedule, some trips simply cannot be saved. If you’ve had just about enough Wisconsin cheese, the Land of Enchantment is less than enchanting, or the Show Me state hasn’t shown you a darn thing, maybe it’s time to find greener pastures.
Always have some alternative destinations (Plan C) in your back pocket to help salvage a trip gone south.
Worst case, you can always just go home and paint the garage …
Prepare For the Return Trip
If getting to and from your Big Destination involves a couple of days of driving there and back, plan for your return voyage almost as well as your departure.
Restock the snacks and beverages, tidy the van, organize your maps and other travel info, plan some stops, and break the return trip into shorter sections.