In February’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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Buy gear on sale
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.
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.
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.