One of the most challenging parts of being a vagabond has been figuring out what works for me when it comes to planning trips and routes and moving on down the road.
Picking a Big Destination
As a vagabond, I’m always traveling. I generally break my traveling up into “big destinations” with routes that take me anywhere from 3 weeks to 7 months to complete. (And let’s be clear, I don’t recommend going across country in 3 weeks but sometimes things just work out that way!)
I’ve developed some general principles I use when planning a trip. First, I pick a big event or destination so I know where I want to end up and when. Sometimes it’s really obvious to me where I want to be (like last summer’s rally of my trailer friends).
When it’s not obvious, I have learned to wait for something that sparks my interest and makes me think “why not?!” When that right thing shows up, it’s suddenly crystal clear that’s where I want to go. The trick, for me, has been learning to wait for it and not rush the process. It can take time for that end point to make itself known. But once it appears, everything else starts falling into place.
The total trip mileage, and what it breaks down to per day, is what drives a lot of my routing. I have a few guidelines:
- Aim for 150-200 miles a day, and not more than 300 if I can avoid it.
- Avoid driving more than 2 days in a row.
- Stay at least 2 nights in most places.
Of course, these are just guidelines, so I have driven more than 300 miles in a day and driven three days in a row and done the Walmart overnighting. But in general, I do try to go slow and enjoy the journey as well as get to my destination without being burned out.
For purposes of timing, I use an average of 50 miles covered per hour. It generally works out that way, no matter how fast or slow I go, and how many stops I make. I drive anywhere from 55 to 65 on interstate highways, slower on back roads.
I use Google Maps to rough out what I think is a good route, and check mileage between a first cut of stops. So, for example, when I was going from Quartzsite to Gainesville this winter, I put in stops at Tucson, Deming, and Fort Stockton, for starters.
That’s as far as my geography and personal experience took me, so then it was time for AllStays.com and their wonderful collection of campgrounds, Walmarts, truckstops, and rest stops. And by looking at this map, I could see about where to start looking for stops, based on what I already had mapped out.
Over time, I’ve developed a preference for state and county parks over commercial RV parks or sleeping in Walmart parking lots, and Allstays has let me to some great places to stay.
Once I find some potential sites around where I want to stop for each night, I check Campendium.com for reviews, along with Trip Advisor (which is surprisingly good for campground reviews in many cases!). Then I check actual availability and pick a few places to investigate later, when I’m ready to get serious about reservations. I end up with a lot of browser bookmarks!
If I’m going somewhere other than the pancake-flat middle of the country, I will also check climbs and descents on flattestroute.net on the web. It’s great for letting me know how much of a challenge it will be for my Subaru and if I should find another route or just plan to go slow and let the car have a break now and then.
Apps/Websites: Google Maps, AllStays Pro, FlattestRoute.net
Driving solo has its own challenges when it comes to navigating new territory. I can’t ask my non-existent passenger to scan the maps, pull out an atlas or even find the best gas prices as I pull into a town.
It took me months go figure out a good process for handling the logistics of a day’s drive. The night before, I sit down with Google Maps on my laptop and walk through the route, turn by turn, if I can stand it (sometimes it’s just really boring). I write the key directions on a series of post-it notes which I then stick next to the radio. During the drive, this helps me know that Garmin and Google Maps are sticking to the plan instead of deciding to stealth-reroute me, which they sometimes do. I don’t know why, or how to stop them from this, so my post-it notes are the old-school way to make sure I’m on plan.
While I’m walking through the route, I check for gas stations and rest stops. This is where I usually go back to Allstays.com and look for truck stops because I know I they cater to the RV crowd with lots of gas pumps and big turnaround spaces. I prefer to fill up when my gas tank is no more than half empty, and I like to take a walking-around break every two hours or so. Mostly, this works out to stopping every two hours, first one for me (and usually lunch or a snack) and the second one for gas and to double-check the approach to the campground I’m aiming for that day.
Apps/websites: AllStays Pro, Campendium, Campsitephotos.com, Trip Advisor and Google Maps reviews.
Driving While Towing
I’m still a slightly nervous driver when I’m towing my trailer. I talk to the other cars (mostly things like “please don’t hit me” or “I’m not going to go any faster, dude, so just pass me” when I’m in the far right lane already) and I talk to the Garmin and I argue with Google Maps.
I pull over a LOT when I’m on backroads and have a few cars piled up behind me anxiously looking to get around me (which usually means the lead car is tailgating just a bit). I am the most polite trailer on the road in this respect. I will pull out every 15 minutes if it gets lead-foot drivers off my bumper. And it makes for a more relaxing drive for me.
When I’m on interstates and other big highways, I stick to the far right (slow) lane except when there are four lanes and then I go with the second right lane (where you’ll usually find the truckers) because it avoids the merging lane, which is nice. I keep to the posted speed limit if there is one for towing vehicles (usually 55) and if there isn’t one, I tend to top out at 60-65. I’ve become used to everyone blowing by me and it’s a banner day when I actually get to pass someone going slower than me.
Equipment: Towing side mirrors on my Subaru, rear-view camera mounted in the trailer with a display in the Subaru, trailer brakes with controller in the Subaru, Garmin 760 RV, iPhone with Google Maps. If I think cell phone reception is going to be an issue, I keep the Verizon hotspot on and in the Subaru, so that if my ATT service on the iPhone craps out, I can use Verizon’s network (and wi-fi calling in an emergency).
Keeping a Weather Eye Out
More than once, I’ve been surprised by the weather less than 24 hours before a big storm. Now I use the NOAA Radar app on my iPad to check if there are any weather alerts or storms coming in and I keep an eye on the weather forecast with Dark Sky, an iPhone app. I am a lot more aware of weather than I was when I was living in a sticks-and-bricks house. Whether it’s going to be sprinkles or torrential downpours is a big deal on a moving day. So is getting caught in fierce cold; I stayed put in New Mexico an extra couple of days rather than deal with sub-freezing temps going across Texas.
Apps: NOAA Radar, Dark Sky, Weather (iPhone). Also Weather Underground on laptop.
I used to track gas mileage per trip and then average it out. After several months, I gave that up because it was obvious by then that I was getting 14 mpg when towing under normal conditions at 55 mph and about 11-12 mpg if there was wind or hills involved or I was going 65 mph.
I still do track mileage of several things: car tires, trailer tires, and trailer wheel bearings (which need attention every 10K miles or so). This helps me plan ahead for tire purchases or maintenance work so that I can try to avoid being stuck in non-Subaru country if Bella is ready for an oil change. My car and my trailer are my home so I take very good care of them!
I keep a spreadsheet of campsites by date, so that I can track how much I’m paying and also look up a campsite if I’m going to be back in the area again.
So there you have it. Everyone plans their trips and routes differently, so take any tips you want and leave the rest 🙂
I’ve been everywhere, man
Crossed the deserts bare, man
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man
Travel, I’ve had my share, man
I’ve been everywhere