Road Rules: Tips For The Drive Of Your Life

On July 24th, four friends and I left Trumbull, Connecticut, bound for a three-week cross-country drive. Our destination was Portland, Oregon—where two of us were planning a permanent move—and we were decided on only two factors: We would take the northern states to get there, and squeeze in as much natural wonder as possible.

We drove through those 21 days like royalty. Each town and adventure welcomed us as if it was we, and not the burning sun above us, that the world revolved around. We ate mountain lion. We saw, not 30 feet away, a gargantuan black bear. We arose for stunning sunrises—at Crater Lake and Badlands National Park—and marveled as evening shadows crept over the valleys in Grand Teton and Glacier national parks.

In hindsight, I can fully appreciate the many ingredients that came together to turn us into what felt like a travelling mirth magnet. But I also see now that the recipe was written before our wheels ever started rolling.

The first element is of course, having the right company. No adventure road trip is complete without the light-hearted joker, the foolhardy athlete who's up for any physical challenge (and sure to get the rest in over their heads with some of them), the trip organizer who rouses lazy bodies bright and early, or the learned expedition guide who's always quick to offer bear-encounter protocol should the need arise.

On our cross-country jaunt, we were lucky to all embody a little of each. Choose your tent mates wisely; there's no ditching a grumpy or high-strung buddy mid-Montana. At times you will be cold, hungry and smelly. Assemble a crew that can hold up (or, as was our case, thrive) in those conditions.

As for what to bring to ensure an active journey, an adventurous mindset surely tops the list. If hitting the trails, scaling mountains, campfire cookouts or swimming are what you're looking for, seek out vast swaths of public land. Invest in a good road atlas that shows dirt roads as well as paved roads, not to mention topography. (Divided up among your comrades, it will more than pay for itself when you're in that rarified stretch of internet-less country.) When it is available, use WiFi to search for points of interest along the road ahead. Plan ahead, but leave room for spontaneity and improvisation. One of the great gifts of any great road trip is the luxury of time and the freedom that grants to change plans.

When in doubt, let our remarkable national parks be your guide. Pick a few along your approximate route, and fill in the blanks between.

Connect with locals as often as possible. Park maps and travel websites are quick to suggest the same handful of "pristine" and "breathtaking" trails and views; they are indeed wondrous, but can lose their appeal when packed with dozens of other boisterous adventure-seekers. Locals know the flow better than anyone, so it's best to let them be your guide. Remember, though, that visitors are constantly passing through these areas, especially around the national parks. A friendly demeanor, perhaps accompanied by a cold beer, will help set your crew apart and loosen tongues.

As for gear to bring along, a few essentials are: A tent (preferably waterproof), sleeping bag, a reliable headlamp, a decent multi-tool, and some sort of sleeping mat to keep you up off of the cold ground and provide comfort. If you expect to do a lot of hiking, a solid pair of boots is a must. There are many outlets nowadays for cheap used gear; take advantage.

Some gear worth borrowing or renting if you don't have your own includes: ice axes, crampons, ski and snowboard equipment, kayaks, paddles, etc. Companies along your route—like Paddlefish Sports in Whitefish, Montana (ask for Shelby)—offer affordable daily gear rentals that can help lighten your load. If you plan on hiking through bear country, rent bear spray. You'll be packing and unpacking your car constantly, so it's important to stay light and not carry those things that have limited use.

Unless there are mitigating circumstances—an unexpected yeti infestation, say, or an impending Category 5 hurricane (anything less, in my opinion, doesn't count)—never sleep indoors. OK, maybe your car is allowable when tent sites are unavailable as you and your crew roll into camp at 2am...again. The whole point is to get out there so, by God, be out there.

While we're on the subject of where you lay your head, tiredness is a road-tripper's taboo. Visit your tent for an afternoon nap, double up on coffee or slap yourself every few minutes, if you must—missing an early morning hike or inspiring sunrise is inexcusable. You may only visit these places once in your life (hopefully not), and you must take advantage while you can.

Overwrite all the above for this last and most important of travel tips: Go with your gut, and abandon the plan when it feels right. What (or, for that matter, who) you'll find in that hole-in-the-wall bar or on a seemingly deserted patch of shore my create memories that will last a lifetime.