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How I plan a Road Trip - Recommendations

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Recommendations for the trip.

We're all different, and have different reasons for getting on the road, so how you prepare for it will differ. This is what I do. You may find some of it way over the top, but you may get something out of it... But once you've planned a trip, you should at least prepare for it.

Pre-trip car maintenance

No Services
Sometimes, you just don't want to have a problem with the car...
If you're close to the end of the useful life on your oil, you might want to get it changed rather than having to find someplace on the road to get it done. (Note that you may find that you'll have to get it done on the road anyway.) While you're at it, check all your fluid levels.

Make sure your windshield wipers are wiping cleanly. Not only do they wipe off water, but scrape bugs at times, too. I would also acquire a gallon of washer fluid for the trip.

Check your tires. Marginal tires (those with little tread, cracks, bubbles or other flaws in the sidewall, etc.) should be retired and new one's bought before you go. Research the tires for wet traction and noise, some are much better than others.

You should also have a good, accurate tire pressure gauge. Before the trip, check your tire pressures when cold. That includes the spare. They're going to see a lot of punishment over the next few days. Follow the pressures that are printed on your doorframe. (See your owner's manual for the exact spot.)

A tire inflator that plugs into your cigarette lighter (now known as an power or accessory outlet, I think) is a very good idea, too. More in What to Take.

Do a walk around of the car, make sure all the lights work (including all the side markers and brights).

If you're using a GPS, program in all your nightly stops into your favorites. (When on the trip, make your destination the place you're going to stop for the night.)
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On the road car maintenance.

Every time you fill the tank, you should wash the windshield if it needs it. Windows, too, if you've been driving through mud or gravel roads. (Jo and I have a deal. I fill the tank, she washes the windshield.) I can go for weeks in the city without cleaning the glass (rain will generally keep it clear), but at 70mph, sometimes the most your windshield wipers and fluid will do is smear a bug in a white arc and make visibility worse, especially in the morning or late afternoon sun. Some critters will make some sort of tick sound as it hits the glass and not leave a big mark (grasshoppers come to mind), but some will splat with authority and will have to be scrapped off at the next fill up. (What's the last thing on a bug's mind when it hit's your windshield? It's assh....)

Also at every gas stop (and in the morning before hitting the road and evening after stopping for the day), do a walk around of the car. Visually check the tires for proper inflation, make sure there's nothing dripping off the car that shouldn't be dripping off the car, etc.

The further West you go, the sooner I'd start looking for gas. I would recommend you start to look for gas when you hit 1/4 to 3/8 of a tank. (See the photo above.) Out West, it's not uncommon for gas stations to be dozens of miles apart, and sometimes your gas mileage won't be close to what it is at home.

You should also check your oil occasionally (every couple of fill ups) and get it changed when it needs to be changed. Climbing mountain passes probably isn't a light-duty function, so if you don't have oil change warning in your car, assume you have to get it changed closer to the heavy-duty mileage. Fast oil change establishments are usually your best bet for on-the-road service and are available in most cities. The internet is probably your best bet to find one. A Jiffy Lube in Washington let me go below and look at a cracked muffler pipe I had. (It was safe enough that I could drive without any issues. I got it fixed a few hundred miles down the road by finding a muffler shop on the internet.)

I have also had a couple of issues with check engine lights on the road. The light always goes out when they're supposed to go out, and I suspect it has to do with the varying octane's you get at different altitudes, as well as driving at altitude. (Trivia: Your car only has something like 70% of its power at 10,000 feet unless you have a turbo or super-charged engine because of the lower air pressure.)
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Keep a log.

I normally keep a gas log and hotel receipts, so I have a paper trail of where I was every day. Pre-digital camera, those really are the only notes I have of where I was on what date. (I have some sketchy picture descriptions, but I should have taken better notes.)

200809SW_2069P21163.jpg The most important log I have now (post-digital) are the pictures themselves. Every single one has a date and a time stamp included. All cameras on the trip are synced to the same time (Central Time in my case, my home time zone), and are NEVER changed during a trip, even if I cross into another time zone. I find it more consistent for sorting purposes, and you can collate all of the pictures from all the cameras just by sorting by date and time.

The more pictures you take, the better your log. That might seem obvious, but I've taken it a step farther. I take a lot of pictures of signs and even maps, so I can anchor where the picture was taken. (If your camera has GPS, and you let it record your coordinates to the Exif, you don't have to do this.) See that image to the right? It's a picture of the Grand Canyon map from the park service that you get when you enter the park. Using the information from the picture, I know I was at Moran Point at 4:30pm (that's central time, which was 2:30pm local time) on September 21, 2008, and I know the pics taken right around that time are of Moran Point. No one ever sees these locator pictures, and it costs you virtually nothing to do it, but it's a easy and convenient way to pinpoint locations.

At the start and end of every day, (whenever I remember, *cough*) I take a picture of the car odometer, to time stamp the start and end of the day, and to set the location to the mileage. On the road, it's usually a minute of video of something interesting I'm passing, with a verbal location, odometer reading and time stamp, along with any observations that you'll forget in a week when you get back. So with the post-digital camera and camcorder era, I have very accurate logs of where I was and what I did during the trip.

As a matter of fact, the file name of every image on this website (post-2002) contains the date and time the image was taken. You can read more about that in the Notes - About File Names section.

If your camera is your primary log keeper, we should probably talk a little about them.
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Camera equipment

Camera and camcorder equipment is a personal choice. Personally, I traded in my Nikon F3 (35mm SLR film camera) for a Canon G2 in late 2002, and never looked back. I no longer want (nor need) to carry a heavy camera with a lens twice as long and heavy as the camera.

My current equipment:

That's it. On the other hand, that is three different battery types and chargers. But back on the plus side, the three cameras and chargers probably take up the same space as the Nikon F3 body and the two primary zooms I used to use. More than that, try to manage 30 rolls of 35mm film sometime.

selfie
Hanging the Nikon from a tree for that selfie... I should note that when this picture was taken in 1997, selfie wasn't a word...

I suggest you take a tripod. I do have a monopod, but use it mostly for video. It is *not* a replacement for a tripod, particularly when long exposures or taking a picture of everyone using the self-timer. (Though I have hung cameras from trees and signs when taking self-timer pics.) Speaking of monopods, get a ball head so you can still tilt the monopod and level the camera or camcorder. I do have a monopod, but I also have a lightweight tripod that I can make double as both. (For both more information and history of the equipment used for this site, see the Notes and Comments - Imaging page.)

Which brings us to backing up your images. I bring my laptop. Almost every place I stay has an internet connection, and it's the best way to get weather and construction and other information, like auto repair, (as I found out in 2008), checking map data, making reservations, e-mail, etc. Just don't do your banking or anything you don't want stolen over a hotel or public wi-fi connection. You may have to log into your credit card account on the road, but if you do, make sure you change your password and closely monitor your account when you get back home.

I also use it to back up my image data. DO NOT THINK THAT A COUPLE OF LARGE CARDS IS ALL YOU NEED! If a card gets corrupted or lost for any reason (static electricity, accidental format, stolen camera, dropping it in your beer) you've lost all your pictures. Back them up. If you lose them, it's your own fault...

I have a USB card reader and back up my images every night to my laptop and two different portable USB disks. I will actively work and reorganize the images on my laptop and check to make sure the cards copied correctly, but the two portable disk copies remain raw. Once I'm sure all the images transferred correctly, I format the camera memory card(s) in camera. Overkill? Maybe, but if your images are important to you, backup your stuff, don't rely on a single copy on a memory card or hard disk. You're on the road, and by definition means harsher conditions than at home.
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Food

Eat a decent meal at least once a day. Try a local place, have the local beer. Micro-Brew pubs/restaurants are pretty common these days, and are usually a good source for decent food, with a variety of local brews to try. Rarely do I eat at a national chain restaurant for dinner unless I need convenience. Ask the guy/gal/whatever at check-in for recommendations. If they don't have any (and that happens a lot), try the local propaganda in the hotel room. They usually have a binder or some other information book you can look at that has a list of local restaurants. I've found it's an okay way to find a local place, just write the directions down or note it on your GPS to actually find where it is. (Trust me, I know this from experience. :-) ) And be a little weary if the guy at the front desk recommends the restaurant attached to the hotel. These can be hit and miss.

Don't be a snob. Some of the best food I've EVER stuffed my face with was in a shack that would have been condemned in Chicago, a pink Quonset hut, a gas station and a place in Utah that you would have never guessed was a restaurant unless you knew it was a restaurant, and only had 5 tables. Four if it rained, but it rarely does that in the desert.

We usually do try to get some breakfast, maybe not the first thing before we hit the road, but at some point. If I'm going South or East, it's usually at a Cracker Barrel (if I'm sitting down for breakfast) if for no other reason than they serve a somewhat consistent and decent breakfast. In certain areas, they're almost as plentiful as fast food, and they all have really interesting stuff on the walls you can look at while waiting, and the attached stores are interesting to look through, too. Local (non-national-brand-name-chain) pancake houses are sometimes a good bet if you can find one. However, it is surprising how many crappy breakfasts I've had on the road...

We also do an early dinner sometime in the late afternoon, then more of a snack or light meal later that night.
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End How I Plan A Road Trip - Recommendations.

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Revisions:
  • 11/03/2014 - Update to v3.2