Where do you start when you are planning a cross country trip in your RV? It can seem like a daunting task when you first decide to plan a trip. I have been making cross country trips since 2010, so I thought I would share how I usually go about planning a trip to save some of you a little time and effort.
Tips for Planning
Start with a Notebook
I start with a OneNote notebook and usually draft several versions of the itinerary. There are many notes apps that let you sync to the cloud and to your phone. If you already have Microsoft Office, OneNote is included. Why is syncing to the phone important? Who wants to have to open a laptop in the car, hope it has battery left, and try to find information. OneNote makes sharing and collaboration easy if others will be joining me. I also like the ability to easily copy and paste into a new notebook when I can reuse information from a previous year. To draft an itinerary, I look to see if there are things I have always wanted to see and if it is possible to build a route that includes them. I use a table format in OneNote, others prefer Excel (I get enough of Excel at work.) I include columns for the day number of the trip (1 of 15, for example), vacation day used (for those of us who have to go back to work at the end of the trip), date, start location for the day, end location for the day, how many hours and miles that leg involves, and a column for notes. I try to note or highlight things like time zone changes and border crossings, as well.
After I draft the places I want to go and have an idea of when I want to be there, I do Google searches of both websites and images for places where I want to stop along the route. I use websites like RoadtripAmerica to look for interesting stops along the way and try to build in time to stretch my legs and walk Rocky at those spots. I save the spots on a map app like Google Maps or Bing Maps for easy access on the fly.
Next, I look for locations to stop. In hot weather, I spend the night at campgrounds so that I can have air conditioning. I hate heat and humidity. Dry heat is better, but I look for A/C in the event Rocky has to stay in the T@b. I use Campendium.com and RV Parky to look for https://rvparky.com campgrounds with excellent ratings. In the shoulder seasons, I use those sights to look for Walmart or boondocking sites that offer free overnight parking or camping. I also use the Yahoo group for Walmart Overnight parking to look for recent changes regarding which Walmart locations offer overnight parking. Walmarts are generally reserved for places where I am pulling into around dark and will leave first thing in the morning. These are not for areas that I want to explore, in general. I am parking and restocking there and that is it. Everyone has a different threshold for how many miles that he or she can drive in a day. I have no problem pulling over at a rest area and napping during the day if I am struggling or improvising and stopping the day earlier than I planned. I have found that the research I did when planning the trip has made me aware of what my other options are allow me to be very flexible.
I check for fire activity and drought conditions where I am headed. For example, if the southwest is having decent snowfall this winter, that should help decrease fire activity during the first part of the summer. However, spring precipitation also matters, as does monsoon season. You can access the U.S. Drought Monitor, here, and Inciweb, the government website for tracking wildfires and other national incidents. In addition, I take the time to learn about things that are unique to the area that could impact my safety or trip (fires, flooding, Sturgis bike rally.)
In addition, I begin to follow the social media accounts of the regional and local National Weather Service (NWS), National Park Service (NPS), US Forest Service (USFS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), law enforcement, highway departments and news outlets in the areas where I plan to travel. You can often find these accounts linked from the appropriate entities’ websites. It is the best way to get real time information about the areas I will be visiting. I have found that this type of research can give me a real leg up on a new area and helps me get to know what is going on in the area, like a local instead of a tourist.
Around the same time I draft my itinerary, I establish a budget and project my fuel, campground, toll, parks admission costs, LP, and food costs. I used to use the old classic Gas Buddy site and enter each leg of the trip. That site is no longer available. I have found, in general, that I can take the national gas price average, how many miles I anticipate traveling, and my towing MPG and get a pretty good estimate. It is not unusual for me to put in 5,000-6,000 miles on one of my trips.
One word of advice, if you are planning on visiting a national park and camping within the park, you need to think about making your reservations as far in advance as possible. I have found places like Yellowstone and Zion fill up as early as January for summer stays. USFS campgrounds often offer larger sites, more privacy, have more space and are generally more dog-friendly.
Both USFS and NPS campgrounds often offer only dry camping, meaning no electricity. They often have water and dump stations available, but sometimes, you will find campgrounds at both NPS and USFS locations that have electric, and even ocassionally, showers.
After the itinerary is done, I usually move into researching photo locations. I use a wide variety of sources, including Instagram, Google, Facebook, Flickr, 500px, and Twitter to do this research. I also will often look for ebooks and other local guide resources to help me plan those spots. I use a moon phase app to help know if there will be a new moon or a full moon along the way, because both can impact night photography. I usually build an itinerary for photo spots that hinge upon sunrise and sunset locations and then fill in other locations where I want to shoot or scout during the day. I will use the times between sunrise and sunset to catch up on a nap or do laundry, too.
Some of you are wondering when I eat, by now. Here is a little secret, very little of trip revolves around food. I try to stock up when there is a chance and I do eat, but sometimes, the meal comes late and I depend on breakfast bars or other snacks. I will say that since I put the ARB fridge on my tow vehicle, it has really helped with eating at more regular times, but I often get so wrapped up in chasing the light or weather that I forget or delaying eating. If food is a big deal for you when you travel and you enjoy eating at the best local spots, I think you could take the same approach to food that I take to photos: do the research and go local.
I also try to make notes about where I can do laundry, where I can obtain propane, and where I can get find groceries and other supplies. Some of the places I visit are remote and knowing this type of information can really help salvage a trip.
Lastly, I try to look for dump stations and potable water along the route. Many rest areas offer them at no cost, as do some local sanitation departments. Welcome center rest areas are often the mostly likely to have facilities, including Wi-Fi available. There is no one, “go-to” site I use for dump station, but I also save these on a map for reference. Potable water can be found at rest areas, gast stations, and sometimes you will actually see road signs indicating that it is available.
Hopefully this helps you on your own trip planning. Like any internet advice, take what is useful and ignore what is not. Not everyone likes to plan, but many of us like to get the most out of our time. Enjoy your own trip planning.