Planning A Road Trip During The Pandemic? Read These Tips First

We predicted this would be the summer of road trips, but we had no idea how true that would come to be. With international travel completely shut down, Americans have been taking to the highways in record numbers. While travel initially came to a screeching halt, the need for fresh air in the great outdoors, even in small doses, became a top priority for the homebound. Off-the-beaten-path, sustainable, nature-filled trips are now the name of the game. If you are planning a road trip during the pandemic, here are some tried and tested tips that will make your trip safer and smoother.

1. Plan your route carefully

Before anything, follow safety guidelines. Check the CDC website for COVID-19 hot spots and see if it even makes sense to hit the road. Once you’ve decided on a route that poses the least amount of risk, make sure accommodations, camping sites and National Parks are open. There’s nothing worse than planning a trip and then showing up to find out that everything around you is closed. Check the National Park Service (NPS) website for regular updates, including road closures. Then take it a step further to find out if accommodations and restaurants are open in that area. This is not the time to wing it.

2. Pack a pandemic emergency kit

It’s always a good idea to keep an emergency kit in the car, but since these aren’t normal times, you need to take it a step further. In addition to a standard first aid kit, consider packing a crate of pandemic essentials: hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, hand soap and a jug of water for when you really need to wash your hands, dish soap and a sponge, disposable gloves and masks, compostable trash bags (also good in a pinch to cover your hands when pumping gas if you run out of gloves), a multiple device car charger, solar powered batter chargers and lights and a portable car jumper.

It seems like a lot, but in case of emergencies or break downs, you’ll want to be prepared. Most of those items can easily fit into a crate that you can leave in the car, only tapping into it when you need to.

road trip during the pandemic big sur
The rugged coastline on the way to Big Sur, along California’s Highway 1 | MICHELLE MARTIN

3. Don’t rely on wi-fi for directions

Go old school and take a map or download screenshots of highways and detailed directions. GPS is great…if it works. Chances are, if you’re taking road trip during the pandemic you’ll likely be going somewhere unfamiliar and there will be rural stretches where there won’t be any wi-fi available.

4. Bring extra snacks & drinks

One of the most important things to do before leaving on a roadtrip is stocking up on snacks. This is infinitely more important if you are road trip during a global pandemic. In order to eliminate unnecessary pit stops, pack as much non-perishable food that you can. Dried fruit, nuts, energy bars, peanut butter pretzels are all good options. Think things that won’t melt or make a huge mess in the car if there are spills.

Make sure you remember water too; boxed water or glass bottles are best, so they don’t sit in your hot car, absorbing chemicals from plastic. Bring refillable water bottles (glass or steel are best) and refill whenever you have the chance. And of course, throw in a few bottles of wine or adult beverages for sundowners that will be much appreciated after a full day of driving.

5. Pack a porta-potty for emergencies

Bathroom breaks are a given, but on a road trip during a pandemic, you’ll want to avoid public restrooms as much as possible. Realistically, a lot of restrooms will actually be closed to the public and on long stretches in the middle of nowhere you might not have any options. Enter a packable version of a porta-potty.

You won’t want to take up a lot of room in the car, but you want to make sure your bases are covered. Something simple like a fold-up toilet seat (with compostable trash bags and wipes) and a pop up changing tent will give you privacy with all the basics. Ideally you would leave no trace, but if that isn’t an option, bring a mini garden shovel to bury your compostable waste.

6. Load up on car entertainment

If you want to go analog, the sign game is always a fun one for the whole family (find a word that starts with a certain letter, then the next person needs to find a word that starts with the last letter of that word)…if there are signs. Long stretches can incite complaints, but road trips can (usually) guarantee you’ll see other cars. Kids can also make a list of all fifty states and mark off each state as they see a license plate from that state. 

Audio books (and traditional ones) can add an extra layer of escape during hours on the road. Backseat passengers will want to be fully stocked with dvds or movies downloaded in advance. Always plan for more than you think you will actually need.

7. Fill up with gas whenever you can

Even if you think you can make it between two destinations, always fill up with gas when you’re in a bigger city or if you see a decent station, just in case. Especially if it isn’t crowded. Gas stations are few and far between on rural stretches through small towns. Unfortunately during Covid, many of the smaller stations may also be closed or out of business.

8. Bring a trash and recycling bag in the car

You don’t want to have to stop to thow away wrappers and food scraps all the time, so keep a trash bag handy. Unfortunately, all of the water and drinks you pack mean more packaging too. Try to offset the waste by keeping a recycling bag handy and dumping it whenever you have an opportunity to recycle.

9. Always wear a mask

This one should be a no-brainer. Even if you’re in a destination where others aren’t wearing masks, err on the side of caution. Who cares what you look like if you are staying safe and healthy. The biggest misnomer is that you wear a mask to protect yourself. Wearing a mask protects others from your germs, so feel free to tell people that if they call you out (because, surprisingly, some people will).

10. Keep a pen on you at all times

It’s inevitable that you’ll be asked to sign something. Checking into a hotel, paying for takeout, etc. Always keep a pen handy so you don’t need to worry about using one that may or may not have been sanitized properly. 

11. Be wary of picture taking

In normal times, someone asking you to take a picture for them wouldn’t have warranted a second thought. Now, however, it is one of the most awkward and risky things you have to be prepared for. Believe it or not, people have no problem asking, pandemic or not.

On a good day, cell phones are filthy. During a pandemic, they’re a health hazard. If you don’t want to come off like a total jerk, go ahead and snap the pic, just make sure you have sanitizer in your pocket for a quick spritz after. Otherwise, you can politely decline, and cringe at how awkward the pandemic is making everything.

road trip during the pandemic wyoming cabins
LEED certified cabins at Fireside Resort in Wilson, Wyoming | MICHELLE MARTIN

12. Camp, glamp and stay in cabins

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably thought long and hard about the pros and cons of taking a road trip during the pandemic. For peace of mind, skip the big hotels where it’s harder to avoid fellow guests milling about in communal spaces. Opt for campgrounds, glamping spots or individual cabins where you can contain your group and socially distance with ease. Even though hotels are taking extra cleaning precautions, don’t hesitate to give your lodging a full wipe down before settling in.

Focus on high-touch spots like door handles, light switches, bathroom fixtures and remotes, but also give the countertops and tables a good wipe. Cabins that have kitchenettes are ideal to save money, so give them a deep clean, rewash dishes and then fill up the fridge at your home away from home.

13. Support small and local businesses

Coronavirus has devastated small businesses, especially ones who relied on tourism dollars. If you’re going to travel, do your best to seek out locally-owned small businesses. Everything from restaurants and cafes to shops need the support and going local is alway the most beneficial for everyone involved.

14. Dine outdoors

Some states are only allowing restaurants to serve guests out doors, but others are still allowing for the traditional dine-in experience. When possible, seek restaurants that have an outdoor dining option. The more space, the better. Especially if there is a large area for kids to play safely at a distance.

15. Get takeout

If you have the option to dine-in or get takeout, always go for takeout. Even if you’re dining outdoors, the safer option is to get food to go and have the least amount of contact with others as possible. Call it in and stay in your car as long as you can, until it’s ready. Standing around at the bar waiting for it just creates additional exposure you don’t need. 

road trip during the pandemic bryce canyon
The road to Bryce Canyon National Park | MICHELLE MARTIN

16. Visit lesser known parks

National Parks are having a moment and while everyone wants a dose of nature, it defeats the purpose when you are standing elbow to elbow, waiting to watch Old Faithful erupt. Check the NPS website to find the least visited parks and plan your road trip around visiting those. Lassen Volcanic National Park is ideal, as it is one of the least visited National Parks in California and the best way to experience it is to simply drive through. If you do need to get out of the car to check out those bubbling mud pots, just wait until the crowds (if any) have dispersed.

17. Go early

When going to National Parks, go as early as you can. Most are open 24 hours, so take advantage of sunrise and visit when most people are just waking up. You’ll be rewarded with lighter crowds, lower temperatures, a better chance at seeing wildlife and a more relaxed experience.

18. Get the 4th grader pass

If you have kids in 4th grade (or equivalent apparently), they qualify for the Every Kid Outdoors pass. A federal program geared to get every kid (and their families) into the outdoors, the pass is free and provides free entry into most national parks. The best part is that the pass usually covers the whole family and the vehicle fee (depending on the park), making a road trip during the pandemic especially appealing if you’re on a budget.

19. Become Junior Rangers

Speaking of kids and national parks. Upon entering any national park, pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at the visitor center or from the first Ranger you see. The kid-friendly books provide background on the park and give the kids activities to do while visiting the park, just in case they’ve seen enough trees. Before leaving the park, kids can turn in the completed booklet, pledge an environmentally conscious oath and become a “certified” Junior Ranger, complete with a wooden badge and all.

20. Download National Parks apps in advance

Most national parks are full of nature…not wifi connections. Prior to visiting a park, do your homework, plan out the sites you want to hit and visit the most popular spots first thing in the morning. Many of the parks have their own apps, so you can get detailed information and maps, even if you are offline. Yellowstone, for example, tracks your route so you know where you are at all times. They also provide real-time updates for geyser eruption times (give or take 15 minutes).

-Michelle Martin