Campervan road trips don’t run on gas—they run on unbridled freedom.
It’s heeding the call of the open road and its maze of possibility, where every junction, twist, and turn can lead to new adventures. It’s the feeling of being self-sufficient and gloriously untethered, where an itinerary, route, or destination can literally change on a whim. It’s spending time with your fellow passengers and bonding out on the road—incubating relationships that just need a little air to grow. It’s finding small towns and getting lost and impromptu roadside stops, and cultivating cross-country memories you can carry with you for life.
That said, road trip success is never guaranteed—given the number of variables. By following some of these tips, however, your trip should be closer to a Kerouac style adventure of joie de vivre, as opposed to a stress-filled, white-knuckle meltdown that’s closer to Chevy Chase. Here are our tips for how to have a successful road trip by campervan.
Tips on Choosing Your Route
When traveling by campervan, a surefire way to ruin a trip is to stubbornly stick to a plan. Granted, there are varying degrees of laissez-faire when it comes to planning a route, and a good rule is to have a tentative framework of where you’d like to go. That said, you should also keep the route flexible enough for unexpected adventures—allowing time for side trips and trails without the guilt of a schedule. Another way to ruin a road trip is to try and go too far, since spending the entire trip behind the wheel makes for pretty boring photos.
Tips for Packing the Van
When it comes to road trips—especially long ones through isolated areas—packing can fall under the general categories of personal safety and comfort. If you plan on traveling through remote stretches of highway, perhaps between National Parks, pack as if your van were to break down in the absolute middle of nowhere. Keep one gallon of water per person stashed in the event of roadside emergencies, as well as some snacks, headlamp, and gear such as a jack, tire iron, and jumper cables. Also, a means of charging your cell phone in the car is a modern road trip necessity, whether it’s calling for roadside assistance or creating playlists for the car.
Aside from basic vehicle essentials, remember that less is often more when it comes to road tripping by campervan. One of the nice aspects of campervans is they either have kitchens or cooking facilities for whipping up your own meals—but that doesn’t mean you need to stock up groceries like a coastal town before a hurricane. Stock enough food for a couple of meals—maybe 2 dinners and breakfast—since you can always go shopping along the way or splurge at a roadside diner. Finally, since it’s really easy for a campervan to become a cauldron of clutter, consider assigning certain spots for certain designated items. Just as you would arrange your house, try and arrange your van, so looking for things doesn’t become a frenzy of roiling, stress-induced rage. And, unless you have an RV with generator and lights, you’ll want to pack a lantern or light for life in the van after dark. Space heaters, on the other hand, should never be used in a van. Instead pack warm blankets and extra clothes to stay warm.
Oh yeah—three more things: Water. Water. And water. Bring re-usable water containers and bottles to fill at restaurants, since doing so not only reduces trash and bottles floating in the car, but is also a way of staying hydrated and ready for hitting the road.
Choosing Where to Sleep
When road tripping by campervan, choosing where to sleep ultimately depends on what sort of camper you’re driving. If it’s a large RV with an onboard bathroom you’ll need to pump out the tank, so official RV parks or large-scale campgrounds are where you’ll need to stop. If, on the other hand, you’re in a van with only a bed in the back, sacrificing the onboard toilet actually allows for more freedom. You can camp in spots that aren’t accessible to RV’s, and can rely on campgrounds with basic pit toilets or coffee shops in the morning.
Important note: Traveling by campervan in many ways is similar to backcountry camping; practice the virtues of “leave no trace,” and always leave campsites free of garbage—including fire rings and toilet paper.
In terms of making reservations in pays to plan ahead—but only for popular, destination campgrounds at peak periods of summer. Keeping a flexible schedule is still best, but if you’re set on visiting popular sites that are known to fill up fast, consider scheduling at least one night to guarantee a spot. That said, smaller campervans can visit smaller campgrounds that are not as popular, and since many campgrounds are “first come first serve,” start the process of finding where to sleep no later than 4pm.
The Best Time to Go
Traditionally, the summer months are the most popular times for organizing campervan road trips, though there really isn’t ever a bad time for hitting the open road. Many campgrounds in National Parks are open until early November, and in addition to smaller, lighter crowds, the crisp mornings and fall foliage are perfect for heading outdoors. Spring is great for trips with a theme—maybe wildflowers or baseball—and winter can be the secret season for scouring the country by van. Keep an eye on the weather maps and pack a warm set of clothes. But really, since freedom doesn’t known any bounds, the best time for a campervan road trip might as well be right now.
Check out more things to do in the USA on your road trip!
—Contributed by Kyle Ellison