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Pro tips for road trips

Thinking about a road trip to one of our favorite California destinations? Even if you’re considering a car-based getaway to any other destination, here are some pro tips after a recent journey along some of California’s fabled highways.

Last month I embarked on a solo road trip along the classic Highway 395 to Death Valley National Park, stopping briefly to meet up with dear friend and SA Expeditions Destination Expert Shaina Molano to hike the ancient Bristlecone pines. This was the first time I’d left the city of San Diego since mid-March, and I didn’t quite know what to expect. Road trips are some of the hottest-ticket vacations right now, and for good reason – not only are you in charge of the speed, destinations, and even the radio dials, you’ll be in the driver’s seat calling the shots from start to finish.

Road trip sunrise from Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park. (Photo: Corey Jay)

For those of you considering a road trip of your own, here are some pro-tips to check off your list before you embark:


Tech Gear

  • Car Charger

Your phone is going to be both your co-pilot and your DJ on this adventure, so it’s imperative to keep the battery juiced up. This is especially true if you plan on driving through areas with limited service, such as some parts of Death Valley National Park on our 8-Day Mountains, Deserts, and Moonscapes itinerary. Rental cars come equipped with USB plug-ins these days, so make sure to leave at least one lightning cable in the car, and bring another charger to keep in your overnight bag for hotels.

  • Phone Mount

While some rental cars come equipped with phone mounts these days, to be on the safe side we recommend bringing your own. Having a hands-free phone set-up, and being able to clearly view the GPS or “Waze” map on the screen, is clutch! Pop your phone in its holder, set up the GPS, hit “play” on your favorite jams, and motor off into the horizon (we also recommended pairing your phone with your car’s Bluetooth, if available, so you can safely make and receive calls if necessary).

Safety Gear

Unless you pulled a Rip Van Winkle and have been asleep for the last few months, the fact we’re in the middle of a global pandemic is old news. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t still embark on new adventures – it just means we should take a few simple actions to protect ourselves and the other folks we run into on our travels.

  • Hand Sanitizer

Hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol content is a great alternative when soap and water aren’t available for handwashing, so stock up on various travel-size hand sanitizers. Keep one in the cup holder of your car, toss one in your hiking daypack, and tuck another in your overnight bag for safe measure.

  • Toiletry Kit

Wet wipes are excellent for tidying up after munching on gooey/melty/cheesy snacks, and extra toilet paper is a good idea, too, in case you stumble across an inadequately stocked rest stop.

  • Masks

The new reality is that many business in California require masks for entry, so make sure to have one handy when you want to duck into a convenience store or pick up some of the Pacific Coast’s best ice cream at Marianne’s in Santa Cruz. The beauty of a self-drive road trip and a private tour with SA is being able to ditch the mask as soon as you’re back on the open road!

  • Sunscreen

Anyone who’s taken a summertime road trip with the window rolled down, and had their arm resting on the sill, will have an embarrassing and painful one-sided sunburn to prove it. Make sure to pack sunscreen, especially if you’ve splurged on a convertible for the true quintessential Cali-style road trip.

  • Bottled Water

Staying hydrated is ultra-important during hot summer weather. It’s always a good idea to have some extra water in the car, no matter your destination, but park rangers at Death Valley recommend carrying at least one gallon of drinking water per person, per day, at all times in the car.

Somewhere along California's Highway 395. (Photo: Corey Jay)

Sense of Adventure

Traveling by car evokes simpler times and a unique sense of freedom that comes from being in the driver’s seat. To get jazzed before departure, compile a road trip playlist loaded with your favorite feel-good and pump-up music. The tunes that accompanied me on the drive between San Diego and Highway 395 included an embarrassing amount of Dolly Parton and Bruce Springsteen.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with perhaps my most important pro tip yet: make sure to pack your sense of adventure. Be willing to deviate from the GPS-suggested route and make the time to stop and smell the roadside roses. While undertaking your 8-Day Pacific Coast Highway expedition, you may decide to deviate off-route for the chance to snap a picture of Solvang town’s Dutch-inspired windmill, or perhaps you’ll feel inspired to take the next exit advertising one of the many ghost towns that dot the Golden State. On a whim, I decided to pull over to learn about some unknown-to-me Californian history at Manzanar, availing of a superb socially distant and self-guided driving tour of the area’s internment camp.

The beauty of undertaking a road trip is the ability to choose your own adventure. As Jack Kerouac says, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”


SA's Road Trip Packing List:

  • Smartphone car charger & phone mount

  • Toiletry kit

  • Hand sanitizer

  • Sun protection

  • Bottled water

  • Snacks

Depending on where you're going, you may also want to bring:

  • Bug spray

  • Hiking/walking shoes

  • Flashlight and/or headlamp

  • Swimsuit and towel

  • Camping chair

  • Cooler

  • Waterproof phone/camera holder

  • UV window shades

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