All Articles The intrepid road-tripper’s first-time guide to going it alone

The intrepid road-tripper’s first-time guide to going it alone

Essential tips and tricks for road-tripping solo travelers

Margot Bigg
By Margot Bigg25 Oct 2023 5 minutes read
A woman exists a car parked in front of a mountain raneg
Image: Olezzo/Getty Images

I love road trips and I love solo travel, but it wasn’t until recently that I finally combined the two. I decided to drive from my home in Portland, OR, down to Southern California and back again, covering about 2,600 miles along the way. Over the course of two weeks, I visited places I loved and spots I’d always dreamt of seeing, like Big Sur and Joshua Tree National Park. I saw familiar faces and made new friends, camped among the trees, and did plenty of driving.

Of course, I didn’t go into it without worry. I had safety concerns, and I feared that my lack of automotive knowledge could land me in trouble. But I went ahead, thanks to some pre-trip prep, and came home with great memories and a major confidence boost when it came to traveling alone as a woman. Here, what that first trip taught me about how to ace solo road-tripping—and how you can, too.

Prepare yourself—and your car

Road trips require plenty of prep whether you’re traveling with others or solo. I am very much a planner, so before I set out, I made a rough itinerary of where I would go and how long I’d stay in each spot. I made a few (refundable) accommodation reservations and spent a lot of time on Google Maps, plotting possible routes. However, I also kept a few days at the end of my trip open so that I would have the freedom to make spontaneous pit stops or detours—or leave destinations early (or late)—without feeling tied down to set-in-stone plans.

Before I hit the road, I did all of the pre-trip basics: I made sure my AAA membership was up to date, got an oil change, had my tires rotated, and got a free safety inspection from my local tire center to ensure my brakes, shocks, and battery were in tip-top shape.

I also made sure I had everything my brain and body needed to tackle the open road. I packed plenty of snacks (PB&Js are my go-to) and made a playlist of podcasts that would keep my mind active on the drive (Stuff You Should Know is my road-trip fave).

Tip: Download your Google Maps offline, so that you can access maps through your phone’s GPS system, even in areas where you don’t have cell service.

Pace yourself when you’re the only driver

A woman holds her hand out the rolled-down window of her car while driving
Image: Gary John Norman/Getty Images

While some people feel comfortable driving upwards of eight hours a day, it can be a bit much when you’re on your own. I’ve found that the more you get used to driving, the easier it is to tackle longer distances.

On my first solo road trip, I increased my time on the road incrementally, starting with a five-hour drive on my first day and gradually increasing my drive times the following days. I still tried to limit myself to around 6.5 hours per day—after all, I was in California to see the sights, not just drive.

I also took breaks every two to three hours, stopping at rest stops and scenic viewpoints to stretch my legs and rest my eyes. I even popped into a few branches of the gym I belong to for energizing jogs on the treadmill.

Get creative with your accommodations

Road-tripping isn’t always the cheapest way to travel, particularly when you’re footing the entire bill. Even if you’re saving on gas by driving an electric or hybrid vehicle, the cost of hotel rooms and eating out can add up when you’re going it alone. Staying in hostels or vacation rentals where you can cook your own meals, or camping in an established campground—such as in a state or national park—where you know there will be plenty of other people around, are great ways to save.

On this route, I stayed with friends in Mendocino, San Francisco, and L.A. I also secured a last-minute spot in a shared cabin at the Esalen Institute, a hot springs retreat center on the Big Sur Coast, where meals were included. For my Santa Barbara lodging, I relied on Couchsurfing, a hospitality exchange site, and was hosted by a 92-year-old travel enthusiast, someone I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to meet otherwise. I even spent a night camping at Yosemite National Park, which cost me a fraction of what I would have spent had I booked a night at one of the park lodges. If you don’t have a tent, you can still get the camping experience by booking a night in a glamping tent or cabin (such as those found at Yosemite’s Curry Village).

Tip: If you want to rent gear, check out a local outdoor stores on your route or check out a nationwide gear rental companies such as Outdoors Geek—just be sure you’ve set up your tent on your own at least once before hitting the road to make unpacking at your campsite stress-free.

Leave your shyness at home

A group of tourists stand looking out at a waterfall cascading down a snow-capped mountain
Image: photosbyjim/Getty Images

When I was camping at Yosemite, a couple at the site next to me invited me to come sit by their campfire. I was initially anxious and a bit shy, worrying that I’d be putting them out. I almost refused, but didn’t want to be rude, so I hopped right over to their site and plonked down next to the fire. We ended up having a wonderful, winding conversation that was entirely free of the small talk so many of us dread.

Of course, overcoming shyness is easier said than done, but even if you’re fond of solitude, connecting with other humans can be a good thing. Even if you aren’t one to strike up conversations, try to stay receptive to them when they come along. You just may surprise yourself.

Play it safe with (and without) the help of technology

Whether you’re traveling halfway across the world or hiking in a nearby woodland, it’s always wise to keep others informed of your plans.

Although I’ve been traveling solo since I was 18, my parents were particularly concerned about how safe it would be for me to take a solo road trip, given that I’d be spending many hours driving through unpopulated areas, sometimes without a cell signal. To put them at ease, I signed up for Life360, a location-sharing app that allowed them to track where I was throughout my journey. The app uses both the cellular network and GPS, meaning my parents could track me, even when I was in an out of coverage area. I also shared my accommodation details with those close to me for extra peace of mind.

While I’m a huge fan of using technology to stay safe and connected, it’s important to recognize its limitations—and plan accordingly. Always remember to pack a regular road map as a backup (you can get these for free from most automobile associations and state tourism boards). That way, if your phone dies or breaks, you won’t feel stranded. It’s also wise to pack a warm blanket, a first-aid kit, and plenty of drinking water in your car. After all, while phones are great tools for communication and navigation, they are pretty useless when it comes to staying warm—or hydrated.

The essential road-trip guide

Tips, destination ideas, ready-to-roll itineraries, and more.
Check it out
Margot Bigg
Margot Bigg is an award-winning journalist and editor specializing in travel and the arts. She grew up in the US and the UK and spent much of her adult life living overseas, first in France, where she earned an MA in European Studies from Sciences Po Paris, and then in India, where she worked as an editor for Time Out Magazine. Margot's stories have appeared in publications around the world, including including National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Rolling Stone, Lonely Planet, Afar, VICE, and The Times of India. She’s also the author of three India guidebooks for Moon Guides and has co-authored guidebooks on India, Oregon, and U.S. road trips for Fodor’s.