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Going it Alone: 5 Tips for planning a solo U.S. road trip 

Jan 29, 2021

5 Tips for planning a solo U.S. road trip

Happy Friday, friends! 

I have such a treat for you today. 

Remember when Neal and I went on our September cross-country road trip to visit my family in Oregon and stopped in the Badlands, Custer State Park, and the Tetons along the way? We met Jessica there while on a hike in Custer State Park and realized we had actually camped next to each other two days prior in the Badlands! We were both like, “Omg YOU were the other girl playing the ukulele!” What a small world, right!? 

Truth be told, Neal and I were about 2 miles into our hike and I was hot, tired, and cranky (I’m kind of a wimpy hiker–I’m good for about 2 miles at a time and then I’m done ????) but then we met Jess, and chatted with her the whole rest of the hike, and I forgot how hot, hungry and cranky I was. 

We broke out a bottle of rosé looking over Sylvan lake when we got back to the bottom (obviously we had a bottle on ice in the cooler in our car, being the prepared “hikers” we are ????) and had the best afternoon! Turns out we also had mutual friends! 

Jessica shared that this was just the beginning of her multi-week road trip across the US. She took a few weeks off work and was traveling solo to hit up several National Parks, camping and staying at various Air BnB’s along the way. I thought that was so cool, and of course, immediately followed her on Instagram so I could virtually tag along with her on her journey! I asked if she’d be open to writing a blog post about her experience, and luckily for us, she said yes! 

5 Tips for planning a solo U.S. road trip

I knew she would have some amazing lessons to share that we can all benefit from. I think traveling solo is something so many women would like to do (especially when single–who needs to wait for a travel partner to take their dream trip?) but it can feel so daunting and intimidating.

The great thing about a US road trip is that you can go at the spur of the moment, not to mention, an outdoor adventure is one of the few ways you can get out and see the world safely from a distance.

So if you’ve been wanting to get outta dodge on a solo journey, maybe a few tips from Jess are all you need! I will let her take it from here! ????

Take it away, Jess! 

solo US trip planning | 5 Tips for planning a solo U.S. road trip

5 Tips for planning a solo U.S. road trip

—- 

I first met Jess and Neal on day 4 of a 5 week solo road trip around the US. She was nice enough to take a photo of me at a beautiful overlook in Custer State Park. Then we bonded over our similar boots (brown with red laces) and realized we had camped just one site away from each other in the Badlands a couple days prior–both of us playing the ukulele, with no realization that we’d soon meet! 

Part of why it was so easy for me to approach Jess and Neal was because I was traveling alone. I needed a photo to capture the memory of that awesome hike (it was called Sunday Gulch, BTW, and I highly recommend it if you make it to Custer State Park) and they looked like they knew what they were doing. ????

Going it alone was a little scary at first, but I’m pleased to report I had a wonderful and, dare I say, life-changing trip. However, it certainly wasn’t without its hiccups.

After some reflection (and much needed downtime), I’m here to share some of my learnings and tips from my solo journey. 

5 Tips for planning a solo U.S. road trip

5 Tips for planning a solo U.S. road trip

The Benefits of Solo Travel 

We have a tendency to focus on the potentially scary parts of solo travel, but there are some really great benefits of getting out there on your own. 

  • Builds confidence & independence – Solo travel will quickly get out of your comfort zone. Challenging things will absolutely happen, and you’ll likely need to find your own solutions. Overcoming challenges is how we grow the most and is a great way to rapidly build confidence.
  • Freedom! – I didn’t realize until I went out of my own how freeing going it alone can be. You get to prioritize what’s most important and most interesting to you vs. having to compromise with a group. It’s incredibly liberating. 
  • Meeting new people – When I travel with others, I typically stick with my group or partner and only engage with others by chance. When I travel alone, I meet SO MANY PEOPLE–certainly because I seek out conversations, but you’d be surprised how many folks will strike up a conversation with you as a solo traveler.
  • Time for personal reflection – I had plenty of distractions in the form of podcasts, audiobooks, journaling and actual books, but at some point, reflection just comes (whether you want it or not). I learned a lot about myself, and I also realized I’m much stronger and more capable than I knew. 

Okay, now that we’ve had a moment to focus on why solo travel is amazing, let’s get to the tips. 

US trip single traveler

US trip solo traveling

Tip #1: Be Open to Meeting People 

The biggest concern I had about my trip (aside from COVID, but related to) was meeting people. I know that now is a weird time to meet strangers given the global pandemic, but I found it was still very possible to safely connect with other humans and still maintain safe social distancing in an outdoor setting. 

It helps to be a little outgoing, but it’s certainly not required. As it turns out, most people are much more open to a conversation than you think–and if they aren’t, they’ll likely respond to your question politely and go on their way. And that’s totally okay. Each interaction gets a little easier, until you’re approaching strangers with ease. 

So chat up your airbnb host or barista, ask a local shop owner where you should have dinner–locals almost always have great suggestions on what to do or where to go. Consider staying at a hostel (private room preferred in COVID times). Book a hotel with nice outdoor area where you could meet other travelers safely, or simply post up at a coffee shop patio or beer garden.

I also like to have a simple opener on deck:
  •  “Have you seen any [insert animal popular on that trail here]?!” (my personal favorite–everyone loves to talk about the animals they’ve seen or are looking for) 
  •  “Where are you traveling from?” (great for vacation towns since most are not from the area)
  • “This is such a beautiful view. Would you like me to snap a photo of you?” (I love this one because they will usually offer to take one of you in return)

US trip solo traveling tips US trip traveling tips US trip solo female traveling tips

Tip #2: Be Safe & Stay Aware

Safety is probably the #1 concern I hear when I mention I travel solo. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “Wait, it’s just you? All by yourself?” “Where is your boyfriend?” “Aren’t you scared/worried/anxious?!”And if I’m being honest, I give it more headspace than I probably should have. That said, we do experience unique risks when traveling solo as females, and we should absolutely stay aware and plan in advance for safety when we can.

Keep your accommodations to yourself

It’s best not to share specifically where you are staying with people you meet. If they ask, just share the general area. 

If needed, mask that you’re traveling alone – In situations where I feel a little uncomfortable by a conversation or question, I’ll typically say something like “my partner/friend/etc. is on the way here now” or “I need to get going to meet my friend/partner”.

Limit driving at night

I already hate driving at night, but I try to limit doing it by myself. If my car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, daylight makes the situation much safer. 

Buy a Travel Door Jam

I stayed in many different Airbnbs, hostels and hotels, and while some doors seem super secure, many lacked a deadbolt or secure lock. I was even able to quickly break into one of my Airbnbs with a credit card after I locked myself out (I was grateful for the poor security in that moment, though). There are tons of lightweight and affordable door jam devices you can buy online that will add another layer of safety to your accommodations. 

Carry personal alarm/mace

I always carry mace when hiking or running alone. On my road trip, I also started carrying a small 130 decibel personal alarm. This was both for potential negative human encounters, and also because I knew I would be hiking alone near exposed cliffs. 

Share your location with someone you trust

I shared my location via Google Maps with my mother and sister. I also informed my sister when I was about to do remote hikes or go places where I knew I wouldn’t have signal. And I usually gave her a # of hours for when to expect me to check back in. It’s certainly unlikely that I’d have an issue, but just in case, I wanted them to know where and when to start looking for me. 

Hike with Others

When hiking in a potentially dangerous area (especially a location with bears, like in the Tetons), wait at the trailhead for another group or hiker to start. You don’t necessarily need to hike with them (though I’ve found this to be a great way to make friends), but just having them close by makes you safer. 

US nature traveling tips

US outdoor traveling tips

Tip #3: Know Your Options for When you DO Encounter Trouble

Something WILL go wrong, because something always does. And that’s part of the adventure. You just won’t know what that thing will be until it happens. For me it has been a flat tire in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone signal, a lost credit card and even a monkey bite in Bali (a story for another time). 

Here are a few things you can do to prepare yourself for potential trouble: 

  • Always bring an extra credit card and cash stashed separately from your wallet
  • Bring printed copies of your important documents (ID/passport/tickets/etc.) – I also take a photo of my ID or passport on my phone 
  • Bring printed copies of your travel plans (this is especially helpful in foreign countries) 
  • Always have a some form of identification on you (though be sure to keep your passport safe if you’re traveling internationally) 
  • Screengrab your Airbnb directions & wifi info in advance (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to pull up specific instructions once I arrive in the general area and realized I couldn’t access Airbnb because I didn’t have signal) 
  • Similarly, download Google Maps for the area you’re traveling to ahead of time–there were so many parts of my trip where I didn’t have signal for hours
  • Carry a basic first-aid kit and medications 
  • If traveling internationally, make sure you have and know how to access your travel insurance (this one came in handy during the monkey bite debacle) 

Getting help airing up my spare with my bike pump

Getting help airing up my spare with my bike pump from some wonderful strangers

Tip #4: Ask for Help! 

People are more likely to lend a hand if you’re traveling alone. In fact, a man even approached me to ask if I needed help emptying my cooler in a Wal-Mart parking lot (I did not, but thank you, sir).

During my road trip, I had driven on a particularly rough mountain road to a remote trailhead. After a 24 mile bike ride, I arrived back to my car (frozen, wet and exhausted) to discover a completely flat tire.

Nearing darkness and realizing there was only one other vehicle left in the lot and absolutely zero cell signal, I approached the four women in their van to see if they might be willing to help. They were immediately in.

Can I change my own tire? Yes. Would I have accomplished it before dark and even had a little fun with it? Absolutely not. My mental state was not so great after many hours of driving, then biking through weather that was not at all what I had pictured. Adding some hilarious and level-headed ladies (angels, really) made the whole experience that much better, and we knocked it out quickly, and I was back on the road again. 

I’m a pretty independent human, so asking for help is not my default. I will typically go it alone (and will often suffer for it). My advice here? Just ask for help. Even if you think you can manage, that helping hand can really go a long way, and you might even make a friend or two. 

Road Trip Specific Tips

My AirBnB in Utah (called “The Sheep Wagon”) came with a new friend 

More Road Trip Specific Tips: 

As my latest journey was of the road trip variety, I also wanted to include a few additional tips specific to road trips that I found useful:

  • Consider an AAA membership (or similar roadside service–your credit card may have one included!)
  • Keep a basic toolkit in your car (and definitely some duct tape) 
  • Know how to change your tire (Bonus tip: air up your spare before you go! You can also, as it turns out, use a bike pump to fill a spare, but it takes quite a while). 
  • Get a waterproof trash bin; I hung mine over the back of my passenger seat and it was perfect.
  • Use plastic bins to organize and easily stack things in your car; I found this much easier than storing things in bags because I could label each bin and see inside without opening 
  • Bring full size toiletries and refill as needed vs. repurchasing expensive and not great for the environment minis 
  • Everything will take longer than you think it will — build in buffers. I found that anything more than 4-5 hours of driving was brutal and took a big toll on the day. 

Sunrise in the Badlands 

Sunrise in the Badlands 

More Tips for Solo Camping: 

Before my road trip I had camped before, but never alone. Admittedly, I was kind of terrified about solo camping, but it turned out to be amazing. Here are a few quick tips if you’re camping solo for the first time: 

  • Learn to make a decent fire before you go and bring some fire starter sticks or wood/wax pellets to help out (also suggest bringing a small hatchet and mini fire extinguisher if you can) 
  • Know how to quickly setup, stake and tie down your tent for winds; it is very likely not the same as the soft grass you have in your backyard either so be sure to bring a mallet. If you’re exclusively car camping, look into pop-up tents (but be sure you practice popping it back down because it’s much harder than it looks). Tip: Jess’ pop-up tent is linked in her camping essentials post! 
  • Get to your campsite early, giving yourself plenty of time to find and setup your site before dark
  • Sleep with your mace/alarm (or bear spray!) in the tent just in case
  • Be sure to prepare for the potential wildlife in the area (even if you’re not dealing with bears, you could encounter particularly ambitious squirrels like I did in the Grand Canyon–they ate through my backpack in seconds. Do your research ahead of time!) 
  • Consider a portable urinal (I know, it’s kinda gross, but a lifesafer if it’s 25 degrees outside and 3am and the bathrooms are super far away) 
  • Bring some entertainment – you might have signal, but many campsites do not, especially in state & national parks. Bring a book, a hammock, have music or podcasts pre-downloaded on your phone–whatever strikes your fancy. 

Tips for Solo Camping

My campsite at Cedar Pass in the Badlands for my first time camping alone. See Jess in the background playing her ukulele! We wouldn’t meet until two days later hiking the same trail in Custer State Park!

Tip #5: Don’t Forget to Document Your Journey:

As much as we try to remember everything, most of our brains just don’t work that way. In addition to taking more photos than any human ever needs, I also take a little time each day to capture my thoughts and the details of the day in a journal. It typically only takes about 20 minutes if you keep up with it daily, but reading through these entries later gives me so much joy and reminds me of so many moments that I had forgotten. 

I went all out with a custom journal from Etsy for my most recent trip. But any journal will do. I love the mini moleskines for multi-day backpack or international trips where space and weight is a consideration. 

I also highly recommend investing in a light-weight tripod/selfie stick (make sure it comes with a remote!)  for those moments when no one else is around but the view is just too good.

custom travel journal for my recent road trip

My custom travel journal for my recent road trip

jessica solo traveling tips

jessica solo outdoor tips

I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to travel on my own. My solo trips have been the ones that changed me the most–from learning about myself and what’s most important to me, to leaping (sometimes literally) out of my comfort zone. They have sparked extraordinary personal growth in a way I would never experience in the comfort of a group. I still love traveling with friends and partners, but I wouldn’t trade these solo opportunities for anything. 

Still not quite ready to embark on a solo trip?

Start small–go to dinner at a new restaurant by yourself. Sit at the bar and chat up the bartender or simply bring a good book to read. The key is to get comfortable being alone in a place where most people are not alone. 

Each obstacle or uncomfortable situation you encounter and overcome, the easier it will become to tackle the next one, and you’ll quickly find that you’re expanding your comfort zone and growing your confidence as a solo traveler! 

Happy traveling, y’all! 

Jessica 

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