Guest Post: How to Plan a 3,000 Mile Cross-Country Road Trip

Guest post author Patrick's trusty steed
in the middle of a cross-country trip last year.
The great American road trip, the cross country haul, the ultimate coast-to-coast journey; something many dream of, but never do. Perhaps it's the time commitment that discourages people, or perhaps the perceived expense. There is no denying that fuel is not exactly cheap these days, and 3,000+ miles of driving is nothing to jump into haphazardly. But for some folks, the road calls and the call cannot be ignored. What does it take to pull off such an adventure? What planning is involved?  

In today's guest post, professional photographer and adventurer Patrick Gensel lets us in on what it takes to pull off a trip that will take him from Northeastern Pennsylvania to some of the west coast's most iconic mountains. 

He's no stranger to long drives and extended adventures; a similar trip last year took him from the east coast to the top of Mount Rainier and back. On this trip, he's hoping to summit another mountain that eluded him last year and see more of the American west.

In June, I will embark from Kingston, Pennsylvania and head toward the summits of Mount Hood and Mount Shasta with some rock climbing and sightseeing thrown in for good measure. My trip was born of and centered around an existing event - a convention for the Highpointers Club, taking place in Oregon at the base of Mount Hood. Sure, we could have booked a flight and easily rented a car while we were out there, but considering three of us are going and we all have flexible schedules, we decided to drive. On paper, the financial impacts were nearly the same, so we decided to make an adventure of it. We figured by driving our own vehicle, we would gain the flexibility we needed to visit Crater Lake National Park and venture into Northern California to climb Shasta. 

The first step to any big trip is commitment. Decide the where and when, then commit to it. Write it on a calendar; you can always make adjustments as you need to, but having it in writing will help you stick to the plan. Once you have made the commitment to travel, then the fun begins. Logistics, Logistics, Logistics! How will you get there? Who will be accompanying you? How long will you be gone? What activities  do you have in mind? All of these questions need to be answered. Choosing the right travel partners is important, and settling on a crew happened organically for me, as it often does. (Both of my travel partners  were already headed to the High Pointers convention.) For tips on what makes a good travel partner, Brendan Leonard has it dialed.

Patrick and friends during a road trip stop in 2011.
After you decide the when, where and who of your trip, you must figure out how much money you will have to spend. Sticking to a travel budget will help you enjoy your trip as much as possible. The best way to figure this out is to start by calculating an estimated fuel cost based on current numbers at the pump, then to be conservative, add 10-15% to that number as a safety cushion. Another financial item to factor in is lodging. I typically travel with a tent and crash with friends around the country to keep these costs to a minimum, but it is inevitable that at some point you will have to shell out some cash for a good nights sleep, so budget in $100 or so, more if you don't have friends scattered about, and keep in mind that there are many hostels around the country that offer a good nights sleep on the cheap. Food is another expense you need to account for. Depending on the amount of space you have in your vehicle, buying groceries as you go may save you considerable amounts of money.

Building an itinerary is important to help you stick to your travel goals. I ventured out on trips with no real itinerary, and though it can be fun to fly by the seat of your pants, I often found myself a bit unsure of where I wanted to go next or what I wanted to do. With an itinerary, you can at least give some semblance of structure to your trip, but keep in mind you do not have to stick to it 100%. Think of it as a guideline.

Packing efficiently is essential!
One the best parts of planning a trip, not to mention, an important part, is looking at maps. In this day and age, everyone relies on their GPS to get them where they are going, but planning on a map will make things all that more special, and easier as well. Getting a visual on where you are going is important for effectively navigating. I typically will use a paper map that I can draw on with a highlighter to plan out my route, but this can also be done on Google maps. Mark each point that you plan on stopping at and if you want to be really creative, you can split up legs of your trip by highlighting the route in different colors for each day of intended travel.

Now that you know where you are going and have an itinerary, what should you bring along? This, of course, depends on what your plans are, but making a packing list will help. For example, since my trip involves mountain travel and climbing, I will need a specialized set of clothing and equipment, which may make my pack load a bit bulkier than someone just traveling across the country to sight-see. I will need warm clothing, mountaineering boots, ropes, climbing gear and more. I also plan to do a lot of photography and to shoot video, so I will need that equipment to follow me as well. If your intentions are to just see the country, then by all means, leave the unnecessary items at home. I know from experience that traveling with excess is no fun!

With your itinerary set, and your plans laid out, now the hardest part begins - waiting to depart
. If you planned well in advance, this may be difficult to do, but remember that the more time you put between planning and departure, the more time you have to compensate for any unexpected changes. This is a great time to store away any extra money you may want to take along with you, because faster than you expect, the day will come where it will be time to embark on your great adventure. Remember to have fun, and travel safe!

Patrick will be documenting his cross country journey on Adventure Travel Buzz beginning June 1st. Have you ever been on a trip like this before? Have you wanted to, but not made it happen yet? Leave a comment!

Patrick Gensel is a travel and outdoor junkie with an eye for photography. When he is not on the road or shooting photos, he can be found at home in Northeast, PA writing or editing photos for one of his many projects. Check him out over at, or follow @patrickgensel on twitter for more nonsense.


Stephanie said…
Paper maps are key for another reason: to figure out quickly what county you're in when there is a flood or tornado warning. During a cross-country drive 2 summers ago, we pulled into our hotel in South Dakota while tornado sirens were blaring.
Katie Levy said…
 oooh, good point, Stephanie! if you hear emergency announcements pertaining to a specific county on the radio and don't know what county you're in...well, that would be an awful situation. hope the rest of your trip didn't include tornadoes!
Stephanie said…
It all worked out, but definitely thanks to the trusty road atlas!
Patrick Gensel said…
I don't go anywhere without my road atlas!
Jen Bauer said…
We did Massachusetts to South Carolina to California and back last summer. It was amazing! It was a quick decision - we had a wedding to attend in San Francisco, decided to make a go of it, planned for a week, piled our camping gear into the back of the car, made a rough itinerary, and went! We used Googlemaps to plan the route, and when we didn't have a campground or friend's place to crash at, we used, and got some amazing deals. Our biggest challenge? Taking our 1 year old daughter! She was a great adventurer, and we made some amazing memories.
Katie Levy said…
 wow, I can imagine that was a challenge! are there any tricks or tips you have for parents looking to do the same thing? it sounds like you had the perfect marriage between an itinerary and playing it by ear with respect to accommodations, too!