Guide for Planning Extended RV Trips
Guide for Planning Extended RV Trips
What to plan in advance, itinerary examples, and tips for success!
By: Kelly Laustsen & David Somach
Our Revel travels have varied in duration, including lots of one-night trips to our local mountain, a week-long trip to eastern Oregon, a three-month trip to Alaska, and a fifteen-month trip around Canada and the United States. While we approach trip planning a little differently based on the length of a trip, we follow some basic principles:
- Minimize driving while maximizing unique experiences
- Be prepared to adjust plans based on weather
- Do just enough planning ahead of time
- Take recommendations and be spontaneous
In general, the longer a trip the less time we spend on identifying specific activities and details ahead of time. If we have a short trip, we like to plan more ahead of time so that we aren’t spending time researching on our phones while on the road. For a longer trip, we know we’ll need down time anyway and don’t mind planning on the go. The guide below describes what we plan and when, including tips for a successful extended trip.
What to Plan in Advance for an Extended RV Trip
We started planning our fifteen-month van trip in earnest about a year ahead of time. We spent a couple of months casually brainstorming, asking friends and family for recommendations, reading blogs and articles, and compiling a word document with locations and activities. We then plotted all the potential destinations on a Google map so we could start to visualize a route.
We quickly realized that a lot of places we wanted to visit are best in the summer, so knew we’d have to make some compromises. (Read more about traveling with the weather here). We decided it was most important to us to visit the Canadian Rockies in the prime summer months, given the short window of pleasant weather and snow-free conditions. We also wanted to stick to a single loop around the U.S. and Canada. From there, the rest of the trip took shape.
Before we left, we developed a general roadmap that we posted on our blog. The list below shows what we planned to do and what we did—we roughly stuck to the plan!
Example of what a long-term RV road trip plan looks like:
- Head north to Seattle and the North Cascades—check
- Successfully cross the Canadian border and continue north to Kelowna, Mt Robson, Jasper, Banff, the Bugaboos, and Kootenay Rockies—check
- Drop south to visit Glacier, Idaho nature locations, and Yellowstone—check
- Take I-90 relatively rapidly eastwards to Michigan and head north to the UP—skipped the UP as it required too much driving, and we didn’t have enough time.
- Cross into Canada and keep going east, with stops in Montreal, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland—skipped Newfoundland due to time
- Turn south and follow the fall foliage down the eastern coast of the United States—check
- Keep going until we reach Florida, ideally in November or December—check
- Make a turn to head west and then north, with a few quick stops in the southwest and California—skipped the southwest and California due to time
- Visit Oregon to swap out our gear for winter mode—check
- Spend winter in the Rockies, Southwest, and wherever the powder calls—check
- Return to Bend to trade back into summer gear when the snow melts—check
- Repeat step one, but keep going until we reach the Yukon—trip paused due to pandemic
- Explore Alaska and then consider a ferry ride home if we have grown tired of driving—resumed travel after a few months off, but stuck to Colorado and Utah given the border closure
This level of planning ahead felt adequate for such a long trip. We knew approximately how to pace ourselves and viewed the trip as a series of legs we’d plan in more detail as we went. When we left home, we didn’t have a single night’s accommodation booked or activity planned, which felt a little scary. However, we quickly adjusted to the unknown and came to appreciate the flexibility.
One of the best parts of traveling in a van or RV is the freedom to make plans as you go, and some of our best adventures were suggestions from locals we met while at a bar or a brewery. We love having the ability to adjust to weather conditions and take recommendations we get while on the road.
We recently did a few-day road trip from Oregon to California in a car with other family members, staying in hotels and Airbnbs along the way. We were reminded just how much more work it takes to plan a road trip without the van, and how much more expensive it is. (Read this article for one family’s comparison of these types of travel.)
We took a similar approach as above for our three-month trip in Alaska, again plotting the places we wanted to visit on a map and looking for logical routes and groupings of destinations that we could use to visualize the trip as a series of legs.
Since we didn’t know much about Alaska before the trip and only had a few recommendations to start with, we largely relied on reading blog articles online to identify places to go. We prioritized our top destinations to ensure we visited those when the weather was good and picked Denali as a starting point. We roughly mapped out the rest of the trip and planned each week out in detail the week before.
Tips for early trip planning:
- Create a Rough Itinerary: The My Maps feature in Google maps is a great resource for visualizing locations and piecing together a rough itinerary. In addition, we save locations in Google Maps when someone gives us a recommendation. We will often forget we have starred a campsite, town, restaurant or brewery until we are in the area and notice it on our map.
- Research the Best Seasons to Go: Lots of websites offer tips on the best time of year to visit locations or provide typical weather conditions and crowds. We often plan to visit popular destinations in the shoulder seasons when the weather is usually still okay and crowds significantly lower. We prioritize the locations we are most interested in for when we think the weather will be best.
- Book Ahead if Wanting Specific Sites: We never book campgrounds more than a few days ahead of time. Most national parks we visited have some first-come first-serve campgrounds, and we often opted to camp on public land outside parks which doesn’t require reservations. (Read more tips for boondocking.) However, if staying in a certain campground is really important to you, be aware that national park campgrounds and others in popular areas can book up far in advance.
What to Consider a Week Before RVing to a Destination
When on a longer road trip, we break the trip up into a series of smaller legs, so we typically have a general idea of where we are heading over the next couple of weeks. As we go, we plan out more details about a week ahead of time, including the specific route and stops, locations of convenient water fills and dump stations and potential overnight accommodations.
At this point we’ll also check the weather forecast to see if we need to adjust our plans. While I worried we’d end up spending more time planning than doing while on the road, we became experts at trip planning and were able to get most planning done during occasional coffee shop or library stops and during quick research sessions before bed.
As an example, when planning our 15-month road trip, we identified Idaho as a stop, noting Boise and the Sawtooth Mountains as destinations we wanted to visit. A few days before getting to Idaho, we plotted out our time there in more detail.
Examples of what we researched slightly before arrival:
- Conduct a few internet searches to flesh out the list of places we want to stop at. We typically look at a mix of blogs, with at least a couple focused on the outdoors. We also check TripAdvisor and state tourism sites. For Idaho, we added Hells Canyon, McCall, Sun Valley, Craters of the Moon, and Arco to our map of potential destinations.
- Experiment on Google Maps to determine a desired route. We’ll create a route in Google Maps with our potential destinations in the order that seems logical, and then play around to make sure we have the most efficient route. At this point, we’ll also identify whether any of the destinations add a lot of extra time and do more research to decide if we think the extra driving is worth it. (Read our notes on fuel efficiency while on the road).
- Identify potential water fills or dump stations that are en route. Once we have a pretty good idea of our itinerary, we’ll use a few sites (including iOverlander and sanidumps.com) to do this. By planning ahead, we can take advantage of convenient stops instead of driving out of our way once we need water or our grey tank is full. If a water fill is on the way, we stop to fill up even if we still have half a tank of water. (Here are some more tips for finding fresh water).
- Look into overnight options along the way. While we don’t normally pick exactly where to spend the night until the day before, we review potential accommodations a few days in advance to make sure there are options available. We occasionally stay at a Harvest Host location, which usually needs to be booked a few days in advance. We also sometimes end up getting campground or backpacking permits a few days in advance, so it helps to do some planning ahead.
Suggestions of What to Plan the Night Before Arrival
We typically have a general idea of the activities we plan to do at each destination from the planning we’ve done a week or so in advance, but we will really map out our day the night before over dinner or before bed. This includes picking out restaurants for any meals out, hikes, museums, or other activities.
For example, while in Idaho, we started planning our time in McCall while on the drive there from Hells Canyon, focusing on where to stay, bike rides, and breweries. We often use the app TrailForks to find bike rides.
We saw a loop near downtown McCall in Ponderosa State Park that looked like a good distance and difficulty level. We then did a few Google searches and read reviews to pick a brewery and restaurant near our planned bike route. Lastly, we checked McCall’s website for any events or concerts and found a Saturday morning farmers market we planned to visit before leaving town.
Tips for detailed trip planning the night before:
- Find your rhythm. We developed a list of go-to sources for findings hikes (AllTrails), bike rides (TrailForks), breweries and restaurants (blogs and Google Reviews), activities (TripAdvisor, blogs, tourism sites), and local events (blogs, local website, Google searching free events). Trip planning gets easier the more you do it—now we can usually plan out a full day in fifteen minutes or less.
- Ask for recommendations. Our van attracts attention and makes it easy to meet people, whether at a gas station, trailhead, or parking lot. We take advantage of these interactions to ask for local insights and advice. Some of our favorite stops we would not have visited if someone hadn’t suggested it along the way. This list includes Bruneau Sand Dunes in Idaho, Glacier National Park of Canada, and Bily Clocks Museum in Iowa. The advantage of not doing too much planning is the freedom to adjust as you go and make space for new destinations.
- Don’t overthink it. When we first started our fifteen-month trip, we worried about having the best trip possible—picking the best restaurants, hikes, camping spots, and museums. However, we quickly realized that when you are on an extended trip you can’t expect everything to work out. Sometimes rain cancelled a backpacking trip we were excited for, we realized we missed an awesome destination just off of our route, or a camping spot was disappointing. When a trip is long you can afford to make mistakes and sometimes not plan enough.
- Build in down time. We set aside time every few days to recharge and catch up on route planning, whether while doing laundry, at a coffee shop, or at a local library. We visited the Anchorage Public Library countless times while in Alaska for the summer.
We have often wished for an app that would do all our trip planning for us, directing us to each stop and curating a schedule filled with our favorite things. However, sometimes planning a trip is a big part of the fun, and having plans work out is very rewarding.
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