Alaska, USA

How to Plan an Epic Road Trip: Lessons Learned Driving to Alaska (and Back)

Mountain Biking

, by Greg Heil

Above the Salmon Glacier, Stewart, British Columbia. Photo: Greg Heil

No two road trips are the same. Even if you crib a friend's itinerary and try to complete the exact same trip that they did, you'll undoubtedly find yourself improvising along the way, taking unplanned detours, and dealing with unpleasant challenges that derail some of your plans.

I have been road tripping across North America for many years, but in 2022, my wife and I completed our most epic road trip thus far: driving our camper van from Salida, Colorado, to Fairbanks, Alaska—and back!—over the course of five months. Along the way, we toured through Oregon and Washington but focused particularly on British Columbia (including Vancouver Island) and the Yukon. 

Our northern expedition was the experience of a lifetime and one that we won't forget anytime soon! We were able to apply our years of traveling and vanlifing experience to help plan an epic road trip, yet we still learned some life lessons the hard way through unexpected detours on the road.

Both the unplanned adventures and the unplanned challenges are part of the road trip experience. This is the yin and yang of adventure, the joy and the pain. However, many of us (myself included) are loathe to endure unnecessary pain—do you really want your dream vacation to turn into a sufferfest? In an effort to maximize the fun and minimize the pain, here are a few key steps you can take to plan the most epic and most enjoyable road trip possible.

1. Pick Your Primary Destination(s)

The genesis of your road trip idea inevitably begins with a destination or a set of destinations that you long to visit. This destination is the inspiration that the entire endeavor springs from. In the case of our Great Alaskan Road Trip, we determined to drive all the way to Alaska, with south-central Alaska near Anchorage serving as our target destination.

If you haven't yet found your dream destination, spend some time perusing our many guidebooks on FATMAP... I'm sure you'll find something that will inspire you to hit the road!

2. Pick Your Primary Activity

Many times, your primary adventure activity is intrinsically tied to the destination you choose. Perhaps you want to go backpacking in Glacier National Park. Or maybe you want to go mountain biking in Moab, Utah. Whatever the case, your activity of choice will mold and shape the entire road trip itinerary.

This is a good thing. The world is a vast and wild place with all manner of adventure to be had! You'll need to narrow your focus so you don't get overwhelmed by the many, many possibilities that you'll encounter along the way. If you know that you're focusing on riding epic mountain bike trails or windsurfing along the coast, that will help narrow the scope of your adventure in a healthy way.

3. Decide What Vehicle You'll Drive for the Road Trip

Dawson City, Yukon Territory. Photo: Greg Heil

What rig you choose to drive on your road trip will have a dramatic impact on the shape and rhythm that the road trip takes. More than likely, the vehicle you'll be driving is the one sitting in your driveway—whether that's a Subaru with a rooftop tent or an F250 pulling a toy hauler.

However, you don't necessarily need to be limited to what's sitting in your driveway. Many options are available for renting camper vans and RVs, both small and large. If you've always wanted to try out #vanlife but don't want to commit to buying a van just yet, renting is a great option.

Renting a van or a different adventure vehicle is also a great option if you're flying to your starting point. While the classic road trip begins from your driveway, it doesn't have to: you could fly to, say, Iceland and rent a camper van to tour around the island. Dream big!

4. Determine Your Trip's Timeframe

Time, time, time—a lack of time is the biggest challenge that you'll face on your road trip. Whether it's not feeling like you have enough time to immerse yourself in your primary destination or you don't feel like you have enough time to slow down and see the sights along the way, time is a massive constraint.

The harsh reality is that you'll never be able to do it all. You'll never be able to fully experience everything that you drive past on your road trip. So, I highly recommend that you identify your timeframe first and then build the rest of your trip around this constraint.

For example, let's say that you have one week to dedicate to a road trip. If you only have one week, don't try to drive from the East Coast to Utah and hit all of Utah's Mighty 5 in that one week. Especially if you're tent camping, you'll spend more of your time setting up and tearing down your tent and trying to find camping than you will actually immersing yourself in each national park.

For every major destination that you plan to visit, I personally recommend dedicating at least a week. For example, if you're planning to head to the Utah desert to mountain bike, don't try to hit Fruita, Moab, and Hurricane in one week. Pick one destination, like Moab, and spend a week enjoying that one zone. If you have more than one week, consider adding another town for week #2. You'll find the trip to be much more relaxing, and you'll get to truly enjoy the area that you're visiting without getting stressed out by chasing too far and too fast.

5. Pick Your Secondary Destination(s)

After picking your primary destination in step #1 and determining your timeframe, you might find that you'll drive past some incredible locales on the way to your main goal. While you don't want to spend the entire trip chasing from one stop to another, you should be able to squeeze in a stop or two along the way to your main goal.

If anything, getting out of the car to stretch your legs on a quick hike or ride will leave you feeling more refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of the drive. Picking a great trail system to split up your long drive days is a fantastic way to help make the travel sustainable.

6. Plan Your Lodging

Unfortunately, the days of just winging where you'll spend the night are quickly disappearing into the rearview mirror. If you're traveling to an even moderately busy tourist destination on your road trip, you'll need to make a plan for where you're going to stay.

The decision of where to sleep is primarily impacted by step #3 above: what rig you'll be driving. If you're in a Class A RV, you'll only be able to fit into a few campsites in well-developed areas. Don't have a camping rig whatsoever? Then you'll need to book hotels in advance. Or are you traveling in a camper van? Then you might have the most flexible rig of them all.

As you research lodging, you might find that the places you plan to camp are actually first come, first served campgrounds. Then great—maybe you can fly by the seat of your pants a bit! However, you might find that the campgrounds you want to stay in require reservations—so you'll have to plan in advance. Whatever the case, you at least need to do the basic ground-level research before you hit the road to have a rough idea of what awaits you when you arrive at your destination.

7. Pack the Right Gear—But Not Too Much

Packing for an epic road trip is itself an art form and might warrant a separate article entirely. However, exactly what you need to pack will be informed by the time of year you're traveling, your primary activity (step #2), the rig you're traveling in (step #3), and what you choose for lodging (step #6). 

The key to packing well is to bring everything you'll definitely need; bring a few things that you might need just in case; but don't pack so much stuff that you're burdened by constantly having to unpack, repack, and move things around. You need the perfect amount of gear... but not too much.

For instance, on our Great Alaskan Road Trip, we packed plenty of warm layers like puffy jackets, thermal underwear, long pants, heavy boots, hats and gloves, and plenty of rain gear—even though we were traveling in the peak of summer. Alaska is a long way north and is renowned for inclement weather no matter the time of year. All of this gear proved extremely useful.

The Cassiar Highway was an arduous—but beautiful—drive. Photos: Greg Heil

However, if you read any of the packing lists for drives to and from Alaska, there is some debate about whether or not you need to pack extra gas cans and a second spare full-sized tire for the epic drive on rough gravel roads and pot-hole-filled highways. Well, we didn't pack any of those things, and you know what? We did just fine... even if we did need to replace all of our tires before returning from British Columbia.

8. Leave Room to Improvise

This entire article is about how to plan the perfect road trip, but traveling without any improvisation is a sorry excuse for an adventure. Plan where you want to go, what you want to do, and where you're going to stay, but leave room to be flexible. Don't plan your itinerary so tightly that you can't take a turn down an unmarked dirt road to see where it goes. Don't plan so rigidly that you can't make time for a recommendation for an incredible under-the-radar trail from the locals.

Many times, the unexpected adventures are the most memorable of all—so leave some time to experience them! If you add a healthy dose of flexibility to all of the planning above, you have the ingredients for a truly epic road trip!