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Editor's Note: In case you missed them, be sure to check out the two web-exclusive articles that preceded the following article from Issue 33 of our magazine. Part 1 covers traveling with firearms, and Part 2 addresses the all-important topic of situational awareness.
While you may not be Mad Max driving the last V-8 across the wasteland, traveling long distances through unfamiliar places comes with inherent risks. For instance, many of you may be familiar with the story of James Kim, a TV personality whose vehicle became immobile in inclement weather during a holiday road trip. He died of exposure after deciding to leave his family in the car to go search for help in rural Oregon.
You may have also heard about the case of Denise Huber, whose car was found abandoned on the side of the freeway in 1991. Years after her disappearance, her body was discovered in a freezer in another state. It’s believed that Denise pulled over with a flat tire and her killer approached her under the pretenses of offering help before abducting and murdering her.
Aside from the traditional dangers presented by hundreds of miles of high-speed driving, there are less obvious ones you’ll want to think about and plan for, as our road trip experiences have illustrated. We’ll discuss where we’re going, how we’re getting there, what to take, and where to stay. We’ll talk maps, apps, and safety as well as a host of other topics to keep you protected on the road — whether you’re traveling a few hundred miles or a few thousand.
Recently, I completed my second coast-to-coast crossing. As a parent, I found myself confronted with a plethora of challenges presented by traversing 3,500 miles from Washington State to North Carolina in two vehicles with a wife, five children, two dogs, and everything we owned packed into a 16-foot box truck. The following considerations are based on the lessons my family learned while traveling across the country.
Preplanning the trip consists of gathering information on routes, driving schedule, accommodations, and vehicle inspection. I want to know where I’m going, how I’m getting there, what kind of pace I need to maintain to make it happen, and feel assured that my vehicle is good to go before we roll out. Much like my days in Afghanistan, we found ourselves surrounded by locals at temporary stops in strange towns, and not everyone we met along the way may have had the best of intentions toward us.
A homeless guy screaming at his dog at a gas station at 10:30 at night in Las Cruces, New Mexico, can be either an annoyance or something entirely unpredictable. So, while you fill up your tank with your entire world in the car and a mental breakdown 10 feet away, your decision to deal with him or avoid the situation entirely should’ve been made before you left your driveway. Let’s do some planning and avoid these types of situations altogether.
Above: Often overshadowed by the crippling convenience of route-planning apps, traditional paper maps have a lot of info to offer and never have to be plugged in.
Fire up the Google machine and take a look at your intended route. And I don’t mean simply inputting your start and end points. Google or Apple — or whichever dystopian tech conglomerate is currently ruling your digital life — will likely take you on the most direct route, but not necessarily the smartest or safest. You want to get an overview of where you’ll actually be staying or stopping along the various points of your journey. The way I like to do this is a good, old-fashioned paper map (laminated if you can find it).
Incredibly, you can actually unfold these and lay them out on a table and see the entire country and its various roadways without pinching and zooming on a 6-inch screen while going blind. Though redundant, it’s rather like insurance — you rarely use it, but it’s invaluable when you need it. This road warrior recommends the latest Rand McNally spiral-bound Road Atlas. It covers the entirety of the United States and can be had for around 15 bucks. For another option, Michelin — yes, the tire company – also makes a nice atlas that features GPS coordinates to parks as well as information on events and festivals in your area of travel.
Undoubtedly, you’ll use some type of navigation mobile app. That’s fine. Something I learned was to make sure everyone on the trip is using the same one. This is critically important if you’re caravanning in two or more vehicles. While my wife drove her Suburban, I drove the rental box-truck. Being an Android guy, I was using Google Maps. Her being an Apple devotee used whatever navigation sorcery was loaded onto the iPhone. Turns out different map apps do things slightly differently and can (and will) cause issues along the way. Pick one app and ensure all drivers use it. Waze is a good one. It offers driver-updated road and traffic conditions among other bits of relevant information, such as warnings about obstructions on the road and speed traps. It’s free and available on both Android and iOS.
Above: Of course, digital GPS is an excellent real-time resource to keep you on track and notify you of changing traffic or weather conditions.
When planning the route, look at potential areas of concern. For us, one leg of our trip took us down to Tucson, Arizona. Part of my concern for that leg was its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border. After our visit, we had choices that included dropping down to El Paso and using Highway 62 to head east. Instead, we chose to give the border a wider berth and stick to more northerly routes. This isn’t to say El Paso is unsafe — it’s simply a mitigation technique. I have had friends tell me stories of areas along the border (on the U.S. side!) that are simply not smart to travel on or near due to heightened criminal activity. Cartels are known to zealously guard their trafficking routes into the U.S. Tactics include emplacing men in OP’s (Observation Post) to monitor activity in their territory as well as the use of snipers for area denial. So why risk it?
Speaking of risk, let’s mitigate some more of it by getting familiar with crime in and around our areas of travel with LexisNexis. LexisNexis provides all kinds of tools to allow businesses and individuals to prioritize safety. Their Community Crime Map is the one I like to refer to when traveling. It’s a lot like looking at Google maps, but it provides crime data for your area of interest. Passing through a major city? How many car-jackings or muggings have occurred there over the last week or month? LexisNexis can show you that and a whole lot more. Visit LexisNexis at CommunityCrimeMap.com and get familiar with this incredible and free resource.
Do not wing it. I did this, and it didn’t work. We ended up stuck on the road more than once driving way too late into the evening. Remember what mom said: Nothing good happens after midnight. Further, many hotels won’t let you check in past a certain time, or if they do, they may already be booked up. Sticking to a schedule will also help prevent fatigue. Driving tired can be just as dangerous as driving drunk. A schedule ensures you’re not on the road too long trying to make up lost time.
Figure out how far you need to travel each day and come up with a road schedule that’ll allow you to make it happen. Up at 0600. Depart at 0700. Drive eight hours. Hotel reservations for the evening. Boom, done. The bigger your family, the earlier you’ll need to be up. You can easily get “trapped” on the road with no lodging availability and a car full of tired and angry kids. Avoid this by preplanning a driving schedule and sticking to it.
Keep your tank filled by identifying your fuel stops ahead of time. I like to use Google Maps to search ahead for gas stations along my planned route. You can add them as stops along the way depending on your schedule and vehicle range. Gas Buddy is another great option. The free app allows you to filter for your station of choice by brand, amenities, etc. It also features user reviews and its data is crowd-sourced and constantly updated.
Above: Despite the stress and perils of multi-state road trips, they can also be an educational bonding experience for younger children and a chance for quality time with your spouse.
Have your hotel booked in advance. Guess who else is traveling during the summer, weekends, and holidays? Every red-blooded American on the continent, and they all need a place to stay. Places will get booked up, so don’t get screwed by assuming they’ll have a vacancy. Book in advance. I’d rather pay the fee for missing my check-in, should our plans change, than get stuck sleeping in a rest stop. Trust me. I did it, and it sucks.
If at all possible, don’t let cheap rates on accommodations drive your decisions on where to stay. I noticed a demonstrable correlation between a hotel’s cost and the part of town it was located in. Spend a little more on the rate to be in a nicer area surrounded by nicer folks. Unsurprisingly, seedy motels tend to attract seedy characters. Cross-reference crime rates using the tools we mentioned previously to find an area that’s relatively safe.
When traveling with your family you’re soft and vulnerable. Remove this vulnerability by not being in areas where it’s likely to be exploited. Also, use Google StreetView, or a similar tool, to take a look at your chosen hotel’s location. You can pan around 360 degrees and get an idea of the surrounding area. If your hotel is flanked by liquor stores, smoke shops, payday loan centers, and bail bond offices, you may decide to stay elsewhere. While your map app is open, this is also an excellent time to make a couple notes on where the nearest major hospital is relative to where you’ll be staying as well as the local “doc-in-a-box” urgent care clinic in cases of minor scrapes and bumps.
Further considerations for accommodations should include which floor you’re staying on in your hotel. Staying at a hotel may be relatively mundane, but it isn’t always — we learned this in Pendleton, Oregon. We had just pulled up to the hotel after many wearying hours of driving. As we arrived, so too did the local fire department with lights and sirens blaring. Apparently, something electrical was misbehaving in the hotel and caused a full-on evacuation of the premises that lasted over an hour.
Despite it not being a five-alarm fire, it did get me thinking about what I would and wouldn’t be able to do if it had turned into a serious incident. Watching the people mill about outside in the dark showed me that those on the bottom floor not only got out first, but they got out fast. In many hotels the ground floor has at least four exits. All you have to do is get into the hall and pick a direction. With my youngest son in a wheelchair, this is a part of our everyday logistical calculations. Stairs aren’t really an option for us, and during a fire, elevators are a bad idea. So, wherever possible, we try to get a room on the first floor. Whether you’re dealing with young children and strollers, or actually need to evacuate as we witnessed, a ground-floor room makes a lot of sense.
Finally, if you’re traveling with pets like we did, plan your accommodations accordingly. Some hotels will allow you a small pet or two, but larger dogs might pose a problem. Call ahead and find out about the pet policy of the hotel you’re looking to book.
Check out www.BringFido.com to help figure out where you and your four-legged children are welcome.
Above: You don't have to be your own mechanic, but at least have a plan for roadside breakdowns and have a rough idea of where the next major town is that can offer repair services.
Modern family vehicles are amazing machines — they’re safer, more comfortable, and more capable than ever before — but they still need maintenance. My wife’s Suburban has performed like a champ all the years we’ve owned it just with regular maintenance. But before we hit the road for a short or long haul, I make sure we schedule a tune-up/inspection or perform one ourselves.
Basic inspection should at least cover the following: fluids, air filter, fuel filter, battery, plugs and wires, hoses and belts, tire pressure, tire tread and condition, markers and headlights, and a spare tire inspection (including the jack, tire iron, and associated tools). Also, check to see if your particular vehicle has any outstanding safety recalls and get those issues corrected before you travel.
Have children in car seats? If you do, now is a perfect time to ensure proper installation of their car seats. Your local fire department will normally offer a free inspection/installation to make sure the job is done right. Otherwise, make sure you follow the directions stipulated in the car seat’s manual. For more on pre-road trip inspections, car seat installation, and other automotive safety subjects, take a look at www.dmv.org/how-to-guides/pre-trip-maintenance.php. To see if your vehicle has any outstanding safety recalls check www.nhtsa.gov/recalls.
When considering what to bring, I break it up into the following subcategories: first-aid, recovery equipment, and vehicle sundries. It’s important to update your first-aid kit before a long haul. I keep a fairly well-stocked kit for bumps and bruises in our family vehicle. I didn’t replenish it after our last few road trips, and it bit me in the ass. Toward the end of our trip, my 2-year old daughter was promptly bit in the face by her great-grandmother’s very skittish Chihuahua. It was a very shallow, but wide-open laceration to her cheek, and I really needed a butterfly bandage (which I didn’t have) to close it temporarily. We ended up getting what we needed, but the lesson was painfully learned: I should’ve had it ready to go in the first place.
Above: Medical supplies are an important part of trip planning, especially if you'll be crossing long stretches of interstate between towns. Whether you come across a severe car accident or suffer a few bumps and scrapes, having some supplies on hand could go a long way to easing the pain.
I have a two-part solution package for carrying first-aid while traveling. First and foremost, I want to be able to stop, or at least control, major hemorrhages regardless of how far we are from advanced care. Second, I want to be able to deal with all the mundane cuts and bruises that are much more likely to be the order of the day.
For major trauma, I carry and recommend North American Rescue’s Bleeding Control Kit. This kit includes a basic Bleeding Control laminated instruction card — I highly suggest keeping this with the kit so even an untrained person can follow the steps and properly apply first-aid. I also supplement my kits with additional gauze (Kerlix, if you can find it) as well as ACE wrap bandages and HyFin chest seals. The kit comes with the latest C.A.T. Tourniquet, but I’d recommend buying several more of these TQ's on hand in case a car accident yields more than one life-threatening bleed. They’re inexpensive, and worth every cent should they be needed.
Above: The author has chosen to supplement a pre-packed first aid kit with additional supplies that seem to come in the highest demand.
Now, if you supplement your kit as I have, you might find it won’t all fit inside that handy red pouch the kit comes with. No sweat. Find yourself a slightly larger IFAK (individual first-aid kit) or any travel-size go-bag to neatly store all your trauma items. Mark the bag with one of those travel tag bag identifiers, a Velcro first-aid cross patch, or just some duct-tape that clearly labels the bag “first-aid.” Finally, make sure your family knows where it is and what’s in it. If you have a big family like I do, consider doubling or tripling up on the items in the kit in the case of multiple, simultaneous injuries. Larger squad-sized trauma bags can be had from North American Rescue that are more robustly stocked for MASCAL situations.
On the mundane but more common side of first-aid, any sizable kit that features lots of Band-Aids, Neosporin, bandages, and so on will generally fit the bill. You can order these online like your trauma kit, or they can often be found for fair prices at stores like Costco or Sam’s Club. Also, I like to keep this as a separate kit from my trauma stuff so don’t combine them. I don’t want my teenager pillaging my trauma gear for a Band-Aid or conversely, my wife looking for a tourniquet in the “bumps ’n’ bruises” bag.
Before you close the hatch on all that first-aid gear, throw a couple cases of water in the back somewhere as well, particularly if you’re traveling during the summer. It’s nice to have for washing out cuts and scrapes, topping off a radiator, or simply keeping kids and pets hydrated in hot, desolate areas. We faced down some long, dry stretches of road in New Mexico and Arizona with nary a gas station in sight and the water came in handy.
For more information on classes, techniques, and kits, check out www.bleedingcontrol.org.
If you want to go a step further, you can do what I did and put together a basic off-road recovery kit as well. I chose to build my own kits for my vehicles, but companies like Warn and ARB also make some really nice (albeit more expensive) kits that include everything you’d need to get yourself unstuck.
These kits include things like recovery straps and chains, shackles, snatch blocks, and heavy-duty gloves. I also throw shackle hitches in my kits for additional attachment points if your vehicle is equipped with a trailer hitch receiver. Toss in a couple road flares and a shovel as well, and you’re set. If you build your own kit like I did, drop all this gear into a nice nylon tool bag from a company like Husky. You can find these bags in various sizes at Home Depot for $15 to $30.
Above: Simple hand tools and some tow straps or heavy chains can be improvised into a lot of useful trouble-savers. It never hurts to have this capability.
A good jack is also absolutely critical. In many situations, the bottle jack your vehicle comes with can be rendered useless. I prefer a Hi-Lift-style jack because it has so many additional uses beyond just jacking up a vehicle. It can act as a come-along, clamper, or spreader, and there are several awesome accessories available that further expand this tool’s capabilities. They’re inexpensive and should last a lifetime. Hi-Lifts also come in various sizes and can fit in your trunk. So just because your family vehicle is a sedan and not an overland monster-machine doesn’t mean you can’t upgrade your jack to something that can handle virtually any situation.
Finally, consider a set of recovery boards. These can be as simple as throwing some scrap plywood in your trunk to give your tires purchase when stuck in sand, snow, or mud. This can often be the fastest and easiest way out of a sticky situation. Plywood scraps will do, but if you have the coin, I’d suggest a set of purpose-built recovery boards like MaxTrax MkII’s. They aren’t cheap, but their quality and utility easily exceeds their price. Take a peek at them on Amazon.
Add to this arsenal a roadside assistance plan like a AAA membership and you should be all set. Major insurance companies like USAA also offer roadside assistance if you’re a customer so be sure to ask your insurance agent if you’re covered and how to access their services. These days many vehicle manufacturers like Lexus feature complimentary roadside assistance. Check with your vehicle manufacturer or dealership. If your vehicle features a service like OnStar, ensure its function prior to traveling.
Other free, or low-cost services can be had through your cell phone carrier, believe it or not. Carriers like Verizon offer roadside assistance services so be sure to check with your provider for cost and options. Whichever roadside assistance option you choose, now you’re covered. You can call for towing or, if the situation dictates, you at least have the basic tools to try and recover yourself or someone else. If you want to learn more about off-road recovery and how to use some of the tools listed above, give www.offroadrecoveryguide.com a look.
I strongly believe we need to at least be able to deal with low fluids, dead batteries, and flat tires while on the road. These are common issues, but easily remedied if we have the right gear with us. Grab a milk crate and put a quart of your vehicle’s motor oil, a bottle of brake fluid, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, and a gallon of coolant and put it in the trunk or the back of your SUV or truck.
Next make sure you have some jumper cables, and I’d also recommend one of those handy little jump-starter batteries like a Micro-Start or NOCO Genius Boost. They’re small, portable, very powerful, and worth every penny. Many of them can also be used to charge cell phones and other portable USB devices.
Jacks and spares we covered in the previous section, but if you have the room, carry a full-sized spare with you. Donuts are for coffee. If we have to change a flat out on the highway, we can be ready to stay on schedule with a full-size spare rather than just ready to go to the nearest gas station on a donut. The next time you get new tires, keep one of the old ones for this purpose. An inexpensive spare wheel can be found on Craigslist or at a local scrap yard (be sure it’s the appropriate size and bolt pattern). One last tire-related item: If you’re traveling during winter, make sure you have a quality set of snow chains or traction cables for your tires. Cheap sets will break. Look for a brand like Security Chain Company.
That’ll cover the basics for emergencies. Now let’s address a few additional items to have in your vehicle to make life easier.
Toilet paper. The good stuff. I’m serious. Throw a roll in a Ziploc bag and put it in a backpack. There are still stretches of highway out there where bathrooms are as scarce as honest politicians. In that bag with the toilet paper, throw a pack of baby wipes in next to it, whether you have babies or not. Baby wipes are mission-essential equipment. I’ve never fought a war without them.
We’re also going to need things like flashlights, a headlamp, extra batteries, power banks for cell phones, and necessary medications, etc. On the subject of medications, ensure you have more than you need. In the case of my son, only certain pharmacies are able to fill his prescriptions so we have to account for this when traveling by taking extra in case we’re on the road longer than we planned.
Above: Magnetic work lights, such as this Pelican 2365 Flex-Neck, can provide illumination while keeping your hands free for other tasks.
For flashlights, I prefer the kind equipped with magnets or hooks or some other method of attachment. A handheld light is fine, but it’s likely if I need my light, I also need to be doing something else with my hands simultaneously like changing a tire at night or topping up a radiator. Home Depot or Lowe’s carry an arsenal of these inexpensive work lights. Grab a headlamp, also in the same store, and you’re ready for night ops.
Cell phones are great, but coverage can vary. When caravanning, use a good set of hand-held radios for communication between vehicles. Companies like Cobra offer family packs of four radios that feature several miles of range, are rechargeable, and can also use non-rechargeable batteries. The ones we have also have a NOAA weather radio mode so you can listen to weather information if available. These are also great to have in the vehicle if your road trip will feature any hiking or camping destinations along the way.
Satellite phones from companies like Inmarsat or Iridium are potential options as well. They offer pre-paid or monthly plans often managed by a third-party company like Bluecosmo. They can be expensive ($600-$1,200 USD or more) depending on the manufacturer and model, but in the event that cell coverage is absent, or cellular networks are overloaded in the case of a localized emergency, a sat phone in your go-bag could be the day-saver. The waters start to get deep when considering satellite networks, LOS (line-of-sight) considerations, etc., so be sure to do your research before investing. I found the reviews on Amazon to be helpful in zeroing in which phone would be best for our family.
Throw all this kit into the bag with the TP and wipes and you should have a pretty good start on the basic sundries to keep your family happy and hygienic even in the absence of modern amenities and services.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 37,133 lives lost on U.S. roadways in 2017 alone. When you're putting in 3,500 miles of continuous driving over nine days, you’re bound to have some close calls. What this trip really emphasized for me was that sometimes the best defense really is having the best defense.
In Arkansas, we pulled out onto I-40 East. I was ahead in the rental truck; my wife entered the highway a minute or two behind me in her Suburban. A semi-truck travelling in the opposite, westbound lane overturned, entered the median, and began sliding toward her. The tractor-trailer ground to a halt before fully entering her eastbound lane, but it came so close to her that it threw dirt and debris across her windshield as she passed.
She had two hands on the wheel and the road had her full attention. She was driving defensively and alertly and used just enough of her lane to swerve around the chaos coming at her while not endangering others around her. Most of our family was in the truck with her, and she avoided that potentially lethal incident by being switched-on and not making a bad situation any worse with panicked over-corrections.
The incident made the local news as those types of events often do, but our family wasn’t part of the story thanks to my wife.
On this subject, I’d like to say driving defensively is a lost art, but that’d imply there’s some sort of elusive mastery of the skill few can attain. There’s no art to it. It simply requires focus. Driving defensively is driving alertly and safely, plain and simple. The road, your vehicle, and the vehicles around you get your full attention. Expect others around you to do foolish things like veer into your lane, brake suddenly, or run stop signs. If you’re thinking about these things while driving, instead of trying to post to your Instagram, you’re already several precious fractions of a second ahead of any potential situation.
Most of the accidents I see on the road these days are rear-end collisions. This tells me people simply aren’t paying attention and are following too closely, often while speeding. You need to maintain at least a 2-second gap between your car and the one in front of you. Impatiently tailgating other cars won’t get you to your destination any faster, but it might earn you a trip to the hospital. Anticipate traffic slowdowns around bends or as you approach intersections. Be thinking about what you’ll do if that car in front of you slams on its brakes right now. Where is my “out?” In other words, where can I safely steer (not suddenly swerve) to avoid the collision? The shoulder? The other lane? Is it clear?
These are the types of mental calculations we make every second on the road, but they require the majority of your attention, not the minority. Six million car accidents take place in the U.S. each year, according to the NHTSA. Nearly half of them are rear-end collisions. Start paying attention to your driving. With numbers like these, it’s likely those around you are not.
Read more on defensive driving at www.dmv.org/defensive-driving/defensive-driving-101.php.
This may sound like overkill for a road trip, but when you place your entire family on a set of four tires barreling down the highway at 75 mph into unfamiliar places full of strange people, you really are leaving the wire. You’re leaving the safety and security of the known and trading it for the completely unknown. You had damn well better think about all the what-ifs that lie out there along those dark roads.
We traveled 3,500 miles over nine days coast-to-coast with our entire family in tow. We avoided potential danger areas. We chose nicer hotels to stay at to avoid bad areas of town. We ensured we were obeying the laws of each state and jurisdiction we passed through as it pertained to our firearms. We used technology to help guide us, but we didn’t rely on it. We brought gear, first-aid supplies, and equipment for all the just-in-case moments a lengthy road trip odyssey can present. We made sure our vehicles were maintained to avoid surprises. We didn’t do it all perfectly, but we did our best to cover a lot of “what-ifs.”
We did all these things because we know — as you now should if you didn’t already — that many of the situations we prepared for are not actually questions of “if,” but of “when.” Are you ready?