Travel

How to Take Your Best-Ever Road Trip, According to Long-Haul Truckers

Road trips are mana for travelers who don’t have a plan and don’t need one. It seems so easy: pick a destination (or don’t), gas up, cue up a playlist, and drive. Then it’s just you and the road, with maybe a co-pilot reading a magazine in the passenger’s seat, bouncing a bare ankle out the open window. You guys could wind up going all On the Road or full-blown Thelma & Louise before it’s over, who knows what. As Tracy Chapman said, "Anyplace is better," so hit the gas.

But take it from truckers -- who know the most beautiful scenery in America, and who have seen all manner of weird shit on the open road -- when they caution you against just peeling out and aiming for Mexico (i.e., the actual American dream). I hung around some of the biggest truck stops in America to hit up professional road trip advice from people who spend their lives behind the wheel. They offered these few simple guidelines to keep you on schedule, even when you’re somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, and the drugs begin to take hold.

Even in an age of GPS, you have to plan your route

It seems obvious, but too often the amateur driver who isn’t used to spending hours at a time eating up asphalt doesn’t bother to check the weather report. “Always, always, always get the weather,” said Ken, who’s spent five years as a trucker and who spoke to Thrillist over coffee at Iowa’s I-80 truck stop at the end of his driving day. “People don’t plan anymore. They rely on their phones to give them step-by-step guides. That’s a good way to get stuck. Get your weather in advance, know your route in advance, and make sure you have any supplies packed up that you might accordingly need.”

In the summer, it’s good to have a couple of jugs of potable water on you, either for your own consumption or to top off a cholicky radiator. In the winter, think blankets and warmers. In all weather, reflectors, flashlights, and snacks won’t let you down in case of a breakdown. And road atlases -- battery-free, durable, easy to write on -- are still useful as heck, and low-key a catalog where you shop for places.

In the case of some kind of breakdown, it pays to be prepared for a long sit, especially if you’re in spotty cell phone service areas. Truckers say they see fewer motorists stopping to help others when something does go awry. “I’ve been doing this since 1992,” said Jim, who offered his opinions while sitting three stools down from Ken. “In the old days if a driver got in trouble you’d get some help. Someone would pull over. Nobody acts with any sense anymore. It’s a mean road, and if you get in trouble, you deal with it on your own.”

If you need to stop overnight in your car, favor a Walmart over a rest stop

One of the first things Ken learned as a driver was to avoid sleeping overnight at public rest stops along the Interstate, and he suggests you do the same. “There’s no security in those places. A lot of bad things happen in rest stops,” Ken said. “If you’re especially tired and you need to sleep, just get a motel room for the night, and if you can’t afford that even, pulling into a truck stop or a Walmart lot where there are lights and security cams would be preferable if you’re going to sleep in your car. At least we have a sleeper car with some protection, but if you’re just in a normal sedan pulling into a rest stop? Forget about it.”

Skip the fantasies of traveling with a weapon and fighting off muggers. Most trucking companies have policies preventing drivers from rolling with a firearm, and driving with a gun can invite trouble as you cross state lines, so most drivers avoid traveling with that kind of protection.

Brian, a driver for Swift Transportation who talked to after grabbing a shower at a Flying J, also advised being on the lookout for areas with extra cops watching the road, ready to treat out-of-state travelers “like rolling ATMs.” Be aware of the associations that your state’s plate will have in your new locale. Florida plates, to take one random example, make you look like a nutbar anywhere else you go.

Fast-food chains are your friends

You might be tempted to eat at the small diners and mom-and-pop operations you come across as a way to embrace some local color on your drive, but it comes with risk. When you’re covering lots and lots of miles across unfamiliar territory, you’ll come to appreciate consistency, both in the pleasure of eating and in the promise of relative cleanliness.

Take it from Connell, a third-year driver we interviewed over pancakes at an Iowa Denny’s attached to a Flying J truck stop. “I love Taco Bell and I love Denny’s, because I always know exactly what I’m going to get,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about the quality of the food, and I don’t have to worry about prices. If you’ve got time to spare, fine. But if you’re on a schedule and you don’t want to have to worry about maybe stopping because you got sick, you want a nice, clean chain restaurant.”

If you want to know what's good, look for truckers

Even if you don’t have a veteran wheelman on hand to consult, you can always keep your eyes open for places that have attracted a lot of semis. It’s an old code, but it holds for a reason: A group of trucks parked at a restaurant or gas station is a good indication that it’s clean, safe, and reliably good.

Truck drivers are, unsurprisingly, fond of trucks stops like Walcott, Iowa’s I-80 stop, where most of these interviews took place. Many of the bigger stops will offer showers, mini-marts stuffed with DVDs and clothing and travel gear, small theaters, and in some cases even on-site dentists. “There’s a benefit to being in a place that has stuff you didn’t expect to need,” says Heather, who’s been driving on and off for a variety of companies for 25 years.

But even simpler, they offer a little room to maneuver. “Driving non-stop gets tough, but it’s even worse if you’re in a cramped little lot with no room to breathe,” says Connell. “If you’re in a parking lot with a lot of room, you’re less likely to get in a fender-bender.”

“If you see a place with a small parking lot, just keep on driving: They probably don’t care about their service or anything but taking your money,” adds driver Jim. “Small lots means their business is to get you in and get you out as quickly as possible. They don’t want our ass sitting there.”

Travel addiction is real, so you might as well roll with it

Separately, drivers mentioned that spending any significant amount of time driving cross-country was a habit that would leave a brand on you. Heather, who spoke with us over dinner at the end of a day’s drive, said the only thing that kept her from leaving jobs in retail and nursing to get back on the road was wanting to be around for her kids. “Soon as they were off to college, I was gone,” she says. “It’s like an itch you have -- you have to get back out there. The money is good, and you don’t have to worry about every little thing except for what’s in front of you.”

Added Jim: “I can’t get a job anywhere else. I’ve tried. Once you get used to this, it's hard to do anything else. You go in and apply for a job somewhere and they see ‘trucker’ on your resume, and they think you’re just waiting for another driving job to come along so you can get back riding again. You’re a marked man.”

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Peter Rugg is a freelance writer whose stories have appeared in Rolling StoneComplexVice, and Popular Mechanics, among others. Follow his intermittent tweets @petermrugg.