Road trips are in vogue again thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Domestic destinations have become a lot more attractive as international travel has been severely curtailed to many locations thanks and they are a lot more affordable, especially with so many people taking pay cuts, being furloughed or simply laid off. Who knows, people may just discover that they enjoy road tripping. I know I do.
Personally, I grew up on epic road trips, My parents schlepped us to every corner of North America. We drove from Montreal to Mexico in a Ford Falcon, then continued our journeys in a Ford Pinto and eventually started camping in a GMC Econoline van which took us across the continent more than once. I guess we were living the #vanlife even before it had a hashtag.
I’ve driven across Canada and the United States with my own family in tow and have explored many obscure corners by car so consider myself something of a veteran roadtripper. If you’re new at it, here are some tools and gadgets that you might considering getting to make your life on the road just a little bit easer:
Stay on track with a dedicated GPS
Yes, you can mount your smartphone and use any number of free, GPS apps to help you navigate while you’re driving, but keeping your phone charged and having to unmount it when you need to use it for something else can be a chore. That’s why I still prefer a dedicated GPS unit and have always been a fan of TomTom’s devices. Their TomTom Go 520 is a nice choice. It connects to wi-fi so it’s easy to keep the maps up-to-date and can be paired with your phone for hands-free calling and integrates with Siri or Google Now for internet searching on the go.
Get a paper map for when technology fails you
Speaking of navigating, there’s something to be said for having an analog backup when your technology fails as it did to me years ago when my GPS unit died outside of Chicago. I had no data on my phone, no map and had a lot of fun finding my hotel without my electronic helper. That’s why I like to plan my itinerary on a map first so that I can still get to where I’m going when things go wrong and can double-check that my computer isn’t navigating me into a field or off of a bridge. Road Atlases exist for individual states and provinces, for national parks or scenic drives, but I’ve also been a fan of the Rand McNally Road Atlas which covers virtually all of Canada and the United States.
Record the view for posterity with a dashcam
Too busy driving to enjoy the scenery or simply don’t want to stop every two minutes to take a photo? Get a dashcam to capture video of the roads you travel. Easy to install and remarkably inexpensive, these little cameras can capture incredible detail. Ostensibly, they are for recording traffic accidents, but the footage is nice enough that you’ll want to splice together the best scenes to make a video to relive the highlights of your road trip. There are a million makes and models, some with cameras that record the passengers, the rear view and the scene ahead, but I like mine simple like this one that’s a bestseller on Amazon.
Keep your food cool with an electric cooler
Every time gas prices rise, people predict how it will scare people away from travelling by car, but the reality is that gasoline is one of the cheapest expenses on a family road trip. The biggest costs are food and lodging and if you’re travelling with teenagers, it’s definitely food. For that reason, avoiding restaurants when you can is definitely a bonus. Eat the free hotel breakfast, then equip yourself with an electric cooler that you can plug into your cigarette lighter to preserve food you buy at the local supermarket. You’ll be able to move it into your hotel room and prepare meals in the microwave or make yourself picnic lunches by the sea. My go-to cooler for years has been the Koolatron 36-quart Kool Kaddy cooler. Mine has lasted for ages with no fuss or muss and can store a surprisingly large amount of food. You can leave it running in your car for three or four hours without it running down your car battery.
Tame your electronics with the right charger
Keeping all of your in-car electronics powered with just a single lighter socket is an impossible task, but this splitter makes it a cinch. It turns one socket into three so you can have your GPS, cooler and dashcam always plugged in and the three built-in USB outlets means you can power up your smartphones, tablets and any other gadgets you’ve packed. There’s even a LED reading that shows you the power it’s pulling, has individual switches to turn on and off each socket and is designed to fit snugly into one of your cup holders. It’s a must-have even when you’re travelling around town.
Give your eyes a break with a good pair of sunglasses
Long hours at the wheel can be tiring on the eyes, especially in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky. A good pair of sunglasses are a must when you drive and it never hurts to have multiple pairs in case you break or lose a set. These polarized glasses from Duco with their carbon-fibre arms are nice because their design is timeless and they are lightweight enough that you won’t mind wearing them for hours at a time.
Can’t find a hotel? Sleep in your car, but do it in style
Want to avoid the high price of hotels or simply want to avoid them because you’re worried about the ‘rona? Camping is an option, but not everybody wants to drive an RV, pull a trailer or even pitch a tent. Why not sleep in your car? If you’ve got an SUV, stow your luggage in the front seat, recline the back seat and cover it with an inflatable, two-person mattress especially designed for sleeping in your vehicle.
A portable air compressor can be a life saver
Having to fix a flat tire by the side of the road is never fun. Paying for roadside assistance can be worth it when things go wrong, but maybe you’d rather roll the dice and save a few bucks. Use the money you saved to buy a portable air compressor which will let you fill a flat tire sufficiently to get you to a service station or a safer place than a highway to install your spare tire. It won’t work for blowouts, but is ideal for slow leaks and small punctures. On the plus side, you can also use it to inflate bicycle tires, air mattresses, balls and other recreation items you may be packing with you on your trip or back at home.
Mount the screen in the backseat where everyone can see it
Never mind those expensive backseat entertainment systems. A cheap tablet or smartphone will keep the little ones entertained in between games of eye-spy and punch buggy. The trick is finding the right mount to keep the device suspended for two or more backseat passengers to watch movies at the same time. This mount is kid-tested and parented approved. It can be placed behind one seat for a single passenger or put in the middle for multiple viewers and is designed to fit devices ranging in width from 4.5” to 10”.
Get a pet hammock when you’re travelling with furry friends
Maybe you’re travelling with a fur baby in your car instead of an actual baby. In that case, you might think of one of these handy pet hammocks. They can be used to line the back of your vehicle, placed on top of your rear seat or configured as a hammock that protects the entire back-seat area and provides your pet with a comfortable living space while you drive away the miles between pit stops.
Tame the trash with a garbage can for your car
Spend enough time in your car and it can quickly turn into a trash can as wrappers, cups and other detritus start to pile up. Tame the trash with an in-car garbage can. This dedicated refuse receptacle is designed for cars and a lot tidier than a plastic shopping bag.
Not every game has to be electronic to be fun
Your kids will likely anesthetize themselves with the video games on their phones, but get them to interact with the rest of the family with some old-fashioned, analog games. Our family has invented a few over the years, but there are books, board games and card games available to keep everyone entertained when the data signal cuts out. Games on the Go! promises 50 games to keep everyone amused on long car trips.