Family, friends, and people we meet on the road frequently ask me how we navigate road life and how we decide where to go. It hadn’t occurred to me until I was asked to detail our process, just what an intricate one it was, and articulating it felt like nailing Jell-O to a wall (and still does).
I certainly want to avoid giving off the impression that we merely skip to our camper, holding hands, and explore the country in effortless serendipity. That paints a lovely picture, and that strategy sure would save me hours each week, but our nomadic existence takes a lot of research, planning, calculations, and starting-over as plans change. In writing this piece, I hope it can provide some helpful insight for those considering their own explorations, or at the very least, assure my family that we aren’t driving around aimlessly. For me, this is proving to be an interesting exercise in reverse engineering, as it is forcing me to really think about what I do each week in a more critical way.
Our nomadic situation is probably different than the norm based on two key factors: 1) Cay has a full-time job with a daily schedule of meetings he virtually attends, and 2) our primary goal in cruisin’ around is to familiarize ourselves with the country while shopping for a new location to settle down into. If we weren’t trying to cover so much ground in a year, the entire planning process would be greatly simplified and we would likely pick a couple places to stay for longer stretches of time. With that said, our movement is more constant, structured, and strategic than it may otherwise need to be.
Modern-day navigation is filled with many more resources and tools than a few decades ago, and certainly far more than our foremothers and fathers of early exploration. All of these tools are such a testament to our ingenuity and equip us with a wealth of knowledge. Which at times, can also feel like a curse when the plethora of resources feels like an overwhelming attempt to try to consume, digest, and balance all of this information.
In that spirit, if I may suggest a starting point, I would suggest researching what tools are out there to support the RV/ nomadic community. Familiarize yourself with different sites and narrow down the list to those that appeal to your needs– some will be free and others have a membership fee. Not knowing what we didn’t know when we began, we joined a bunch of groups to test everything out and see what would prove to be helpful for us. I personally use (some of which require a membership fee): Campendium, AllStays, Free Campsites, Harvest Hosts, Good Sam, Passport America, Escapees, and Google Maps.
We base our overall trajectory around the seasons (north when it is warmer, south when it gets colder), and decide together exactly what states and urban centers to route through. For our purposes, we are largely exploring the country to check-out different metro areas to shop for a new home. For this reason, our route is primarily focused on exploring places that we may want to move to and less focused on checking out the tourist/ scenic hot-spots (though we certainly pepper those in along the way when we can!).
Factoring work, holidays, planned events, and other scheduling logistics, I form a rough estimate of how much time we will be in a specific state/ area and start drilling down from there. Using real-estate sites (like Redfin) and city reviews (like Movoto) I work on identifying towns within a metro area to visit in addition to the urban center itself. Once I have a list of possible towns to see, using Google Maps and Google Images/ Instagram, I narrow the list down to those towns that have an actual “downtown” corridor, as we both prefer to live in an area that has a “Main St.” curb appeal (small town quaintness within close proximity to a large urban center). I use real-estate sites to review current listings to see if there is property for sale within our targeted price range (no point in falling in love with someplace we could never afford!). I also check local transit routes to see if the towns we are looking at have existing public transit to the nearest “big” city, as this is a big draw for both of us. Again, this process of how I identify towns to explore is specific to our goal of finding a new home, but the resources and tools we employ can be used in a much broader way to assist all different kinds of mobile exploration.
Once I have a pretty solid idea of the specific towns Cay and I want to target, I start working with Google Maps to route everything and gauge distance, travel times, and any possible en route stopping points of interest. In conjunction with mapping out the route, I draft a calendar timeline and play around with factors of distance, Cay’s work, time constraints, schedule conflicts, and planned events.
With the route and timeline drafted, half the work is done. I still need to find campgrounds. One challenge in finding campgrounds is that they are most typically not located in city centers, which is almost always where we want to be. Finding a campground or RV park within a major urban center has proven to be largely impossible in many large cities, and where they are located, are typically situated in the outskirts of town (frequently the industrial sections) and not typically near efficient public transit. When narrowing down the list of campgrounds, I always start with the center of the town and use Google Maps to pinpoint the closest parks, because location, is one of our most critical factors, particularly since we only stay in a spot for short stays and don’t want to waste any more time than necessary commuting.
Using Google Maps as the starting point, I compile a list of campgrounds/ parks and cross-reference with this other resources- Campendium, Allstays, Free Campsites, Harvest Hosts, Good Sam, Passport America– to identify the top 1-3 options per town based on location and price (and weighing reviews for safety). Using multiple sources to check for campsites is very time-consuming, but it has proven helpful as each website has its own strengths and no one source captures everything there is to know or every campground.
With all that said and done, I typically create a slightly adjusted alternate route with longer/ shorter stays in designated areas and/or factor in different stopping points- ‘cause you know, options! Using Google Docs (yeah, I use Google a lot, and no, I am sadly not on their payroll), I put together 2 drafts of the different routes broken down by day, and insert the top 1-3 campsite choices per location. Cay and I sit down to take a look at it in the larger context, make adjustments, and finalize the plan. The final step is to call and make reservations. Except for holidays and special circumstances, I normally don’t reserve anything more than 2-3 weeks out, and I generally route in one-month increments about 4-5 weeks ahead of time.
With all the different tools and sites out there, there is no shortage of information, it is just a matter of sifting through the relevant parts and ignoring the rest when you can’t take anymore! My process tends to be on the cumbersome side and far too involved for most nomadic voyagers, but with time and experience, it gets easier and (I hope) will become more refined. Of course, some destinations require less planning energy than others, and the above doesn’t take into account the countless phone calls along the way to inquire about deals, amenities, Wi-Fi, and whatnot…. Nor, do I follow this process “to a T” in every situation. The above is the best attempt I could make at putting on “paper” all the assorted tangents I find myself on when trying to map out our route as fluidly as possible while living in an unconventional way. Once we have everything planned, we take equal measures of comfort and discomfort in knowing that nothing is ever set in stone, revise and improvise, as we make our way around the country!