How to Road Trip Safely(ish) During COVID

If you must go, quarantine for 14 days first so that you don’t potentially infect the rest of the country

In the late 1940s, Jack Kerouac hitchhiked around the country, taking notes in his little notebook, which he would then use to write the defining work of the Beat generation. Nearly 80 years on, and people are panic-renting Winnebagos and hitting the road because Americans — despite potentially spreading COVID-19 to communities that aren’t yet considered hot spots — won’t allow their summer vacations to be stopped by a measly once-in-a-century pandemic.

In fairness, this level of cabin fever is perfectly understandable. We’ve (hopefully) all been inside for nearly four months, and it’s obviously July — that time of year when we’re usually sipping margaritas on a beach somewhere super relaxing. So what the hell, let’s hit the road, cross our fingers, wear the damn masks and do our darndest not to pour jet fuel on the out-of-control dumpster fire that is the coronavirus outbreak.

Safety Check

To be clear, no matter what the calendar says, it’s really not a good time to take a roadtrip. The advice from the CDC is to still stay home as much as possible and practice social distancing. “I think no one should be traveling,” special pathogens expert Syra Madad told The Washington Post last week. “All nonessential travel shouldn’t take place. If this isn’t something that you need to go do for your own safety, then maybe it’s something you could do at another time.”

Nonetheless, according to the CDC, there are at least some questions you should ask yourself before you roll the dice and take to the road:

  • Is COVID-19 spreading where you’re going?
  • Is COVID-19 spreading in your community?
  • Are you or those you are traveling with more likely to get very ill from COVID-19?
  • Do you live with someone who is more likely to get very ill from COVID-19?
  • Does the state or local government where you live or at your destination require you to stay home for 14 days after traveling?
  • Will you or those you are traveling with be within 6 feet of others during or after your trip?

With regard to this last question, if you’re traveling with people you haven’t been quarantined with, you should at least be aware that per the CDC, “Being within 6 feet of others increases your chances of getting infected and infecting others.”

In addition to those questions, author, traveler and tour host Tamela Rice says that you need to be equally cognizant before you leave about where you’ve been. “Have you been in a bar? Have you been in a crowd?” she asks. “You probably shouldn’t be going, and possibly infecting other people. Stay home and stay isolated for 14 days before you leave on a trip.”

Road Trip Planning

If you’re still undeterred, there are, again, some things you can do to minimize risk. With regard to the places you plan on visiting during your trip, Rice warns that you should plan out your route in advance to avoid traveling through any hot spots. “If you’re going through a place that’s a hotspot, and something happens to you, you really need to be thinking about, are you going to take a hospital bed from somebody who needs it?” she says. “Are you going to get exposed to something? I would just avoid hotspots, whether you’re in a car, a motorcycle or anything.”

It’s equally important to know what the mandates are in each of the places you’re traveling through. “It sort of goes without saying, but definitely do your research ahead of time if you’re going to be leaving your state, what their rules are for having a mask in public places or not,” says Mikah Meyer, a road trip and national parks expert. “At this point, you should take a few masks with you no matter what state you’re in, no matter what town, because odds are that you’re going to come across one that has an ordinance, so definitely be prepared for that.” 

In addition, Meyer suggests having as much in the way of food and supplies as you can before getting on the road to limit your number of stops and “limit the amount of people you interact with.” “I used to be a big fan of eating just pure crap while on a road trip because that was part of the fun,” he says. “But now that I’m in my 30s, I’m trying a little harder to be healthy, so I really like stuff like Larabars. They’re super healthy, unprocessed, but they also last really long. Getting bulk nuts at Costco is a really cheap way to have easy snacks, stuff that stays without refrigeration.”

Most vitally, Meyer tells me you should put together a first-aid kit for the car. “Something small, but which has ointment, Band-Aids and basic medicines,” he explains. “It’s so handy to have rather than, if you cut your finger, having to go find a store and buy a Band-Aid. Now you’ve suddenly wasted an hour where you could’ve just reached under the seat.”

Stops Along the Road

Chances are, if you’re road tripping anywhere beyond a couple hours, you’re going to need to make a few pit stops. This, of course, is where things get tricky. According to a USA Today report, health officials recommend using “disposable gloves while pumping your gas, rather than trying to wipe it down with a disinfecting wet wipe.” “You can easily discard the glove outside in the nearest trash can after you’re done pumping,” it advises. “While paying for your gas, use your credit card instead of cash if possible. This will eliminate the face-to-face contact with the cashier. Plus, your credit card can be wiped down after use.”

As for the public gas station bathroom — questionable even in the best of times — there are, for those with a penis, some alternatives. “This might be TMI, but I had a bottle that I peed in for years that sat in my driver’s side door. I got so good at using I could do it while driving down the highway and be fine,” says Meyer. “I could go for hours and hours and hours and be fully hydrated and never stop.” In that sense, Meyer says, there are many ways that a bottle can keep you from having to ever leave your car. “You just use it, pour it out the window and keep going,” he says. “I recommend the Gatorade 32-ounce bottles.”

If, however, you have to use the public restroom inside the gas station, be sure not to retouch the faucet or door handles after washing your hands. “Grab an extra paper towel or tissue to use on the door handle before you exit,” says Meyer.

Overnight Stays

This is the point where things get even more dicey. Mainly because, even if the hotels and motels in the part of the country you’re driving through are open, at a time when COVID cases are surging, you probably don’t want to risk staying in them. The good news is there are some less luxurious and cheaper alternatives; the bad news is they involve sleeping in a parking lot. “You can definitely stop for hours at the rest stop,” says Meyer. He adds that most of them don’t allow you to stay overnight, but “most Walmarts will allow you to park overnight in their parking lot.”

This, according to Meyer, is called boondocking. “It’s basically where you might camp without an official camp spot in parking lots,” he explains. “I’d just find one that was pretty empty and park in the corner. I never had anybody get angry at me about it.”

Other camping options Meyer suggests include Bureau of Land Management land and National Forest Land. “Those are two really great options,” he says. “Even just side streets. I’ve camped a number of times in my van where I’d just pull onto a street, try not to park in front of somebody’s house directly and sleep for the night. The general rule of thumb is, if it would make sense for a vehicle to be there overnight, you can get away with boondocking for the night.”

One Last Thing

It’s less to do with COVID and more a general road-trip rule, but says Meyer, “I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell people to have a tire air pressure tool somewhere in their car.” “My dad always told me, ‘If you even just look at the tires before you get in your car, you’re doing more than most people,’” he continues. “Keep that tool on hand because if the car is doing something funky or riding low, oftentimes you can check your air pressure. Also, with your tires fully inflated, you’ll get better mileage, too.” 

Just be sure to wash your hands after refilling your tires.

Actually, just be sure to wash your hands every chance you get.