Usually I don’t like to share a map of my big re-positioning trips before I get started. The biggest reason is because on these kinds of trips I don’t have time to stop and visit with people, and posting my route is almost guaranteed to bring comments from readers who live or are traveling along the route and are wondering about a meet up. Sorry everyone, but coming out of the winter (volunteer) season I don’t have the money to spare on meandering and sightseeing. So I prefer to get these trips done as quickly as possible to save on money and because there’s a time crunch (my first day of work at Yellostone will be the 11th). Sightseeing and visiting happens once I’ve established a home base at the new location and have income rolling in.
But I thought I’d share this one with you, to give you an idea of how I plan these kinds of trips. There are a series of steps I follow.
Look at possible routes
Google Maps is my go-to tool for route planning. I don’t own a single traditional map, which boggles the minds of many RVers. I’m just not good at reading a map, and I certainly couldn’t look at one while I’m behind the wheel.
If you look at this map, you see I have three possible routes. Now really I have a nearly infinite number of routes if you take into account smaller country roads and more scenic routes which many full-timers prefer, but remember: I’m keeping this as simple and quick as possible to save on gas and stress. It’s possible I could find routes with fewer miles if I did all back-country stuff, but that would be more starting and stopping, and harder navigation. It’s just easier to stick to main thoroughfares.
Take note of the drive times for these three routes, vs. actual miles. The middle route through S. Dakota approaching the park from the east has fewer miles than the northern route, but takes more time to drive. That means it’s more direct but probably smaller roads with lower speed limits. Normally, that’s ideal for me when towing: I stick to 60 mph when towing Cas no matter the speed limit, so the listed drive times on Google are inaccurate for me – the miles matter more.
But that’s not the whole story. The eastern road into Yellowstone is the most mountainous, the pass into it is closing in on 10,000 feet and it isn’t open for the season yet. I found this out by keeping in touch with my employer in Yellowstone, and by zooming in on that road in Google Maps to note how squiggly it was and the elevation markers. This is something you’ll want to do when you’re route planning, especially out west. Take care to note how curvy the road is and what the elevation looks like, because some passes you wouldn’t want to take an RV through.
So if the middle route is out, do I choose the northern or southern?
Look at Weather sites
Weather Underground is my favorite, but others do the job too. This time of year, it’s possible that the northern route while favorable with it’s lower mile count could be too cold – I still don’t have any propane heat source and I’d like to dry camp the whole trip to save on money. Other times of year, I’d choose a northern route over a southern one to escape the heat.
Look at this. Yellowstone is still getting below freezing every night, not comfortable sleeping weather and not good for my plumbing. But Livingston, MT, north of the park by a couple hours is not getting below freezing at night, the magic of elevation change. A quick check of other cities along the northern route reveal the same thing: no freezing temps in the 10 day forecast. I pulled these pictures up today, but even a week or two ago when I first started looking at the route the same was holding true. If you’d like to plan your trip far in advance, Weather Underground has a calender feature that will give you average highs and lows for a city for any day of the year, very handy for planning.
Look for likely camping spots
For these trips I’m not looking for campgrounds, I’m looking for free overnight dry camping locations. I use Overnight RV Parking to do my searching. It costs $24.95 for a year long membership, but you get free weeks for reporting on the locations you’ve stayed in, so I have yet to have to renew my membership. Considering the number of nights I’ve camped for free instead of having to find a RV park, it’s been well worth it for me.
My first long drive from South Carolina to South Dakota, I drove 1,221 miles in 2.5 days. I was really worn out by the time I got to Sioux Falls. Now I like to keep my daily driving to around 300 miles max. At an average of 60 mph, 300 miles would be five hours of driving. In reality it’s more like six or seven though when you factor in stop lights, traffic, construction, gas stops, and potty/eating breaks.
The northern route from WI to WY is 1,252 miles, so 1252/300 miles = 4.17 days. That works out quite well. It means I’ll have four full driving days, and on the fifth day I’ll arrive at the park early to have plenty of time to get settled in before night falls and the temp drops.
So now I go along the route and break it up into chunks of 275-325 miles, looking for towns along that 50 mile stretch where there are likely to be camping locations. Here’s Bismarck, ND, which falls in the stopover range for the second night.
Look at all of those bright green pegs! They’re all confirmed free overnighting locations, this is a viable area to stop for the night. Mousing over each peg tells you what it is, and clicking the peg brings up a blurb to the right of the map giving you all the details. I clicked on the peg marked “3”, which is for a Cracker Barrel.
Putting it together
Once you’ve picked a spot for every night, you’re done! Now that you know what towns you’re planning to overnight in, you can keep a closer eye on the weather as the time approaches.
I favorite my destination for each night in Google Maps on my computer once I have it figured out, so that when I use the Google Maps app on my phone for GPS my destination for each night is already there. It’s a pretty painless way to get where you’re going without having to stop and consult a map.
This method has worked well for me for an easy trip experience but it’s not the sort of planning you’d want to do for the slower kind of traveling where the trip itself is the goal. When I was doing that kind of traveling with Julie after Amazon let out, I left things a lot less structured on purpose to allow wiggle room in case we decided we decided to spend more or less time in a spot or discovered something else along the way we’d like to see.
I’ll be leaving early tomorrow (the 5th) if all goes well, and arriving in Yellowstone on the 9th. I like planning to arrive to work-camping gigs two days early if I can, that gives me more time to get settled into a spot before the work starts, or if something goes wrong on the drive gives me a grace day for fixes. With luck, you’ll be hearing from me again on Thursday from the road. Safe travels and happy trails all!
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