After surviving a 3,000-mile trip from California to Massachusetts in 2020, and the significantly more challenging state-mandated two-week quarantine at my parents’ house (ha, just kidding mom!) I have some insights on-road travel during these strange, sad times to share.
Naturally, recommending road trips is a bit of a dicey proposition right now. As I write this, coronavirus pandemic panic has settled to more of a murmur than a cry but nobody knows what the hell is really going on. And of course, travel means interacting with people which might make a new vector for transmitting this sickness that can apparently be carried without symptoms.
That said, leaving your house can do a lot for your mental health, and generally speaking, driving your car can be done without meeting anyone. If you’re smart and safe, your odds of giving or catching the virus of any kind seem pretty low.
This is a car site, for people who like to drive cars, so that’s all I’m going to say about the ethics of car travel in 2020. On my week-long socially distant XC jaunt to visit/isolate from family, the main things I noticed are probably exactly what you would have guessed:
- The further you get from the coasts, the fewer fucks are given about any social distancing protocols.
- It’s very easy to get last-minute hotel reservations right now.
- Fuel is real cheap outside California
But if you’re thinking about doing some miles yourself, I also have a little more practical advice you can pack:
Prepping your car mechanically is your best line of defense, since a breakdown is going to be significantly more inconvenient and less safe than it might have been pre-corona.
In the same vein, pack tools you know how to use. If that’s limited to a AAA membership card, so be it. Just remember that if you break down in the desert and need to get flat-bedded to a garage, you’re going to have to ride in a small truck cab with your rescuer and they may or may not take virus safety seriously.
Food prep is also more critical than it might have been last year. I run a powered fridge that holds about 35 liters of food in my Montero, which let my wife and I eat better food than what’s available at most gas stations and stop less often. Portable fridges take up a lot of space in your vehicle and they’re all pretty expensive though, so maybe just run a high-quality cooler if you’re not going to be doing multi-day trips.
When you run out of packed comestibles, or you just need to get a little sample of a local delicacy, just find restaurants you can get take-out from and eat outside away from other people.
As for relieving yourself, I recommend a fresh mask for every waystation shitter you bomb. In fact, you might want to go ahead and keep doing that if the pandemic ever ends anyway. If you can’t or don’t want to touch the sink controls, just sanitize your mitts when you get back to your vehicle. Don’t worry about covering the seat, any gross microbes that are on there can travel through your jeans let alone one of those stupid paper condom things some pooping stations have dispensers for.
Wearing a mask and a glove or two at fuel stops is critical because it’s the only other place you really need to do a lot of touching: The fuel pump’s various buttons, card reader, nozzle… But if you run out of hand protection, don’t forget that most gas stations have paper towel dispensers by the fuel pumps. You can use your elbow, usually, to get the towels.
When it comes time to rest, look for hotels with pandemic policies above their normal cleaning procedure. These will be readily available online. One I liked to see was “a 24 hour vacancy period between guests,” which made me feel like lingering viruses might have time to dissipate.
Otherwise, just check your oil when you fuel up, sweep your eyes across all your gauges and mirrors a few times a minute, and don’t break the speed limit too egregiously. Unless you’re in a modern car, in which case, you should pretty much be able to just buckle up and send it. Except for the speeding thing, the limit only gets harder to obey the better your car is.
That’s pretty much all the advice I have to dispense on the subject of pandemic-era road tripping as an experienced traveler with zero medical background. My takeaway was that it’s not that bad, basically.
My wife and I took six pretty leisurely days to get from Los Angeles to a little town in upstate New York before pushing on to our final destination. We never left before 9 a.m. and barely drove in the dark at all, generally cruising at or below the speed limit.
I tried to spend most of my non-driving shifts enjoying the scenery through my old SUV’s enormous windows. But when I did flip through Instagram, I thought it was kind of funny that the New York Times kept feeding me a plug for this feature story called “Road Trips are Great. Except for the Driving.” The paid Insta post, which I’m still getting fed on the reg, reads: “During the coronavirus lockdown, I dreamed about getting away. I did not consider the hell of crossing the country by car.”
I don’t mean to stir up any beef with the story’s author here, I know everyone has different tolerances for things and we’re all on our own journeys. But I mean, the “hell” being referred to is a drive from Chicago to the Catskills. Which, like, my 22-year-old Mitsubishi could (and did) do in two fuel stops.
All I’m saying is: Driving across America in 2020 isn’t all that much harder than it was in 2019. Just shield yourself from surfaces and strange smells, take a little extra time prepping your car to avoid breaking down and try not to be too sad when you have to bypass fun activities like busy truck stops, diners, and other roadside wonders that usually make overland travel extra fun. That stuff will still be there when the pandemic’s over. Or it won’t and the country will be a lawless hellscape. But then you won’t care about skipping the Omaha Zoo or World’s Largest Truck Stop anyhow.