Driving Around the American Southwest: Road Trip Tips

Think of these as mental road trip checklists to run through before you roll out of your driveway. The first section is very general and then we get into specific driving conditions, such as rain or desert driving.

Before You Go/General Tips

  • Know the state laws (which vary) regarding seat belts, child seats, and text or cell phone use before driving.  Don’t forget to find out about U-turns, speed limits, and “left on red” rules also.
  • Be aware of weather conditions prior to driving and get traffic alerts.
  • Do you have all of the equipment you might need?  Learn to change your tires and carry the tools needed for the job.  Have a road map as a backup – GPS isn’t always right.  Pack a first aid kit, in case you break down. In fact, create your own roadside emergency kit.  Take a cell phone in case of an emergency.
  • Familiarize yourself with the car if you are in a rental.  Where are the wipers, lights, horn, etc.?
  • Check your car’s fluids and make sure you’re up to date on maintenance.  Do you have enough gas?  Enough that if you got lost, you’d still be OK?
  • Join AAA  for its oodles of benefits – and not just for driving!
  • Buckle up – and make sure your passengers do too.
  • Drive defensively, and keep a safe stopping distance from the car in front of you.
  • Don’t drive distracted.  If the kids are fighting in the back seat, pull over in a safe location.

Long Trips & Night Driving

  • Do you have a flashlight, jumper cables, and extra windshield wiper fluid?  Did your car receive its last service?  Check fluids, tire pressure, belts, wipers and head, and brake lights before setting out.
  • Get plenty of sleep leading up to the drive, and avoid alcohol.
  • If you can, have someone else tag along to keep you company or to share the driving time.
  • Tips on staying awake:  Caffeine may not be the best solution for beating drowsiness.  After the initial burst of energy, a sugar “crash” will follow.  Instead, pull over at a safe location and get out of the car to stretch and move around. A quick nap to break up the long drive can help.  Music is a good way to stay awake, as is keeping the window cracked–the fresh air will recharge you.
  • Refrain from using cruise control for extended periods of time.

Desert

  • Avoid driving in the middle of the day when temperatures are at their peak.
  • Fill up your gas tank whenever fuel is available.  In the west, gas stations can be many, many miles apart.  Always carry enough water in case of a breakdown – for both passengers and your radiator.  Temperatures can fluctuate wildly.  Bring clothing and blankets for layering.
  • Carry a satellite phone as most cell phones lose reception in remote areas.
  • Tell someone about your planned route or consider traveling in a convoy.
  • Can your car make it through sandy or gravel-based roads – or do you need to rent an SUV?
  • If your car breaks down, stay with it.
  • Pack a shovel in case you need to dig out a stuck vehicle.  And, a chain or tow rope.
  • Flash floods are common.  Be alert for dangerous weather conditions before you go.  Never drive into the water.  Look for quicksand or soft, loose sand that you can sink in.  The same goes for large rocks and mud.

Mountains

  • Keep an eye on those speed limits.  Slower drivers should use pull-outs to allow others to pass.
  • Be aware of braking as you descend a large hill of a mountain.  Pump the breaks steadily and maintain control.  (You did check the brakes first, didn’t you?)  The car going uphill is given the right of way.
  • Ascending a large hill or mountain, you should downshift.  If the engine strains, shut off the air conditioning.
  • Keep in the middle of your lane.  The edge can be scary but it is still safer than crowding the centerline.  What if the driver coming at you does the same thing?
  • Drink plenty of water.  Water combats altitude sickness.
  • Stop at safe locations to take breaks.  Enjoy the view while you recharge.  After stopping, allow your engine to run a couple of minutes before shutting it off.  If your engine will not start, you may be experiencing vapor lock.

Snow and Icy Conditions

  • Have you considered snow tires or chains?  Can your vehicle handle tough conditions – or should you rent a four-wheel-drive car?
  • Check your wipers and fluid before operating the car.  Don’t forget about those headlights too.  (Leave them on while driving).
  • Know where the weight of your car is centered – the front or back?  This effects how you stop when braking.  Slow down BEFORE you turn or enter a corner.  Besides slowing down, don’t slam on the brakes.  If you skid, turn into the skid.
  • Leave more distance between you and the car ahead of you.  A good rule of thumb is four car lengths for every 10 MPH that you are traveling.
  • Watch for “black ice”.  Bridges and ramps ice over first.  Use a lower gear for traction.
  • Don’t use cruise control or over-drive and never pass snow plows.
  • Carry a shovel and rock salt with you in case you need to dig out your car.  If you do get stuck, turning your wheels from side to side can also help.  Don’t “gun it” because that makes the wheels slip.

Rainy and Stormy Conditions

  • If this is the first rain of the season, or it’s been a long dry period, then oil will have accumulated on the road.  Use extreme caution.
  • Check your wipers and defog your windows before heading out.
  • Keep five car lengths between you and the car in front of you.  Brakes can be affected by water.
  • Slow down, brake gradually and gently.  Don’t use cruise control but do turn on those headlights.
  • Try to avoid standing puddles and never drive into moving water.  After crossing a puddle, tap your brakes lightly to shake some of the water off your rotors.
  • Follow the taillights of the car in front of you, and if you can’t see the car, pull over.  Better to wait for this one out.
  • If you hydroplane, don’t slam on the brakes or jerk the wheel.  In the case of hydroplaning.

More Resources

Have any more suggestions, tips, or experiences to share about driving?

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