How we plan our road trips (Plus, get our trip planning spreadsheet!)
In May of 2021, we set off on a cross country road trip from Raleigh to spend a month in Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. There were a ton of moving parts to keep track of — we needed a place to map out our time in each location, options for hikes and overnight backpacking trips, nightly sleeping plans, track our expenses, and have a place to have all permits, confirmation numbers, and other critical information handy! Enter: our massive planning spreadsheet.
Our approach to planning trips like this always starts by looking at our Google Map with saved locations. Whenever we hear about a hike or area we might like to spend some time in, we save it to a big map. When we're ready to plan a trip, we usually hone in on a specific area and a route emerges based on what we most want to do that trip. Some trips have been planned around specific backpacking itineraries, and others around just wanting to spend time in certain parks or regions. For our May trip, we knew we wanted to spend some time in Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff and Sedona, work our way up through the Grand Canyon, and split the rest of our time between Kanab/Page, Escalante, and Moab, stopping at a lot of the major parks in between!
While we always have a ton of activities and locations in mind for our trips, we make it a point to prioritize flexibility. We talk through what we want to do, and agree on what's a "must" for the trip and what would just be nice to do if we're both feeling up for it when we have the time and opportunity.
For this trip, our "musts" mainly revolved around permits or activities that involved a reservation, like visiting Coyote Buttes South in Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, kayaking on the Colorado River in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, or driving through Rocky Mountain National Park on our way back east. Beyond that, we just try to figure out options for our time in an area so we can make game-time decisions based on what we both want and need that day. We both agree flexibility is the key to traveling well together, especially when you're going to be doing a lot of things outside your comfort zone! (We also set a rule up front that if either of us needed a rest day, wanted to bail on a situation or hike we felt too uncomfortable with, or needed a night in a hotel and a hot shower to reenergize a bit, there was zero judgment and we'd find a way to make it happen, which helped both of us speak up when we were being pushed to our personal limits!)
Once we have a general brain dump of all of the places we want to visit, and a rough route, it's time to get a bit more formal with the itinerary. Being the fans of preparation and planning that we are, we've spent a few years building and tweaking a spreadsheet to keep track of all the details you need when planning a longer trip.
There are 5 key tabs (we end up adding more depending on what else we need to keep track of, like our gear packing list, brand partnerships, and daily calorie counts for backpacking to make sure we're properly fueled) — the basic itinerary, the details of activity options, the details of sleeping options, an expense tracker, and a collection of camp recipes. Many of you asked for the spreadsheet we use to keep track of everything, so we've made a read-only version you can make a copy of and use for planning your next trip!
We've spent a lot of time making the spreadsheet functional and easy to scroll through, even on a phone (we both download this for offline viewing on the trip!). It's easy to glance at a single day and see the options you'd planned for the day — unless a permit or reservation is involved, we almost always give ourselves flexibility to see how we're feeling day-of. So each date's activities section has a few lines to give a quick overview of the different options for the day based on where we'll be.
The activities tab is where we keep the basic details about each activity we may want to do (and drop in additional activities we can potentially add if we find ourselves with extra time or needing more options for any reason!). We also keep links to AllTrails or other GPS/wayfinding information here so they're easy to find for anything we want to do.
The sleeping options tab is where we keep details about all of the campsites and other accommodations we've researched. Some nights, we get on iOverlander or FreeRoam and just find a dispersed camping area close to where we are or close to where we'll want to be in the morning (we don't typically stay in traditional campgrounds), but for other nights, we've researched areas we know we want to try to camp, or have vetted hotel options in case we need one, and this is where we keep information on that!
The expenses tab is set up to automatically calculate the cost split when you enter in expenses - just set up the names properly for who you're traveling with and who has paid what, and it will automatically calculate a running total so you can easily calculate who owes who how much.
Lastly, our camp recipes tab is a simple tab where we keep track of all of the good car camping recipes we've found, so we can easily consult a bunch of options to see what we feel like eating or what key ingredients we have access to (smaller town grocery stores might not have as many options as you're used to!), making it way easier to plan meals and build a grocery list.
We'd love to hear how you use the spreadsheet, or if you have any other brilliant trip planning spreadsheet features! This is constantly evolving for us as our trips become more detailed and our activities more varied.
P.S. Have you ordered your No Limits Planner yet? It's an amazing sidekick for planning your trips! Until September 6, 2021, add an Adventure Log to your cart with your planner purchase, and the Adventure Log is on us! We use the planner and the adventure logs regularly on our trips to journal about all of the amazing places we get to experience so we don't forget a thing!