As I plan my family’s holiday road trip in a few weeks’ time, my mind keeps turning to The Oregon Trail. Just like in the game (and the lives of actual early travelers), we’ll be traversing several Western states, dodging deadly illness, and rationing food. But if I’m honest, gamifying my thoughts has been an escapist treat, a way to not face my true fears of hurtling down the road in a thin steel box for days on end.
The reality is scary. The pandemic may be entering its worst phase yet, with coronavirus cases and hospitalizations surging all over the map. But the social cost of keeping families apart is rising too. My parents are elderly, and these many months of isolation and postponed medical appointments have walloped their health. They haven’t even met their youngest grandchild. Finding a way to see them—safely—has become one of my highest priorities.
For me that means a multiday journey down Interstate 80. Some road-tripping advice hasn’t changed from the summer, when cooped-up travelers sprinted for the closest campsite. But winter weather—and a surge in case loads—adds complications. Here’s my checklist for traveling long distances while limiting your chances of spreading or contracting the virus.
Talk to Your Family
Traveling will increase your risk of spreading and potentially contracting Covid-19. So the first thing to do is to talk to the people you’re visiting. Make sure they actually want you to come. Are they comfortable with your lifestyle and choices? Are they as Covid-cautious as you’d like them to be? Hash out a plan for what you’ll do before you reunite. Will all parties quarantine or get tested? The answer will affect how you plan your trip.
Once everyone agrees to a plan, it’s time to think about your vehicle.
Prepare Your Car
You never want your car to break down in the middle of a desert, but you especially don’t want that to happen in a pandemic. This year the American Automobile Association has seen an uptick in service calls, especially for faulty batteries, spokesperson Aldo Vazquez says. It makes sense: During the lockdown, more cars sat idle in garages for longer periods, endangering their batteries. So before you hit the road, take your car in for a full check-up of the battery, tire pressure, fluid levels, and more.
Renting a car is a good option. The big rental-car companies have all instituted more-intense cleaning regimens, including disinfection of high-touch areas such as the door handles, dashboard controls, and steering wheel. If you seek more peace of mind, you can do your own quick wipe-down, roll down the windows to air out the interior, and wash your hands before touching your face.
Whatever you’re driving, you’ll want to pick up an emergency kit or at least procure the basics: jumper cables, a multitool, some duct tape, a blanket, a first aid kit. If you think you might hit a winter storm, grab some snow chains too.
Get Your Tech in Order
You’re about to venture into the great beyond. Possibly even, dare I say it, into a cell phone dead zone. Before you leave home, download your maps so they’re available offline. To do so on Google Maps, search for a place of interest. Once it pops up, click the name of the place at the bottom, and the option to download that map should appear. You can then drag a window to customize the area you’re capturing.
Then immediately go find a car phone charger, put it in your car, and never remove it. For bonus points, pack an extra power brick. To offset a scintilla of road-tripping climate guilt, consider one from Nimble, which makes environmentally responsible charging accessories. (If you’re traveling with young children, you might need to top up an iPad mid-drive.) Even more bonus points: paper maps.
If your trip spans several days and you want to maximize social distance, you’ll need to pack more stuff than in a normal year. And that means being highly strategic about cargo space.
We’re a family of four with two car seats in the back, so our space is extremely limited. I’m measuring every inch to see how much I can pack—and how to best pack it. You can boost your available volume with a roof cargo box, rack, or bag. Roof boxes are the most elegant but also run in the many hundreds of dollars. All those options drag down your fuel economy. As a minimalist packer, I’m hoping to fit all of our stuff in the car’s interior. Everyone will get a couple of packing cubes for their clothes. Eagle Creek has an extensive line of them; I use these. If I run out of space, my cheapskate backup plan is to shove those packing cubes into a surfboard bag and strap it to the roof.
Eat Like a Backpacker
Food can take up a shocking amount of space. My approach is bare-bones: Bring enough to last roughly four days, patronize the occasional drive-thru, contract scurvy. The dry ingredients are the easy part. I’m considering a bag of rice, lentils, some cans of beans, and tortillas. Fill a pillbox with your favorite spices and you’ll feel like a veritable Anthony Bourdain. You can make an easy, delicious meal out of a jar of internet-famous Rao’s pasta sauce and some spaghetti. Dried fruit and nuts make an energy-dense snack. And, of course, the staple of American travel: peanut butter.
For perishables, consider dividing your food between two coolers instead of jamming it all into one large one. You can dip into the more accessible cooler for the day’s drinks and snacks, and tuck the second one into a harder-to-reach part of the car. I’ll be packing a WIRED-favorite Pelican 20QT Elite, whose slim profile allows it to fit into the space behind the front seats.
Book a Safe Place to Stay
With temperatures dropping, you’ll need more than a tent to get through the night. The AAA has a route-planning tool and a map of Covid-19 travel restrictions (such as mask requirements) and caseloads across the country. Several hotel and motel chains have upped their cleaning game. Airbnb has too, and it now requires all guests and hosts to wear masks and practice social distancing while interacting. Because I’d rather cook than patronize restaurants, I’ll be booking Airbnbs for my trip. I’m not too worked up about wiping down surfaces, but I’ll still bring a box of disinfecting wipes, and I might throw the windows open for a few minutes to flush out the air before settling in.
Eventually nature will call. Should you use a public restroom? While the virus could hang out in the air and on surfaces, it’s probably not a major risk factor. You can mitigate your risk by wearing a mask, being swift about your business, and washing your hands thoroughly. But if you prefer to avoid restrooms, technically you can. Set up your own toilet stall using a bucket such as this one and a pop-up privacy tent. Try out the contraption at home first—a freezing-cold parking lot is not the place to discover you suffer from performance anxiety (parcopresis is the technical term). It’s also not the spot to wrestle with your equipment for the first time. My pop-up tent arrived without instructions, but a quick Youtube search solved the mystery of how to fold it back up.
Testing vs. Quarantining
Once you arrive at your destination, you have one more hurdle: Figuring out if you might be infected. The only way to get to near-zero risk of transmission is to quarantine for 14 days. Testing can provide some peace of mind, but it can’t offer a guarantee. Even the most accurate tests (the ones that require a nasal swab) can fail to detect an infection around 20 percent of the time. But even that unimpressive figure has a catch: It comes from studying symptomatic people. The unfortunate reality is there is no solid data on how well coronavirus tests perform on asymptomatic individuals, says Steve Woloshin, an expert at Dartmouth on risk communication in medicine. If you decide to take a diagnostic test, keep in mind they are most reliable five to seven days after a potential exposure, says Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins. Their reliability drops slowly thereafter.
Personally, I plan to quarantine. It’s a hassle, but in my case it feels essential. As Woloshin puts it, the decision on whether to travel comes down to anticipated regret: How much you imagine you’ll suffer from missing the visit—or from potentially infecting a person you love.