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Preparing for a Winter Road Trip

by Grant
Preparing for a Winter Road Trip

When you are a teacher or have school-aged children, you can’t pick and choose when you have vacations. One of our major breaks is the two weeks we get off at Christmas and New Year’s. To take advantage of this time off,  we enjoy a winter road trip even though the weather isn’t always great.

As much as we would love to spend our Christmas Break down in the Caribbean, basking in the sun and sipping on fruity drinks, we know it is the high season, which means prices go up. 

Instead, we often take to the road, exploring our country and seeing national parks sites. We started this back in 2013 when we just decided to head out West on a whim. While we love spending time with our families, sometimes you just need to spend the holiday on your own and that’s what we did.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park

We ended up in Rocky Mountain National Park and discovered several cheap Hilton properties for our westward treks. Since then, we have traveled west to Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado. In 2017,  we toured the Mid-Atlantic and southeast, from New Jersey to Virginia.

We are already planning our trip for this winter and are tentatively planning on heading to southern New Mexico.

But planning a winter road trip, particularly over Christmas and New Year’s takes a little a bit more forethought than a summer road trip in almost every aspect of the trip.

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Why do a Winter Road Trip?

I really can’t stress this enough: Winter has its own sort of beauty, particularly out West. Getting out when the temperatures are low can be tough. It takes forethought and caution, but the reward is breathtaking.

There is something so magical about the quiet in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley in the winter. Seeing snow covering the red rock desert in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park is something to behold.

We spotted this bobcat in Rocky Mountain National Park.
We spotted this bobcat in Rocky Mountain National Park.

One of our favorite experiences was walking the streets of Cody, Wyoming on Christmas Eve and driving into the Shoshone National Forest to see the bighorn sheep which have come down out of the mountains for the winter.

In short, don’t let the cold or snow scare you from seeing the staggering beauty of our country.

Plan for Bad Weather

I know this is a bit obvious, but if you have never spent time driving in areas where snow is a regular event, you need to plan on how to deal with travel when there is snow on the ground.

Snow can be a major factor in your travels unless you are headed to the far southern parts of the country. Even in Atlanta, we get snow events which can paralyze the city for a couple of days about once a winter. Indeed, the worst snowstorm we have been in was in coastal Virginia. If you live in Michigan, it may not be a big deal to you but bear in mind not every state deals with snow as well they do up North.

Deep snow on the way to Lolo Pass on the Montana/Idaho border.
Deep snow on the way to Lolo Pass on the Montana/Idaho border.

First and foremost, make sure your car is prepared for snow and cold weather. If you live down South, make sure when you take your vehicle in for service, you tell your technician you are headed to an area with snow and frequent freezing temperatures.

Make sure you have good tread on your vehicle. Low tread on your tires is especially worrisome in the snow. Also, consider getting snow chains for your vehicle. In many states, chains or snow-rated tires are a requirement in the winter.

We bought tire cables like these. Other than putting them on once to make sure we knew what we were doing, we have not needed these chains. The tires and four-wheel drive on the truck have been enough to get through the snow and ice we have encountered on our various trips. That said, we would not travel without them.

Don’t Book Your Hotel Stays Too Far in Advance on a Winter Road Trip

Yes, it is good to make sure you have a room for New Year’s, but, otherwise, be mindful of the fact your plans can change and change quickly depending on the weather.

Even with great gear and four-wheel drive, it doesn’t mean roads or attractions will be open, even in the South. One of the biggest snowstorms we have encountered on the road hit last winter while we were in Williamsburg, VA. Several inches fell overnight and shut the entirety of the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Colonial Williamsburg
We loved walking around in Colonial Williamsburg in the snow.

We had planned on heading down the coast to visit some national park sites but had to detour inland. That changed our plans altogether. If we had booked hotels, we would have had to cancel. Many hotels have 48-hour cancellation policies, including Hilton properties. That can end up costing you a bit of money.

Have an Emergency Kit

Even if you are driving the absolute best snow-capable vehicle out there, you cannot anticipate what might happen, even in the South, in the winter. You never know when a little bit of sudden snow will close an Interstate or your vehicle will break down, trapping you on the road in the cold.

We always have flashlights in the vehicle, as well as basic tools, but you are going to want to keep those and an ice scraper in your vehicle as well.

The snow was really coming down on our way to Bozeman, MT. Make sure you plan for snow on a winter road trip
The snow was really coming down on our way to Bozeman, MT. Getting stuck in a snowstorm in a rural area can be life-threatening.

You should always have synthetic or wool blankets for everyone in your car. I also recommend a space blanket as well. Blankets work by using your body to heat the air held in the blanket. Space blankets are basically metal foil which reflects heat, preventing it from escaping. Synthetics and wool retain their insulating capabilities, even when wet. Combined, the two will keep you warm for quite a while.

You also want to keep kitty litter or sand with you. You can use this to give you traction on slick spots where your tires would otherwise slide. Additionally, keep some food and drink in the car with you. Since you are on a road trip, you should have some snacks with you, anyway.

Plan for Holiday/Winter Closures on a Winter Road Trip

One of the major things you need to plan for, especially in rural areas, is holiday closures. Traveling on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years Day (to a lesser degree) require forethought.

On our first trip out to Colorado, we spent Christmas Day driving across Kansas. We were really glad we had an extended fuel tank on our truck. We went a long time without seeing an open gas station, much less a restaurant for lunch.

In the South, you can typically count on Waffle House to be open. In other parts of the country, there is not the same level of certainty in terms of finding an open restaurant. We often end up staying at Hilton Garden Inns because we can generally count on the Garden Grill to be open for dinner. That said, call before you plan on it.

Christmas Day in the Hilton Garden Inn in Bozeman, MT.
Christmas Day in the Hilton Garden Inn in Bozeman, MT.

National Parks sites are typically only closed on Christmas and New Year’s Day but you need to make sure the site doesn’t have significantly shorter winter hours or is just plain closed in winter.

Last winter, one of the sites we visited, Piscataway Park in Maryland, advertised it had limited services, but we found no one there. Back in 2013, we figured out one of the sites we wanted to visit, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, was going to be closed the day we were able to visit.

National Colonial Farm at Piscataway Park.
The National Colonial Farm demonstrates 18th-century agriculture at Piscataway Park.

One plus to everything being closed on New Year’s is finding a good hotel to hunker down in and watch some bowl games.

Embrace the Cold with Good Gear

When I was in the Army, I hated the cold. I hated the wind and snow. The Army supposedly had supplied me with good gear for being outside in the cold. I was wrong.

Back in 2011, Bonnie convinced me to go snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park. I was really impressed with how well my gear held up to temperatures as low as -15 in Wyoming.

The quality and effectiveness of winter gear have grown significantly in the past 20 years. The gear I have now is so much better than what I had in the Army. With good gear, I am happy to embrace the cold and enjoy getting out in it.

Pro tip: If you are going for a hike, leave your cotton at home. Synthetics and wool are the fabrics of winter. When cotton gets wet, it won’t keep you warm at all. In fact, it will rob you of heat. That said, we both often wear jeans when doing basic sightseeing.

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park
Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park

The following gear recommendations are designed for folks who are road tripping, not hiking long distances, snowshoeing or skiing, etc. They are designed to keep you warm when you are out in the elements, but not so warm that you are roasting while driving.

The key to comfort is layers. Understand that you will likely have to shed them quite a bit. We know when we get in the truck, our outer and mid-layers will come off as the truck warms up. But as soon as we step out for a brief hike or to walk around a site, those layers make all the difference between comfort and misery.

In case you are wondering why there is so much Columbia gear, its because there is a Columbia Outlet just a few miles from our house. Still, they make great gear and we have been happy with what we have gotten from them.

Base Layers

Let’s start with your base layer. We are big fans of the Columbia Omni-Heat Baselayer (Women’s Top | Men’s Top | Men’s Pants | Women’s Pants). These long johns will keep you nice and toasty even when it is downright cold outside. What makes the Columbia Omni-Heat interesting is the small metal dots which help reflect heat. These are lightweight for the amount of warmth they provide.

Columbia also makes a great lightweight beanie using the Omni-Heat technology. While it is not the warmest beanie out there, it is easy to stuff in a jacket pocket and will keep you warm for most of getting in and out of the car, etc.

For spending more time in the brutal cold, my Mountain Hardware Dome Perigon hat is outstanding. This hat is tremendously warm and blocks the wind very well.

Grant rocking his Yosemite National Park Bana. It works really well as a lightweight scarf.
Grant rocking his Yosemite National Park Bana. It works really well as a lightweight scarf.

When it comes to socks, we wear heavyweight SmartWool Hiking Socks. I have worn SmartWool for years and they wick moisture away from your feet like there’s no tomorrow.

For light gloves, Columbia makes a nice Omni-Heat glove liner with touchscreen capability. These are great if you need just something for a short period of time, but they are not robust enough of the extended bitter cold.

I have some medium weight, Omni-Heat, fleece gloves, also from Columbia. Those are good for an extended time outdoors and have touchscreen capability. They aren’t waterproof by any stretch of the definition. The gloves are fine for hiking or basic tasks in the cold.

In terms of heavyweight gloves, I have a pair for the coldest temps (Women’s), but they are unwieldy and I have only needed to wear them a few times. Still, if you need to do work in the snow, like putting on chains on your tires, they would be perfect.

For really cold temps, you are going to want some neck and face protection. I have both a Bana and an REI neck gaiter for when it gets really cold. The Bana is outstanding for light or quick use and I used a similar neck gaiter for snowmobiling in Yellowstone.

Mid Layers

There’s nothing like a good fleece to keep you warm on a cold day. Indeed, if there is no wind, you can often get by in just a fleece.

I prefer fleece pullovers with either 1/2 or 1/4 zips. I like the look and wear them like a sweater. Other folks prefer a jacket-style fleece for getting it on and off and I understand. To each his own.

I have several fleeces in various weights from various companies. That said, I always end up wearing a pullover I have from Columbia. Bonnie really loves her fleece from The North Face. 

Winter selfie at Assateague Island National Seashore
Selfie on the beach at Assateague Island National Seashore.

One of Bonnie’s go to mid-layer pieces is this fleece vest. It is perfect for mild temperatures and also layers well under a jacket.

For really cold areas, I have a Nanotech Pullover from Patagonia which is crazy warm. I love it because it packs down to nothing, so it is a great thing to toss in your daypack or emergency kit for extra warmth.

I don’t typically wear a mid-layer on my legs, but I have a pair of fleece leggings if I absolutely need them. The soft-shell pants I wear have a fleece liner, so a mid-layer is generally not necessary.

Outer Layers

I love soft shells: They block the wind. They stop all but the roughest downpours. They breathe and they keep in the warmth. And, best of all, they don’t have hoods. I hate hoods on my gear, other than a hoodie.

I love the softshell jacket I have, a North Face Apex Bionic. It has been with me for three winters now and it continues to outperform any other coat I have ever owned. It has deep pockets where I can stick gloves, a hat and a neck gaiter.

For mild temperatures, Bonnie is often found wearing a puffy jacket like this at home or on the road. This slim-fitting jacket is great for wandering around a city or other times when you still want to look polished. For colder temperatures, Bonnie has an older Sierra Designs jacket which has since gone out of production.

Bonnie also really likes this Columbia vest for when the temperatures are not too cold, but you still need a good outer layer.

For pants, I found a great pair of softshell pants from Mountain Hardwear. These pants are fleece-lined, so no need for a mid-layer, are windproof and awesomely water-resistant. The best part is they look like khaki pants. No funky colors, so they look fine for walking around town. The only drawback is they do not have any sort of cinch under the cuffs. A cinch prevents cold air and snow from getting up the legs.

Bonnie on the trail at Petersburg NB.
Bonnie on the trail at Petersburg NB.

Another good choice for pants is the Horizon Guide pants from Eddie Bauer. They are pretty great casual pants made with a nylon/spandex blend. The pants are great for the trail and with a base layer and maybe a mid-layer, they would be great in the cold. The pants have a water repellent feature which sheds water. They are not as windproof as my softshell pants. They are fine for casual in and out of a road trip.

I do have a pair of snow pants for snowshoeing or the like, but those are bit much for just a road trip.

That said, if I am just doing some sightseeing and not worrying about getting out in the snow, more often than not I am wearing jeans. I would never wear jeans out on a long trail (cotton is really bad in the snow).  But, for walking around town or touring a national historic site, they are just fine.

The trail out to see the Little Dictator took us through the snow-covered woods.
The trail out to see the Little Dictator took us through the snow-covered woods.

While I have a pair of snow boots, they are way too warm for road trip use. Most of the time, I am wearing my Merrell Moab leather low-cut shoes. They are waterproof, comfy and, combined with some good socks, keep my feet nice and warm. 

Bonnie just got some North Face Hedgehog Fastpack GTX shoes. I used to have a pair just like them and wore them in the snow back in 2015. We both love the Gore-Tex waterproofing and the aggressive Vibram soles. They make great shoes for getting around in the winter.

The trick to wearing low-cut shoes in the snow with either jeans or the softshell pants is a pair of gaiters. These heavy nylon shells prevent deep snow from getting into your shoes or up your pant legs. They go on quickly and easily, making them a perfect choice for checking out a quick trail or even a long walk in the snow.

Grant on a short hike through the snow wearing gaiters.
Grant on a short hike through the snow wearing gaiters.

I am fairly prone to slipping on slick stuff… My balance just isn’t what it used to be. Taking a hard fall while on blood thinners is not fun. Indeed, back in 2015, I slipped coming back on the Delicate Arch Trail in Arches National Park. So, I am looking at getting a pair of YakTrax. I have heard good things about them, but I have never used them so can’t say anything more than they are on my wishlist.

Final Thoughts

While road tripping in the winter requires a lot of forethought and gear, the rewards are seriously worth it. Places which are insanely crowded in the summer give way to a peaceful solitude in the winter.

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park
Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

Yes, driving through a snowstorm can be a bit frightening. Especially if you have never driven in snow before. With the right gear, however, it can be a truly amazing experience.

Some of my favorite trips have been in the winter. While the cold is something to contend with, you can make the trip outstanding with the right mindset and some good gear.

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Winter is a great time to travel, but a winter road trip requires forethought. Here, we share our tips for planning and gearing up for a successful trip.
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