Why Winter Is The Best Time To Drive Across The U.S.

Many of us have gone on long road trips, but usually over the summer. The air is warm (sometimes, stifling hot), the scenery is green (or gold in dry places), and the roads are busy with vacationers eager to see the world's largest ball of twine or whatever.

Summer drives are grand and all, but they do have a few glaring drawbacks. First and foremost, those eager beaver auto tourists come in hordes, which can mean some pretty gnarly traffic jams (especially in places where winter roadwork is a physical impossibility). Second, gas prices are almost always higher during the warmer months of the year, which can be maddeningly hot, even if the AC does work in your car.

But if you're willing to brave sub-zero temperatures and eerily deserted rest stops and tourist attractions, now is the time to hit the road. Open road traffic will be sparse, and in some places, fuel prices are well below $3 per gallon. So what are you waiting for?

Personally, I took advantage of the holiday journalism lull to log some serious miles this winter. Meeting a friend in Wichita, Kan., we drove from there to Boulder, Colo., then to Victor, Idaho, then back to Boulder, out to Sacramento, and finally clear on over to Virginia. It was a 5,600 mile trek in all, but the landscape, which I've beheld in the summer as well, held a bleak beauty all its own that isn't to be matched.

Why Winter Is The Best Time To Drive Across The U.S.

In particular, the wide, freezing cold, unpeopled swath of southern Wyoming was breathtaking, with huge mining cranes working right by the roadside, oil refineries that glittered like city skylines in the darkness, and snow-packed ridges that seemed straight out of the Ice Planet scenery in The Empire Strikes Back. In Utah, the Bonneville Salt Flats were whiter than ever I'd seen them before, the silver-colored sun glimmering weakly above sheets of blowing snow. Nevada's truck stops, empty save for the Sunday football crowd, were a bit of warm cheer amidst the frozen waste; the jaunty clanging of slot machines and video poker consoles unchanged by the season.

With the exception of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Lake Tahoe, the Golden State is practically immutable, offering consistent sunshine and Mexican food (relative to other places) most of the year. The Midwest is as cold and bleak as its western counterparts, although you can, if you want, listen to some Jesus talk on the radio that will either warm your soul or heat you with anger at its ridiculousness. Either way, you're taken care of.

Then there's the good old East, which although it can suffer from thick traffic, can also seem a boon of vitality to folks who aren't used to the desolation of more sparsely populated regions. Once you get through the myriad curiosities Kansas has to offer — y'know, the Five-Legged Steer, the World's Second Friendliest Yarn Store, the Oz Museum, and the like — there's always the comfort of Walmarts a-plenty from Illinois' lush farmland and Kentucky's Bluegrass hills to Pennsylvania coal country and Virginia's Civil War trails.

But if you're going to strike out on such a journey, there are a few things you should know. I don't want to call them rules, because, well, to each his own. But it gets pretty cold out there, and breaking down in the middle of nowhere without the proper gear can be life-threatening or worse. So here's what you need for a successful winter journey:

  • 1. Warm clothes: You don't have to suit up for an Antarctic expedition when you're riding in the relative comfort of the car, but bring that stuff anyway, juuuuuust in case your car stops working for some reason and you're suddenly without heat (and even the best cars can fail, so it's good to be on the safe side). What that boils down to is layers: a base layer, shirt, pants, wool socks (trust me, wool is the best), a sweater, a winter coat, a hat, gloves, and warm shoes are the basics. It even gets cold in the South and Southwest during the winter, especially at night, so it's good to have all that stuff handy. Cold can be dangerous.
  • 2. A properly running vehicle: Now's not the time to squeeze the last gasp out of your old beater or take a project car on a shakedown cruise. Cars and trucks hate extreme cold more than I do, and if a part is close to failure, it's likely to fail when the temperature plummets 20 degrees below freezing. And again, when it's that cold, no engine means no heat, which means you will be very unhappy freezing your ass off outside trying to fix stuff. It's not a bad idea to have a basic tool kit on board, though.
  • 3. Cold weather tools: Bring an ice scraper (with attached snow brush, preferably) and tire chains. Even if you think you're not going to hit bad weather, you never know, especially on a long haul.
  • 4. Extra oil, antifreeze, windshield washer, etc.: Make sure you have all the fluids you need. Some of those out-of-the-way truck stops and filling stations charge an arm and a leg for that stuff. I forgot to bring antifreeze, didn't check the coolant level, and ended up paying $16 for a gallon of 50/50 pre-mixed somewhere in the middle of Wyoming. Ouch.
  • 5. Phone, phone charger, AAA card, road flares: If, despite your best efforts, your chariot fails to make its next loop around the ol' blacktop circus maximus, make sure you have your communications and signaling equipment ready for service.
  • 6. Food, water, and fire: Obviously, water can freeze pretty quickly, especially if it's been sitting in the trunk all day. But you can always bring a little camp stove to heat it up if you're on a long trip through hundreds of miles of barren wilderness. Bring at least some food that you can eat when it's cold — granola bars and the like for emergencies. Otherwise, those fried chicken tenders from the Flying J will do just fine.

There's all kinds of cool stuff to check out in the wintertime — skiing, snowmobiling, sledding, eating and drinking amidst brightly lit winter city skylines, etc. — and with gas prices so low, you might as well partake. Using more gas when it's available is the American way! One word of advice, though. If you stop at a motel (I always pick the very cheapest ones I can find), find out before check-in whether or not the heat works. Those below-the-window heater/AC units so ubiquitous in low-buck motels work fine in Florida, but do little to combat sub-zero temps. Pretty lame when you're shivering yourself to sleep dressed in all those winter clothes you brought just in case.

Happy travels!

Why Winter Is The Best Time To Drive Across The U.S.

Photo credit: Shutterstock; Wikimedia Commons