Hitting the Road: Essential Apps for Your Next Road Trip - ITS Tactical

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Hitting the Road: Essential Apps for Your Next Road Trip

By Jon Gaffney

Apps for the Road

For eight months I’ve lived on the road with my girlfriend on a long-term road trip. While we’ve taken a few short respites during the 15,000 miles we’ve covered, we’ve also camped in innumerable places with plans that are often in flux.

I cringe every time I respond to the question of what our essentials are and what makes our life on the road easier. While it feels lame to say, a smartphone is really the travel essential. Over the months we’ve spent on the road, I’ve tried numerous apps to get my smartphone dialed in. Many have come and gone, but the current mix listed below is working really well for us.

Apps for the Road

Camping

Finding a place to lay your head each night is a constant challenge. Friends and families are a great resource, but the longer you’re traveling and the further afield you roam, the more you’ll need to be on your game.

  • iOverlander – A crowdsourced app that shows both official campsites and unofficial “stealth” sites (i.e. quiet streets with 24hr parking.) It can use your location to show what’s close by and it’s one of the few apps to give campsites worldwide, not just in the US.
  • Freecampsites.net – Not an app per say, but it’s bookmarked on my home screen for easy access. It does what it says, type in the location you’re interested in and a map pops up with free, pay, and permit campsites easily laid out on a map.
  • AllStays – Pricey as apps go, but worth every penny. It automatically locates where you are and lays out all camping options in your immediate area. It even includes local Wal-Mart stores (don’t knock it till you’ve tried one) and truck stops.
  • hipcamp.com – A newcomer to the scene, Hipcamp is a mobile optimized website where you can enter the area you’re interested in and get a list of all the public campsites in the area along with a great description of the facilities available. They’re only in a few states currently, but will be covering the entire US by the end of summer.
  • Hotel Tonight – When all else fails, which it will at times, Hotel Tonight can snag you a good last minute deal at hotels close by. Enjoy having Wi- Fi and a hot shower for a night.

Entertainment

Apps for the RoadA road trip by definition means significant driving time. Music is a no-brainer, but having some entertainment to change things up and keep you awake during the driving days is a must.

  • Audible – Audiobooks were never my forte until we hit the road. They’re a great way to stay engaged while hours of cornfields slip by, or the darkness closes in. They’re surprisingly pricey, but Audible regularly runs promotions. Start with Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.
  • Podcasts – Once you’ve made your way through the most recent episode of Ridiculous Dialogue, check out NPR’s award winning news shows, Mortified and Serial to get cranking. Stock up your phone with your favorite tune, as terrestrial radio is not what it once was.
  • Spotify – If you have unlimited data, Spotify is an excellent option and a way to save space on your smartphone. If you don’t have unlimited data, tread lightly as you can quickly run into overage charges.

News

Smartphones make it really easy to stay up on current events while being somewhat removed from the classic news cycle. The options for news are endless, so choose as you are so inclined.

Communication

Apps for the RoadFirst and foremost the smartphone is a communication tool. Coordinating with people we’re meeting, staying in touch with friends and work. After trying a number of third party apps, I’ve come back to the Apple native apps. They just work.

  • Mail
  • Messages
  • Phone

Weather

Waking up or heading to a new place makes it easy to get surprised by the weather. I hate freezing because I didn’t bring the right gear for the day.

  • Accuweather – Accuweather is the best weather app I’ve found. You can track multiple locations and it instantly gives you the forecast for your current locale in an easily consumable way.

Photography

Travel and photography are pretty symbiotic and having the right apps to facilitate your snapshots is key.

  • VSCOcam – VSCOcam is an excellent photo app that provides extensive editing options as well as filters for days. It’s well worth the price and their filters are a lot less heavy handed that Instagram’s native filters. Extra filters can be bought “in-app” if you’re interested. To me, the editing tools are the important part.

Navigation

Navigation apps are the largest data suck of all the apps, but also probably the most helpful. Provided you’ve got some 3G service, you’re never really lost. I’ve tried a number of the different navigation apps out there and while necessary, all of them have made me pull my hair out for various reasons.

  • Google Maps – It gets the most use because it works the best. It has its quirks, but it’s one of the better out of what’s available.
  • Waze – If your route takes you into heavily congested areas, I’ve heard great things about Waze.

Food

Apps for the RoadLast, but certainly not least, is food. It’s a daily need.

  • How to Cook Everything – Cooking as much as you can while traveling is a great way to keep costs low. This app does exactly what it says, search what you want to make and away you go. Quick Dinners is always a good road trip option.
  • Yelp – It’s not always possible to make your own food and eating snack food from a gas station is a good way to torpedo road morale. Yelp is your friend on finding the best burgers and beer in whatever town you find yourself in.

Fuel

Fuel on a road trip is a constant concern and your largest expense. Any money saved per gallon can add up quickly and there’s nothing worse than leaving a station after filling up and driving by another one two blocks away with significantly better prices.

  • Gas Buddy – This tells you the gas stations nearest to you and gives you up to date prices at the locations. You can also enter a location that you’re heading towards to check the prices there. Over the long run Gas Buddy will save you a lot of money.

 

Apps for the Road

Photos © Jon Gaffney and Gale Straub

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Jon currently lives a semi-nomadic life with his girlfriend traveling North America in a camper van of their own design. If he’s not hiking, climbing, waterskiing, or attempting to surf you’ll probably find him playing with a camera. You can follow along with his antics on Instagram.

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Discussion

  • Roberto Larrieu

    John A Larrieu Jr, Pamela Sasnett Larrieu

  • Jacob Farley

    One communication app I’d suggest is Zello.  It uses wifi or data and acts like a two-way radio between you and other users on the channel you’re on.  You can create your own channels for convoys, or to keep up to date with people across the country.  Or just for entertainment depending on the channels you are tuned to,

  • Those who can’t afford Audible’s often steep audiobook prices might want to either the Librivox or Loyal Books apps. Both are free and give you access to thousands of free audiobooks read by Librivox volunteers. 

    It’s a great way to introduce your kids to great classics on family vacations. It’s also a way to entertain yourself on long cross-country trips or daily commutes.

  • ChrisBrooks2

    Re: Audible — If you get a Kindle, many of them can read Kindle books aloud (and you can turn it off and just read when you get to your destination). They’re cheaper than audible books, too. You just have to not mind the robotic voice, but you get used to that quickly.

  • Guest

    Great list!   I would add Radar Scope as an essential.  It’s a bit pricey but during inclement weather, it is my most used weather app and over the four years I’ve had the app, the accurate radar data has been worth the price of admission.  For photography, my goto app is snapseed.

  • John A Larrieu Jr

    Thanks Pop’s

  • Glen allen

    Great list! Will definitely add a few to my phone for this summer’s road trip.

    One site that I find useful for breaking up a long trip is RoadsideAmerica.com.  Unfortunately they only have an app for Iphone, but the website is good for finding interesting and unique(Ok, sometimes just plain odd) stops.

  • John C

    An app called Overdrive allows you to connect to your local library if you have a membership there and download audiobooks for free.

  • Awesome post John! I have a question about your van: Do you have any more information about the solar panels (I think that’s what they are) on top?

  • MightyP

    I’ll second Waze for a GPS program. It’s a regular map program with crowd sourcing for details and quick updates. Works great in metro areas but is sketchy in small towns. Best part though is that if you’re exploring unmarked/unmapped trails, leave the program on and you can save the trails for future reference.

  • acometc

    May I suggest the Copilot GPS app here: http://copilotgps.com/us/ ? Very nice in that you don’t need cellular coverage to use it.

  • TungMaiLe

    Hey, awesome list of apps. I’d like to put my app up for review, shamelessly. It’s called SleepWake, it’s an Android watch app that wakes you up if you doze off at the wheel.

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