The Conflicting Two Faces of the Classic Road Trip

See the world, sleep at a truck stop.

By: Nate Luebbe
October 24, 2016

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Roadtrips have always been a bit of a double-edged sword for me.  I spent the last 12 hours sitting in a tiny metal box, snacking on awful gas station food and listening to random local radio stations fade in and out. I parked my car at a Wal-Mart (directly adjacent to an oil refinery) and walked every single aisle of the store just to have an excuse to move my legs. I fought off the noise of industrial machinery and passed out in the back of my car, only to wake at sunrise and start the whole cycle over. If one were to devise a torture specifically for outdoorsy adventurers such as myself, this would be a fantastic starting point.

But as I continued north I couldn't help but admire the incredible simplicity and versatility provided by living out of a car.  I didn't have a flight to catch, or a hotel to book. There was no need to google nearby restaurants and attractions. I was making my attractions - going where I wanted, when I wanted, with absolutely no schedule whatsoever. If I saw an amazing looking ridge that just begged to be climbed, I could pull over and do just that. If the daylight hours dwindled there was no need to plan a retreat to the nearest town, because my hotel had 4 wheels and was waiting for me at the trailhead. Hell, some mornings I didn't even get out of the car, I simply climbed into the front seat, put my shoes on and drove to the next trailhead to catch sunrise. I was literally living wherever my unquenchable wanderlust dragged me, without a single worry about whether or not tomorrow would have an adventure waiting. It would.

Not the worst trailhead I've ever woken up at.

My trip drew me north to an area I'd long been seduced by, but hadn't visited since the ripe old age of 2 - Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.  Truly one of the worlds last unspoiled lands, the National Parks of Alberta are unrivaled expanses of wilderness whose immensity is nearly impossible to fully grasp.  Every hike deserves to be in some sort of "best of" list, transporting  you from a sunny flower-filled meadow to the base of a jagged glacier in under a mile. For literally hundreds of miles in every direction this unparalleled wilderness extends, uninterrupted.

For this reason I chose to forgo the classic "home base" of a hotel or campground, and instead explore in a more nomadic fashion. A parking spot or tent site would never be repeated, allowing me to explore every possible inch of the glorious Canadian Rockies in my limited time frame. This was a very unusual approach for me - I've always done multi-day backpacking trips, spending days and weeks at a time on the trail without seeing another person. I'm comfortable eating freeze-dried food, sweating for 12 hours straight and sleeping on the ground, so the opportunity to have a comfortable "home" to return to every night, in the location of my choice is just fantastic.  And I seriously owe a huge shout out to the Sierra Designs Frontcountry Bed. A sleeping bag the size of a twin bed, with a built-in comforter turned my tiny Subaru into a luxury road palace. Combined with strategic placement of the food cooler, a headlamp and an actual pillow meant I had a legitimate home on wheels.

Cozy, right?

The combination of hiking and driving allowed me to see a massive amount of the greater Banff/Jasper area in just a week, and as the weather turned for the worse I decided to head south. On a particularly cold and damp day I crossed back into the States and arrived in Glacier National Park. As a born and raised Montana-native the return home in such dreary weather initially felt underwhelming and disappointing. After a very cold, windy and wet hike the clouds broke just near sunset and I was treated to the most spectacular sunset I may have ever seen. Montana was welcoming me home.

Turns out Glacier National Park is just the neatest.

After all the mobility and exploration up north my appreciation for car camping was renewed nearly immediately as a Grizzly mother and her cub wandered directly through my campsite as I was setting up the tent. Although I'm experienced and comfortable in bear country, the added security of bear lockers for food and sleeping in my locked car was a nice added bonus to my protection from the elements. But perhaps the biggest advantage is the ability to wake up warm and dry in the middle of a raging tempest and begin a sunrise hike in good spirits. Something about stuffing a sopping wet rainfly into a stuffsack at 5am really makes it hard to remain chipper.

After a few weeks of exploring it was time to head home.  While I was used to traveling on my own two feet, living out of a backpack and intimately exploring a single area, the thought of extended driving had initially seemed extremely restricting. But the freedom of mobility, exploration and comfort are unparalleled while camping out of one's car.  I feel like I've just barely returned home and I'm already planning the next opportunity to toss my pack in the car and drive off into the sunset.

Nate enjoys long walks on the beach, pretending to tie his shoes for the camera, and cheesecake. Tons more pics from this trip can be found on Instagram @Nateinthewild


Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.