Cross-country roadtrip with a dog, a Q&A with Edwin

In October of 2018, we kicked off our second sabbatical with a three week cross-country roadtrip from NYC to LA – bringing Lion with us! Most people that knew about our trip had so many questions for us, from the motivation behind the trip, to how we showered (both very good questions!).

A few months ago, Edwin was interviewed by the company we rented our campervans from, and ended up answering a lot of the questions we get asked on a regular basis. Since the interview was extremely thorough and helpful, we thought we’d post it here as a resource for anyone planning a roadtrip with their dog!

As told by Edwin…

How did you decide to go on a cross-country roadtrip from NYC to LA?

Edwin: We had lived in NYC for about 8 years now, and decided that we wanted to move to San Francisco to be closer to family. We then decided that if we were both going to quit our jobs and make a cross country move like that, it’s one of the few opportunities where both of us will not be working. So we decided that we want to take some time off to travel before we settle down a bit in SF. With that in mind, we decided that we wanted to try living abroad for a bit in Taiwan. But we also have a pup, Lion, and couldn’t imagine the thought of leaving him behind for 6-12 months with family/friends here in the US. So then we had to think about how to bring Lion with us to Taiwan. We knew he’d have to fly in cargo while crated, which is very scary for dogs. So with that being said, we decided we want to get Lion as prepared as possible for his flight. Both of us haven’t seen much of the US aside from the West and East coasts, so we decided to do a cross country roadtrip and bring Lion along, so that he would get used to being in a moving vehicle for long periods of time, and also be in a crate. We both also love the outdoors and thought it would be a lot of fun and exciting to be camping across the country and doing lots of hikes. So in summary, the main purpose of the trip was really to prepare Lion for flight by driving cross country and having Lion in a moving vehicle for long periods of time!

Lion enjoying our drive through Petrified Forest National Park

How did you decide to make the roadtrip in a campervan? Had you done a campervan trip before?

Edwin: Neither of us had ever done a campvan trip, camped for long periods of time, or done a roadtrip this long! We decided on the campervan trip because we wanted to drive cross country to see a lot of the US, and also wanted to save a bit of money by not staying in a hotel every night. Also we wanted to bring our dog with us, and knew it would be more difficult finding hotels that allow dogs. We’re both pretty adventurous, and read a bit more about camping, and decided that a campervan would be perfect for everything we wanted to do: 1) bring Lion with us and get him prepared for a long flight, 2) be able to drive cross country, 3) be able to easily find areas to spend the night, 4) save money by not staying at hotels, 5) be able to easily drive and park it (RVs are much larger, harder to drive, and can’t go everywhere because of the size).

4,800 miles behind the wheel, the longest roadtrip for either one of us (and Lion!)

How did you choose the campervan rental company?

Edwin: Our trip was from NYC to Los Angeles (where my parents live), so we had to find a company that rented campervans with different pickup/dropoff points. Escape Campervans was the only company that had a pickup in NYC and a dropoff in LA. Once we saw that, we read lots of reviews and blogs about Escape Campervans and saw nothing but positive reviews! We had no hesitation in choosing Escape given all the positive reviews we read everywhere. The Escape website was also very thorough in explaining the types of vans, things that were included, and tips on driving/camping cross country. We also thought the pricing was extremely reasonable – especially since we received a discount for the dates we selected (i think it was winter discount when choosing pickup on the east coast and drop off on the west coast).

Lion and I walking up a dune in White Sands National Monument

What was your route? How did you decide where you wanted to go?

Edwin: This was a lot of fun to plan out, but also a good amount of work! I (Edwin) really have to give credit to Kelly who did all of the hard work in finding all the activities we want to do, the route, and the campsites. I ended up refining/confirming things based on things like weather, safety, and hours of operations.

The top priority for us was looking at what places were dog-friendly since our pup Lion was going to be with us. We knew we weren’t going to leave him behind in the van while we went to do things (i.e. we wouldn’t leave him in the car for the two of us to go to a museum but also didn’t want to take turns going in separately). We also wanted to do more outdoorsy things such as a lot of hiking, and sightseeing natural outdoor spots, more so than going to museums or shopping.

So with that in mind, we started to look into National Parks, State Parks, and National Monuments. We were surprised to find out that most US National Parks are not dog-friendly because they can disrupt the natural environment and wildlife. The ones that we found that were dog-friendly were mostly in the Eastern and Southern parts of the US (such as Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Cumberland Gap in Tennessee, White Sands in New Mexico, and Grand Canyon in Arizona).

Our route ended up being NYC -> Maryland -> Virginia -> Tennessee -> Kentucky -> Alabama -> Mississippi -> Louisiana -> Texas -> New Mexico -> Arizona -> California.

Our driving route from New York City to Los Angeles

Some Highlights:

  1. Shenandoah National Park, VA – it was very dog-friendly and we came at just the right time with the beautiful fall foliage
  2. McAfee Knob, VA – it’s the most photographed spot along the Appalachian Trail with amazing views, we were so lucky to be able to hike that!
  3. Natural Bridge State Park, VA – a really cool karst formation of a natural bridge with a lot of history, and a nice stroll along a river going under the natural structure
  4. Cumberland Gap National Historic Park at the intersection of TN, KY, and VA – we had no idea there was so much history there, with it being the spot that opened up exploration into the west by Daniele Boone
  5. Nashville, TN – This was our first big city of the trip and we had so much delicious food there. We were also impressed with how dog friendly the city was (we were able to bring our pup to a lot of great restaurants)
  6. Birmingham, AL – lots of history in this city during the civil rights movement
  7. New Orleans, LA – also a lot of delicious food, visited the French Quarter, NOLA City Bark which was an amazing dog park, this was one of the few cities that we stayed in for more than 1 night. Read more about enjoying New Orleans with a dog here.
  8. Austin, TX – we stopped here to visit some friends and it was a good midpoint of our trip to be able to take a break from the van and sleep in a house! We had some great food here, visited some fun parks with Lion and our friends’ dog Bowser
  9. Marfa, TX – This was one of our favorite stops during our road trip. Its such an interesting tiny town in west Texas. We never would have come here if it wasn’t for this road trip. It’s a very artsy town, which interesting coffee shops, galleries, and stores. We also tried to check out the Marfa Lights, which is a light phenomenon, but unfortunately didn’t see the lights.
  10. White Sands National Monument, NM – This was another one of our favorite stops. These were white sand dunes and it covered as far as the eye could see. When we came, we were the only ones here and saw only a few other people during the entire day. It was a pretty amazing experience to be able to hike through these sand dunes with our dog.
  11. Grand Canyon National Park, AZ – about two years ago when Kelly and I had just started dating, we came here on our first trip together. Now nearly two years later, we were able to come visit again with our pup Lion!
  12. Petrified Forest National Park, AZ – amazing scenery and rock formations, we were able to go down into the canyons and walk right up next to the rocks. Sorry for the long list, but those were just some of the top places that we visited, it would be too much to read if we listed everything out! So in summary – we decided where we would go primarily based on what was dog-friendly because our baby Lion was the most important thing to us during this road trip!
Lion lending me a paw at Grand Canyon

How did you find where to camp?

Edwin: We had a good amount of this planned out ahead of time and primarily focused on National Parks, State Parks, or National Monuments – because most of these usually had dedicated campsites that were not very expensive. It wasn’t a huge deal to us that not all of these had water or electricity hookups. But because of the season that we were camping (November), some of these campsites were closed.

So next, we looked at National Forests, since those have a lot of campsites as well. We stayed in the George Washington National Forest when we were in Virginia. We had also read about KOAs (Kampgrounds of America) which is a network of private campgrounds across North America. These are highly recommended if you want a bit more luxury in terms of very clean bathrooms and showers, water and electrical hookups, and other facilities (such as playgrounds, dog parks, exercise areas, game rooms, etc…).

KOAs were always our backup if we couldn’t find a campsite at National/State Parks/Monuments. If we wanted to save some money (because these are completely free) or knew that it was just going to be a short night (i.e. we didn’t need to shower or cook that night), we camped at truck stops (Flying J and Pilot are two truck stops that are very popular). And one night in Marfa, we just parked our van on the street (not sure if it was technically legal?), and slept there!

Overall, we think it all ended up working out well, but we would suggest having a rough idea of what type of campsites are available in the areas you drive through. KOAs were always our backup and very reliable, but can be pricey – anywhere averaging from $30-60/night; Flying J/Pilot truckstops were always free and felt safe still; National Forest are bit more secluded but also very cheap (less than $10/night), and then campgrounds at National/State Parks/Monuments are also cheap (less than $20 a night). On the very cold nights, we tried to stay at KOAs because they have power hookups so we can plug in our heater – most other campsites do not have power hookups.

Another day, another campsite!

What is your top advice for traveling as a couple?

Edwin: As a couple, something that worked out really well for us was that we got into a really good routine and had particular responsibilities. For example, every evening, we would try to get to our campsite an hour or so before sunset (this was difficult in November because sometimes the sunset as early as 5 pm!). We wanted to get there before sunset so that we still have lots of daylight to cook and set up the van.

When we got to the campsite, I would be responsible for setting up the van and converting it from driving mode to hangout (table/sitting) mode or sleeping (bed) mode. This took a bit more time because we had a large crate in the van for Lion as well as a good amount of gear/supplies (we overpacked!). Kelly would then be responsible for taking Lion for a quick walk while I did this.

Then once the van was set up, and Kelly and Lion made it back to the van, Kelly would start cooking while I would go shower first or do other cleanup tasks like laundry or organize the van. Then once dinner is done we’d eat in the van, and after that Kelly would go shower while I did the dishes. We got more and more efficient throughout the trip! Also during the road trip, I did all the driving, while Kelly did all the navigating and researching where to go.

Kelly preparing dinner at El Morro National Monument’s campsite

Any advice for traveling with a pet?

Edwin: As far as traveling with a pet, we would say to do research ahead of time to see what cities/activities are the most dog-friendly. You would hate to drive somewhere and find out that dogs are not allowed and someone would have to stay back with the dog or ditch the activity altogether. Luckily we never ran into this. Another big tip would be to try to get your pet acclimated to a crate ahead of time if they’re going to be in a crate during the drive. Unfortunately and fortunately, Lion learned to pee/poop outside within the first couple weeks of adopting him, so we never properly crate him. And also living in NYC, we didn’t have opportunities for him to be in a car much. So combining those two, Lion did not love being in a crate and driving at the same time.

Lion never really got used to his crate, and much preferred sleeping with us. And if you noticed… Yes, that is a giant tub of my protein powder!

Top advice for traveling in a campervan in general?

Edwin: A top piece of advice would be to look into the weather ahead of time for all the areas you plan to visit. We were surprised by how cold it was in certain areas. For example in Marfa, TX, at night it dropped to 17 degrees F! And for most of the trip, we almost always wore winter/cold weather clothes and luckily also brought two sleeping bags as well as an extra comforter. Living in a city like NYC, you don’t realize how cold it gets at night outdoors, especially when sleeping in a van without much insulation (and cracking a window open for air circulation).

Another piece of advice would be that even though planning is a key part to a good trip, try not to have every little detail planned out and leave room for flexibility. We left 4-5 days unplanned and that helped in allowing us to change part of our itinerary (i.e. instead of going to Memphis, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, we went to New Orleans and Alabama).

Also because we were doing the road trip in the off-season (summer seems to be when it’s most busy), we didn’t need to book any of the campsites ahead of time, and usually just showed up or booked them the day of. This left us with the flexibility to change our itinerary and stay longer/shorter when we wanted. If we had prebooked those, we would have lost out on the money. One of best things about being in a campervan is that everything you need is with you in the van and you can go anywhere you want. Leave time and flexibility to explore and go on adventures!

Prepared for a rainy day in Virginia

Now tell us… Are you also planning a roadtrip with your dog? Do you have any questions for us?

Kelly

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