Plying the back roads—the back, back roads—of rural America inevitably will present you with a gift basket of surprises.
America is home to countless back roads, side roads, country roads, scenic routes, historic routes, tourist routes, scenic byways, and historic highways—and more road trip possibilities than any one person could complete in a lifetime.
I have a love-hate relationship with Interstates. There are times when you need to be somewhere fast and the Interstates are the only viable options. But fast is the problem. With speed limits of 70 miles per hour in most states (more in a handful of mostly western states), it’s rare to find traffic moving at the speed limit. It is often much closer to 80.
Add to that the fact that the tires on most RVs are not engineered to drive as fast as the tires on your toad/tow vehicle. Suddenly there’s a compelling case for driving the roads less traveled. But aside from safety, back roads travel can be much more enjoyable.
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Why drive the back roads?
On back roads, speed limits are usually 55 to 65 miles per hour. Lower speeds usually result in improved mileage. Budget stretching and safety are two top reasons you consider driving secondary roads. But there are more reasons:
- Back roads get you closer to the countryside and the people; scenic vistas, Mom and Pop stores, and restaurants provide a real feel of the area
- Back roads are calming; the stress of interstate driving takes a physical and emotional toll
- Back roads make for more enjoyable road trips that can give you a much better appreciation for the country
Tips for driving the back roads
Look for two-lane state routes: Like the so-called Blue Highways, popularized in the best-selling 1982 book of the same name by William Least Heat-Moon. Here is where you will find small-town America. Don’t be afraid to pull off the highway at a park, a roadside attraction, along a riverbank or lakefront, or with a great view of the mountains or the valleys and just hang out for a while in a beautiful location.
Beware of dirt or gravel roads: They may be tempting. But they have a way of going bad and becoming rutted and potholed. Avoid them when driving an RV. They may be doable in a Class B van or a small Class C motorhome. Dirt and gravel roads coat everything in the RV with dust in dry weather while coating the exterior in mud following rain. And stones kicked up by your tires can chip your paint job.
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Consider county routes with care: Some paved county roads peter out after a few miles to gravel or dirt. Others are quite narrow and offer few places for an RV to pull over or turn around. That’s why it’s wise to travel with an RV-specific GPS to navigate safely based on your vehicle dimensions. You can input your vehicle’s height, length, and weight as well as fuel information like whether or not you’re carrying propane. This will not only help you avoid steep mountain roads but also low clearance bridges, bridge weight limits, and tunnels with propane restrictions. Also, check locally regarding road conditions, especially during inclement weather.
Don’t rely on GPS: The more remote the country, the less reliable GPS can be. That’s why drivers need to apply a dose of common sense to a computer’s suggestions starting with not taking RVs and other vehicles that aren’t up to the task down unpaved roads. State highway maps are a must if you plan to drive the backroads. County maps are often available from regional visitor centers or local stores.
Driving the back roads takes more planning: There are numerous RV trip planning apps available to help but you’ll want to consider places to refuel, buy groceries, find restaurants or picnic spots (county parks are often true gems), and RV parks and campgrounds.
Ask for places to overnight: In some small towns you can camp free in local parks, churches, parking areas, or behind businesses. But, be sure to ask first. If you can’t find someone to give permission, stop by the sheriff’s office or police department. Naturally, your RV needs to be self-contained to do this. Obviously, this works best if you’re driving a small RV.
Eat local: While it is more economical and efficient to eat in your RV or at a picnic site, consider a meal in a local “Mom and Pop” restaurant or market to experience local and regional foods that aren’t pre-packaged, frozen, or microwaved. Ask the staff or other diners what you should see in the area. You’ll likely get some great suggestions.
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Watch for low bridges, underpasses, and low-hanging trees: Those RV trip planning apps will help here as will RV-specific GPS modules. On the interstate, overpasses are usually 16 feet or more. Along some secondary routes, 12-foot or lower bridges will pose a big-time problem to most RVs. Also be aware of low-hanging trees and branches as they can do a number on your satellite dish and air conditioner units. Trust me on this one!
There is no hurry: The journey can be as enjoyable as the destination. Be flexible. Stop when you want, where you want. Setting a rigid agenda and over-planning may result in missing an unexpected attraction not included in travel guides—some things just happen along your journey. Take time for the unexpected!
Follow the 330 Rule: The 330 rule is you stop when you have driven 330 miles or it is 3:30 in the afternoon. The idea is to get somewhere while it is still early enough to explore, chill-out, and enjoy the place when you’re not exhausted from driving mega miles. Is there anything worse than pulling into a campsite after dark? Embrace less miles and stopping early as your travel style of choice. I have found as I’ve aged that the 220 rule works even better!
Adventure awaits! Happy trails!
Our four simple rules: No Interstates, no amusement parks, no five-star accommodations, and no franchise food (two words which do not belong in the same sentence!)
—Loren Eyrich, editor/publisher Two-Lane Roads