“One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.”
The first thing, and sometimes one of the toughest to determine when planning a road trip is picking a destination.
Choosing should be very systematic and logical, but let’s be honest, a road trip is also a living creature that does not much appreciate the confines of a cage. This dance needs to be predicated on realistic expectations… then, and only then, you can be prepared to have your expectations exceeded.
Now, we are primarily discussing a photographic work trip. And that means that my primary goal can be at odds with what we traditionally view as the essence of a road trip, spontaneity. But this doesn’t mean they cannot coexist.
Just a few weeks ago on my Rocky Mountain road trip, I had a very well thought out plan in place. And… gasp… the plan changed several times. About half way into my trip, I received an email from my awesome cousin. He wrote a very kind note, sharing his fond memories of RMNP in some detail. He’s a fan of what I do, and I consider myself blessed to have people out there like him. So at that moment, I decided to change my plans considerably.
He mentioned his favorite spot to fish and camp… a small, high mountain lake in the backcountry of the park called Odessa Lake. I wanted to capture a spectacular image for him, so I hiked in, spent the night, and was rewarded with a few of my absolute favorite images from the whole trip. It really was the most beautiful spot in all of RMNP that I visited.
And I never would have even seen that magnificent place had I not been open to suggestion, remained flexible, and kept the adventuresome spirit that comes with being on the road.
With that said, a plan is still very important. Several factors go in to my choosing a destination: my level of desire to visit a place, is of course highest on the list, but I also factor budget, feasibility, preparedness, how big is the need (either for my photographic library, or for client’s/ stock agency/ etc.), and the volume of work I think I can come away with (are there several spots along the way that I could easily visit and might help round out my work too?). I am trying to make a living, after all.
So after much deliberation, a trip I’ve been planning for years, to Glacier National Park, quickly turned into a vastly different beast.
Due to more immediate stock needs, budget, and personal factors (i.e. the fact that my wife would be on vacation in Florida during the timing of my trip), I decided to plan an Everglades detour.
The dates of this trip have already shifted slightly several times, thus remaining flexible can really help you and your stress level. :)
It also happens to be the height of hurricane season… so sometimes a good backup plan helps as well. Believe it or not, I have two.
If I happen to be on my way to the southern-most tip of Florida, and the weather turns, Plan B is to head north and spend my time in the Smokies. If, on the other hand, tropical storms and hurricanes begin to batter my original destination before I even set off eastward, I will be revisiting my original plan to head north…. way north. To Glacier National Park. But at this point, I really hope it doesn’t come to that. As much as I truly do want to visit Glacier, most of my prep (and thus my enthusiasm) has been for this long-awaited return to the Everglades. So keep your fingers crossed!
Thankfully, I have spent a ridiculous amount of time planning all three of the aforementioned trips, and have constructed a budget for each one. And there’s even an art to that.
Bear with me for a moment; I have a lot of accountant friends (strange, I know), and they just love to tell me how they don’t have an artistic bone in their body. I couldn’t disagree more.
Putting together a realistic/ successful budget takes logic/ reason and creativity. And once I choose my location, it is absolutely the next thing I do, because let’s face it, unless you have an unending supply of cash, properly budgeting and allocating your funds is very important to keeping yourself profitable. Photographers are business(wo)men too. So here are my steps to a realistic road trip budget:
- Figure out your (realistic) mileage. Use google maps, or similar, to chart your route, and tally the total miles. If you think that route will flex at all to accommodate stops or detours along the way, add in several hundred miles extra to be sure. For me, when it comes to mileage calculation and budgeting, I always overestimate. I’d much rather be prepared for the worst and happily surprised when I spend less. Again, it helps with stress. Now, take the total mileage of your trip, and divide it by how many miles you get out of one tank of gas. If you don’t know this number, it’s quite easy. Next time you fill up, reset your mileage counter to 0. Let it run until you are again on empty. There’s your number. Once you’ve divided your total mileage by how much you can get out of one tank, you have the number of times you’ll need to fill up. Now you multiply the number of tanks by how much it costs to fill up your car. For example: my ENP trip will be 3500 miles rt (overestimate), my Subaru can get 350 miles per tank, and it costs approx. $60 to fill it up (overestimate). So a minimum of 10 tanks, which at the most would cost $600 in fuel.
- Lodging. How much will you spend on hotels/ motels/ camping fees. This is something that you simply must evaluate realistically, knowing yourself and your tendencies. Don’t set yourself up for budget failure by proposing to camp the entire time to save money, if you know that you’ll be dying for a hot shower. I am very comfortable camping for three week stretches, but I always budget in at least 2-3 nights at a hotel just in case. You just cannot predict how a trip will go with certainty, so it’s best to budget for the worst. If conditions are good, I usually challenge myself to not use any of my hotel money the whole time so I can buy some other piece of equipment I want/ need without guilt. Everyone likes a good reward. Regarding camping fees… do your research. Everywhere is different, including from one national park to another. Thank God for the interweb.
- Food. Once again, this is a very personal aspect of your costs that you should carefully think through to create a realistic budget. It’s easiest to learn your road trip food habits through years of experience.
- Misc. Supplies. Inevitably there are expenses that you simply cannot always foresee. Camp fuel, bug spray, emergency medicine, mosquito net, spontaneous canoe rental. It’s really good to have extra money budgeted in for the necessary unforeseens. And if you end up being really prepared and don’t need the misc. funds for needs, it also comes in handy for wants, a good book, or a souvenir/ gift for someone perhaps. Can’t hurt to over prepare when it comes to budgeting.
Once I arrive at the final, hard budget number… yep, you guessed it, I add a hundred or two in there for good measure. Just in case.
It’s also not a bad idea to bring an emergency credit card with you. I don’t advocate the use of credit cards in my own family, however, it can absolutely save you if your car breaks down or some other catastrophe befalls you.
Feasibility/ Preparedness/ Productivity/ Need
Is this trip realistic for you? This is a tough question that we all have to ask ourselves. It generally directly correlates with these three things: physical fitness, outdoor gear, and photographic equipment. Do you have health problems that have rendered you unable to walk for long distances? Then I wouldn’t plan a trip to a place that you will have to hike much. I know it seems elementary and simplistic, but I think through these things every time. For instance, a 50 mile hiking trek I did several years ago to Indian Peaks Wilderness in Colorado. I did not take seriously the condition of my gear, so about 5 miles into the first day, the soles of my hiking boots literally fell off. I had not worn them much that previous year, and over the course of time the rubber sole dry rotted. So, I had to hike the remaining 40+ miles of extreme mountain terrain in my chacos. Thankfully, I am very comfortable hiking long distances in these particular sandals, but it could have been disastrous! A ruined trip.
For my ENP trip, I know that I will be there during the Florida rainy season, so I thought through that, and decided that I needed to re-scotch guard all of my outdoor gear. It’s things like that, that can make or break an epic road trip.
Next, evaluate your photographic equipment. Are you prepared to get the best images possible with what you have? If you’re like me, you’ll never have all of the equipment you want, and you can always think of new gadgets and tools that will help you achieve new levels of imagery. Don’t get mired down in that kind of thinking, all I mean is; do you have the necessary equipment (or the means to borrow/ rent) to make this trip successful? And this brings me to my next point…. productivity.
You are going to spend some coin on this trip. If you’re a professional like me, you have to make it pay for itself several times over to make it worthwhile, but even if you’re not a pro, you want it to be a productive learning experience/ portfolio booster. I have a tendency to fall in love with a location and visit it several times a year. Not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but often times it’s a creative boost to go somewhere new, and you can build an entirely new facet to your stock library or portfolio.
I am often guided (lately) on trips like these, by my stock agency’s “wants/ needs” list. Why not all but ensure that my trip will be financially profitable? And even more so if I can find stops along the way that will fulfill stock needs as well.
It’s a lot of information to consider, I know… but my approach is that if I do the tough work on the front-side, I will be freed up while on the trip to only worry about getting the best shots and having the most fulfilling experiences possible.
It’s funny… to hear myself makes me think that many of you might be thinking, “wow, this guy really knows how to sap the fun out of a road trip!”, but I’ve really come to enjoy the process and preparation. It gets me excited in new ways for my upcoming adventure. And it helps me be a better photographer.
Let me know what you think!
Thanks so much for reading,
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