By Columnist
updated 5/23/2006 3:37:53 PM ET 2006-05-23T19:37:53

There are car rides and there are road trips. A car ride is a short, often tedious jaunt that involves getting from here to there, usually in a hurry, so that you can discharge some duty: drop off the kids, pick up the dry cleaning, slave away at the office.

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But a road trip! A road trip is an adventure, an exploration, a rendezvous with come-what-may. Perhaps surprisingly, it is this latter, more free-spirited wheeling that requires the greater planning and investment.

After 30 years on the road, I have pared down the list of road trip essentials to five items. These are not the do-or-die essentials — the flashlight, first-aid kit, tire iron and so on; that’s a whole different story. These are the five change-your-attitude essentials that will let you leave your car ride mid-block and set out on a road trip adventure.

Paper road maps. Bold blue highways will get you there fast, but it’s those tiny little black-line roads that can really make a road trip. It’s hard to find them without good maps, because in real life they often look like dead ends. To punch up my nerve and keep me from driving down other people’s driveways, I carry a Rand McNally Motor Carriers’ Road Atlas for the big picture and either Benchmark or DeLorme regional gazetteers for local information. Although electronic maps are offering more and more geographical detail, I haven’t found GPS-delivered mapping applications to be of much help when sleuthing out these roads less traveled.

Cooler and water. There are often fewer dining options on back roads, so it’s wise to carry some food with you. A cooler full of snacks and drinking water is just as important as a full tank of gas. Many seasoned road trippers eat all or most of their meals from an ice chest, restocking at grocery stores along the way. Healthy snacks from the cooler also keep your costs down. Now that fuel prices are inching toward $3.50 a gallon, you can pump those savings directly into your fuel tank.

CB and weather-alert radios. No road trip is guaranteed perfect weather, and meteorological challenges are a lot easier to face with advance warning. Believe me, I’ve seen it all: blizzards, tornadoes, flooding, dust storms, lightning strikes, truck-toppling wind, melted pavement, hail the size of baseballs, ice as far as you can see. A timely radio warning on my citizens band (CB) radio has saved my life on at least two occasions. On the other hand, weather can be a terrific spectator sport, as any storm chaser can tell you. Whether you want to head right into extreme conditions or speed away from them as quickly as possible, weather alerts provided by the National Weather Service — found by scrolling through the three or four weather channels on any CB radio — can get you pointed in the right direction.

In addition, the on-air commentary of professional truck drivers is often helpful. Yes, you may have to put up with some bad jokes and marital woes, but in extreme weather and accident situations, truckers’ information is both immediate and useful. As an added benefit, truckers can be a great source for local information when you’re looking for a cup of “30-weight” (coffee) or “a lollipop park” (a rest stop). They are also helpful for spotting “plain white wrappers” (unmarked police cars).

Personal cabana towels (PCTs). I can’t believe these things aren’t commercially available, because a PCT is, hands down, the single most useful item I’ve ever taken on a road trip. Fortunately, it’s easy to make one.

Take two beach towels, the thinner the better (if you use thick ones, your PCT will be too heavy). Stitch them together along the edges, leaving an opening big enough for your head at one end and for your arms on the two sides. That’s it! You now have a pull-on terry-cloth garment that can serve as a bathrobe, a beach cover-up and, yes, a “personal cabana.” Pull your arms in and you’ve got a private changing room. This is remarkably handy if you come upon a natural hot spring or decide to take a swim at a beach where there’s no place to change. Of course, your PCT is still a perfectly good towel, picnic blanket, tablecloth, horse blanket, superhero cape — well, you get the idea.

Provisions for the inner journey. Most of us hit the highway to see what’s “out there”; after all, 98 percent of road trip entertainment comes through the windshield and windows. But the other 2 per cent is important, too, and careful consideration of the “inner road trip” can enhance the journey significantly. Music is an obvious enhancement, whether you use an iPod, a CD player or satellite radio. While music is a matter of personal taste, many road trippers look for tunes to set the mood.

It’s great to bring your own playlist, but don’t forget about local radio stations. Have you ever heard a broadcast in Navajo? It can add a fascinating dimension to your journey through the Four Corners region. And you wouldn’t want to miss the hootenanny in the town square in Mountain View, Ark., would you? How about the mushroom festival in California’s redwood country? Take the time to tune in to the hometown stations, and you’ll find out about things you never knew existed.

Also consider audiobooks. If you haven’t listened to a recorded book in a while, you may be pleasantly surprised by how much the quality of these productions has improved in recent years. Many public libraries have good selections of audiobooks, and rental services are available if you don’t want to purchase.

Car ride or road trip? Which will it be? If you’ve got your maps, cooler, radio, PCT and music, it can be whatever you want it to be. Go ahead. See what’s out there.

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