Going on a road trip once entailed throwing some clothes in a bag and piling into the Coupe deVille. These days we take road trips as if we were preparing for a space mission. Digital cameras, laptops, i-Pods, MP3s, portable CD/DVD players—and if not the kitchen sink, then in some cases the kitchen refrigerator—can all come in the car, meaning a plugged-in driver is happy on and off the road.
At the end of a recent road trip through the wilds of West Texas, a London-based art photographer named Deon Hug found himself stranded for a night in the unfamiliar city of Midland. His travel buddies had gone their separate ways but his return flight had been cancelled, and the next one out wasn't until 5 a.m. the following morning. A business conference in the town meant all the decent hotels were full, so the only room he could get was in a seedy budget travel inn right under the flight-path of the planes.
Still, he maintains, he had a fantastic time.
He spent the afternoon watching a DVD of his just-finished road trip on his laptop, downloaded from the Sony Handycam that one his buddies brought to film their journey. He then ate at the best steakhouse in town which he tracked down through the portable GPS he carried in his pocket. The restaurant was expensive but he figured he had saved money on speeding tickets during the trip since his friends had rigged their car up Dukes of Hazzard-style with a radar detector, so why not treat himself? Best of all, he had with him a portable , so he got a good night sleep despite the noise.
Deon Hug was more than prepared, but many drivers these days already have a few of these tools at the ready. Technology is now so advanced that hand-held computerized diagnostic tools can tell us what’s wrong with our vehicle before it breaks down, and any number of GPS devices not only inform us of our geographic location, but tell us where the best hotel is in the next town and what the weather will be like when we get there.
“Ten years ago a lot of the equipment we now take for granted barely worked,” says Mark Sedenquist, publisher of RoadTripAmerica.com, a web site that has provided expert planning, travel advice and suggested routes to American road-trippers since 1996.
“Now the difficulty can be deciding what to leave behind.”
So what are the essential items to take on a road trip—and what to forgo?
In choosing our nine gadgets, we tried find a balance between the most impressive technology out there and the fact that were going on a journey, not to a science fair.
We didn’t include pocket digital cameras on the grounds that most of us have one anyway, and we left cellphones out for the same reason—as well as the fact that despite being a nation that put a man on the moon, it’s still possible to drop a signal in your own home.
Staying in touch on the road is essential however, and for that reason we opted for a hand-held satellite phone. Iridium is the only truly global communications satellite network out there—even the polar ice caps are said to have their coverage—but we went for the ease and simplicity of the Globalstar Hand Held Phone which is not only smaller than other sat phones but operates on the standard U.S. dialing system. You can use it like a regular cellphone.
What’s a road trip without a Thelma & Louise outlaw edge? We selected two devices that will make you feel you’re incognito or on the run from the law. from Hong Kong-based Deke Electronics Technology not only offer UV protection, but have a camera in the frame connected to an MP4 hidden in your shirt or jacket pocket so you can film unnoticed. It’s ideal for filming that video you'll post on YouTube of the ill-tempered sheriff giving hell to a waitress at the small-town diner you stumbled into. And since the urge to break the speed limit will at some point prove irresistible, we recommend a . With both front and rear sensors, it’s the most comprehensive detector out there, not only telling you where to look but how many radar to look for. You’ll run rings around those speed traps.
Surprisingly—and perhaps alarmingly—we recommend that if you’re on a road trip with the family, those portable DVD/CD players and television sets should be left behind.
“There are lots of fine attributes to having a flat-screen DVD player, but the point of a road trip is for you to step out of your home experience,” explains Sedenquist.
Which doesn’t mean you can’t watch a DVD when you arrive at that night's lodging. Laptop computers are now such powerful multimedia packages that, coupled with the latest Wi-fi technology, you can download movies or music, play DVDs, and even make video calls on Skype without leaving the highway. Of all the machines out there we opted for the sturdiest of the lot: the latest Panasonic Toughbook CF 52, which is tested to withstand drops of up to 2.5 feet on all six sides, and also has a spill-proof keyboard.
The toughest choice of all though was deciding which GPS to bring. When Sedenquist started RoadTripAmerica.com, GPS were heavy, cumbersome devices. These days many cars have built-in systems, and there are now several portable models small enough to fit in your pocket. With its voice enabler and touch-screen interface, the Magellan RoadMate 700 is one of the best, but at up to $1,299 it’s expensive, while a portable Mio C710 Digiwalker has maps for all of North America and turn-by-turn voice directions. But we settled for the Garmin nüvi 350 that Deon Hug had with him in Midland. If it could direct him to the best steakhouse in a remote West Texas town, who are we to argue?
At the end of the day however technology does not a road trip make.
“GPS is not fool-proof,” says Sedenquist. “There’s no substitute for common sense, and it will be useful to be able to do something as old-fashioned as read a map.”
And open a bottle. What’s a road trip after all without a picnic in a field with a chilled glass of wine? By using a power inverter to convert from DC power to AC many serious road trippers—RV owners, say—take 12-volt refrigerators with them packed with wine, beer and food for a week. We suggest something more bucolic: a mobile Avalanche Picnic Cooler which is a cross between a cooler and a picnic basket—on wheels. It comes with plates, knives and a corkscrew, and is insulated to keep your wine and beer cold.
Cheers! And happy trails.