With more than 30,000 crags in the U.S., according to the Access Fund—not counting the drivable stone meccas of Mexico and Canada—where do you even start? With thousands of miles under his belt, Ethan Pringle has earned the status of Road Warrior on trips ranging from cross-country sending sprees to one that ended with his partner getting airlifted out of Yosemite after a bad scrambling fall (“She ended up being OK!”). In summer 2019, Pringle teamed up with Anna Liina Laitinen, an expert European road tripper, to visit some of the lesser-known crags on the northern coast of his home state of California. Pringle and Laitinen compiled their best road-tripping advice for how to plan and take the quintessential climbing road trip, whether you’re car camping with a hand-me-down tent from your mom’s college years or ballin’ out in a #vanlife-worthy Sprinter.
Once you’ve decided on an area, consider ordering the guidebook online. They are a plethora of thoroughly researched and fact-checked information compiled by a knowledgeable local (unlike Mountain Project’s crowd-sourced platform). You can plan where to stay, eat, and spend rest days beforehand. Plus, having the guidebook in hand is like having a guaranteed psych amplifier every time you open the book in the days leading up to your trip. Pringle also suggests reaching out to actual humans via social media. “People can give you tips or beta that might have been left out of a guidebook, or point you toward new areas,” he says.
Whether you’re in a tent or a van, make sure to have at least two options for places to camp or park. If there are nearby campgrounds, see if you can reserve online or call ahead of time. Popular areas are often completely booked six months in advance. If the campgrounds are first come-first serve, get there as early as possible—head to the campground before you go out climbing for the day. BLM and National Forest land usually offer free camping, unless posted otherwise. If you’re in a van, have a list of ideas for where you can park and for how long. With so many vanlifers these days, sleeping in a vehicle is not so stealthy anymore. There’s nothing worse than finishing a long day of climbing and driving around in circles looking for a place to crash.
Be thoughtful about what gear you bring, but don’t pack so light that you end up like Laitinen on another road trip she took to Rifle, Colorado. It started out by getting pulled over by an officer for speeding. Then they realized they had forgotten water, and all the propane tanks were empty. Her climbing partner didn’t have a harness, nobody packed quickdraws, and they had left their sleeping bags and tents at home. “I guess we were so psyched about climbing, we forgot everything,” she says. It’s a good idea to pack all the gear you might need for your intended climbing, whether it’s a sextuplet Indian Creek rack or a crashpad and a pair of shoes. The more versatile your gear, the more versatile the climbing you can do without having to make any big, unexpected purchases.
While well-known areas like Squamish and the Red River Gorge are world-class for a reason, Pringle recommends seeking out the more obscure areas in between. Not only will there be fewer people at the crags, there’s also a better chance of having a quiet, secluded outdoor experience. When Pringle and Laitinen visited coastal crags near Crescent City, California, Laitinen experienced the quiet side of California. “It was awesome to climb in a remote area; I got to see a bear and seals,” she says. “We had long climbing days on an astonishing oceanside crag with mind-blowing sunsets everyday.” Once you have a loose plan, know that you’ll most likely end up changing it on the fly. You might have unexpected bad weather, or you might just get psyched on another area in the midst of your travels. As long as you’re willing to go with the flow, you’ll have a great time. (Bad weather days are also the perfect time to check out a nearby climbing gym.)
Nutrition on a road trip can be difficult, especially if you’re on an all-day drive where the only food options seem to come on buffet tables or in greasy bags. Stock up at grocery stores, plan to cook simple meals like you would at home, and carry healthy snacks to the crag. “It’s easy to change your food habits and spoil yourself when you’re on a trip,” Laitinen says, “but I try to eat the same way as I would at home.” She keeps snacks like baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers near her, and she drinks plenty of water. She says those cravings for unhealthy snacks often come when you’re thirsty or tired. “Avoid fast carbs and eat protein instead; it keeps you fuller longer,” she says. Pringle’s favorite snacks are sugar snap peas, carrots, and homemade sandwiches with lots of veggies and protein. While he does indulge on unhealthy gas station snacks occasionally, sticking to healthy options like nuts and coconut water is ideal.