Not long ago, two of my close friends packed their car for an 800-mile road trip. They loaded their daughter into her car seat, turned on their favorite music, and stocked up on their go-to snacks. It was just like the many other occasions they’d spent driving from their current home in California to their hometown in Utah. Except for one thing — this time, instead of driving their old, gold Toyota, they were going to ride in their brand-new Tesla. They had waited more than a year to receive their electric car, and at long last, it had arrived.

When I saw my friends at a holiday party in Utah, I couldn’t help but notice the Tesla parked outside. I asked about their road trip, and without hesitation, they told me that it had been a dream.

As someone who has driven that same route several times, I can tell you that northern Nevada doesn’t boast many big cities. Ever heard of Winnemucca or Elko? How about Wells? I didn’t think so. In these desert towns, the gas stations and convenience stores are the main attractions. But, to my surprise, my friends told me that they had absolutely no problem finding places to recharge their new car. Their road trip hadn’t just been environmentally friendly; it had also been easy.

An open road in Utah
Photo by Jesse Echevarria

We can’t all afford electric vehicles, and even if we could, there’s no telling how long we’d have to wait to finally drive them. But we can all find ways to treat the planet more kindly during our road trips.

Around the world, people are buying more and more cars than they did in the past, and they’re driving those cars farther and farther than they used to. These trends mean that greenhouse gas emissions are steadily increasing worldwide, so it’s high time for road-trippers to shrink their carbon footprints.

These eco-friendly, easy-to-implement ideas will get you off to a good start (and they’ll help you save money on gas, too). See ya on the road!

Driving near the coast during an eco-friendly road trip
Photo by Weyne Yew

Choose your racer

It almost goes without saying, but it’s important to embark on your road trip in a fuel-efficient vehicle. If you’re traveling with friends, consider all of the cars available to the group, and select the one with the highest gas mileage. You can even use a side-by-side fuel economy calculator to find the best vehicle for the job.

On a similar note, large groups should drive as few cars as possible to their final destination. While you may be tempted to take two automobiles on your road trip, especially if you have a lot of luggage or feel worried about legroom, loading everything into one car is significantly better for the environment. After all, even one large vehicle generates much less pollution than two small ones.

Before you leave, make sure that your car is up to scratch by taking advantage of the free inspections that many mechanics offer. This won’t just guarantee your vehicle’s safety; it will also bolster its fuel efficiency, since factors like tire pressure, air filter quality, and oil levels will affect your gas mileage throughout the trip.

Driving through the desert during an eco-friendly road trip
Photo by Thibaut Buccellato

On your mark, get set…

After getting the car squared away, you should give some thought to what (and how) you’ll pack. The heavier your car, the worse your gas mileage will be, so it’s best to bring only the essentials. But don’t try to stuff those items into a rooftop cargo box — the bulky addition will increase your drag and lower your fuel efficiency, ultimately hurting your wallet and the environment. For best results, pack light and keep your things in the car’s cabin or trunk.

Most road trips have a designated navigator (or at least a virtual assistant intoning the upcoming turns from a smartphone), and this role plays a crucial part in keeping each trip eco-friendly. Think of it this way: if you always know where you are, it’s much easier to avoid unnecessary backtracking. So, to save time, miles, gasoline, and headaches, plan your route in advance, choose a friend who’s good with directions, and put that person in charge of navigation.

Of course, no road trip would be complete without food, so you’re not really ready to go until you’ve packed a tasty treat or two. But since packaged food can hurt your health and the environment, you may want to opt for natural foods and homemade snacks. By choosing options like fruits, vegetables, nuts, granola, and trail mix, you’ll feel healthier (which, let’s face it, isn’t exactly a given when you’re sitting in the car for several hours at a time), generate less waste, and lower your overall carbon footprint.

On the subject of food and drink, it’s a good idea to bring reusable bottles and refill your water at visitor centers, rest stops, and state parks. (Bonus points to the eco-friendly travelers who stash reusable utensils and canvas bags in their glove compartments, too.)

You’re almost ready to go, but there’s one last step you can take before hitting the road: walk around your home and unplug your appliances. No one’s going to use your TV or toaster while you’re gone, so there’s no reason to pay for the extra electricity or waste the energy.

An eco-friendly road trip through the mountains
Photo by Zach Miles

Go!

Once you’re on the road, the adventure can really begin. Tune into your favorite podcasts, hit shuffle on your pre-made playlist, swap stories with your friends, and keep an eye out for interesting cars, landmarks, and small towns. Road trips are supposed to be fun; an eco-friendly one shouldn’t be an exception.

The driver’s work isn’t done quite yet, though. If possible, use cruise control once you get on the freeway, or at least avoid sharp braking and accelerating. Remember, your journey will be much more fuel-efficient if you maintain a consistent speed.

If it’s hot outside, you’ll probably want to blast the air conditioning. But unfortunately, most in-vehicle air conditioning systems use ozone-depleting refrigerants and greenhouse gases to keep cars cool (although newer models do rely on eco-friendly alternatives). With that in mind, it’s best to keep the AC on low while you’re on the interstate and simply crack the windows while you’re in the city.

When it’s time to pull over for a meal, you should choose sustainable restaurants instead of fast-food chains. Not only will this allow you to enjoy yummier food and experience the local cuisine, but it will also take a lighter toll on the environment, since these restaurants usually source their packaging and produce more responsibly, donate uneaten food and compost waste, and use energy-saving equipment and practices, among other things. If you need help scouting the perfect lunch spot, download an app like Greenease, which stores a database of farm-to-fork restaurants in several major U.S. cities.

Driving through California during an eco-friendly road trip
Photo by Oliver Plattner

Key takeaways

All too often, travelers rationalize their environmentally harmful behavior by believing that one person can’t make a difference. But every action has an effect, and when taken together with everyone else’s daily decisions, our individual actions have a major influence on the planet. Luckily, it takes just a little preparation and creativity for travelers to minimize their impact while on the road.

It hopefully won’t require too much effort to implement these road-tripping tips. They shouldn’t take away from your experience, but they will make your journey more eco-friendly.

To summarize —

Before you go:

  • Choose a fuel-efficient car, and take it to a mechanic for a pre-trip inspection
  • Pack light, and don’t use a rooftop cargo box
  • Plan your route in advance
  • Choose natural snacks and bring reusable water bottles, utensils, and shopping bags
  • Unplug your home appliances

On the road:

  • Use cruise control, and avoid sharp braking and accelerating
  • Turn the AC off, or at least keep it on low
  • Eat at sustainable restaurants

Looking for some destination inspiration? Check out our guide to the best road trips in the world. And if you’d like to share any additional advice for eco-friendly road-tripping, sound off in the comments below!

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Whitney Brown
Whitney Brown is a recent journalism graduate and travel writer based in Utah. She has lived in France and Ireland, and she's always planning her next big adventure. In addition to her passion for travel, Whitney loves archaeology, photography and floral design.