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I Make My Living by Road-Tripping America—Here’s What I Never Travel Without

As my career neared its end, taking up life in a retirement community didn't interest me. I wondered what it'd be like to live in an RV for a while and see America. Little did I know that, four years later, I'd have road-tripped 34 states, Western Canada, and over 54,000 miles, with no end in sight—or that I would keep earning a living while having the retirement of my dreams.

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road tripCourtesy Denise Barlock

No job, but I still make money

A pension from my 34-year career at IBM helps make this lifestyle possible, but my partner Dave and I supplement our incomes through licensing our photography, doing drone imaging, and blogging. I’m a Level 10 Local Guide with Google Maps, after contributing over 1,300 detailed reviews and over 12,000 photos shared during our journey, for a combined 103 million views. We stay put for roughly a month in every place we visit, so I prefer to think of our lifestyle as “mobile living” rather than camping. Every new destination means a learning curve—from where to eat and shop through to activities available nearby. By using Google Maps for others’ location reviews and photos, we leverage menu prices and other costs to keep us on-budget. Having multiple income sources keeps us rolling, but this lifestyle means using the right road trip apps and gear. Find out what it’s really like to live in an RV year-round and how to plan the best road trip possible with an American road trip guide.

Note: Prices listed were accurate as of press time; pricing fluctuations may occur.

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road tripCourtesy Denise Barlock

Google Maps gets us there

Google Maps is indispensable for us, especially during COVID-19 times since many businesses have updated info on their hours and procedures. With the best routes to take, low gas prices, and keeping track of all the places we’ve been, Google Maps is loaded with resourceful information and reviews that improve our RV-based lifestyle. While it’s great to avoid disappointing eateries and other businesses, my passion is helping small businesses get exposure, and helping future visitors find great experiences. Plus, we can download maps and accompanying business info for offline use, which has been critical for journeys through the backcountry in the Lower 48, where Internet access may be lacking, and even on our trip up to Alaska.

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road tripCourtesy Denise Barlock

Have Mi-Fi, will travel


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Internet is everything in this lifestyle and weak or non-existent connections are common, which can mean we have to talk to locals to find out where a signal is. You must understand your data package’s limitations and must do your research to ensure Wi-Fi is available, so you avoid the surprise we had in discovering our Yosemite campsite didn’t even have cell coverage, let alone data. In these instances, my cell package combined with a Mi-Fi device can mean getting online with my laptop or tablet. This Verizon Wireless unit has been my salvation so often, but technology improves constantly, so other models might suit your needs better. Find out the 12 unspoken rules of RV etiquette.

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Courtesy Denise Barlock

Saved by the cell strap


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A shock-proof case is fantastic for cell phones when you have a habit of dropping them, but I find not dropping my cell phone is even better! By wearing my cell phone around my neck, I’ve put an end to some of my costly cell phone disasters, like the time I dropped it just in time for a car to drive over it in the Joshua Tree National Park, or when I watched in horror in Alaska as the phone’s screen shattered when it fell on sharp rocks. With my cell around my neck on this Gear Beast cord, it’s still quickly reached for snapping fleeting wildlife shots or quickly referencing Google Maps while walking some trails. Discover the best RV park in every state and how to find free camping in the U.S.

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road tripCourtesy Denise Barlock

Stay charged with a battery charger


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The digital era means everything needs a power source, but when you’re on the road, that’s not always the easiest thing to do. Location-independent people like Dave and myself often consider our back up battery chargers to be one of our road trip essentials, since our Mi-Fi unit needs power too. This RAVPower Store solar-powered battery charger can be plugged in for quicker charging, but having the solar option is great when we can just leave it on the dashboard to charge while we’re heading to a new spot. Be sure you get a high-capacity charger so it has enough juice to charge more than just one phone.

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roadtrip sticks walkingCourtesy Denise Barlock

Walk better with sticks


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Search-and-rescue teams use walking sticks because they’re proven to take the strain off knees and ankles while providing extra support for balancing on wobbly trails and tough terrain. I love these Cascade Mountain walking sticks because they’re incredibly light, strong, and versatile, including adjustable height clamping locks. Every ounce counts when you’re packing gear into the back-country, so pay more now to suffer less, later, by buying the lightest sticks. The cork hand grips on this pair make it comfortable for long days spent on trails. They come in handy no matter what type of daytrip you plan.

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soft coolersCourtesy Denise Barlock

Travel better with soft coolers


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When living in an RV, being able to pack things away easily makes the difference between loving life and losing your sanity, and that’s why we love soft coolers. In fact, I think soft coolers are so important that we have two of these AO Coolers—one for when we’re kayaking, because it’s waterproof and sits flat, and one for when we’re exploring or day-tripping in our Jeep. We’re also often camped well outside of towns, so traveling an hour with perishables means needing the Jeep’s cooler on shopping days too. Don’t forget to pack these best road trip snacks when planning your own trip.

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binocularsCourtesy Denise Barlock

See more with binoculars


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Frequently on my travels, wildlife and stunning scenery is distant and difficult to see with the naked eye. Being blessed to travel to far-flung wildernesses in Alaska, national treasures like Yellowstone or even just strolling an Oregon beach can mean I enjoy the opportunity to see things in their natural habitats. Having a spotting scope or binoculars, like these from Vortex, lets me see them from afar without struggling to get nearer. Often, with animals like bears, moose, and mountain lions, getting near is unsafe, since even Usain Bolt couldn’t outrun a bear. With binoculars, staying safe is easy.

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blue tooth speakersCourtesy Denise Barlock

Keep humming with Bluetooth speakers


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The JBL Bluetooth speaker gives me streamed audio when I can be 30 feet away from my phone, laptop, or tablet. With one charge lasting around 20 hours, it means I’m always enjoying music. But not all Bluetooth speakers are created equally, so be careful of investing in one without ensuring you like the sound quality. I love the bass tones and sound generated by the JBL, but I think its dust-proof and waterproof casing while weighing under two pounds makes it perfect for our outdoors and mobile lifestyle. It’s also a great speakerphone for sharing our family calls with Dave. Something else you can use these for? The best audiobooks to listen to on a road trip.

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water bags road trip adventure Courtesy Denise BarlockCourtesy Denise Barlock

Use waterproof bags for adventures


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When living a mobile life, there’s always an end date for your adventure, and we’d hate for our trips to suffer just because the rain’s come out. Over time, we’ve learned that a transparent waterproof bag is the best bet to outlasting bad weather when we’re out exploring together. Think of it as a giant zipper-sealed bag for your electronics and other valuables. Get at least a 20-liter bag, because you can always roll up the excess bag at the top, but you’ll want some space for air, so the bag can float if your kayak capsizes or you’re swimming to a little island offshore.

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fixing car tool kitCourtesy Denise Barlock

Make on-the-go repairs with a toolkit


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No matter how nice we are to “Maggie,” our RV, things break—often. That’s just the reality of being mobile to the tune of 12,000-plus-miles every year, and that doesn’t include what we put on the Jeep. A complete mechanic’s toolkit like this one from Craftsman helps us stay on top of maintenance without having to bankroll repair shops along the way. Hand tools are important, but we also have power tools on hand too. Be sure you keep them charged up before storing them away, since the last thing you need is a dead battery when you need your drill to get out of a jam at a campsite. If you need to rent a car, here are the best rental car options for a road trip.

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bugsCourtesy Denise Barlock

Don’t let bugs bug you

$4.97 for 12

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Living the mobile life means experiencing a whole lot of backcountry, and with the great outdoors come bugs. I know from experience how hit-and-miss spray-on bug repellent can be, so I’ve become a big fan of towelette-repellent products, like DEET-containing towelettes by Off! While DEET is proven to be the most effective repellent against mosquitoes, not everyone wants to wear it all the time, so that’s when I turn to Avon’s Skin-so-Soft line of towelettes. Both products allow me to be sure I’ve covered my skin sufficiently to avoid those pesky skeeters and black flies. When you’re staying home, consider one of these 13 best bug zappers.

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Fur-proof your RVCourtesy Denise Barlock

Fur-proof your RV


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Our traveling sideshow wouldn’t be the same without our puppers, Harley and Bandit. Whether we’re out on a picnic or just lounging under our RV canopy, our waterproof and dirt-proof blankets from Camco are easy to shake off and put away. For Harley and Bandit, they’ve got a spot to snooze the day away without shedding all over it or transferring dirt onto it. Lightweight and easy-to-clean, the polypropylene weave is mildew-resistant and hard-wearing for our active lifestyle. I love how this one has built-in handles and straps so it folds up for easy carrying or storing. Find out everything else you need for a successful road trip with your dog.

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