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8 Easy Ways to Make Your Next Road Trip Greener

By Maggie Fuller

Apr 22, 2020

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Help keep places like California’s coast beautiful by driving a little more sustainably.

Photo by Shutterstock

Help keep places like California’s coast beautiful by driving a little more sustainably.

These eco-friendly tips and tricks will help you reduce your carbon footprint and travel more sustainably.

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With most of the population grounded for the foreseeable future, we’ve found ourselves thinking more and more of the open road, of long, lonely stretches of highway flanked by rolling fields or craggy mountains, of rolling down the windows and cranking up our favorite playlists. We’re looking forward to those weekend getaways and favorite road trips that will give us a taste of travel again, hopefully sooner rather than later. 

But the COVID-19 pandemic also has us thinking more about sustainable travel. Air travel always gets the blame for the industry’s carbon emissions, but as AFAR’s Michelle Baran previously reported, cars can sometimes be even worse for the environment than flying. Each gallon of gasoline creates 20 pounds of greenhouse gases as it burns. According to Terrapass, a carbon offsetting platform, it would take three newly planted trees 10 years of growth to balance an average road trip of 261 miles. 

These stats, though sobering, are no reason to stay home. With these easy ways to reduce your carbon and travel more sustainably, your next road trip can be an eco-friendly one.

Go electric

In 2018, AFAR’s Aislyn Greene declared that the future of the Great American Road Trip is electric—a statement that still rings true today. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a hybrid car can reduce your carbon emissions by 51 percent, and an electric car can bring those down even farther—a reduction of 64 percent.

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If you don’t own an electric or hybrid vehicle, consider renting one for multi-day road trips. Surprisingly, the rates can be comparable to a standard car rental, though it can be tough to find one through a traditional rental service. Consider checking with local electric car dealerships, like Toyota, which sometimes provide rentals, or use a car-sharing service like Outdoorsy. The booking platform lists a few energy-efficient cars, some of which have fun extras you wouldn’t find in standard rentals, such as this Tesla, which is available in Long Beach, California, and comes with a custom-fitted air mattress, for any car campers. (Outdoorsy is still operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.) In Seattle, Washington, Peace Vans will be renting an electric vintage VW van starting in May 2020. 

Make sure your car is in shipshape

Before you hit the road, take your car for an inspection. Be sure you don’t have dirty air filters, leaks, or under-inflated tires: Not only is a poorly maintained car dangerous, but a well-tuned one also can improve your gas mileage as much as 4 percent.

Plan your route carefully

Sometimes, the best parts of a road trip are the detours. But you can cut down on your gas use by eliminating any unnecessary backtracking. In addition to planning your stops and points of interest along your route, map out charging stations or gas stations and bathrooms. You might also want to mark recycling centers, so you can properly dispose of any bottles or cans you might have, since not all towns have recycling services. 

The Best Tools for Planning a Road Trip

Pack light . . .

A heavy car is not an efficient car. Experts at Ford Motor Company tell AFAR that carrying around an extra 100 pounds can decrease your mileage by up to 4 percent. And using roof storage makes things even worse because it interferes with your car’s aerodynamics; the resulting drag can reduce your overall fuel efficiency up to 25 percent. Leave the roof rack at home. 

. . . but pack smart

Reusable water bottles have become a travel necessity, but you might want to bring a water jug along, as well, to refill those reusable mugs and bottles. It’s all too easy to find yourself out of water three hours into a trip and grabbing a bottle of water from the gas station because refilling from the bathroom tap just seems unsanitary. If you’re traveling in rural or remote areas, we like the slim Reliance Jumbo-Tainer, which holds seven gallons but doesn’t take up too much space in the trunk. 

Buy now: Reliance Jumbo-Tainer $20, rei.com

If you’ll have regular opportunities to refill your backups, toss a 64-ounce Hydroflask (or two) in the backseat.

Buy now: $65, hydroflask.com

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While you’re at it, ditch the crinkly gas station bags of potato chips and bring your own snacks using resuable containers like Stasher zip-top silicone bags instead. If you’re planning on packing a picnic, the Yeti Hopper M30 soft cooler squishes nicely into the space between the console and the back seat. And with the magentic opening, it’s easier to access the treats inside than it is with a zippered cooler. (Want to build a zero-waste travel kit? Kathryn Kellogg, author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste, shared a few of her favorite products with AFAR.)

Buy now: Stasher Reusable Silicone Sandwich Bag, $12, rei.com; Hopper M30, $300, yeti.com

Save Oceans as You Shop These Sustainable Products Made From Recycled Waste

Drive strategically 

It’s not just about what you drive: how you drive can also lower your carbon emissions. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, fast, aggressive driving with lots of acceleration and braking can raise your gas mileage by between 30 and 40 percent. Drive more calmly and whenever possible, use cruise control, which allows for efficient, steady gas use.

Experts at Ford Motor Company also tell us that you should avoid using air-conditioning at lower speeds. However, at 55 miles per hour or higher, using the A/C is preferable to open windows for two reasons: Your vehicle has lower wind resistance with the windows closed, and the engine makes more power at higher speeds, so it’s able to run accessories like the A/C compressor more efficiently.

Eat local

Food waste creates huge amounts of carbon—some 8 to 10 percent of the global total. Skip the chain restaurants and drive-throughs, tempting as they are, and opt for smaller establishments, which tend to waste less and source locally, which is also more sustainable. 

Offset your trip

Right now, it’s far more important that we reduce our carbon outputs than it is that we simply offset them. And offsets get plenty of criticism—they’re sort of like begging for forgiveness rather than asking for permission. But if you’ve followed a few tips above and done the work of reducing your emissions, offsetting the rest is exactly what you should be doing. Check out AFAR’s guide to everything you need to know about carbon offsets to find out how. 

>>Next: The Scenic Route—A Guide to the World’s Best Road Trips

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