The Contradiction at the Heart of Road-Tripping

Thirteen ways to minimize your nature-loving drive’s cost to nature.

Photo by Mark Vanhoenacker

Summer is high time to hit the great American road. But in the age of climate change, how should the environmentally minded think about road trips?

Like many people, I’ve long been entranced by America’s liberation-by-asphalt leitmotif. America’s first transcontinental car journey—two dudes and a dog wearing goggles, today memorialized at the Smithsonian—took place in 1903. Since then the mythology of road trips has been fueled by Hollywood and gasoline, of course, but also by some of our highest-octane cultural themes: escape and discovery, the myth of emptiness and the beauty of the West, the idle conversations and contemplations that somehow depend on music, and miles of paved possibility running to a summer-blue horizon. Kerouac compared driving to sitting on a front porch—“only this is a moving porch and a porch to talk on at that.”

Photo courtesy Ken Lund/Flickr Creative Commons

Whatever our final destination (Walley World, my fellow Griswolds?), what we yearn to see from the America’s moving porch is nature. As Paul Theroux wrote, “it is in our nature as Americans to want to drive everywhere, even into the wilderness.” For many of us, our first sense of our country’s aesthetic and geographic dimensions comes from a motorized journey across it. In college I was paid to move a car from sea to shining sea—3,100 miles down just one highway, just one number. Absurdly, perhaps, I recall the hours on the road—and not just the short hikes I did along it—as my first glimpse of the natural, physical fact of America.

The irony of this American perspective—that we come to nature through the machine-made ability to see a lot of it quickly—was apparent long before climate change became an everyday topic. Both Kerouac and Steinbeck, high priests of the American road trip, lamented the environmental impact of America’s automobile culture. But for a variety of reasons—the quickening drumbeat of dire news from climate scientists, greater popular awareness of vehicle fuel economy, and the impact of climate change on some of the American regions most associated with the mythology of the open road—the contradiction at the heart of road-tripping looks increasingly stark.  

Photo by Lisa Larson-Walker

The simplest solution, of course, is not to road-trip at all. But road-trippers deliver cash and credibility to the parks, communities, and organizations that protect nature—and road-trippers, like all travelers, bring new sensibilities home from their travels. And it’s a big country. By definition, the better protected our grandest and most inspiring landscapes are, the more physically separated they are from the places we live.

Indeed, if we don’t come to nature in a car, most Americans won’t come to it at all. And neither will future nature-lovers and voters—i.e., kids. As Jesse Prentice-Dunn, a transportation analyst with the Sierra Club, put it to me, “We don’t want to discourage anyone from getting outside in nature, via car or any other means. That’s what makes folks want to protect it.”

Another option, then, is to accept the contradiction at the heart of motoring to nature, but do our best to make our road trip miles our greenest. Some of the ideas below on how to do that have clear environmental (and financial) payoffs. Others might raise your environmental consciousness more than your actual fuel economy. But what better souvenir to bring home from summer vacation?

Photo by Frank Kovalchek/Flickr Creative Commons

Slow down. Every car has a “best,” or most efficient, speed. The fuel costs for exceeding this speed are severe—and a reminder that the purpose of the 1970s’ now-quaint 55 mph speed limit was to conserve fuel. (Some Western states even issued “energy wastage” fines for speeding.) The best speed varies by car, but one rule of thumb is to drive the slowest speed in the highest gear. A simpler rule, if you drive like I tend to on an empty highway, is to slow down. According to data from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, if you accelerate from 50 mph to 80 mph—so easily done on empty Western byways as the foot grows heavy and the playlist fast—fuel economy can drop by a whopping 36 percent. Another way to look at it: Every “5 mph you drive over 50 mph is like paying an additional $0.24 per gallon for gas.” Of course, you shouldn’t drive so slowly that you disrupt traffic. But if there isn’t much traffic—and that’s partly why you’re here, right?—then why not enjoy the scenery you came so far to see?

Photo by Julien Taesch/Flickr Creative Commons

Pack light. An additional 100 pounds in the trunk can cut a car’s fuel economy by up to 2 percent (and if you’re flying to start your road trip, lighter bags will reduce your aircraft’s emissions, too). Note, too, that vacation-style rooftop cargo boxes can cut fuel economy by up to 25 percent.

Rent a fuel-efficient car. Most rental car companies don’t allow you to search specifically for fuel-efficient vehicles; some don’t even post typical fuel economy figures on the car selection page, though they often take a curious pride in itemizing such modern motoring accoutrements  as “power door locks” and “AM/FM radio.” Hertz, however, is one exception—the company will let you focus your search on its so-called Green Traveler Collection. Otherwise, stick to the common-sense rule that smaller cars—that well-named Economy category, for example—are typically more fuel-efficient.  

Photo courtesy Advantage Lendl/Flickr Creative Commons

Maybe make it a hybrid. Hertz, along with a few others, will confirm a hybrid rental, typically a Toyota Prius, at some locations. Hybrids are usually more expensive, but don’t forget the cold cash you’ll save on gas—perhaps $80 or more on a 1,000-mile road trip. And in areas where elevation changes are common—e.g. much of the American West—hybrids can be particularly efficient, according to Therese Langer, transportation program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.   

Rent a white car. Seriously. Students of climate change are familiar with albedo, the portion of light reflected by a surface—such as a Greenlandic ice sheet that melts faster because it’s darkened by fallout from distant, climate change-enhanced forest fires. Air conditioning is a major drag on a car’s fuel economy, and lighter-colored cars use less. According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory data, white cars get about 2 percent better fuel economy than black ones. So ask for a white or silver car, or rent from a company like National, which not only has some pretty green corporate credentials, but also allows some renters to choose from a line of waiting cars.

Photo by Lisa Larson-Walker

Don’t be idle. If you’re like me, you’ll be pulling over often—to take pictures, but also just to stand and marvel at distant, desolate horizons while tumbleweeds roll past. It used to be said it was more efficient to leave the engine running for a stop of less than a minute. But now the “crossover” time is measured in mere seconds. So when you stop, stop the engine. 

Be smart with AC. Park in the shade, leave the windows slightly ajar to reduce the huge AC load when you start up a baking-hot car, vent the worst of the heat through doors and windows before switching to AC, and set the AC to recirculate. And consider not using AC at all. First, driving with windows open feels great. Second, while open windows increase the drag on a vehicle, it’s typically more efficient than air conditioning at slower speeds. What speed, exactly? It depends on the car, but a typical cutoff for open windows is 45 mph.

Photo courtesy Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr Creative Commons

Consider a carbon offset. Carbon offsets are controversial. (People compare them to medieval indulgences.) Still, the car rental corporate siblings Alamo, Enterprise, and National allow you to flagellate your wallet (on the order of $1.25) to offset the emissions of a typical rental. Or you can offset your road (and air) miles yourself—start with this helpful guide from the Natural Resources Defense Council. You might also consider a “personal offset”—reducing emissions at home beforehand, to “earn” yourself a high-mileage road trip.

Minimize miles. For every A-list national park, there are probably a dozen fascinating preserves, wilderness areas, or state parks that you’ve never heard of, and that will be closer and less crowded than the next big national park a few hundred miles away. It’s also possible to minimize miles by focusing on historical road trips—many of which are relics from an earlier, lower-mileage age of automobiles, such as the Mohawk Trail in Massachusetts.


Photo by Basheer Tome/Flickr Creative Commons

Get a one-way car rental. Imagine that natural wonders and major airports are scattered at random across the landscape. How do you drive the fewest miles? It’s the road-tripper’s version of the traveling salesman problem. But open-jaw airline tickets and one-way car rentals mean you don’t have to finish where you started. And at least on that idealized, fictitious landscape, you’re likely to drive fewer miles if you can fly back from a different airport, according to Jack Levis, director of process management at UPS and one of the brains behind the logistics giant’s research into the venerable conundrum. Practically speaking, you’re probably not going to solve this one yourself—and of course, given the carbon emissions associated with flying, your total emissions will depend on where home is. But it’s fun food for thought, and for Google Maps.

Minimize driving within parks. Increasingly, national parks are adopting public transportation options to reduce congestion and pollution. Another option, once you’re in the vicinity of a park, is to switch to organized group tours. On a recent trip to Yellowstone, I came to really enjoy the balance between private driving to a park and several days of highly sociable, informative group excursions within it. Such tours can seem antithetical to the freedom and individualism associated with road trips. But the Sierra Club’s Prentice-Dunn notes an “attitude shift,” especially among younger drivers—perhaps a result of the sharing economy and less interest in driving generally. Not to mention, “It’s nice to look at scenery instead of sitting in gridlock.”

Photo by Mark Vanhoenacker

Make a study of climate change. Some climate change documentarians have traveled the American West (in their rental cars) to pose questions like “Will the West Survive?” It might, if awareness of climate change grows, especially among the young. So if you’re going to take a road trip anyway, maybe grab a great book on water and the American West (or two) on your way to see the bathtub rings on Lake Mead for yourself, or make a travelogue of Slate’s own recent tour of the climate-challenged West.

Be a pain. Not long ago a car rental agency offered me a free upgrade to a large SUV. A few years ago, I would have been grateful; this time I turned it down, largely because I didn’t want to pay for the increased gas consumption. Neil Abrams, a consultant to the rental car industry, told me that’s an increasingly common tale. Abrams added that rental car agencies watch both gas prices and consumer behavior—and that because agencies buy so many cars and replace them so often, consumer demands and complaints can have a surprisingly quick impact. So demand your white, carbon-offset hybrid, and eventually ye shall receive.

Photo courtesy Daniel D’Auria/Flickr Creative Commons

Of course, even the greenest road trip will result in emissions that weren’t strictly necessary. And even if our vacation dollars underwrite the culture, business, and politics of environmental preservation, the tangled question at the heart of these curious miles—whether they’re the most hypocritical an environmentalist will drive, or the most purposeful, or somehow both—won’t be settled soon. Until it is, the dilemma shouldn’t be the enemy of the many small possible improvements. For now at least, let’s recognize that in America it’s our nature to come to our nature this way. Let’s step—or roll—as carefully as we can.