What I Learned on My Summer Vacation: Traveling Cross Country for a SUP Race

Traveling Cross Country to Race

Why on earth would anyone want to load up a 14 foot downwinding board on top of a Honda Element and drive over 2,400 miles for a paddle race?

One word: Adventure!

After the Mullet did it last year, towing a trailer with a crap-ton of outrigger canoes, I got inspired.  Well, by that and seeing April Zilg all kitted out in her “Creeper Van” and spending the time between the Gorge Downwind Championships and the Gorge Paddle Challenge camping in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge. I had never driven across this beautiful nation of ours, so why not?

The wheels started turning

The hashtag VanLife kept popping up in my brain.  I thought about a Sprinter or Transit van but knowing I would be flying solo most of the time, the size of both those vehicles seemed unmanageable. I just couldn’t see trying to get OCs, a surfski and boards up on top of such a tall rig by myself. Then there was the potential for mechanicals.  Finding a qualified Mercedes dealer might not always be easy. Then of course, there’s the expense. Those vans are not cheap.

That’s when the idea of the Honda Element was hatched. More manageable on oh so many levels, easier to find a Honda mechanic and just the general reliability of Honda products. But, finding one in good condition was about as easy as finding good surf in North Carolina. Honda quit making the boxy, toaster shaped uber utilitarian SUV in 2011.  Enter Jef, The amazing local car finder and it wasn’t long before my own Adventure Toaster was sitting in my driveway.

I quickly got on the wait list for Asheville, NC’s Fifth Element’s modular micro-camper build but my number didn’t come up until right after I got back from the Gorge. I improvised by building a simple sleeping platform with rudimentary storage underneath, buying a pricey but effective Dometic 35 cooler, some solar panels and LED lighting and away I went.

It was an amazing experience!

The first part of the trip – Raleigh, NC to Hood River, OR was solo. On the return trip I was joined by a friend who road with me as far as Memphis. And that was perfect. I only had one “Oh my God what am I doing??!!!” Freak out moment, and that was when car tire pressure dropped way low and I started worrying about every little noise and knock I heard coming from my 2008 Element with 114K miles on her. That said, while I thoroughly enjoyed the solo experience, I was more than grateful to have Angie along for the return ride.

So, here are my takeaways from the SUP cross country expedition, in case you ever want to do one yourself.

  1. Having a race as your primary destination is a great way to focus your trip but it can limit your itinerary. Knowing I had to be in Hood River by a certain day kept me on track and was a good motivator, but it also meant I had less time on the way out to explore if I was so inclined. So build in plenty of extra time if you are not going to power drive straight through to your race venue. As a result, I brought gear I never used and had food I never ate.
  2. Plan ahead, but be flexible. While I had great intentions of paddling and mountain biking and fishing in cool spots all along the way, things like driving fatigue and weather interfered. As well as spontaneous availability of camp sites in certain areas. This is especially the case in the Midwest, where I found getting a campsite at a state park without an advanced reservation near impossible.
  3. Do bag your boards and use extra straps. A horse trailer in front of me somewhere between St. Louis and Lincoln, NB had a flat tire and hard pieces of rubber were flying everywhere. One hit my windshield and knocked off a plastic piece of trim. That could have been a horrific ding had my board not been in its bag. Use extra straps and check them often!! That’s precious cargo up there!
  4. Use Atlas Obscura. This web compendium of historic and bizarre Americana was my constant companion. Every night before going to bed, I’d scan AO to see what whacky or tacky roadside attraction I might be passing by on my net day’s route.  As a result, I got to see the highest spot in Nebraska, the memorial to Jim the Wonder Dog, the Donner Reed Museum, the world’s tallest taxidermy polar bear, the world’s largest man-made pit and of course, the world’s largest fork.
  5. Really focus in on the activities and/or places you want to do and go.  I took my mountain bike and it never came off the top of the car. I wanted to take an inflatable but I really couldn’t make room for it.  The fishing gear never came out of the tackle box. In hindsight, I could have left half the camping gear I took at home and would have had plenty of room from the inflatable. But then I ran out of time. But, that gets back to Point #2  – be flexible. Trying to work of a schedule and hit everything would have taken the organic, spontaneous fun out of some of the trip, for sure.
  6. Make sure you really, really, really give yourself enough time.  Next time I do a trip like this, I will move heaven and earth to have at least another week (I was gone for not quite three) so that I can get in more paddling, or mountain biking or fishing. Otherwise, I would just stay camped longer in Hood River (or the whatever race destination) and paddle exclusively in that area.
  7. Kansas is everything everyone says it is. But the people there are soooooo nice.

I guess what all this boils down to is that my initial plan  – all the things I would do along the way – was just too ambitious. You think you have more time than you do.  You think that you might never have the opportunity to pass through these places again, so you want to do it all.  Next time, I will know better.

Having an adventure vehicle set up for camping or Boondocking at races is a fantastic way to enhance your experience. And it’s fantastic for crafting non-racing paddle exploration. It’s opened up a whole new world for me, for sure!


You can listen to Lisa’s podcast of her cross country trip to the Gorge Paddle Challenge here.