In April 2016, Brad Schinkel and Josh Pickles decided to fulfil their long-held dream of driving from their hometown of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada across North America to Los Angeles, California. The rule: no hotels, only camping or couchsurfing along the way.
The pair filmed their epic three-week trip and have turned it into feature length documentary In Tents: Road Trip. We caught up with Brad to talk about the adventure.
What inspired you to take the three-week road trip that turned into In Tents?
I had recently found myself without work, and Josh had a month off between jobs. I had just finished reading the book Into the Wild (by Jon Krakauer), and since I was a teenager I had always wanted to hop in a car and head to California, but things like school and work always stood in the way. With both of us in our late 20s and some free time, we figured it was the right time to go do something different, and so we started planning our trip.
How much did you plan your route and camping/couch surfing spots before setting out?
Everything was really well planned out. Our original plan was to follow the legendary Route 66 from Chicago down to Las Vegas where we would then head to northern California, but Josh suggested a place called Arches in Utah, which he remembered from a video game in the ‘90s. We saw that heading to Utah would take us way off our course along Route 66, so we re-planned everything and ended up heading west across the Great Plains through Colorado and then south to Utah, Arizona and so on.
Once we had our route planned, and what places we wanted to visit, we determined where we could camp without it being too cold, and where we would need to find accommodation. AirBNB was an option, but we were trying not to spend a whole lot of money on the road. This eventually lead us to Couchsurfing.com, which turned out to be the best possible method to find somewhere to crash, and to meet random like-minded people all over the United States.
Was the plan always to film the trip and turn it into a documentary? What are you hoping to achieve with In Tents?
Not entirely. We had the cameras with us with the goal of making some kind of film documenting our trip, but ultimately it was only going to be for us and our families to see once we got back. As we went through our first day on the road the ideas started flowing and it was decided that we would make a fun travel film that would appeal to a much wider audience. Josh and I had made a really bad film in 2012 also called In Tents that followed a 5-day camping trip with eight other guys who were more or less out for a week of binge drinking. Amazingly that film got quite a few views online. As we were driving Josh and I decided maybe we can continue with that sort of style of film, but more mature.
The goal for In Tents going forward would be to develop it as a proper series. We have no intention of abandoning the style of filmmaking; we just want to make it bigger and better. We have some ideas flowing.
What is it about North America, and more specifically the USA, that makes it such an enduring road trip destination?
North America is such a vast and wide-open place, yet there are so many people wherever you go, and so many things to see. You can always find a good place to camp and see something totally new.
Though Canada is incredibly beautiful, so much of it is completely inaccessible or way too far north. Someday we would love to do this sort of trip across our own country, but we decided on this trip we wanted to spend some time in the United States, especially before the 2016 presidential election occurred, since we both had an inkling of what may happen.
Driving through the United States on a road trip is almost a quintessential part of life in North America.
In the film’s description you say that during the trip you ‘discovered the true beauty of North America and its residents.’ Can you tell us a little more about that? Does a particular example come to mind?
Oftentimes when you think of America, things like pickup truck-driving gun-wielding rednecks come to mind, but when you actually visit and spend time with people there, you learn that most people are really decent human beings and don’t fall in line with the stereotypes.
In Colorado we met a couple and got to stay on their ranch at the top of a mountain where these people more or less live off the land. They hunt deer and elk, catch fish, have chickens and grow their own veggies. It’s something you see in the movies, but just incredible to experience in real life.
Do you have a favourite moment or memory from the trip?
So many things stand out. I think probably some of the views through Utah and Arizona stand out, the stunning rock formations. Standing on a cliff looking out over a vast landscape while rays of light burst through the cloud cover. I’ve always found the desert to be such an enthralling place, so desolate yet incredibly vibrant and full of life. The drives through twisting mountain roads and of course the Pacific Coast Highway really stick out too.
How easy and safe is it to camp and couch surf across North America? Couch surfing particularly is something travellers might feel wary about.
Camping can be fairly straightforward but tough at times as well. Most of the time you can’t really book sites in advance in certain places, so you need to arrive early to get a spot to camp. Once you set up, at times there isn’t a person to pay and get your permit, so you merely fill out a piece of paper with you car information on it, and slip it into a box so the police can check to see you are parked legally. You put a few dollars in the box too and go on your way.
The one issue we ran into when camping was at the Grand Canyon. We had everything planned out, but didn’t bother to look at the weather. You’d assume that since the Grand Canyon is in the desert in Arizona that it would be warm by mid-April. But because the top of the canyon is so high up it’s actually incredibly cold. To put it into perspective, you’re basically as high as average clouds hang, over a mile above sea level. When we arrived it was going to be one degree Celsius and raining. The Grand Canyon was the one place we had actually paid and booked a campsite in advance, but we found ourselves frantically trying to find a place to stay since we didn’t have the proper clothing to camp in near-freezing temperatures.
Couchsurfing proved to be our greatest ally on this trip. At first I found the idea a tad dodgy. How could staying at some random person’s house possibly be safe? I did some research and learned it was incredibly safe and seemed like a great way to travel. There are people all over the world you can stay with and it doesn’t cost a dime. We ran into no issues and met a number of really awesome people whom we are still in contact with now.
It’s against the rules to offer any money, but you can bring gifts. We brought some maple syrup, some Canadian beer, and I made small inukshuks (an inuit rock statue that is used in the far north to help others navigate and show that someone has been there) for each of our hosts.
What are your plans for the future of In Tents?
We’re hoping to turn In Tents into a proper TV series and have a trip sort of sketched out for our next trip which will be through Australia for six weeks. We are seeking funding partners to help make the show better and get things moving for a proper series.
What advice would you give to young travellers planning a similar road trip?
Always plan in advance, and don’t plan on spending too much time in the car each day (12 hours at most), and try to arrive at your destination before dark if you can. Always keep lots of change and a decent amount of cash at hand since there are road tolls in bigger cities. Learn to read a physical map. GPS systems can fail or may be out of date, so keeping a real map of your destinations is key, and will help you figure out more efficient routes, or maybe point out things you’ll want to see along the road. Knowing how to change a tire or perform basic vehicle maintenance is helpful too. If you’re in the middle of the desert and your tire blows you’re not going to want to wait several hours for a tow.
Most of all, have fun. Don’t hold onto grudges as arguments tend to happen when you’re in a car for three weeks with one person, but just move on and have a blast!