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How to plan a total solar eclipse road trip

A total solar eclipse will be viewable from coast to coast for the first time in 99 years. Rooms are basically sold out, but that doesn't mean you have to miss out.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Expertise Solar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects. CNET's "Living off the Grid" series. https://www.cnet.com/feature/home/energy-and-utilities/living-off-the-grid/ Credentials
  • Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Eric Mack
5 min read
Watch this: Do you live in the path of the solar eclipse?

You've probably heard by now that a total solar eclipse will sweep from coast to coast across the contiguous United States on Aug. 21. 

You may have also heard sky watchers and space nerds booked every available room along the 70-mile-wide eclipse path years in advance. You can be forgiven for not planning ahead. This is the first total eclipse to cross both coasts in 99 years. 

Since that eclipse in 1918, automobiles and interstate freeways have both become big parts of American life. As a result, we're witnessing a truly new kind of vacation: the eclipse road trip. 

Here's what you need to do to make sure you don't miss out:

Pick your ideal viewing spot

While everyone in the lower 48 states will be able to see at least a partial eclipse on Aug. 21, you need to be somewhere along the "path of totality" to get the far more dramatic experience of seeing the sun go dark in the middle of the day. Temperatures plummet and animals start to behave strangely before the lights are turned back on after just a few minutes. 

NASA has put together a map -- along with detailed instructions for using it -- that shows where you'll need to be to get the full eclipse experience.

Some key things to consider when choosing where to view the eclipse include distance, weather and traffic. In general, your odds of cloudless skies are better in the Western states. The more densely populated East means more crowds and traffic, but also more roads and accessible viewing spots. There's a great eclipse weather guide here and the map below features predictions on what traffic could look like leading up to and following the eclipse.

"Once you have arrived at a location in the path of totality, find your spot," said filmmaker and veteran eclipse chaser Mark Bender, director of the "Eclipse Across America" series on CuriosityStream. "You don't need to be high up, or away from buildings. But do look for a place away from a lot of bright lights. During totality, when darkness falls and the stars become visible, you don't want any bright lights to take away from your view."  

Find a place to stay

At this point, it's not going to be as simple as spending a few minutes online and booking a room in a town along the path of totality. If you call around enough, it might be possible to find a room thanks to a cancellation. Or maybe someone will decide last minute to cash in by putting a room up on Airbnb. But trust me, it's slim pickings right now and "event prices" and shameless gouging are in full effect. Rooms are even totally booked in many towns within short driving distance of the path of totality. According to one site, the entire state of Idaho is essentially out of vacancies for the dates.

Still, there are a few resources if you're determined to book something at the eleventh hour. This handy ebook with accommodation options continues to be updated weekly. Craigslist, Airbnb, Homeaway and even Sky and Telescope magazine's classifieds are also worth checking. 

32 amazing photos of solar eclipses (pictures)

See all photos

If you're willing to rough it a little, camping may be your best option. Hipcamp has put together a pretty comprehensive list of campgrounds along the eclipse path and lots of options for sleeping outdoors have popped up in Oregon in particular. Additionally, many basic (aka no running water) campgrounds on public lands are first-come, first-served and can't be reserved online or anywhere else in advance. You'll probably want to get there a day or two or more ahead of time to snag those spots. 

A last resort for camping can be to put up a tent or park an RV just about anywhere on US Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. There are lots of these public lands in the Western states, and typically you're allowed to camp anywhere that's at least 100 feet away from all lakes, streams and trails. Check with the rangers for that district to make sure there are no closures and to get filled in on all the rules regarding things like fires and disposal of waste.

Finally, the eclipse could also be a great time to drop in on old friends and family living in or near the path of totality. Offer to pitch a tent in their backyard if the guest room is full and be sure to bring ample eclipse viewing glasses and other gifts for your gracious host. 

When the moon gets in your way ...


Get the right gear 

Special polarized glasses that protect you from the sun's destructive rays and allow you to fully enjoy the eclipse are selling fast. What's worse: Dangerous counterfeit glasses that may damage your eyesight are also popping up. A number of libraries are handing out reliable glasses, and there's also a list of reputable places to get them here. I recommend getting them from Astronomers Without Borders, which will also benefit the charity.

"Looking at the sun without the proper protection before it's fully covered can seriously damage your eyes," said Bender. "Learn about the timing of the eclipse and how it develops before you head out so you know when you'll need to wear your glasses and when you can safely remove them."  

There's lots of great background on safely viewing the eclipse here and more from NASA here.

Know how the eclipse will go down 

"At the start of the eclipse, the moon will creep along, covering more of the sun. It will still be just as bright outside, though. Five minutes before totality, the ambient light will take on a striking gray tone," explained Bender. "When it becomes as dark as night, the full eclipse has arrived. You can remove your glasses and look directly up. The corona of the sun will have blossomed out from the black face of the moon. Remember, the sun will be fully covered so the temperature will drop. You don't want to be distracted by feeling chilly, so make sure you pack jackets or blankets to stay warm." 

Bender emphasizes to be in the moment and take in the eclipse. Don't waste those precious few minutes trying to capture the perfect photo or do anything else. He suggests describing what you see into an audio recording app if you feel a need to preserve the moment. 

Whatever happens with this great American eclipse, consider it practice for the next one. In less than seven years, a total solar eclipse will cross Mexico, Texas and proceed northeast toward New York and Vermont. Then in 2045 we get the coast-to-coast treatment again with an eclipse following a path from Northern California all the way to Florida.

Maybe you'll plan a little further ahead for those. Tomorrow might be a good time to start. 

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