There are few things in life I enjoy more than a spontaneous road trip to destinations unknown. These trips have a way of reaching into my soul and hitting the reset switch. They are why I call myself a car guy.
Having said that, nothing ruins the experience like running into trouble. I've experienced my fair share over the years and I've learned quite a bit about how to avoid it. These are things that go beyond what you should do anyway - regular maintenance, keeping your tires at the proper pressure, etc - and focus on the challenges that are somewhat unique to getting lost on purpose. Some of these may sound like common sense, but they are also the things we tend to take for granted during traditional travel. Here are some of the most important things you can do to get the most out of a random road adventure.
1.) Know Your (And Your Vehicle's) Limits
This one sounds pretty basic and should apply to any driving situation, but it is even more critical here. How many hours do you feel you can safely drive in a day? Take that number and reduce it 25-50%. There is extra mental and physical strain that comes with driving unfamiliar and unpredictable roads. Is your vehicle capable of handling things when the pavement ends? If so, how capable? Getting stuck miles away from civilization and cell phone reception will ruin your day in a heartbeat. You'll need to recognize potential hazards before you're on top of them and be willing to turn around before things get too rough. Always act as if the road (or forest path) is going to get worse - it rarely gets better. Also, never go down a hill you can't be sure you'll be able to ascend on the return trip. I learned that one the hard way.
2.) Don't Lose Your Situational Awareness
In other words, constantly check your environment. Don't get so caught up in belting out Bohemian Rhapsody with Freddy Mercury on the radio that you fail to notice those ominous storm clouds in the distance. Failing to stay on top of prevailing conditions could leave you stranded in a flash flood or worse.
Also, always be aware of where you came from and have an idea of which direction you need to go to get back. On excursions like these you can't always be prepared with a detailed map of the area, but there are other ways you can navigate to safety (or simply back home). Take note of the towns you pass and the major roads that pass through them and carry a compass. If you're heading north and pass through Podunk, Arkansas, knowing an east-west road that passes through will help you get back there if the need arises.
3.) Stay On Top of Your Fuel Consumption
This is another lesson I've learned the hard way. Other than getting stuck with no help for miles, searching desperately for an open gas pump while running on fumes is the worst experience I've had on a road trip. Never lose track of how much fuel you've used since you passed the last gas station. If you end up with less than that in the tank, there's no guarantee that there will be another opportunity to refuel further up the road. Go back to that last town to fill up if there's even the slightest chance your tank will dry up. More importantly, never pass up an opportunity to refuel - especially if you are running on less than half a tank.
4.) Bring Snacks
Almost as important as fuel for your vehicle is fuel for the driver. Stock up before you set off - you never know what food (or its quality) will be available in unfamiliar territory. A hungry (or food poisoned) driver is a distracted driver and a distracted driver is a dangerous driver.
5.) Respect Private Property
More importantly, know how to tell the difference between public property and private property. You should generally stick to well marked roads (roads/paths that are marked with official government signage), but occasionally you may see something interesting down an unsigned road that you'll want a to get a closer look at. If there is any indication that the property owner doesn't want intruders poking around ("No Trespassing" signs, etc) or a fence in my way, move on. Otherwise, park off the road (as long as the traffic risk is relatively low) in the public right-of-way and walk to get a closer look or a few quick pictures. Before you do, ALWAYS look around to try and locate the property owner and obtain permission to gain access to their land. If you are ever asked to leave private property, do so immediately and without protest. People living in rural areas tend to be armed. Even if you don't end up on the business end of a firearm, local authorities tend to have little sympathy for outsiders and you could be ticketed or even end up waiting awhile for someone to come bail you out of the local hooscow.
6.) Have Fun
There's a big world out there and some of the best parts are hidden in out of the way places you'll never visit until you are well and truly lost.
This list is far from comprehensive and you probably have a few lessons to share from you're own experiences. What are you're rules for safely getting lost?