Road trips can be divisive: for some, they’re the best part of a vacation. For others, they’re long stretches of agony between places they want to be. For still others, they’re an abyss of unknowns that leave them intimidated at best and paralyzed at worst. If you live and want to travel within North America—particularly to nature spots–it can be hard to avoid road trips. and that thought can be distressing enough to push someone into paying for a ticket on a cramped, uncomfortable plane.
But, road trips don’t have to be stretches of agony or abysses of unanswered questions. The fact is that, for many, these apprehensions are rooted in ignorance of how to approach traveling by car. It’s possible to learn, and rid yourself of any apprehensions.
Partly because of my job, I’ve spent literal months driving across the US: from East Coast to West (and back, several times); from Southern California to the Canadian border; from Colorado to Chicago… the road is a second home, my car more well-worn than some peoples’ shoes. As a result, I’ve picked up a bunch of tricks useful for anyone traveling long distances by car, whether it be a four-hour day trip or a multi-day jaunt across the continent.
Here, I hope to compile some of these lessons. Most will be aimed at making road trips less stressful, and more fun, but there will also be practical tips and safety concerns to ensure that your trip goes smoothly. Let’s start with something simple.
Find Local Places to Stop for Food and Drinks… Especially Coffee!
Alright, so the last part of that is mostly my preference, but the point stands.
We—especially in the US—have been trained to look for and focus upon chain restaurants. From Starbucks to McDonalds, these places don’t sell quality as much as they do reliability and consistency. Thing is, humans aren’t built for experiential ruts. We need novelty. In fact, a desire to gather new experiences is a predictor of well-being.
Now, you can’t make time for a huge bevy of new experiences on a road trip. But something you can do is try new places to eat and drink. After all, you need to snag food, anyway, right? So, when you do, stay away from chains, and shoot for local places. Coffee shops, in particular, are good picks because you can spend a quick ten minutes and buy a drink that’ll taste different from anywhere else, and perk you up for the rest of your drive.
Make Time for Impulsive Detours
A lot of people understandably try to adhere, strictly, to whatever agenda they set at the beginning of a road trip. But, part of the joy of a road trip is trying new things, as we’ve already mentioned. It’s impossible to know exactly what you’ll find on the path from point A, to point B. So, even if you’re a strict planner, you should set aside some time for impulsive detours. If you see something that interests you, don’t be afraid to stop in and check it out. Sometimes, these detours can be the most memorable part of a trip.
Be Wary of Strict Schedules
As mentioned above, some folks try to plot out every detail of a road trip. The problem is that reality doesn’t adhere to schedules, and road trips, in particular, can be full of unpredictable events that shift schedules off-balance. Because of this, it’s important not to hammer out strict, hour-by-hour schedules. Chances are, things will have to change along the way, and you don’t want to miss out on a hotel reservation just because you got stuck in traffic while passing by a major city.
Download Stuff to Listen To
Now that we’ve passed the scheduling and stopping issues, let’s make your time in the car more fun. The first tip I’d give is to find some stuff to listen to—music, podcasts, comedy albums, and podcasts—and download them. If you’ve got an older car, you can pop them on a CD.
Why do I suggest downloading them? Well, it’s highly unlikely you’ll have a signal during your entire trip. Forests, mountains, even deserts can have stretches of several hours long without any signal. You can’t rely on Spotify or Pandora’s online functionality the whole way through. If you don’t download what you want to listen to, you’ll be out of luck once the signal cuts.
Comedy Albums, Audiobooks, and Podcasts Pass the Time Faster than Music
Sometimes, you’re just looking for a way to forget that you’re on the road, and burn time until your next stop. Maybe you’re in desperate need of a bathroom, or the hotel is just a little over an hour away and you want a shower.
This is where many people make a mistake: they go straight to music to pass the time. But music—particularly shuffled playlists on streaming services—aren’t great for passing the time. They go on and on forever, and don’t always fully engage your brain. That’s why we can listen to music while working.
But Comedy Albums, Audiobooks, and podcasts are different. They catch the social and story-loving part of your brain, pulling you along for a ride that can keep you entranced as the miles burn away beneath your wheels. For some music lovers, another option is to listen to full albums, front to back. This gives the listening a sense of progress that’s much more pleasing to your brain.
Don’t Be Afraid to Call Friends and Family (if you Have a Headset)
If you’re road-tripping alone, the social isolation can stretch the hours. There’s a reason that being stuck in your cubicle for eight hours is one of the circles of hell, while eight hours at a party with friends goes by in a blink. We’re social animals.
So, one way to keep yourself distracted and improve your road trips is to call up friends and family when you have a signal. I can’t stress enough: only do this if you have a headset that allows you to talk safely without touching your phone. Rolling your car at 80 miles an hour sounds awful over the phone.
Assuming you have a headset, then call up friends and family and talk to them about your trip and how things are at home. You’d be surprised how quickly the time will pass, and how their questions may make you notice things in the world around you that you’d otherwise miss.
Let’s move on to safety and health. Cars can feel cramped. Worse—the need to keep your arms up and your foot between the gas and brakes can play merry hell with your neck, shoulders, knees, and hips. Even if you’re young, it’s hard to avoid the stiffness caused by 5 hours in the same position. So, it’s important to take time to stop by the side of the road, enjoy the scenery… and stretch. A pro tip: make it gentle stretches, and—if you can—take a five-minute walk, first. This’ll loosen you up and keep you from pulling anything.
Drink Water and Eat Fiber
It never ceases to amaze me how much simple dietary changes can impact your well-being. That’s especially true if you’re being sedentary… like, say, during a long road trip. So, if you want your stomach and head to feel clear and light, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water, and eating enough fiber. A rookie mistake during road trips is to munch on bread, chips, and other things easily found at gas stations. But this’ll leave your stomach a bit uncomfortable by the end of your drive. Instead, try granola, veggies, and fruit. Chips are fine, but not if they’re all you’re eating.
Make an Emergency Kit
When you’re far away from home, between population centers, there’s no guarantee that anyone will show up to help if things go south—for you or your car. As such, it’s important to keep an emergency kit in your car with some of the essentials. For your car, you’ll want coolant, a couple quarts of oil, a fix-a-flat kit, a spare tire (if you can spare the space), a breaker bar, and a simple toolkit with metric and imperial tools. For your health, you’ll want painkillers, bandaids, bandages, towels, burn ointment, spare water, and any relevant allergy and dietary medications. Having these in your vehicle will make sure you’re prepared if there are problems.
Yes! Remember that a road trip is an opportunity to see and appreciate the world outside your purview. It’s important to internalize this and take every chance you can to understand what the world looks like outside your day-to-day life. Road trips are fiction cliches for a reason; appreciate the opportunity you have and learn from it.
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