When Will and I moved to Boulder, Colorado in December of 2013 we knew we’d be committing to traveling for holidays, as all of our family still lived in California. What we didn’t realize was the sheer amount of time we’d be spending on the road – since our move we’ve logged over 11,500 miles! 3.5 round trips from California to Colorado and a few other long trips up through Wyoming and Montana to the Pacific Northwest really added up.
No matter how you break up a drive like that, it’s a taxing experience. Because we love plans and checklists, Will and I have fine-tuned our power-through road trip for maximum efficiency and minimum suffering for everyone, including our dog Hilde. Here are a few pro tips that have helped make our long drives a bit more bearable.
1. Get an early start
Will and I have a saying that “the best things in life begin with a 3am wakeup call.” Normally we’re referring to big days in the backcountry, but it also applies to long days on the road as well. Our roadtrip preparation always begins the night before: making sure that the car is loaded, coffee is ready to brew, and the alarm is set for an early wakeup, usually around 3am. It’s important to have these things dialed the night before because messing around with packing at 3am is a disaster waiting to happen (see: the time I brought no functional clothing on a week long vacation!)
Starting early not only helps get us to our destination faster but also makes the drive “feel” a bit shorter because, for some strange reason, time flies before sunrise.
2. Commit to the two hour tradeoff
Spending 20+ consecutive hours in the car really takes a toll both physically and mentally. Will and I came up with a pretty simple rotation strategy that keeps us energized and happy for long stretches: a two hour tradeoff.
Two hours is the perfect rotation because it’s just enough time to get comfortable with what you’re doing (either driving or resting) without going overboard. Thus, the driver doesn’t become too tired, and the passenger doesn’t use up all of their energy before they have a chance to drive. It’s also nice because four hours is about the amount of time needed to use a full tank of gas (in the case of our ‘09 Tacoma) so after every full rotation we get out for a 10 minute stretch break.
The absolute key to the two hour rotation is sticking to it – even if you’re feeling good heading into hour 3 of driving, you must let your partner take over or you throw the rhythm off for both of you and will end up spending the night in a Motel 6.
3. Plan your entertainment ahead of time
Staying alert and engaged (often while your partner is sleeping) while on the road is incredibly important, so having a variety of entertainment options is high on our list of priorities. One thing we learned early on is that you absolutely can’t count on 4g streaming while driving through the long stretches of deserted highway, so you have to plan your entertainment ahead of time. Here are a few of our favorites:
Podcasts – Podcasts are perfect because they are short, interesting, and free. A bit like talk radio, but on topics you choose without the annoying commercials and static. You can get podcasts for free from the iOS “Podcast” app or the Stitcher radio app for all platforms. A few of our go-tos are:
- This American Life: An hour long show by NPR, This American Life explores new stories every monday. Interesting and highly recommended!
- Dirtbag Diaries: A short or long show that fuels our wanderlust with stories of adventure from across the world.
- RadioLab: Similar to This American Life, RadioLab reports on interesting stories across the world. The way the show is produced keeps things moving quickly and makes it a great one for whenever you feel yourself getting sleepy.
- Serial: If you haven’t heard of Serial, you’re missing out! Serial is a new NPR show in which a reporter plays detective in a real murder case from 10 years ago.
Audiobooks – We’ve only just started listening to audiobooks but are already hooked. You can download books to your phone using the Audible app, which charges a $14.99/month subscription fee. The key with audio books is to find a good narrator. If you find the narrator’s voice annoying, you will hate the book no matter how good the subject matter is.
Recently we listened to The Martian, which was absolutely fabulous. We also listened to a Stephen King novel (Mr. Mercedes) and, while I am a big King fan, I found the experience of listening to someone read the awful scenes he depicts quite unnerving. We’re currently listening to Unbroken, which has been great so far.
Whatever you like to listen to, make sure you download it ahead of time! It’s no fun to realize you’ve run out of listening material in a dead zone where you can’t download anything for several hundred miles.
4. Stay Organized
This seems like an easy one, but it’s one of the hardest to maintain. We try to keep a little trash can in the back (that we empty regularly) so our car doesn’t feel overwhelmed with debris. It’s also nice to make sure that you have everything you might need along the way so you don’t have to stop to unpack / repack to get essential items.
5. Think about food before it’s too late
On our typical 20 hour trek we end up doing 2.5 meals along the way: coffee, lunch, and dinner. Coffee and lunch are relatively easy – so long as you know where you’re headed it’s simple enough to stop off on one of your two hour swap breaks at a location with plenty of options. Dinner is a bit trickier. We’ve learned that if you want anything more than Jack in the Box for dinner you have to make your dinner stop before 9pm. Stop after 9 and your options get very limited, especially in rural areas.
We have tried to pack our own food in a cooler, but have found that it’s not ideal for us. Inevitably we pack food and then end up stopping at a drive thru anyway, because one or both of us “just isn’t feeling” whatever we brought. Such is life.
6. Drink plenty of water
This seems like a no brainer, but it’s the thing that makes sure you’re still feeling good once you arrive at your destination. We bring several one-liter Nalgene bottles and try to fill them up at least once along the way, ensuring that we each drink about two liters throughout the day.
Pro tip: don’t put ice from gas station ice machines in your Nalgenes. It almost always tastes funny and if you’re picky, it will make you not want to drink water for the rest of the drive.
7. Don’t forget about Fido
Our pup Hilde tags along on most of our trips and at this point she’s a seasoned pro when it comes to car travel. The biggest thing we’ve found is exercise: keeping our energetic girl from going stir crazy isn’t too hard to do with a little pre-planning. We try to get her out for a big hike the day before we leave, but the best is when we can find a dog park somewhere along our route. She gets to play with the other dogs and we get to stretch our legs. Win-win!
We also like to get her a special “car chew” to keep her occupied during the drive. It’s important to make sure whatever it is isn’t stinky. We’ve made that mistake more than once! Last, make sure your pup gets plenty to drink. We give Hilde water at every stop to make sure she’s staying hydrated, just like us!
8. Wear real clothes
It’s tempting to wear pajamas, but wearing real clothes will make you feel much better throughout the day. Also, make sure you choose shoes that are appropriate for all points along your route. I once wore flip flops – perfect for California and Nevada, but quite problematic once we got into the snow of Colorado!
9. Get these helpful apps
We rely on a lot of technology while out on the road. Though they’re not usable 100% of the time due to spotty service, these apps are great to have as a copilot in places you’re unfamiliar with.
iExit – Want to know what food options you have coming up over the next few exits? iExit has you covered. Not a pretty app, but a useful one. (Free!)
AllStays – AllStays is perfect if you’re planning on camping along your route. Their database contains most options for overnighting including State and National Parks, National Forests, BLM land, Private Campgrounds, and even Wal-Mart parking lots and truck stops. The app costs $10 to download but doesn’t require a subscription fee.
BlueLight – a personal safety app, BlueLight has a feature called “On My Way” which lets you share your location with certain contacts and lets them know when you arrive at your location. We use BlueLight to share our trip progress with our friends and family so we don’t have to answer numerous “where are you now?” texts. It also uses your GPS coordinates to route any emergency calls you might need to make to the absolute closest responders, like the ranger station in a national park. (Free!)
Dog Park Finder – super helpful when trying to find a spot to exercise Hilde, this app shows all of the dog parks near you. (Free!)
10. Have fun!
When it comes down to it, road trips should be fun. Try to relax and enjoy the scenery. Will and I always have our best ideas and inspiration on long drives and so can you!
Have any road trip tips of your own? We’d love to hear them! Leave your thoughts in the comments below. 🙂