Between my day job, On Her Own, gym time, and the rest of my life, my days are packed and my nights are short. With work, family, and hobbies, I’m sure the same is true for many of you, so that sleep is in short supply for all of us. We function, even do well, with everyday life but that doesn’t mean we’re well-rested enough for road trips, which is what I’m doing again today. Staring out a windshield for hours on end is a special kind of boring that can make it very easy to doze off or stop paying as much attention as we should. We might be able to get away with it on long stretches of empty highways, but less so when we hit on that sudden road obstruction. It’s not quite that all long drives are stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, but there are times when that might be closer to the truth than not. Since we can’t always predict when full alertness is necessary, and since we still need to pay reasonable amounts of attention the rest of the time, staying fully awake throughout an entire drive is important.
Being well-rested going into your trip is the best option, but requires advance preparation. It’s not just a matter of going to bed early the night before you take off, but getting enough sleep on a regular basis, or at least for a few nights in a row. If you normally are well rested, a few days of going non-stop beforehand will be easier to overcome on your drive, because sleep debt can take if you know you will be on the road in a few weeks, starting to normalize your sleep schedule right away can be worthwhile even if your last days before the trip are crazy or if you spend your entire time away staying up late and getting up early. Even if you can’t, it’s worth getting some good sleep right before you need to drive a lot. You won’t make up your sleep debt, but you might be able to stave off the effects of short term sleep deprivation, which can make you careless or have slowed reactions, not just drowsiness. Realistically, I know that’s merely a pipe dream (see what I did there) for many of us, so other strategies are necessary.
One thing I always do to prep for a long drive is to make sure I’ve stocked up on drinks and snacks. Doing so beforehand is cheaper and often healthier, plus you won’t have to fight the sleepies while looking for a convenience store or rest stop if you already have food and fluids in the car with you. Do be mindful that caffeine might lift you up, but also crash you hard or make you need an urgent stop for a restroom. A road trip isn’t the time to figure that out, so plan ahead accordingly by experimenting with any pick-me-ups you think you might use. It might turn out that coffee is fine, but not a particular brand of energy drink, or that you are better off finding a caffeinated food instead of drink. Having to pause because you’ve been drinking lots of water or you want a real meal can definitely be worthwhile, though. Also, for some people, staying well hydrated will force the breaks they need to stay alert enough to continue driving safely.
That’s because one of the surefire ways to wake yourself up is to get up and walk around – get the blood flowing, if you will. Don’t let your vehicle’s need for gas or your body’s needs for food or bathrooms dictate when you pause. Sometimes you just need to move to get your body and brain functioning again. Getting out of your car will also change the scenery from mile upon mile of rolling road, and that break from the monotony will help shake things up in your head. And not for nothing, it may be safer for you and the cars around you when you aren’t trying to eat with one hand and drive with the other. Stopping is also an opportunity for fresh air. While rolling down a window can do the same thing, it’s not always a comfortable option at highway speeds or when the weather isn’t perfect. The run from your vehicle into a rest stop, store, or restaurant might not be super pleasant either, but it beats having that cold, rain, or excessive heat inside your car.
On the opposite end, stopping might be absolutely necessary for a quick catnap. You might not be “the kind of person who” normally naps well or successfully normally, but it may still be the best option for you on very long trips. There is a risk associated with someone trying to attack you while you’re asleep, but the greater risk is you ending up in an collision or drifting off the road from fatigue. Find a well-trafficked rest area to stop at if you can, consider crawling in the back seat and covering yourself up with a blanket so it doesn’t look like there’s anything or anyone valuable in the car, let a friend or family member know your plan, and set an alarm. Ideally, you will only want to sleep for about 20 minutes for maximum energy boost without getting groggier because you’ve been asleep just a bit too long. Try it and see. If you need more and you can safely sleep for a couple hours where you are, do that, or push a few miles to a nearby hotel. It might not be cheap, but your life and the lives of those around you are worth it.
If you can’t stop for whatever reason, try to find ways to keep your mind active: music you can sing along to, or interesting podcasts or audiobooks. Use your trips around town to figure out what will make you more tired, and what will make you more engaged. Be careful of picking what everyone else does, though. For some people, the droning voices in certain podcasts can zone them out. The opposite is true for others. Or a genre change might be necessary depending on mood and level of fatigue, and you need multiple options on hand. Also worth considering is that there is a difference between absorbing and angering. A talk radio station might be fascinating to listen to and you may find yourself nodding along, but if you start yelling back or along with it, you might be setting yourself up for transferring that emotion to people you are sharing the road with. As with many things in life, there are many potentially right answers so you will need to find what works for you. The only wrong answers are the ones that put you to sleep or that fire you up too much to drive safely.
You might also want to find ways to engage your body and verbal skills while driving. That’s where gesturing with a hand or singing (or screaming) along with your music can come in. You might also call up a friend to chat, letting them know, of course, that you’re driving so you need to keep your attention on the road. If traffic allows and your car has the feature, turning on cruise control so you can move your legs around a little or stamp your feet while you’re still seated can help too. In other words: anything to stop simply sitting and staring at never-ending highway in front of you, with no variation in how hard you’re pressing the gas pedal and how much input your steering wheel needs.
I’m about to get on the road myself in a bit here. What do you think my favorite strategy is? What’s yours, when you’re spending hours in a car?