How do you stay awake on a long drive?

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By: Nicholas A. TonelliCC BY 2.0
I’m about to embark on a weekend-long road trip. I’ll be driving, by myself, for 12 hours both there and back.

I’ve made the trip before and it sucked, but at least my radio/CD player worked. Now it’s busted, and I’m worried about getting tired on the road.

Anyone have any tips on how to keep myself awake without a passenger or tunes? -Cassie

This is a toughie. I’m all about cranking the tunes and singing my guts out on long drives. When I get tired of singing, there’s always audio books. But… driving sans radio? Ouch.

I’d recommend driving with the windows down. I also like to have something to munch on while I road trip. Sour Patch Kids for a sugar rush, or I pull over at the next fast food chain and grab the largest french fries they have. And coffee coffee coffee!

But, of course, the number one tip is to always be safe. Pull over and sleep if you feel too tired to go on. Even a cat nap can help a LOT.

Now it’s your turn, Homies. How do you make sure to stay awake without a radio on long drives?

Comments on How do you stay awake on a long drive?

  1. This is a tough one for me, since my FIL almost caused a major incident on the freeway about 1 1/2 years ago when he fell asleep behind the wheel. His car didn’t make it, fortunately he did and I’m even more grateful he didn’t hit anyone.

    Here in the Netherlands our government advices anyone to have (at least) 15 minutes break before driving again after two hours behind the wheel. I do feel a twelve-hour drive is very long, so I would suggest taking at least two hours of break after driving 6 hours. And perhaps you can listen to an ipod with just one earbud in or maybe borrow portable speakers from someone?

    • I would echo this advice, as it’s also the official advice here (UK) – you should take a break every two hours.

      Stop somewhere, get a coffee, stretch your legs – this should prevent you from getting too tired.

      If it’s possible (it might not be, since you said this was a weekend trip?), it would be even better to drive 6 hours each on two separate days, and stay in a hotel overnight.

      Remember – your safety is *much* more important than getting somewhere quickly or cheaply. Be safe. x

      • I’m in the US and would like to agree with the two people above. Stop, get out of the car and move around whenever you start to feel tired/listless/bored/or anything….

        When I first started driving, I had trouble with my eyes. Even though I wasn’t tired mentally or physically, my eyes were tired. I found that if I just pulled over whenever I noticed it, and walked a few laps around my car, I felt much better.

        I also keep munchies so that I’m always moving in the car. Chewing gum, working sunflower seeds, or just moving my hand around from the bag of chips or candies to my mouth kept me moving, and helped me stay alert. (also kept me awake in late night classes/study sessions).

        For me – movement is key. However you achieve it is great – but MOVE!!

        • This is how I ended up as a smoker–long car trips every weekend with mononucleosis and a need to stay awake. Lots of caffeine and cigarettes, to keep me moving and alert. Do not recommend the smoking!!

    • Depending on where you live (notably several states in the US) driving with earbuds in or headphones on is illegal, and you may be pulled over.
      I would instead use some cheap speakers, and use a car plug versus worrying about changing batteries.

      • Yes, there are lots of places where you can get a cheap tiny “stereo” to plug into your ipod, they take 1 double A battery and cost under $10. This is what I used to do in my cassette-playing car (I had only two cassettes), and it lasted for a really long time actually.

      • We’ve done the power inverter/computer speakers/iPod set up in our cars for both short and long trips for years. Too poor to have real cars or real stereos. Works very well.

    • “have (at least) 15 minutes break before driving again after two hours behind the wheel”

      For me, there’s the temptation when I stop for a break to do things that’ll make me even more tired – like eat or take a not-long-enough-to-refresh-me nap. I just read a tip in a recent issue of Runner’s World that I’m going to implement on my next road trip (whenever that is). Wear exercise clothes and shoes while driving. When you stop for breaks, do a quick little run. If you’re not a runner, do some push-ups or lift a few water bottles as weights. I find after vigorous exercise I’m more energized and alert.

  2. If you have an iPod and a cup holder bring a glass cup with you. Set the iPod in the glass, set the glass in the cup holder, bada-boom – music and podcasts!

    If not, can you bring a buddy along? One thing that keeps me sane is knowing I have someone to talk to and keep alive.

  3. Do you have a smart phone? If so, you can load it up with songs or get an app like Spotify and Pandora and play it through the phone’s speakers. It’s not the greatest sound quality, but it’s better than nothing! Just be sure to bring a car charger.

  4. When I was young I had a car that didn’t have a working radio. This was before the days of iPods, so I put a big ol’ boom box in the passenger’s seat so I could listen to the radio in the car. If you have an mp3 player you could always buy a set of cheap speakers that allow you to hear it better.

    I used to get sleepy during my morning commute all the time. I found that singing loudly helped keep me awake, making me focus and keeping me from getting highway hypnosis.

    • I also did this with my first car… I bought a cheap boom box at a thrift store for $10, and bought $10 worth of batteries (though you could use an adaptor too) and put the antannae up… BAM radio. (And much cheaper than an Ipod if you don’t have one!)

  5. I absolutely agree with the idea of ipod/smartphone + some sort of speakers if you can hook up a car charger. I also tend to talk out loud when I’m on long trips (6 hours each way is bad enough for me). I talk to myself, I talk to the other cars (not road rage, just chatting), I talk to people on the side of the road, whatever. It keeps me engaged with what’s going on, even if I look crazy.

  6. I’ve been known to slap myself in the face really hard if I find myself getting tired on roadtrips… I don’t know if I’d actually recommend it though…

    I had a set of little computer speakers and I bought one of those adapters that plugs into the lighter and then you can plug standard electronics into it that I used for a while. Just make sure to turn your car on, then plug it in. I’ve blown some fuses! Then I could just plug my ipod into the speakers. At one point I had the speakers duct taped to my dashboard. Classy, but better for surround sound!

  7. I know the player is busted, but a smart phone with only one ear bud in (or preferably a portable plug-in speaker) and:

    Books on Tape!

    Seriously, 9 hour drive to and from college 3 x a year… Good readers are a lot of fun (James Marsters is a amazing at reading: the Dresden Files and the Vampire Empire. David Tennant even has several books he has performed).

    A book on tape (CD/Audible account played through Smart Phone) is good enough to keep your mind active, but not distracting, like actual, physical reading.

      • This is a year old, so you should double check, but it shows the laws in all the states (I always just use one, even if two are legal for safety reasons).

        And yes, audiobooks have been a lifesaver for me on many long drives. I’ve found it occupies my mind enough to keep me awake without distracting me from driving (although occasionally after a strenuous section of road/traffic/weather I’ve noticed I’ll have to rewind because my brain will ignore it if attention is needed elsewhere).

  8. Have plenty of snacks. I like licorice, m&ms, chips. Anything that comes in little pieces and is munchy. A trip I used in college but can easily be adapted to road tripping is to chew gum.
    I also like to play the alphabet game (where you find the letters on billboards or licsense plates in orders A, B, C…) when I’m going to be in the car by myself for a long time. It occupies a second track in your mind and keeps the boredom from getting to you.
    Every time to stop spend at least 5-10 minutes standing up/moving around. Take a bathroom break, go for a mini walk, do some yoga, something.
    Have fun and good luck

  9. Depending on where you’re driving this time of year, I recommend keeping the temperature slightly cooler than you’d like. I find that if I start to get comfortably warm, I feel more like dozing off. Keeping it slightly cool helps me stay alert. I’ve even rolled the windows down in the winter, after I ran the heat too much.

  10. My favorite long-car-ride snack is baby carrots. They are sweet and crunchy and don’t make you feel as guilty about eating the whole bag.

  11. Music and stops.

    I have an MP3 player which I either have in one ear or connected to the radio via a 3.5in jack cable. ipod/walkman/mp3 player

    Stops to go to the loo, walk round, food etc.

  12. At least once a year, my kids and I road trip from Texas to Virginia. It’s about 20 hours, which we do in 2 days. My trick, being the only driver, is to stop whenever I or the kids want or need to. Sometimes that means stopping for gas and then at a rest area 30 minutes later, then for food shortly after that. Takes longer, but we’re much happier and safer at the end of the trip. Most of the time, just getting out of the car for even 2-3 minutes is sufficient to wake me up enough to keep driving. Apart from that, I agree with the mp3 suggestions, if you have a way to do it. Have fun!

    • I once drove straight through from North Carolina to Texas (about 18 hours) with two friends. We took turns driving, navigating and sleeping, which helped, but we also stopped A LOT. We didn’t exactly plan to, but we wanted to stop at every state’s welcome center to get a picture with the sign. Then, sometimes we’d have to stop thirty minutes later for gas, and in another hour for bathroom or snacks, and then we’d be in another state… you get the idea. It certainly helped to keep it from feeling too long.

  13. I make up games to go with each station and keep score along the way. For example, if I’m on the country station then I give myself a point every time they say dirt road, America, mention any sort of alcohol, dogs, memories, Jesus, breaking up, etc. You can make up different rules for different genres but I live in the south and sometimes when traveling all I can find is country stations so that’s why I picked that one.

    I also find that listening to heavy metal keeps me awake when I’m starting to really get tired and turning on Duran Duran is never a bad idea.

  14. Those 5 Hour Energy drinks really do work. I take a sip when needed, I don’t down the whole thing. I don’t like coffee, and I don’t like most caffinated sodas, so this is my option for caffine.

    I agree with putting the iPod in a cup. My step-daughter puts her in a bowl in the bathroom when she showers, and it works as a great magnifier. Good luck!

  15. My dad would always get a huge bag of carrot sticks for long drives, and he’d keep them in a cooler so they were super chilled when he needed them. He said the natural sugars were better than candy for a sugar rush and it was hard to be sleepy with all that crunching, ha ha. I haven’t needed the advice so much since I’m usually a passenger but I hope it helps!

    • Another portable healthy snack is grapes. The initial sugar rush from candy helps, but then you crash. I also do better with “slow release” sugar from fruits, etc. And no apple cores or banana peels to deal with.

      I would also park at the end of the parking lot at rest stops and jog/skip/do jumping jacks. Anything to get your heart rate up!

      • Grapes can also be frozen before the trip starts, and so you can use them instead of ice to keep a cooler cold – plus they are a great snack!

  16. If you can pull over every so often and do some jumping jacks and stretch that will help keep you alert. Also use your phone alarm to take 20-30 minute power naps in a safe pull off area. Be safe.

  17. ah, i have done many 12+ hour long driving days…

    i always have snacks, and specifically sugary snacks. its bad, i know, but the sugar will give you a jolt. dont eat full meals that day, just munch on your snacks. i like chocolate covered pretzels, trail mix, apples, and chips.

    then, have your phone available and someone to call. even with music, i would start to doze off sometimes, and i just needed someone to talk to me and give me some more energy. to me that works better then music anyway.

    yes, keep yourself cool.

    and yes, of course, coffee.

    BUT i would wait until you actually get tired before you do any of this stuff, doing that has also helped me. if you start driving at 5 am, once you eat you will probably be ok until about 1. so then you get tired? eat some sugar and crank your AC. that’ll sustain you for a little while longer. then, get sleepy again? get some coffee. again? call up your friend. hopefully by then you will have made it.

    • I like having people to call, but I really like having people call me at different intervals. If you have a few friends who are willing to call you at a specific point along your trip, it gives you something to look forward to. Plus, if you set your ringer extra loud, when someone calls you it’ll give you a surprise jolt (sometimes I will set my default ringer to something especially obnoxious during my trip to maximize that effect). When asking people to check in with me, I tend to remember to keep my phone charged better and am better able to keep myself awake longer… because I don’t want to worry them by not answering! This is also a good safety precaution. Either promise someone you will call them at specific intervals (for me this is too easy to forget & I have to set a cellphone alarm to remind me when it’s time to call) or ask a few people to call you (for me this is more fun).

      • I drive home 17 hours every year for Christmas. I do the trip there in one, long haul and the trip back in two, shorter jumps. I set up a schedule of people agree to call me/be available for me to call at different times of the day on the trip there, and I make sure someone is always available after dark (the hardest time for me). Just make sure your phone is well charged!

  18. I echo the phone / MP3 player comments. Audio books, podcasts of all the NPR weekend shows, and singing at the top of my lungs have kept me alive on many a cross country trip. Pull off and take a nap any time you feel sleepy – NEVER fight sleep, instead pull off immediately and nap! Also, when you do stop, try to walk around for at least 15 minutes, even if it means looking like a crazy person circling the parking lot.

  19. 1. Get out & run around the car like a crazy person. Or rest stop. Or parking lot. Getting your heartrate up and doing something goofy will give you a burst of energy.
    2. Sometimes I like to turn the radio off and just think about something, whether it’s writing a story, planning a vacation or solving a problem. Maybe take a list of thinking points to keep yourself busy.
    3. Depending on your route, phone a friend. I’m from out west and when you can see for miles, there’s little traffic and it’s hundreds of miles of open road, I think a 15 min chat can really wake a person up.
    4. Be a tourist. Stop at gawking spots, towns with weird names and roadside attractions and take pictures. Sometimes I like traveling alone because nobody knows all the corny places I stopped. Plan some in advance. It’s easier to stay awake an hour at a time than twelve.
    5. Use one earbud & listen to music anyway. Not too much different than using a hands-free device for talking on the phone.

  20. 1. Find some way to get music. The above suggestions are good ones.
    2. Some people find that audiobooks help them; I find that they put me to sleep. Fair warning about them.
    3. If you drink caffeine, try to wean yourself from it before the trip so it’ll work better on the trip.
    4. Nap. Whenever you feel tired, pull to a parking lot (not too empty!) and take a nap until you wake up. You can also try for 15 minute naps, but I don’t know how well that would work in a longer drive–I usually only do those for my former hour commute.
    5. Schedule phone calls! If you have people you know you can call, then you can be distracted by conversation. I have friends who would just talk me through my long, late commute drives.
    6. Keep the temperature colder than you’d like it–there’s nothing that will keep you awake like shivering.

    • Also, if you drink caffeine, don’t forget to couple it with water. Caffeine will slowly dehydrate you, and after several hours this makes me feel weirdly hungover and tired if I haven’t been drinking enough water. If I liked Gatorade or sports drinks, that would probably also be a good thing to drink with caffeine, because they’ve got some sugar content to them along with added vitamins… but Gatorade tastes like melted jello to me, so I stick with water. 🙂

  21. If this hasn’t been said yet: what about a battery operated radio/cd player? It can hang out on your passenger seat. I second having stuff to munch on. I used to make long trips all the time, and sometimes having a bag of candy or munches was a savior. Or if you have a blue tooth/hands free thingie, maybe call some people during the trip to just keep occupied and alert. Good luck!

  22. Here are my votes:
    – Keep cooler than comfortable
    – Music you can sing to because the physical act of singing means you’re not just passively listening but actively doing something, thus less likely to fall asleep
    – snacks because again you’re physically doing something. Plus eating sort of fires your body back up
    – Drink of choice. I don’t drink coffee and don’t like energy drinks. So I tend to go with soda and water and tea.
    – Know your own personal awake times. I know that afternoons get sketchy for me. I want to sleep in the afternoon if I’m driving around sunset. I’m worse after dark. So I try hard to get a move on earlier so I won’t be driving during the time I’m most likely to be sleepy.

    • I second getting started early. Most of us are awake 14-16 hours a day anyway, so getting started right after a good night’s sleep makes it easier to stay awake for the whole drive. When I was moving across the country, my dad and I usually got 600-700 miles in a day, over the course of 12-14 hours. (That doesn’t sound like much, but we stopped for full meals three times a day, twice for gas though one of those might be a meal time, the welcome rest stops for hotel coupons and a stretch, and couldn’t go much faster than 60mph because of the extra weight on my car and the bad aerodynamics of the car topper.) We pretty much just stopped whenever he got tired at the end of the day, since he preferred to do all the driving. At least he had me to talk to, though. I know he still dealt with road hypnosis sometimes if I was napping or we were just having a lull in conversation. He also said that listening to my crazy pop music really helped him stay awake, which I thought was funny. We listened to a LOT of Hanson and Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys but I don’t think I was supposed to tell anyone that 😉

  23. I would echo the baby carrots and grapes – easy/tidy to eat, and more refreshing than candy. Also, almonds. Drink lots of water/your choice of beverage. Its good for you and forces you to take pee breaks. We have a jam box which is small, rechargeable, has decent sound, is portable and plays from anything that has Bluetooth.

  24. I employ lots of these suggestions!

    I like to stay hydrated with water, which reminds me to stop frequently at rest stops to pee, walk around, and stretch for several minutes. I also often take a cat nap at a rest stop–after I pee and stretch and before I drive off again. (I do another set of walks/stretches after the cat nap to get me feeling loose and limber.) I’m a champ cat napper, but if you’re not great at cap napping, set an alarm on your phone for 20 or 30 minutes after you lie down and it’ll get you up.

    Obviously make sure you stop someplace safe, well-lit, and populated and lock your doors if you decide to cat nap! I nap in the back seat or else just recline the driver’s seat and snooze. Even if you don’t sleep, closing your eyes and doing some relaxing deep breathing will feel restful.

    I avoid heavy meals and too much carbo-loading/sugar as it tends to make me sleepy. Grapes and berries are a great, portable snack, as are carrots and celery sticks, as they are all easy to eat while driving. Though of course it’s best to eat when you’re stopped.

    I like it to be cool so that I don’t get warm and snuggly and doze off.

    And I also suggest the portable speakers idea, for music and books-on-tape. Try some energetic and fun upbeat stuff, both in terms of music and books.

    If you worry that you’ll get into driver-trance and forget to stop frequently, set a timer or alarm on your phone to go off every two hours to remind you to stop. I find that it’s easy to get into a zone when you’re making good time and you don’t want to stop, but it’s definitely better to make too many stops than too few. Safety first.

    Happy trails!

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