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. K, so I talk on the phone on long drives…. I know, I know. But if you put it on speaker and then tuck the phone in your bra strap near your shoulder, its technically “hands free” so that’s my recommendation.

  2. I regularly do 9 hour drives, pretty much straight through (I stop once to get lunch and fill up on gas).

    What I do is pretend that I’m vlogging. I really like some vloggers on youtube and I talk to myself as if I was making a vlog about whatever subject I feel like talking about.

    • Ha! That’s fantastic. I think next time I’ll try practicing my standup comedy routine!

  3. I count wildlife. For example, I had a long distance relationship in college and when I would go visit, I would have to drive through hours of boring rice fields, so I made a game of counting the hawks as I passed through. It kept me pretty engaged, especially when there weren’t other cars around.

    • Yeah, I was going to suggest this too. Or playing the “license plate game” where you try and find all 50. That one’s hard!

  4. (First- What everybody else said is a total thumbs up from me. I won’t reiterate if I can avoid it)
    PLAN: Try to drive during hours that will work best for you. That might mean being consistent with your natural schedule, or driving exclusively in daylight. Daylight is physiologically the best, though I personally prefer overnight drives to avoid traffic, since that can cut down the length of the drive. (Although I have a fairly high sleep-dep tolerance and usually have a buddy with me)

    KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS. ’nuff said. Frequent breaks, food, rest, etc. etc.

    EAT: Think nutritionally. Chocolate and peanut butter are actually a great combo – caffeine, sugar and protein take turns keeping you up. Rather than eating meals, bring things in small units to munch on all day. That way you don’t feel full enough to be sleepy, AND the act of eating itself is a physical action to help you keep conscious. I had a friend who always ate sunflower seeds on long drives.They’re high in protein and little and fiddly to help stay awake. Trail mix is called *trail* mix for a reason.

    DRINK: Stay hydrated. “A hydrated scout is a happy scout. A dehydrated scout is a dead scout, and dead scouts have no fun.” This is especaially important if you are prone to headaches, since a headache is likely to take you out and make you sleepy.

    TALK: Ttake along a tape recorder (Uh, voice recorder? I dunno what people record on these days.) and make lists for yourself, or work on your novel. Practice songs. Csll somebody. Call several somebodies and catch up. Be aware of phone laws in the states through which you’ll be traveling, and maybe get a hands-free setup. Just keep waggin’ your jaw.

    AROMATHERAPY: Fill your car with scents that promote wakefulness, or at least avoid “Sleepy” smells. Lavender and Camomile are not your friends in this situation. Peppermint and citrus are usually helpful. You don’t have to buy candles or incense, just get peppermint and or orange extract, or grab a lemon and squash or scratch at the skin now and then.

    MORE EXTREME MEASURES: (Many of which I have employed)

    OVERDO IT ON THE AC: Being cold can help, BUT be aware of your tolerance – for some people cold can make things worse. It can cause pain, which can make you more likely to d=get sleepy later in the drive. For me, windows are actually better, since it’s gusty as well as cool.

    DON’T PEE. Wait, what? Try to hold it for a long while (Not so long that it hurts or that your kidneys explode) But having to pee does keep you awake, and for the last leg of a drive it can REALLY keep you awake, since there will be urgent and pressing reason to arrive on time.

    GET WET: (tee-hee) Keep a plant mister in the car. Spritz yourself with it if you start to get tired. If you can fill it with ice water, even better. (this can work as a combo with “don’t pee”) Consider addin a touch of peppermint extract (but be careful not to get it in your eyes.) The scent (And the sting of menthol) will help you stay awake.

    FREAK OUT YOUR MOUTH: Swig hot sauce. (Know your limits!!!) Eat horseradish. Bite a whole lemon. Bite a whole raw onion. You could also try putting a drop of the peppermint extract on your tongue, though I can’t vouch for this one, as I haven’t tried it.

    PAIN:If it gets REALLY bad, LAST RESORT ONLY, and you just need to stay awake long enough to get off the highway and pull over, pain does work. I bite my fingers and knuckles. I know one friend who would pinch the inner thigh as hard as possible. Another friend bites her tongue or pulls on her ears. Do NOT use these methods unless ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY TO NOT DIE.

    • The not peeing one works well for me. I’m not holding it to get an infection, but I definitely push the limit of comforts to get 5 more miles, and then another 5, and then another exit, and then another clump of grass. I managed to solo road-trip with my kid and push myself an extra hour (because stopping to pee with a sleeping toddler in the back is just annoying…having to wake them up to go inside the rest area…).

  5. I make a 13.5 hour drive to GA and back to NJ 2x a year. How one drives that long without music or a co-pilot is beyond me. I do my driving with funny audiobooks (Molly Harper’s whole catalog and Stephanie Bond’s Body Movers series are go to for me). Stopping for meals that are carb-light to counter the snacks in the car and keeping hydrated with H2O are must-dos. Having to stop to pee is good for your blood-flow and energy levels. Last year, the Hubs and I spent several hours laughing over unique/inappropriate children’s names for our non-existent offspring. Basically it was any word + last name = stupid laughs. We joke his last name is so plain (Thomas) that lil’ Genome Anemone Thomas and Zoot-Suit Cowboy Thomas had to stand out somehow. (or take my last name, the argument is never-ending :])

  6. Seriously, find a passenger (or more than one) who can share the ride with you. There are plenty of website with that kind of services. They can pay for a portion of the gas and can even drive your car for a while if you want it. My granma uses services like this to visit us (only a 3 hours drive, but still a bit too much for an old lady) and it’s perfect.

  7. These are all great suggestions! To add to the listen-to list: Comedians! A lot of comedians have audio versions of their shows available, which are great for long car/plane/train trips – actually, even better in the car so you don’t get weird looks when you start laughing so hard you’re crying.

    We used to do a lunch break every 3 hours during our frequent 6-hour trips to Iowa as a kid. See if there are any interesting or historical places for lunch along the way or even check out http://www.flavortownusa.com/states to see if any of the awesome DDD places are en route.

    Good luck!

  8. I find that drinking a lot of water helps. I usually bring a Camelbak Groove (with the built-in filter, so you don’t have to worry about weird rest stop water that tastes like plastic hosing….or is that just me?) on long car trips (regularly drove 9 hours during college and have done 14 hrs, solo, more than once).

    If you’re drinking a lot of water & coffee, you’re staying awake and you have to pull over fairly regularly to go to the bathroom. It’s a nice biological reminder to get up, stretch, refill your beverages, and move along. Plus, it could just be me, but you can’t fall asleep if you have to pee!

    Plus, I just talk or sing to myself! I make up stories about things I see, play the alphabet game, count up/down by an odd number (like 7), sing songs without the radio (I have quite the show tune repertoire), try to recount book plots….you’re alone and no one outside your car knows your radio doesn’t work, so belt out Bohemian Rhapsody and make Freddie Mercury proud!

  9. Oh! As someone who recently roadtripped from Fayetteville, AK to New Orleans, I have advice! My roadtrips consist of a few essentials:
    1. Bathroom breaks every 2-3 hours. Or power-nap breaks every 6-8 hours (no more than 20 minutes of nap).
    2. Music or books on tape. I agree with the above suggestion of putting your mp3 player into a glass for a cheap speaker system.
    3. Mint gum or strong mint-scented item. Mint helps keep you awake! You could also chew on some peppermint candies.
    4. Carrot sticks, pre-cut apples (dose them with lime or lemon juice to keep you awake and keep them from browning), giant water bottles with flip-up lids, grapes, and brownies. Also a cooler with more lunchtime-related food, like sandwiches, wraps, etc. to eat when you stop
    5. Cold-as-ice car. I find that if I’m uncomfortable, I am way more likely to stay alert while driving.
    6. Pilot/police-scanning technique. My dad (former cop) told me about this one: while you drive, constantly scan all of your mirrors, blind spots, and front view. This not only keeps your mind and eyes alert and away from highway hypnosis, but can alert you to potential problems on the road (like an oncoming car that’s weaving).
    7. Talking to yourself, but not people on the phone. I know it might be tempting to fill up empty time by chatting on the phone, but driving while talking on the phone is seriously distracting. Your eyes tend to look in the same spot, and unlike having a passenger talking to you, the person on the phone is completely unaware of your driving conditions.
    8. Coffee/soda, but only in the last leg of your trip. You don’t want a caffeine crash 6 hours into your drive.

  10. I agree with everyone who suggested exercise – anytime you get a bit sleepy, get your heart rate up with some running, jumping jacks, etc. There comes a point when caffeine won’t help, and that’s when you need to engage your body. In my experience, you can’t be half-hearted about this if you want it to work – sprint across the parking lot or around the car, try to beat your own record for number of jumping jacks in a minute but really push yourself.

    Also helpful, keep a cup of ice next to you to munch while you drive. It’s hard to sleep if you have to pee!

  11. For the past year, I’ve lived 11 hours away from my parents and I definitely had to learn how to cope with the distance!
    -Music becomes a lullaby no matter what after time, so if you have a smart phone, get a car charger and hook that baby up, prop your phone somewhere safe with the volume up, and listen to podcasts! They are seriously the only way I haven’t gone crazy on trips home and back yet.
    -Stop every three-five hours (or if you’re feeling zombie-like, sooner) to stretch and take a mini walk around, even if it’s just around your car. I do leg and back stretches because that’s what gets achy for me.
    -If you’re getting tired and can’t stop to take a power nap in the car at a rest stop, swish cold water around in your mouth every now and again. I swear it works!
    -Keep hydrated with water (avoid sugary drinks which will make you crash unless you’re in that final stretch), but at the same time, don’t overdo it so that you have to stop every hour to go to the bathroom! 🙂

    Also, could you buy a small, cheap CD player or iHome dock to put batteries in and sit on the seat next to you?

    I hope that helps! Good luck!

  12. This sounds counterintuitive I know, buy if you are in need of a power nap, the best thing is to drink coffee/tea/other caffeine laden beverage and then take a 20 -30 minute nap. When you wake up the caffeine will have hit your system and you’ll be ready to go.

  13. I talk to myself. Whether its commenting on the things I see, telling myself a story, thinking about what i’m going to do, just speaking my thoughts out loud really help me.

    Bring a cooler with a whole bunch of different food shapes and textures- crunchy, soft, cold, sweet, tart, and reach in and grab the food without looking at it. Figure out what it is. It’s an easy mental game to keep you aware.

    I also stop a lot. Small towns with funny names, rest stops, whatever. There’s no shame in stopping a lot, and getting up and stretching and looking around. There’s also no shame in a half way nap. I was driving from Alberta to North Dakota (about 14 hours total), and I stopped after 3, 6 and 9 hours to have a quick nap in my back seat. It made me feel good, and it turned my driving into couple hour breaks (“only got an hour till I get to my desintation of Sleep Town!”) instead of one super long trip

  14. I agree with the past comment about looking up kitchy places to stop along the way. My husband’s family lives in Idaho and we do the 12-hour California to Idaho drive a few times a year. After the 8th or 9th time, it gets a bit dull.

    A lot of people have been suggesting ways to play music. This is a bit unorthodox, but one thing I would suggest is music in a foreign language that you have familiarity with. Perhaps one that you studied in high school or college. I find that when I want to pass time in difficult places (like at the dentist or on a long drive), I can keep myself awake and relaxed by listening to Japanese pop music. I can understand a sentence here and there, and trying to figure out what is being said actually keeps my mind active and alert.

    Music from other countries sounds different in tempo, intonation and instrumentation. Some countries do not use rhyming, so sentences and the overall tone sounds different too. These subtle changes keep part of my brain working.

  15. I use most of the same suggestions here: lot of snacks, good music, window partly down.

    Definitely plan in extra time to take real breaks out of the car. If you’re on a tight timeline you’ll rush yourself and potentially put yourself in harm’s way. Give yourself plenty of time so that you can take breaks when you need to and address any crises (storms, car trouble) without it making you rush the tail end of the drive. If you’re getting a meal, eat it in the restaurant (or outdoors) instead of hitting up the drive-through. Have little destinations along the way that you can look forward to stopping at, or stop at things that look interesting. Walk laps around the parking lot at the gas station, or browse every single aisle in the convenience store. Find a city park for a quick stroll.

  16. We did a (much) longer drive in the dead of winter a couple months ago. I am not old enough to drive a rental car (and I’m a late starter, so I’m *really* not supposed to drive them because I’m still technically a “learner” at 22) so my husband drove the whole way. It was supposed to be a 15 hour drive. It ended up being more like 18. We drove until 4am, including through a thick white-out fog for over an hour. We didn’t have the option of stopping if we got tired, as the last stretch was farms farms farms, no hotels at all. Dead of winter means you can’t really nap in your car on the side of the road, or you’ll be in more danger than if you kept driving.
    Of course, now it’s June so if you are really getting tired set an alarm on your phone and take a nap.

    He’s NOT a coffee drinker, not even occasionally, but we got him some near the end of the trip. It seemed to do its trick pretty well.
    One tip might be, if you normally drink coffee DON’T drink it for maybe 2 weeks before a trip, and the caffeine will hit you harder than if you had been drinking it before the trip 😉

    Buy, borrow, or ? rent (do rental furniture placed have these?) a portable stereo, and make sure you’ve got extra batteries for it. The dollar store sells batteries and ikea has a fairly reasonably priced pack too. If you don’t have enough batteries to last the whole trip, save it until you need it. Bring your fastest songs.

    Eat food that is good at giving you energy: proteins like nuts etc.

    Save all your caffeinated beverages until *After* you start getting a little tired. Maybe bring an in-case-of-emergency actual energy drink to have if you’re in the last stretch and getting drowsy.

    Talk to yourself to keep yourself alert. Make lists of things you want to do, or grocery lists, or just name everything you drive by. Create a verbal fanfiction. Whatever. Say words.

    If you’re pulling over to get gas and caffeine, pour some water from a bottle into your hands and put it on yourself including your face. If it’s late enough there should be a coolness to the air and it will wake you up. You can also do that and then turn the AC way up to chill you. In fact, keep your car cold once you’re tired, because that keeps you more awake than warmth.

  17. I LITERALLY got in the house an hour ago from an 8-hour drive from Toronto. I’ve done 13 hours by myself before, so long drives are right up my alley (I truly love them).

    I would recommend getting a portable speaker system for your mp3 player of choice. This works on a couple fronts:
    (1)some of them come with remotes so you won’t have to futz around and take your eyes off the road
    (2)you still will have something to listen to
    (3)replacing batteries/charging the player will give you built-in breaks where you get to stretch and walk around.

    As for what to listen to? I tend to get very bored with music after about an hour or two. So, I’ve taken to podcasts for hours and hour when on long trips. I’ll download the last several months of The Moth for several hours of listening. NPR has some great podcasts, too, to keep you listening to something interesting.

    I just started downloading the TED radio hour, which can be really nice if you want something to think about while also driving down the road.

    I do recommend taking a break about every 2 hours like everyone else, though. It’s nice, at the very least, to make sure you don’t get Road Hypnosis which can be SUPER easy to get in some places in the States.

  18. when you think that the alternative might be falling asleep & killing a whole family of people, just take a nap. nothing bad happens in that case.

    if you are wide awake, sure grab a coffee. but if you get even a little sleepy, pull over to a well lit, safe place, set your alarm on your cell phone & nap for 20 minutes at least. when you wake up, get out, walk around a little & you’ll be fine.

    i used to have to do this all the time b/c i had really tiring hours working on computers all day. & by the time i got about 40 min from home, i got soooo tired. 20 min isn’t gonna make a big diff if i take it. might make a big diff if don’t.

    long story short. not worth it.

  19. Just tagging something on to the power nap advice.

    1) Keep actual sleeping time under 20 minutes (allow 5 to fall asleep). Otherwise you may wake up in the middle of a REM cycle and feel worse than you did before hand. If you need a proper sleep then set your alarm for 90 minutes later (one REM cycle)

    2) Nap someplace busy. The secluded end of a quiet rest stop seems tempting, but it’s a good place for bad guys to rob you. A Walmart or truck stop parking lot are better choices. People are there 24 hours, security cameras are everywhere, and they’re generally pretty tolerant of people sleeping there.

  20. Lots of good suggestions here, but I have one more. 12-hour Sudafed. I never take the stuff, but it will keep you awake and alert on a long drive.

  21. I have done a LOT of road tripping in the past. I also used to work for a long-haul cab company that didn’t really care how much sleep I got. My best tips for driving would be music blasting, rolling down the windows, and jolly ranchers. I used to go through a lot of areas without radio reception so I would load my cell phone up with music, plug it into the car charger and play music via the cell phone speaker. I would also roll my windows down because having the breeze blowing in your face can be very refreshing. My mom used to always suck on card candies, like jolly ranchers, when we had long road trips as a kid.
    Hope this helps!

  22. I’ll second what a lot of people have said. I just did a 14 hour road trip each way (while 5 months pregnant) by myself and not only was I uncomfortable but staying awake and alert was my primary concern.

    Singing at the top of my lungs and listening to comedy cds kept me sane. Luckily I had to regular stop to pee which also kept me alert. But munching on snacks (especially chips, carrots, and other “loud” foods) kept me focused. Good luck! I can totally feel your pain.

  23. Because I can’t drink coffee (or really anyhitng with caffeine due to a heart condition I’ve had to make and think of alternative ways to stay awake since I’m often on long drives and the only driver. My mother taught me a method that she uses but it gets a little…. bleh after a while- you slap your leg. I only do this in the most extreme situations and only when I know I’ve only got maybe another ten-twenty minutes to my destination. Pulling over and doing jumping jacks really helps.
    Make sure that you never leave tired. (that is just ASKING for trouble) If you ARE tired then jumping jacks before you start and frequently along your trip are a good idea. (or if you travel late at night to avoid traffic like I do- sprinting empty parking lots is also good.)

    Butt wiggles and singing/talking to yourself are some of my other tips. By butt wiggles I mean- sing a song and try to flex your cheeks in time to the song (or hum a known tune and try to match the beat) I know it totally sounds silly but it engages your mind and helps you stay active enough that you don’t fall asleep.

    Gum helps (I find that blowing bubbles can keep me engaged enough to not fall asleep.)

    If all else fails- a small 15-30min nap can mean the world of difference.

    Remember- don’t drive with headphones no matter how tempted you are. That would be extremely dangerous and is illegal for the most part. (only one ear can be covered)

    Good luck on your trip!

  24. I echo the mp3 player with speakers, which I used to use in my old car when my radio got stolen.

    I like to break up the trip into legs so that when I’m driving, the goal is 3 hours, not 7. If you’re a foodie, you can look up sites like FlavortownUSA.com for some of the great eateries on Diners, Drive Ins and Dives. For the Great American Road Trip feel, if you check out RoadTrip America.com it can help you find some interesting kitsch on the way. Triple A has a Trip Tik Planner app, too.

    Lastly, if you let your IG / Twitter or FB friends know you’re en route, you may score a lunch or dinner date with a new friend (of course, use your Spidey Sense so you don’t get creepstered.) That’s always something nice to look forward to to break up the monotony.

    Have fun storming the castle and be safe!!

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