8 Healthy Ways to Stay Awake on a Long Drive

If you have a car full of passengers, include them in games and singing; it'll keep you from getting drowsy, and it's fun and silly too. (Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

Road trips are an incredibly fun way to travel; you can stop and start whenever you feel like it, and the scenery always offers something new. They're often a cheaper way to get from A to B, too. But they have a downside: You'll usually get to a point when you're bored and/or tired, and if you're driving, that can be a dangerous combination.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Association, "The broader community's best estimate of drowsy-driving crashes is that 7 percent of all crashes and 16.5 percent of fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver. This estimate suggests that approximately 6,000 people died in drowsy-driving related motor vehicle crashes across the United States last year."

As an experienced road-tripper, I've found there are a few key ways to prevent sleepiness that don't involve heavily caffeinating oneself — which can lead to a crash later anyway or may keep you up when you want to get to sleep once you've reached your destination.

1. Get quality sleep

Be sure you get to sleep on time (or early) the night before you're leaving for a road trip, so you don't begin your drive with a sleep deficit. This is the simplest way to keep safe and avoid sleepiness while driving.

2. Stay hydrated

Dehydration can cause drowsiness even if you are otherwise well-rested, so drink enough water while you drive. And keep it to water or un-sweetened beverages; that way you won't have to deal with the ups and downs of blood sugar, which can also cause sleepiness. Keeping hydrated will mean you'll need to stop to use the bathroom more, but this is a feature, not a bug. Getting out of the car to move around more — even if it's just to go to the rest-area bathroom — will keep you awake.

3. Sing!

Friends in the car singing on a road trip
Nothing gets you back in the spirit of a road trip like a song that everyone knows. (Photo: silverkblackstock/Shutterstock)

I've found that turning up the music a bit, and singing along to some of my favorite songs wakes me up when I'm tired better than absolutely anything else. When you're belting it out, you're forced to breathe deeply, which brings oxygen to your brain and body. Singing engages the voice creatively, and you have to pay attention to try to hit the notes. It's fun and enlivening, and it's my go-to when I've got another hour or more to drive and I'm wondering if I'm ever going to arrive.

4. Listen to something funny or stimulating

There are plenty of humor podcasts, true crime or suspense audiobooks (check to see if your library offers them as free downloads; mine does), and other free audio out there to keep you engaged and thinking while you drive the miles away. Keeping your brain interested and active can keep the boredom at bay and help you feel less tired. Of course, if you have company in the car, you can talk with them, but sometimes conversation can dry up, and a great story or funny podcast can be both entertaining and provide some fodder for new conversation, too.

5. Get your heart rate up

When you stop at a rest area or to eat, focus on being active; stretch, do some jumping jacks (an easy way to get your heart rate up quickly), or speed-walk up and down the sidewalk. Sometimes I even jog around. Also, I always stand to eat or drink — if you've just been sitting in the car for hours, it feels good to give your legs and back a break, and many rest areas will have higher counters you can stand at to enjoy your sandwich or other snack. Keep your heart-rate higher than it was while you were sitting in the car for five to 10 minutes and you'll return to the drive refreshed.

6. Move in the car, too

Obviously you need to use your best judgement when moving around while driving, but I've had success "seat dancing" to great music when I'm on a highway that's not too busy. Simply moving your torso around in the seat a bit, rolling your shoulders and neck gently, and wiggling your legs a bit can do a world of good if you've been in the same position for a long time. If you time these small movements to music, you also have to pay attention to the beat, all of which keeps you engaged — and awake.

7. Play road games

It's easy for your passengers to play on their phones while you drive, but that's pretty awful for the driver. Ask your friends or family to play the games that were common before smartphones — the time-honored punch buggy (just pick any type of car), I Spy and word games can be very entertaining. The Last Letter game (also called Shiritori in Japanese), is a great one — pick a topic like countries of the world, trees, movie titles, or whatever, and each person takes a turn coming up with a word that starts with the same letter that the last one ended on. So, for example, if the topic were dog breeds, one person would start with "Cocker spaniel," and the next person might suggest "Lhasa Apso." There are plenty more. (In fact, you could have one person look up new games on their phone during the trip!)

8. Take a nap

If you're really tired, take a power nap. That's what rest stops are for, besides using the bathroom. Just pull over, put the seatback down, and relax. Set a timer for 20 minutes and do some deep breathing exercises to relax. It's OK if you don't fall fully asleep; you can still get the benefits of a nap even if you're just resting.

With these ideas in mind, you can make your next road trip safer and more fun. While coffee or caffeinated beverages can have their place while driving, try the ideas above first. None of the above will lead to a sleepless night because you drank too much Red Bull or java.