Update: This post was originally published on August 11, 2013.
Is there anything that screams “freedom” and “summer” more than a few friends, a dusty car, and the open road? The road trip has been immortalized in American pop music, literature, and movies since the invention of the automobile at the end of the 19th century. But more often than not, road trips go hand-in-hand with unhealthy road foods (fried onions, anyone?), cramped legs, and sunburned noses. This summer, try these tips for a road trip that’s fun, entertaining, safe, and — best of all — healthy.
ON THE ROAD — YOUR ACTION PLAN
1. Bring smart snacks. Fill a cooler with ice or cool packs and load it with plenty of nutritious, easy-to-eat snacks like low-sugar yogurt cups (choose plain or Greek to avoid mega-doses of sugar), string cheese, fresh fruit, homemade granola bars, cut-up veggies and hummus, healthy trail mix (keep track of portions to stay out of dangerfood territory), unsalted nuts, dried seaweed snacks, or preservative-free meat jerky.
2. Choose water. Bring a few reusable (BPA-free) water bottles and fill ‘em up at every rest stop. If overnight lodgings include a freezer, chill bottles while you sleep for ice-cold H20 all day long. Avoid soda and creamy, sweet coffee drinks, which pack unnecessary sugar and fat and (if caffeinated) actually contribute to dehydration.
3. Stretch your legs (and shoulders and neck). Stop frequently (at least a few times a day) to get out of the car, move around, and do a few stretches. The hip flexors, lower back, shoulders, and neck are most likely to tense up after a few hours at the wheel . If the road runs along a national park or other hiking terrain, consider making a pit stop every once in a while for a short walk in the woods.
4. Don’t forget the SPF. No trucker burn here! Windshields and windows might keep the bugs out of the car, but they don’t fully protect our skin from the sun. Slather on some broad spectrum SPF 30 or higher at regular intervals to keep skin safe.
5. Keep eyes on the prize. A good set of sunglasses is essential to protecting eyes from the sun. Exposure to too much sunshine can damage vision and even cause certain kinds of eye cancers. Light-colored eyes are often more sensitive to light, so blue, green, or gray-eyed guys and gals should take especial care to protect peepers from the sun. Bring along a pair of high-quality sunnies that protect against UVA, UVB, and HEV light. A polarized pair can help cut down on glare, making driving safer and more enjoyable.
6. BYO gym. No treadmill? No problem. Pack sneakers, gym clothes, and small exercise equipment like resistance bands or a yoga mat to turn any quick stretch break into a mini-workout. Print out (or save on a smartphone) plenty of bodyweight workouts for hotel rooms or mornings when other road-trippers are moving slowly.
7. Practice perfect posture. Especially if driving for more than one day, comfort in the driver’s (or passenger’s) seat is essential. Adjust the seat and bring pillows and seat supports to make the car seat as comfy (and ergonomically correct) as possible. Sit up tall and take frequent breaks to roll the shoulders, stretch the neck, and realign posture.
8. Stay engaged at the wheel. Don’t just sit there like a bump on a log! It’s not exactly an hour-long cardio-fest, but even when sitting in traffic you can suck in the abs and squeeze the glutes to keep muscles working.
9. Choose meals wisely. There are only so many carrot sticks a person can eat before hankering for a real, hot meal. From fast food drive-ins to gas station markets, road food is notoriously unhealthy. For a lighter meal, look for grilled items, plenty of greens, and don’t be shy about asking for a sauce on the side.
10. Go loosey-goosey. Tight tops and snug shorts may look fine at “da club,” but they can be darn uncomfortable for hours in the car. Choose loose, light layers to aid circulation and prevent chafing and overheating. Compression socks look dorky, but they can prevent achy muscles (and in more extreme circumstances, deep vein thrombosis, a condition where blood clots form in the legs after sitting for a long time) if you’re planning on long stretches of sitting.
11. Get plenty of rest. “Drowsy driving” isn’t just unpleasant; it’s downright dangerous. Get off the road when feeling sleepy or alternate drivers to keep fresh eyes on the road at all times.
12. Keep the brain active. What’s a road trip without a bumpin’ playlist and plenty of off-key singing at the top of your lungs? The tunes make the trip, but an audiobook or podcast can help pass the time when travel buddies are too tired for a sing-a-long. Everyone will learn something new, exercise their brains, and a bit of new knowledge or an interesting story will make the miles fly by.
13. Be flexible. Unless scurrying cross-country to meet a specific deadline, factor in an extra day or two of travel time. That way there’s plenty of time to explore a hidden waterfall a few miles off-road, take plenty of scenic detours, and keep the overall mood stress-free.