"You walk in to the restaurant, all strung out from the road..."
June 6, 2007 8:05 PM   Subscribe

What survival tips for health and sanity would you give to someone going on an ad-hoc two-week road trip with five others on a tight budget and involving a lot of couch surfing?

I'd like it all to be unforgettable in the good way. Tell me everything you think I need to know.

This could include, but isn't limited to, best things to bring for getting a comfortable sleep on someone's floor (air mattress? foam? secret ninja trick?), best way to keep the immune system tweaked without pharmaceuticals (I get sick easily), best way to stay alert without relying on coffee and sugar, best way to pack light but still get sustenance without dropping a ten at every diner we pass, best way to not want to kill my companions (I don't know any of them terribly well), best way to deal with a lot of strangers in rapid succession, etc., etc.

What makes a trip like this more enjoyable and valuable? What have you done right on past trips? What have you done wrong? What would you bring? What wouldn't you?
posted by Slam I Am to Travel & Transportation (30 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I suggest: make sure to plan a little time to yourself each day, and make sure to speak up if there's something you'd like to do or a time when you feel ready to stop driving for a break.

I went on an unfortunate road trip a few years ago where, out of politeness (because I didn't know my companions very well and felt shy), I didn't ever speak up about being hungry. And no one else did either. Which basically meant: tons of hours in the car with no meals at regular intervals. I almost went crazy.
posted by pril at 8:12 PM on June 6, 2007

Stay hydrated. Eat well. Sleep enough.
posted by jayCampbell at 8:16 PM on June 6, 2007

Rotate the driving; try to talk about when you'd like to stop when everyone consults the map in advance when you set off each day; avoid snack-y packaged foods if possible in favor of things like fruit or yogurt; check out this thread on conversation games.
posted by mdonley at 8:21 PM on June 6, 2007

Also, why would you avoid pharmaceuticals if you get sick easily? Bring some pain relievers at least - two weeks of sitting in a car will drive your lower back to mutiny.
posted by mdonley at 8:22 PM on June 6, 2007

Since you'll be less-than-total comfort and probably on someone else's schedule, getting the sleep - which is the biggest thing to staying non-sick - will be hard.

When riding in the car, keep fresh air circulating as much as possible so you'll be less likely to pick up something one of your other fellows might be carrying. Eat well - try to stay away from fast food; doing your own cooking will be cheaper than fast food, anyway.

I've had bad experiences with the people I stayed with that I didn't know too well, such as them ditching a dinner bill on us and not, well, actually having anyplace for us to sleep. He had a keg in the garage, though.

Seconding the stay hydrated. Just make sure you know which bottles contain urine and which bottles contain water. We ripped the labels off of the ones that shouldn't be drunken from. Bottled water after sitting in a cooking car ends up tasting really really flat. I've also underestimated the summer temperatures in the US Midwest when I was first there - avoid leaving carbonated beverages in the car in the heat. Have garbage bags (or old shopping bags) in the car into which waste goes into. You don't want a bottle rolling under the brake pedal nor do you want to stick your hand in a half-eaten hamburger that had been baking in the sun for a few hours. If you lose anything, you'll find it under one of the two front seats. Even if you don't smoke (anything), keep a lighter in the car. Maybe an old laminated-style driver license (uh, locked doors - these tend to be better than credit cards).

If you can find an air mattress that compresses down pretty well, it isn't a bad idea to carry one or two in your car. Find ones with attached inflatable 'pillows.'
posted by porpoise at 9:03 PM on June 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I did this exact thing last year (are you by any chance driving out to Burning Man?)...

Anyway, my best advice to you is to become friendly with your road mates, even if it turns out you kind of don't like them. It will be worse to be left out than to BS with someone who kinda irks you. Or at least, it was for me. I found some of my travel mates quite annoying, people I would ignore in real life, but ignoring them the entire trip would have been way too boring. YMMV.

Take sleeping pills. That was the only way I could actually get some solid sleep...otherwise there were too many things/people/noise/movement keeping me awake. I just used non-addictive over the counter generic Target brand sleep aid.

Keep a journal and write down little notes of funny things that happen. Another thing I have done in the past, if you turn out to be a particularly funny group, is keep a Quote Book. Every time someone says something outrageous, crazy funny or otherwise quotable, make a big announcement and write it down! People will go out of their way to be even funnier so they can have the most quotes in the book. This is a lot of fun =D

Let's see...what else... I tried not to drink a lot of water so I didn't have to pee every 5 seconds. YMMV on that as well. And like someone else said, speak up on your preferences. Don't drive at night if you're not comfortable, announce when you need to pull over to eat or do whatever, instead of suffering in silence.

Air mattresses are way more comfortable than floor or mat, if you do have room for one - take it! Make sure the cigarette lighter in the car works so that you can charge appliances.

If I think of more I'll come back...
posted by infinityjinx at 9:03 PM on June 6, 2007

Shop at grocery stores rather than convenience stores when you can. Eat bananas, washed carrots, and other easy fruit and veg. Get a slab of cheese and a loaf of bread and some tomatoes; use your pocket knife to cut them up for easy and relatively healthy road snacking. Drink water rather than sodapop most of the time.

Bring a camping thermarest/bedroll to put under your sleeping bag on floors. Bring a smallish pillow that will fit between your lower back and the car seat, for position adjustments if you need.

Do laundry on the road. Bring enough plastic bags to segregate your dirty clothes.

pril is exactly right: find time each day for the group to split up so you can each have some private time, and you can gather new stories to bring back and share. Speak up if you're hungry, speak up if you need to walk around. Be flexible and considerate, but don't be so flexible and considerate that you're totally ignoring your own needs -- because this will make you grouchy, whether you realize it or not.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:06 PM on June 6, 2007

And agree explicitly in advance about how you're going to split key expenses like gas. Decide this now, before your nerves get frayed.

This might sound paranoid, but it might also make sense for each of you to have a copy of key phone contacts for the others, in case something goes totally pear-shaped.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:09 PM on June 6, 2007

Sleeping: earplugs, comfy jammies, bring your own sleeping bag and pillow (your friends will laugh and then they will be terribly jealous). I always toss my PJs and toothbrush in my sleeping bag so if I'm crashing at someone's place I can bring in the bag and be set for the night. Bring a foam pad if you can, just a camping pad.

Driving: drink water frequently, pipe up if you're hungry, carry some protein-y things for you and for other people who might get cranky over low blood sugar. Make sure everyone has their coffee/donut in the morning.

Money: best way to deal is that everyone puts in like $20 into a communal kity for gas/oil/whatever expenses and you draw down from it until it's out then everyone puts in $20 more. So much easier than keeping lists of who paid for how much gas.

Strangers: When I would travel a lot I had a list of questions I'd ask people about where they were living, just to get a feel for the place and a feel for them. YMMV, but my list had to do with what the library was like, whether they took public transportation, whether there was decent recycling in town and where was a good place to get a good cup of coffee. Those combined with "what do you do for fun" were okay conversation starters. You may want to have a short "about me" speech for people that want to know some things about you. Keep in mind that your road trip buddies have heard these all by like the third day so try to mix it up some.

In general, road trips wrk best when either everyone's totally freeform [rarely happens] or people agree on spme ground rules like who gets to pick the music, how often you stop, who makes decisions on where to eat etc. You'll figure out early in how decisions get made and keep in mind that the firs tfew days are really when you set the patterns you'll have for the next few weeks. Road trips can be fun, but hide a credit card in your wallet as a "get our of road trip free" card just in case this one isn't.
posted by jessamyn at 9:11 PM on June 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: All wonderful stuff so far. One specific question: if an air mattress isn't doable, what's the best alternative?
posted by Slam I Am at 9:15 PM on June 6, 2007

best way to pack light but still get sustenance without dropping a ten at every diner we pass

Trail mix. Make your own from the bulk-foods section of many supermarkets. Hey, maybe get large amounts of different things (shreddies, gummie bears, honey oat rolls, "m&m"s, mini pretzels, &c) - everyone on the trip can make their own special mix and refine it over the course of the trip. Cheaper than chips, and probably less sodium and preservatives (depending on what you put in, of course).

We once got a bucket of beef jerky from one of my friend's grandparents. That *rocked* - gas station jerky is going to make you very thirsty, and when consumed in excess, constipation. Painful constipation.

Ended up doing a lot of sandwiches (with large-format sausages [like, summer, garlic coil, &c] slices into strips = these also doubled for dinner on a camping stove) while on the road. I'd discourage having jars of mayonaise in the car, especially large ones, but for some strange reason, the mustard never went bad. Wash the sandwich down with fruit (apples>pears>oranges>berries in terms of resistance to extreme heat). Get one of those cheap quasi-translucent white plastic chopping blockssheets. They make great lap-boards for putting together sandwiches and cutting stuff.

When staying at people's, just cook whatever you do at home after a grocery trip.

If you see anything that might be interesting check it out! You're on a freaking road trip, what have you got to lose not to check it out other than stiff spines and legs?

Wet wipes or "daily cleansing cloths" from the girly section of the pharmacy are great.

If you're traveling in multiple cars, get cheap walkie-talkies; iirc ours were $20 at walmart and it was good for about 20 or so car-lengths. They're fun. Don't bring painball guns unless you know when to put them away.

Personal portable music/entertainment when you just want to tune out to maintain sanity.

Digital camera, of course, but what about a surefire way of extracting the photos off of it as the memory fills up? Don't lose pictures because you have no way of freeing up memory on your camera. If you have a good way of exporting data, don't forget about the (likely?) movie-taking capabilities of your digital camera.
posted by porpoise at 9:23 PM on June 6, 2007

- Bring a deck or two of cards and know a couple of good multi-player games. I love "Oh Hell".
- Check out previous quesitons on road games like this
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:26 PM on June 6, 2007

Shop at grocery stores rather than convenience stores when you can. Eat bananas, washed carrots, and other easy fruit and veg. Get a slab of cheese and a loaf of bread and some tomatoes; use your pocket knife to cut them up for easy and relatively healthy road snacking.

This is great advice. You'll save tons of money on food if you just buy good bread, some cheese, grapes/bananas/other nonmessy fruit, easy-to-eat vegetables, and peanut butter. It's filling and helps you stay healthy. It makes a huge difference.
posted by mediareport at 9:28 PM on June 6, 2007

I swear by Emergen-C Effervesent Vitamins. I take at least one a day to ensure that I meet all of my daily vitamin and mineral needs.

I also second the suggestion of packing a number of Clif Bars. They're great when meals are few and far between, and will certainly prevent too much "road grazing" (i.e. junk food picked up at convenience stores and gas stations along the way).

In the case that an air mattress is impossible, I'll echo lobstermitten and advise you to bring a thermarest. They're lightweight, compact, don't require a pump, and can take a thrashing. I've had mine for years, and have abused it to no end. It has held up extremely well. It is also far more comfortable than sleeping against a bare wooden floor.

Also, if you'll be couch-surfing in particularly grungy places (think poorly kept, college-years party houses, etc), I suggest getting yourself a meningitis vaccination. Waking up with a stiff neck, black limbs, and close to death would probably put a damper on your roadtrip.
posted by numinous at 9:35 PM on June 6, 2007

Drink bottled water as opposed to tap water. Different parts of the country (this one anyhow) treat the town supply differently, and you may not enjoy the flavour of bore water.

Wash/shower as often as you can, even if you have to put dirty clothes back on. It makes a difference.

Cheap food is a pre-roast chook and a loaf of bread from your grocery store. Throw in a bunch of apples and it's much better value than going to a fast food store.

When at mcdonalds, appropriate enormous quanities of the jam etc in the little tubs for later use. Don't forget to keep a plastic knife to apply them.

Don't let anyone smoke in the car.

When couch surfing, offer to do the dishes or other chores. Leave the place tidier than you found it. Don't annoy the neighbours. Your host has to go on living there.

Only use drugs very discreetly.

Don't leave pubic hairs in the soap.

Oh and wear sunscreen. Trust me on this.
posted by b33j at 9:35 PM on June 6, 2007

Porpoise has already mentioned this, but I just want to stress how important it is to bring a camera. Don't forget the camera. If you don't have one, buy a cheapy digital camera.
posted by qvtqht at 10:02 PM on June 6, 2007

Agree now, with everyone, what time each night will be the default douse-the-lights-and-shut-up time. If at all possible, the same time every night, though obviously you can negotiate extensions as events recommend. Get a committment to honor 'be quiet'/'knock it off' requests after this time, without whining.

This is for your alertness, your mood, your immune function, and for keeping everyone aware that stuff they do actually will affect other people. Two weeks is not a throwaway situation, like some overnighters are, where if people are inconsiderate dicks all night you can suck it up and you'll soon be fine. Two weeks is a little, miniature society, and you have to be ready to treat each other decent.
posted by eritain at 10:03 PM on June 6, 2007

As far as secret ninja tricks for sleeping, I can never get any of them to work, but I've heard people swear by a few.

The only one I can remember is to imagine yourself as a vessel, a container of the energy of the previous day or whatever you want to be full of. Relax completely, watching yourself from above as you close your eyes and breath slowly, maybe taking around four to six counts to inhale, equal to exhale. Gently pull the energy, the wakefulness, out of your feet and hands, then arms and legs, without moving. Pull everything into your torso, then lungs. Exhale, leaving no trace of wakefulness. This should take a few minutes, and I do not guarantee success in any form. It might be worth a try though.

Another thought is to find a college website that offers anyone visiting a chance to watch their lectures for free, and turn on some advanced mathematics. Pay close attention, and you'll be unconscious in minutes. Only problem is that it requires you to either be near a computer or save a lecture to an ipod.

FOOD: if you are to be in a car where the people in the backseat have access to the trunk, or in a van, you should have a cooler containing sandwiches. Ideally something delicious and just slightly elaborate, because otherwise it's hardly better then trailmix. Lettuce, chees, a few of your favorite meets, mayo (or miracle whip if you're not crazy). Also fill it with carbonated beverages, placed below the crushable sandwiches.

Alertness without any substance: Rock out. like, hard. Hell, if I'm not ready to sleep even light jazz can give me an extra half hour of consciousness, so whatever music you can stand, BLAST.

Murder Prevention: Always listen very closely to others, always be ready to compromise, and always try to smell nice. As an earlier poster said, speak up if you suspect several members of the group want something but aren't saying it. They'll appreciate any of these steps they notice (don't point these out) and might be more willing to return the favor. Also try and be funnier. No matter how funny you are, you can always be funnier, and no one is mean to a nice comedian.
posted by sandswipe at 10:04 PM on June 6, 2007

To keep your travel mates from killing you: Bring a toothbrush.... And, have fun!
posted by amyms at 10:20 PM on June 6, 2007

If you're going to be doing any night driving, you should discuss in advance the possibility that one of the passengers may need to stay awake in the car to keep the driver company. I've been on roadtrips where this wasn't discussed, and the driver came pretty close to falling asleep a few times. If you're the night driver, don't be afraid to ask someone to stay awake and talk to you. It's better than the alternative.

I'd also write down a few important phone numbers in case someone's phone dies.

If you and/or your tripmates have iPods or other mp3 players, I'd invest in an FM transmitter. They're not terribly expensive, and it's easier to plug an iPod in than it is to fish around for CDs.

Don't forget an atlas! You may have your route pretty well mapped out, but there might be something extra you want to see, or you may get lost.
posted by bluishorange at 10:31 PM on June 6, 2007

Oh, and ... yes, home-made jerky is (a) not difficult, and (b) about a thousand times better than gas station jerky. But any jerky is going to clog you up if you eat a buttload of it. Plus it'll make your poo stinky. Fact of life. So use some moderation, and alternate it with fruit leather (which is (a) even more not-difficult, and (b) also a lot better than the commercial stuff). And water. Dehydrated foods suck up your precious bodily fluids if you forget to slake them after you eat.
posted by eritain at 12:55 AM on June 7, 2007

If you're going to be doing alot of couch surfing and crashing at friends' houses, here's a great tip I picked up from friends in touring bands that do this for months on end.

Cook dinner. Ask/offer to use their kitchen and cook a big, healthy dinner for everyone, including your host. If you plan on getting there rather late, make it breakfast. Your host will almost certainly know where a very close grocery is to stock up.

If you didn't glean the awesome benifit of this trick already, here's why you would do such a thing: It makes sure your traveling crew is wonderfully well fed (which is always awesome), plus it makes you great guests, and is an easy, mutually benificial way to thank your host for letting you crash on their floor and couches.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 1:36 AM on June 7, 2007

Sleep mask and foam ear-plugs.
posted by wyzewoman at 3:45 AM on June 7, 2007

figure out the format of music the vehicle will support (ipod, cds only, tapes only) and give everyone the opportunity to contribute a few mixes in the appropriate medium. rotate fairly.

seconding the sleep mask and ear plugs. if an air mattress is out of your budget, you might be able to find an inflatable or foam pool float...at the very least, maybe you can bring a few blankets or quilts to fold up into a kind of bed.

stay hydrated, take vitamins, and keep some pain and tummy remedies on hand. if you find you're having a hard time sleeping--even though sitting in a car all day is numbing, you're pretty inactive and might find sleep difficult--popping a benadryl at night will help speed you on your way.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:38 AM on June 7, 2007

Regarding gas money: Every one puts in $100 to an envelope that goes in a book casually placed on the dashboard (so the driver can fill up without waking everyone). This pays for gas, entrance to national parks, and tolls - things that should be shared, nothing else. When it runs out, everyone puts in another 100, or whatever is agreed upon. Every time money is taken out, write down ont he envelope how much was taken, where, mileage, and gas price/gas amount. Kinda fun to watch the different prices, etc.
posted by notsnot at 8:09 AM on June 7, 2007

Hey, I just got back (yesterday) from a long trip... not as long as yours but plenty long.

Air mattresses are good, they tend to take up about the same space as a sleeping pad when folded, but they're much more comfortable. The kind you plug in is better then the kind with batteries, IF you can rely on plugging it in. (Downside, they don't wear well, but that's daily use over the course of months, not a couple weeks.)

Get a bottle (largest that will fit in a small cooler) with the LARGE opening...a Gatorade bottle will work in a pinch, or you can get un-filled bottles from the store (just make sure the mouth is big enough). Fill with fresh water and ice cubes every night. Don't bother to freeze it, since it won't thaw nicely--ice cubes = better. Oh and keep a plastic cup, best to get the kind that come in multiple colours, so that you don't have to wonder about which one is yours.

You should be able to rotate drivers, but if you get caught driving a long stretch changing your seat adjustment (lumbar, move forward or back a notch, move the steering wheel up or down a notch) regularly can help prevent muscle stress (makes you use each muscle in a different way instead of repetitively). (Same goes for just sitting, not driving, too, although you can move a lot more.)

An actual, cloth washcloth--give your face a good scrub in the restroom whenever you stop, feels soooo much nicer then those stupid paper towels. But do keep a supply of damp paper towels in a ziplock, cheaper then wipes. (Keep it in the cooler, too, but not on top of ice or it'll freeze.)

If you're going to a bunch of national parks, one of the group should get a year pass. It's 50$, and covers that person and the car fee (which can be something like 20$/day, you can see it'll pay if you use it a couple of times).

If you don't mind fake lemon, a light brush of Crystal Lite will cover any funky water taste, try this one at home first, though.
posted by anaelith at 9:52 AM on June 7, 2007

If the six of you are in 2 vehicles, it will be a bit easier. It allows people to rotate who they are with, and provides more flexibility in activities.

I really really urge you to beg or borrow an air mattress, seach craigslist and garage sales. If you are young and not prone to aches and pains, you can try the Therm-a-Rest which is what backpacking types use for insulation and a little bit of comfort when sleeping on the ground. It isn't cheap. REI may rent one to you, but for the length of your trip you may as well have bought it I suspect.

Have an exit strategy for yourself. I've had a few friends end up in road trip situations where the personal dynamics were toxic and they were miserable and the couple that were able to cut their loses and say "we'll just carry on from here on our own" were the ones that still had a nice time. The other people are still traumatized when they see the interior of any Toyota.

If you don't already know how to cook something that will feed six people, and that you can do either over a fire/coals or at a stove, maybe learn.

For your health, I find that Airborne works pretty well. But maybe it's just in my mind. If not airborne, take Vitamin C like your life depends on it for 2 weeks before and one week after your trip [and also during]. Flax seed oil or Fish oil [I suggest Flax Seed Oil] will also help your immune system and help keep you focused and un-cranky during the day. [At least it does for me, YMMV]

If you are one of those folks who find social contact draining rather than stimulating, or are just not naturally super-social or are shy, you may want to invest in a good long book on tape or book on MP3. This gives you an escape and an activity in almost any situation. No matter the light level, or the location, you can listen to your book and be as alone as you'll manage.
posted by Mozzie at 11:01 AM on June 7, 2007

always try to smell nice

I put this in every living-out-of-my-car AskMe -- you might put five minutes of thought into your foot-stink prevention strategy. :) On road trips, I've ended up wearing shoes for like 20 hours in a row, then wanting to take them off while in really cramped quarters with others...

But this suggestion actually isn't really from personal experience. It's from these two guys I met who were travelling together. After every day of hiking, they were very attentive to immediately finding the can of shoe spray, which they regarded with near-reverence, and they alluded vaguely to this one time one of them almost had to kill the other....
posted by salvia at 6:21 PM on June 7, 2007

Oh gosh, don't wear closed shoes in the car, unless you're also doing heavy hiking. If you can avoid wearing closed shoes (and socks) altogether, your feet will never start smelling yucky in the first place, and then you won't have to get stuck in the "I can't take my shoes off, because wearing shoes makes my feet smell" loop. If your feet get cold, wrap a sweatshirt or such around them.
posted by anaelith at 9:32 AM on June 8, 2007

After every day of hiking, they were very attentive to immediately finding the can of shoe spray

Also, if you're doing long days of riding/hiking, you might just want to have semi-decent PJs or "end of day" clothes to switch into when you were done riding/driving. There's nothing like saying "I'm home" [wherever your temp/home is that day] than putting on a nice pair of lounge pants or whatever those drawstring cotton pants are and a clean tshirt. You don't bring the road inside with you and you've got somethign comfy to wear and hang out in in the evening.
posted by jessamyn at 12:06 PM on June 8, 2007

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