OK, you’re in love, and the idea of driving 1,800 miles to be with your sweetie strikes you as romantic. Or you’ve got a last-minute interview in Poughkeepsie and no way to get there but by car. Your adrenaline’s up and you’re ready for a speed run. First piece of advice: Take the time to get ready.
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Whenever I can, I like to mosey on a road trip. What luxury is greater than having the time to let the spirit of the moment determine your route and destination? But the reality is that few of us have enough time to mosey to the grocery store, much less on a cross-country journey. Even when we take road-trip vacations, we’re usually in a big hurry to get somewhere so we can begin to “relax” in earnest.
If you’ve ever covered 650 miles or more in a single day, you were on what I consider to be a “speed run.” In most areas of the United States, a 650-mile trip requires about 11 hours of driving, and an 800-mile journey will take about 14 (including stops for fuel, food and traffic slowdowns). In my early road-tripping days, I pulled off a couple of “extreme speed runs,” covering an average of 1,300 miles per day. Now I know this was not only silly but risky, considering how seriously fatigue affects coordination and the ability to multi-task effectively. Safe driving requires all faculties on high alert. Of course, car rally drivers and other kinds of racers drive extreme numbers of miles in a day, but they are operating on a closed track or controlled route. Don’t consider them role models for road trips on regular roads, where there are no chase vehicles and unexpected hazards can pop up at every turn.
Covering lots of ground under time pressure is not a casual activity. As with every road trip, success starts in your brain, and both discipline and preparation are required. Whether your speed run is a solo effort or is undertaken with co-drivers, there are several fundamental techniques that can help ensure a successful and reasonably safe journey.
- Maps and routes. Even if your trip will include the services of a co-driver serving as navigator, it is smart to determine your route ahead of time, and it saves time, too. I carry a clipboard with a printed map of the day’s general route. If I have booked reservations for lodging, I also include a detailed set of driving instructions for finding the motel at night.
- Lodging or camping reservations. If you can’t tolerate the risk of finding “no room at the inn,” then make reservations. Personally, I prefer to keep that element of the trip unscripted. While reservations do guarantee a bed, they also limit my options, especially on a speed run when time is of the essence. Also, time spent at a motel or camping spot is going to be very short, so amenities beyond a clean bed and shower are not big priorities for me. On most routes, there are plenty of spur-of-the-moment lodging choices.
- Packing. Give your road-trip vehicle a good examination and make sure the spare tire has the correct air pressure. Ensure that your road-trip supplies, tools and gear are complete, up to date and in working order. I keep a set of road-trip equipment and supplies in my vehicle at all times, making preparation for speed runs much less time-consuming.
- Sleep. In the 48-hour period before a speed run, I try to get one to two extra hours of sleep each night so I can begin the trip fully rested. Anyone can do a single day of driving 750 miles or more, but the cumulative effect of long-haul driving over several days is extreme fatigue, which can be both dangerous and lead to crankiness, which is unpleasant for anyone traveling with you.
- Road food. Speed runs and restaurant meals don’t mix. The portions are often too large, too high in calories and they take too much time to eat. I’ve found that eating a nutritious restaurant breakfast is a good way to start the day; I follow it with two or three other meals from my onboard cooler. Eating this way is healthier, and it saves time, too. Also drink plenty of water during the speed run — twice as much as usual. Staying hydrated not only curbs hunger, it increases alertness. An added benefit is that it forces you to stop for quick breaks frequently.
- Three-person rotation. If you are traveling with other drivers on a speed run, the optimal way to apportion the driving is by a three-person rotation. With three drivers, it’s possible to drive continuously except for fuel, food and restroom breaks. In the rotation I like best, one driver drives for three hours, and then does a three-hour shift as the navigator-conversationalist in the front right seat. Then the navigator moves to the back seat and goes to sleep. This requires discipline. Some team drivers suggest that at the end of a driving shift, the driver immediately go to sleep. In my experience, it’s better for the driver to unwind for a shift as the navigator, because it can be difficult to fall asleep right away.
- Drive with the sun. Driving toward either a setting or rising sun causes eye fatigue. Plan to have breakfast or take a MOVE break when the sun is near the horizon.
- MOVE breaks. In addition to eye fatigue, driving long distances can also cause leg cramps, decreased situational awareness and even a potentially life-ending medical condition known as deep venous thrombosis (DVT). The best prevention is very simple: Get out of the car and MOVE. When you stop for fuel or food, do some stretches, jog in place, chase a Frisbee or do your interpretation of the Chicken Dance. Forget about how odd you look — no one knows you! Do whatever it takes to get your circulation moving.
- One last tip. When you get to your destination, relax and take time to recharge your batteries. It may seem like you’ve just been sitting in a car for a few days, but as anyone who has ever done it can tell you, long-distance driving under time pressure is exhausting and stressful.
I don’t recommend speed runs, but these tips will help ensure safety and success when moseying is out of the question.
Mark Sedenquist is the publisher of RoadTrip America, a Web site providing expert planning, advice and suggested itineraries for road trips. He's spent 30 years and a half-million miles on the road in North America. Email Mark or visit his website.