how to stay awake when driving

How to Stay Awake While Driving Long Distances: 10 Science-Based Tips

We all know that familiar feeling as sleepiness becomes a problem during a long drive. It’s important for safety to stay awake behind the wheel.

Whether your journey is in the morning or at night, read this full guide to learn how to stay awake while driving long distances at night. Got a friend with a serious case of feeling sleepy? Share this article with them to guarantee some company during your next road trip, even without caffeine!

Thankfully, there are a few hacks you can use to ensure you stay awake and stay safe. At The Road Trip Expert, we’ve researched this topic extensively. In this article, we’ll give you our top tips as well as statistics and expert advice from world-leading sleep experts. Read on so you can prevent drowsy driving and stay awake on the road.

stay awake while driving infographic

How To Stay Awake While Driving Long Distances

how to stay awake while driving
How to stay awake while driving

In order to stay awake while driving long distances, make sure you have had sufficient sleep the night before. Stay well hydrated, avoid unhealthy snacks and take regular breaks in well-lit areas. Take a power nap of 20 minutes and exercise during breaks. Keep the windows open for airflow and listen to a podcast. Do not consume alcohol the night before.

  1. Get at least 7 hours of sleep the night before
  2. Drink water as well as caffeine
  3. Avoid excessive unhealthy snacks
  4. Take a break in a well-lit area a few hours before your normal bedtime
  5. Take a power nap (10-20 mins)
  6. Exercise during breaks
  7. Open the driver and opposite rear windows to create airflow
  8. Occupy the brain with a task
  9. Listen to a podcast
  10. Do not consume alcohol during or the day before driving

Keep yourself entertained whilst driving long distances using this Audible Plus Free Trial from Amazon. Listen to podcasts, audiobooks & more!

Check out our other must-haves in our article on the Best Road Trip Accessories.


How To Stay Awake While Driving Without Caffeine

how to stay awake while driving without caffeine
How to stay awake while driving without caffeine

To stay awake while driving without caffeine it is important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Try to exercise during regular breaks and seek out well-lit areas to slow down the release of melatonin. If you feel too tired to drive, always stop somewhere for the night and resume your journey after a good night’s sleep.

  1. Stay hydrated by drinking lots of water
  2. Make sure you get sufficient sleep the night before you are driving
  3. Take your breaks in areas with lots of bright lights.
  4. Open the windows to allow cold air into the vehicle
  5. Play music and sit up straight in your chair
  6. Always stop at a hotel and get some sleep if you feel unsafe behind the wheel

Without the temporary boost from caffeine, drowsiness can become a significant impairment as your body releases the hormone melatonin and prepares for sleep. Crucially, ensure you plan to drive a manageable distance if you don’t have the backup of a few cups of coffee to safely finish the end of a journey.

Stay comfortable on your long journey using this Lumbar Support Pillow for your car. Make sure you are able to keep your phone charged by having an in-car charger for your trip.

How To Stay Awake While Driving At Night

How to stay awake while driving at night

To stay awake while driving at night it is important to open the windows, stay hydrated, and take regular breaks in an area with lots of light. At night, melatonin is released which makes you sleepy, and stopping in a well-lit area will counteract this. Take a power nap or consider stopping at a hotel for a full night’s sleep.

Read on for more in-depth advice following our extensive research. If you cannot resist using caffeine as your secret weapon, check out this Coffee Flask Kettle for your car.

10 Science-Based Hacks On How To Stay Awake While Driving Long Distances

When you’re tired, cognitive performance decreases, and drowsiness kills more people on the road than drugs and alcohol combined. It’s important to stay alert while driving to prevent an accident.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that in the United States there were 90 000 traffic incidents involving drowsy driving in 2015.

Below are my top tips for how to stay awake while driving. If you think you are putting yourself or others at risk on the road please stop and get some rest!

how to stay awake while driving

Get at least 7 hours of sleep the night before

“Sleep is the greatest legal performance enhancing drug that most people are probably neglecting”

Dr Matthew Walker, PHD – Author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

There is no substitute for a full night’s sleep before a long drive. When under-slept, you are susceptible to micro-sleeps which are temporary lapses in focus. Sleep is crucial for health and recovery and sleep studies have shown that after being awake for 20 hours you can be as impaired as an individual that is legally drunk.

The average American sleeps just 6 hours and 31 minutes during the week (It used to be 7.9 hours in 1942). Planning ahead and ensuring a full night’s sleep the evening before is the best way to stay awake while driving the following day.

More from the Road Trip Expert: Road Trip Entertainment

stay awake behind the wheel

Drink water as well as caffeine

“Symptoms of dehydration include feeling tired” – NHS, UK

Caffeine is the most commonly used stimulant in the world with the effect of increasing alertness, concentration, and focus. However, caffeine is also a diuretic, and prolonged consumption during a long drive can lead to dehydration.

Ensure you drink a considerable amount of water to avoid any dehydration-induced fatigue or tiredness on the road. After all, a whopping 60% of your body weight is from water.

TIP: Pickup a Contigo Water Bottle and stay hydrated!

The recommended amount (Institute of Medicine) is around 3 liters for a male and a little over 2 liters for a female per day. The best energy drink to stay awake while driving according to ranker.com is Red Bull, closely followed by Monster. You can still stay awake while driving without caffeine.

Avoid excessive unhealthy snacks

Refined sugars and carbohydrates such as those found in sweets and sugary soft drinks may give you a temporary boost.

BUT…

The subsequent insulin spike can increase tiredness on the road significantly.

Try to avoid that carb crash by eating a banana, salad or another healthy snack. This will give you a gradual energy release as opposed to a sudden spike.

With less sleep, the hunger hormone ghrelin gets ramped up, so it might seem difficult to resist the temptation to feast on sugary snacks! Do your best to avoid them unless you need a final boost at the end of the journey.

Take a break in a well-lit area a few hours before your normal bedtime

“One hour of iPhone use will delay the onset of melatonin production by about 3 hours”

Dr Matthew Walker , PHD – Author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

Melatonin is a hormone released by the body prior to sleeping. It creates the feeling of sleepiness as the body prepares for rest. Incandescent light bulbs and smartphone screens can suppress the release of this hormone.

So how is this important?

Taking a break in a well-lit service station after its gone dark, a couple of hours before you would normally go to bed can delay tiredness.

Pro tip:

If you are using a laptop, consider trying Flux which is software that reduces the output of this light in the evening (when you do want to sleep).

Take a power nap

Taking a short nap can help you feel refreshed, more alert and in an improved mood by tackling your sleep deficit. According to Dr. Sara C. Mednick, keep the nap short (10-20 mins) to avoid going into a deeper sleep that may make you feel drowsier after you wake up due to sleep inertia.

You can find more info in our article on how frequently you should take breaks when driving long distances.

Exercise during Breaks

woman exercising

When taking a break, try to take a walk or do some stretches. This increased blood flow will not only benefit your alertness, but it will help avoid back pain or muscle aches caused by a prolonged period of sitting. Whilst in the car try to sit upright and move positions regularly to avoid strain.

Open the driver window and opposite rear window

This should create a flow of air that will wake you up. A cold blast of air can be great for a temporary reduction in tiredness.

Occupy the Brain with a Task

This could be making a phone call or even something as simple as playing a road trip game such as the license plate game. Keeping your mind distracted and active will prevent it from going into the relaxed state that occurs just before sleep.

Listen to a Podcast

music road trip

Becoming engaged in a conversation can keep you more alert than listening to the melodic beat of your favorite music tunes. Keeping the brain active and thinking about the podcast topic can help you focus on the road.

Do not consume any alcohol before or during driving as any amount can lead to drowsiness

Alcohol is a sedative and any amount consumed can influence drowsiness. If you have a long drive, don’t consume any on the day of the trip.

But that’s not all…

Try to avoid alcohol consumption the night before your drive, too.

Why?

Drinking impairs the body’s ability to enter crucial REM sleep, meaning you won’t be well-rested before your drive.

Additional Quick Tips For Staying Awake When Driving

  1. Plan and have a second driver so that you can take turns (whilst the other rests)
  2. Keep to the speed limit. Driving fast is not only dangerous but also more cognitively draining
  3. Plan ahead and avoid late-night driving where possible
  4. Have a conversation with other passengers to keep your mind occupied

More from the Road Trip Expert: Top Road Trip Tips

Drowsy Driving Prevention

drowsy driving

Within this article, we have already discussed the top tips for staying awake while driving. It’s also important to reinforce the point that drowsy driving is responsible for numerous accidents per year due to the significant reduction in driver competency. Driving is intricate and requires continued concentration.

National Sleep Foundation Advice

The National Sleep Foundation gives these tips to recognize when you might be too tired to drive:

  • Difficulty focusing, daydreaming or wandering thoughts
  • Heavy eyelids, yawning and repeatedly rubbing your eyes
  • Memory difficulties such as forgetting the last few miles
  • Struggling to keep your head up
  • General irritability
  • Restlessness

Driving behaviors can include:

  • Drifting across lanes or hitting the shoulder rumble strip
  • Misunderstanding traffic signs or failing to turn off at the right exit

Always take breaks if you need to

If you feel tired, stop at a service station and get some sleep or check into a hotel and finish the drive in the morning. It’s much better to arrive at your destination safely.

Who is at risk of drowsy driving?

drowsy driving prevention

Everyone is at risk of drowsy driving.

Certain groups such as shift workers who work at night, those with undiagnosed sleep disorders or those working long/irregular hours might be more at risk.

The most crucial contributor is our circadian pacemaker. The body naturally regulates our body to sleep at certain times and this is a very powerful biological drive.

During deep REM sleep, our body paralyzes itself so we can dream safely. Mother nature would not put us in such a vulnerable state if it were not for the crucial importance of a good night’s sleep for health and wellbeing.

Quick Tips to Get Better Sleep

  1. Reduce alcohol consumption (Alcohol inhibits the body’s ability to enter REM sleep)
  2. Turn down the lights in the house 3 hours before bedtime (incandescent light bulbs suppress melatonin)
  3. Install Flux on your computer and try not to view screens late at night. One hour of iPhone use can delay the onset of melatonin production by 3 hours
  4. Keep your room cool. Your body needs to drop its temperature 2-3 F to sleep
  5. Ensure you get at least 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night

More from the Road Trip Expert: How to Save Money on a Road Trip (11 Super Simple Tips)

Fun Fact

What is carcolepsy?

A condition affecting buddies on a trip who fall asleep as soon as the car starts moving, providing no company or driving help

Urban Dictionary

Recommended Reading

Interested in some of the topics discussed? Check out these two books from the world’s leading experts in sleep:

Dr Sara C. Mednick – Take a nap! Change your life

Dr Matthew Walker – Why We Sleep

Why do I get sleepy while driving?

sleepy when driving

Driving is a complex task requiring focus, concentration and a continuous stream of decisions and micro-adjustments. It is natural to become tired throughout the journey in a car as we get closer to our normal sleeping time.

As previously mentioned, the body releases the hormone melatonin and the signs of drowsiness gradually surface.

If you find that you are getting sleepy while driving in the daytime, here are some possible reasons:

Possible Sleepiness Causes

  • Accumulation of a sleep deficit by not getting the required number of daily hours of sleep (7-9hours)
  • Undiagnosed sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome
  • Alcohol consumption which has affected the quality of sleep you have been getting (alcohol makes it more difficult for the body to enter REM sleep)

Conclusion

Key Points

After many hours behind the wheel, I can safely say that there is no substitute for a solid 8 hours of sleep the night before a journey. Planning to ensure a manageable distance also goes a long way.

There have been a few occasions during my past road trips where poor planning lead to me booking a hotel a huge distance away.

The result?

A tough 10-hour drive. 

It’s much better to break the drive down into manageable chunks and always try to ensure as much daytime driving as possible to avoid competing against the body’s natural drive for sleep.

Stay safe on the roads and follow these tips on how to stay awake while driving!

Final Points

Do you have any tips on how to stay awake behind the wheel?

Leave them in the comments below!

Feel free to check out our other road trip articles including road trip tips, entertainment, and road trip planner apps.