How do you handle the stir-craziness from being forced to stay at home in a year like no other?
Millions of us in North America have canceled or put on hold our summer travel plans because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’re pent-up and itching to break out of the confines of our homes to go somewhere, anywhere. But traveling overseas or getting on cruise ships, trains, and planes just aren’t appealing or even possible now.
But, you could still hop in your car or an RV for a road trip, and it might just be the mental relief you need. I myself just completed a weeklong road trip between Seattle and Wisconsin and it was wonderful and liberating to be traveling again. It was also a much-needed respite from global tumult and turmoil, a chance to reset my headspace with magnificent scenery and the awesomeness of the natural world.
Just be aware that your trip this year is going to take some planning, vigilance, precautions, and common sense.
First, just be smart about what you’re doing. This isn’t the time for total spontaneity—a wait-and-see-where-I-end-up attitude needs to stay at home because the coronavirus is raging in full force in many US states as of mid-July. If you’re from or thinking about visiting any of the so-called 31 “red-zone” states like Arizona, Florida, or California, please consider the full risk of not only catching the virus yourself but also spreading the infection to others, needlessly burdening medical facilities (including if you get sick en route), or bringing the virus back home. As of the writing of this post, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are requiring that travelers returning from a red-zone state self-quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival. Check the specific conditions and rules in the places where you’ll be traveling in this fast-changing situation.
Obviously, don’t travel if you’re not feeling well or have symptoms, if you’ve been exposed to anyone sick with COVID-19, if you’re in a high-risk medical category, if you might potentially infect someone who’s vulnerable, yada-yada-yada.
In other words, don’t add to the problem. Consider yourself warned.
Tips for You to Stay Safe
So, what do you need to do?
- Have a plan. Regardless of where you’re going, know the latest health restrictions of wherever you’re traveling, including whether lodging, parks, and other places are open and to what degree. Also, try to predict how crowded your destination will be; it’s best to avoid high-density places and to remain outdoors where there’s plenty of room to socially distance (and keep that in mind for campgrounds too).
- Assemble a sanitation kit. This includes disinfecting wipes, face masks, disposable gloves, hand sanitizer, disposable plastic bags, and tissues.
- Minimize your time spent in high-traffic areas like public restrooms, convenience stores, and the like. I don’t need to tell you to always wash your hands, but don’t forget to use a tissue or a paper towel for door handles as you exit, or else you defeat the purpose.
- And make sure you’re washing your hands properly. Most of us don’t do it long or thoroughly enough.
- Social distancing, staying outdoors, wearing your mask or face covering…you know the drill. It’s not hard or political—just common scientific sense.
- Fueling up: Gas pump handles and payment pad buttons are prime contaminant hotspots. Either wear disposable gloves and then strip them off properly and throw them away before you re-enter your vehicle, or use hand sanitizer before you touch anything else in your car. I know it’s difficult, especially as we enter hay fever season, but try to remember to not touch your face. Gloves can promote a false sense of security because we end up touching too many things that cross-contaminate. On my trip, I kept a box of them handy in my car just in case, but I used just hand sanitizer after every time I’d fill up.
- Avoid using cash and pay with your debit card or contactless methods like Apple Pay.
- Plan ahead for food and snacks. Try to grocery-shop and bring as much food as possible so you don’t have to keep running into convenience stores or resorting to restaurants so often. Pack plenty of fresh fruit and veggies (besides providing valuable nutrients, these help keep you hydrated without having to drink so much liquid and thus visit public bathrooms more frequently); high-protein snacks like beef jerky, hard-boiled eggs, and cheese; and trail mix, nuts, and crackers. I also like crunchy, spicy things that keep me awake (never underestimate the power of corn nuts and Atomic Fireballs on highway safety). If you have a hankering for restaurant food, use drive-through places and avoid dining in if possible. Try taking your food to a rest stop or a park and eat outdoors. If you do dine indoors, scope out the restaurant for how they’re spacing out diners, if they have a large enough area with good ventilation (avoid small, tightly confined places), and sit outdoors if they have such seating areas.
- Clean your vehicle regularly with disinfectant wipes if you’ve been touching potentially contaminated surfaces with ungloved hands (and know that it can be super-easy to forget to sanitize your hands right away when getting back into your car). That means interior and exterior door handles, gearshift knobs, steering wheel, keys, start buttons, consoles, armrests, and all dashboard switches and controls. If you’re renting an RV, communicate with the rental company to find out what their disinfecting procedures are—and then be prepared to sanitize the vehicle further on your own. Here are some tips.
- Choose your hotel carefully. Try to stay at larger corporate-chain hotels that cater to business travelers; they’re likely to have stricter disinfectant procedures than franchise places, which may cut corners. Many, like Hilton, Marriott, and Accor, are partnering with major medical institutions in sanitation protocol. During my trip, I stayed mostly at Hilton Garden Inns, which follow a pretty intensive cleaning regimen. Here is a list of what major hotel brands are doing to ensure the safety of their guests and staff. And if you find yourself not being able to stay at one of these places, don’t be shy about calling ahead and asking what their sanitation policies are, as I did at one hotel in Miles City, Montana.
- Ditto for rental properties. Airbnb has instituted major health and safety guidelines, but, as with any other lodging, doing your research and communicating with your hosts ahead of time is a must. If you’re not comfortable in shared spaces, consider renting an entire property that you’ll have all to yourself. If you’re still feeling nervous about using Airbnb, consider this: its built-in guest reviewer system means that if there’s a single bad review of a host or place for improper sanitation, the reputation of that listing is essentially finished forever. Hosts are pretty darned motivated to not let this happen!
- Come prepared anyway. All that said, it’s still a good idea to bring your own sanitizer and disinfecting wipes so you can do your own wiping down of high-touch surfaces if needed. Television remotes are particularly dubious; use a tissue to pick one up and deposit it in a zipper-lock bag that you can seal; then operate it without directly touching it. And don’t touch or use those decorative bedspreads or throw pillows—they’re typically not cleaned between guests!
- Bring an extra pillow, blanket, and clothing from home in case your vehicle breaks down or you have a sudden change in plans that might involve your sleeping in or spending the night in your vehicle. That’s true, pandemic or not!
- Consider who you’ll be seeing and what you’ll be doing along the way. My recent trip involved seeing several family members and friends. I’m not an overly paranoid person, but I do care about not getting sick myself (I have serious upper respiratory vulnerabilities) and not endangering others. With each stop and stay, I needed to gauge the situation, take measures, and plan ahead to keep all of us safe—present and future. Since I was staying one night with a demographically vulnerable friend, I decided to skip seeing or shortened my time with certain folks to lessen the accumulated risk. He and I communicated extensively ahead of time about how to minimize our risk just in case if I showed up infected but asymptomatic. (It also helps that he happens to be a retired emergency room doctor who is closely following the latest science and medical protocols.) We kept our visit to socializing outside on his back deck, and I ended up sleeping in his Sprinter camper van that was parked outside his house and wore a mask when I entered his house to use the guest bathroom. Everyone’s situation will be different, of course, but it’s important that there be genuine consideration, honest communication, and realistic assessment about the risks involved. You don’t need to panic or be paranoid, but do have a plan to ensure safety. It never hurts to err on the side of caution. And think about a contingency plan should you or your travel companions fall ill during your trip.
Tips for Your Vehicle to Stay Healthy Too
Some things don’t change, like how you should prepare your vehicle!
- I always ready my cars by getting a fresh oil change and thorough checks of hoses, tires (including the spare), fluids, and brakes. I pack extra oil, coolant, washer fluid (especially for bugs in summer), jumper cables (don’t scrimp by buying cheap ones), a few choice tools, a reflective warning triangle, a hunting knife, clean rags, a first-aid kit, plastic bags, distilled water (for possible cooling purposes), bottled drinking water, a reflective safety vest, a (working) flashlight, and a SafetySock in case you get stranded. Make sure you have all the tools needed to change your spare tire! I also highly recommend bringing along Walt Brinker’s fantastic book, Roadside Survival.
- Tires warrant special attention. One of the single most important things you can do before, during, and after a long trip is to check that they have enough tread and are properly inflated. The emphasis is on the word “properly,” as myths and misinformation abound on this subject. Under- and over-inflated tires cause needless wear, waste significant fuel, and build up excess heat, which can be especially dangerous at high speeds or if you’re pulling a trailer or hauling extra weight. Summer heat can cause tire pressures to fluctuate wildly, requiring more monitoring but at the proper times—check them only when the vehicle has been resting for a while and the tires are cold. Always follow the tire pressure numbers indicated by the manufacturer decal on the driver-side doorframe (on pre-2003 cars, this may be on the glove box door, fuel filler flap, or trunk lid). Do not use the pressure number molded on the tire, as it specifies your vehicle’s full rated load capacity only, not the recommended inflation pressure.
- Also, use a quality tire pressure gauge (not a cheapo model and not the tired one at a gas station unless it’s an absolute emergency). I prefer to have my tires checked by a tire store like Firestone or Goodyear or by a trusted mechanic; they’ll always do it for free and their equipment is better calibrated and maintained. (And no, in all the years I’ve done this, I’ve never had one try to upsell me on getting new tires as a result.)
- Other bits and pieces of preparedness: If you’re going on a very long cross-country trip, consider investing in some roadside assistance protection (like AAA). Always keep your cell phone charged as much as possible; if you have a breakdown, the last thing you want is to be running out of phone juice when you need it most (and battery power may be drawn down faster than usual as your phone attempts to communicate with numerous cell towers along the way). And if you’re tired, while caffeine and certain techniques can help keep you awake temporarily, they are no substitute for getting actual sleep. Don’t be tempted to push it—the results could easily be fatal for you and others. From skid marks and crumpled guardrails to rollovers and crashed vehicles in medians or along roadsides, I see evidence of this every time I go on a long trip.
- While you’re on the road, do a regular vehicle check. Periodically during your trip and especially if you’re pulling a trailer or camper, do a complete walkaround your vehicle and check for anything amiss, including tires getting low, new dings or dents, cables and straps needing tightening, etc. In the morning, while my car is cool and before setting off, I’ll check and refill the wiper fluid, coolant, and oil as needed.
Watch Out for All the Crazy Driving Out There
One of the many weird by-products of the pandemic is that even though fewer people were on the roads and traffic volume was down during stay-at-home lockdowns, fatalities surged in the US, sometimes by as much as nearly 42 percent in some states. It seems that the empty roads were an open invitation to drive fast, and we’re not talking just 10 or 20 miles over the legal limit but speeds of 100+ mph. When a crash happens at those speeds, the results are never pretty. Law enforcement has been keeping busy.
The recent lifting of shelter-in-place restrictions and the reopening of many states means that traffic and higher road volumes have resumed, but our collective state of mind is still very much visible on our streets. I’m witnessing more drivers recklessly speeding, weaving in and out of lanes, dangerously overtaking even on narrow two-lane curved roads, even more red-light running than before, bullying, and other acts of inattention, distraction, and impetuousness. Many friends and colleagues have also attested to this, with some even theorizing that the people who are out and about during the pandemic are naturally inclined to take more risks, and this extends to their driving behavior.
It can be tempting to retaliate or vent at these apparently thoughtless drivers, but it’s also worth remembering that this is not a normal time. People are grappling with home confinement, the constant threat of illness, death, staggering unemployment, health concerns, financial issues, food shortages, looming homelessness, and general anger and uncertainty about the present and future. Drivers are more exhausted, stressed, depressed, distracted, overworked, anxious, and at their mental and physical limits than ever before, especially if there’s domestic abuse or other issues exacerbated by being at home. And they’re likely resorting to more alcohol, cannabis, both prescription and illegal drugs, antidepressants, and stimulants, which impair judgment and increase impulsive behavior.
The pandemic has also placed significant burdens on commercial trucking and delivery drivers. With so many of us ordering stuff online to be delivered to our homes, there is more pressure than ever before to transport all these extra goods—and often in a hurry. In March 2020, the US Department of Transportation exempted commercial truck drivers delivering essentials such as food and medical supplies from some of the usual mandatory requirements to drive limited hours to reduce fatigue. Unprecedented delivery demands are also allowing new trainee truck drivers with commercial driving permits to work before obtaining their full commercial driving licenses (CDLs) under certain conditions. So, watch out especially for drowsy or distracted truckers and delivery vehicles, whether you’re on the interstate or in a neighborhood.
And, if you’re in Georgia (already one of the red-zone states for rising COVID-19 cases), watch out for another hazard: new drivers. In early May, the governor of Georgia issued a state-of-emergency executive order exempting new drivers (16- to 18-year-olds who have had their learners permit for at least one year) from having to take the dreaded road test to get their full license (although they would have to return later to take it once the pandemic crisis passed). As of May 8, nearly 20,000 of these kids took advantage of this bonanza, and shortly after, the state of Wisconsin followed suit. As if there weren’t enough going on…
None of this, of course, excuses unsafe behavior behind the wheel and action on the road, but it does offer a glimpse into what might be going on. So, watch out, stay alert, be a little more compassionate and forgiving if someone slights you, take extra care to be a safe and courteous driver yourself, and download my driving tips ebook to learn how you can protect yourself and others.
And One Last Thing…
Don’t hang your mask from your rearview mirror!! While this may seem like a handy place to store one and I know you want to thwart the virus from sneaking up on you from behind, a mask blocks your visibility far more than you realize, especially in critical moments like turning or when you’re on a slope. A rearview mirror just by itself can block your view of pedestrians, cyclists, and even whole vehicles at just the right angle. Imagine how a mask adds to that! Besides, it’s illegal and you can be fined for it in New Jersey, Illinois, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.
Hit the road (but not anyone, anything, or any animals). And stay safe out there. Let me know how it goes!
Photo credits (from top to bottom): Istock, AleksandarNakic; Adobe Stock, maximus19; Adobe Stock, manusapon; Adobe Stock, REDPIXEL; Adobe Stock, Siam; Pexel; Adobe Stock, vit; ; Adobe Stock, Miguel Angel Partido.