13 ways to have a healthy road trip

Expert tips for getting the most out of your summer vacation.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

Few things match the freedom of the open road under a sunny sky. Add your favorite music and the anticipation of adventure and fun, and it’s easy to leave your 9-to-5 frustrations in the dust.

But before you go, you should probably consider a few things when it comes to your health, and the health of your family. What about car and driver safety? How are you going to take care of your kids and your pets? And are you sure you want to eat all that fast food?

Here, experts offer advice on how to have a happy and healthy road trip.

-- By Michael Ko for MSN Healthy Living

1 of 15 Cars on highway (RENAULT Philippe/Getty Images)

Head for a destination that focuses on activities rather than relaxation

A vacation usually means escaping the daily grind. And few things say “getting away” better than sipping an adult beverage while doing nothing by the pool before a massage. But how about trying something different this time?

“Vacations that focus on activities, rather than relaxation, might be a better fit for the active traveler,” says Erin Stepp, a AAA spokesperson.

Drive to a beach resort for biking and swimming, or to a rustic mountain getaway for hiking and climbing. Wander through a national park or head for a “fitness vacation” destination such as a boot camp, surf school or yoga retreat. Maybe you’re heading for a new city. Do some research beforehand and find an organized running group.  

If you need some ideas, check out the active vacation suggestions offered by companies such as REI Adventures, Backroads or Austin-Lehman Adventures.

2 of 15 People rock climbing and swimming (Tim Barker/Getty Images)

Rest up to avoid drowsy and distracted driving

Taking your eyes off the road for more than two seconds doubles your risk of a crash, and one in six deadly crashes involves a drowsy driver, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Bottom line: It’s paramount to stay focused and awake, starting with the night before a trip, when you should get plenty of sleep. Caffeine will help during the drive, of course, but it takes about 30 minutes to enter the bloodstream. Stepp recommends finding a safe place to stop and rest until the jolt kicks in.

Also, Stepp says drivers should “designate a passenger to handle any incoming texts, phone calls and other distractions.” The AAA Foundation’s 2013 distracted driving report says drivers who use a cellphone roughly quadruple their crash risk.

3 of 15 Sleeping in a hotel (Image Source/Getty Images)

Maintain and service your car, especially your tires

Only 15 percent of drivers properly check their tire inflation pressure and 62 percent of drivers don’t even know where to find the correct inflation pressure for their vehicle, according to the Rubber Manufacturers of America.

“Next to the brakes, the tires are the most important safety devices on your car,” according to the website for Car Talk, the weekly National Public Radio talk show. “Incorrect tire pressure will compromise cornering, braking and stability.”

Be sure to also check the tire pressure in your spare tire. And make sure you tires aren’t bald. Too little tread could increase the risk of a blow-out and a crash. A basic tuneup before you leave on a road trip wouldn’t hurt either.

4 of 15 Car at mechanic (Sam Jordash/Getty Images)

Travel with a roadside emergency kit

From running out of gas to hitting random road debris, an emergency breakdown could happen at any moment and completely derail your plans.  Even with roadside-assistance coverage, you may have to wait a long while before help shows up. Be prepared.

Consumer Reports offers this comprehensive list to be included in an roadside emergency kit: a cellphone with a car charger, a first-aid kit, a multipurpose dry-chemical fire extinguisher, warning lights or flares, a tire gauge, jack and lug wrench, foam tire sealant, spare fuses, booster cables or portable battery booster, flashlight with extra batteries, a camera, gloves or rags, your auto-club card or roadside-assistance number, $20 in small bills and change, extra pen and paper and some extra food and water.

It’s also important to make periodic checks on the equipment in the kit to ensure it’s in working order. In addition, be familiar with how each tool works before you need to use it. Also, some experts recommend letting someone know where you’ll be every night.

5 of 15 Using an emergency roadside kit (Paul Viant/Getty Images)

Prepare what you want to eat versus relying on what you find

Eating and indulging is one of the best parts of a road trip. Delicious diners, drive-ins and BBQ joints await. But you should at least try to eat healthy, right? And how do you avoid the nonstop procession of fast-food joints? Although they’re easy and convenient, they’re a killer on your waistline at an estimated 836 calories per adult meal, according to a May study published in the BMJ general medical journal.

Control your impulses and take along a cooler. Load it with fruits, vegetables and healthy ingredients such as whole grain bread, nut butter and honey. Stock it as you go. Breakfast is a good meal to prepare. Yogurt, granola and fruit are tasty and easy, and give you the added benefit of getting on the road quicker. Healthier instant soup options can be filled with hot water at rest areas.

“Eating on the road can be unpredictable,” says Kelly Morrow, an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash. “It’s important to plan ahead so you won’t be tempted to go through a drive-through when hunger strikes.”

6 of 15 Preparing a healthy snack (Cavan Images/Getty Images)

Eat meals on a regular schedule

Morrow, who’s also a registered dietitian, advises road trippers to remember when they normally eat and stop for food at the appropriate times.

“When my son snacks a lot at random times, he isn’t hungry at mealtime and doesn’t want to eat anything healthy,” she says. “If he is hungry at mealtime, he will eat healthy foods like salad and whole grains. I think adults are a lot the same.”

But not all snacking is bad. Mary Purdy, an integrative clinical nutritionist at The Seattle Healing Arts Center, says it’s important to keep your blood sugar up while driving.

“If you haven’t eaten in a while and you see a fast-food place, you’re going to be drawn to it,” Purdy says. “And chances are, if your blood sugar is low, you will consume more.”

7 of 15 Eating around the campfire (Darrin Klimek/Getty Images)

Avoid large quantities of salt, fat and sugar

Extra salt, sugar and fat – the hallmarks of eating out – can make you feel sluggish and will add lots of extra calories that are not getting burned off when sitting in car for hours, says Morrow of Bastyr University.

“When the weather heats up, heavy fatty meals can make you feel sluggish and irritable. Who wants to feel that way on vacation?” she says. “Foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar can override the parts of your brain that make you feel full and can lead to what scientists call hedonistic eating, where you can’t stop eating.”

She says that can lead to digestive problems such as gas, bloating, discomfort and even emotional distress. Many smartphone apps can help you find healthier options at mealtime. And several dietitians recommend the book "Healthy Highways," which details healthy options for road food, especially for vegetarians and those looking for organic foods.

8 of 15 Fast food (Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images)

Maximize driver safety and comfort

A long drive can stress your body, especially your neck, shoulders and lower back. It’s important for each driver to personalize seat height and tilt to ensure the best fit for comfort. Driving experts also say not to slouch, to hold the wheel instead of resting your hands on it, not to sit on your wallet and to keep a good posture.

9 of 15 People driving (Ibai Acevedo/Getty Images)

Take frequent breaks to stretch/exercise

Take a break every two hours or every 100 miles, say the experts at AAA. Get out, stretch and exercise. Relax some of that muscle tension that’s built up from driving. It will get the blood pumping and also help with the digestion.

“When you’re seated for a long time, your circulation is not optimal,” Purdy says. “You can get constipated. Things are not moving. You need blood to get your intestines to move things along. People on the road eat quickly and tend to get back on the road. A fast-food person eats quickly as well. That does not enhance digestive function.”

10 of 15 Person stretching (Anne Ackermann/Getty Images)