There’s nothing like packing your bags and cramming yourself and your nearest and dearest into a confined space on wheels to really test the limits of relationships.
Cross-country road trips can make or break friendships and families, but a few simple strategies can keep chill summer holidays from becoming moving metal-clad hellscapes.
With that in mind, we reached out to a psychologist, a mindfulness expert, a superstar car DJ and a game-maker for their tips.
Take a deep breath
Elise Bialylew is a psychiatrist, and the founder of Mindful in May – the world’s largest online meditation challenge.
“Long car trips with the friends can be stressful,” she says. “But they are a great time to practise mindfulness – the art of being aware of what is happening from moment to moment and responding rather than reacting to the situation.
“Not only will it help you stay safer on the roads, but it’ll also give your mind a gym-like workout to learn to be more present, calm and balanced.”
For drivers, that could mean tapping into your body and noticing tension in your neck and shoulders, then trying to let it go with your outbreath. Failing that, pull over and stretch your legs, she says.
“Take time to stop and stretch your body when you notice things are feeling a bit contracted,” Bialylew says.
If you’re not behind the wheel, close your eyes and try manipulating your breath to calm down.
“Your breath is a direct doorway to your nervous system,” says Bialylew. “Use it to your advantage when you’re feeling stressed, by slowing down your exhalation.”
Sing it out
Gus Carmichael, one of the DJs behind Melbourne-based online radio station Skylab (which is broadcast from a small room above Lygon Street’s Bar Romantica), believes in the power of distraction to pass the hours spent stuck to a hot car seat. There are two remedies, he says – company and music. When the former fails you, the latter won’t.
While curating your own playlist, Carmichael recommends keeping three things in mind: range (don’t let it get repetitive), energy (keep it upbeat to keep you awake), lyrics (if conversation can’t save your relationship, maybe a singalong can).
His road-trip recipe? “Equal parts new bits, old bits, the classics, some soft rock for hard times, electronic chuggers and, of course, pop and hip-hop.”
If you don’t have time to DIY, Carmichael’s created one for you. “[It] will keep just about any passenger from bailing out at the next bus stop,” he says.
Melbourne designer turned game-maker Leigh Ryan is the co-creator of Kill Your Friends, a cheeky card game all about offing your fellow competitors in hilariously gut-churning ways.
We asked Ryan for car games with the opposite goal. Here are his top three:
Would You Rather?
“The best thing about 'Would You Rather?' is how versatile and different the game can be with different groups,” says Ryan. “You can make the dilemma anything – fun, crude, moral, stupid – and the more rounds you play the more creative and absurd the dilemmas tend to get.”
Would your kids rather be covered in fur, or scales? Would your sister rather world peace, or a million bucks? Would your mate prefer a full back tattoo of Bono, or to theatrically reply “guilty as charged” every time someone says their name? You get it. As players make their cases, you’ll learn things you didn’t know about your companions.
“This one I made up a little while ago and is just as much fun on a road trip as it is in the back of an Uber after a big night,” says Ryan. Basically, you spot a billboard or advertisement en route and everyone makes a backstory to match the image. The game works best trying to humanise awkward-looking commercial radio hosts, or diagnosing psychopathy in mattress salesmen.
“An obvious one, but it's hard to beat the classics,” says Ryan. “It’s a family friendly game that’s surprisingly challenging when you limit the choices to what everyone in the car can see.”
Ryan remembers the thrill of choosing something that took his family ages to guess.
“You can up the competitiveness by limiting how many guesses people have to get it right,” he says.
If things get testy, how do you stop yourself snapping? Silence is golden, according to psychologist Anastasia Panayiotidis of Relationships Australia Victoria, who recommends holding your tongue and taking a deep breath, or stopping for a stroll (and perhaps a country-bakery salad roll) when you feel the tension rising.
“Try to make harmony in the car, because you’ve got to get through this together,” she says.
And despite the possibility of an argument, the physical closeness of the car can also foster emotional closeness.
“What we really need for bonding is time together. And having that shared experience … playing the guessing games, singing along to music, exploring the landscape – [car trips] are a great opportunity to do that.”
"Always have hydration in the car. Water, snacks ... chocolate," says Panayiotidis. “A bit of chocolate might help get through some tense, difficult moments."
Our picks are Melbourne-made Hey Tiger chocolate (around $14 for roughly 90 grams, or $5.50 for 30-gram minis), which has a coconut and caramelised popcorn flavour fittingly called Best Mates, or Koko Black’s creamy, boozy chocolate marbles, which come in Negroni and Espresso Martini flavours ($9.90 per pack).
For something savoury (and a tiny bit spicy) we’d opt for Sriracha-spiked Griffin beef jerky (from $6.95 for 30 grams to $69.95 for 500 grams). And a baby jar of Meredith Goat’s Cheese ($5 to $6 for 100 grams, depending on your supermarket) makes for a practical, adorable sandwich spread.
Drinks-wise, Non’s zero-alcohol wine alternatives ($30 a bottle) are a gamechanger for designated drivers; a case of Capi Cola or Spicy Ginger Beer ($48 for 24) will last a long leg between servos; and a four-pack of Love Can mixed drinks ($59), which are distilled in Sydney and come as G&Ts or spritzes, is perfect to crack on arrival.