When traveling, snacks are as important as travel insurance. We need to eat. A hangry traveler is no fun for anyone. As a vegetarian with a nut allergy, I have problems with typical snack foods, so I plan ahead before I leave home as well as after I hit the road. Car trips offer plenty of room to bring those “just in case items,” to pack that extra jacket, and to not only pack snacks, but to continue to pick them up along the way.
How do you manage road food?
Depending on the type of travel, where you’re headed, where you’re staying for the night, and how long you’re on the road, food options differ. Add in allergies, dietary restrictions, likes and dislikes, and our choices narrow further.
Oftentimes, the type of food you grab depends on the type of traveler. Perhaps you have limited time to leisurely enjoy a three-course meal at a tablecloth restaurant. Perhaps the organic fan that lives in your gut leads you to local farm stands or to farm-to-table focused establishments. Perhaps the goal of your journey is to experience the most activity, and you choose to serve your belly beast en route to the next stop. And sometimes you choose flexibility and use a more moment-to-moment decision-making process. Regardless of whether you pick up that bag of pita chips, get a bunch of bananas at a farm stand, or grab a case of water at the first Super Target you see, carrying snacks lowers your travel costs thus adding more money to your experience fund.
So what type of traveler are you?
Two Healthy Cases in Point
In the past two years, the husband and I have been lucky enough to road trip across the United States twice. The first was in December of 2014 across the southern-ish route and the second in May/June of 2016 across the northern-ish route. Sure, there have been shorter road trips, but these longer ones were each more than a month, in one traditional vehicle, without camping gear. We stayed in hotels. No driving day was longer than 12 hours. We had the ability to stop when we wanted to, pick up or sit down, make a picnic, eat in the car, or hope that the apple and banana we saved from breakfast would sustain us till we got to the next destination.
Different seasons yielded different results. Our first journey was in the winter. Never did we make tuna on bagels in a parking lot or pick up cheese and crackers for a waterside picnic—it was too cold. Smaller communities near national parks were closed for the season, so we were more likely to stay in bigger cities with more options. Our second trip was in the springtime. We had access to national park everything. Rarely did we find ourselves stocked with chips or pretzels because blueberries, strawberries, and avocados were viable options.
Since ours were leisure rather than business travel, we often had time to sit at restaurants, had time to stop and pick up produce and provisions, and had time to decide where and how we’d eat along the way. On our national parks visits, we often kept a bag of bread/bagels in the car and some pop-top cans of tuna, some mustard/mayo packs, as well as a tomato and/or avocado. With a pocket knife for slicing, we had lunch. Sometimes we’d pick up salad supplies and put that together for dinner in a hotel room or lunch on the run.
We traveled with a small cooler and ice bricks. Each night we’d bring the ice bricks inside and pop them in the hotel room freezer to ready for the next day’s adventure. We maintained a variety of fruits, yogurts, vegetables, cheese, and water in the cooler when we headed out each morning. The carnivorous husband often added jerky, and there was usually at least one bag of something salty along with a can/bottle of something to drink (other than water) if we needed to boost our sugar or caffeine levels. Loves Travel Stops became our friends and Subway was our grab-and-go meal.
To keep costs down, most of our stays included breakfast (or we picked up yogurt and fruit). At night we ate dinners out. Sometimes, “out” meant from the supermarket, a public market (such as Seattle’s Pike Place), or a sit-down restaurant. Not interested much in fancy or flair, our costs stayed low and our options varied.
It mattered to us what we put in our bodies even when many of our days were filled with walking, hikes, morning gym workouts, and yoga. Although we spun off course a bit from our home healthy routine, we tried to fit in those fruits and veggies when possible without passing up the opportunity for decadent Idaho nachos, the fried goodness of Southern barbecue, or the local delicacy or pastry wherever we found it. When in Rome, right?
Go-to Road Trip Snacks
I asked a smattering of different travelers about their favorite road-trip snacks. These came from people who travel anywhere from 2-14 hours for a few days or a week, families traveling with kids, an online health and wellness coach, singles, a federal forest service employee, couples, digital nomads, and a few business travelers thrown in. Here’s what I discovered:
- Fruits/Vegetables: tangerines, assorted veggies, apples
- Drinks: Gatorade, Vitamin Water, coffee, water, iced tea, some soda
- Healthy (ish) snacks: nut butters, granola/muesli/protein bars, protein powder, seeds, nuts, chocolate, gluten free muffins
- Salty snacks: pretzels, potato chips, rice cakes, Combos
In my own experience, when we’ve taken weekend road trips, our snacks aren’t as healthy as our choices might be on longer journeys. Like others who had their ‘go-to only on a road trip snack’ as a sugary sports drink or cheese filled snack, ours is Stax potato chips. Both of those longer cross-country trips took us across state lines, through food meccas and often involved random itineraries that we spontaneously chose. So, we needed snacks. Although timing of the year did have an impact, most of the time we’d find some if not all of the following in our car:
- Fruits/Vegetables: blueberries, bananas, apples, strawberries, avocados, carrots
- Healthy (ish) snacks: Dannon Light and Fit Vanilla Greek Yogurt, hummus, string cheese, tinned tuna, tea bags, Quaker Old-Fashioned oats, Quaker instant oatmeal sachets, granola/protein bars
- Drinks: Water, iced tea and iced tea sachets, soda
- Salty and sweet snacks: Stax potato chips, veggie chips, Twizzlers, Ghiardelli dark chocolate chips, rice cakes, Triscuit crackers, pretzels, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Stacy’s pita chips, jerky, York Peppermint Patties
Because we often stopped and made our own lunches (sometimes picking up cold cuts, hard-boiled eggs, deli counter salads, fresh salad items, or treats along the way), we also carried a mini kitchen, i.e., tools and items to make easier eco-friendly use and clean up.
- Baby wipes
- Paper towels
- Pocket knife/multi-tool
- Anti-bacterial lotion
- Paper plates
- Travel fork/spoon/knife set
- Ziploc bags
- Clothes pins/pegs (for sealing unfinished snack bags)
Planning Your Own Road Food
Travel today may be on the same open roads, passing the same roadside attractions, and dealing with similar weather episodes as decades before, but traveling with Wifi hotspots, apps, and a small computer in the palm of your hand does have advantages.
- Find your favorite roadside fare app and update your phone in a Wifi friendly setting. (We ticked off many eateries on the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives)
- Crowd-source your destinations, and friends will tell you their favorite off-the-beaten path stops. (That’s how we found Valley of Fire State Park, how we decided which road to take in and out of Taos, and how we found out about the the Iowa 80 truck stop where you can get a haircut, visit the dentist, have dinner, purchase audio movies, and jump in the cab of a giant truck all in the same spot.)
- Check websites of stadiums, zoos, national parks, theme parks, and museums to find out whether you may bring in your own food.
- Travel with a reusable water bottle and travel mug to take advantage of free coffee, hot water, and hot chocolate. You’ll also being doing your part to be more eco-friendly in places that provide water (such as national parks and theme parks).
- No matter where you’re going or what time of year, always carry more water than you think you need.
- And if you’re headed through the US and have the opportunity, give yourself a treat and stop at Iowa 80 to stand at the country’s largest truck stop.
Be safe, have fun, enjoy the journey and always travel with snacks.