How to see your family safely without flying (or getting sick at a rest area)

by Sarah Piampiano
About a month ago, races cancelled and my husband Michael working from home, one of us broached the subject of a road trip. As someone who travels a lot for my job as a professional athlete, I’ve been feeling a bit antsy and in need of an adventure. Both my husband and I, however, are on the conservative side in our approach to COVID-19. We limited our trips to the grocery store, reduced our meetings with friends, and washed our hands incessantly. Neither of us, you may have guessed, are at a point where we feel comfortable on an airplane.

My parents live in Maine and own a small cabin on a remote lake. As far back as I can remember, we’ve traveled there for at least some of the summer. Michael’s parents live in Wisconsin. Family is important to us both, and we were keen to make time for them this summer, despite the changes afoot in the world. After a lot of careful planning we hit the road, driving from California to Maine—where we would spend five weeks—before making our way to Wisconsin and eventually back home to the Bay Area.

Even driving, however, poses risks related to COVID-19. We did plenty of research and came up with a plan of action to make our road trip as safe and COVID-friendly as possible. We minimized entering indoor locations, picnicked outside (one of the highlights) instead of going into restaurants, and only used two public restrooms. We made the trip safely, and we’re happy to report both us and our parents are in good health following our arrival.

Here are our top five (actually six—a bonus) tips for a successful COVID-conscious road trip this summer:

Before we left, Mike and I purchased a bundle of COVID-safe supplies that we kept in our car at all times.

  • A package of surgical masks
  • A package of disposable gloves (although make sure to get two sizes that fit smaller and larger hands!)
  • Plenty of hand sanitizer to stash in the car (in the glove compartment, middle console, in your purse)
  • A package of disinfecting wipes
  • Small trash bags
  • A highlighter and a pen
  • Two large jugs of water for refilling bottles throughout the drive

That list of objects in hand, we were always prepared when coming into contact with others.  Anytime we stopped for gas, we would wear gloves to pump gas or wash our windshield. When we rolled up to a toll booth, the passenger would be prepared with hand sanitizer for the driver. We used disinfecting wipes on our door handles (inside and out) and the steering wheel.  We used a new set of surgical masks and gloves anytime we went indoors.

Buying two large jugs of water and refilling them from a tap each morning before we hit the road allowed us to stay hydrated, without having to stop and buy water from gas stations.  And having trash bags on hand prevented us from using any public trash bins.

  1. Use AirBnB

Our goal was to minimize our contact with other people, and we knew that staying in hotels would increase our chances of contracting COVID: front desk staff, elevators and stairwells, housekeeping, shared air circulation throughout the building. The list of risk factors was too long.

AirBnB, on the other hand, has implemented a cleaning protocol that hosts can opt into. Part of this protocol involves enhanced cleaning measures as well as leaving 24 hours between guests, minimizing risk of contracting COVID-19 from surfaces. By using AirBnb we were able to avoid contact with other people, feel safe in knowing that the air we were breathing wasn’t circulated from another, potentially contaminated room or person, and that the surfaces and space was safe. In addition, every place we stayed had a kitchen, which allowed us to make our own breakfasts before we hit the road, and prepare lunch, dinner and snacks for our drive each day.

  1. Cook your own food

I have to admit that this step took plenty of extra work, but when we both reflect on our trip, the time proved worth it. Not only did cooking ensure healthy eating (versus stocking up on gas stations snacks and fast food), but it also helped us avoid public places. Many AirBnBs will have cooking supplies, but you never know, so here is what we brought.

  • A rice cooker
  • An electric popcorn maker
  • A nutri-bullet blender for smoothies
  • A coffee grinder and French press (why didn’t I put this first on the list?)
  • A shaker bottle for quick recovery shakes
  • A small cutting board and knife (crucial)
  • A dish towel
  • Dish soap
  • Two silicone camping plates and bowls
  • Travel mugs
  • 2 sets of bamboo cutlery
  • Plenty of tupperware
  • A bag of oils and spices (coconut oil, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, turmeric, salt and pepper, cumin, paprika, ginger, cinnamon)

We splurged and invested in a Yeti cooler to store our long term supplies, as well as a smaller “day” cooler, which was easy to access and for the meals and snacks we had packed that morning.

Before we left, we purchased milk, eggs, yogurt, fruit, veggies, sandwich meat, bread, coffee beans, rice, oats, nuts and seeds, and meats.  Each morning we would make breakfast and then make our lunch and dinner for the day. Mike usually had a sandwich for lunch, while I would make a salad with tuna and homemade dressing. We packed snacks of fruit, veggie sticks, and homemade popcorn with coconut oil, salt and crumpled nori sheets. Mike ground beans and made a big pot of coffee for the road. We’d fill up all of our water bottles and the two big jugs to have them on hand for our day of driving. For dinner we would typically make a pot of rice, and then sauté some vegetables and pair it with a protein like chicken, ground beef or salmon. Nothing fancy, but tasty, filling, healthy, and easy. Each evening we’d clean everything and start all over again. Certainly, the preparation posed some extra effort, but I found it similar to getting all of my food prepared for a race, and I liked the details of what we were doing. I felt more connected with the food we ate, too, and we both found we enjoyed our picnics together more than if we’d gone into a restaurant.

  1. Pee on the side of the road (where legal!)

We had read that one of the riskiest places to contract COVID for road trippers was in public restrooms. Most of us have learned of the terrible “toilet plume” by now, and we wanted to avoid these spaces at all costs. I know popping a squat isn’t everyone’s favorite thing to do, particularly when you realize it is running on your foot or legs or whatever, but it is a whole lot safer than using a public bathroom these days. Mike and I switched driving every two hours, when we’d exit the highway, find a low-traffic road, and use it as a bathroom break and chance to take a short ten-minute walk.  

  1. Wear gloves, and sanitize regularly

We wore gloves and hand sanitized often. Habit-change is hard, but we got into the habit of wearing gloves in public, so that when we came back and touched our door handles, we could dispose of the gloves and then sanitize our hands. It may seem like overkill, but in this instance better safe than sorry.

  1. Track your progress

Before we left, a friend of ours gifted us a map of the United States. You might think a paper map obsolete in the smartphone era, but we used it as a visual diary, drawing our route and notating stops along the way. By the halfway point of our trip, in Maine, the map reminded us of picnics and vistas we’d already forgotten, and we realized how much you lose in a short amount of time. The map exists as a record of our trip, now, and we realize that—despite wanting to see our families—the getting there gave us the adventure we’d yearned for during quarantine. It now hangs on our wall, a bright memento from an otherwise troubling year.