Decision made. You’re hitting the road. Hooray! But the last thing your sheltered-in-place soul craves right now is screen time in the car. Our suggestion: stow the phones, bust out a game, pack a picnic, and savor every mile.
Fall Midwest Road Trip
Credit: Aaron Peterson

Seize the fall moment and drive to a state park for a day—or a cabin for a week. Vintage microbus totally optional. Here are our tips for games, books, picnics and even yoga stretches to keep you rolling in comfort.

You've Got Game

Road games
Credit: Illustrations by Erin Keeffer

These classics always win—whether you've got kids in the back seat or just have run out of conversation with your copilot after hanging out together at home since March.

ROY G. BIV Watch for vehicles of each color in the rainbow in order, starting with red and ending with violet. (Beware: This sounds simple, but orange and yellow will trip you up, and plan for spirited debate on what constitutes indigo.) Play as a group, or competitively. For an extra challenge, add more hues like pink or maroon.

GRANDMA'S ATTIC The first player says, "In my grandma's attic, I found" and names an object starting with A, such as armadillo. The next player adds a B word: "In my grandma's attic, I found an armadillo and a banana." And so forth until Z. Make it harder with a theme (such as all foods, animals, familiar brand names or celebrities).

GEOGRAPHY To start, a player names a city, state or country. The next player must name a city, state or country beginning with the last letter of the previous place. For example: Missouri (I). Iceland (D). Darfur (R). Rockford. You'll quickly learn that a lot of places that begin with A also end with A. Hint: Appleton will break the chain.

20 QUESTIONS One player picks a secret object and announces if it's animal, vegetable (plant-based) or mineral (anything else). The other players take turns asking strategic yes/no questions to home in on the answer, aiming to guess within 20 questions. Animals are definitely easiest, so limit to that category if playing with small kids.

Pro Tips: Take It To Go

Road trip cooler
Coleman's Steel Belted models are sold quality for the price with a retro-cool look.
| Credit: Jay Wilde

A well-packed snack and lunch cooler will save you a lot of virus exposure over a long road trip. Plus, who doesn't love a picnic?

PRECHILL Put everything into the fridge or freezer the night before your trip, says Jon Walters, founder of Nature of the North, an outdoor concierge in Moorhead, Minnesota. Premade sandwiches (with condiments and lettuce packed separately), dips, sliced fruit and veggies, precooked sausage, and cheeses are good options.

MEAL PLAN Wrap items you might eat together—say, tortillas, hummus and sliced cucumber—in Mylar-coated Bubble Wrap. This way, everything stays cold, organized and dry.

FILL 'ER UP Add your items—heaviest on the bottom—then pack with ice to the top. The more empty space, the faster things will get warm.

SAY FREEZE Blocks last longer than cubes. Walters recommends filling a clean, empty quart milk jug ¾ full of water and freezing. Use cubes to fill gaps, and plan to drain and refill depending on trip duration.

THROW SHADE Duh, but ice can only do so much. Keep an eye on your cooler throughout the day to make sure it doesn't come into direct sunlight.

Explorer's Library

Road trip books

Inspiration for where to go—and helpful information for while you're getting there.

The Next Exit Forget wondering when a bathroom, gas station or Subway will appear. This encyclopedic book (a bible for RVers) clocks every major interstate off-ramp in the contiguous U.S. (The Next Exit, $20).

­50 States, 500 State Parks It's not a detailed guide, but this photo book is a great teaser of affordable, often not-too-crowded natural spots in every state (Publications International, $10).

Road Atlas 2020: Adventure Edition Yes, you need a real map, and this info-rich atlas doubles as an outdoors guidebook (National Geographic, $19).


Fun games for a road trip

FLEXI PUZZLE This tiny, twisty toy comes with 80 challenges, from not-bad to wily. $8.

MAD LIBS Fill in the [PLURAL NOUN] and let the laughs roll. From $4.

REFLECTION CARDS Each card has two convo prompts—one light, one deep. $18.

"OF COURSE!" Mind-bending riddles to mull over with your car mates, from Zack Guido. $10.

Pack a Notebook

Trip notebook
Credit: Blaine Moats

Because recording license plate states makes it a road trip. Also, hangman, tic-tac-toe, categories. Another idea: Jot every animal (ant, bison, anything goes) you see en route and at your destination. Your list will start modestly, but you'll be amazed what you accumulate by the end.

An Ode To The Back Road

Midwest road trip
When was the last time nature felt this close on an interstate highway?
| Credit: Ryan Donnell

With apologies to Midwest native son Dwight D. Eisenhower, the interstate highway system is a snore. Speeding along monotonously at 70 mph might get you somewhere quick, but you see nothing of the land you're traversing. Towns are reduced to names on signs; farms to distant cattle. For the cost of arriving a little later, slip off for a spell onto two-lane highways. You'll see historic Main Streets, pumpkin patches, homes, diners, maybe an Amish buggy or a blue heron in a pond. You'll feel the road climb and dip. You'll actually spot things to talk about. It may take longer—but what's that they say about the journey being the destination?

In Praise of Map-Reading

Road trip map
Credit: Peter Ardito

Once upon a time, we all had battered atlases sliding around in our trunks and rumpled maps jammed in our door pockets. Folding them was an art; reading them a life skill. And let us sound the safety bell here: Phones are imperfect. Cell service is dicey in remote places. Chargers get left behind. Screens crack. But admittedly, those are all long-shot situations. Our real plea for maps is more spiritual.

Actively navigating (versus passively following a blue dot) makes you digest a road trip differently. In plotting your path, you discover nearby places to explore. You see what's coming ahead. You see how far you've been. You orient yourself. You take ownership of your destiny. Finding your way around the world is a fundamental human (heck, animal) skill that some experts fear is eroding, and cartography is one of our species' great achievements. We aren't saying give up your GPS. We're just saying, use a map too. Follow along with Siri. And teach your kids and grandkids how to use one. They'll think it's cool. Because it is.

Pro Tips: Parking Lot Yoga

Yoga poses
Credit: Illustrations by Erin Keeffer

No mat? No worries. Courtney Aronson, a yoga director at Studio Three in Chicago, shares three equipment-free ways to stay limber.

FORWARD FOLD Do this to loosen up your low back: Stand with feet hip-distance apart and slowly bend at the waist while keeping a slight bend in your knees. Grab opposite elbows and let your head hang heavy. Feel the stretch through your legs, glutes and low back.

CHEST EXPANSION Drivers, take note. Shake out strained upper back and chest muscles by reaching your palms behind your back and clasping hands together. Lift your palms away and stretch your knuckles back.

FIGURE FOUR Glutes feeling like Jell-O? Try lifting your right leg, bending your knee to 90 degrees and crossing right ankle over left thigh. Flex your right foot, then bend into the left knee and sit back. (Feel free to use your car for balance.) Repeat on other side.

Play At Home: Photo-Op Pop Quiz

Road trip pop quiz
Credit: Illustrations by Erin Keeffer

Name the Midwest states where you'll find each of these weird and wonderful marvels. (Answers at end of story.)

Best of the Midwest

Best of the Midwest 2021

Shameless self-promotion alert: We love our annual travel guide. You will too.

The 2021 edition of MWL's Best of the Midwest Travel magazine includes tons of photos, guides to 16 states, road trip ideas, and more than 2,500 recos of where to eat, play and stay. $8.

Midwest Playlist

Pandemic Packing

HAND SANITIZER Lots. You'll use more traveling. MASKS Plus plastic bags for used ones. THERMOMETER Just in case. LATEX GLOVES Great if no sink is nearby. DISINFECTING SPRAY + WIPES For your lodging, gas pumps, everything. FOOD + DRINKS So you can skip convenience stores. EXTRA MEDS Both OTC and prescription.