Whether you're hitting the road, hiking, camping, or just diving into a lake, pool, or the ocean, we've checked in with the experts who know how to get the most out of every kind of summer vacation experience.
Summer is a time to relax and regroup somewhere else. Anywhere else. But before you set off on your sun-filled journeys, we've put together some must-know intel and helpful tips to make your vacation easier, safer, and, of course, more fun.
1. SWIM SAFELY
Even the most skilled swimmer can encounter troubles in the ocean, so when water is on your agenda, safety should be top of your list of things to remember. (Right up there with a portable grill, hot dogs, sunscreen, and towels, of course.) We checked in with BJ Fisher, Director of Health & Safety for the American Lifeguard Association (americanlifeguard.com), for tips on how to stay safe in the summer. The most important is probably the most obvious: no matter how much at ease you are in the water, always swim where there’s a lifeguard and never, under any circumstance, swim alone.
“Swim with a buddy,” he insists. “Many drownings involve single swimmers. If you can’t find someone to swim with, at least find someone to watch from the side of the pool or on the beach.”
It’s easy to be lured by the open expanse of the ocean and forget just how suddenly and drastically the ocean floor can change. That said, best not to use flotation devices, like inflatable rafts, in unfamiliar areas or places where you might not be able to swim. If you fall off, that’s trouble, informs Fisher. And then there’s the ocean’s stealth sneak attack: rip currents. If you’re caught in one, he says, don’t fight it. “Swim parallel to the shore till you reach a spot where the current is weak. Most rip currents are narrow,” he instructs. And for those who like to tackle the water head-on, protect your head and neck when diving and body surfing. For divers he advises, “check for depth and obstructions and remember that feet first is far safer than head first. When body surfing, make sure you have at least one hand extended in front of you.”
And, needless to say, if you’re at a pool party or a beach fiesta, don’t drink and dive. Alcohol is a huge factor in many drownings, he says.
2. GET READY FOR THE ROAD
For most drivers, cruising down the highway is a matter of reflex. But a long road trip requires a completely different frame of mind. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, you might say. One of the biggest problems on the highway is drowsy drivers. More than half of drivers involved in fatigue-related accidents experienced no symptoms before falling asleep behind the wheel, according to the American Automobile Association.
“Drivers shouldn’t rely on their bodies to provide warning signs of fatigue. Instead, they should prioritize getting at least seven hours of sleep into their daily schedules,” says Tamra Johnson, AAA spokesperson. Other rules of thumb: travel at hours when you’d normally be awake, schedule breaks every two hours or every 100 miles, avoid heavy foods and travel with alert passengers. Even better: take turns driving.
And then there’s that other major traffic risk: distraction. On city streets and highways, texting and driving has become astonishingly common. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving—everything from texting to eating—is a factor in more than 10% of crashes. Nearly one in three drivers admit to typing or sending a text message or email in the past month, according to an AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey. It also found that 40% of drivers report reading a text message or email at the wheel in the past month. It’s a risk that is all-too easy to eliminate.
“Safe driving is a complicated task that requires your full attention, so drivers need to put down their phones and focus on the driving task,” Johnson said. Best tactic: designate a passenger as the chief navigator and texter. Solo drivers should take care of everything before turning the key. Adjust the radio, phone, and GPS system, decide on your route, then take off.
Speaking of GPS, AAA offers a free app that travelers can use to map route, map a route, find up-to-date gas prices and discounts, book a hotel, and access AAA roadside assistance. Even in our high-tech world, though, nothing is 100% foolproof 100% of the time. Road atlases and maps still work as effectively as they did for our parents and grandparents. Invest in a good one. And as an added bonus, it's a pretty dependable way to keep kids engaged and entertained.
3. ENJOY THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Summer is a prime time to heed the call of the wild. But while nature can be relaxing and rejuvenating, there are also plenty of factors that can put a damper on what would otherwise be a perfect trip. Most, however, are avoidable. Justin Wood, Manager of Program Development and Operations at REI Adventures (rei.com), an active-adventure travel company at REI, the outdoors retail behemoth, has some ultra-helpful hints. He breaks them up into three categories: before, when you get there, and when you’re ready to leave. The before-you-go phase is easily the most important.
“About 99% of how your trip pans out is determined by how you planned. Research so you can craft your experience to meet your needs,” he says. First, check up on the site you want to visit. A lot of places require a reservation and can book up six months in advance. There are, however, lots of first come/first serve sites, but plan smartly. Try to get there mid-week to avoid the rush. Need to learn about options in a particular area? He recommends Hikingproject.com, which drastically reduces the legwork you have to do by providing information on an assortment of trails and cool destinations in any area for any level of experience.
But first: to pack. Use a checklist. It’s worth the extra few minutes to download and print one. Get your gear—your tent, your stove—ahead of time so you can make sure everything works properly and all the pieces are there. “The worst thing that can happen is you get there and realize something’s missing. It could be a small thing, but it can really waylay a trip,” he says, noting that REI has a program where you can rent gear, like tents, to try them out before you invest in one. Of course, sustenance is not least among importance when it comes to deciding what to bring.
“Planning a menu is an important part of camping—what to eat, how to prepare it, how to store it. Storage is critical, especially if you’re in bear country or if there’s mice around the camp,” he says. He notes that dehydrated food has come a long way with lots of great options ranging from Thai and Indian fare to classic American grub. Dehydrated foods are a great way to keep it simple, which helps with prep and cleanup. Regardless, however, “everything tastes better outside,” he asserts. And good news for the caffeine-fueled outdoorsy types: you don’t have to give up coffee. There are so many great solutions for brewing gourmet coffee in camp, Wood assures, like French presses and pour-over options.
Once you arrive set up tent in an established site, not on a hillside or anywhere there are rocks around. Look overhead to make sure there are no branches over where you plan to pitch your tent. And whatever you do, make sure your tent isn't too close to your fire pit. Embers will burn holes in the tent. And definitely pay careful attention when using knives and stoves. Most injuries from cooking and cutting things, Wood notes.
Being weather-ready in the winter time is obvious: bring layers and a warm sleeping bag. You can always pile on more clothes to stay warm. Staying cool in the summer is a bit trickier. Of course, make sure you hydrate. At night, it’s important to set up a tent with the rainfly off to keep airflow moving through. In warm weather, ignore that rule about avoiding cotton, an imperative in the winter because once it’s wet it stays wet. That’s exactly what can help your stay-cool cause in the heat.
"There's a misconception that camping means rouging it—but it can be such a comfy, wonderful experience. And the best, most experienced campers are always comfy," says Wood. "If you have everything, you never have to worry about being comfy. That means the right size tent—do you want to stand up in it? Does it have enough room for everyone sleeping in it? Can you properly ventilate it? Stay dry inside? Bring a bag that's rated for the right temperature at night.”
When you're leaving, do one last sweep to make sure you have all your gear for next time. It's easy to overlook a chair behind a tree. And the cardinal rule of camping: dispose of all your waste and leave the site better than you found it. Follow that wisdom and you're guaranteed the happiest trails.
4. INCLUDE EVERY FAMILY MEMBER IN THE FUN
According to AAA, most American are planning to travel as a family this summer. That means a whole lot of hours of kids asking if you’re there yet. And kids, of course, are the toughest—and usually most honest—critics, so once you get there, you’d better be ready to impress. It helps, of course, when they have some skin in the game.
“Make sure to get the kids involved in planning. This will get them more vested in the whole vacation and will likely lead to much less complaining,” says Rainer Jenss, President and Founder of the Family Travel Association (familytravel.org). “Letting the children choose activities will ensure they'll be more interested!” He also suggests getting actual cameras for each child, which will get them off their phones and tablets and much more actively engaged in where they are and what they’re seeing and doing. When they’re in the car, however, reading is obviously a better way to pass the time than movies and video games.
“Bring along information on your destination, including low-tech options such as TourBook guides and maps, to make the most of your trip and as a source of entertainment for kids,” says Julie Hall, spokesperson at AAA. Jenss recommends Lonely Planet’s kid guides, a suggestion we wholeheartedly endorse, not least because Lonely Planet is Budget Travel's parent company.