Fun Stuff

Top 10 Expert Tips on Creating the Ultimate Road Trip Playlist

A driver has a number of logistical considerations to take when planning a road trip: when and where to stop, how and what to eat, who will pay for gas, and so on. But once you – and any co-travellers you may be bringing with you – hit the road, attention often turns to what’s on the radio. And, unless everyone in the car has identical taste in music (which is unlikely), radio-tuner tensions can spike, leading to conflicts at best, distracted driving at worst. But it doesn’t have to be this way: a little planning can go a long way to help alleviate aux-cord anxieties. Here are 10 expert tips to ensuring your road trip music choices become a positive part of your next drive.

1. Consider Your Input

We mean your literal sources of music: does your car have an old-school AM/FM dial and CD player, or satellite radio? Or will you be depending on a Bluetooth connection to your phone? If the former, all you’ll need to do is pick your discs and hit the road; but if you’re going to be depending on someone’s Apple Music or Spotify account, make sure to download songs to your phone ahead of time (while you’re connected to your home Wi-Fi): a spotty data connection – or, worse, a huge overages bill when you get home – could be a road-trip ruiner.

2. Consider Your Output

“If you have a newer car with a good sound system, there are kinds of music that might sound especially good in your car,” says Rich Terfry, host of the CBC Radio program Drive. “But if you have an older car that doesn’t have, for instance, the ability to handle deep bass well, or maybe the car itself is a bit noisier, then I think you’re going to want to pick something different.” Terfry suggests going a bit easier on dance or electronic music for older sound systems, for instance, and leaning heavily towards rock, or anything that’s more guitar-forward.

3. Set Some Ground Rules

The classic road trip rule is that whoever’s driving gets to control the radio. “But if you don’t have a driver’s licence,” says Terfry, “and you’re just going to be a passenger the whole time, you might want to do some negotiating.” If you’re taking a trip with a friend or two, have a chat beforehand to lay out any music-related stipulations. A passenger might have a podcast or radio program they like to listen to every day, for instance, or there might be a strong aversion to certain artists or specific songs. You don’t have to plan out every moment of your trip, music-wise, but setting a framework for your playlists and song selections can help you avoid tensions along the way. That being said...

4. Plan Some Moments

If you’re taking a long trip, on which you’ll be driving past landmarks and through distinct landscapes, it might be fun to choose some corresponding soundscapes. Lizz Aston, an artist and designer, and Brooke Gagne, a bartender, both recently took a road trip from Toronto to the West Coast; they say the music they chose for the prairies was vastly different from what they had playing through the Rocky Mountains, or when they visited Alberta’s hoodoos. Sometimes, these music selections helped create memorable soundscapes; other times, they were a bit more obvious: “When we were driving out of the Alberta Badlands, I desperately was trying to play Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Badlands,’ but our data wasn’t working,” Gagne recalls. “It came on just in time.”

5. Build It Out

Tuning into the radio or playing it by ear may work occasionally, but sometimes, you’re going to want some tried and trusted tunes to default to. Take some time before you depart to collaborate on a few playlists that are packed with group favourites, which can be depended on throughout your journey. Not sure where to start? For Aston and Gagne, this meant leaning on nostalgia by curating playlists and albums that reflected the time they spent living as roommates in the early 2000s; try to think of songs you and your road-trip crew have enjoyed together in the past, and go from there.

6. Think About Your Destination

“If you’re headed to the beach, that might be a very different playlist that you’re putting together, than if you’re heading to a wedding,” Terfry says. Using your road trip’s endpoint as a theme can help you curate a list of songs that’ll help you set off, or guide you towards your final destination. If you’re heading south, for instance, throw together a list of songs that explicitly reference warm weather; if your endpoint is coastal, we hear sea shanties are pretty popular right now...

7. Safety First

What plays well first thing in the morning might not be the right vibe for later in the day. Terfry suggests choosing music that’s a bit more upbeat, or at least music that has lyrics, for after-dark driving: softer, instrumental tracks may make whoever’s driving sleepy, whereas up-tempo tunes may help with their overall alertness. Of course, if you or your driver are too tired to drive, you should pull over and plan to find somewhere to sleep.

Terfry also suggests that the music you listen to while you’re driving through a city, where there are plenty of things for a driver to pay attention to, should serve as more of a background: he likes classical music for cityscapes, for instance, so he can turn his focus more towards the people, places, and things that are more present than when driving down long country roads or more monotonous highways. And for Aston, sometimes the best choice was silence. “I’m a newer driver,” she says. “So if traffic was very heavy or I was feeling a bit overwhelmed behind the wheel, we would turn the radio off for a while.”

8. Not All Podcasts Are Created Equal

Aston and Gagne say they tried to listen to a few audiobooks on their journey, but it was difficult to fully follow the narration while also taking note of landscapes and paying attention to the road. With podcasts, Aston says it’s better to pick shows where the narration is engaging and energetic: “If it’s the type of show where the hosts are occasionally cracking jokes, rather than following a script, it’s easier to stay engaged,” she says. She and Gagne also say that it’s better to stick to subject matter you’re already interested in, rather than trying to learn about something completely new while driving.

9. Be Flexible

Let’s be honest: not everyone in the car is going to agree on the music 100 per cent of the time. Rather than trying to keep your music choices confined to the parameters of shared taste, try to give everyone in the car a bit of space to put on music that only they might like. Patience is basically the road trip’s highest virtue; 20 minutes listening to something you don’t like much, but which someone else does, won’t hurt. And anyway, it’s your turn next.

10. Have Fun With It

Is there a kids’ song you think everyone in the car will get a kick out of? A new track that you know your passenger hasn’t heard, but you know they’ll love? A deep cut from your youth that will get everyone singing along? Put a few surprise tracks in your back pocket, and pull them out when the trip might be getting a bit stressful. Not only will you relieve tension, but you’ll create an impactful memory – and isn’t that what road trips are all about?