When people find out I’ve been trucking for over 20 years, one of the first things they ask is how do truck drivers stay awake? The question is usually accompanied with comments about how sleepy they get after driving just an hour or two.
There are several reasons truck drivers keep going, even when they’re tired. How truck drivers stay awake and alert when a driver is tired breaks down to one of three strategies.
1. Consuming coffee, energy drinks and processed foods that are high in carbohydrates is the most common. This is easily validated by the large percentage of overweight drivers.
2. Healthy diet, proper exercise and good sleep habits. There are a few other healthy tips and tricks that work especially well for truckers, and we’ll get to them.
3. Illegal drug use is the last and least used. In fact, it’s quite rare. The failure rate of random drug screens in 2016 was only 1.98%. And that includes all failures. Opioids, THC and otherwise.
Why Are Truck Drivers Tired When They’re All Using Electronic Logs?
Today, nearly every truck is equipped with an electronic logging device. This device is actually tied into the engine of the truck. It’s there to record many things, but one of those is to log the required 10-hour rest break.
That leads us to ask why a driver isn’t getting a good night’s sleep if they took that 10 hour break. Surely, getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s not that easy.
Drivers have to keep some crazy appointment times. You’ve had a good night of sleep and a healthy breakfast with 2 cups of coffee. You even had time to go for a walk. It’s now 8 a.m. and you find out you’re going to pick up a load at 6 p.m. You’re then expected to drive all night and deliver the next morning.
This is more common than you’d think. Not only is the driver wide awake and unable to do much other than rest and nap a bit, he or she is probably a bit irritated about losing a day’s work, and a day’s pay. Most truckers are paid by the mile, so this extra “rest” period produces no income.
Nothing Screws Up Sleep Like Parking Problems. The truck parking problem is real, it’s bad, and there’s little relief in sight. It’s not uncommon for a truck driver to park at 4 p.m. just because it’s the only way to find a parking spot. Add 10 hours to that and the day starts over at 2 a.m.
Getting a good night’s sleep when no real parking spot is found. When truckers are forced to sleep on a side road or freeway on-ramp, they tend to sleep with one eye open. Seriously, most trucking companies are more concerned about their driver’s being 100% legal than they are about getting proper rest.
Truck Stops Aren’t Always Quiet. Even in the best of circumstances, there are more distractions in a truck stop than you could imagine. There could be a refrigerated trailer that starts and stops all night long parked right next to you. You could hear everything from a load of livestock to someone working on their truck in the middle of the night. Trucking is a 24-hour industry.
Staying Awake With Energy Drinks And Junk Food
A trip into any truckstop will certainly reveal truckers in the checkout line with several cans of Monster, Red Bull, or some other energy drink. Also, hot dogs, chips, candy bars and processed snack cakes and cookies are included in the purchase. Most truck stop convenience stores have several rows of nothing but prepackaged, processed junk food.
The standard method of operation for these caffeine and carb abusers is to snack, wash it down with energy drinks and spike their energy level. Sadly, the spike only lasts a short while. Those simple carbs will soon cause an energy crash, so the process repeats.
The obvious conclusion of this path is overweight, unhealthy truck drivers. An unhealthy trucker is certainly more prone to be tired.
Illegal Drug Use
We’ve all heard the stories of “back in the day.” There was a time when the use of amphetamines were abused regularly in the industry. Terms like big black pills, crosstops and West Coast Turnarounds were lingo that even made it into country trucking songs.
The 60s and 70s are over and drug testing is here to stay. Although there will always be a small criminal element in any industry, it’s a very small number in trucking.
Staying Awake Starts With Better Sleep
Whether it’s a shift in your sleep schedule, a noisy parking lot or you just don’t feel sleepy, here are a few healthy tricks to help you sleep. Turning up the radio volume and rolling down the windows may help get you to the next exit, but they certainly aren’t your first tactic for a long day’s drive.
Take a 20 minute walk after your last meal of the day. It’s not a workout or power walk. It’s just a walk to get out of the truck, clear your mind and get some circulation going. I’ve also found it helps keep my blood sugar in check. Read here for more info.
Use a white noise app on your phone. Just go to the app store in your Android or iPhone app store, and search for white noise or sleep noise. There are dozens of free options. I’ve used these for years to drown out the ambient noise of truck stops and other parking areas.
Keep it dark. Close those curtains, especially if you’re sleeping during the day. It’s just another part of telling your body it’s time to sleep.
Turn off electronic screens. It’s easy to spend 20 or 30 minutes on your smartphone or watching a video before you go to sleep, but it’s counterproductive. According to the National Sleep Foundation, this behavior will actually cause you stay awake longer. Instead, spend that last 20 or 30 minutes before lights out reading a book or magazine. Not on line, but printed on paper. Also, turn all the lights off except for a reading lamp.
Avoid caffeine at least 5 hours before bed. I’ve found caffeine’s effect on my sleep lasts about 5 hours. On the other hand, it affects my wife’s ability to sleep for about 8 hours. I love coffee, probably more than most. I just cut it off 6 hours before I go to bed.
Never take a nap behind the wheel. We’ve all seen or done this one. It’s the behind-the-wheel power nap. You’ve got 30 minutes or so while they unload your truck. Why not toss a pillow on the steering wheel and sleep?
Train your body. Sleep only when lying down. Don’t let your brain think sleeping in an upright position is acceptable.
The power nap trick From A Marine Fighter Pilot. Years ago, I worked with a man named Larry, an older gentleman in his mid 70s. He was a retired marine fighter pilot who served in Korea and Vietnam. After the Marines, he spent another 20 years as a butcher.
Larry was a man’s man with a deep, authoritative voice, and a firm handshake. Larry told me his 2 secrets to getting the most out of his daily power nap.
- Keep it to 20 minutes or less. There are 5 stages to sleep. If you keep your nap to 20 minutes or less, you only enter the first 3 stages. This will keep you from waking up groggy, and give you a boost.
- Larry also said to use a pillow, but under your feet. “Your feet need the rest, and your brain needs the oxygen”.
Tips And Tricks When You’re Driving
Let’s start with the obvious. Nothing replaces sleep. If you need it, stop and sleep. That being said, let’s move on to some tips to keep those next hundred miles from being a dull blur.
Caffeine is okay, just use less of it. If you usually have 2 or 3 cups of coffee in the morning, put an hour between each cup.
Stop abusing energy drinks. If you use energy drinks, start cutting them with sparkling water. Try 1/3 energy drink to 2/3 sparkling water, and make that drink last a couple hours. I don’t think most truck drivers realize the damage they could cause by drinking several cans a day. Men’s Health has a great article on the topic.
Chose healthier snacks and set a schedule. Chose healthy snacks that you’ll enjoy and not get board with. Nobody wants to eat celery sticks 5 times a day, but the celery could be a choice 3 times a week.
Stick to a routine and schedule your eating. Eat a light breakfast, then set out your snacks. It could be veggies in 2 hours, a healthy protein bar in 4 hours and lunch in 6 hours. The point is to plan your food rather than binge when you’re tired or bored.
Listen to podcasts, satellite radio or something you enjoy listening to.
Breathe Like A Navy SEAL. Your body and brain need oxygen. Fresh air is invigorating. One quick way to be invigorated is to learn a few breathing tricks from a Navy SEAL. After reading Mark Devine’s book, The Way Of The Navy SEAL, I put his box breathing technique to work.
Incorporate a walk around your truck with the breathing exercises. Get out and walk around your vehicle once or twice while breathing. You’ll put yourself back behind the wheel with more energy and confidence.
Steps For Box Breathing. You will want to perform the box breathing technique while parked the first few times. If you’re new to deep breathing exercise, you could experience some light headedness. As with any other new fitness routine, consult your physician and make sure you’re up for it.
- Breathe in through your nose while counting to 4. The point is to slowly fill your lungs with air. Feel the air enter and fill your lungs.
- Hold the air in for the same 4 count.
- Slowly exhale over yet another 4 count.
- Repete 2 or 3 times.
In the book, the author expands the counts to a 4 count inhale, an 8 count hold and an 8 count exhale. Seriously, taking a few minutes to clear your mind and breathe is quite invigorating. I’ve used several different techniques over the last several years.
When you need to sleep, sleep. It’s always better to arrive safe, but late.
Sometimes our jobs require us to drive at odd times, or drive when the last night of sleep just wasn’t that great. Nothing trumps being healthy when you need a little more out of your mind and body from time to time.