5 Steps to a Killer Road Trip Playlist

After a lot of trial and error, I’ve determined there are five steps you can follow to make a killer road trip playlist. They are…

My favorite part of any road trip is the soundtrack. There are just certain songs in this world that turn your life into a movie montage and make you feel unstoppable. Sometimes, it can be very difficult to determine what songs belong on your road trip playlist.

You can turn to the Internet’s many lists of “Top 50 Travel Songs” but, those lists are subjective and you might only find one or two songs that fit your style. After a lot of trial and error, I’ve determined there are five steps you can follow to make a killer road trip playlist. They are:

  1. Set the Mood
  2. The Main Jam
  3. Banger/Acoustic Ratio
  4. Playlist Length
  5. Go Your Own Way

Follow these steps, and you will have an epic playlist specialized for any highway adventure.

Set the Mood

Every road trip has a mood. Sometimes you figure it out after you’re buckled into the car, driving down the road, but other times the mood has already been set by the nature of the trip.

Are you headed out for a bachelorette weekend or are you going to a professional conference a state or two over? Are you running away from winter’s chill or are you going home for the holidays? Knowing your road trip’s purpose will help your playlist fall together in one harmonious heap of songs. Take inspiration from the Master of Disguise and ask yourself these five questions to help figure out your road trip’s mood:

Carpool Karaoke

  • Who am I going with?
  • What are we doing?
  • Where are we going?
  • When are we going?
  • Why are we going?

The Main Jam

Ah, the Main Jam. It is probably the most important song on any playlist you make. The Main Jam on its own is completely subjective to the audience and the road trip you are going on. Very much like the mood of your playlist, it can make or break the vibe of your trip. Think back to songs that have stuck with you throughout your life or friendships and you’ll end up with the perfect Main Jam.

Here are a few Main Jams I would choose for different road trips just to get the juices flowing for your own inspiration:

That's my Jam

  • My best friend from elementary school and I had a strange attachment to all things Billy Joel, especially his song, “Piano Man”. There’s no question in my mind that this would be the Main Jam of our playlist.
  • If I was going with my best friends from college, the Main Jam would either be “Journey to the Past” from Anastasia or “Zero to Hero” from Hercules. After our nights out, we’re oddly drawn to ’90s animation and sing these songs without fail.
  • “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift would top out as the Main Jam for a trip with my study abroad friends. Our favorite pub in Ireland guaranteed we would hear this song at least twice each night, so a lot of great memories come to mind when it comes on.
  • If I was going solo, “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon would be my Main Jam. It’s my favorite song and that’s what a Main Jam is.

*NEVER start your playlist with the Main Jam. You have to build up to something epic, so use some finesse when you place your Main Jam in your playlist.

Banger/Acoustic Ratio

If you have ever watched “Parks and Rec,” I’m sure you know Aziz Ansari’s definition of a “banger.” If not, here’s a link to his banger monologue.banger GIF

While I appreciate the fact that Aziz Ansari’s character only has bangers on his playlist, I find that road trips aren’t the time or place for a playlist that is 100% banger. If you’re road tripping solo, I would suggest going for 75/25 with your song ratio.

75% of your playlist should be bangers because you need the playlist to be upbeat enough to keep you awake. That is your playlist’s only job. If your playlist only offers mellow Jack Johnson covers, there’s a much higher likelihood of zoning out or drowsiness. All no-goes in the road tripping world.

25% of your playlist should be acoustic simply because you deserve some relief from constant jamming. At a party, you can get up and leave the room– getting a break from all of the bangers. On a road trip, this isn’t quite so simple. You could always turn off your playlist, but then you run into mind-numbing silence. You can also switch on the radio, but who really wants to put up with the advertisements that take up 50% of the radio waves? Stick with my 75/25 ratio and you’ll be set.

If you are road tripping with other people, the ratio should be about 60/40. Having more acoustic songs incorporated into your playlist gives some time for chatting with your travel buddy. Who would want to miss out on that bonding time?

Playlist Length

The length of your road trip should influence the length of your playlist and the number of playlists you have in your repertoire. The last thing you want is an overly repetitive soundtrack when you’re stuck in a car. It’s like reading Poe’s “The Bells” or getting a tape that plays one song stuck in your stereo; it’ll drive you insane.

5000 Miles

With a trip that is four hours or less, you’ll only need one playlist. I have found that a well balanced playlist is thirty minutes to two hours long. If it goes over two hours, there’s a chance you will loose the overall mood and might need to incorporate two Main Jams instead of one– defeating the purpose of a Main Jam all together. I am usually able to listen to the same playlist twice in a row before I need a new vibe to keep me in my driving zone. After that, it’s time to create multiple playlists for your road trip:

  • Trips 1-4 hrs: 1 playlist
  • Trips 4-8 hrs: ~2 playlists
  • Trips 8-12 hrs: ~3 playlists
  • Trips 12-16 hrs: ~4 playlists
  • Trips 16-20 hrs: ~5 playlists
  • Trips 20-24 hrs: ~6 playlists

If your road trip lasts longer than a day, you should be okay starting over with the playlists you’ve already created. Just listen to them in a different order. This method will add a little flavor to your road trip and can almost guarantee no episodes of highway boredom.

Go Your Own Way

Now, this is the most important step of them all: make your own calls. Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to music, from genre to tempo. The same goes for their road trip soundtrack.

car jamming

Maybe you want to go old school and bring your collection of CDs from the late ’90s/ early 2000s instead of making your own playlists. Be my guest, I’ve done that more times than I can count. Maybe you have a lot more patience than I do and can listen to the same playlist on repeat for hours on end. You might just make a list of Main Jams for the entire road trip, because it’s impossible to pick just one. You may even hate bangers and can successfully stay awake on the road with only acoustic songs filling your car’s airwaves.

Whatever you decide, it’s your road trip and your soundtrack. I hope these tips help you create a killer playlist and that your adventure is stellar.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s