Road trips can be incredibly exciting—and incredibly long. We can all go a little crazy after a few hours strapped in a car, when we’ve lost all feeling in our legs and are listening to the radio scan because we’ve exhausted our iPhone playlist. Now imagine if you were there because your parents said so! Here are six tips for ensuring your next road trip is fun for everyone, kids included:
Put these at the top of your packing list: carseats, cell phones (and chargers!), some sort of roadside assistance (AAA is great), extra food and water,and any essential medication. Then consider anything else that may apply specifically to your route, vehicle or kids. If you’re planning to take highway 190 through Death Valley and your car’s air conditioning doesn’t seem as cold as it should, consider driving at dawn or dusk and pack plenty of water and food in a cooler. If you’re headed to Tahoe in the winter, and the California Highway Patrol is already requiring you to carry chains, make sure you have access to warm clothes, extra food, and your credit card in case a storm prevents you from getting over Donner Pass. Growing up in upstate New York, it wasn’t unheard of to have a car trunk freeze shut (and eliminate access to your bags!) so we usually stick a sleeping bag at the kid’s feet during our winter trips to the Sierra.
If your kids are young enough that they still nap (yay!) then do your best to ensure the longest driving stretches overlap with naptime. Our kids are usually good for about an hour before nap and an hour afterwards before they need to get out and run around. If you need help lulling your chitlins to sleep in the unfamiliar space of a car, download this album: African Dreamland by Putumayo Kids. It’s beautiful and works like a charm.
For long road trips, we drive when they’re tired or asleep and try to make alot of progress (say a four to five hour stretch). Then we plan to have lunch or dinner out in a park or somewhere we can all burn some energy. This part isn’t set in stone before we leave home, since we don’t know exactly how far we’ll make it or what we’ll encounter on the road (rain, snow, potty breaks, photo ops). Once we know generally where we’ll end up, we do a few quick searches for parks, playgrounds and public pools to see which roadside city has the best option. (If you’re ever passing by Christiansburg, Virginia on a warm summer day, stop by their Aquatic Center. It is shared with Virginia Tech so it isn’t your normal small town pool. Inside the indoor complex is a competition pool, a warm water therapy pool and a leisure pool with spiral tube slides and a cool water feature with dumping buckets.)
Not necessarily in clothes, but in everything else. Backpacks with several compartments, tray tables with side pockets or cups, reusable cloth pouches for snacks and anything else that serves to contain. Zippers and velcro are your friends on long car rides as they help to keep everything in its place. If your children are quite young, then a few crayons may end up in the pocket with the pretzels, but overall packing in compartments will really limit the amount of time spent cleaning the car and repacking bags just to get into your hotel.
Consider the entire life cycle of the eating process before you add an item to your cooler, and think simple. Closed topped drinks are good, open cups not so much. Red bell pepper slices are a big hit, granola bars are only for the kids who are old enough to resist smushing them in their fingers and grinding the crumbs into their carseat. If your kids love to eat PB&J every day for lunch, make it fun and slice it in fun shapes for the car—fun, small shapes that are more likely to go straight into their mouths! Don’t forget a trash bag either.
We all need a little entertainment on long road trips. Whether you like to stare out the window as you listen to every playlist on your iPhone or finish a novel before your next destination, ensure you pack those items for your kids too. If you can’t bare to listen to Raffi for more than five minutes (like me) then download some better options beforehand. Check out Sweet Honey in the Rock’s album titled Still the Same Me—it’s fun and easy on the ears. If you can’t agree on any music, or need a few minutes of silence, try out headphones that are specially designed for children. Kidz Gear headphones limit the maximum volume so your little ones can’t damage their hearing while jamming out to their own tunes.
Don’t show all of your cards at once. Keep the books, games, crayons, toys, snacks and such easily accessible (to you) but limit access to your children. When they’re done with one item they can trade it out for another.
While strapped into a seat for five hours, your children have very little control over their lives. If you can present choices for activities, meals and pit stops, you’ll help to relieve any brewing frustration. If you pack two coloring books, let them select one and save the other (out of sight) for later. When you need a bathroom break, let them pick the exit or the gas station.
Photo Credit: Header image from Emlyn Stokes