Surviving a Road Trip with Young Kids

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Over the last four years, my family of five has traveled over 10,000 miles on road trips in our Toyota Corolla. That’s over 166 hours total if you drive 60 mph (which isn’t always the case). Most of these trips were to destinations over 13 hours (drive time) from our home. Needless to say, I have learned a lot about the dos and don’ts of road tripping with littles throughout all of these adventures. Like the time I had a barely potty-trained 3 year old in the backseat saying he needed to poo right as we hit Atlanta rush hour traffic and we didn’t move for an hour. Then, when we finally made it to a gas station to remove aforementioned poo from his undies, he was trying to carefully step out of the dirty undies and tripped, hit his head on the sink and landed face down on a GAS STATION BATHROOM FLOOR. I am the least germophobic person there is, but even this was out of my comfort zone. After abandoning the soiled undies in the gas station trash can, my son walked back to the car commando with a giant purple goose egg the size of a golf ball on his forehead. The number one lesson from that incident was to always put recently potty trained children in a diaper or pull-up for road trips.

First things first, if you are planning to take a road trip with kids you need to properly set your expectations.

If you have visions of everyone happily singing Wheels on the Bus and marking off state license plates for hours on end, you may want to adjust your expectations. Most likely you will have moments like this, but there will also be moments where you want to scream from how many times you’ve been asked “Are we there yet?” There will probably be crying at some point…maybe on your part after you’ve heard kids bicker for an hour straight about who is touching who (remember, we had three in the backseat of a COROLLA, someone is ALWAYS touching someone). Approach your road trip hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, and having reasonable expectations that it will probably be somewhere in between those two.

Next, have a loose plan.

I say loose, because there will always be surprises from unexpected potty breaks, traffic and other circumstances. Think about if there are any sights you want to see, restaurants you want to try and have a realistic idea of how often you will stop and how much you will drive each day. We tend to stop every 2.5 hours (unless we have an emergency). When we start in the morning we will plan our lunch stop for whatever city we expect to be near around 11 o’clock. This time is carefully chosen because lunch is served, but we want to beat the crazy lunchtime rush. We also plan our stops around where we can find a Chick Fil A. For us, this is an ideal spot because of the play place for the kids, reasonably clean bathrooms and food we can all enjoy. If we can find an exit that has a Chick Fil A and a Starbucks, we have hit the parenting jackpot. My husband will leave me to let the kids play while he fills up the car with gas and picks us up Starbucks, then he’ll come back to load us all in the car and continue our trip. We tend to plan anywhere from 8-10 hours of driving time per day, that is our comfortable limit before we all start going a little crazy. I also want to mention that some families prefer to drive at night and pack the kids in, letting them sleep throughout the drive. This is a great strategy if it works for your family, but does not work for us.

Having options for entertainment is a key component of any successful family road trip.

I like to start out with more classic forms of entertainment like books, toys and games and save electronics and technology for once we’ve exhausted the first few options. Here are some of my favorite forms of entertainment;

  • books- we get a bunch of new books from the library appropriate for each child
  • songs- when my kids were younger we sang all the classics from Wheels on the Bus, Itsy Bitsy Spider and more. You can just sing from memory, or you can find a kids song cd or streaming channel. Now that my kids are older they prefer to put on the radio and sing along with songs like Happier and Old Town Road.
  • games– I spy, licenses plate hunts, road trip scavenger hunts
  • toys- I hit up the Dollar Store and Target Dollar Spot to find all of the road trip friendly things. I’ll also throw a few of their favorite smaller toys in a bag (absolutely no balls, unless you just want to be hit in the head), but new toys tend to come with an excitement producing longer spurts of entertainment than stuff they already have. A few of our favorites for road trips are dry erase boards and markers, etch-a-sketches, sticker pads (I love these reusable Melissa and Doug ones), paint with water pads, Mad Libs, felt books, magnetic tic tac toe and other travel games.
  • technology- Like I said, I like to save the devices for a last resort so first I will hit up things like podcasts (Story Pirates is a great one for kids), books on CD, educational kindle games and then save the shows and movies for later. If your vehicle isn’t outfitted with a DVD player you can find a portable one for the trip. We do this, and then rent DVDs from the library to watch along the way.

Be prepared for unexpected messes and bodily functions.

You are going to need trash bags, vomit bags, and wipes (even if you don’t have babies anymore). I like to keep extra clothes (especially undies) for each kid more handy than being buried in the bottom of a stack of suitcases. This way when accidents happen you don’t have to unpack everything. I also like to keep a small potty in my trunk for emergencies in which we couldn’t make it to a bathroom. Also, as much as possible try not to potty-train a child right before a road trip, and if you do find yourself road tripping with a recently potty-trained child, please consider using a diaper or pull-up just for the driving time.

Finally, the most important, bring LOTS of snacks.

I pack one bag of snacks for the drive one way, and a separate bag stashed away for the return trip. Make sure you have a variety, and have adult snacks also, because in the event of all kids falling asleep you will skip whatever meal necessary to not have to wake them. This is not the time to over indulge in sugar, no one wants to be in a vehicle full of sugar crazed kids stuck in their car seats. Our favorite road trip snacks are applesauce pouches, nuts, beef jerky, veggie straws, popcorn, chips, granola bars, already washed and chopped fresh fruit and vegetables, protein bars and cheese sticks.

With all of this in mind, you are ready to hit the road with your crew. Don’t forget to HAVE FUN and enjoy the journey, time together in cars can be some of the most fun memories older kids fondly look back on, use it as a time of connection and togetherness along the way, rather than only focusing on getting to a destination.

Have you road tripped with your kids? What pro tips have you learned along the way?

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Shannon lives in Central City, New Orleans with her husband, Jeremy, and three sons, Noah, Eli and Zeke. She left a career in Human Resources to take on her dream of being a stay-at-home mom. During this time, she and her husband founded a non-profit called Bastion Resources with the purpose of inspiring others to live a life of intimacy with God. Shannon is passionate about creating community and engaging in meaningful conversation around the dinner table. Recently, she created The Intentional Daily Journal to help people live with more purpose and clarity, which is available for purchase on Amazon. In her free time, Shannon enjoys all types of fitness, trying new restaurants, reading and discussing books with her book club, coffee dates with friends and hanging at the park with her family. Shannon is constantly creating new healthy recipes and sharing them on her blog Dinner Done by 9am.

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