Road Trip Hacks for Traveling with Kids
Road tripping with kids is not for the faint of heart. Whether you’re driving an hour to check out a new hike, or twelve hours to go visit Grandma, planning ahead will save you hours of stress and struggle on the road.
Every year, we take a 12+ hour drive to visit my in-law in Oregon. We’ve dealt with blow outs, tummy troubles, boredom, screaming babies who won’t sleep, snow storms, pounding rain, and road side bathroom stops along the way. But we’ve also had lots of fun, and our road trips have been some of our best memories.
Road tripping with kids: The basics before you go
A successful road trip with kids has a pretty basic formula: lots of prep work, fun stops, a few activities, yummy snacks, and a good attitude.
Pre-trip vehicle inspection
Don’t skip this one! Check your tire pressure, tread, oil levels. If you’re going on a long trip, schedule any maintenance before hand. Double check that your car seats are installed correctly and the child is within the safe limits of the seat. Need help? Check carseat safety websites like Safe Kids Worldwide or make an appointment with a certified car seat specialist to keep your kids as safe as possible.
Prepare the day before
While it can be tempting to plop your kids in front of the TV while you pack the day before, do everything you can to make sure they get a lot of exercise. Try putting on kid friendly exercise videos while you pack, enlist their help loading the car, or take an evening walk to bounce off pre-trip jitters. Tired kids travel well.
The night before, I prep my kids car seats with a water bottle, a few granola bars, snacks, a favorite book, and one or two toys. In the front seat with me, I keep extra toys and snacks that I dole out as needed.
Early the next morning, we hit the road. We tend to skip breakfast in favor of granola bars or muffins in the car to make getting out the door simpler.
Start (and end) with a good attitude
Kids pick up on everything, and they’ll know if you’re dreading your long drive. If you find yourself dropping hits that driving isn’t fun (“Ugh, I can’t believe we have to waste a whole vacation day just getting there!”) you’ll end up hearing that attitude in the backseat.
Even if you have to fake it, try to convince kids that the road trip will be one of the highlights of your vacation. For example, try telling them: “I’m so excited about this audio book I picked out! It’s set in the same place we are traveling too! And I found a cool place we are going to stop half way. And you won’t believe what I packed for snacks!” We can still validate their feelings (“yeah, my legs are getting stiff too, I know it’s hard to sit.”) But a good attitude, flexibility, and humor will go a long way.
Cultivating a fun attitude on the way back can be a lot harder. An exciting destination can be enough motivation on the way there. You might want to save your best books/toys/snacks for the return trip to help keep the positivity up.
Road triping with kids: Successful stops
There’s no way around it – driving with kids involves a lot of stopping. But stops don’t have to be set backs with a little planning and grace.
Budget in extra time for road trip stops
If my husband values one thing in the world, it’s “making good time” on a road trip. But let’s be honest – the drive that took two hours before kids probably takes more like three now. When you start planning a trip, be realistic about your time frame. Don’t forget to add in time for gas, play, and potty stops along the way.
The amount of time you need to stop will depend on age – babies will hopefully sleep for stretches in their car seats, but also may need stretches of time out of them. Toddlers will have extra pent up energy they need to run off. Preschoolers might be able handle longer stretches in the car, but might also need more frequent potty breaks.
Elementary school kids and up can typically understand the “faster we get there, the faster we can have fun!” mindset. But it’s best to plan for a slower trip than to get frustrated.
Successful Road Trip Bathroom Stops
Before you leave, map out stops you might want to make. Having several options planned ahead of time can save you the stress of peeling your eyes for the next available gas station.
Granted, with little kids, you aren’t going to always make it to the next rest stop. If you’re faced with a bathroom emergency, pull over safely. Keep hand sanitizer, wipes, garbage bags, and extra changes of clothes for every person in a separate bag on top of your suitcases so you aren’t left digging through your trunk on the side of the road.
Exercise: Even if you’re just doing a super quick bathroom stop, get everyone’s blood pumping. A few minutes of jumping jacks, running in place, high-knees, or stretches can go along way in staving off fatigue and help get endorphins up.
As focused as we can be on “making good time!” don’t forget the power of enjoying the journey along the way. Keep an eye out for fun playgrounds, download a geocaching app (See our How-To post here) to find new spots along your route, or even just pull off at the occasional historical marker to stretch your legs
One of our favorite vacation memories is stopping by a river on hour 9 of a 12 hour trip. Sure, we would’ve made better time if we had skipped it. But it turned a long slog of a drive into a memorable trip.
If you aren’t afraid of crumbs (and don’t have little ones who need supervised while eating), consider eating in the car to let your kids maximize burning off energy when you stop.
Fun stop ideas:
- Fishing access sights
- Scenic views
- Historical markers
- Geographic interest sights (find these on the Geocache app)
Gas station stops
Gas stations deserve a special mention. They’re unavoidable, as is the “MOM! PLEASE CAN WE JUST BUY ONE PIECE OF CANDY?” song and dance.
Every road trip I pack a big bag of Smarties, and just remind them “we’ve got candy in the car!” It gets them back to the car quicker and mostly helps avoid spending $20 in last minute snacks.
If your road trip involves an overnight stop, keep an overnight bag separate from the rest of your luggage that contains medicines, diapers, toiletries, pajamas and changes of clothes for everyone. Unpacking one bag is much easier than bringing everything in.
Every time we’ve stopped overnight, we are tempted to squeeze in just a few more hours before pulling over. Then when we show up at the hotel right before bedtime, my kids are hit with a massive second wind. Do not underestimate the excitement of staying somewhere new. Decide which is more important to you – getting to your destination a few hours earlier the next day, or making sure everyone gets a full night’s sleep beforehand.
Road Tripping with Kids: Keeping kids happy in the car
Entertainment on the road
Of course, there’s only so much my kids can come up with to entertain themselves on the road. A combination of audiobooks, podcasts, and fidget toys has long served my family well on long drives. Kids who don’t get car sick might be able to entertain themselves with books, but that has rarely worked for us.
Audiobooks and podcasts are some of our favorite things to do in the car. One year, we listened to all of the Ramona Quimby books as family. Look for books or podcasts about your destination. For example, if you’re heading to a national park, check out this series of podcasts.
Here are some more of our favorite ways to keep kids entertained in the car:
- Podcasts – 18 Podcasts for Nature Loving Kids
- Audiobooks – scroll through this extensive list of books for great ideas
- Music – Check out our list of kid-friendly tunes.
- Car friendly toys:
The Melissa and doug Water wow books can be a game changer for kids who like art and parents who want to avoid messes. Avoid toys with multiple pieces (Legos) unless you want to be bending backwards to try to find a missing piece.
While my kids always end up playing with fewer toys than I think they will on drives, it can be handy to have a few squirreled away when the drive gets long. We have an ultra list of road trip toy ideas at the end of this post.
Car Games for families
If you’re looking to move past the license plate game, here are a few other family-friendly games to try:
- I’m going on a picnic: Name three things you are bringing on your picnic (eg, cookies, cake, and cards). The other players must try to figure out what the things have in common (all begin with C) and ask if they can bring along things that fit in that category. (Can I bring a popsicle? No! Candy? Yes!)
- I’m going to the grocery store: The first player says they are going to the grocery store and getting (whatever they choose). The second player names the first player’s item, and adds one thing to the list. The third player names both items, and adds one. It goes on and on until the list gets too long to remember. Going in alphabetical order can make this game a little easier.
- Unfortunately, fortunately: The first player starts a story with a single line beginning with “Unfortunately,…” The second player continues the story, beginning the sentence with “Fortunately….” And it continues back and forth. Unfortunately, this game can occasionally end with siblings un-doing each others’ story telling. Fortunately, it’s usually not too long until someone has to stop for the bathroom anyway.
- I spy We’re all pretty familiar with I spy, but don’t forget that it can be adopted for even the youngest verbal players.
- Mad Libs: Mad Libs can keep kids giggling for hours, and can even squeeze in a little grammar practice. Here is a road trip edition.
- See our post featuring Campfire Games. Quite a few of these could be used in the car!
Don’t be afraid of a little boredom
There’s nothing wrong with letting kids stare out the window and day dream on a road trip. Granted, this doesn’t happen all the time, and when your entire family is one car, parents should preserve their sanity first.
For a little bit, when my kids tell me they’re bored, I tend to respond with, “Really? Well, I can’t wait to see what you come up with!”
Road Tripping with Kids: Best Car Food
There’s something about sitting in a car for hours on end that makes everyone absolutely famished. Filling yourself with junk food for hours can be a recipe for grumpy kids, grumpy parents and stomach aches when you get to your destination.
On long road trips, we tend to have the kids eat lunch in the car. That way, they can maximize stops for releasing energy instead of being stuck sitting some more.
Snacks for kids
Road trip snacks need to be a balance of healthy, but still fun. Here are some of our favorite healthy, low mess options:
- dried fruit leather
- whole grain muffins
- whole grain buns (travel better than sliced bread) made into nut-butter sandwiches
- deli meats & cheese rolled up in a tortilla
- cheese sticks and pretzels
- frozen yogurt tubes
- protein drinks
- trail mix
- dry breakfast cereal and raisins
- carrot sticks
- applesauce pouches
- Popcorn (but save it for a road-side stop)
Snacks for adults
Of course, kids can enjoy these too. But I like having my own special treats to indulge in.
- dried chickpeas or wasabi peas
- chocolate dusted almonds (avoid solid chocolate, melts too easily for the car!)
- spicy chex mix
- yogurt covered pretzels
Drinks on the road
Resist the urge to keep drinks to a minimum to avoid bathroom stops. Ultimately, it’ll back fire with grumpy kids, tired adults, and constipation (which could lead to even more bathroom stops in the end)
Water: Keep a few extra jugs or growlers of water in your car so you can refill water bottles easily, and I case of emergencies.
Juice: Even if you don’t drink it regularly, a juice box can help add some of that road trip fun (and stave off travel-induced constipation).
Kombucha or smoothies: Sitting for hours snacking on potato chips can leave you feeling pretty gross after a bit. Put a few cans or bottles in your cooler ahead time to avoid gas station prices.
Coffee, tea, or hot chocolate: Use your jet boil at the playground stop or fill up your thermos with hot water before you leave the house to make instant coffee or tea en route.
For “iced” coffee, just add cold milk, ice from the cooler, water and instant coffee. Shake, and sip.
Keep your cooler safe
A high-quality cooler that can keep your food at a safe temperature is essential. Here’s some tricks for keeping your cooler super cold.
- Keep your cooler out of the sun. Cover your ice chest with your wind shield sunshade while you drive,
- Make your own ice block by freezing a large leak-resistant container, like a gallon jug of water (space left for expansion), in advance of your road trip.
- Chill your cooler for at least 12 hours before you pack it full of road trip food.
Road tripping with kids: Dealing with disasters
I’m just going to be honest – it’s not going to go as planned. Potty accidents, wrong turns, bad weather. But when you’re prepared, a challenge doesn’t have to be a disaster.
Nothing kills road trip fun like the feeling that you’re about to throw up. As a car sickness sufferer myself, I’ve developed a few tricks to help ease the pain.
- Keep fresh air blowing. Even if it’s cool outside, wear a sweatshirt and keep the vent pointed to the face.
- Keep eyes on the road. Discourage kids who are car sick from reading, drawing, or even playing with toys.
- Go slow around curves. It’s not necessarily the speed, but the uneven breaking and jostling, that can turn mild discomfort into pure misery. Break into a curve and accelerate out of it.
- Make sure tummies are full. It’s counter intuitive, but an empty stomach makes carsickness worse. Pack ginger chews, mints, gum, and sour candies for when carsickness hits.
Living in Montana, we pretty frequently have to plan our travel around the weather. Risking an ice or snow storm for an extra day of vacation can be dangerous. Keep an eye on weather forecasts, road conditions, and drive slow. Make sure you have water, snacks, warm clothes, boots and blankets with you if you’re driving in the winter and keep your gas tank full.
Keep changes of clothes in a separate, handy bag, as well as trash bags, wipes, and hand sanitizer. If you have a kid who is frequently accident prone, consider having them wear their oldest hand-me-downs on the trip in case you decide the laundry isn’t worth packing to the next destination. If you have a newly potty trained kid, consider putting them in Pull-Ups even if they don’t typically wear them.
You don’t have to pull over and threaten to “tun this car around!” But sometimes pulling over and calmly reminding your kids you can’t drive safely with everyone yelling can give kids a moment to reset.
Car trip fights are generally spurred by hunger and boredom, so instead of yelling try pumping up the music, putting on a funny book, and handing everyone a lollipop. It’s hard to fight with candy in your mouth.
Don’t drive drowsy. Even if you have one parent who prefers to drive, it’s important to switch off regularly to keep attention sharp. And the parent who is in charge of handing everyone snacks all the time might be equally grateful. Make a playlist of your favorite music from the 80s and 90s and sing along when you get tired. The kids will think you’re crazy.
A note around driving through the night: I know a lot of parents attempt this. Driving at night is risky, even if you think it’ll be safer with fewer backseat distractions. Don’t forget, too, your kids will be well-rested the next day while you’re exhausted.
I can’t find my shoes!
Kids just love to take their shoes off in the car. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve pulled over for a kid to announce they can’t find their shoes and/or need help putting them back on. I make my kids wear Crocs in the car – they’re easy to slip back on. When we get back in the car, if I notice them taking them off, I either have them hand them to me or put them on the seat beside them. No dropping them to the floor allowed.
Nowhere to stop
In rural Montana, sometimes there just aren’t rest stops for miles. We’ve had to do the pull over to the side of the road more than once. And while travelers on these roads are also far between, inevitably someone will drive by when we’re peeing on the side of the road. I just take comfort that I will never see that person again in my life, and remind myself they’ve probably been in that situation too.
We carry fix a flat and jumper cables with us at all times. Once, our windshield wiper fluid ran out on a very muddy dirt road. We had to pull over every few miles to wipe down the wind shield (another reason to always have water with you!) Check with your car insurance to see what kind, if any, road side assiistance you have.
Don’t forget to bring a paper map with you, as well, if you are traveling somewhere with spotty cell coverage.
Baby won’t stop crying
Some babies just hate the car seat. If they’re fed, dry, and safe, sometimes we just have to ride it out. If a parent can sit with them, that might help pacify the situation. Pass out baby puffs one at a time. Make sure their pacifier is clipped to them, if they have one. Soothing music might help keep everyone a little more calm. And go easy on yourself – we are hardwired to have trouble listening to babies cry for that long.
Car Trip Packing ideas
Don’t pack all of these, or your car will be a gigantic mess. But here are more car-friendly toy idea:
Babies and Toddlers
- Soft toys
- Cloth books
- Safety mirrors
- Teething toys
- Extra pacifiers
- Indestructibles books
- Interactive toys
- Soft sided foam photo albums full of photos of their favorite people
- Melissa and Doug Water Wow activity books
- Wordless picture books
- Lift the flap books
- Printable coloring sheets
- Chunky crayons, washable markers and drawing pads
- Playaways from the library, or kid friendly electronics for listening to audio books
- Sticker books
- Construction paper
- Duplo size legos
- Painters Tape (show them how to rip it before you depart)
- Pipe cleaners and Wiki Stix,
- Safety scissors
- Variety of toys…match box cars, plastic ponies with hair to comb, poseable action figures
- Stationary, Postcards & Stamps (address and stamp ahead of time, and make walking the letter to the postal box one of your stops!)
- Paper Dolls
- Art supplies
- Graphic Novels
- A book from their wish list
- Playaways from the library, or kid friendly electronics for listening to audio books
- Dolls or other figures to dress and style – my kids love Calico Critters
- Beeswax or other nontoxic modeling materials
- Thread and beads
- Coloring Pages
- Printable packets with maps to highlight as you progress, and destination info such as State flower, State motto
- Word Searches (super fun to customize for your destination or for your childs’ interests)
- Mad-libs (mad lib app is a great choice for new or pre-readers!)
- Rubik’s Cube
- Hand held puzzles
- Wool yarn and supplies for finger knitting or crochet
- Kid friendly camera for documenting their adventure
- Maps, compass, and travel brochures
- Harmonicas, pentatonic flute, ukelele, rhythm eggs, finger cymbals, or other travel friendly instruments
- Boogie Board for drawing / writing / design
- Road Trip bingo cards
Road Trip Hacks for Families
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