When I first dreamed up a monthlong road trip—hiking a bunch of trails from my new Hike It Baby book with my husband and five-year-old son—it seemed like a really great idea. That was more than 3,000 miles ago, and did I ever learn a lot about traveling with kids.
The itinerary took us from Wyoming to Wisconsin. We traveled through the Rockies, where we saw the Tetons and Devils Tower, then hopped over to the Midwest on a monthlong hiking adventure. (Full disclosure: The trip was sponsored by Subaru.) Everywhere we went, we met up with parents from the Hike It Baby community who’d helped me crowdsource kid-friendly trails for the book. Mark joined us for part of the trip, but when he had to return to work, Maura Marko, a friend who runs the blog We Found Adventure, joined me with her kids: Jack, 4, and Rowan, 2.
How people with more than three kids under age five travel regularly, I’ll never understand. While my son’s emotions can be big, if you add in two other little kids’ emotions, a long road trip is like turning on a popcorn machine and forgetting the top as the popcorn begins to explode and fire all around the room.
I’m sure I made much of my well-documented trip (if you were following on Facebook or Instagram) look like an Instagram-perfect walk in the park: all pretty lakes, jagged mountains, and slot canyons. In between, however, were miles of highway, heaps of crying, full-blown temper tantrums, a day spent in a hotel while Mason threw up thanks to food poisoning, poopy pants due to potty-training regression, rainstorms hammering down on camp, giant bugs like prehistoric-looking cicadas, itchy mosquito bites, and way too much road food.
There were also the magic parts of road-tripping: seeing fireflies in Wisconsin, huge thunderstorms in Wyoming, a moose and a roadside grizzly bear munching on berries. We watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind in a campground’s outdoor theater at Devils Tower. We negotiated down a wood ladder into a slot canyon in Indiana and went to the largest children’s museum in the country, where we got to touch real dinosaur bones. We played on huge sand dunes in Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes.
If I have learned one thing about being on the road with a baby, then toddler, then pre-K kid over the past few years, it’s that nothing will ever go as planned. This is already life with a five-year-old. When you add in the instability of a road trip, it’s important to remember to be in the moment and roll with whatever is happening, because it will all pass quickly. The great thing about a road trip is that there are always shiny bright things to shift the moment, if you keep your eyes open.
These are the top ten road-trip tips I learned.
Don’t Plan Long Driving Days
These become increasingly harder as your kid ages. You will find yourself quickly frustrated when you have to stop every two to three hours just so you can keep your kid in the car longer.
Add Buffer Time and Then Some
If you are traveling with more than one child, add 15 minutes to every planned stop. You will never get back into the car as quickly as you thought.
Road Games Are Key
Figure out which games play well in motion. Legos will be challenging in a moving car, so think about what kids can do besides just watch movies on an iPad. They will eventually tire of the same four movies, especially on a long road trip.
Keep Everyone Fed
Keep a little cooler handy that you can pack with fresh, easy-to-grab food. Inevitably, you will all get burned out on road food, and it’s nice to have something fresh to offset the garbage you find at all the quick potty and gas stops.
Consider the Potty
If you are potty training, bring a potty that’s easy to put out anywhere. We have gone poop in the back of the car at Walmart, in parking lots of hikes, and on the side of the highway in a wildflower field. Make sure you have nice sealable scented bags in case the poop needs to travel with you for a bit.
Prepare for Messes
Keep waterproof bags (ideally reusable, washable bags) handy so when the messes happen, whether a potty accident or spilled milkshake, you have clean clothes ready to swap out and can seal away the soiled clothes until you get to a washing machine.
Rethink Your Changing Table
Bring a waterproof blanket or mat that’s easy to lay out so you have a surface available for a quick picnic or a diaper change in the middle of nowhere. It’s good to get out of the car and lay the little one out versus going into public bathrooms, both for the germ factor and just to give everyone some outside time after being in the car so much.
Plan Park-and-Play Stops
Look ahead at your route. Ideally, finding somewhere you can grab food and go down the street to eat in a park will win out over trying to drag kids into a restaurant after hours in the car.
Update Classic Road-Trip Games
Remember those road games you played as a kid, like “I spy with my little eye”? Look online for good road games and songs, and add these to your arsenal. We played many games of “I spy” on this trip to alleviate boredom and break up the long drive. It kept the kids entertained almost every time they had ants in their pants and were sick of being in the car.
Embrace the Chaos
Above all, bring your sense of humor and patience fully intact. Road trips are fun, and they are hard. While you may have planned that July summer trip in January—when you had a really easy baby who, by summer, has become a wiggly, not-so-easy toddler—you will be able to do it.