This is part six of a nine part series on camping, road trips, and traveling with kids. Head here for the intro, or to part two for links to all articles.
As you’re nearing your departure day there are a few more details to address so that you actually all have a good time. This is a vacation, not a trip, remember? Here’s what I recommend to set yourselves up for success:
How to Not Hate the Car
Road Trips aren’t called road trips for nothing, all that driving means lots of time in your car, so besides making sure it’s comfortable, safe, and prepped for emergencies (see above) you will also want to make sure the people in the car still like each other when you arrive. Since my teenagers were small teenagers (you know, ages 3 and 5 or so) I have had a road trip routine that works really well for me. They each get a lunchbox full of food for the day, a water bottle, and a backpack full of new toys and games to play.
Sometimes the “new” toys and games are ones they have forgotten about and are new again, sometimes it’s dollar store finds, sometimes its borrowed/traded toys with a friend, and sometimes, such as during this last adventure, it’s an L.L. Bean Boat and Tote in the backseat full of new fidgets, small games, car toys, bingo cards, bendy figurines, and puzzles. This served a few purposes- novelty for so many hours in the car, games we could play out loud (check out Personology, for example), and I could pick up the tote and move it into our tent or room in the afternoons and not have to track down and repack three backpacks every day.
I also allowed devices, which is not a normal thing for me, but we ended up somehow with an ipad, two Nintendo DS devices, and two Nintendo Switch devices (with a car charger) to use for the entire two weeks so as long as we were on a straight stretch of road and we’d at least interacted beforehand, I allowed for device time and I’m not sorry about it.
I also created a family Spotify playlist that both big kids contributed to and everyone really enjoyed listening to, and assigned the teenagers to download podcasts and books in advance of the trip. This opportunity to be in charge worked very well, and combined with the games, many rounds of I Spy and some Q&A rounds made for a very enjoyable car experience. Yes, really. I also know my kids well enough to know that 5 hours a day in the car was going to be pushing it, and more than that miserable for everyone and I planned accordingly and tried to cap it at 4 hours and included lots of fun stops, as discussed previously. As the only driver I needed to be alert, comfortable, and not distracted by fighting so we chose more stops and shorter distances each day and I’d absolutely do it like that again.
For me, besides stretch breaks, to help with leg cramping I bring my yoga tune up balls to put under my hamstrings or massage my knee as needed, bring my TENS unit if my back seizes up, and use the heated seats in my car liberally. I also drink lots of water but try to not overdo the caffeine (it makes me jittery, short tempered and needing to pee all the time) and make sure I’m engaging with the kids as much as possible both to connect with them and to stay present to the road. I also assigned one big kid the job of videographer and the other photographer so that I knew the things we would be driving by would get captured on film safely, and speaking of photos, I brought a small whiteboard and pen that I used in tandem with a small tripod to take a picture of us each day of the trip marking the day and the destination. I’m super excited to combine the photos with our trip journal that we each wrote in daily and make our family Roadtrip album.
People Gotta Eat
When we left our driveway my car had 1,447 miles on it and I was determined that no one would be eating in Mom’s beautiful, shiny, brand new vehicle. That lasted exactly 39 minutes of our last adventure and I further blatantly flaunted my breaking of that rule by giving my smallest child soda when his belly hurt, which is to say that soda was spilled in my new car and… see two sections above, re: baby wipes. Sigh.
But soda spills aside, there was no way we were going to have a happy car ride without incorporating snacks and drinks so besides having packed groceries for the trip (see my Packing List post for more information on what we brought and what our meals were) I also had a soft sided, two compartment snack tub much like this one full of apples, oranges, and prepacked grab and go snacks ready for lunches and when energy was waning. Why apples and oranges only? Have you ever smelled a car that has been left in the sun with a banana in it? Pulled a peach out of a lunchbox? Do I need to explain more?
In this tub I kept food on one side, a roll of paper towels, some reusable silverware, a silicon cutting board, and refillable water jugs on the other and we used this multiple times a day, every day. Each morning I had the kids pack their own lunch, sandwiches went into reusable bags in the cooler, fruit and packaged snacks into individual backpacks, and water bottles all got refilled at fill stations. This meant that other than some fun treats on the way like a slushie or a Pink Drink, I didn’t have to throw money at snacks all day every day. I spent about $250 at Grocery Outlet (who has a surprisingly impressive selection of healthy and organic snacks) for the trip, including snacks, and other than a replacement loaf of bread didn’t need to buy groceries again the entire trip.
We chose to eat dinner out three times just for the enjoyment of it. This was an expense I budgeted for and was looking forward to, and looking back at our laughable attempt at pigs in a blanket over a campfire I think we probably could have eaten out at least one more time, but we certainly didn’t go hungry.
Mom Hack: I also keep a stash of small candies, like candy rocks, skittles, jelly beans, or m&ms in my backpack to dole out when hiking. It keeps my little guy motivated and gives everyone a small dose of sugar as needed. I’ve been doing this since my middle kiddo was about the same age and it’s yet to lose its luster.
Pit Stops Don’t Have to Be the Pits
Every parent knows that every child must “just try” going potty when you stop, even if they “don’t have to,” because Murphy’s Law says that if they don’t they will urgently need to release urine 20 minutes later when you’re 40 miles away from the next exit. It’s as inevitable as goldfish cracker crumbs in carseats, it just . . . is. My favorite pit stops include an activity of course, and most National and State parks do have bathroom, but they are not all flushing toilets. For this reason I recommend bringing lots of hand sanitizer, masks, and sanitizing wipes.
When not stopping for an activity and stopping instead for food, to stretch, or because child #3 has to go again, my top three picks, as available are: Starbucks, Love’s Travel Stops, or a Grocery store. These tend to be consistently clean, accessible, and have food that I am willing to buy as a patron of the store (I am that person who doesn’t feel right about using a bathroom if I’m not a customer). Starbucks always has quality choices for grab and go snacks for everyone (and caffeine, obviously), while Love’s tends to have things I will only ever buy as a special treat like a slushie or chex mix, but also have ice for the cooler. Grocery stores have, of course, everything, but are also a good additional option for more ice.
I ask everyone to get out of the car when we stop, even if they don’t have to go and don’t want to. We all need a minute to stretch our legs, breath fresh air, and get some blood circulation going. This really does help break up the monotony that can come with being on the road, and keeps me feeling alert and ready to keep driving.
Mom Hack: Another borrowed piece of advice- stick to water only in the car. Not only does it make spills way less of a problem, it won’t increase the need for potty stops like tea, coffee or soda will.
Getting a Minute to Breathe: What Even Is Personal Space?
Two weeks with my children 24/7 is a lot. I love them, so, so much, and it is still a lot. Not having another adult to carry the load can be taxing if I’m not careful about managing my mood and my energy. Some things that help me are:
- Knowing my irritability triggers and planning around them. I am very noise sensitive, for example, so I make sure the kids have headphones. Too much caffeine makes me very short tempered, so I monitor my intake. If I find myself feeling road ragey I know it’s time to make a pit stop. If I have alcohol in the evening I won’t sleep well and it’s just not worth the exhaustion the next day so I avoid it.
- Giving myself permission to feel and experience emotion and acknowledge it as a temporary state of feeling. I am a big proponent of labeling feelings (name it to tame it, as it the saying goes) and using the framework of “right now I feel____” and then tapping into what’s happening in my body. This typically allows the emotion to wash through me, rather than get stuck when I refuse to listen (deny it to supply it, as… my saying goes).
- Bringing a book to read at night and making some time to read it alone outside the tent, or even in bed with a headlamp on. Something that’s just for me, that I don’t share, and that I can check fully into for a short mental break really helps.
- Giving my youngest a timed amount of “choice time” to play on his own nearby where I can see him. I lay out a few options and ideas, but articulate that I will not be engaging in play for that amount of time. Setting the boundary for my personal energy while being mindful to reinforce agency, choice and self sufficiency create opportunities for everyone to get some space.
Mom Hack: Just like you’re working to keep your body flexible while you drive, keep your attitude that way too. Things will go wrong, reservations will get lost or canceled, you won’t do everything you think you’ll do. That’s okay. Remember the primary goal of your time together and let that, and not your itinerary, be your guidepost. If you approach each challenge with curiosity and a sense of adventure you’re more likely to have an outcome worth sharing than you will if you keep a rigid attachment to “the plan.”