This is that time where I remind you that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Truly. The better prepared you are for your time in the car, your activities, and your destinations, the smoother things are likely to go. Sure, you can leave room for spontaneity and it’s impossible to plan for everything, but having gone on excursions unprepared with children I can easily share that at least a nominal amount of prep work made our entire experience better. Here’s what I do once to prepare to leave once I have my basic plan in place:
Safety First: Make Protocols and Contingency Plans
I wish we lived in a world where it didn’t sound or feel like a risk to be a parent, especially a woman, traveling alone with children, but it is and does, unfortunately. To mitigate risk and to make any emergencies feel a little less scary, I prefer to take some precautions, so I:
- Make sure my vehicle is in good working order before I leave, including tires, oil changes that are needed or could be during the trip, clean, current paperwork in the vehicle, etc… and if it’s not I take care of those things or rent one.
- Make sure my insurance coverage is robust for the trip, including medical payment coverage.
- Buy or renew an AAA membership. While my auto policy does have roadside assistance, I like the extras that this membership provides. For this trip I chose the premiere option because it includes 200 miles of free towing, free emergency fuel and delivery, and $150 of car and home locksmith reimbursement and even a one day car rental with tow, which is extra helpful during COVID. These all felt like good things to have on a 3,000 mile road trip through remote areas where the next auto shop could be miles away.
- Thanks to the advice of my expert road tripping friends, I now always make a plan for my next gas stop when I hit a half a tank. I also noticed the further we got away from CA the cheaper the gas got, and the closer we got on the way home the more expensive, so I started factoring that in as well.
- Check my wallet for my cards and license before leaving any locations. It would really suck to have dropped it somewhere and not notice until 200 miles later.
- I also carried a fully charged battery charger for my car with us, an emergency roadside kit with flares, rope, and the like, as well as three small first aid kits that included the basics plus OTC medications like pepto, ibuprofen, and benadryl. One kit was for the car, and two kits were for the hiking backpacks.
- Carry an extra key fob in a separate bag. If we left the car parked somewhere I took the extra key with us but in two different bags on two different bodies in case one person lost theirs.
- Have a phone tree/chain of command for my kids so they know who to call first, second, and third, if needed.
- Discuss and identify who to ask for help if lost, and general stranger danger including what to do if it seems like someone is trying to take them. As a side note- my “kick, scream, and bite them” chat with the four year old resulted in him announcing he would do this to passers by on our hikes so… guess he was listening?
- Put all key stops, with reservation information, on your calendar and share with it two people who you check in with during the trip.
- Have a daily check in person to let them know you arrived safely. Let them know about potential unavailable spots and have an alternate method (like driving to a wifi spot) as a backup.
- For outdoor safety- discuss what to do in the event of a wild animal encounter. The National Parks app has lots of great information and short videos, such as how to use bear spray, on it. Reinforce staying together and being loud enough to not surprise animals. I happen to have a severe pepper allergy, and bear spray is made from. . . peppers, so if I had to use it I knew I’d also have to use my epi pen and I instructed both of my teens on how to administer it and what to do after. We never encountered any bears up close and didn’t need it, but I did have three cans of spray (one in each backpack) with us during all hikes. We also each had a bear bell attached to our backpacks to help with the noise, not that a family of four generally needs assistance being loud, but just in case. They’re under $2 each and well worth the cost.
- Remember that the weather can change in the outdoors quickly and without much warning. Be prepared for unexpected rain, winds, or heat waves by packing clothing layers, bringing something waterproof (even a rain poncho works) to wear, and have a hat for everyone in the family.
- Pay attention to time changes as they may impact your reservations. For example, when we crossed into Wyoming from Idaho it was suddenly an hour later which actually benefited us because we could check in earlier than planned, but when reversing course and heading into Washington from Montana I needed to plan the extra hour back in so we weren’t stuck waiting outside in 113 degree heat before we got our cabin.
Mom Hack– Always carry a large bag of baking soda enclosed in several small garbage bags in your car. This is a mom hack I learned years ago when my 2 year old threw up in the car all over everything in a grocery store parking lot. If someone vomits just pour the baking soda on anything you can’t wipe down (which, sidenote- carry a pack of baby wipes in the car as well), put the soiled clothes in the bag and tie it closed. When you get to the next gas station or car wash with a vacuum you just vacuum up the dried baking soda that has conveniently also absorbed the smell and you’re ready to keep going.
Google Maps is great, if you can use it.
Remember when we used to travel with an Atlas or paper map? You might even be old enough to remember printing out MapQuest directions. Now we have our choice of electronic devices to guide us from destination to destination while en route, and they are as equally helpful as they are agonizing. After choosing to blindly follow the “faster route” and ignore my intuition screaming “this is not the way back to the freeway” at me several times, I’m relatively convinced that urban areas contract with these apps to send folks on detours in hopes of incurring a purchase from a desperate traveler while they take a full tour of the city to “save” two minutes. Sometimes (okay most of the time) the eight lane changes, 13 right turns, and 3 roundabouts aren’t worth the five minutes not spent in a freeway parking lot so I recommend that you:
- Just stick to the original plan, faster route be damned.
- Have a paper map or atlas in your car so you can use it to find alternatives yourself if needed and when your app fails because you forgot to:
- Download the entire section of the map to use offline in advance of your daily drive because odds are very high you’re going to lose service at some point and along with that the navigation we’ve become increasingly dependent on lately.
Mom Hack: Designate one child as the navigator so you can focus on driving. Even younger kids can do this if they can follow basic directions and type. Teach them how to use both a paper map as well as interface with the map apps. I often asked a teenager to look up a destination on their own phones as well so I could gauge whether some alternative or additional stops were doable without messing up my current route. I personally find paper maps absolutely fascinating and recommend having an additional copy of a paper map that the kids can trace the route on and refer to as you drive.
After these are in place you’re ready to move on to entertainment, food, and finding ways to create space for yourself along the way.