Car Trips with Munchkins – It CAN be done!

My husband and I both grew up in families that didn’t consider any vacation a true vacation unless it took you forever to reach your destination. And so, like our parents before us, we are working on torturing our own kids the way we were once tortured. Because, you see, the torture eventually turned into fun, and the fun turned into looking down on other people who vacation any other way. A cruise in the Bahamas? Hawaii? Disney World? Lame. Give me 8 hours in a packed car any day!

We recently took a weekend trip, covering nearly 1,000 miles in three days. We towed along three small children and two dogs … and a roof rack that fell apart half way through our trip. It was an insane undertaking. But here I sit, with only a few hours’ sleep (after getting in after midnight last night) … and my memories of this trip are already mostly fond ones. Mostly … Ella’s high-pitched scream still echoes in my ears now and again.

But I’m here to tell you that a road trip with small children (and two dogs) is not only possible, it can be enjoyable! This list is far from complete, but these are the things that get me through.

1. The single most important rule of any road trip with kids is that the trip MUST revolve around the kids. Pull out the map ahead of time, and plan a loose schedule of stops and distances. But, if you have a schedule you’re hell-bent on sticking to, then when a kid needs to pee, or a kid throws up, or a dog jumps on a kid, or traffic makes everyone cranky, or the iPad needs to be charged, or the baby won’t stop crying because she can’t find her pacifier … you’re defeated before you even begin. Flexibility is key. Become one with rest stops, turn-outs and gas station bathrooms. (I’ve never been turned away for not purchasing something.) Just plan an extra hour for every hour your trip would take if you didn’t have kids. You’ll be great.

This includes changing plans when this happens, too:

kids sleeping

If the kids have fallen asleep a half hour before your next scheduled stop, roll right on through to the next one! Consult the map for other possible stopping points along your path … and enjoy the silence. On this particular trip, we never actually got all three asleep at the same time. But even two out of three was enough to keep driving.

2. I know this is a no-brainer, but snacks MUST be handy! I bag everything ahead of time, so I can simply hand back a baggie of goldfish, crackers or trail mix. Pre-packaged snacks like raisins and applesauce packets are good. (Let go of the fact it’ll make a crumby mess. Budget in a good car wash upon your return and enjoy happy, messy kids.) I even carry sugar-laden Tootsie-Roll Pops. They make the kids insanely happy and they last forever. Save them for an emergency.

And don’t forget the fluids! This trip took us through some particularly hot places, and I made sure the girls’ cups were always full of water. And when my kids are over straight water, I spike it with a little apple juice to encourage drinking.

3. Save packing room for toys to use at rest stops. Balls of all sizes, frisbees, and even bubbles, make great rest stop play. Get everyone out of the car and moving, and get those wiggles out!

4. Plan meals around the kids. That’s right people: I’m talking about McDonald’s with a play land. This last time, we stopped at a Burger King in Bakersfield. It was over 90 degrees and the playground was outside. But the kids didn’t care. We got nuggets and fries and drinks for the kids and sat for about 45 minutes while they ate and played. Then, on our way out of town, Hubby and I drove through In-N-Out for our own lunch. Just because the kids love chicken nuggets doesn’t mean we have to. Which brings me to tip #5 …

5. Don’t forget to treat yourself! You’re traveling with kids, after all. You deserve the Venti with whipped cream, just this once. Special note: make sure there’s a bathroom stop about 45 minutes after said Venti has been consumed. The alternative is quite uncomfortable … not that I’d know, or anything.


6. Take the time to pack the diaper bag properly. If you’re like me, that thing doesn’t get emptied but once every several months. I find clothes in there the kids have outgrown! Or if your kids are older, it’s still a good idea to have a bag handy with all the essentials. So, before you leave, unpack the whole thing and repack: diapers, FULL bag of wipes, changes of clothes, shoes, sunglasses, sunblock, bug spray, a toy or two, pacifiers. Because you never know when this might happen (psst: there’s a fully-dressed kid sitting in that lake):


7. Have a small grab bag of new toys. Two years ago we drove to Colorado from California with a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old. I had a bag of dollar-bin toys, new coloring books and crayons, and simple games that bribed the kids to get back in the car after each stop. We had also bought the girls their own new backpacks, which we presented at the first stop. Over the course of the trip they slowly got to fill them up with their new treasures.

8. I like to use movies for the end of the day. When we do really long trips, and the toys and the snacks are no longer working for getting kids back in the car, we promise a movie and pull out the iPad. We had some trouble with the kids fighting over one iPad, and most of the time it was taken away before they got to finish their movie … but at least it was enough incentive to get them back in the car and moving again.


9. Don’t forget the umbrella stroller when you have a 25-pound 13-month-old. It’s good for short hikes in Yosemite, it’s good for strapping Baby down at a rest stop for lunch. I sure wish I’d had mine.

10. And, when all else fails, there’s chewable Dramamine! My oldest actually does get a bit car sick, but I fully condone a little encouragement for a good nap on a long drive. Make sure you get the “original formula.” The new formula is “less-drowsy.” Can’t figure a single reason why I’d want that.


11. Take turns driving. Whoever is sitting in the passenger seat ends up dealing with every request, every battle, every dropped toy, every kid who thinks unbuckling their seat belt is funny or an appropriate form of protest. It’s exhausting. Be an example to your kids and take turns, giving each other breaks from the constant neediness of the back seat.

12. The last most important thing to bring along with you is a good and positive attitude. It sounds cheesy, I know. But it’s so important! A regular day at home with small kids is crazy enough. Spending all day with them trapped in a moving vehicle only heightens the crazy. So remember to laugh at the sheer insanity of it all, and you just might get through with not only your sanity in tact, but happy memories.

It really can be done, this car travel with kids. In one day, we drove from Oakhurst, through Yosemite, over Tioga Pass, past Mono Lake, down 395, then down 14 to 5 and home again to So Cal. Oh, there was some screaming and a couple fights over seat belts (my favorite). The kids ARE little, after all. And sometimes, no amount of snacks, games, toys or promises of pizza will tame the tiny monsters. (This is also when it’s good to really know your kids, and how their personalities might be affected by the long, cramped drive. My 3 1/2-year-old is an introvert with high activity needs. When we got to the pizza place at 6:30, after a day of driving, I found a little courtyard next to our restaurant and let her just run around by herself. Just five minutes alone and running, and it completely reset her attitude (and mine).)

What tips do you have for long drives? I’d love to hear more and make my list more exhaustive!

In It to Win It,


P.S. Don’t forget the kids’ toothbrushes. Just because you pack them in a cute bag doesn’t mean it’ll pack itself in with their stuff. I found this on the counter upon our return …


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