How-To: Car Trips With Kids
Regardless of destination, car trips with kids can be tough. I will say at 2 and 4 years old my boys are finally starting to get to a good place to take trips with. We have set approximately a 4 hour ring around our home and try to stay within that for everyone’s sanity. There are some pretty epic locations within that circle, so for now it does not feel restrictive. That being said, it is not easy and requires some solid planning.
First and foremost, travel on a good schedule for them. Growing up my dad used to pile us in the car right after dinnertime and drive so we would end up and my grandpa’s house in the middle of the night. This allowed us to sleep in the car and him to travel in relative peace (I imagine). When we got there we would either all keep sleeping in his van or if it was cold he would transfer us to the pull out couch in the house. Staying in the van might sound a little weird to some, but Pap lived on a giant farm so it was private and safe and if it avoided waking us up I totally support that decision! This is a great option for longer trips, but I recommend having a solid place to sleep when you get to your destination: think friend or family couch or hotel room. This is less ideal if you have to find a camp site and set up a tent or trailer in the dark without waking the littles. We have tried that route and it completely backfired on us.
Traveling during the day can be a handful since you will get less sleepy children that require more entertaining. I know this does not work for everyone, but I am so grateful that we regularly take hour long drives to get to hikes during the week as a practice for the boys. I am also grateful that I have set the precedent that we don’t watch tech on these shorter trips because it allows my boys to be completely content just looking out the window and observing the world. This option not only requires practice, but also a crazy amount of patience from mom and dad. Most times for me it is totally worth it to be able to catch a glimpse of how they see the world; there are so many things that I glance over now that they will get so excited about or curious about. It has opened up so much dialogue between us that can feel taxing sometimes, but I know I will look back on with fondness when they are grown.
Our routine has changed many times in the last four years to meet the needs of growing children and then a growing family. Recently we have gotten to a point the the boys can reach each other across the car and that has been absolutely glorious for me. Since the hubs is usually the driver on our trips that puts me on kid duty. This means that up until maybe a month ago I was in charge of handing out snacks, handing out Kindles at the right time, keeping everyone hydrated, dishing out toys and reading books, and “fixing” the Kindle that my two year old has not quite figured out yet. It has been exhausting. Last week I took the boys on our first camping trip without dad and I was very nervous about how the car ride would go. Since the boys can reach each other now all I had to do was regulate snacks, and RM would help JR with any and all Kindle-related meltdowns. They can both also reach their cup holders so I can just give them each their own water bottle. Glorious. It is truly the little things. Not only was that a relief for me, it also helped the boys bond together a little bit which was endearing to say the least.
Here is the nitty gritty. We leave just before nap time. This allows us to fill up gas and grab a snack before they sleep. I tell my oldest (who generally does not nap) that he does not get his Kindle until after everyone naps. He is a rule follower so even though it takes awhile for him to get bored enough to fall asleep, he will. The youngest passes out almost immediately. We stop when they both wake up which is usually timed within striking distance of the mid-point of the trip. If we are less than 30 minutes from our rest stop I tell the boys they can have their Kindles after we stop for lunch and potty breaks. They usually spend that 30 minutes pointing out construction trucks or trains and begging for snacks because they are starving. I will allow one small snack to get us through until lunch. After our rest stop I hand out Kindles and enjoy the rest of the trip thankful for the technology of our time. On the last trip we only used the Kindles for about an hour of the four hour trip. I am totally ok with that screen time for the peace it gives me.
When we get to our destinations we usually do not pull out tech again until the drive home. Not all kids are going to be down with that, so recognize that it takes practice, every kid is different and you have to do what works for your family to set yourself up for success. Some of the best conversations Jeff and I have had happen during these long road trips so more screen time has been allowed to facilitate that front seat conversation.
Find a distance that your kids can handle and stick pretty tight to that. Everyone will be happier for it.
Practice makes perfect. You cannot expect kids to go from only 15 minute car rides glued to their Kindles to screen-free for four hours without push back. Be reasonable and set yourself up for success.
Set your kids expectations before you hit the road. “We are going to this place. It takes four hours to get there (I always just say we will be in the car all day). When we get there we are going to be camping in tents with friends and hiking. You can have your Kindles only after naps. This is going to be so much fun!”
Our rest stops are usually 15-20 minutes of bathroom, lunch and wiggles. Play with them on these breaks to get your blood moving too!
If you are traveling with BABIES know that most of these rules will not apply to you. It is a learning process for parents and kids alike, so know that if can be done. Some babies sleep the whole time, but some babies completely lose their minds in their carseat. If you have the latter, please keep your travels local, they will get better over time. When my oldest was the tiniest baby I remember getting so frustrated with how much work it took to getting to our destinations. I would be ‘stuck’ in the backseat with him reading and singing and missing the sights of the front seat. We would stop a lot for feedings and diaper changes and I got so sick of that stopping that eventually I would just lean over him (super comfortable for me- NOT) to feed him. It was taxing and frustrating, but we would end up in these stunning places that seemed to make me forget about how hard it was until the drive back. I would say for our family these trips got better around 18-24 months for both kids. This is not because we stopped traveling with them and started back up at those ages, we just continued to push through and build up everyone’s endurance. The Kindles helped immensely; although we had to learn how to regulate those too.
Car travels can open up a whole world of destinations for you in a much less expensive way than air travel. It is not always easy, but for us it is totally worth it. Start small, pack strategically, and remember if it is possible to leave enough space to let an adult sit back with them on occasion then do it! I will say I know plenty of parents that travel solo with their kids and everyone can adapt to that too if that’s what needs to work for you. Don’t forget to give days off in between longer travel days of smaller kids. We have often taken dirt road drives (one of our favorite things) during nap times, but otherwise try to stay out of the car as much as possible on non-travel days.