how to take a large family road trip with small children.

The first year we made our annual trip to South Dakota, Atticus was two and Penelope was 16 months old.  (The other kids were but a glimmer in Todd's eye, so we had tons of leg-room in the van.)  Penelope spent six hours each way screaming her tiny head off, and approximately forty minutes total sleeping.  Considering it was a sixteen-hour drive (one way!), it got really long, really quick.  I was all, NEVAH AGAINNNN!

But the draw of getting to spend so much time with Todd's parents each year kept pulling us back, and we've now made that long drive four or five times.  It has actually gotten easier each time, even though we add a new kid to the crew pretty much every year.  I have gotten much better at preparing for and organizing our trips, and it has made a world of difference, so I thought I'd spend a couple of posts sharing some of the wisdom I've gained from the School of Road Trip Hard Knocks.  Today, let's talk about what to actually have in the van to make it more likely everyone survives the day.

Car bags: I pack a bag of stuff for each kid (and myself!) to keep everyone as occupied as possible over the long-haul.  Usually I let the kids pick one or two toys and books of their own to take, but then I fill the rest of the space in their bags with dollar store items that are kept a surprise until the morning we leave.  Here are some of the items that have been winners for our kids:

*Coloring books and crayons
*Pencils and notebooks
*Window stickers
*Barbies, dolls, action figures
*Where's Waldo? books
*I Spy books
*Board books or chapter books, depending on the age of the reader

Food and drink: On an all-day trip, we usually eat a simple breakfast in the car, a picnic lunch at a park on the way, and dinner from a drive through or restaurant.  We also shake up our normal routine a little and allow for a snack or two throughout the day.  I try to pack food that doesn't smell, rot, stain, or melt if spilled, and I try to limit the carbs, since everyone gets crabby if they're chowing down sugar and starch all day.  Things like beef jerky, hard boiled eggs, fruit and veggies, nuts, deli meat, string cheese, Larabars, and a limited amount of raisins, chips or crackers have worked well for us.  I will do a more in-depth post soon about this, including how to road trip while grain-free.

Latching pencil cases make great road trip plates.  You can load them up with food, and then close them in order to pass them back and forth from the front to the back of the van without spilling stuff everywhere.  Plus, they're easily washed, and they stack pretty flat when not in use.

I only let the kids have water in the car, for two reasons: 1) if it spills, it doesn't stain or smell, and 2) they don't "bored-chug" water.  They really only drink when they're thirsty, so then we're making fewer unexpected pee breaks.  For lunch, I usually pack each of them a small soda.  They almost never get soda the rest of the year except for occasional little sips of mine or Todd's, so they really look forward to having their own, and it's become a special road trip tradition.  I've loved packing those little mini cans of 7-Up, or small bottles of real-sugar New York Seltzer.  Whatever it is, I make sure it's clear so it doesn't stain their clothes if it spills.

we do pack DVDs, but we really try to push them as long as possible before putting one in.  If you start the DVDs too soon into the day, they get super bored and antsy and grumpy.  Since we try to drive in two- to three-hour stretches, we let them spend the first stretch without a movie, which usually goes well.  They spend the time eating breakfast, then digging through the new stuff in their bags.  But then the second stretch is 'movie time,' and we alternate the stretches this way throughout the day.  We don't put a movie in after lunch, since the kids are more likely to fall asleep if they're not watching something.  We make sure to pack full-length movies and episodic stuff.  This year, the kids really liked watching the old 60's episodes of Batman.

Bring a really wide playlist of music everyone in your family likes.  Don't just pack those horrible preschool singsongy tunes.  Our whole family loves Family Force 5, if you're needing some inspiration.  We spent hours listening through their albums on this last trip.

Other necessities: Pack a potty chair and some plastic bags to line it with.  You probably won't need it, but on the off-chance you do, you'll be super grateful you have it.  Even big kids can use it in urgency/emergency situations.  Don't forget toilet paper and flushable wipes!

Kids' Dramamine, a barf bucket (with a plastic bag for a liner), and an old towel have also been necessities for us. This year, we also had some success with Altoids for the littler kids, and letting them sniff peppermint essential oil.  I think next year, I'll try adding child-sized Seabands and ginger chews to our arsenal.  The last things you want in the van are sad, barfy kids and the pervasive, wafting scent of vomit on a long drive.  Ask me how I know.

Scissors, quart-sized ziplocks, paper towels, and plastic grocery sacks can cover a multitude of travel problems.  Pack more of each than you think you'll need.

Surprise Fun Attacks: I like to pack some special things in my personal bag for when some of the stretches get really, really desperate.  Usually, this happens on the way home.  Everyone is tired, and grouchy, and sick of being in the car.  At this point, I'll pull out some funny items I've packed for this very reason.  Some of the things that have been hits with our kids:

*Nose glasses
*Paper crowns (the kids spent over an hour covering these in stickers)
*Stick-on mustaches
*Glow sticks and glow bracelets
*Glittery, holographic or bubble stickers

But most importantly, keep calm yourself.  Pack yourself some coffee and chocolate.  Road trips with kids can be really, really fun, and they're making great memories, but it's also chaotic to organize it all.  See the funny in stuff - just laugh about it as best you can.  Because that's the stuff you'll remember - I remember laughing so hard my stomach hurt, and my face ached, when Finneas was sitting on that potty chair in the Badlands.  Yeah, it meant we had to carry a turd in a plastic bag in our van for a few hours before there was an available trash can, and we had to throw his undies away, and everything kind of smelled like poop.  But daaaang, that photo op was hilarious.  Your kids will feed off of your mood, and you can set the tone for a really fun day - or a really crappy one.  So choose to have a blast!

Tomorrow I'll be posting about great road trip snacks and foods for kids, including the gluten-free and grain-free set.  Thursday, I'll give you a run-down of the master packing list I use to make sure nothing gets forgotten when packing for a large family - but it's easily adapted to smaller families as well!  Stay tuned!

In case you've missed the other posts in this series:

how to take a large family road trip with small children.
ideas for food and snacks.  (gluten-free, grain-free!)
master packing list and favorite first aid items.
planning the itinerary.


the jersk. said...


todd said...

don't want to get road tripped

Ashley Hinton said...

Lol love it! I've never thought about the pencil cases, but that's perfect! Since it's just me and the kids i usually just pack a cooler and hand things back to Chanel until we decide to take a lunch break. I'll be utilizing the pencil cases in the future though!!
Two more things I've learned (our trip is only 10 hours each way):
Leave early in the morning--think 3 or 4am, then they sleep the first chunk. I once got 5 hours in before we had to stop! It felt like we were flying!
Start when they're young--this also goes for haircuts. Then they're used to it and it's not as big of a deal.

paige said...

Ashley, That's a great idea to start early in the morning - I don't think we'd be able to drive through the night like some do (I don't do any of the driving, so Todd would be on his own; also, I CANNOT FUNCTION without sleep. I'm a terrible mother when I'm tired. And we love making memories along the way!). But the idea to leave really early in the morning lets the grown ups get some sleep before leaving, and lets the kids make memories along the way, while also (hopefully) guaranteeing a much longer stretch than we're able to do once they're all awake.

And I agree - start 'em young!