How to survive a long road trip with kids

Imagine it… just you, your husband, and your precious children. Cuddled up together for 11 hours (or maybe even 3 days) of pure togetherness. Idyllic, right?

Except I forgot to mention you’re cooped up in your car or minivan, trying to ensure the shared bag of trail mix doesn’t get dumped between the seats where the raisins will become a permanent part of your upholstery, stopping only for potty breaks at dirty gas station restrooms where you have to wait in line for the key while distracting your toddler who is declaring “I’m gonna pee my paaaants!”, and all the while attempting to maintain your ever-loving mind as Frozen plays endlessly on the iPad in the backseat.

Ahhh, the road trip. What a glorious form of transportation.

Back in August, our family drove from the Vancouver area (on the West coast of Canada), all the way to Nashville, TN, in less than 4 days. We covered 4225 km (2625 miles). Did I mention we have five children, ranging in age from 10 years right down to 7 weeks old at the time?

Even more insane, on the way back in late October, we took a detour to visit friends in our country’s capital city, Ottawa, before crossing back over practically all of Canada. It was a whopping 6334 km (3936 miles).

And we survived, people. We actually survived. No child sustained injuries from being thrown out a window (don’t tell me you’ve never thought it). We all still love each other and even intend to travel together again in the future. This is how we did it.

entrefamily travels usa canada map

Road tripping with kids… how to make it possible and yes, even enjoyable.

1. Understand upfront that it may not be enjoyable at times.

I know, I’m contradicting myself right off the bat, but this is important. While your trip can and will go well overall, you will have moments where you want to stick your fingers in your ears while curling up in a fetal position.

You will have times where you are all genuinely starving and yet the only, only thing you can find is a fast food outlet, and despite your absolute aversion to processed, factory-farmed food cooked by an apathetic teenager, you will eat it anyways, because you’re hangry and if mama doesn’t get food inside of her soon, somebody’s going to get thrown out a window (wait, did I say this already?).

You will wake up in your cheapo motel room and groan at the fact that you just scored a marvelous 5 1/2 hours of sleep for the second night in a row, because oh yes, you need to get up and keep driving.

This is OK. This is normal. Road trips have their challenges.

I’ll confess that sometimes I’m not the best at lettings these challenges roll off of me. But I think that going into it knowing that some of it will be hard makes it easier to handle when the hard actually happens.

2. Agree on your driving pace.

It can be challenging when you and your spouse have different ideas about how fast you want to get there and what kind of stops you’ll make along the way.

Ryan and I are pretty different in this regard. I’m more likely to want to make real stops and actually sit down to eat. He’s more of a “let’s just get there” personality. With little kids and a nursing baby, we have to compromise, of course, because stopping is inevitable.

We just try to talk openly about it and each day make fresh decisions about where we’ll stop, when and for how long. I try to be easy going about shorter stops than I prefer. He tries to be OK with stopping more than he would like. If we both try to give, it generally works pretty well and we can tackle the trip as friends, not frenemies.

3. Consider seating arrangements.

Make sure each child has a place to rest their head for night driving or naps. Kids with car seats that still have high backs can go in middle seats, while older kids not in carseats are better beside windows they can lean a pillow on.

If you have a baby or toddler, it’s also helpful to have them within arms reach of a big kid, who can help to give them a toy that’s fallen or put a soother in their mouth or simply talk to them and try to keep them from screaming while you look for a place to pull over.

makeshift change table in van

Clearly, Oliver is loving his makeshift change table. Babies aren’t fussy.

4. Traveling with a young baby

I nurse every single time we stop, even if it’s close to baby’s last feed, just to take advantage of every single chance to nurse. We also don’t look for formal stopping opportunities (ie. proper rest stops or restaurant, etc.) but will use any old parking lot or even a safe spot on the side of the road if necessary, and I’ll just nurse in the front seat.

I change my babies on the front seat, to avoid having to find a bathroom with a change table (though I take advantage of them when I find them). It’s not super fun, but it works. I’ve even perfected the art of changing a baby right on my lap. Tricky, but possible.

We also found on this trip that Oliver sometimes cried because he was lonely (this was when he was 4 months old). Things that helped at various times included a mirror on the headrest in front of him (so he could see himself), a colorful dangling toy to look at as well as one strapped to the side of his carseat that he could hold or chew on, soothers (he’s not big into them but sometimes he would take it), and playing music or a podcast that he could hear (sometimes this also helped us when he was crying and there wasn’t much we could do about it).

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5. Audiobooks are the bomb.

They’re seriously fantastic, especially if you don’t want your kids glued to a screen the whole time (more on that in Part 2).

I love getting interesting kids books or classics from Audible (this is my affiliate link, but it gets you two free books with a 30-day free trial) and putting them on my phone (with the Audible app, shown above). Some winners with our kids lately have been the Ramona Quimby series and Henry Huggins (both by Beverly Cleary, and brilliantly read by Stockard Channing and Neil Patrick Harris), the Chronicles of Narnia, the Mysterious Benedict Society, and the Magic Tree House series (this is slightly younger in appeal – good for 4-9 yrs).

I make sure I have at least a few pre-downloaded (over WiFi at home or overnight at a hotel) before we drive. You don’t want to download them over data unless you’re desperate. We also love the Story of the World audio recordings, and bring the CDs along with us as a way to get in a little history while we travel (even Ryan and I enjoy listening to them).

We adults also enjoy a good audiobook and at times we’ve listened to various books together, and then had great conversations about them afterwards. Ryan and I have a slight preference for listening to podcasts together, so we tend to go with those instead, but the principle is the same.

With entertaining signs like this, why wouldn't you want to get out and move around at gas stations?

With entertaining signs like this, why wouldn’t you want to get out and move around at gas stations?

6. Move when you can (and how to earn strange looks at gas stations)

Every single time we get out, I do stretches and jumping jacks and encourage my kids to do so (encourage might be too gentle – I may occasionally step into drill sergeant mode, but I can always tell the difference in them after).

This is important enough to me that I do it anywhere and everywhere, even right in the middle of a gas station lot (for the record, my husband thinks I’m super cool).

Everyone feels better when we get out and move, even if it’s only for two minutes. Staying as active as possible is so important, not only just to feel better and help the kids get out their wiggles, but also to prevent sore muscles and tension headaches from long hours stuck at the wheel.

More to come in Part 2… 

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How to you survive road trips with kids?

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