When you are young and carefree road trips seem like one of the best ways to explore the world. With the wind blowing in your hair, and the highway stretching before you, road trips can bring an endless series of adventure and experiences. It seems, however, that when you get married and the kids arrive, road trips get relegated to the past.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Road trips with young kids are still a great way to explore the world. You just need to be a little bit more prepared. Since my kids were born both (Zeke, 4 years old, Abigail, 2 years old) have logged months of road trips, traveling thousands of miles.
The following are some tips that I have developed while road tripping with my kids.
Start Them Young
There is no better time to introduce the love of travel to your child then at the earliest of ages. New born kids do not have any preconceived notions of what life will be like, so you might as well start them off by introducing them to world with a road trip. Both of my kids went on their first road trips when they were just 5 weeks old.
You may be thinking that all newborns seem to do is sleep and eat, so what fun is that? My newborns tended to nurse for 30 minutes, play for a few minutes, then drift back to sleep for 2-3 hours. You can put a lot of miles down the road in 2-3 hours. The feeding part does need to be dealt with (a crying baby in the back seat is not a lot of fun), which requires some additional planning.
Add extra time for kid maintenance into your travel schedule. I used to call this ‘Zekey Time’. Young kids, especially newborns, require frequent feeding and diaper change stops. So I always added in a half hour to the schedule for every 2 hours planned on the road. Depending on their ages this extra time increases or decreases. Flexibility is the key to a successful road trip with young ones in tow.
We also try to plan stops at interesting locations – parks, historical areas, rest areas etc. This way after the kids needs are taken care of, we can explore some interesting things before moving on to the next location.
Know your kids nap schedules, and plan accordingly. Toddlers function best when they stick to a schedule. Both of my kids liked to nap at around 2PM for a few hours, so I try to plan my day so that we’d do the touristy things like museums, parks, hiking, geocaching etc. during the morning, and planning on simply driving for a solid 2-3 hours in the afternoon. This let the kids burn off energy and have fun in the mornings, and sleep at normal nap times in their carseats.
If you are going to spend 5 hours exploring, and 5 hours driving a day, you might as well do it when everyone in your family is best prepared to do it. This does bring me to my next point, which is:
Limit Distance Per Day
I try to limit the drive time to about 4-5 hours a day. As the kids get older this gets longer, but in general 5 hours allows us to get some distance in, and still leave lots of time for doing things along the way. We have done 8 hours at a stretch, but those were days where we knew we’d not be back in the car for a few days.
I prefer to eat breakfast at the hotel before heading out for the day, and getting to the next hotel just before supper. This allows for ample wake up time, and some play time at the end of the day to burn off that extra energy that kids seem to store up during long car rides.
Speaking of hotels…
One of the lessons I learned while travelling with Zeke is that at a very early age he won’t fall asleep if us parents were in view. This can be tricky in one-room hotel rooms where there is no wall between the crib and mommy and daddy’s bed. It only took one night of us putting Zeke down for bed at night, then turning off all the lights in the room to wait for him to fall asleep, only to have him still staring at us from his crib 40 minutes later. Something had to change with this equation.
My solution was to build a room divider out of ¾” PVC pipe. The divider is just slightly larger than the side of his crib (4’x5’), and I drape a bedsheet over it. This makes a quick room divider that is easy to take down and pack away in the van. Now when we arrive in a hotel the first thing we do is erect the divider between the crib and our beds. This one thing has likely saved my sanity a dozen times over the years.
Keep Spares Handy
Spare diapers, spare change of clothes, spare towels for wiping up spills, will all come in handy. Nothing sucks more than having to pull over on the side of the road to clean up your toddler because he had an accident only to find everything is buried in the bottom of the luggage pile in the trunk. I kept spare towels, diapers, and clothes in a bag under their seats so I never had to go digging for things. I also keep a spare diaper bag in the back of the van in easy reach.
In the same vein, keep a lot of toys handy. Between the front seats in our minivan we kept a box of toys and books. A lot of them – 10-15 or so. Young kids have small attention spans, and they have clumsy hands that drop things easily. Having a large supply of things at hand to pass to them keeps kids happier, longer.
The same goes for snacks. I keep an extra sippy cup and some snacks in the front of the car that can be passed back at need. Even a 1 year old in full tantrum has trouble resisting a cookie.
Travel Is For Building Character, Memories Are For You
My last bit of advice is to remember that, while travel is great for kids, the memories you generate will be yours. Infants and toddlers simply do not remember things that happen to them, but you do. They also don’t tend to care where they go. Kids that age will find interesting things to entertain them, quite literally, anywhere they find themselves, so feel free to pick spots that are interesting to you. Not every stop has to be a playground or kids museum. If you find a location interesting, they likely will too, tho perhaps for different reasons: while you are admiring that historical marker and statue, they will likely be playing with the leaves on the ground.
Your kids may not remember the places they go, but they will use those experiences to build characters and personality traits that will be beneficial to them as they grow older. They will learn to appreciate exploring new things, and get used to being in new places, develop flexibility and tolerance of new situations and surroundings. They will develop a taste for travel that will likely pay off dividends when they get older and hit the teenage years when its hard to get them off the couch.
If nothing else, they will have the stories that you can tell them of the time they visited far off locations. If that isn’t reason to take your young ones on a road trip, I don’t know what is.
So start making plans for your next road trip adventure with your young children, just leave space in your suitcase for some extra diapers.
Dave is a Canadian who now lives in North Carolina with his wife and two kids. He is a Site Reliability Engineer for Google, a geocacher, and amateur adventurer. When he is not cycling to and from his workplace, he is likely out on the trails finding tupperware in the woods, or planning his next epic road trip. You can check out more of Dave’s adventures and hijinx by reading his blog: Only Googlebot Reads This Blog, or circling him on Google Plus.