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You should have seen the look on his face when I told him.
“You want to do WHAT?”
“You know, go see grandma and grandpa with the baby, but you would stay here.”
“But it’s 1,300 miles!”
Thanks, honey. But it wasn’t just my husband. Very few people sounded confident in my abilities as a solo road-tripper once I pitched the idea to them. It probably was less my skills and more the fact that when small kids are involved, situations become far less predictable. But I did it anyway because you only live once! Isn’t that what the kids are saying these days?
It went so well, I’ve done it since then, with TWO babies the second time–ages 25 months and 6 months. I’ve learned quite a bit about to plan to a successful road trip without the wiggle room a second adult provides. Here are my top 10 tips for road tripping with kids, especially if you are doing it alone.
1. If you and your children are out of the car and you’ve stopped, take a bathroom break. I don’t care if you went 30 minutes ago at the last stop. Just do it. You don’t want to take sleeping children out of the car seat 50 miles down the road because you had too much coffee.
2. Limit your liquid intake. Sure, stay hydrated! If the barista asks if you want a large frape-mocha-whateva, you tell them SMALL. See number 1. If your children are potty trained, rules 1 and 2 apply to them too.
3. Stop early and often, at least every 2 hours. I’m a firm believer that you need to build a level of trust between you and your children that is based on “As your parent, I will not keep you strapped down FOREVER.”
4. Find fun places to take pit stops. I realize the pickings are slim in most locations. But if you stick to gas stations and fast food, you are missing out on aspects of adventure. Once we made an impromptu stop at a community college campus and took a short hike on a gravel trail. Another time, we took a lap around a huge shopping mall. I fondly remember eating ice cream cones while sitting on a concrete slab with our legs stretched out on a rainy day.
5. You thought I’d say planning, didn’t you? I mean, you should plan, totally. But a perfectly stapled list of directions? Overkill. Here’s what I do. Make a list about two weeks in advance, shop for snacks and items about a week before, and pack a few days early. Just having the time will help you remember each detail because your brain won’t be cluttered with stuff.
6. Next time you go on a trip, create a “working packing list”. I use my handy dandy iPhone. Include anything and everything you may need to pack on a given trip. For example: beach towels, snowboots, socks, phone chargers, stroller, shampoo, football, diapers. Instead of remaking your list, you’ll always have a go to and you can just check off the items you won’t actually need for THIS specific trip. (The more you cross off, the better you’ll feel anyway.)
7. Portable DVD player. Your children need movies. Even if you try to limit TV in your house as a general rule, I would recommend relaxing that for a couple days. The kind that are removable are great because once the trip is over, they can disappear quickly. Make sure you bring movies. May I suggest our favorite from this trip?
8. Pack a car box. Pack an old cardboard box with EVERYTHING you might need during your trip. It will sit in the passenger seat. I recommend a healthy crumb-less snacks for the kids, a few juice boxes, a camera, charger, headphones, sunglasses, your favorite snacks, some cash, a few old grocery bags to use as trashcans, and plenty of napkins or baby wipes. Get to know where you placed these items so you can easily reach for them without taking eyes off the road.
9. Use novel toys to your advantage. Kids are remarkably easy to impress, particularly after they have been in the car for a while. Depending on the age, anything from a plastic fork to silly putty will put a smile on their face. Stickers, glowsticks, books, silly glasses, string, or some kind of sensory toy may also work. You know your kids best. Hit up the dollar store!
10. Load your phone/iPod/iPad full of podcasts or audio books. My favorite radio shows are FREE and include This American Life, Radio Lab, Serial, and The Longest Shortest Time. David Sedaris has great books for listening on the road too. This is also a great time to load up that self help or advice book you’ve been meaning to read. Headphones with a built in pause button (like the ones that come with an iPhone) are perfect for pausing your recording when your attention is needed. This photo makes no sense here but it’s a) cute and b) allows me to have one image for each point. At least I’m consistent.
11. Pack stuff for the kids to hang in when you get out of the card. Our Strider balance bike was the hero of the trip. My little guy road it into every pit stop, even the bathrooms! He couldn’t touch the gross stuff in each stall with a bike in his hands. I used baby carriers like this Action Baby Carrier for my little guy. I’m a bit of a baby carrier fan so I think I had about 4 with me, that’s overkill. We also had a ball and a few other simple toys with us.
12. Attitude matters. I was highly motivated to make this trip happen because it is important that my children spend as much time with their great grandparents as possible. But planning a “less optional” trip like this and assuming it will be miserable isn’t going to serve anyone very well. Get pumped, find the silver lining, wear new shoes, find new sunglasses, invest in a case of your favorite drinks, find a new audiobook. Whatever works for YOU. Find something happy. This time, I gave up Facebook for the entire trip so I could focus on connecting with the kids. It was a difficult move, especially at first, but very freeing.
13. Trust your kids. I know, they are ARE messy, whiny, and fairly unreliable as a general rule. It’s easy to get stuck in the rut of complaining about our kids. But often when we raise our expectations (to reasonable levels), children have a funny way of delivering. Assume they will be spectacular passengers and partners in crime, and you may find that the trip is less worrisome for you too. After all, what could be more fun than binge watching movies with an endless supply of snacks?