Over spring break last month, our family logged 2,500 miles and 40 hours in the car, spending a week in the Colorado mountains before capping off the last weekend on the Texas Coast. While the thought of spending that much time in a vehicle (especially when you’ve got kiddos in the backseat) might sound cringeworthy, an unexpected biproduct of this pandemic has been acquiring some sanity-saving road trip strategies. Road trips have experienced a revival in the past year––a statement that’s proven with statistics and social media scrolls. With more families opting to drive to their vacation destinations, we’ve compiled some tried-and-true tips to help make the trip a little smoother.
Timing your drive is critical during long road trips. We’ve been able to cut down on the backseat restlessness and repeat “are we there yet’s” by scheduling a portion of the drive during the hours we know our kids will be asleep. For some parents, that means piling into the car after dinner and driving straight through the night. Because my husband and I are early-risers rather than night owls, when we brave that straight-through, 15-plus-hour drive to Colorado, we like to leave around 3 a.m. Our pre-dawn departure allows our kids to roll out of bed and into the car and sleep for a quarter of the trip while we sip coffee, enjoy rare uninterrupted conversations and still arrive to our mountain destination by dusk.
2. Pack snacks. Lots of snacks.
Anyone with kids already knows that snacks make the world go round. But snacks become even more imperative on long road trips. We fill a large cooler bag with pre-washed fruit, homemade banana muffins, cheese sticks, individually-wrapped snack bags, granola bars and nuts––trying to avoid super messy and sugary foods for sanity’s sake. Bringing along simple sandwich makings (think bread and your kids’ favorite nutbutter spread) has saved the day more than once when our kids are hangry and the nearest fast food stop is hours away. Don’t forget to pack plenty of water, some caffeinated beverages for mom and dad, a roll of paper towels and a large Ziploc with napkins, hand wipes, plastic utensils and paper plates to make eating on-the-go easier.
3. Vacation wheels.
When traveling with kids, getting there is part of the adventure. For our kids, it’s always more exciting to swap our regular set of wheels for a new vehicle with a little extra space and fancier features. For our latest tri-state road trip, I got to test out a 2021 GMC Yukon Denali, which, aside from all-terrain capability and premium technology features that made traveling through the mountains as smooth as possible for the drivers, also included next-level perks for our little passengers including multicolor touch-screens perfect for streaming movies to keep them all entertained for hours at a time and a 4G LTE Wi-Fi Hotspot so the kids could complete their virtual schoolwork from the road and play online video games. While renting a road trip vehicle might seem like a pricey splurge, you actually save money when comparing it to the cost of purchasing airfare for the whole family and still needing to rent a vehicle once you arrive to your destination.
4. Map out breaks.
If you’ve ever braved the eight-hour road trip from Austin to Big Bend with a toddler in the car, you know the value of a roadside stop. It’s worth the 30-minute arrival delay to plan out a diversion without veering too far off course where little ones can burn off energy at a park and parents can stretch their legs. We’ve walked a short loop trail while marveling at the incredible sandstone formations at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, discovered sci-fi sights in Roswell and plunged into chilly Balmorhea en route to Davis Mountains State Park.
5. Potty hacks.
This past year, I’ve started traveling with something I refer to as a “potty pouch”––a nifty zip up bag containing hand sanitizer, baby wipes, adhesive potty seat covers for little ones who haven’t mastered the art of hovering over a public toilet, and a backpacker product referred to as a female urination device (FUD). Giggle if you will, but if you’ve got gals in the car, this really comes in handy during the inevitable nature pees that will occur on long road trips with lengthy toilet-less stretches. Until this timely discovery, I never realized the convenience and sheer liberation my sons and husband have always known: the freedom to pee standing up. Yet with a simple Amazon purchase (there are limitless varieties to choose from) my daughter and I no longer have to experience the unfortunate discomforts of “popping a squat” thanks to pocket-sized foldable disposable funnels that make “taking a whiz” a reality for everyone. Pro tip: two open car doors plus one beach towel equals a bathroom stall. Voila!
6. Bag of tricks.
Yes, iPads, tablets, movies and video games will inevitably consume a large portion of your kids’ in-car entertainment, so don’t judge yourself and remember those chargers. But we try to periodically break up the mind-numbing screen time. For little ones, rotate new (or new to them) portable toys and games your child has never played with before––whipping out a brand new light-up toy, small cars or figures, travel puzzles or mess-free art supplies like Crayola’s Wonder Color markers and paper not only entertains little ones stuck in their seats but also serves as a distraction when stir-crazy fits are about to surface. For older kids, Mad Libs, Paint By Sticker, playing cards, paperless drawing tablets like Boogie Boards, an Etch-a-Sketch, Rubik’s Cube and coloring books are some of our favorite forms of non-screen entertainment.
7. Fun from the front.
Whether it’s an old-fashioned game of “I Spy,” Car Bingo or a blank travel journal for kids to record sights and experiences they encounter on their adventure, keeping a steady stream of ideas and items flowing from the front seat to the back row can turn a restless road trip into an enjoyable one. If space allows, share your co-captain with the kids––having one adult in the back seat for an hour or two goes a long way in keeping boredom at bay.
8. Watch the weather.
During our Colorado road trip last month, I found myself searching for a term to describe the exact opposite of “storm chaser.” Storm runner, perhaps? When weather forecasts began warning about a historic Colorado blizzard, we made the difficult choice to pack up and leave early. While we were bummed to cut our trip short, in the end we were grateful to avoid the heavy snow-related hazards and closures that plagued Colorado’s major roadways for days. When we drove through the Texas Panhandle 10 hours later, my husband sat in the passenger seat toggling between weather apps and rerouting our navigational path so I could narrowly thread the needle between severe thunderstorms and a few tornadoes. Thankfully we arrived safely to Lubbock and decided to book an overnight stay at the newly-renovated DoubleTree by Hilton Lubbock University Area to wait out the storms and finish our drive home during clear skies bright and early the next morning.
9. Be prepared.
Don’t overpack, but be prepared. Whether it’s headphones for the kids or earplugs for Mom and Dad (I would suggest both), being prepared for the noise goes a long way on road trips. Same goes for the travel-related nausea and roadside boo-boos––don’t forget to pack the Dramamine and first aid kit. Hydrating really well before and during the trip to any high-altitude destination is the best way to acclimatize and reduce the chances of altitude sickness once you’ve arrived.
10. Keep kids cozy, keep yourself calm and enjoy the ride.
Get comfortable for long distance trips. Our kids each take a pillow along for the ride, stuffing it with a cozy blanket, a cuddly stuffed animal and a pair of warm socks. Endurance-style road trips are not going to be perfect––they won’t be particularly relaxing, anywhere near quiet, nor lacking plenty of sibling arguments and “are we there yet’s.” Road tripping with kids means inevitable extra stops, some necessary backseat redirection and bribes (ahem, incentives), and a surplus of parental patience. Sometimes it’s a good thing to relax the rules and let go of expectations––stop off at a Dairy Queen to treat everyone to a Blizzard, delay your scheduled arrival time to marvel at a stunning sunset, or linger a little longer on a beautiful trail. You’ll eventually get where you’re going, so relish the adventures your road trip offers along the way.
If You Go
Austin to Bozeman, Montana, is a 24-hour drive.
Austin to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is a 16-hour drive.
Austin to Breckenridge, Colorado, is a 15-hour drive.
Austin to Colorado Springs, Colorado, is a 13-hour drive.
Austin to Carlsbad, New Mexico, is a 9-hour drive.
Austin to Hot Springs, Arkansas, is a 7-hour drive.
Austin to Davis Mountains State Park is a 6 hour, 45 minute drive.
Austin to the Texas Coast (Corpus Christi, Rockport, Port Aransas) is a 3- to 4-hour drive.