As I mentioned in my previous road tripping post, our family has taken quite a few long road trips. And while planning ahead and packing well will help you to save your sanity at your destination, having good car activities for your family will ensure you are still sane by the time you get there!
So, in this post I'm going to share with you some of my best travel hacks that have worked well for our family. And whether you are just driving an hour to Grandma's house or you are doing like we do and traveling across the country, I'm sure you'll find something that will help your car ride go smoothly.
Packing Kids' Activity Bags
When we travel, each kid is allowed to bring a small bag with their car activities of choice. We usually opt for reusable grocery bags because they are small enough that they can sit next to their feet easily.
My kids bring all kinds of things with them in the car. Books, stuffed animals, playing cards, electronics, etc. There are a few things I don't allow them to bring in those bags, such as anything with small parts/pieces like Legos or board games, or anything liquid, gooey, or sticky like putty. So yes, I'm a mean mom and I don't allow Legos in my car anymore. Notice I said anymore. I've learned my lesson the hard way.
I also don't let my kids bring markers, crayons or pens. Call me the crazy micromanaging mom, but the thought of melted crayons or marker all over the seats just doesn't make me happy. I do, however, allow my kids to use those utensils in the car. But I personally bring them and loan them out instead. That way I can be sure that they all get counted and returned to me so we don't have a melted crayon disaster. Typically, though, on long car rides, we opt for colored pencils. And for my littles, I use the Crayola Color Wonder markers and paper to keep everything mess free.
Packing Mom's Car Activities
Speaking of items I bring for the kids, on long trips, I'll bring a bag of activities to rotate through with the kids. These are activities that I put time limits on so they stay fresh and fun. I mentioned the colored pencils and markers. That is one activity I will hand out. Typically I will ask for the kids to pass up their activities and we'll switch to something new after about 30 minutes.
I bought each of the kids a plastic lap desk. I decorated it for each child. The beauty of the lap desks is that there is storage in them as well as a cup holder. So they can snack and work on their activities easily. The lap desks stack well, too, which makes for easy storage in the trunk when they are not in use. I have seen them at all sorts of stores, not just Amazon. If you plan enough in advance, you can use Hobby Lobby or Michael's coupons to get them for half off.
Other activities I pack in my bag for the kids to rotate through include felt board or magnetic games such as hangman, chess, checkers, travel versions of Scrabble, etc. I don't mind the little pieces if it is for a short period of time and magnetic (less chance of spilling). We also use some car bingo cards I picked up at a convention. They reminded me of the ones I played with in the car growing up, so I grabbed them for my kids as well. You can also make your own. There are lots of printable versions that you can laminate.
I also have brought along dry erase markers for my older kids to use on the windows. This is a fun activity for kids because they can draw on the windows and it really helps to stimulate the imagination of bored minds. Obviously you'd want to gauge the appropriateness of this activity for your family.
Sometimes I will buy new books for them to read--especially the books that I've heard them talking about wanting to read. You have to be careful with books, though, as they can cause car sickness.
When my kids were little, I think they probably thought my car bag was magical because I pulled out all kinds of special activities that we would rotate through. I don't usually tell my kids what I'm bringing in my car bag so it's a surprise to them. I think the anticipation of what will be coming next, combined with the frequent rotation of car activities really helps to keep the general mood happier on long rides.
Planning On Rest
Especially if you are on a longer drive, it's super important to plan your rest stops ahead of time. You don't want to accidentally miss an exit with the last bathroom for a hundred miles. So be sure to map out your route and where you plan to stop. You can also plan your car activities around those stops. For example, when we've driven through Kansas and there's nothing but fields to see, we might choose activities like coloring books or games. But if we're driving through Wyoming and there is a lot of wildlife, that might be the time we choose activities like I Spy or Bingo to really encourage the kids to look out the window.
Side note: go to the store or AAA and get paper maps before the trip. You can mark where you plan to stop and then have your kids take turns as the navigator. They think it's fun and they learn map skills to boot.
At your rest stops, take a moment to clean up the car. Even with careful planning, kids make messes and dump everything over so quickly! Also take a moment to refill water bottles (we bring gallon jugs with us on trips). And of course, take potty breaks and change diapers during the break.
Something else that I have found really useful is making sure that everyone gets ample movement while we've stopped. If we are at a rest stop, I'll let the kids run around for a bit. We also like to find fast food restaurants with playgrounds. If you can't do that, lead your kids through a few stretches or have them run in place. I remember getting a lot of stares once at a rest stop in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas when I led my kids through a round of T-Tapp Hoe Downs. You may laugh, but they get your heart rate up, stretch your legs and really energize you!
And of course, it's important to make sure your kids get rest in the car as well. Traveling drains you. So even if your kids don't normally nap, I encourage you to have a designated quiet time. But I have found that most of my kids do fall asleep in the car. That is why the last time we traveled to Yellowstone, I sewed them all neck pillows. It's a very simple pattern, and they are quick and easy to make. We also have designated nap time music for our car. We like to listen to Brian Crain's piano music. My kids call it nap music. But during the nap/quiet hour time, we'll put the piano music on the back speakers (so the driver doesn't fall asleep too!) and this allows for some time for my husband and I to talk in peace and quiet.
Audio and Video
Until recently, we did not have a DVD player in our van. Almost always, when we go on long trips, my husband's parents join us. Their car has DVD players, so we will rotate which kids ride with them to watch movies. We do have DVD players in our van now, but we don't plan on more than a movie or two on a trip.
By far, our preference on long and short trips alike is to listen to audio books. So I usually stock up on audio books before trips. I just love how we can build our family culture around books while the kids do quiet activities in the car. There are a lot of fabulous audio books out there, but I'd like to recommend the ones that have been particularly impactful.
We love the Lamplighter Theater audio books. They are all older stories that had previously gone out of print, but then were brought back by Lamplighter. They are fully dramatized and very engaging. And they always teach some sort of biblical or moral lesson. We've listened to just about all of them, but my personal favorite is The Hedge of Thorns.
Along the same vein are the Focus on the Family Radio Theater audio books. These are also fabulously made and fully dramatized. The entire C.S. Lewis Narnia set is by far our favorite! We also have enjoyed The Hiding Place, Anne of Green Gables and the Father Gilbert Mysteries. I will let you know that if you have an Apple Music subscription, all of these productions are available. That may be true of other services as well.
And then there are other services available like Audible or library memberships. Our family is currently listening to the Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull. A bit on the creepy side, but fun for older kids that like fantasy. I'm always a fan of Read Aloud Revival for recommendations for high quality audio books.
Feed the Masses
Feeding a large crowd on the road can be a challenge. And it seems that when kids are sitting with nothing to distract them, they seem to feel hungry more quickly.
We do stop for breaks and sometimes a snack at a fast food restaurant. But that can get pricey, and depending on where you are, there may not even be viable restaurants around. So I typically like to pack sandwiches, fruit, bags of chips or pretzels, string cheese, applesauce pouches, and trail mix. I keep it all in a soft sided cooler bag.
Again, this is when it's really good to have a plan and stick with it. That way you will know which meals you need to supply in the car, and what time you'll be feeding everyone a snack. I used to keep all the snacks with me in the front of the car and the cooler in the trunk. And then I'd hand them out when it was time to eat. Now that most of my kids are teens, I have tried a different approach. This past summer when we drove from Oklahoma to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, I gave each of my kids a bag with non perishable snacks in it. It had special drinks, candy, healthier food and some gum. I told them it had to last them the whole way on the trip and if they chose to eat the whole sack of food on the first day, that was too bad. I wonder if they learned any self control from that method?
Just be sure you also pack wet wipes or napkins, as well as trash bags to collect all the trash and wrappers!
Some Unconventional Options
A few unconventional items have made several road trips with us and have been immensely helpful. The first one is a toddler potty. Even elementary aged kids can use them in an emergency situation. But definitely if you have a younger child, even if they are securely potty trained, I would still take a potty. You just never know when you'll need it. I have a hilarious photo of one of my sons trying to use the toddler potty at a rest stop in Wyoming. No worries, I'm not posting it here!
Also, I've been known to have my littles, even up to age 5 or 6, wear a pull up on long car rides. Of course, I instruct them that they are not to go to the bathroom in it, but it does offer another layer of protection in case they suddenly have to go to the bathroom after you've passed the last exit, or if they have an accident while sleeping. It really depends on the child and their needs.
If you have kids or family members that tend to get car sick, be sure to bring along the items you need to help them out. We use a car diffuser and peppermint oil. The perk is that it helps the driver stay awake, too. I've also bought candied ginger and Bonine. Our favorite silly purchase was a pair of motion sickness goggles. They look ridiculous, but they do seem to actually work.
Okay, this last item is one that came out of desperation, and now I see as a brilliant addition to car trips. If you drive a large van like I do, chances are that you don't have a center console between the front seats. What we have done on trips is put a Rubbermaid drawer set between the seats. We have kept snacks or activities in it, plus diapers, wipes, baby toys, and first aid kits. It makes finding things up front so much easier. Check out the photo from one of our previous trips.
Did you learn something new that you'd like to try on your next road trip? What items are must-haves when you travel?