Car Travel With Kids: Q&A

Over the years I’ve been asked a lot of questions surrounding the whole “travel-with-kids” thing and I thought it might be fun to round up some of the more frequent inquiries and spill the beans on our secret sauce. Spoiler alert: there is no secret sauce.

How do you convince your kids to GO ON THESE long CAR RIDES? Mine complain whenever we suggest something like this.

  • It is rarely a matter of choice. Some weekends we do ask if they want to go somewhere or just relax at home, and we even give them autonomy with decision making occasionally. But, for the most part, they go along because we, the parents, decide we’re going!
  • The kids are game for pretty much anything. They’ve grown up doing long-ish car trips (4 hours to one set of grandparents; 15 hours to the other), so it’s been part of their norm since babyhood.
  • We frame almost every trip as a family adventure. We have (or have created?) adventure junkies. Last year – after a summer of being gone almost every weekend to some pretty incredible places, followed by a whirlwind fall trip around the Cabot Trail and then days later a trek to the NB grandparents – Levi looked at me one Saturday morning across the breakfast table and moaned, in a fashion dramatic enough to have originated from a teenager (instead of a 5-year-old): “We never go on adventures anymore.” Um, what now??
  • Buy-in from the kids is critical. There are definitely some trips where one kid, or both, is in a sour mood, but most of the time they’re anxious to hit the road.
  • Equally critical: adult buy-in. I’m the reluctant adult in the house (a work-in-progress) but the positive energy generated by my husband really buoys the family. You have to want to pursue this lifestyle or you’re condemning yourself to being locked in a moving box for hours on end with small children. Sheer torture unless you really want to do this sort of thing…

How do you entertain the kids in the car? Are they watching screens the whole time?

  • Nope, though I’m sure they’d enjoy that very much. When the kids were young they would nap on longer trips, so we always made sure to have a special stuffed animal, blanket, or soother along in those earliest days.
  • One year, before an especially long trek, I invested $50 at the DollarStore and bought little trinkets to distribute along the trip. I also had a sticker chart where each hour of the trip was accounted for and we made a great show of adding each new sticker to visualize the countdown to reaching our destination. That was a season, but we’re past that point now and I don’t do much, if any, planning for entertainment.
  • For any trips out of province we allow intermittent screen use. We download episodes of favourite shows from Disney+ or Netflix. We used to do this on an old tablet we could mount to the back of a headrest; now they use an old Android phone and balance it between them. For anything inside Nova Scotia (except the Cabot Trail which was a lot of driving), we don’t do screens.

So, what do we do?

  • We play games – geography guessing games, trivia, twenty questions. We’ll talk about the destination: what we’re looking forward to, suggestions of what we should do first. Last year we listened to A LOT of podcasts. Typically we opted for adult ones (Stuff You Should Know was a favourite), so pre-screening is important; (John and I really enjoy Under the Influence – and Abby LOVED it – but we found too many episodes would have some nod to something inappropriate for little ears – argh). We listened to audiobooks (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a big hit). We listened to music – often soundtracks. Sometimes we let the kids just look out the window and be bored and we’ll talk in the front seat. Occasionally, as a passenger, I cheat and put in noise cancelling headphones.
  • The kids usually bring along something. A stuffy, an action figure, some paper and pens. The latter is an obvious option and one I wish we could exploit more, but both kids get sick looking down so reading and most art projects are largely avoided by us.
Oh car naps, how I miss you. A rare, but adorable, treat these days.

How do you manage FOOD? DO THE KIDS EAT CONSTANTLY?

  • Depending on our itinerary we sometimes eat in the car. Yes, it can be messy. I take plastic bowls to corral the food and dispense it from the front seat. Lots of the time we picnic at our destination. Sometimes we buy food on the road, but this is pretty rare unless we’ve planned it in advance (say, wanting to try New Glasgow’s famous brown-sauce pizza – overrated in my opinion) or are traveling for an extended period. The go-to this year: PB&J. Cubes of cheese, raw veggies, apples or grapes, non-crumbly crackers, and these banana oatmeal muffins are on regular rotation.

Pro tip: always take more water than you think you’re going to need. We all have insulated water bottles and that is the only beverage we take along. Period.

  • We don’t snack often. That’s standard practice at home, so we maintain it on the road (I’ve always wanted the kids to be hungry enough at mealtime to eat well; plus, preparing snacks is time consuming, labour intensive and, I feel, is a relatively modern construct we would all be better off without. End soapbox rant). That said, if we’re going on a long trip, snacking really helps break up the monotony and keep spirits high. In these times, I like to dispense small snacks on a schedule. Say we leave at 7 AM, we’ll eat breakfast in the car, and I’ll tell the kids we’ll have a snack at 10 AM – some trailmix or a muffin. Giving a set time early helps alleviate constant questions about when they can have a snack. We might start lunch at 12:00, dole out some gum or a peppermint at 1:30 (enthusiasm for the car ride is starting to plummet around this point), offer some dry cereal and fruit for a snack at 3 PM, and start the supper train at 5:30 or 6 PM.
  • While we don’t consume a lot of snacks, I have learned we can almost never pack too much food. Adventuring makes the kids hungry, so I make sure to include extras of things that won’t get wasted if we don’t use it (granola bars, individual packages of nori).

Do the kids fight the whole time?

  • No. They fight plenty (usually when the littlest gets bored and starts putting his hands on the bigger one’s side of the car). Occasionally we get to the wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth stage, but it’s rare. Some car rides there are no fights at all. That’s always nice.
  • A huge help for us is changing the activity so no one gets too bored. Sometimes this means taking unplanned stops along the way – one year we visited a darling little folk art place just bursting with charm – but usually it’s just switching from an audiobook to lunch or from a podcast to a quiz game.
  • The kids fight so much at home, and can actually do better in the car. I think they understand being cooped up in a car can be uncomfortable enough without adding to the discomfort with bickering.

How often do you have to stop for the bathroom?

  • Chalk this up as something that I don’t appreciate enough about my kids – their bladders of steel. We often make the 4-hour ride to my parents without a single stop. How?
  • We don’t drink a ton en route. While the kids have access to water at all times, they tend not to drink without eating, and since we don’t do many snacks, I think this lowers their fluid consumption.
  • When someone DOES need to use the washroom, we all go. This is non-negotiable. Yes the kids protest they “don’t need to” and yes we make them try anyway (since it’s usually been hours since the last stop).
  • We always have some toilet paper or Kleenex in the car for emergency by-the-road stops but it’s not really a big issue. We do ask the kids to give us fair warning, which they’re generally pretty good about doing (no accidents so far!).
  • This likely goes without saying but using the washroom before heading off on a roadtrip is a no-brainer for our family!

Roadtripping with kids can be exhausting and messy (you should see the backseat after an in-car picnic). Yes, there is fighting and some ill-timed pee breaks.

It can also be a lot of fun. There is no pressure to make daytrip/car adventures your family thing. It happens to be a big component of our family infrastructure, but there is no “right” way to do things. If your kids fight and whine and complain in the car it is not a reflection on your parenting style. Find your family thing and squeeze every ounce of enjoyment you can out of that.

If you do want to do more long car trips, as with anything, practice is key. Practice, practice, practice. Want your kids to enjoy the car more and get excited about roadtrips? Take them in the car more often and get out on those roadtrips.

Stay safe and enjoy the adventures that come your way.

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