Editor’s note: This is a guest post from AJ Gretz.
“Do you think we’re making a mistake?”
That’s the question I asked my wife a couple of hours into our recent road trip from Michigan to Colorado. Our one-year-old daughter was having trouble falling asleep, and she was letting us know that she wasn’t happy about being stuck in her car seat.
And so, with 19 hours to go, I was having some second thoughts about driving that far with a crying baby in the backseat.
Our trip took us from Gladstone, MI to Grand Junction, CO, as we were getting together with a group of friends who are spread literally all over North America. Because we have a 2.5-year-old, as well as the baby, how we were going to get there was the subject of some debate.
After looking into flights, as well as Amtrak, we decided the best way to get to Colorado was to take a good old fashioned road trip. 22 hours to get there, 20 hours on the way back (we were coming from my parent’s house in a different town initially). We thought driving would allow us the most flexibility, as well as allow us to carry the maximum amount of little-kid accessories possible.
Because we hadn’t done it before, we didn’t know whether it would work or if the whole trip would blow up in our faces. But we were both eager to experiment and see what would happen.
Thankfully, the trip was an overwhelming success. And while there were certainly difficult moments involving cranky children (and parents), I can safely say that I would do it again tomorrow.
What follows is a summary of what we did to survive the journey. Our hope is that you may learn from what we did, and feel more confident about taking your own adventure (or microadventure!) with children. Because it was a great experience for our family, we want you to know that it can be done!
First, Confront Your Fear
Doing anything with little kids for the first time can feel intimidating. And so it’s understandable that some parents might want to wait to take a long road trip until the kids are a bit older.
You should go in to a road trip with your eyes wide open. Yes, babies will cry. Yes, your kid who is still in diapers will poop almost immediately after you’ve pulled out of a rest area. Yes, you will get crabby and say something you regret to your spouse at some point.
But if you expect those things to happen, you’ll be less disappointed when they do, and more emotionally prepared to deal with them and move on.
As a parent, you have to figure out what you’re comfortable with. Perhaps you don’t feel ready to do double-digit hours in a car. It’s okay to start small. But we’ve learned that our kids can be quite resilient — sometimes much more than we’d expect. And they tend to feed off of our attitudes as parents. If we’re doing our best to enjoy ourselves, despite some not-so-perfect circumstances, they will probably do better as well.
Plan and Prepare Well Before You Leave
This is where my wife gets all of the credit. Before we left, she filled a bin with toys and books. Some of them were new from the dollar store. Some of them were old favorites.
When she packed the car (she’s a master packer), she left the bin accessible, but hidden from the kids’ sight. The plan was that we could periodically pull out a toy or book as a surprise for our toddler. Sometimes this bought us 5 minutes of quiet. Other times, it was more like 20.
Our toddler recently potty trained, but we decided it would be easier for everyone if he wore a diaper while we were driving. We also brought his (thoroughly cleaned) potty with us, and gave him the chance to use it when we would stop at a rest area. This seemed to go pretty well, although it took him a couple of days to readjust to non-diaper life after we got home.
Lastly, we made sure our iPad Mini was fully charged and loaded with some favorite cartoons. Families have different rules about screen time, but we are generally more lenient on a long car ride than when we are at home.
An additional word about screen time: At one point on the trip, I was beginning to feel guilty about how much time our toddler had spent watching cartoons. At the time, my wife and the baby were both sleeping. And so after a few warnings, I reached into the back and pulled the iPad out of his hands. This of course caused a huge meltdown which woke everyone up, and left the baby cranky for several hours.
The moral of the story: your kid will be fine. If things are quiet, let it be. A little extra Curious George never hurt anybody.
The Way There: Stopping Along the Way
Arranging the car. We drive a 2002 Subaru Outback, which has a bench in the back. For the trip, we decided to put the two car seats next to one another — the baby in the middle, and the toddler in one of the passenger seats. My wife and I then took turns in the back passenger seat, next to the baby. In the front passenger seat, we had the toys and books on the floor — hidden from the kids’ sight — and the food on the seat. This allowed us to more easily relay books, toys, and snacks to the kids during the longer stretches of driving.
Our toddler did quite well between the books, toy cars, watching out the window for tractors and construction vehicles, and of course, the iPad. Entertaining the baby was a little harder. We cycled through giving her toys, stuffed animals, and random objects like water bottles or pamphlets for tourist attractions. There was also lots and lots of tickling, peekaboo, and singing songs.
To be honest, this was probably the most difficult part of the trip. It was tiring to keep her entertained, so we would switch drivers every 3-4 hours. However, one of the unexpected bonuses of the whole trip was that I felt like I got a lot of quality bonding time with her. As a working dad, I am always fighting to see more of my kids. The hours (and hours) of uninterrupted time sitting next to each other provided a chance to bond that I hadn’t expected, but really enjoyed. That is, of course, when she wasn’t crying.
Music. When the kids were feeling cranky, or trying to fall asleep, we found that classical music tended to help calm them down. My wife also has a beloved tape from childhood full of soothing voices and Beethoven music, and we leaned on that pretty hard, especially during nap time.
Meals. We didn’t want to spend a ton of money stopping for fast food along the way, so we brought a cooler full of snacks. Things like fruit, string cheese, muffins, trail mix, cheerios, etc. are all great choices.
Before deciding to bring something, it’s worth taking a moment to think like a small child. Ask yourself, “If I mashed this thing into my face, or onto the carseat, what kind of mess would it make? And how hard would it be to clean up?”
At meal times, we would usually stop at a rest area, or, once, we actually searched for a public park and found one right off the road. This gave us the chance to stretch, and allowed the kids to run around and blow off some steam.
For more substantial eating, you can’t go wrong with sandwiches — lunch meat (if you have a cooler), peanut butter, etc. If you want to go the extra mile, you can purchase a portable charcoal grill. We got a small rectangular model from Char-Broil for around $30 because it would fit in the car easier than the ones that look like miniature versions of the real thing.
My parents have started doing this on their road trips, and we thought it would be a good idea to grill hot dogs a couple of times along the way, since the kids could always eat them later in the car without too much mess. I had mixed results with the grill, due to wind and some poor fire starters. But when it worked and we had hot food it was really satisfying.
Camping. On the way to Colorado, we decided to break up the drive. The first day took 13 hours from Gladstone to a campground outside of Lincoln, NE.
This was one of the things we were most nervous about on the trip. When I put some feelers out on Facebook about people’s experience camping with little kids, I got a whole range of responses from “It’ll be awesome!” to “Bring wine.”
Our experience was thankfully somewhere in the middle. We caravaned this part of the trip with some other friends who then camped with us, and having some other adult company really helped us to de-stress after all the driving.
As far as sleeping, we have a family-size tent, so we were able to borrow a second pack and play and put each kid in one of them. I think this really helped our toddler feel comfortable in the tent, since he was more enclosed than if he had just been on a camping mat. He took awhile to settle down, but ended up sleeping through the night. The baby had a harder time, in part because the temperature was lower than we expected, and she is used to sleeping in a pretty warm bedroom. Warmer pajamas may have helped with this.
One of the other downsides of this was that our car was so tightly packed that setting up at night, and then tearing down in the morning and re-packing the car took awhile. A friend of mine mentioned that some KOA Campgrounds have rustic cabins that can be rented for $40-50 a night. This is probably something we’ll look into in the future, as it’s cheaper (and more fun) than staying in a hotel.
The Way Home: Driving Through the Night
After stopping in Lincoln, we did a shorter drive to stay the night with friends, before a third short day of driving to arrive in Grand Junction. For the way home, we planned to camp in the same spot outside Lincoln, which would split the trip into two 12-hour days.
However, over the weekend we decided we would experiment with driving through the night. We wanted to get home, and by that point in our vacation the idea of two long days was less appealing than one really long day.
I didn’t cancel our reservation at the campground, in case we chickened out and needed to stop. But as we drove through Nebraska the temperature was a balmy 95 degrees, the kids were pretty mellow, and we decided to push on.
Our experience went well. However, this is where you have to know yourself, and your kids, to determine whether or not it’s worth it. Our kids sleep really well once they fall asleep, and other than a 3:00 AM diaper change outside of a gas station, there wasn’t much to report.
AoM has some good tips for how to pull an all-nighter. But otherwise, the big thing is to intentionally communicate with your spouse. Make sure you are both clear about expectations that one of you will do the driving, or that you’ll take turns. And, if you arrive to your destination in the morning, make sure you have a game plan for how you’ll rest and recover the following day (because the kids are already rested and ready for your attention!).
All in all, we had a great experience. There were definitely moments where I felt like I was working pretty hard for a vacation, but in the end it was well worth it. We made a lot of memories, bonded with our kids in a unique way, and saved a lot of money versus flying or buying full-price train tickets.
The other encouragement that I would offer is that it was really cool to watch our toddler have a bunch of new experiences. I was surprised at how quickly he adapted to new people and surroundings, and the trip made me appreciate both who he is already, and the man that he is going to be as he gets older.
AJ Gretz is a pastor, husband, and father of two. He is an advocate for simpler living and a passionate defender of the American Midwest. He and his family currently live in the glorious state of Michigan.