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Car Trips That Won’t Drive You Crazy

Or at least, a little less crazy.

Camping in the Outer Banks!

Traveling with little ones sometimes spurs a sense of dread. No matter how exciting the destination or occasion, there’s always that tiny voice inside your head saying, “this is going to go terribly wrong.” Because, kids. It’s like a dentist visit, a trip to the DMV, cleaning your bathroom…it may not be the worst thing in the world, but lets just say it doesn’t spark excitement. If you’re anything like me, you mentally prepare for screams, vomit, and five million questions over and over again.

Kate and I are both military spouses, which often corresponds with living a good distance away from some (or all) of your family. We are actually pretty lucky, with 8 and 4 hour car rides respectfully. So if you are looking for tips on traveling with toddlers on a plane, you will not find that here. You are a braver mom than us and may the odds be ever in your favor! But car trips? We’ve pretty much got them figured out.

Grayson & Charlie headed to visit the grandparents

Things to Consider:

As parents, we know best what our kids need. We are still human, so we will inevitably forget something, but for the most part we have a handle on it. I know this, but still panic when it comes time to pack for a trip in a hurry. This leads to lack of organization (aka throwing random things in the van) and overpacking. Let’s start out with the most vital piece of advice: Think ahead.

1 week before trip: Start a list. Make a column for each family member. Starting writing down everything you can think you’ll need, and make it readily available throughout the week so you can add things (and also, take things away that you may not really need.) Consider where you are staying. A hotel, a family member’s house, a friend’s house? I know if I am staying with family I may feel a TAD more comfortable going through their pantry and linen closet, just saying! And in a hotel you will likely be confined to one room, so visualize your stay and think about what additions would make you and your family most comfortable. Also consider departure time and routes. The time of day may make a huge difference with traffic, so it may be worthwhile to leave a little earlier than planned.

2-3 days before: Knock out the laundry. I like to do ALL the laundry, so not only do I have all my options for packing, but when I come back there is no dirty laundry to get through. Check the weather forecast and set aside things from the clean laundry you may want to pack. Cross of unnecessary items you may have written on your packing list earlier in the week, see what you can size down on.

1 day before: Clean out the car. It’s always nice to start with a blank slate because you know it’s going to look like a war torn country by the time the trip is over. Pack bags for the kids and yourself, and even load up the car if you can. Charge electronics you’ll be taking. We now have a fancy van with built-in DVD players, but before that I would download kid shows and movies from Netflix to play on our iPad. The day I found out you could download and watch without WiFi was a GREAT day!

Day of trip: Review your list, prepare snacks, and think happy thoughts! Talk to your kids about where you are going, who you are visiting, and what they can expect to see along the way. After all, kids are Chatty Cathys and like feeling involved!

Addie & Ella’s first night in a hotel

What To Actually Pack and How To Pack It

Once you have a few mishaps under your belt, you get pretty good at predicting all kinds of car trip catastrophes (says the mom who has given her child a water bottle shower on the grassy lawn of a gas station). Here’s a few travel tips you MAY not have thought about doing:

  • Instead of having a stack of shirts, stack of pants, etc. in a suitcase, roll up complete outfits together. Especially for your kids. Shirt, pants, socks and all. Not only does this take the guesswork out of dressing them each day and having enough clothing items, but it means anyone around can dress them too.
  • Instead of a large bag or suitcase, give everyone their own small bag. That way if you have a mishap you don’t have to riffle through everyone’s stuff to find an extra pair of princess panties.
  • Have a designated storage tote for toys, and one for non-perishable snacks. And have that bad boy EASY TO ACCESS! You will need to reach for it approximately 800 times.
  • Have a storage tote just for shoes. This one may have some people shaking their heads, but I can’t tell you the number of times we cannot find shoes for one or both children. We don’t wear shoes in the car and we take them off at the front door. Having both kids’ shoes all in one place in the car makes it easy to get out and go, versus finding the one shoe my one year old tossed into deep space.
  • Make an emergency kit. Ours includes a thermometer, pain meds for us and the kids, allergy meds, dramamine, band aids, and a tourniquet. I also like to throw in baby powder, eye drops, and a makeup brush for the summer months because my kids cannot NOT get sand in their eyes. A clean makeup brush is the easiest to knock that stuff right out when a sandy child paw starts rubbing those baby blues.
  • If you are potty training or newly potty trained or just against stopping 5 times at rest stops- a travel potty. We bought this one that has an air freshener, doubles as a step stool, and closes up and it’s been a lifesaver for car trips and camping.
  • Bring a sound machine. If yours isn’t travel-worthy, then download a free app on your iPad or phone (see our recent blog post on our favorite apps for recommended options!) Using this during nap times in the car, hotel, or unfamiliar home can save the day.
  • A designated blanket or mat to sit on. We carry a packable Monkey Mat in the car with us to throw out at a park, use as a changing pad, or even as a picnic blanket in a hotel room. You never know where you might need a clean surface to sit, so this is an easy but extremely useful item to throw in!

Snacks, Snacks, AND MORE SNACKS!

Snacks will be your BEST FRIEND. And they don’t have to be pure garbage. I know I always splurged on car snacks as a kid. Peach rings, potato stix, sour gummy crawlers, soda after soda…good times. And while a treat here and there might be nice, the last thing you want strapped in a carseat for hours is a toddler hopped up on sugar. Remember in Jurassic Park when they tied the dinosaurs down? That’s what you’re stuck in a car with. So here are some of our favorite crowd-pleasers that are yummy and also fairly safe to eat in a carseat. (Definitely watch ALL carseat snacking closely and I highly recommended investing in a mirror to see your back-facing babes if you don’t have one already.)

We like to use Camelbak or Munchkin 360 cups for our kiddos and really stick to water and milk for simplicity (and to avoid mess.) We also find that bowls (or little mugs) with handles help for holding snacks. Vertical snack bags also work well for on the go. In fact, we even got some cute little reusable/machine-washable snack pouches at a Farmer’s Market one time!

Lunch in a hotel room

If nothing else, please takeaway these two things. One we already said: Plan ahead. The other is this: Don’t set your expectations too high. Things will go wrong, meltdowns will occur, and that’s okay. Hopefully planning ahead and being familiar with some things other moms do will be a card you can play when the time arises. If all else fails, you will have a great story to tell your future son or daughter-in-law! That’s something, right? Memories are made in the journey, so take it all in and enjoy the ride!

As always, if you have other tips, please share! We all need some new tricks every now and then.

XOXO, Elizabeth & Kate