The Family Road Trip Survival Guide
By PJ DelHomme
Make the journey more fun than the destination. Here’s what you need to keep the peace on the great American road trip.
It was only a five-hour drive to Yellowstone National Park, but I kept that to myself. Translated from adult to six-year-old, the timeframe of five hours means five years. Our adventure could have turned into a very real version of Lloyd and Harry’s odyssey in Dumb and Dumber, but it didn’t. Pre-trip planning and some online shopping helped us get there and back for a father-son weekend to remember. Here’s what worked, plus a few extra items to entertain the kids and help you keep your sanity.
Pads, Pods, Tablets, and Devices
I don’t think of myself as an old fart, but when I tell my kids about long car rides when I was a kid, I sure sound like one. “Can’t you just look out the window,” I say. “See those cows?” I’m sure it was more entertaining than it sounds. The good news is that I have learned to embrace tablets, smartphones, and headphones. My wife and I can talk, listen to our podcast, or enjoy the hum of the open road. We attempt to limit screen time, but it’s vacation.
Travel Games for the Road
If you feel guilty because your kids watch screens all day, take a break to play a game. This might be a hard sell, so plant the family game time seed before agreeing to screen time. Forget “I Spy” and the license plate game. We prefer “Would You Rather,” in which one person presents a fictional either/or scenario (that eventually involves poop), and everyone has to pick their preference. Along those lines, combine their love of poop and the outdoors by checking out the “Who Pooped Series” of books in which author Gary Robson features animal poop in various regions of the country. If you’re looking for games to play, you’re in luck. Nearly every popular family board game has a travel version. Rubber Neckers and Shotgun are two of our favorites. Or just toss Uno in the glove box as a last resort.
Family-friendly Podcasts and Audiobooks
These can be tricky if you’re trying to please everyone, but some great podcasts are out there. The hard part is narrowing them down. When my kids were younger, my family discovered science-heavy Wow in the World or W.O.W. We still listen to it. Listen to Stuff You Missed in History Class if there’s an older history buff in your crew. Download a few podcasts before your trip and see which ones stick. If you can stomach it, let everyone in the car create a 10-song music playlist. After a few of your kids’ favorites, you’ll feel like the old fart you swore you’d never be.
A good audiobook can keep the family entertained for hours. Depending on the topic, it can give you something to talk about, which is huge if you’ve got a teenager in the back. LibriVox is a great place to download free audiobooks, but their selection is dated. Audible will have something for the whole family.
Snacks and Drinks
It never fails. Fifteen minutes into any “long” car ride, my 10-year-old will want a snack. She’s not hungry. She’s just bored. I feed her anyway, but this is where planning is key. I dehydrate apples and venison jerky ahead of the trip, which are her options. My daughter and I love sugar, but a nasty sugar crash comes with candy. It’s ugly. Keep your snacks healthy and keep them handy. Don’t pack them on the roof or so far away that they need to unbuckle and crawl over the backseat to get them.
Pillows and Blankets
Let the kids build themselves a nest, especially if you head out before dawn. While you enjoy the quiet time, drink a lot of coffee, and hit every rest stop along I-40, the kids catch up on their sleep. Bring blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, pajamas, and anything else your kids need for a good night’s rest. Don’t let them sleep all day; you’ll pay for it later.
First-aid and Survival Kits
Our first-aid/survival kit has more toys than drugs and bandages. And by toys, I mean fire starters, headlamps, knives, and hatchets. The first-aid kit has plenty of band-aids, burn creams, bug spray, and over-the-counter medications. Be sure to rotate those meds because they expire, especially when baking in a car for a few years.
Behind the seat, I keep a DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer of Montana in our truck. I’m amazed at how often the kids pick it up and start reading it. It’s an oversized, paper-back atlas with incredible detail with campgrounds, boat ramps, historic sites, roads, trails, and more. I ask the kids to find out where we are and what we should see along our route. It engages them, even if it’s just for 20 minutes.
If you want to show your kids how old you really are, tell them about the time you kept a journal on a road trip you took with your parents. Honestly, it’s not that bad, and it’s something you can keep forever. Ask them to write and draw some of the things they experience along the journey. Bring colored pencils or crayons. If they’re too young to write, have them draw pictures, and then you can narrate or write captions for them—the funnier, the better, especially if it involves poop of some kind. If you want to impress your kids, create a flip book of a tiny stick man doing cartwheels in the corner of the journal as you flip the pages.
Road trips should be fun, though often, they can seem like torture. Plan ahead. Set tablet time limits and try to enjoy the journey. Those kids will be taking over the wheel sooner than you think. Now is the time to make some memories.