The writer and her family pose at the Grand Canyon while on a lengthy road trip across the U.S. // © 2015 Keryn Means
Feature image (above): Miles of empty country are made easier with healthy snacks, activity books and flexible parents. // © 2015 Thinkstock
The great American road trip is a time-honored tradition that more than one family will embark on this summer. Moms and dads will hit the open road with wide eyes and an adventurous spirit. Every nook and cranny of the car will be stuffed with snacks, activity books, suitcases, beach toys, ski poles and/or folding chairs — after all, you just never know what you will encounter when you set off to see the world.
Meanwhile, the kids in the backseat are likely rolling their eyes at their parents’ enthusiasm. But, with downloaded movies, tunes and Angry Birds to entertain them, they too will survive the journey. Following are tips to ensure your family road trip will be a smooth adventure that you’ll talk about for years to come.
Only Pack the Essentials
Parents might assume that they need to bring myriad gadgets and supplies with them on a road trip, but they don’t need to bring as much as they think.
For example, families can avoid transferring giant items by communicating with hotels along their route. Many have cribs available — and that means more space in the trunk for other goodies.
If your destination is a theme park, think about ditching your stroller since many parks offer rentals. Also, be sure to check the weather so that heavy jackets and clunky boots aren’t carried along unnecessarily.
Be Strategic About Toys and Snacks
Car activities and snacks can make or break a family journey. Consider checking out audio books from the library for the kids — or, if they have their own headphones and MP3 players, the parents can take this opportunity to listen to a book or podcast of their choosing in the front seat.
Activity books that include word jumbles, mazes, crossword puzzles and Sudoku can also be effective entertainment options as you drive across the plains of Oklahoma and Kansas. Of course, digital tablets loaded with movies and games work as well. Don’t forget to bring along requisite power cords and a car USB adapter — you could have a mutiny on your hands once the devices run out of juice.
Pack snacks that have protein, as they will keep the group feeling full for longer. Cheese sticks and different types of nuts are favorites in our car.
On certain stretches of highway, fast-food eateries are often your only option, so grab fresh fruit and pre-cut vegetables from home so you can get a few vitamins into the kids. Cucumber slices and apples can stay fresh in a small cooler at the kids’ feet; ready-to-eat popcorn and pretzels can be easily enjoyed, too.
Rest Stops Are More Than a Necessity
Every seasoned traveler knows that rest stops are stress-free spots to change diapers and have a quick picnic lunch, but they can also be a soccer field or a playground for kids who have been cooped up for far too long in the car. Always pack a ball or other playground toys on longer road trips so that the kids can run off some energy. If you have toddlers, playing tag is another way to wear out little legs.
If you don’t want to spend much time at highway rest stops, create one of your own in the towns you pass. Do a little research in advance and scope out places for lunch or local parks.
On a recent trip with our two young boys, Sonoma Plaza in Sonoma, Calif., offered two great playgrounds for our kids while my husband and I took turns grabbing lunch fixings and sneaking in a little window shopping and wine tasting.
Have a Plan (But Be Open to Change)
Almost every adventure needs some sort of structure to begin with, but you always need to leave a little wriggle room for spontaneity. After all, kids can be unpredictable.
One great trick to mapping out a balanced road trip is to build in stops at national and state parks. On cross-country U.S. trips, families will find it easy to incorporate them, since there are more than 50 parks spread across our 50 states.
An added bonus is the affordability of state and national parks. Also, while rich in natural wonders, they are practically devoid of breakable objects — a nice circumstance when you’re racing your kids to a waterfall or river.
The outdoors, whether it’s Yosemite National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Painted Desert, will always inspire and transport your kids to a magical place. Packing wisely, stopping often and letting go of any unreasonable expectations will make the entire trip magical, too.