15 ways to make road trips less painful

Whoever said “getting there is half the fun” apparently has never been stuck in traffic with hangry kids. Long car rides can be hell on wheels. But they can also—with the right tricks, tips and snacks—be the stuff of happy memories.

1. Write out a to-do list

As well as noting everything you need to pack and finish up, jot down all the songs and games (I spy, roadside bingo, 20 questions, hangman, word association) you can think of to sing and play on the trip. Crossing items off the list can become a game in itself.   

2. Start calm and carry on

When you head out, try to lull your kids into a meditative state. Keep things quiet and very low-key. Whatever you do, don’t mention any of the snacks, crafts and games you have stashed or else they will be clamouring for everything before you even get out of the driveway. Just drive. When this works—and they fall into deep imaginary play or even fall asleep—it’s golden. And if it doesn’t work, proceed to No. 6.

3. Create a back-seat butler

To avoid having to blindly grope around the back seat to find that blasted dropped cup—again!—it’s worth buying or making a sippy-cup lasso that attaches to their seat.

4. Be sneaky with snacks

By keeping the treats secret, you’ll always have something in your back pocket. You could try rationing out snacks in a fishing-tackle box so each one gets its own little space.

5. Hire back-seat drivers

Involve the kids in the planning and show them the route and images of sights they’ll see. Get an extra map so they can follow along and even help navigate if your GPS fails.

6. Pack a bag of tricks

Pull out easy craft supplies, a new toy or other items as needed. Do not, under any circumstances, let your kids see what else is in the bag. Keep them in suspense.

7. Make every dollar count

Visit the dollar store before you leave. A metal cookie sheet is a great surface for colouring and bracelet making. It can also be a magnet board or a tray for snacks. While you’re there, pick up a sturdy plastic container to put snacks in for easy pass-backs (#nomorefishcrackersonthefloor) and a shower caddy with suction cups to stick to the windows for kids to store all their little bits and pieces in.

8. Get ready for toxic waste

Getting bodily fluids out of a car seat is the nastiest of nasty jobs. Instead, lay a puppy pee pad in the seat, under your baby’s bum—it’ll catch any diaper leaks. 

9. Put a lid on barfing

Puke happens. Be prepared by creating a barf-bag kit. Fill a large lidded container (like a 2-litre ice cream tub) with hand sanitizer, wipes and resealable bags.

10. Keep things fresh

Few things are worse than sock removal mid-trip. (Well, maybe that missing tuna sandwich.) Pack extra socks and don’t bring smelly food into the car.

11. Plan out the pit stops

Plot where you and the kids can run around and actually do something for an hour or so. Provincial parks and quirky roadside museums are great, but school playgrounds, shopping malls and fast-food play places work, too. (For road trips through the U.S., the iExit app is pretty handy for sussing out options.) The goal, remember, is to tire your kids out. And when you get back into the car, attempt No. 2 again.   

12. Embrace technology

If it’s a super long trip, purchase one of the wondrous contraptions that allow you to hang a tablet from the back of a front headrest.

13. Gather mementoes

Have kids create a little scrapbook en route. They can tape in the colourful leaves they find on a lunchtime hike or glue in the business card of that weird Swiss-themed restaurant you stopped at. They can rate all the stops with yellow stars or write about what they liked (or didn’t like). Or for a lazy-parent modification, have them place mementoes in a brown bag they can decorate with stickers and markers.

14. Belt it out

Stock up the iPod with a wide array of music. Have someone play DJ and take requests. And when that gets played out, cue up a family-friendly podcast.

15. Head straight to plan B

If you have a kid who absolutely does not fare well on car trips, plan to drive at night. A KO’d kid is much more peaceful than a frustrated and bored one.

A version of this article appeared in our July/August 2016, titled “15 ways to make road trips less painful,” pp. 20-21.