If you’re looking for the article about road tripping with kids where everything is kept neatly in Ziploc bags, this isn’t for you. With three young kids (2, 3 and 5) and a large dog (for the first short leg of the trip), there is no alphabetising favourite snacks and songs for the journey. Ohhhhh no. This kind of travel is about survival – not organisation. This trip is about embracing the chaos, having fun on the road, and emerging with amazing — albeit sticky and grubby — memories.
When hitting the road for a long road trip with children, there are three major elements required for survival — and yes, sanity: hotels with pools, playground stops and snacks; lots and lots of snacks!
Preparation is also important. Make sure your four-wheeled chariot is clean (even if it is packed with enough granola bars and fruit snacks to feed a small country) before you even leave the driveway. You’ll appreciate it later. Never mind that within three hours it will look like a bomb exploded, the point is, you know exactly how you are starting out. You will know that the fruit snacks that are stuck to the carpet in the backseat have only been there for a number of hours (or days!) instead of months (I can’t be the only one who ignores them…?)!
We had a three-day journey ahead of us. If Google were to be believed, it would be 13 hours total from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Catskill, NY where my cousin was going to marry the love of his life. For this excursion, we decided to break up the trip into easily attainable, four-ish hour stretches.
Our first stop was with my brother and his family in Fredericton, NB. Not only did we get to spend time with family, with six cousins, (all girls hanging together), it also tires them out for the next day’s haul. Tip! At every stop possible, TIRE everybody out! In this case, it meant strawberry picking, swimming in the community pool and playing in the backyard until the sun went down and the bugs came out.
Day two, we were up and up at ‘em at our regular hour, ready for our next 4-hour trek. If you’re looking to travel on the cheap, head to the grocery store and pick out snacks, snacks and more snacks and easy to eat and versatile lunches. We did the ol’ fashioned “ploughman’s lunch” and bought a big loaf of sourdough bread, apples, strawberries and cheese. We also topped up the kids’ water bottles – another way to keep from spending cash at every stop! Of course, five minutes down the road from the grocery store, everyone got out for a pee break. We learned quickly to make the most of all of our stops – everyone goes to the bathroom whether you gotta go or not. This actually was great for our potty trainers who hardly had any accidents the entire trip.
Now, to keep busy on the road, you need to have multiple strategies. Ours included a staggered distribution of distractions throughout the day. You need to make sure that the kids are at their max before you bring out another toy/book/snack etc. otherwise, you’ll blow through that bag of tricks in a matter of minutes. I would literally watch the clock to force myself to put up with the whining or the fighting to make us all wait a full hour until a new diversion emerged from the front seat. For my five-year-old, this was an easier task than for the other two. She could happily colour or watch out the window for wildlife as we buzzed along the highway. The other two were a different story. Our three-year-old I could keep busy with playing the occasional round of I Spy and, thankfully, the kids love music so we could find some tolerable and upbeat pop music as a distraction. But the almost-two-year-old, she was a whole other ballgame. She could reach a level of fever pitch that would put the most hardcore heavy metal rocker to shame. For her, the best solution was either food or, if she was trying to sleep, one of our hands twisted backwards from the front seat so she had something to hold onto while she drifted off. Whatever it takes; I feel like I could hashtag: #wouldpreferanarmcramptoanearcramp.
We arrived in Maine and upon checking in, learned one of the most valuable lessons I could pass on to any road-trippin’ parent: call ahead to check on the hotel pool! We arrived on site after promises and bribery of swimming to big area roped off with yellow caution tape – the pool was under construction! There went the plan for easy energy burnoff, and the promise of fun all rolled into one big ball of disappointment! Thankfully there was a playground just outside of the hotel; but here is big lesson number two: when in Maine and on a lawn that doesn’t look well kept, check for ticks. Yup. I woke up with not one but two ticks embedded in my skin from that lovely outdoor playground.
Day three of travelling we had one last big gun that hadn’t been used from our arsenal: the iPad (you can almost hear the heavenly chorus starting up)! In the afternoon on our last stretch of highway, we dipped into our ‘last resort’ and set up a downloaded show from Netflix. While we didn’t want their eyes glued to the screen for the whole trip, it gave everyone a nice break until we were in the beautiful mountains of NY where we could look for wildlife and appreciate small-town charm.
Catskill itself is a beautiful spot, with tons of options for hiking, skiing (in winter), swimming, kayaking and more. At our Inn, there was a beautiful functioning outdoor pool, surrounded by majestic mountains and a field of lavender where we picnicked for supper. My brother (also road-tripping to Catskill) brought a mini propane BBQ which made the ideal budget-friendly (and tummy-filling) supper after we arrived. Pop one of those in your trunk, and it’ll be worth the space it needs.
Once vacation is done, we all want to get home faster, so we shortened the return to 2 days. The first day wasn’t so bad with a five-and-a-half hour drive, complete with stops at a small American town where we embraced the historic pride at cheap museums and free trolley rides. But day two – ah, let me reveal my last-but-not-least road-tripping survival tip: a fancy little app called Playground Buddy. People, you will need this app (or something like it). You type in your location, and it tells you all the nearby playgrounds – with pictures! This was our safety net for our last looooong day of travelling (8 hours and 21 minutes to be exact). It was a lifesaver, allowing us to blow off steam and picnic not too far off the highway. It saved us time and money!
Now, before you head off on your family road trip, you need to ask yourself three simple questions: do you have ample, snacks, gizmos, books? Have you planned your stops? And finally, when else do you have the opportunity to be locked in a 6 x 14 box with your loved ones as they laugh, cry, scream and sleep? This is family living. This is memory making.
By Leah Whitehead
Leah cut her teeth in broadcast journalism as a reporter with CTV News. She traded in her microphone for a pen and now works as a freelance writer and runs a marketing business with her husband. She’s written for Lonely Planet, CAA, AAA, Canadian Special Events and a variety of other tourism-based periodicals. You can find her corralling her three kids under 5, while balancing on one foot and doing the hokey-pokey in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
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