Planning a Road Trip with Little Kids
August 6, 2014 by Stephanie O'Dea
We took a 2-week family road trip this summer as our main vacation. We ended up hitting 8 states, and we left from the San Francisco Bay Area. The states that we “tiptoed in” aren’t included in the above map — we ended up only spending an hour in Nebraska and about 15 minutes in Colorado. But I still think it totally counts!
We have a small pop-up tent trailer that we pull with our Toyota Sienna mini van. If you are in the market for a pop-up, we chose the Jayco Sport 10 model, and it fit all 5 of us beautifully (2 adults, kids: 12, 9, 4). We opted to get a model that doesn’t have a shower or toilet because we stayed at (almost all) KOA campgrounds.
We opted for the KOA grounds because they had swimming pools, good bathroom facilities, and a playground for the kids. I also appreciate that the Lights Out time at the campsites is 9pm; I like knowing that i’m not going to hear booming music while I’m trying to get the kids to sleep. The KOAs that we went to were all family-friendly and I felt safe, which was important to me when so far away.
Months (about 6 months) before we left, we outlined our route and made camp reservations. We knew we wanted to see Dinosaur National Park, Yellowstone, and Mt Rushmore. The kids also really wanted to see “the world’s largest baked potato” in Idaho. Those were the destinations we kept in mind while planning our itinerary. Adam also wanted to limit the driving to about 400 miles a day or less.
I bought an inexpensive accordion file folder and divvied it up per day. I included in each slot our camping reservation, a map of the area, and directions to the nearest hospital. I did this for every city we spent the night in. I figured if we had the local emergency room mapped out we’d never need to use it! And I was right! PHEW!!
Do not count on your vehicle’s GPS system or your phone’s turn by turn guidance. Be sure to have roadmaps of all the areas you are going to go to, and before you leave print out turn by turn instructions from one spot to another. Cell and GPS reception is quite spotty in the National Parks, Forests, and in the mountains. We’d have entire days of no cell service.
EXPECT THE KIDS TO SAY THEY ARE BORED
We drove a lot. Although we tried to limit the driving to 3 to 4 hours a day, there were days that we hit traffic or road construction crews or bad weather which slowed us down. I have fantastic kids, but I’m super glad that there wasn’t a dashboard-mounted camera to catch all the times that I yelled at them to stop complaining.
Kids are kids. Kids complain. Kids get tired and cranky. Know this and accept this before you go.
We had a rule that at the campsites there was “nothing digital.” But in the car? Whatever. Keep the kids happy — give them snacks, little toys from the dollar store, play games, and watch DVDs.
I actually bought boxed sets of new-to-my-kids DVDs to watch on the road like Punky Brewster, The Brady Bunch, Webster, Silver Spoons, and The Cosby Show. These are all family friendly and Adam and I enjoyed hearing them through the car sound system. I also liked how each episode has a bit of a moral dilemma and message.
I’m a total sap.
I had a few rolls of quarters with us that I used to pay the kids every so often for their good behavior. My idea was to dole them out for every 15 minutes or so of quiet but I wasn’t quite all that organized. Instead, I just handed them a handful here and there depending on my mood. They used these quarters to buy candy, stuff from gumball machines, and pressed pennies.
We also needed the quarters to do laundry at the campsites and to pay for parking meters. I was glad to have them!
I’m the crockpot lady, so I planned most of our meals around slow cooker food. I wrote about how I always camp with my slow cooker, here. This trip was no different, except that we were really on the road more than at a campsite, so I found the stovetop setting and the oven setting of the Ninja to be a much more efficient way to cook.
I brought along a 25-foot extension cord so we preferred to keep the Ninja out on the picnic table in the evenings while I cooked instead of stinking up the pop-up. It worked very well for us, and (in case you were wondering) you can make AWESOME bacon in it on the oven setting at 400 degrees — then you can use the drippings to make the world’s best hashbrowns!
I also packed the pancake griddle for use at the sites. The griddle came in handy during the rain storms that we kept hitting which made cooking outside impossible. We used it for pancakes, french toast, quesadillas, and grilled cheese sandwiches. On nice days I’d use it outside, too, for lunch time cooking.
Although the pop-up has a propane grill and every campsite has a charcoal or campfire ring, we really did find that we used the Ninja or the griddle for almost all of the meals. I found that I could control the heat better and when the kids were starving it was just easier to cook on something I was used to rather than worry about the wind blowing out the propane flame.
Because we are gluten free, I worried that we wouldn’t really be able to find some of our favorite packaged food on the road. I bought a case of Gluten Free Rice Krispies before we left, and we stuck to that and yogurt and fresh fruit for breakfasts. Lunch was usually crackers with peanut butter or salami and cheese. We often ate in the car for lunch or found a local park that we could pull into to let the kids run around and get their wiggles out.
That was actually kind of fun — we would just find a suburb in a small town and drive around to find the local park. We saw some really cool playgrounds!
We ended up eating out for either lunch or dinner almost every day. In a perfect world I suppose you’d always eat at the campsite or prepare your own food, but I found it just not to be realistic. Eating at a restaurant for 1 meal a day was much less expensive than it would be to eat out for all meals, and it honestly was just kind of nice to have somebody bring me my food!
CAMPING, WITH KIDS, IN GENERAL
Using the pop-up has spoiled me, and I’d rather not tent camp anymore if I can help it. I like that the setup and tear down only takes about 20 minutes, and I like how clean this type of camping is. Since we stayed at KOAs, we all showered daily and the bathrooms were very nicely maintained. I never felt like we were roughing it — the mattresses were comfortable and I liked not having to roll up the bedding each and every day.
The kids all had their “jobs” — and they were very good at set up and tear down after 15 days on the road.
To make our home away from home a bit more comfortable, I did get a Nighttime Bathroom for me and the girls — a Luggable Loo, which came in very handy. To keep it from being gross, I simply lined it each night with a kitchen-garbage-bag and placed an open Size 5 diaper in the bottom. In the morning, I just tied up the garbage bag and took it to the onsite dumpster. It worked VERY well and I’d absolutely recommend the Loo to anyone traveling with small kids or anyone who doesn’t want to be wandering around a campground at night!
I also got a Queen Sized sleeping bag for me and Adam to use. I sometimes feel squished up in a regular sleeping bag, and it was nice to have one less thing to roll up.
We’re frugal people, and although we did each get a TShirt from Mt. Rushmore and a few more things throughout the trip, we tried to limit our spending. Also, I’m not a fan of clutter.
That said, I did collect a magnet from all of our stops, and I love looking at them now that we are home. Magnets are cheap — I think the most expensive one was $4.99, and all of the tourist-type spots have them.
I also really like the idea of taking 1 rock per place to keep as a momento. This is illegal in a lot of places, though, so if you get in trouble I release all liability!
WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?
Yes. In a heartbeat. This was such a fantastic trip, and filled with so many memories. I loved every bit of it, and would highly recommend setting up a longish trip with your own family. One of my favorite things was that we were gone long enough for the daily set up, tear down, driving, etc. to feel like The New Normal. We all got into a groove, as a family, and truly enjoyed living in the moment. In this day and age of being Plugged In at All Times it’s hard to really just live in the moment sometimes.
Since I don’t have a personal facebook page and since Adam and I are pretty private about our family lives and don’t want our kids online, I didn’t feel the need to constantly update social media — I didn’t want anyone to know we were gone, anyway!
it was freeing.
And you should DO IT!
in case you were wondering about the actual itinerary: San Francisco, Reno NV, Wendover NV, Salt Lake City UT, Vernal UT, Rawlins WY, Casper WY, Mt. Rushmore SD, Buffalo WY, Cody WY, Jackson Hole WY, Jerome ID, Winnemucca NV, Lake Tahoe CA
and here was my big WE DID IT! splurge: