The longest highway in Minnesota stretches 427 miles across the western portion of the state from Canada to Iowa. If you drove all of US-59 at 55 miles an hour, it would take you just shy of eight hours to make the trip.
Unless you drive it with children. Then you might as well sell your house because you live on the road now.
In fairness, my family has spent a fair amount of time on long-haul car trips. My extended family lives in the opposite corner of our fair state, so trips to visit grandparents mean settling in for what used to be somewhere around five hours and some change. My oldest daughter made that very road trip for the first time when she was just a week old. However, as we learned that very first time, driving long distances with small kids means adding at least another 1/3 onto the length of the trip. Still, the prize at the end (Family! Loved ones! Letting grandparents spoil your kiddos!) makes it all worth it.
This is not to say we don’t still dread the long trips. We’ve just gotten used to it. My kids are just a little bigger now, so singing along to songs or even using the blessed, holy, life-saving, trip-changing portable DVD player can save some struggle. Six to eight hours in the car? Check.
This summer, we decided to notably up the ante. How does 1,100 miles pulling a 30-fo0t trailer with two preschoolers in the truck sound? Terrifying, probably. But also possible. Here’s what I learned:
1. Pack snacks
Lots of snacks. All the snacks. Nutritious ones, fruity ones, special ones they’ve never had, ones with sugar that you usually pretend don’t exist. Whatever. Snacks. Hand them out abundantly and joyfully. I deployed my giant Snack Bag filled with packs of fruit snacks, Goldfish, and even (GASP) candy to soothe a snarling backseat beast. Just be judicious about bringing things that could melt, especially things that could melt between a car seat and a toddler’s pants.
2. Pack surprises
Some pro moms gave me this tip, and it saved us more than a few times. Hit the dollar store, Bullseye’s Playground at Target, or anywhere that has small, cheap toys and games. I grabbed lots of stickers, a felt book, some kid-friendly washi tape, small dolls, fun pens, and basically anything that could hold a kid’s attention for an hour. I bagged them, up, hid them in my bag, and deployed them strategically. Sometimes it was a reward for good behavior. Other times it was a distraction to get through the last 30 miles to a rest stop. Or it was a bribe to get someone to please stop sticking her tongue out at her sister, for the love of anything. I realize just how materialistic and manipulative this trick is, and I just don’t care. Plus, if you bag them back up and hide them when you’re in your ultimate destination, you can bust them out again on the return trip. Surprise! You already forgot about these! You’re welcome!
3. Pack nap tools
My kids are small and still nap, but even bigger kids can be lulled into a snooze while cruising. It can be hard to get comfortable in a car seat. Consider a big, fluffy blanket or a puffy stuffed animal that can be rolled up like a pillow and wedged between a head and a car seat. One sweet, precious hour spent napping is one less hour that someone can spend melting down.
4. Stop when you need to, not when you want to
You will pass the World’s Largest Jackalope or a county fair or some other magical, tempting stop along the way. However, if you have a final destination in mind, and you have small people outside their schedules, consider not stopping to check it out. That’s a different kind of road trip, one with older kids who can get in and out of a car without needing to be wrestled like a cat taking a bath. Instead, focus on only stopping for gas, toilets, and food. Speaking of food…
5. Take an actual lunch break
If you left early enough in the morning, you will have been in the car at least four hours by the time lunch comes around. You need something more than a quick fast-food burger or a peanut butter sandwich hurled over the backseat. You need a real break. We found that pizza buffets were good for lunch on the road. Lots of options, fast service, and the salad bar was surprisingly welcoming.
6. Prepare to dislocate your shoulder
In the division of labor, my husband focused on driving and I focused on navigating both the map and the kids. This meant I spent an awful lot of time twisted around in my seat, doling out snacks, toys, and fearsome stares. I kinda wish I had done better work on my obliques before we left, which is to say I wish I had done any work on them. It’s a good thing I don’t get carsick because I spent more time facing backward than forward.
7. Set aside your expectations
It’s not gonna go great. Someone is going to have to go to urgent care (me), someone is going to have to buy diapers from a gas station (also me), and someone is going to have a serious sobbing meltdown (yep, me). But it’s okay. This trip isn’t about perfection. If you put too much pressure on yourself about making memories and keeping childhood magical you will set yourself up for failure before you start. This is an opportunity to learn about how your family travels, what you like to do as a family, and how you can keep having adventures together.
Maybe in the course of your trip together you’ll learn that you love road trips. Perhaps you’ll learn that you’re more of a weekend warrior. Maybe you’ll keep your car time limited to visiting the big playground on Saturday mornings. That’s okay. A long road trip with your small kids is still possible, and still fun, even if you only do it once. We’re already planning out our next one. But it might not be for a while. I have some physical therapy to do on my shoulder.