Five kids. Two adults. One van. Nineteen days. Ten National Parks. Over seven thousand miles . . . how did we do it?
Several people have mentioned to me a desire to do the same sort of trip with their own kids and that they'd love some pointers. I've got a book's worth of advice to give but a blog post's amount of time to work on writing it so I narrowed it down to my top five traits needed for a successful family road trip. They are:
1. Creativity! Super helpful for things like:
a. Looking at a random assortment of leftover/boxed/canned foods and whipping up some semblance of a meal
b. Getting seven people to fit comfortably in a spot designed for four at the most
c. Keeping kids entertained in the car (Remember how I said I was a meanie when it came to limiting screen time at home? Believe it or not, the same applies to car rides, even when they’re 4-12 hours long. Yes it’d be easier for them to stare at their screens the entire time but I think providing them with a few basic activities, siblings and a window to look out of forces them to hone their own creativity. That being said, sometimes they need some help getting started.)
d. Improvising. Who needs to dig plates out from the camping supplies bin and then have to wash them later when this perfectly good cracker box can be ripped into two disposable plates? (True story)
2. Flexibility! Needed for:
a. Changing plans as needed. This trip was heavy on National Parks and our kids did GREAT—but we also knew when they really needed a break. So one day we skipped the planned daytime hike and let them chill for a few hours at an aquatic center. Later that day we got to take a shorter sunset hike that they were then recharged for.
b. Being comfortable in a wide variety of accommodations . . . we’ve slept seven squeezed into one tent and stayed in hotel suites. We’ve had kids on floor and in hammocks strung from trees. We’ve had Airbnb rentals turn out to be not exactly what we expected . . . luckily we’re all pretty flexible.
3. Organization. Absolutely essential to keep the trip running smoothly. For me, this includes things like:
a. Having camping gear already assembled in bins with notes to myself on what needed to be replenished (scouring pads, glow sticks)
b. Thinking ahead and saving some disposable take-out containers for a few weeks before our trip and then packing them in with our food supplies. They were great for packing lunches, storing leftovers, mixing salads in . . . and then we could get rid of them.
c. Packing everything* needed and knowing where it is. I started to count how many bags I had with us—from plastic food storage bags to small zippered pouches to hanging toiletry kits to mesh silverware bags to bags for games and books and dirty underwear and van garbage and clothing—but I gave up after awhile. Nobody can count that high.
Bags and bins are my friends for keeping things organized on the road. Several times it was tempting to throw something into the wrong spot when were done with it but I knew it would get forgotten or misplaced so I took the extra thirty seconds to do it the right way the first time.
*Contrary to the packing parent's pre-travel freakout, in most travel situations, one can purchase toothpaste, underwear and other forgotten necessities while on the road.
d. Making sure our accommodation plans included a place with a washing machine (usually a house rental) after several days on the road, particularly after camping.
4. Experience: We couldn’t possibly have successfully taken this trip without several years of shorter road trips under our belts. I’d suggest the same for anyone else, too. You need to know things about your own family, like:
a. Can you all get along together for that long in such tight quarters? (If not, organization and flexibility are going to come in handy for scheduling in breaks or taking impromptu ones)
|From a day we decided to divide & conquer: Daddy-O and the younger three were at an awesome park while the teens and I went to a museum.|
b. Is everyone comfortable with being dirty? I mean that in a smelling-like-campfire-and-not-having-access-to-a-shower sort of way to a we-have-to-sleep-in-a-room-that-smells-sort-of-like-a-wet-dog sort of way and about a hundred ways in between.
c. What keeps your kids happy in the car? There are so many great games out there but my experience has taught me that ultimately the things my kids like the best are simple paper and pens with some storytelling podcasts and then some occasional Wikki Stix thrown in.
d. For the adults in the car: how many hours can you safely and sanely drive? (Me: not too many. My husband: way more than the rest of us can stand.) Plan accordingly.
e. Does your family do better with camping or cabins? National parks or amusement parks? Museums or malls? Hiking or biking? Only experience can answer these questions.
5. Gregariousness: National Parks, museums, cultural centers, cities, small towns, gift shops, pools . . . all played a role in making our trip amazing. Photos and videos pale in comparison to the real thing when it comes to natural wonders like the Yellowstone paint pots and the sunset from the top of Bryce Canyon. I am awed, humbled and grateful that we could share these experiences with our children.
But equally important to me was all of our friendly interactions with people from all over the country. Asking the small town shop owner about the best places to visit or the waitress about her favorite foods on the menu not only provided us with helpful tips, it opened up conversations with people we never would have met. Questions about the pulled pork sandwich somehow morphed into conversations about our kids and her grandchildren. Joking with the retired couple who offered to take our picture turned into a half hour discussion about selling their home and traveling the country in their RV.
Maybe this one's just me, but I feel like I'm doing my children (and myself) a disservice if I expose us to the sights but not the humanity. It seems more important than ever to make sure my kids learn firsthand that every single person in this world has feelings. They all have families, friends, pets, life experiences to learn from, stories to tell and corny jokes to share (okay, maybe that's just some of them).
These interactions were instrumental in making our trip exponentially more memorable and enjoyable.
I know I said I only had time for a blog post but you've got to admit, this is a pretty hefty one. Regardless, this list is still pretty broad but I think it's a good general guideline for anyone considering a big road trip with their families. I am happy to answer any specific questions anyone might have.