We drove 7,000 miles through the US and Canada last summer with our 14 month old and lived to tell the tale. Many were shocked that we were taking this on, but that's what Born a Backpacker is all about: keeping adventure alive with a little one. I know sometimes even the thought of driving 10 minutes to the grocery store with a baby sounds like torture, but if you are jonesing to take a road trip and explore a country or region by car with a baby, it's very possible (nay—super fun!)
Here's some tips to get you prepared:
Road tripping cross country with a baby is fun, crazy, adventurous, daunting and all around a family bonding experience that you'll remember forever. If you are thinking of doing it, GO FOR IT.
1. BE FLEXIBLE
This one's super easy for me because planning ahead makes me break out in hives, but I understand this must be hard for people that have a strict schedule or routine with their babies.
On our road trip, we had a vague idea of where we wanted to go and how long we wanted to stay for, but ultimately, decisions were made the morning of and even throughout the day. For a pint-sized person, babies really have a lot of say in what we do. There may be some days that they really don't want to sit in the carseat, or they're sick, or they have diaper rash and it's hard to sit for long periods of time. There are also external forces, like severe weather (which we hit a few times and had to stay in very questionable roadside motels in the middle of nowhere).
Having an entire road trip planned out to the minute with reservations at hotels and campsites booked may result in a loss of money. So I would really advise you to stay somewhat flexible with your itinerary.
2. DRIVE WHILE THEY SLEEP
On our long driving days, we got into a routine of waking up, playing, reading books, and eating breakfast. This time was perfect as it gave us some family QT and also wore Zay out. Once we hit the road, he was conked out for his morning nap. and gave us a good 2 hours to eat up some miles. Once he woke up, we drove as long as we could until he got squirmy and hungry.
We always tried to stop at a place along the way that had an outdoor area where he could run around and burn energy. Every lunch break was a leisurely stop where we were in no rush to hit the road. This also gives you a look into a random town along the way that you may not have seen. I would also suggest to go farther away from the highway rather than stop at a place immediately off the exit. Search to see if there is a walkable downtown, and if there is, suck up the extra 15 minutes in the car and head there. There's usually a park that you can stop at after lunch, an ice cream shop (personal fav), and a better understanding of the community. It's always good to support local rather than eating at the chains off the highway anyway (unless you have been on the road for awhile and craving familiarity).
Messy car and a crying baby. This happens sometimes - expect it so it's not a surprise when it does happen and use our tips to prevent it (as much as you possibly can).
After lunch, it was a similar routine: car nap, dinner break, sleep. We would put Zay in his pajamas after dinner, put him in the car, and then he would fall asleep for the night (most of the time). At night, once he fell asleep, that's when we got the majority of miles in. It's hard because it's certainly more dangerous to drive at night, especially when you're on deer turf, but if you want to get somewhere without a screaming baby the entire time, night driving is necessary. So, PSA: Drive safe.
3. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, NEVER STOP WHILE THEY'RE SLEEPING
Plan ahead in terms of gas. It was devastating when we would have to stop for gas because we were running on empty mid-nap. If I sound like I'm being overdramatic, I'm not. Unless your kid stays asleep without the hum of the motor, make sure you have enough gas, food, drinks, and an empty bladder before your baby falls asleep.
Your stops aren't always ideal, but that's part of the adventure. Lunch stop at a supermarket off the highway somewhere in Flint, Michigan
4. HAVE A TOY AND BOOK BIN
Your baby is a champ for allowing you to continue to live an adventurous life and go on cross-country road trips. The least you can do is spice up his or her toy supply. Every few hundred miles, we would stop at a bookstore and buy Zay a new book. He would sit and read to himself in his carseat, giving him a new source of entertainment and (selfishly) giving us some more time to drive without a crying baby.
Also, make your toy choice carefully. I am against toys that talk when on an airplane or public space because the people around you don't want to hear the alphabet sung in an obnoxious voice on repeat for hours. But many parents will happily hear that in exchange for endless crying , so you have to decide if a talking toy is something you're into for the trip. We found it helped and Zay learned how to count from it. Win! We have this one and it worked well for the road trip and for our bike camping trip.
Pin this post now to save it for later:
We had an actual toy bin next to Zay's seat where we could switch out books or toys if he was getting restless. We would also read him books from the front seat (or Jamie would - facing backwards from the passenger seat too long makes me nauseous). You can also switch seats and one person sit in the back to give full on attention to your little one.
In addition, having a small bin with all his toys made it easy to take in and out of the car when we would make stops for the night, and it gave Zay easy access to entertainment It's a great use of space in the car.
Zay's book and toy bin was key. We could take it in and out of the car when we made stops, and had quick access in the car when we had an an ancy and bored baby.
5. STEP UP YOUR SNACK GAME
When all else fails, snacks can keep a baby occupied and happy for a while. If you go through areas where there is literally nothing but farmland for hundreds of miles, make sure you are prepared foodwise. Cleaner, less-chokeable foods are the best (to state the obvious). Bananas, string cheese, deli meats for protein, and strawberries were always on hand. We also had a cooler with us for camping, but even if you're not planning on camping on your trip, a small cooler would really come in handy.
Pulled over for a snack. Zay really embraced the dirt bag life on the road well.
6. KEEP IMPORTANT SUPPLIES NEARBY
Oomph. How unfortunate is it when something you need is on the bottom of the trunk stuffed in a bag. Make sure your go-to items are close-by to save time and stress. These items include, but are not limited to:
plastic bags/ziplock bags
Diapers, wipes, and changing pad
Small med kit
Portable Sound Machine
Like any traveling with a baby, there are inevitable challenges and frustrations. In most cases, though, the challenges will be worth it. Just keep your expectations low, your sense of humor high, and your itinerary flexible, and you're on the right path to some QT on the road with your baby.
Where are you heading on your road trip??