Surviving a Summer Family Road Trip: 13 Tips for Traveling with Kids

Summer seems to be the season for family road trips, which will most definitely add adventure and education to your kids’ lives. It can also bring sibling confrontations, marital difficulties, overheating, and repeated cries of “Stop, I have to pee!” coming from the backseat.

We’ve had our share of epic road trips with kids, and now we’re able to pretty much handle any situation as it comes up on the road – anything from fixing the vehicle to emergency poop management to picking up roadside trash or having an impromptu picnic.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a great air conditioner in your car, some of this won’t apply to your situation, but if you’re like us at all (driving an older vehicle with no AC and a window that won’t roll down), I think you’ll find these summer travel tips pretty handy.

Staying Cool on the Road:

  1. Reflective insulation in the back windows: I bought some bubble insulation at the hardware store several years ago that has silver foil on one side, and I put these in the back side windows (usually just held up with luggage, but double sided tape works great) to keep the sun from blasting in the back of the vehicle and roasting the kids.
  2. Cover the cooler: We invested in a couple of big heavy duty coolers which have served us well on family road trips and camping adventures. Solid ice (like a frozen gallon jug of water) lasts much longer than cubes, so we make our own. Once the cooler is loaded in the vehicle, it gets covered with a strip of bubble insulation and an old blanket to keep the heat from getting to the contents very quickly.
  3. The mister is your savior: A plastic misting bottle from the garden center or personal care section of the drug store will help to keep you and your kids cool in the car in the worst heat. Spritz over faces, necks, arms and legs, wherever, while driving. They’re usually cheap, so think about getting one for your kid as well – it will probably occupy them for quite some time.
  4. Bandanna as cooling device: We usually have a bunch of bandannas with us for use as cloth napkins, but they also make an excellent cooling accessory, so they end up around our necks. Soak the bandanna, roll it up and tie it around your neck and let the evaporation cool you off. Or fill one with ice and pass it around for a refreshing break at mealtime.
  5. Keep your water cool: I love steel water bottles, and we each have our own that we bring for our personal drinking water supply. But when they sit in the sun, they get hot fast. Keeping your water in the shade is the first defense, but if it’s still getting hot, wrap a wet bandanna around the water bottle and let it evaporate and cool the bottle off. We also have a couple of gallons as a refill for our water bottles, and those always get buried under sleeping bags or pillows or blankets to stay cool.

Taking Care of Business:

  1. A true porta-pottie: When traveling, the urge never comes when you’re in sight of a rest stop bathroom, so being prepared for bathroom duty makes it easier to deal with. We practice infant potty training with our kids, so we got used to bringing a quart sized yogurt container (with lid) with us for bathroom breaks. As they got older, we brought a half-gallon container for the road. This comes in really handy when the weather is bad outside, or too many people are around to just go outdoors. A sports-drink bottle makes a good urine container for boys and men – just make sure the lids are on tight before driving!
  2. Toilet paper and baggie: Even when we need to dig a scat-hole on a road trip, we pack our toilet paper back out with us in a plastic baggie that stays with the toilet paper as we travel.
  3. Getting clean: Using a spray bottle and washcloth or bandanna is the easiest way to wash hands and faces with a minimal amount of water while traveling.
  4. Trash bags: Having a trash or recycle bag within reach keeps the floor of the car from looking like a disaster – and comes in handy while picking up roadside litter.

Keeping Your Cool on the Road:

  1. Surprise them!: Before you leave, remember to bring something for your kids that they have never seen before. It doesn’t have to be new, it just has to be new to them at that time. At the right moment on the trip, usually right before they have a meltdown, surprise them with it. Crafty things are excellent, as are pads of paper and pencils, or Legos, or a food that’s fun to eat. It’s not bribery, it’s distraction…
  2. Tunes and games can bring you together: Bring some of your favorite family music for a singalong, or play “Going to grandma’s house” or 20 questions. It’s much harder to get annoyed at each other when you’re all engaged in an activity you enjoy.
  3. Got your stash?: Papas and mamas need their own stash. Seriously. Pack it with treats you’ll enjoy, and break it out when the kids are busy or asleep – you won’t have to share.
  4. Remember that you’re friends: Your partner, who’s either dealing with the kids when you’re driving, or driving while you’re with the kids, is just as tired of being stuck in a car as you are, so give them a break. Especially if you’re not getting one, unless you choose to get chauffeured around in a limo, such as through Limo Find.

P.S. Got a basic tool kit and first aid kit in your car?

Do you have any family summer road trip survival tips to share?

Image: anyjazz65 at Flickr

Derek Markham

Things I dig include: simple living, natural fatherhood, attachment parenting, natural building, unassisted childbirth (homebirth), bicycles, permaculture, organic and biodynamic gardening, vegan peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, bouldering, and the blues. Find me elsewhere at @NaturalPapa, @DerekMarkham, Google+, or RebelMouse.

5 thoughts on “Surviving a Summer Family Road Trip: 13 Tips for Traveling with Kids

  • July 8, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    These are fantastic ideas for any road trip. I don’t have kids, but I would probably put most of these into practice. Just reading about all the “staying cool” tips transports me back to family roadtrips when I was a kid. Whew. Could have really used this list then!

  • July 15, 2010 at 10:34 am

    Hi! Thanks for sharing your road trip tips!

    I work on behalf of State Farm and it’s always great to hear people swapping stories of summertime travel.

    State Farm has prepared information just for families taking to the road.

    Visit for information about safe driving, keeping kids entertained and making the most of your trip. If you’re interested, I can also share State Farm’s Summer Road Trip Safety Tips.

    We hope you find this information helpful. If you’d like to learn more, please feel free to drop me an email and I’m happy to help.

  • October 4, 2010 at 12:44 am

    We have been fortunate to travel quite a bit with our children. Here are some of my tips for less stressful, more successful travel.

  • October 8, 2010 at 7:23 am

    I find hand-held video games, such as Nintendo DS, or a portable DVD player can really make things easier for kids on a long trip as well. Even a CD with songs they like can help.

  • August 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Great ideas for road trips thanks !
    Like Portsmouth Dentist I find Nintendo DSs a great way for the kids to pass the time.
    We also play games like I-Spy and 20 questions.
    One of our boys can be travel-sick sometimes, so a basin, towel and easily accessible change of clothes form part of our road-trip essential kit !


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