Cragmama "Not all who wander are lost…" JRR Tolkien

Road-Trippin’ with a Toddler – 10 Tips for Keeping Your Sanity

C jammied up and ready for a night-night flight to South Dakota

Unless you are lucky enough to have a world class climbing/hiking/camping destination in your backyard, odds are good that “getting there” (and back) will make up a significant portion of your itinerary.  This post is the toddler version of a post I wrote a year ago entitled “Making your Cragbaby a Good Car-baby.”  Back then Cragbaby was not quite 18 months…and now he’s a giant (comparatively) two and a half year old with bundles of energy oozing out of every part of him!  In some ways, car rides are easier now – he’s older and can entertain himself for longer.  He’s also facing forward in the car seat so there’s a lot more to look at and it’s easier for us to interact with him.  But in other ways, it’s a lot harder – namely because he hardly sleeps!  Well, at peak driving times that is.  Very rarely are we able to time a Friday afternoon drive to our weekend destination with a nap, which means several more hours of time to pass per trip! That being said, we’ve managed to figure out a pretty good system that not only makes long trips bearable, but many times even pleasant!

1.  TIMING:  Just because your toddler doesn’t take multiple naps per day anymore doesn’t mean you can’t try your best to coincide sleeping with driving. For example, we try to time our Sunday night returns from our weekend excursions with a gas/food stop somewhere in the vicinity of 8:00.  We then put C into his jammies, hop back in the car for a bit, and voila! a sleeping Cragbaby.

2.  BOOKS:  Books are a staple for any long drive, and often before a big one C and I will stock up at the library the day before.  It always seems like a new (to him anyway) book takes longer to read than an old one.

Just looking out the window can be pretty interesting – especially in new areas!

3.  MUSIC/DVDs:  Family sing-a-longs are always a blast!  I will admit however, that after the 45th round of the Veggie Tales theme song, we channel the sound to the back seat only…and speaking of Veggie Tales, we sometimes use our best dual screen portable dvd player for car as listening and watching song videos not only helps pass the time but also keeps the little one entertained. A hand-me-down from my parents, we only take out C’s “black computer” occasionally, but it’s been a life-saver on those 6+ hour rides. It’d be unfair of me to not mention the DVDs we’d taken along with us, which we were so gratefully apprised from

4.  FOOD – Toddlers are slow eaters and they like to play with their food.  While this is not helpful on Monday morning before preschool, you can definitely work it to your advantage on a long car ride.  In a typical 3.5 hour car ride to the New River Gorge, C will spend at least a third of the time munching on nuts and raisins while crashing his toy airplane into the bowl on every 5th bite.

5.  BACKSEAT BUDDIES – Now that he’s facing forward and can see what’s going on, C is actually a pretty good highway companion – assigning him a list of items to spy out the window is fun for the whole family.  (Especially since C sometimes “sees” things that no one else can…).  Though it wasn’t always the case, nowadays we can usually make it to our final destination with both grown-ups still sitting in the front, but sometimes C gets lonely back there by himself, especially at night.  We don’t bring it up, but if he asks for one of us to sit with him, we oblige whenever we can.  I figure it won’t be too long until he’s in middle school and wouldn’t be caught dead asking to sit with his mommy, so I’ll enjoy it while I can :).

6.  STAY FLEXIBLE! – Even though he’s not a baby anymore (sigh), going with the flow and expecting the unexpected is still a given anytime children are involved, no matter the age.  Sometimes we can make it up to the New River Gorge in one stop.  Other times C announces loudly that there is a “poo poo inside” within 5 minutes of leaving the gas station.  But regardless of how long it takes, we always get there eventually, and we’ve learned to embrace the “getting there” just as much as the “we’re here!”

C in full on road trip mode on the way to Tennessee

7.  TALK IT UP:  Odds are good that you’re toddler is already looking forward to the final stop on your road trip.  But toddlers are pretty excitable little people, and it won’t take much to get your little guy or gal psyched on the travel component too.  Explain in advance what’s going to happen in kid-friendly language.  For example, instead of waiting until the day of and hopping in the car, you can build enthusiasm in advance by talking up the drive – “In 2 days we get to drive up to the mountains!  We’ll get on the highway, and drive past some farms where we can look for cows and horses, we’ll drive through tunnels and see how long we can hold our breath, and we can count all the bulldozers we see!”  If your child sees that you are psyched, he or she is likely to hop on the bandwagon.

8.  START SMALL:  If your toddler has never been in the car for more than the 30 minutes it takes to get to Grandma’s house, it’s best that your first outing not be a full day’s drive away.  If you know your travel time means that your child will be awake for the whole car ride, a destination 2 hours away might be plenty far enough, especially if you’re doing just a day or weekend trip.

9.  STICK WITH IT:  Toddlers love the predictability of routine.  If you haven’t traveled a lot, your youngster might balk at the idea of strapping into a car for the long haul.  If the first road trip attempt doesn’t go well, don’t give up!  Eventually you’ll get a “system” down that works for your family, and your child will have adopted a new “adventure routine” that they can look forward to again and again.

10.  JUST GET THERE:  Every now and then a road trip just sucks, and there’s nothing you can do about it but get there as fast as you can (safely of course!).  On these (hopefully rare!) occasions, just keep reminding yourself that despite the current tantrums, meltdowns, and frustrations, the drive/flight/train ride/etc will eventually be OVER and you will be at your destination, ready to overwrite the previous frustrations with more pleasant family memories.

How do you all keep your sanity (or do you even try?) on long trips?  What are the must-haves and must-do’s that your family swears by that I left out?  Please share!  


7 Responses to “Road-Trippin’ with a Toddler – 10 Tips for Keeping Your Sanity”

  1. We are Just about to take our next big plane ride AND some car trips this week!! While I am stoked to visit family and friends back in the East Coast, I am anxious about the toddler travel. I just put up my own checklist on my blog ( but we also just invested in a DVD player that I hope helps in the long stretches (I am generally not a fan of tv, and truthfully we only have a couple of acceptable DVDs anyway… Suggestions?)

    I digress: an abundance of snacks and diapers and extra clothes, and relatively low hassle toys are key!! We also like our Trunki to help get some physical energy out at the airport or our destination!!


  2. nina

    Nice post 🙂 What my kids also love is listening to stories on their mp3. I’m not a fan of TV either, though for long trips (4+ hours) we do take a laptop with us. But still, they seem to like listening to audio books, too. Also, we made them a bord out of wood that acts as a table and they have a supply of crayons and paper and they took up drawing things they see. but careful: they may start drawing on the car!


  3. This makes me a bad mom, I’m pretty sure. We just got back from the new, which is a 7 hour drive. This was the first time we had a DVD player and I definitely had that bad boy on most of the time.
    It was blissful. Best drive ever.


  4. Great advice. I’ve done so many road trips with the kiddos its not even funny, lol. We drive 1600 miles to visit family (and 1600 miles back home…) a few times a year. And we take 3-7 hr long road trips often. A lot of these trips have been done with just myself and the kiddos, only recently have I had assistance (which is a nice change btw!). I’ve learned a few things along the way. Portable DVD players are great, but they are the last resort, it’s either their “reward” for behaving or when they’ve already played with everything else and there’s nothing left. I let them pack a small bag of their favorite toys and books before we leave the house. Handheld (educational!) video games are also very helpful, but like movies, I like to keep them as a last resort too. Food… I always keep a cooler on the passenger side seat full of ready to go snacks and drinks. That way I can reach in and pass it back to the kids without ever taking my eyes off the road. And I try to stop every 2 hrs to let them out just to run and stretch their legs. I also find it easier to drive at night when they’re asleep. Just turn on the dirtbag diaries and drive in peace and quiet throughout the night 🙂


  5. Erica

    I’m actually relieved to know we’re not the only ones to resort to the DVD player. I’m with everyone else – we aren’t huge fans of TV, and we only break it out on longer trips…but that being said, it’s certainly a lifesaver!

    Haley – 3200 mile round trip – God bless you, supermom 😉

    Nina – The wooden “tabletop” idea sounds great, especially for drawing and snacks (kind of like an airplane tray top!)

    Sarah – if you’re a bad mom, then we are all guilty as charged!!!

    Jill – Veggie Tales are a big hit in our family. Good morals, short clips, and fun songs!


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“Not all who wander are lost.” —JRR TOLKIEN