How to survive a long road trip with a toddler

2020 has been whack. Totally freakin’ whack. January started off with such promise, such potential. By February we had a few quick trips and flights on the books, by March, our calendar was cleared. The whole damn world cleared their calendars and hunkered down. But as May morphed into June, and I started to question my sanity, it became apparent that my little family of 3 needed to GTFO of our house. Desperately. Being locked up raw with a fussy husband, I mean, toddler, for months can really cause a lot of stress and strain, so a getaway was desperately needed, and downright essential to survival.

We started looking at options of stays within driving distance and nothing seemed right. Nothing seemed safe enough or a good option. That’s when we decided we were going to drive to visit my aunt and uncle in Traverse City, Michigan. They have room for us, have been totally socially distant, live on a lake with a pontoon boat (boats are the ultimate social distancing machine) and plus, my uncle flips a mean blueberry pancake.

But there was a catch. The drive was 15 hours NOT including stops. And we have a 16 month only mini human. SHIT. Okay, we’d stop half way. But where could we stop to ensure we weren’t exposing ourselves to covid?

Long story short, we decided we were just going to go for it. Yep, straight through. We were open to stopping if we absolutely had to, but the goal was to keep going until we were greeted by the friendly midwestern smile of Aunt Deb (who was definitely going to be pouring me a glass of wine as we rolled in.)

So, to get to the point here, this was our game plan. I was going to pack all our food, to avoid stopping and wasting time + possible exposure to covid. I was going pack smart and be prepared. We would pack our patience. We were prepared to make lots of stops, but ultimately, it was doable and we’d get there.

Since it was a 15+ hour drive with a toddler, when we arrived was important because if it got too late, we’d be way past bedtime and we’d have a meltdown on our hands. So we left early AF. Our car left the driveway at 3:50am (both ways). Bubs was asleep in his crib and the car was packed and running in the driveway. When we were ready to go, I quietly scooped him out of his crib, changed his diaper and immediately transferred him to the car seat still in his jammies. I turned on white noise on Spotify via bluetooth and luckily, he was quiet/ asleep until 7. So we had 3 solid hours of a calm, chill baby. People thought we were crazy for doing this, but honestly, this was huge and next time, I’d leave even earlier.

After he was fully awake, I hopped in the backseat and offered him his usual breakfast routine. Which is usually a sippy cup of milk, a banana and some dry cheerios. I tried to keep our usual “routine” in place as much as possible. Which is a bit of joke but I did try to pretend like it was a normal day.

Around 9am, he was getting fussy so we stopped. Another hot tip that worked great for us was bringing a small ball along for rest stops. We stopped a rest stops with lots of green space, so we kicked the ball around and he went chasing after it. Like playing fetch with a dog, only my dog was of the human breed. This was great for stretching his little, usually non-stop toddler legs.

The rest of the trip was a lot of keeping the baby entertained. I packed a ton of (NEW) books. This was also a win. I picked up a bunch of new books and didn’t give them to him until the we were in the car. That way, they were new and exciting. Books with flaps or touch and feel is an added bonus!

Meals were tricky for Bubs, as he really only eats “hot” foods for lunch and dinner. The kid wont touch a cheese stick or a cold sandwich so to be fair, he ate mostly bananas, snacks and pouches the entire day, with the exception of 1/4 of a peanut butter sandwich. I was anxious about this, but in reality, he was totally fine. He’d eat it if he was hungry enough. I packed sandwiches for my husband and I and had everything in a cooler that was easily accessible in the back seat.

I had the iPad loaded with pre-downloaded movies and shows on Disney+, Prime Video and Netflix. I did not bring this out until it was absolutely necessary, which was about the last 4-5 hours of the trip. DO NOT. I REPEAT. DO NOT bring the iPad out too early. It’s the hail mary to the finish line.

In total, it took us 16 hours to get there and 17.5 hours to get home because of traffic and several casualties like a cup of milk in the car seat and a blowout diaper. I will say, 16 hours is the MAX I would do again. 17.5 was two hours too long and we were all miserable. But we made it.

So, to simply all of the above, here is a list of advice:

  1. Pack smart.Pack a things that are readily accessible in the back seat. Try your best to stay organized. I had a box like this and it was great for books, toys, snacks, change of clothes (keep a change of clothes handy so you don’t have to dig through the suitcase if needed,) diapers and wipes to keep in the back seat. (BRING A ROLL OF PAPER TOWELS AND A BAG FOR TRASH) It fit in the middle seat but was easily moved when I needed to scoot to the middle seat to entertain him.81ZjvYKGINL._SL1500_
  2. Pack all your food. Pandemic or not, stopping for food adds a lot of time and money to your trip. Packing your meals ahead of time saves a ton of time you don’t want to add on to your already long trip. Put a cooler in the back seat where it’s easily accessible, don’t put it in the trunk. PACK MORE SNACKS THAN YOU THINK YOU’LL NEED. TODDLERS AND GRUMPY SPOUSES LOVE SNACKS. BRING THEM ALL. *Snack ideas, Goldfish, Cheerios, cut fruit / fruit cups, pouches, veggie straws, Ritz Crackers, bananas, puffs, yogurt melts, etc… Less messy the better, but get over the mess, it’s going to be a mess… BRING THEM ALL.*
  3. Leave room in the backseat, you’re going to have to sit back there with your kid the majority of the time. This tip doubles as leaving a space for diaper changes. Changing a diaper in a rest stop bathroom is not ideal, so make sure there’s room in the car to lay your tot down for a diaper change.
  4. Bring *new* books and toys. They don’t have be brand new, but bring them out of rotation a few weeks prior to the trip so they’re exciting and engaging for your little one. Interactive touch and feel or lift the flap books are a bonus. Books like this book and this book were great for us. We also had a lot of luck with straws in an empty water bottle! He enjoyed dumping them out and threading them back in!
  5. Screen Time. Preload the iPad with movies, shows and if they’re old enough, games. We love Moana and Toy Story (Disney+) Blippi (Amazon Prime) and Little Baby Bum (Netflix).  But don’t bring the iPad out until you absolutely need to (ie. screaming fit). This is your last resort.  ALSO, get an tablet car mount or a case. We had this car mount for the headrest and it worked great. It fits a phone too! This also saved us!
  6. Leave early. If it’s a very long road trip (longer than 8 hours) leave super early and take advantage of groggy / sleepy little ones. If possible, plan around nap times/bed times too.
  7. GET OVER THE MESS – THIS IS HARD. Kids are messy. There are going to be crumbs everywhere. You can vacuum later, you’re in survival mode.
  8. Be prepared to make lots of stops, but if baby isn’t crying, keep going!

Remember, people have done crazier things. Eventually, you’ll reach your destination and it will have all been worth it. Good luck and safe travels!