When childless individuals go on road trips, there are a plethora of scenarios.  A peaceful drive through the mountains; a raucous 1980s sing-along while speeding down the freeway; days crammed full of excitement and excursions; lazy mornings spent lounging in an unfamiliar bed. The possibilities are endless.  Throw a kid or two into the mix, and the possibilities continue to be endless, though perhaps less appealing. If done incorrectly, road-tripping with young children is the stuff of nightmares, but in its highest form, the family road trip presents an opportunity for infinite adventure and bonding. Bearing in mind a few key strategies is instrumental to the success of said road trip, and will aid in preventing mommy and daddy from needing subsequent psychiatric treatment or rehab.
Come prepared

The landfill on wheels
Our family recently traveled to Grand Lake, Colorado for a night. That’s right: one night. From the looks of our minivan, it appeared we had been living out of our vehicle for two weeks or more. I will say this in defense of our overzealous packing: nary an item went unused. We exhausted every possible change of clothes, every DVD, each water bottle, snack, and infant toy. What we had forgotten, however, were Izzy’s hiking shoes, leaving her with nothing but crocs for the two days of hikes (albeit easy, family-friendly ones) we had planned. Perhaps we were sidetracked by the other “outdoor essentials” for our somewhat anxious oldest child, who had informed us ad nauseum of her abhorrence for hiking.  It was no mystery to us why Izzy didn’t want to go on a hike; the sound of the wind in the mountain trees made her nervous, and there is always an outside chance of a thunderstorm when one ventures outside! (Or an earthquake, tornado, hurricane, or other natural disaster. We were also right in the thick of the tragic wildfire season.) 
She looked a bit strange, but it worked!
So we came prepared. As we trekked up the trail by Adam’s Falls, Izzy was suited up in her windbreaker, sported giant pink headphones attached to mommy’s ipod, and clutched her special bear that helped her to feel safe around wind. (I will spare you the details of the panic-stricken meltdown that occur prior to putting on the headphones.) It was 100 degrees in the metro area that weekend, and the mountains had not escaped the heat. We received many a strange look from passing hikers as they noticed our bear-toting, headphone- wearing, jacket-clad child. And you know what? The unsuitable shoes didn’t matter a single bit, but I patted myself on the back for having had the presence of mind to consider the comfort items that made our outdoor exploration possible.  The upshot: even if you feel ridiculous packing such excess, bring anything that you feel may help your child enjoy the trip more and harass you less. 
Have a Sense of Humor

“It’s only for one night, “my husband called to me ominously, opening the door to our cabin. As previously noted, Grand Lake had not beat the heat that weekend, and of course cabins in the mountains do not come equipped with air conditioning units, as a matter of practicality. Our room felt like a sauna.  Did I mention it was approximately the size of a pantry? I began to nervously giggle, noting that the stifling room contained only a full size bed and sleeper sofa, which when opened filled the entire square footage of our cabin.  I mean, what did we expect? We had booked a cabin in the mountains, not a suite at the Plaza. At bedtime, we unfolded the sleeper sofa, where Izzy and Daddy would sleep for the night. Thwack! It smacked right up against the full size bed, leaving the four of us to perch awkwardly on a two-pronged raft in the tiny, boiling sea that was our cabin. Izzy stretched out with some reading materials to begin relaxing while I readied the baby for bed. It was so hot that we would all be sleeping in our underwear, the baby in her diaper.

Sophie does appear to be under the influence…

It appeared that although bedtime was right on schedule, Sophie had no intention of going to sleep. Either she was extraordinarily tuned in to the difference in our surroundings, or unbeknownst to me she had found some type of controlled substance on the carpet and ingested it. Clad only in her diaper, she began to clamber back and forth between the sleeper sofa and the bed, panting like a dog. Attempting to deter her, we piled sofa cushions between the two pieces of furniture, but she incorporated them as a sort of land bridge and scaled them with ease.

We turned down the lights and I prepared to nurse her to sleep. Eyes darting around madly, she pulled away from me triumphantly. “Gaaaawwww,” Sophie began, as I scooped her back up in my arms and patted her bottom. “Sleep my little one,” I sang hopefully as she broke free and began her frenzied circuit from bed to couch once again. After about five more minutes, Izzy was yawning and Shawn and I were growing weary of the baby’s antics. Sophie, however, was just getting started. Poised on her knees, she began to jerkily wave her arms like a robotic conductor while blowing raspberries. Blowing raspberries is the Sophie equivalent of playing one’s trump card. She has reached an age where she somehow understands “being funny” and she has realized it’s a crowd pleaser. It’s true. I can never get enough of her raspberry-blowing; it is a truly hilarious noise, regardless of one’s age or stance on “farting humor”. Shawn and I were of course powerless to resist, and erupted into another wave of hysterical laughter. Sophie beamed delightedly at us.  Izzy, however, was irate. She was ready to go to sleep, and any amusement at her sister’s capers had worn off.
At this point, Sophie crawled manically over to the wall and began to attempt to drag herself to standing. “She’s literally climbing up the walls,” Shawn observed. Izzy issued another protest, and I once again corralled the baby into my arms. “Stars are twinkling in the sky,” I began feebly while she wriggled and writhed. I tried one last ditch effort to nurse her to sleep, after which she scrambled out of my lap, careened to the side like a drunk, and flung herself unceremoniously onto the quilt. She was asleep in seconds.

The exact same trip 2 years earlier…simpler times.

Basking in the quiet of our cabin, in our respective (separate) beds for the night, Shawn and I finally closed our eyes. Dogs began to bark. Several of them. Multiple cars pulled into the parking lot and passengers disembarked, chatting noisily. I began to shake with laughter. The agitated barking continued. I could hear Shawn’s muffled snort from next to our sleeping daughter. “Knock off the dog noise!” a neighbor loudly complained. For some reason this struck us as hysterical, and we dissolved into mirth, unable to sleep for quite some time. Around two in the morning we woke up shivering in our underwear. Our previously stifling cabin was now frigid, due to the fact that the windows were all open. It was possibly the least restful night of our lives, but sometimes you just have to laugh.

Find a Purpose
Whenever one drags unwilling young travelers out for an activity (such as hiking) that may not have been their first choice, expect some protests.  It helps to have some type of central game or challenge to direct the flow of your adventure and divert from whining.  The classic favorite “Auto Bingo” comes to mind. During my own childhood, my father would periodically announce we were taking a day trip through rural Iowa to discover some local treasure such as the “Little Brown Church”, an ancient cemetery, or a submarine replica. My brother and I, being the insufferable ingrates that we were, always protested these excursions and often returned home feeling lethargic and out of sorts. Looking back, however, I recall our trips to the “Field of Dreams” and other kitschy attractions with fondness and pangs of nostalgia. Ahem- I digress. These road trips were always made more palatable by activities such as car bingo, attempting to get semi- trucks to honk at us via idiotic gestures, Elton John sing-alongs, and guessing games.
The baby is oblivious to any hike-related stress
During our trip to Grand Lake, we were rescued by a park ranger who presented Izzy with a Junior Ranger booklet. After completing all the activities and games, children can return their materials to any park ranger and receive a badge: a highly motivating prospect for a 5 ¾ year old. (Available in any national park in Colorado- check it out, peeps!) Instead of enduring complaining and pestering about our next course of action, we happily helped Izzy complete her activity booklet.  To distract her from a potential storm blowing through, we made up our own lyrics to “The Ants Go Marching”. When in doubt of a tactical diversion- improvise. You are probably more creative than you think. 
Savor the Unexpected Moments
No matter how well you have prepared for your trip in terms of packing and activity-planning, there are bound to be some unforeseen events. These are often the most rewarding experiences when traveling with young children.  During our weekend away, our outgoing daughter befriended at least one child every place we went: the lodge swimming pool, the playground, restaurants…If there was a child anywhere near her age, she would march right up to them, introduce herself, and ask if they wanted to play. This is one of the beautiful qualities about children this age: their innate ability to become fast friends with complete strangers.  Not all children are this at ease making friends, though, and one mother approached me gratefully and said, “That was just what my daughter needed. She has such a hard time meeting new people.”  My husband and I delighted in watching our loving, empathetic girl conduct herself with confidence and grace when introducing herself to others. 
Totally worth the hassle to travel with these guys
Another triumphant moment came when Izzy had finally completed her Junior Ranger activity booklet. We had stopped in Estes Park on our way back home to Denver, and presented Izzy’s packet to the park ranger working at the Visitor Center. The kind young woman stepped away from the desk and sat down on a bench with Izzy, carefully reviewing her work. After discussing our park experience and examining each assignment, the ranger signed her name to the back of the book.  She invited Izzy to stand and raise her right hand, and instructed her to repeat the Junior Ranger pledge. Izzy did so solemnly, and was rewarded with a shiny badge pinned to her shirt. My husband and I watched, smiling in surprise at this ceremony. All of a sudden, the ranger turned to the desk and called, “Attention everyone! Will you please join me in welcoming the newest Junior Ranger, Ranger Izzy!” As the staff and visitors applauded, I felt my eyes fill with tears. While it may not seem like much of an accomplishment, I knew how much it meant to my thoughtful, diligent girl, not to mention how instrumental it had been in the success of our trip to the mountains. I beamed with pride at her achievement, mindful of how many more moments like this we had to look forward to in our ongoing family adventures.
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