A Veteran’s Guide: How to road trip with children

When I was single, if you were to come up to me and ask me if I wanted a free trip, but the only catch was I had to be around kids the entire time, I would have said “pass.” Nope. Doesn’t even sound like I’d ever get any peace and quiet. I’d rather pay to get away from that, especially during a vacation.

Plus, you don’t need a “single Marine Lance Corporal” type of mentality, that never truly leaves us, giving their “I’m stuck doing all the working parties because of my rank” grumpy pearls of wisdom to young children.  Alcohol + the Marine Corps metaphoric “green weenie” = not children appropriate language.

(“The Green Weenie” is a saying young Marines use, to describe an invisible giant, flying green weiner, the size of a blimp, just pushing its way through buildings and traffic, like the marshmallow man from the original Ghost Buster’s movie. Only, instead of destroying cars and buildings, it’s taking away liberty and handing out Non-judicial punishments.)

Colorado highway
Some roads take you besides some of the most scenic areas in the United States.

But the more years pass on, whether you’re enlisted or a veteran, some little people that look like you and call you their “parents” will appear. And you have one of 2 choices:

  1. Get someone to take care of your kids while you go on a trip.
  2. Take your kids with you on your trip.

This isn’t an article to judge anybody. We all had to stand “duty” some time or another. I’m going to give you tips on what to do when your kids are coming with you. …Because those little people will make your vacation so stressful and waste so much of your money, it will deter you from wanting to do it, ever again. You HAVE to prepare for battle, people. “BAMCIS” or whatever.

Rule #1… offer people money to take care of your kids… I’m just playing. That’s not a rule. It was a joke.

Garden of the Gods Visitor Center
A shot of the Garden of the Gods, in Colorado Springs, CO, from the overlook of the balcony of the Visitor’s Center.
  1. YOU PICK OUT WHAT THEY ARE GOING TO EAT

    I have daughters, and they have me wrapped around their fingers. I did not have much growing up, so I basically say “yes” whenever they ask for things. So it was my fault, I brought this on myself. I wasn’t “leading my little fire team” correctly. One road trip: they asked for snacks on the way, whenever we’d stop. “I want this hot dog. I want pizza.” And at the end of the drive, you know what I found? An uneaten hot dog. A pizza with 1 bite. Usually, things like that don’t matter, but when you are driving on a week-long road trip, (this was during my “Houston, Texas to Portland, Oregon and back” road trip) that little habit, and being on the road, will cost you a lot of money. I took 2 of my girls, aged 3 and 6 at the time, and I let this habit of “buying things and you not eating them” slide the whole trip, again, “because we were on the trip.” After doing some accounting after the trip, to see the full damage, I had spent a good $300 on snack, which I know for a fact, a lot of them were not eaten. After that, we started going to the grocery store, and buying waters, juices, fruits, chips, whatever we needed, before even heading out on the road. Don’t make my mistake, and be lazy, and just keep getting these gas station priced snacks. $300 is equivalent to a hotel room for 2 days. Compare that, side by side: $300 for 2 hotel room stays VS. $300 of half eaten snacks. Put your foot down, parents. You’re funding this trip. Airlines only let you choose from a couple food items.

Garden of the Gods loop
National monuments and/or monuments give you easy access to America’s protected lands.
  1. EXPECT TO STOP FREQUENTLY, AND DO SO, RIGHTFULLY.

Being seated for a long time can take its toll on the body. I know, myself, after flying for 2 hours, the airplane seat isn’t comfortable for me anymore, like the cushion is all gone or something, and my butt cheeks start to hurt. I don’t like 3 or 4 hour flights. I know my ass is going to hurt when I see that. Most major highways will have rest stops or picnic areas along the highway that provide little pit stops for you and your family, if you’ve never used one. The states or counties usually pay to maintain them, so they tend to show off information of the area that particular rest stop is in. I have learned that when I start to get a little sleepy and yawn-y during my drives, even if they’re only 2 or 3 hours into a drive, I will pull over into the next available rest stop or 24 hour truck stop gas stations, and get off to use the restroom and walk around. I used to pull into these spots, at first, to see if I could take a “power nap.” I’d park, go inside to use the restroom, get something to drink or eat, if possible, and when I’d head back to my car, to recline my seat for a nap, I found myself, wide awake. So awake, that I felt stupid, just laying on a reclined seat in my car, so I’d sit up, and continue driving again for a couple hours, and either the cycle would repeat, or I’d reach my destination. I’m not condoning this behavior, if you’re sleepy, go to sleep. After doing that a couple times though, I decided to just start doing it whenever I get sleepy, and by the time I walk from my car, inside and back, I don’t feel sleepy anymore. Just looking at the road and not focusing on the scenery can get you “in the zone” and sometimes becomes boring. You need to keep your mind awake and active. Plus, your kids are going to pee A LOT during this trip, even though you told everyone to use the rest room 15 minutes ago, at the last rest stop you stopped at. So, don’t get mad at that, expect it, it’s part of the road trip experience. Also, FYI, Fast Food restaurants have nice clean bathrooms, too.

Mesa Verde Treehouse overlook
This overlook of this cliff dwelling, in Mesa Verde National Park, CO, is less than a 1/4 mile from a parking area, a gift shop, rest rooms, trash cans, and food.
  1. PACK SOME KIND OF ENTERTAINMENT.

You have to realize that little kids still like doing little kids things, even if you’re paying all this money to take them to some fancy place on vacation, and show them something. Let them go crazy with this while they’re in the car. I have a 4 year old that likes to go on road trips, solely because she likes hotels. She hates hiking, she didn’t see the big deal in the Grand Canyon, and kept asking to play games on our phones, while we were trying to take pictures of them. I, forever, have her little voice engraved in my head. “Can we go now?” She must have said that like 75 times at each location we were at. We have gotten them a cheap portable DVD player, and each their own cheap tablets with apps we downloaded for them, NetFlix, Wifi hotspots from out phones, pillows, let them bring their dolls and purses, and I still have to tell them to stop fighting or arguing with each other in the back seat. It gets frustrating being in a car for a long time, sometimes. I recommend to get 1 form of entertainment for each individual kid coming on this trip, so that each of them can independently be entertained by what they please. You tell them to share, but they won’t. All composure your child had, will slowly deteriorate. Your job is to slow this process down, with distractions, until you reach a destination. Your kids may be entertained by the scenic drive the entire way, who knows, but Murphy’s law is “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” and if you use this type of attitude towards road tripping with children, you should do just fine. Actually, use this attitude towards children, in general, and you’ll be good.

Independence Monument, Colorado National Monument
This overlook is 25 ft from a road that runs through the Colorado National Monument. You don’t have to hikes miles to see cool things.
  1. STICK TO THE NATIONAL PARKS, STATE PARKS, AND NATIONAL MONUMENTS.

If you have the money to go to amusement parks and pay to stay at resorts, good on you. If you want to cut costs and see some cool stuff for the kids, I highly suggest you stick to the National Parks, State Parks, and National Monuments system across the nation. There’s usually some sort of hiking trail or information/ welcome center, that gives you knowledge and maps of the location you are at. If you have “little ones,” especially on these long road trips where they are having to be good, this is sometimes a good place to let them burn off some of that energy they’ve been building up. If you stay at a hotel, they almost always have pools, check while you are booking. Indoor pools are nice, because they can be accessed no matter what the weather, outside, is. Let the kids run, climb, investigate, read the signs to you, get them involved, let them play their little hearts out, followed by some pool time at the hotel, and a warm bath afterwards and some food, they are going to knock out at the end of the night. I’m not sure if any of you got “Nyquil’d” as a kid, by your parents, to pass out, (I mean I don’t… but maybe that’s a symptom of being Nyquil’d, you don’t remember it,) but this is a healthier alternative to that, if you’re into that. I believe it’s gluten free, as well.

Pikes Peak snowy road
This tollway takes you to the top of Pikes Peak, one of the highest points you can reach in the U.S.
  1. BRING EXTRA CHARGERS AND RECHARGEABLE BATTERIES.

At first, I thought the idea of rechargeable batteries for phones were a bit extreme. But if you’re going to document a lot of your trip with videos, especially if you are taking a hike, there may be a couple of hours before you can actually reach an actual electrical outlet to charge your devices. And there’s nothing worse than multiple devices having to share one cord. It’ll make the trip easier to have extra charging ports, there are even some kits that will let you add an actual electrical outlet to your car. There are now 4 in 1 USB charging car chargers. Just spending a couple extra dollars on being able to keep everyone’s devices charged, will help in trying to keep everyone sane while driving. We’ve lost social media footage because of this before. Don’t let it happen to you. (When you are in a “no service” area, the videos save and can be uploaded when you have reception, again. This is not an option, if your phone dies on you, before you can upload the footage.)

Pikes Peak bigfoot sign
There are signs along the road, telling you about wildlife that is in the area, so always keep your eyes peeled! You never know what you may see.
  1. GET THE PASSENGERS INVOLVED IN NAVIGATING

Kill some time and make your kids get some sense in involvement, by letting them help you navigate, while driving. They don’t have to particularly be in the front, or actually helping, but just taking the extra effort of involving them in the directional driving process, can make the actual drive a little more bearable. I remember growing up and having to look at the map (this is before the internet and GPS systems in cars and phones) and helping my dad not miss the exit to his next connecting highway. I have no clue if I was actually helping or not. (I hope not, I was like 7, I shouldn’t have been make hard life and death decisions like that, at that age.) But it felt like it did, and that’s something I remember doing, that gave me the courage to venture out on my own. “Well, I helped dad do it, I just have to do the driving part now, how hard can it be?” Even if it’s as little as letting the kids follow your G.P.S. route on their own devices, or letting them help you look for the next rest stop, or gas station, on the way.

Colorado Rockies
Some roads let you drive through mountains, rather than around them. Take those roads.
  1. MAKE IT AS COMFORTABLE AS YOU CAN FOR THEM.

Let them bring pillows and small covers, if all you are going to do is be in the car, and don’t plan on pulling over to eat on the way, or between major stops, it’s okay to be in Pajamas. Obviously, dress appropriately for each occasion, but I’m a different type of traveler, I prefer comfort. I’ve seen people in polo shirts tucked in with the company logo, even suits sometimes, just to travel. I’m wearing shorts and a t shirt. Jogging pants if it’s chilly. I do it to also not have to take off my belt while going through the airports scanners, but that’s another blog article. Obviously, make them have their seat belt on, no matter where they are seating in the vehicle, but let them put up a pillow and take off their shoes and all that. Obviously, this isn’t normally done when driving, but this is LONG DISTANCE driving. Even if you DO have to get out in your pajamas, who cares, you’re just passing by, you will never see those people ever again, to be judged for your adult one-sy pajamas you found on the internet. …comfort over judgement, any day.

Telluride Colorado Overlook
There is a 2 lane road called “the Million dollar highway” which drives you through the Rocky mountains. Find it!
  1. LET THEM CHOOSE THE MUSIC YOU LISTEN TO.

I have a play list of particular songs I like to listen to while I am driving for work or just whenever. Apparently, if we’re going to be in a car for a week, that play list does not sit well with others. …who doesn’t want to listen to Pink Floyd albums back to back for hours? …little kids, that’s who. I tried choosing cool songs for them, and though they were cool, and they were somewhat singing along, I once got a dose of reality, all because I didn’t bring enough chargers and my tablets (which was has all my music) died on me. (If this list had only existed back then, I would probably still have 100% control of the radio playlist, on road trips, because I would have not had a tablet that died, because I brought my extra charger. Tip #5.) But then someone else had to be the DJ. And the 4 year old, who knows how to search her favorite music on Youtube, but hasn’t started school and doesn’t know how to read or write yet, takes over. And it turned into Karaoke central for the next 3 hours. I don’t listen to Taylor Swift, or any of these new pop artists. Like Jerry Seinfeld, …I don’t know who Ke$ha is, either. If you played me one of her songs, I’d have no clue. But my kids listen to them. And know the lyrics. And the dance choreography to the music video, too, apparently. And though I had to endure a couple hours of music I was unfamiliar to, it was cool seeing my kids enjoy themselves to some car karaoke, as I’m sure we all sneak in our own session, on our drives. Get an aux cord cable and let other people play their music for a couple hours. Mandatory change every 3 hours or something like that. Also, I never knew how intimate someone’s personal music collection is. Nothing hurts as much and makes you start questioning your taste in music, than hearing “this songs sucks, change it.”

Redwood Forest skyline
This was taken through the sunroof, while driving down the “Redwood Highway” in California. Thousand year old giants, towering over us.
  1. MAKE AN EMERGENCY BACKPACK.

People are going to get sick. Someone is going to start sneezing, someone else a fever, just for one day. There were even reports of certain SUVs causing sicknesses in people because of the interior’s material. So might as well prepare for it. I was fortunate enough to have a sister-in-law, who is a teacher. She gave me an hot orange back pack, full of vacuum sealed water, tablets, bandages, glow sticks, whistle and all, because she had asked the new hired teacher, if he could get a first aid kit for a school field trip from the nurse’s office, and he understood “go get a survival backpack from a hunting store.” …so that’s how I got mine, I added some stuff like a swiss army knife, first aid stuff as well, but you can totally go out  and buy one or just use an old back pack just for things you are going to need. Bring kids fever medicine, cough medicine, it’s going to happen, just go ahead and bring it. My last road trip, I put in every type of medicine I could think of, fever reducer, pain relieve, anti-acid, cold, sinus, etc., and out of the 8 people in our road trip, through out the week, someone used some of the medicine. It saves you the trouble of having to interrupt your travelling, to run an errand.

Stickers on overlook
There are places that are tagged with stickers. Overlooks, state signs, rest stops. Take your company logo sticker to be able to deface things, as well.
  1. LEATHER INTERIOR IS EASIER TO CLEAN THAN CLOTH.

    It doesn’t matter that you told them to be careful, and laid out detailed instructions of what the consequences would be, they are going to drop something inside the car. I tried having a “no food inside the car” rule and I still found a cup holder full of water, somehow. (Not a cup, inside the cup holder. The cup holder had a large amount of water in it. It was Lake Cup Holder). You are not going to be able to see them because your eyes are on the road. They’re not going to listen to you, because they know you’re more worried about driving. Leather interior cleans up a lot easier than cloth. Also, darker colored interiors hide juice stains, as opposed to light colored carpeting, which would have totally cost us, adults, an arm and a leg to pay to get cleaned, I’m sure.

No road trip is going to be perfect. These are just some tips, if no one in your group circle has started venturing out with their kids, so you’re not getting the “low down scoop” on what to do with your offspring. It’s not rocket science, but maybe you just need a reminder about certain things, if you’ve been riding motorcycles all your life, and you find yourself driving a minivan to Colorado in the near future.

Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
The drive, in itself, is the vacation. Stop at every vista point, overlook, and rest stop. Take pictures. Stay and intake the scenery. Enjoy the road.
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