How To Survive A Road Trip With Small Kids

A toddler and a baby drive across the country…

Little Lyon Cub recently told me a few times that she drove a school bus while at preschool that day.  She’s not two and a half yet, so I doubt she drove an actual school bus, but I’m happy she has an active imagination.

My toddler and baby didn’t drive themselves across the country obviously……. but we all survived an almost 3000-mile road trip from Maryland to California last September.

We didn’t just survive, it was actually awesome.  We had a really great time and spent some serious quality time together.  Little Lyon Cub was two weeks shy of her second birthday, and Tiny Lyon Cub was three and a half months for our trip.

Why didn’t you fly?

We got that question several times from several people.  Why wouldn’t you just fly?

We decided to drive for several reasons.

  1. Our car had to get from the east coast to the west coast and it wouldn’t fit in the overhead bin on the airplane
  2. Chris and I had each done a cross country drive before, but not with each other.  We’d both gone across the south half of the country and wanted to see the middle too
  3. Looking for quality family time?  Put everyone in one car for eight days.
  4. What an adventure!

I’ve boiled our success down to two simple words:

  1. snacks
  2. parks

But really, the main piece of all of this, as I’m sure you can imagine, is flexibility.


Babies do not need snacks.  They need lots of milk, but snacks are not required.  Tiny Lyon Cub was small enough that he slept most of the time in the car, which was super helpful.

We were really curious about how it was going to go with him.  He was old enough to be mostly (but only mostly) predictable with his milk requirements and young enough to still spend most of his hours sleeping.

Do you know who needs snacks?  Toddlers.  There are not enough snacks in all the land to fill a toddler.

Just finished eating a good dinner?  Can’t possibly fit any more food in that tiny body?  Ha.  If there is a snack option, any toddler will take it.  It’s part of their code.  Their dedication to it is impressive.


Just like a shiny new toy (or even one that’s neither shiny nor new, but new to them right now), a new snack can carry you a long way.

I packed a variety of snacks for Little Lyon Cub and for Chris and me.  The night before we left, my aunt showed up with a whole other snack box.  She had lovingly packed a legit variety for all three of us in a nice plastic storage box with a lid.  It fit perfectly right under my feet without bothering me, and the lid made sure nothing got crunched.

Crucial, because we had no other space.  Anywhere.  In the whole car.  Not another inch.


What I really mean by car friendliness is messiness.  The first step is to just accept that the car seat and the entire car are going to be a freaking mess by the time you get where you’re going about 14 minutes into your trip.

Make your peace with it now, don’t try to fight it.  Your trip will be much more enjoyable.

You can, however, make informed snack choices in a laughable attempt to make the full-scale car detailing you’ll inevitably have to perform when you finish your trip, slightly easier.

For example:

  • animal crackers will make crumbs everywhere; dry crumbs are easily vacuumable and can wait to be cleaned until your trip is over
  • yogurt will spill and turn into finger paint; giant pain in the ass to clean and probably needs to be addressed sooner rather than later

Pouches are great if your kid can eat them generally without making a huge mess.  Little Lyon Cub is capable of eating a pouch and making zero mess.

She’s also very capable, depending on her mood, of making an epic mess.

There were no unsupervised pouches in the car on our trip.

Little Lyon Cub also didn’t get milk in the car.  She had her water cup and could have all the water she wanted.  Milk was reserved for meals at a table.

Water spills require no attention and some time and air to clean up.  I don’t have to tell you that milk is a whole different story.

One more thing

There’s one more very important component of the snack box.  If it’s about mealtime, and mom and dad are hungry, and the kids are sleeping, do you know what you do not do under any circumstances?  Stop the car.  

Make sure you stay on top of your gas tank and your bladders because if you’ve got sleeping kids you don’t stop to pee, to get gas, for food, not even through the drive-through.  

Get as many miles as you can in while they’re out cold.  

That means if you’re hungry you need to have something to hold you over, too. 

Parks Parks Parks

We planned out our stopping points along the way, but everyone knows no good plan survives first contact with the enemy.  The name of the game here is flexibility.

We saw several very cool places and things, but we also saw a lot of parks.  We quickly became park/playground/green space finding experts and toured many of them along I-70.

A playground was a bonus but not required.  Little Lyon Cub loves getting chased around by her daddy, running around fountains, and doing basic calisthenics in just about any environment.

Planning Stops

Every time we’d get back in the car, I’d consult trusty Google Maps about 2.5-3 hours down the road and identify a few potential stopping points.  If we were coming up to mealtime, food options were a factor.

Gas is obviously a critical component on a road trip, and of course, getting out all the wiggles.

The other ginormous component here is flexibility.  Have I mentioned that yet??  We pushed each leg of the trip as far as we could before entering complete meltdown territory, but it was a fine art.

You don’t want to stop too soon or too often, because you’ve got to get there eventually.

If you push it too far, your tiny passengers may just implode with little to no warning.

There are no “ok sweetheart, just 20 more minutes and we’ll be there” conversations with a toddler and an infant.  There is right now, and never, and that’s about it.

We made the mistake of trying to push to far the first night and we did not do that again.

Which brings me to my next point…

Do Not Over Plan

I would highly recommend AGAINST booking hotels in advance.

Remember how “just 20 more minutes” doesn’t really work with small kids?  If you’re an hour away from the hotel and the clan has decided it’s time to stop RIGHT NOW, you’re going to have a problem.

The other side of that is if you think you’re going to need to stop for the night by now but magically everyone is completely content and totally happy, or maybe even sleeping like angels(!) count your blessings and keep going!

You never know what tomorrow will bring.  Maybe you’ll get a great day of driving in.  Maybe you’ll get much less than that.  Take what you can get when you can get it.  If the kids are sleeping, press on!

Thanks to smartphones, finding good places to run around and booking hotel rooms at the last minute is totally doable and recommended.

The Contingency Plan

Have some sort of contingency plan.  This day in age, it will probably look like a tablet or screen.  Little Lyon Cub is a big Elmo/Sesame Street fan so we had a few episodes downloaded on Chris’ tablet, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.

We made it to day six before pulling it out.  I could not believe it.  I figured it’d be more like day two, but she was happy as a clam with the other activities we had for her.

She drew on her Magna Doodle (brilliant) for hours, snacked, read books, snacked, napped, played with her friends (her favorite stuffed animals), snacked, etc.

Towards the end of the trip though, she was starting to be over being in the car, and Elmo and company saved the day.  We wanted to wait as long as we could to pull out the screen not from “screen time fear”, but because we didn’t want the novelty to wear off too early.

We had eight days of road-tripping and hotels ahead of us, we didn’t need the wheels falling off on day three.

Take A Day Off, Or Two

Depending on how long your trip is and how much time you have, taking a day or two of no driving is a great option to keep everyone sane.

If you’re looking at a 15hr trip for a week of family vacation, then maybe skip this little section.

We planned on taking eight days to get from Maryland to California, which included no driving at all on days five and seven.

We spent day five at Arches National Park.  Day six was the drive from Arches to Zion, which was only about 5 hours (most days were closer to 8 hours of driving, so that was a treat).  Day seven we spent at Zion National Park.

Talk about an awesome way to get some wiggles out.  Utah is a pretty cool place, both National Parks are spectacular.

It was wonderful to stay in the same hotel room for two nights in a row, twice in a row, giving us a temporary break from unloading and reloading the car, and to have some time out of the car, especially on the back half of the trip.

Arches and Zion both have some kid-friendly hikes/walks, so I wore Tiny Lyon Cub in the carrier and Little Lyon Cub walked with us, getting on daddy’s shoulders when she needed a rest.

We all loved it, had a great break, and saw two of our country’s glorious National Parks! 

Don’t Forget About Time Changes

This one we did forget about and just kind of got lucky with.

We were heading east to west, so the days we crossed a time zone line, we gained an hour.  At first, the thought of making already slightly challenging days longer sounds terrible.

It actually was quite a blessing.

On the first day of our trip, when we were still amateurs, we did not have a time change.  We pushed it a little too far and were rewarded with a dueling meltdown in the car followed by a hurried trainwreck of a transition into the hotel for the night.

That first day we also started at around 4:30 am, hoping the kids would pass out for the first chunk of our day since it was the middle of the night and they should still be sleeping…

Tiny Lyon Cub fell back asleep because he’s a baby, and that’s what they do.  Little Lyon Cub, in all her toddler glory, did not.  She napped later in the day, but she was exhausted and had spent the whole day in the car.  By the time we stopped for the night, she was in rare form.

Trying to get everyone into the hotel, fed, and in bed asleep, while overtired and all in the same room, was a challenge.

A Blessing or a Curse

When we did have a time change, it allowed us to still get a full 7-8 hours of driving in, and  have a smoother transition to the hotel for the night because we had an extra hour to play with.  It was a much less hurried process, and everyone still got to bed at a reasonable hour followed by a decent night’s sleep.

The time change also brought an awake family earlier than normal the next morning.  Normally that wouldn’t sound good, but we were able to get up and on the road early each morning without having to wake any sleeping kiddos.

If you’re driving east to west, I believe the time changes will be an unexpected blessing, as they were for us.

If you’re driving west to east, that’s a whole different story.  I hate to say they’ll be a curse, but it’s quite possible.  Plan accordingly, and as with all of this, be flexible.

In Conclusion

Road-tripping with littles is totally doable.  If you go into it with the right mindset and stay flexible, it’s actually a really enjoyable family experience.

Our kids won’t remember our trip when they’re older but we will.  We’ll tell them the stories, look at the pictures, remind them how much fun they had.  Also that we did take them to do fun things when they’re teenagers, convinced we’re the worst, and ruining their lives.


To sum it all up:

  1. Have a solid variety of snacks on hand for everyone
  2. Have an idea of where you’re going to stop throughout each day and for the night, but don’t lock yourself into anything too early
  3. When planning stops for food, gas, bathrooms, etc. don’t forget about running around with the kids so they don’t go stir crazy
  4. Have a contingency plan up your sleeve
  5. Don’t forget about time zones
  6. Stay super flexible and take lots of deep breaths 🙂

Leave your comments below, or send me an email (  I’d love to hear from you!

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Written by Kayla



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