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Mom: Taking a road trip with little ones can be fun, even if it tries your patience

It was day four of the road trip as I was cleaning up lunch on the side of the road that I began to question my sanity. It was not when the dogs escaped the back of the car without their leashes or even when the contraband chocolate that his dad bought ended up all over the back of the seat that sent me over the edge.

I would have to say it was the chicken nuggets that got dumped over my head on accident as I was arranging drinks and dogs and crayons. In that one moment I was pretty sure I could walk away and get home faster than if I stuck with the family for the rest of the trip. Fortunately for me, the dogs are pretty good at clean up patrol and we had more special treat takeout food. More importantly, I had a clean t-shirt ready to go.

Our family loves road trips and this summer a cross country adventure was the highlight of our year. Even a month into school, we all would pack up and do it again if we could. In the beginning, I was not sure it would go well, but it ended up being one of the best trips we have taken. It took us 16 days to drive from the Upstate to California and back. Ten of those days involved the whole family in the car driving. My goal was to drive between 8-10 hours each day with stops every two hours. Before I left, I had a road map, a three-ring binder with all the exits and pit stops ready to roll.

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Although we have a portable DVD player for emergency entertainment, our family likes to stay away from screens during vacations. For the adults that means phones are turned off, and for the kid it means no movies until the last hour of the drive. While that might seem a bit difficult to some, it ended up being one of the best decisions we made for this trip. My son was amazed at all the different landscapes and license plates. We stopped at ALL the kitsch shops along the way and sent postcards to friends. We tasted barbecue in all the Southern states and played on more playgrounds than the previous three months.

For the new parents that say long trips with babies can not be done, we started when our son was 4 months old. Back then, one of the adults sat in the back with him to attend his needs, and it was then that we established the rules of our road trips that we still stick to as a family.

Before we leave on a trip, the entire house is cleaned, so when we return, all we have to do is clean out the car and do a load of laundry.

We stop every two hours and switch drivers. We have a park, road stop or destination planned that we would not normally venture. This approach has led us to some of the best food, parks and people that we have ever met. This way we have fewer potty emergencies and both of us get a break from kid tending.

We take our food with us and stop for picnics along the way. We save money and really connect as a family over good food. Often, I will cook meals and freeze them beforehand to do a quick heat up and eat or even cook out at night. I have been known to take crock pot and keep it going while we drive. Every two or three days we plan a meal out and rotate who picks the location. Our little one often chooses chicken nuggets and French fries.

We either camp at state parks, bunk with friends or reserve camping cabins. We found it was cheaper than hotels and the dogs could go with us. Plus, many campgrounds have showers, laundry service and playgrounds designed for traveling families.

Nobody takes more than they can carry in their own backpack. Even when we needed extra diapers and wipes, we stuck to the rule of one backpack for everybody. As our little one got older, we could go to destinations farther away. Our thought was that wherever we went, there would likely be a store we could replenish supplies and laundromats we could do laundry.

We string a line across the back seat and clip pictures of each state (or city for shorter trips) on a linear scale for our son to unclip as we go by. It gives him a sense of location and he knows how close we are to the end of the daily trek which eliminates the dread “are we there yet” questions?

Our goal is to enjoy the driving portion as much as the destination. We wave at semi-truck drivers and draw on the windows with washable markers. My husband does a mean Elvis impersonation and all of us sing really silly songs.

Our last day of travel involves a very short drive time and when we get home everybody carries in bags and puts things away. We intentionally schedule the short day at the very end so we have time to unpack and get back into the swing of things. The time before a trip is stressful with packing, but the end of one is better if you have a plan how to get the car and the house back to normal before regular daily activities commence.

The thought of a road trip can be daunting, but they are definitely doable for families with kids of any age. Our family has been able to travel more places driving to our destinations by traveling on a shoe string budget, and the time we spend together is more than worth it — even when the chicken nuggets get dumped on your head.

Tips for the road

 Making a road trip with small children is hard, but it is possible if you have the right supplies and an extra dose of patience. This summer a cross country road trip that could have gone from bad to worse was actually one of the best bonding trips we have made as a family. The patience was all my husband, but the planning portion was all me. Here are my essentials for the trip.

• A towel. Like the novel Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, that towel was a life saver. It was used for a makeshift blanket, a sun blocker, a pillow, dog leash and the standard cleaner upper.

• Wet wipes. We had packs of these all over the car. If something got sticky, we could clean it up from five different angles.

• Paper bag activities. This was a straight off Pinterest idea. I took paper bags and made enough activities for days. There was one doled out each hour. I went old school using crossword puzzles, crayons, finger puppets, window stickies, whoopi cushions, Jacobs ladder, push button water ring games, and magnets.

• Finger foods easily accessible. Before we left, the last thing I packed was a collapsible cooler that was layered with our food for the day. On the bottom was what we were cooking for dinner frozen to assist with cooling. On top of that was our lunch meat and on the very top was yogurt and packs of veggies, fruit and trail mix for when we got snacky. Everyone had their own water bottle that was filled constantly.

• A playlist and a lot of patience. Every day was a new type of music. In the morning we would play children’s music, but the afternoon was all classic rock sing-a-long. In the evening we would play podcasts or audio books the entire family could listen to and enjoy.