We went on our first long road trip with Max and Theo when they were not even three months old. We had no game plan; we did no research. Basically, we threw the boys in the car at 6:30 am and took off on a 13 hour drive. Learning to take care of twins is not an easy transition into parenthood, and the idea of staying home with them all summer seemed more painful than the idea of travel, so away we went.
Ten months later, we bought our first camper and committed ourselves to learning how to explore the world with our children. Now Max and Theo are four years old and they have spent well over 100 nights of their life traveling. They love it; they look forward to it. If you ask them why Mommy and Daddy go to work each day, you may well get the answer that we need money for camping. Yes, that has been said.
No doubt, it has been a learning experience for Jeremy and me. Early on we may have pushed things too hard–tried to fit too much in. But we are teachers and therefore adaptive learners. We realized very quickly that enjoying travel with your children means respecting their needs and their limitations. When we ignored the boys’ regular schedule, we were rewarded with meltdowns and shenanigans. However if we provided them with enough of the comforts of home to make them feel secure and well-rested, then we could experience more with toddlers than we ever imagined would be possible.
Last summer we were back at square one, traveling with a 3 month old and the twins. We were good students and applied all the lessons learned from our early travels with Max and Theo. It went pretty smoothly considering we spent 31 nights traveling through 6 states with 3 kids under 5.
Here are my top 5 suggestions if you actually want to enjoy that time on the road with your little ones…
1. Keep nap times sacred.
What? I traveled all the way to _______ and I can’t pack every single second of the day with exciting activities? Exactly. We learned to get out early and do the most important (or demanding) activities in the morning when everyone is fresh and full of energy. We pack our lunch before we leave the campground and know that we have a solid three hours of good hiking/exploring/swimming before someone starts fighting/whining/complaining. We almost always get back to the campground for the religious experience of family napping, which if you haven’t experienced, I’m truly sorry. Join the cult today. Our campsite shuts down between the hours of 1 and 4 pm each and every day. It makes us happy people.
2. Keep the food familiar.
It is easy to wing it with food while you are traveling. You want to get out on the road; you want to get to the next activity. So you decide you will find a restaurant or pick up food on the way. Just don’t. I found one of the best ways to keep my kids happy on the road was to feed them the same healthy food that I feed them at home. This does not mean I have to cook up a large camp breakfast every morning. Oatmeal or yogurt does us just fine. And we rarely leave for the day without a cooler packed with sandwiches, fruit, snacks, and milk. We also have dinner at the campground almost every night. You want to see meltdowns? Then take your darlings to a restaurant when they are tired after a long day of adventure. I admit, there are times to break this rule…but do so with caution.
3. Keep the bedtime routine cozy.
No matter where we are, bedtime in our camper looks the same as it does at home. I’m convinced this gives our boys a continuity that they need desperately. They get their bath, their books, their treat, their prayers, and their songs. This past summer was the first time they spent time out at the fire before retiring to bed. Even though it was hard for us to get up and go do the ‘routine’, we always did. I’m pretty convinced it means the world to our boys.
4. Give them treats to look forward to.
I’m not a big rewards parent. I don’t like bribing and I don’t like ‘extrinsic’ rewards. But we have found that offering our boys that little extra special something for being such flexible adventurers goes a looooong way. Letting them know that there is an ice cream at the camp store waiting for them when they finish that really tough hike works wonders. The bottom line is that little things matter a lot to young children and life is one great negotiation. So embrace it and use it.
5. Remember they are kids and they like kid-centric activities.
Jeremy and I don’t want to spend our vacation days at theme parks and boardwalks. We want to hike, paddle, and swim. For the most part we have learned to negotiate between adults and youths and find activities that make us all feel fulfilled. Nevertheless, we do try to always find a campground with kid friendly activities like a pool, playground, bounce pillow, crafts, or tie dyeing. This means that after every family nap time, there is simple, kid-friendly fun before dinner. We will pay a bit more to stay at a place where we know the boys will be excited to hang out. This guarantees they will be engaged without being exhausted. Wilderness camping can wait.
As they get older, I know our boys will become more flexible. But for now, we are asking our children to absorb a whole heck of a lot when they spend over 30 nights a summer on the road. We want them to know that home is an idea. It is comforting and safe and we bring it with us wherever we go.
Happy (sane) travels.