Back Seat Driver: A (Single) Parent’s Definitive Guide to Road Tripping With Kids

The worst thing about my kid learning how to read is that she has become acutely aware of the speed limit and my tendency to exceed it. I’m pretty sure if I got pulled over, she’d chirp, “I told her to slow down” from the back seat. Being a single parent and road tripping can sound about as fun as watching Ishtar on repeat while having your toenails slowly removed. Between driving all those miles while listening to current boy band bop music and trying to time your bladder breaks with those of your child’s, the desire to drop a shot of vodka in your gas station coffee is high.

(Note: Never, ever, ever do this. Wait until you are safely at your campground, your kid is asleep, and your fire is warm. Then maybe have a glass of fine Bordeaux and congratulate yourself on your good taste in wine and what a classy camper you are.)

For the duration of my child’s life, we have travelled and completed 99% of these journeys alone. From 32-hour flights to India (hello Tylenol PM) to camping in grizzly country (bear spray is not to be used as a Cholula replacement), we’ve experimented with how to make the most out of our trips. We’ve developed a few systems of misery mitigation and adventure instigation to make some of the most incredible memories and shared experiences we’ll ever brag about on Facebook. Here are a few to try on your next parent-kid adventure.

Bring food. While it is accepted as common knowledge that children need to eat, their ability to burn through calories in a long car drive is a phenomenon science has yet to explain. Typical signs of starvation appear at gas stations where corn dogs and Oreos are suggested as the only cure. Do not ever feed the children gas station food. Aside from dipping into your retirement fund to afford a small bag of vinegar potato chips, most of the food there only feeds blood sugar spikes and crashes — two things you do not want to have in a car or on a boat, or with a fox in a box. You get the idea. Instead, pack a wicked lunch box of road-friendly goodies and beverages. Apples, boiled eggs, carrot sticks, peanut butter, nuts, salami. Every time (in approximately 14-second intervals) your child expresses their famished state, refer them to said lunch box.

Plan rad road stops. We put about 2,500 miles on our summer trip this year with a couple of long days. To make even those travel days seem like part of the adventure, we stop at neat places to stretch our legs, swim, paddle, or ride some nice section of trail. Sometimes we stop at historical and geological sites to stimulate our highway conversations. Lewis and Clark and the 45th parallel get a lot of coverage. And this last trip, the Donner Party, in a rather macabre drive over the pass. (That is a family that poorly planned their travel food, by the way. Don’t be like them.)

Do stuff your kids want to do. One summer, when my daughter was 3, we saw a couple who stopped to take pictures of covered bridges around the country. We decided to test and take pictures of all the playgrounds we passed. It was her favorite part of the trip, and she reveled in her responsibility of pointing out playgrounds. We had to bypass a few in south Los Angeles but made up for it in Oregon.

Bring varied entertainment. I don’t mean the DVD player. We don’t use electronics in the car until my ears are bleeding from Katy Perry, or sometimes when I need undisputed silence while I negotiate big-city traffic. We like books, the Rubik’s cube, coloring, dolls, trivia games, and good old-fashioned conversation. Road trips offer some of the best opportunity to get to know my 9- year-old’s stance on everything from politics to fashion. In real life, we rarely get an opportunity to talk about those things at length.

Remember the purpose. Taking trips and vacationing together isn’t about getting from point A to point B or marking up a map. It is about stepping outside of our usual routines and comforts, spending time with those dear to us, and having new experiences. Let go of the mission a little bit and embrace the journey. //

Ammi Midstokke lives in Sandpoint, Idaho, where she raises her daughter on a deeply ingrained fear of gluten and an arguably dangerous appetite for adventure. Visit her website at

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