How to Survive a Road Trip with a Toddler

Going on a long road trip with kids is kind like watching a Ken Burns documentary. You have a feeling you should be enjoying it, but you're really not. And you end up just wanting to take a nap.
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It's a tired cliché to say your life changes after kids. But few things are more dramatically changed, more epicly altered, than the one last vestige of your pre-kids life which you desperately hoped would remain intact...

I'm talking about vacation. In particular, the vacation road trip.

Before our son Mason was born, my wife Nicole and I loved doing road trips. We'd dash off to Napa or Tahoe at the last minute, completely carefree. I'm not even sure how we held down jobs. I think we just drove from place to place.

I look back on those trips now and I feel like a wistful hippie remembering what it was like following the Grateful Dead back before Jerry died.

Now, everything has changed. Going on a long road trip with kids is kind like watching a Ken Burns documentary. You have a feeling you should be enjoying it, but you're really not. And you end up just wanting to take a nap.

This past summer, my wife Nicole and I decided to do a road trip for our summer vacation. Mason was almost 3 years old and starting to tolerate longer stretches in the car, and by "tolerate" I mean we had gotten better at drowning out the hysterical shrieks from the backseat by turning up the car stereo. At least he was more susceptible to automotive bribery in the form of baggies of cereal, sticker books, and the baby crack of family road trips, the iPad.

We decided to keep our summer vacation plans manageable by renting a home for a week in Arnold, a family-friendly gold rush town just like Lake Tahoe if you had to drive through Stockton to get there. Arnold had the crucial ingredient which made it the ideal vacation destination for a family with a toddler: it is a 3-hour drive from our house.

We learned a lot about what to do, and what not to do, from this road trip. To help you survive your own future road trips, here's a rundown of our road trip:

The Night Before Departure

7:30 p.m.: With our son in bed, we start packing. I love my wife, but she cannot leave for so much as a weekend trip without packing enough gear and provisions to survive an Antarctic winter.

9:30 p.m.: After two hours, we have enough clothes, food, and toys to fill our car, a roof rack, and a U-Haul trailer. I remind Nicole that we do not own a roof rack, we have not rented a U-Haul trailer, and Mason will not react well to a 3-hour roadtrip with his luggage on his lap. We begin weeding out clothes and food.

10:15 p.m.: After 45 minutes of "weeding," not only have we not eliminated the need for a roof rack and U-Haul trailer, but it now appears we will need a larger cabin in Arnold.

11 p.m.: We decide to give up for the night and pack in the morning before Mason gets up. We set our alarm for 5 a.m.

Departure Day

5:37 a.m.: As we're packing in our room, we hear the sound of heels rapidly banging against the inside of Mason's room. I open his door to find Mason wearing just a diaper. "I want ice cream," he says.

5:40 a.m.: As Nicole continues packing, I keep Mason occupied in the kitchen. He insists on helping me make coffee, which for Mason means dumping a container of coffee beans on the floor. I fail to see how this is "helping."

5:52 a.m.: Mason spills milk on the kitchen floor which I quickly wipe up. Mason bursts into tears, not over the spilled milk, but because he didn't get to wipe up the milk from the floor. I spend the next 15 minutes explaining to Mason why he can't "spill the milk again".

6:00 a.m. - 8:00 a.m.: Exasperated, I plop Mason down in the living room. Miraculously, he remains quiet for the next two hours. "If he's watching TV right now, you better not write about it in The Huffington Post," Nicole says. I assure her that will not happen.

8:30 a.m.: We hit the road.

9:11 a.m.: I point out a passing fire truck, but Mason misses it. Mason bursts into tears, saying he "wants to see the fire truck." Nicole and I argue over whether to call Mason's attention to future passing fire trucks.

9:37 a.m.: Mason: "Daddy, I want to eat Mommy." Me: "No, you can't eat Mommy." Mason: "Why?" Me: "Because that would not be nice."

9:38 a.m. - 9:53 a.m.: Mason crying fit over why he can't "eat Mommy."

9:57 a.m.: Mason is no longer crying. I look in the back seat and see he is eating the directions to Arnold. Fortunately, the directions are gluten-free.

10:15 a.m.: Silence from the back seat. We discover Mason asleep in his car seat,
drooling on the iPad. (Note to self: check to see if iPad warranty includes baby drool.)

10:47 a.m.: Mason wakes up. To get him excited for vacation, I say we are going to go swimming during our vacation.

10:48 a.m. - 11:08 a.m.: Mason crying fit because we are not "going swimming now."

11:41 a.m.: We stop to allow us to stretch our legs at a natural stop for kids -- an Arco Station next to an oil refinery. Good thing we've been feeding this kid an organic diet.

1:00 p.m.: We arrive at our rented cabin to discover the main deck of the cabin has a 15' drop and a low railing, which our son starts eyeing like a hungry lion does a wounded gazelle. Before he runs off to climb the railing, I grab his attention with the one thing that stops him in his tracks -- the iPad.

What tips do you have for taking a toddler on a road trip? I'd love to hear them in the comments below.

John Corcoran is an attorney and former Clinton White House Writer, and creator of, where he shows entrepreneurs and small business owners how to use relationships to grow their businesses. You can download his free, 52+ page guide, How to Build a Network Filled with VIPs and Top Performers in 14 Days.