Road Trip Strategies

Road Trip Strategies

Brian Biela

We just came back from our summer vacation, a road trip from Chicago to Whitefish, Montana and Glacier National Park – literally a 24-hour drive.  “Why not fly?” you may ask and trust us at times so did we but in the end, I would not trade the time with our boys.  Now, this is not our first rodeo, err road trip.  Our first real, meaning long, drive was almost ten years ago when our kids were much smaller and we drove from Chicago to Jackson Hole.  We have done trips of different lengths ever since.  They are now upperclassmen in high school, we are looking at colleges and counting down the days until they are out of the house, sometimes sadly and if truth be told sometimes earnestly…the ups and downs of the teenage years. 

Over the years we have learned a few things.

Get Your Car Checked Before You Leave

Have the oil changed, make sure fluids are filled, tires are inflated and brakes are good.  The last thing you want to deal with is a mechanical problem.  And pack a first aid kit with a blister kit.


We always bring fishing poles, the boys have moved from casting reels and rods to fly fishing.  Backpacks, which they fill with electronics and books for the ride, with hydration sleeves for longer hikes.  Footballs, frisbees, soccer balls, something to do once you get there or whenever you stop and just need a break from the drive.  Anything else that your family likes.  The food, one change of clothes, pillows, blankets and/or sleeping bags go in the car.  We pack all of the stuff for the destination and the bulk of our clothes in a roof box.  If we don’t need it for the drive it goes up top, out of the way.

Embrace Technology.

Yes, at times we all hate when the kids, and us, are sucked in by technology, but this is not the time to fight it.  Preload new games, movies, shows, etc. and let them have their brain numbed.  This next part is fiercely debated in our home, when the kids were little, the week or at least a few days prior to getting in the family truckster, we would have an electronics hiatus.  For the record, our boys are vehemently against this tactic and consider it a violation of the Geneva Convention.  However, we found that once they settled in the car with their long-lost electronic friend, the drive through the Midwest farmland was one of silence as they busy were getting reacquainted.  Be warned, do not try this with teenagers!

Speaking of Teenagers

If they can, let them drive.  We have gone full circle with driving, when they first got their permits and licenses they could not wait to drive.  Now its old hat for them and more of a chore than a joy.  On the drive out, neither wanted to drive and yes they got bored and a little cranky at times.  On the return, we had both drive, typically in three-hour shifts, which worked to break up the mundanity for all.  This is also a great time for college visits.  Even as young as 8th grade, take a detour, you don’t need to do a formal visit, but walk a campus, see the stadium it breaks up the drive.  Trust us it will help later when college visits are a serious matter.  Your kids will have an idea if they like a small rural school, an urban one or a big-time state college.

Buy an Old fashioned Atlas

You know the kind that’s printed on paper.  Look at your route and see what is either on the way or near-by.  Our drive took us through Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Painted Canyons.  A brief stop allowed us to stretch our legs and see this beautiful place which if we had just followed the directions in Waze, we would have never found.

Plan More Time

Just because Google says the trip takes 24 hours does not mean that it will or that it should.  Once a baby becomes a toddler, drive time and age are directly related – the younger the age, the shorter the time between stops.  With younger kids, you need to stop every couple of hours.  Whether this is a potty break or just a chance to move, you need to do this.  For both older and younger, make the drive more interesting, stop at the Scenic Views and Historical Markers. 

Check out and for ideas of places to stop or at least talk about.  Who knew that the world’s largest bison was in Jamestown North Dakota? 

Get the All Trails app to find hikes near you, great for an evening stretch when the drive is done for the day. 

These hidden gems are sometimes the highlight of the trip 


Maybe the most important.  Have a variety of things to eat in the car.  Buy what the kids like.  This is the time to let them have their favorite junk food, Pringles are great, you can securely close the container and it fits in a cupholder.  Give everyone a water bottle or sippy cup.  This is critical, bring YOUR coffee mug, you will thank me in the morning. 

Pack a cooler, we like flavored water, so we packed a case of Spindrift for a sugar-free change of pace.  We made up sandwiches in advance and brought additional buns, lunch meats and condiments so we were not forced to eat fast food.  Also, bring fruit, nuts and jerky, they are a nice break from the sugar and carb-laden snacks. 

That being said, this is the time to reward a craving for Chick-fil-a, a Culver's shake or McDonald’s fries when the time is right.  For us, breakfast was where we stayed, either at a hotel or campsite.  Lunch was on the road.  At dinner, we always try to find a local restaurant and/or cuisine.  We have all had or at least heard of New York, Chicago and California style pizza.  Who knew that there are Detroit and St. Louis styles?  

Make it a culinary adventure.  Go to for a listing of authentic regional restaurants.

Messes will Happen

Bring extra napkins, wet naps and baby wipes and bags for garbage.  Baby wipes are not only for kids in diapers, but they are also great for handwashing, wiping up spills or cleaning muddy puppy paws. 

Plan for Electronic Down Time

There are only so many games and movies a kid can watch.  Break out the coloring books, use crayons or colored pencils, not markers.  Revive old fashioned games such as Eye-Spy or the License Plate Game.  Consider podcasts and books on tapes, we listened to Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame, new book, Every Tool’s A Hammer.

Go with the Flow

Get off of the interstate every so often.  We took the back roads home across Montana and watched the countryside change from mountains to plains to dried-up river canyons and marveled at the beauty and the dramatic changes– who knew there was this much variety in a single state? 

Enjoy the time, the conversations, the detours and the adventures that happen on the way, you will all talk about these times and trips for years to come.

Finally, when you get home, call your parents and thank them for the trips they took you on without the electronic distractions that our kids now have.  We have it easy in comparison.