In 2006, my boyfriend and I drove from Colorado to Moab, Utah, for a week of desert exploration. For 300 miles, we had no problems. Then the gas light came on, 40 miles from Moab and at least an hour after we had passed the last service station. Did we panic? No. The impending calamity only fed our sense of adventure. We drove giddily on, eventually coasting into a gas station on fumes just as the engine cut out.
Nowadays, I can’t be so cavalier. With two school-age kids, road trips require slightly more vigilance. Since my boys were born, my husband (the boyfriend from the Moab trip) and I have canvassed the country with them strapped into a succession of car seats. We drive to save money and to show them our world — and because we believe in the power of “windshield time,” the moments of intimate connection that intersperse the monotony of car travel.
Here’s what to consider before pulling out of the driveway:
▪ Bring a real map. Always pack a road atlas. Even with GPS in your smartphone or car, having a paper map is insurance against getting lost. (Paper doesn’t lose power.) And kids who can read get a kick out of studying the atlas. They might surprise you with a suggested itinerary change. Last summer, when my sons and I drove to Wyoming to dig for dinosaur bones, my 6-year-old found on the atlas some caves lined with prehistoric petroglyphs about a knuckle’s distance from where we were staying in Thermopolis. The detour was well worth the extra 25 miles.
▪ Make more room. Space is at a premium on a road trip. If you own a minivan, pat yourself on the back. Otherwise, look for ways to optimize space inside the car. Because we live in the “Gore-Tex vortex” of Boulder, Colo., which means we travel with an absurd amount of outdoor gear, we added a Yakima Skybox to our roof. This is great for skis and snowboards in winter, and for sand-covered beach umbrellas and deflated stand-up paddleboards in the summer. Do you need a roof box? Probably not. Will you appreciate the extra space it provides? Absolutely.
▪ Allow for spontaneity. Though you’ll need to literally map out your trip, keep in mind that part of the fun is being spontaneous, so build time for freedom into the route. If you’re booking nightly lodging in advance, underestimate your daily mileage to allow for off-highway quests for seasonal produce stands or unscheduled stops at roadside attractions. After all, how many times can you pass the “See Rock City” sign without doing just that?
▪ Adopt an electronics strategy. This is a personal choice, but if you’re a kid in my car, you get unfettered access to — and this is key — pre-chosen videos. At home, I’m a tyrant when it comes to screen time. But on the road, the kids’ “Wild Kratts” binges keep the trip fun for everyone. For older kids, pick out a book on CD or download one and make a plan: two chapters and then a half-hour of iPad — or whatever works for you. Better yet, let them play DJ. It’s a window into their lives, and it can keep them off the video games.
▪ Lay off the doughnuts. Whether you’re a parent or not, your road trip should include lots of accessible, wholesome snacks. I have a Yeti cooler that cost more than I ever imagined I would spend on an insulated plastic box. Still, I haven’t once regretted it; ice is still solid five days out, and carting around fresh food keeps us eating healthfully on the cheap. I stock it with carrots and hummus, hearty fruits such as apples and tangerines, deli turkey and cheddar cheese. I also carry a small cutting board and sheathed knife. Sure, there’s also a pack of Pringles and a few Twix bars, but try to minimize the junk food. Your mood will stay brighter and you’ll feel better.
▪ Stop frequently. Siblings squabble. Drivers and co-pilots disagree. There’s no foolproof method for diffusing road-trip tension, so try to not let it build in the first place. If you’ve got kids, plan to stop every couple of hours at a playground, a restaurant with a play area or even a highway rest stop. Turn that rest stop into your personal jungle gym — do push-ups on the picnic table and hop from the flagpole to the interpretive sign. (There'’ always an interpretive sign.) In other words, burn energy. This works for passengers of all ages.
▪ Grant freedom where you can. If you’ve got older kids, let them drive. I’ll never forget the look of pride I saw one winter on a young man’s face on a ski trip to Utah. His parents let him drive to Alta, Utah, from Crested Butte, Colo., and though they admitted to a few white-knuckled moments, this was clearly a momentous trip for that family. Friends with tweens and teens give their kids a lump sum of cash at the beginning of the trip. (Average amount: $30.) Their kids can spend it on anything, but when it's gone, it's gone. Trying to wrangle the college kids home for a visit? Give them a set budget and let them plan the itinerary.
▪ Take breaks. You don’t have to spend every waking minute together. (Unless, like me, your travel companions are still learning to tie their shoes.) So ditch your co-pilot for a solo jog or split up for an afternoon.
▪ Splurge wisely. Because you’re saving money by not buying plane tickets and renting a car, allow the occasional indulgence. For me, this is almost always food. Most recently, my husband and I dined at Telluride’s La Marmotte, an upscale French bistro housed in the town’s old icehouse, offsetting the robust bill by sleeping under the stars in U.S. Forest Service campgrounds.
▪ Meet the locals. They’re nice — and better informed than Yelp. I’ve always been rewarded by local insight when I ask for recreational recommendations at a bike shop (here’s looking at you, Orange Peel Bicycle Service in Steamboat Springs, Colo.) or restaurant ideas at a local cafe. Without the advice of Jerry in Fairbanks, Alaska, I never would have eaten at that city’s superlative Thai House Restaurant. That would have been a taste-bud travesty.
Seeing this country by car puts it into perspective. It’s a treat to see the landscape evolve, to see how — and where — other people live. And hitting the open road is an American rite of passage. Just remember to fuel up before that gas light comes on.
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.