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Guide to Spur-of-the-Moment Family Road Trips

Published on: August 12, 2012

Kids on a road tripIt was 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 19, when I learned about the upcoming annular eclipse, in which the moon would cover all but a bright ring of the sun’s outline.  It would take 17 hours of driving to reach a viewing location. And it was only 39 hours until the event.  I told my husband, “We’ve got to go see it.”  

By now, our family is used to piling in the car. We’ve headed out to the coast to catch weekend sunshine, left for Utah with only a few hours’ notice, driven to California for a sudden funeral, and added Mt. Rushmore onto a Denver driving trip because it was only six hours away. Every time, somebody asks us, “How do you do it?” Here’s how.

Where to go

Part of the fun is deciding as you go, but here are some spur-of-the-moment destinations we've loved.

California RedwoodsCalifornia Redwoods (nine hours away from Seattle): Located in the Northwest corner of California, the redwood trees tower over even the most jaded Washingtonian.  Hike through national parks, or stop at private attractions like drive-through trees.

Pullman (six hours away): This sleepy university town boasts a world-class children’s science museum, live bears, and Ferdinand’s ice cream parlor with views into the WSU cheese factory (open weekdays and football Saturdays).

Pacific Beach (three hours away): This small town on the Pacific Coast has a beautiful sandy beach, quiet streets set back from the main highway, a terrific bakery, and affordable hotels (call ahead during crowded summer months).

Vancouver, BC (three hours away): Vancouver delights with its aquarium (with animal shows!), peaceful forests, and a pedestrian suspension bridge in Stanley Park, with beaches, museums, and an enormous library in the center of town.

What to pack
For spur-of-the-moment travel, you can pack simply and manageably. For each person, grab shirts and underwear for every travel day, as well as pants, pajamas, and shoes.  Older children can use these guidelines to pack for themselves (be sure to double check their suitcases).  Bring a raincoat, a warm sweater, and daily toiletries, and pop toothbrushes into Ziploc bags if you don’t have traveling cases.  Consider packing an extra overnight bag with everybody’s pajamas and toothbrushes, so that when you arrive you can get children ready for bed without rummaging through all the suitcases.

What to eat
A few snacks will speed the trip along and minimize complaints. If you can’t make sandwiches ahead of time, bring whole-grain crackers, granola bars, sliced cheese, grapes, carrots, or apple slices to supplement fast food stops.  Fill water bottles for the car, and serve snacks in plastic cups to cut down on crumbs.  If your car’s already stocked with essentials like a first aid kit, sunscreen, snacks, and wipes, you’ll be halfway prepared to jump in the car.

What to do
Don’t forget entertainment.  If you’ve already made up an activity bag with books, stickers, pens, or games, bring it along. Ask your children to pack their favorite toys and books.  Notebooks and Color Wonder pads make easy, fun activities (don’t forget the pens). So do games on smartphones and tablets. Stop at the library for audio books, or download them for your favorite player.  Our family loves Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, Scat by Carl Hiassen, and the Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan. Talk about what you see out the windows, and let children take pictures with your digital camera.

If the children get bored by their state-of-the-art entertainment, try some time-honored travel activities.  You don’t need any extra supplies to play Twenty Questions or I Spy.  Have your children find license plates from different states, or look for letters from A-Z (Hint: if you can’t find X or Z on road signs, check license plate numbers.)  Tell your children stories (they’ll never know if you plagiarize your favorite novels), or make up a family story where everybody takes turns telling pieces. Sing children’s songs or silly songs or patriotic songs, or make up your own versions of songs like “Old MacDonald.” When you stop, turn bathroom breaks into games of tag to get everybody’s blood moving.

Where to sleep
If you can’t make hotel reservations before you leave, arrange for hotels on the go.  Use your smartphone or a friend who’s on the computer to find internet deals, or to get a list of local hotels to call so that you can compare prices.  You might also pack a tent and sleeping bags and camp at a state park.

As you travel, take advantage of opportunities.  You might start long conversations with your children, try different foods, or stop at a roadside museum you’ll always remember.  Our family has hunted for frogs at an Oregon state park, found the Continental Divide, admired Navajo jewelry at a Utah scenic viewpoint, and sung our way through snowstorms.  When nobody’s rushing off for work, laundry, or sports, long uninterrupted hours lead to family experiences you’d never dreamed of having.

Gazing down at the sun’s silhouette as the moon slid between its edges, I was filled with awe that our family could participate in this celestial event.  It made me even more determined to take advantage of the next spur-of-the-moment opportunity that comes along.  When it does, we’ll be ready.

Loralee Leavitt loves going on adventures with her family.  She is the creator of, and her book, Candy Experiments, was published in January, 2013.

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