Road Trips with Toddlers

Reducing the shared misery.


In general our family is loath to regularly hand out snacks as it tends to ruin appetites for regular meals and real food. When you’re on the road, snacks double as entertainment. I recommend a Costco run for most of these things.

Some favorites

Also good to have plenty of water and maybe some juice that is already cut with water. We bought a cooler that plugs in for the back of our van for our road trips. 

Car Sickness

This sucks, and we’ve had multiple puke incidents. Generally it is best if the Adult most impacted by car-sickness drives during the worst parts of your route, as they are most likely to drive gently. We now optimize our trips to California for this. 

Things to mitigate:

  • Children’s Dramamine (We give our dog half of the tablet and our car-sickness-prone toddler the other half)
  • Snacks while in the worst of it (for some people/kids.)
  • Seat your most carsick kid in the middle so they can look out the front window
  • Seat your least-carsick adult next to the kid in the worst parts so they can catch/help
  • Put a cloth car seat cover on your car seats. Bring an extra. Trust me you don’t want to have a puke-filled bucket that your kid is forced to sit in.
  • Know your route, and stop regularly.


We’ve tried both “leave at sunset” and “leave at sunrise”. Our kids do far better at sunrise, or even before. Pack everything in the car and gas up the night before. Get up at 5am and throw your mostly-sleeping kids in the car and get on the road. With luck they’ll go back to sleep. Ideally you get a solid 3 hours of drive time before you have to make your first stop. You’ll make the best time when your kids are sleeping. 

Similarly if your kids have a “witching hour” they likely will have it extra bad in the car. Do what you can to avoid being in the car during that hour. (6pm for our little one.) 

Breaks / Stops

Our drive from Eugene to San Jose without kids would take about 8 hours. With kids we expect it to take 12. 

Take your time with meals. City parks in the middle of nowhere are sometimes surprisingly good, and way better than a highway rest-stop.

You can use yelp or google maps for city parks. Not all are worth your time, but some of them even in small towns are surprisingly good. Get snacks, have a picnic, and get the zoomies out.

Picking out good places to eat is a must. Also stopping for ice cream can be a win. Diners are generally good with kids. We generally try to avoid fast-food, even when we’re on trips. Your kids need the time out of the car so find some place to eat-in. Mexican is also usually a win for us. 

Not all bathrooms are created equal. I wouldn’t eat at a McDonalds but they’ve generally got good bathrooms, as do Chevron stations. Never leave a restaurant without changing all the diapers, as it is far easier when you have access to a sink etc.

Toys / Distractions

Not all toys are created equal, especially for car-travel. We especially like the Water-Wow toys as they generally are interesting but not a lot of pieces. You can also try the “look at/for this” type car games but those are not easy for a toddler. We try to follow the sage advice of another dad, “Never try to make a happy kid happier.” So we do a lot of staggered toy and snack delivery. Wait until they are miserable and then give them another toy or snack. We try to save screens until the end of the trip or when the kids are especially miserable. If you’ve got YouTube premium or some other way to store videos on a device, an old phone or tablet works great for this. We’ve got a fancy van with a built-in DVD player and bought the bluey disk set. Our kids both use the wubba to sleep, but we have a rule that they can’t use them around the house. When we’re on a trip they can use them as much as they want, as that encourages sleep. Also good to have some cozy blankets and whatever else helps make them feel hygge.

Cleanup / Emergency

My #1 dad-trick for years is to have a pack of puppy training pads in the car. Great as a changing table, puke cleanup, or whatever else is going on. I also recommend having a roll of trash bags, plenty of baby wipes, and a roll of paper towels in the car. We had a poop blowout incident once where we changed the one year old while she stood in a trash bag, stripped her naked and scraped off the poop into the trash bag before pulling her out, and then tied the bag and her poopy clothes off and put it in a cartop carrier. Yuck, but I was so grateful for the bags etc. 

Audiobook Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

This is a dense book, over 18 hours of listening time. Where some non-fiction books are simply filler with only one core message, this book is packed with data and examples gathered over a lifetime of research. The Nobel-Prize-winning author has detailed out many of the ways in which human brains routinely fail. We’re excellent at some tasks, and have a very poor ability to do others.

Here’s some key takeaways for me from this book:

  • Humans are terrible at remembering duration of both pain and pleasure, but instead remember the peak and final moments.
  • We are of two minds – an impulsive instinctual mind, and a difficult to engage methodical mind. The methodical mind can reach correct answers but is often influenced unknowingly by the instinctual mind.
  • When faced with a difficult and complicated question, the impulsive mind routinely substitutes a simpler question. Then the rational mind back-calculates and rationalizes the way to the answer arrived at by the simple question.
  • From stock picking to relationship advice, simple heuristics are often superior to both “expert knowledge” and complicated systems.

There is plenty more, and eventually I might give it a second listen. I frequently had to stop listening and digest what I’d heard. Highly recommended.

Thinking, Fast and Slow