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Life is about the journey, not the destination. There is no truer or more literal application of this phrase than when travelling by car. We love road trips! So much so that nowadays we plan road trips around our home state of Western Australia rather than exotic overseas holidays. The open road, the freedom, stopping if we feel like it or when we pass somewhere that piques our curiosity, all of this is possible when we are in control of our own journey. We love driving towards sunrise as the first light of the day creeps up over the horizon and the red dust of the Australian Outback. I’m forever amazed by the kangaroos and emus we pass, and when a wedge tailed eagle soars above us keeping pace.
Road trips are great fun and a wonderful way to really get to know a country, and can be even more enjoyable with a young family in tow. After two years and a hundred thousand kilometres around Western Australia with our daughter, we have learned a thing or two about how to drive long distances with a toddler.
Below is a list of our 13 top tips for road tripping with a toddler.
#1 pack plenty of food
Be sure to pack plenty of easy snacks such as fruit, salad sticks, crackers, yoghurt pouches and cheese sticks. Fresh food can be harder to find at service stations and road houses so we always prepare plenty in advance. We tend to avoid any sweets or junk food as giving sugar and flavourings to a kid who is going to be strapped into a car seat for several hours is not a good mix (trust me, we have made that mistake before!). Also, avoid anything too messy. For example, our girl loves hummus but I don’t give it to her with her salad sticks because it would get smooshed into the car seat. I also once prepared macaroni with peas and corn for a plane journey – bad idea! Have you tried to find peas and corn under a row of aeroplane seats? It’s not fun. You can find my 5 tips for How To Fly Long Haul With A Toddler here.
Tasty car snacks include:
- salad sticks
- homemade muesli bars or muffins
- fruit: halved grapes, melon, apple, banana
- sultanas and other dried fruits and nuts
#2 plan your journey around rest stops
No matter where you are driving, you can almost always find fun places to rest. All of the major roads here in Western Australia have rest stops every half an hour or so with picnic areas tucked in shaded spots, sometimes along a riverbank or covered picnic tables with a view over the ocean. These are great places for a toddler to get out and stretch their legs. If you’re driving through a more urban area, you can always find a park or even a restaurant with a play area. Give yourself and your children plenty of time to burn off their energy and hopefully they will be wanting a rest when it’s time to get back in the car. Hopefully.
Tip: The latest Camps Australia Wide book lists all the free camps and rest stops around Australia. We keep one in the car at all times.
Hikes in Western Australia that are worth the drive:
- The Loop Trail, Kalbarri National Park
- Kitty’s Gorge, Serpentine National Park
- Mount Frankland, Walpole Wilderness
#3 bring plenty of toys and books
If you are on a particularly long car journey you will need to pack enough entertainment so they don’t get bored of playing with the same old things. We have a storage box of books, small cars and dinosaurs, plus a few noisy toys. Don’t take many new toys as they may get lost along the journey, or get dirty or chipped from being played with outside.
Tip: stock up at a charity shop before you go. When your little ones tire of those toys, clean them up and donate them to another charity shop when you pass through town. You can always pick up a good selection for a few dollars at a thrift shop. We tend to swap out the lesser-used toys and books about once every two weeks.
#4 movies and cartoons
We try to avoid too much screen time at home, but it has been a lifesaver on longer journeys! We were given an old tablet by a family member and loaded it up with episodes of Elmo and a few animated movies. Road trips out to remote locations such as Wooleen Station (4 hours up a dirt road) or full days driving around the stunning wildflowers of WA would not be possible without this little distraction.
For us, the educational and mental and physical wellbeing benefits of getting out and exploring the great outdoors outweighs our desire to limit screen time.
I found these car multimedia systems on Amazon but to be honest the following tablets are cheaper and would be just as suitable: 7 inch Kids Tablet PC (Android), LLLtrade Android Tablet 10 Inch. You can also checkout your local marketplace or gumtree for a second hand bargain.
Tip: set a minimum time for a journey before the tablet is allowed to come out. We have a limit of one hour and below that we don’t use it but play games or sing songs instead. We were worried that Maddie would start to want the screen every time she got in the car but so far this hasn’t happened – touch wood!
#5 drive when they are sleeping
For particularly long driving days it would be best to cover as many miles as possible whilst the kiddies are sleeping. If we are camping relatively close by, for example in Dwellingup or Collie, which are only an hour and a half from home, then we drive during Maddie’s nap. This means we still get to camp early enough in the afternoon to set up before sunset.
For long journeys, such as 7 hours to Kalbarri, we leave home at 2am or 3am. This way we pass Perth before the rush hour and have covered significant miles before Maddie wakes up. On our most recent trip up the Coral Coast of Western Australia, we arrived in the small town of Dongara just as the bakeries were opening. We bought sausage rolls and coffee and stopped at the beach playground for two hours so Maddie could stretch her legs (as could we after four hours of driving!).
Tip: Sleep time is also when Jed and I indulge in the less healthy snacks. We enjoy some road trip lollies and crisps but would prefer Maddie doesn’t eat them as she gets hyperactive and grumpy after the sugar come-down.
A bit about safety: depending on where you are in the world, whether or not you drive at night might depend on the road or weather conditions. The main worry here in Western Australia are the kangaroos! Common wisdom states that you avoid driving at dawn and dusk, as the roos tend to come close to the roads around these times. Kangaroos are not the cleverest of animals and have a bad habit of jumping into the road when startled by an approaching car. In Northern WA it is common for cows and emus to linger on the roads.
#6 listen to what your children need
We have often found that we have more successful (and peaceful) journeys when we listen to Maddie. Sometimes she is just fed up of the car and wants to play. Sometimes she is hungry or thirsty. When she starts to grumble we pull over as soon as possible and find a park or play area. In urban areas, restaurants with good play areas such as fast food outlets or family pubs can be a godsend.
In our experience, if we don’t listen to our child’s gripes, she can unhappy for the rest of the journey – and that can be a really long time.
Really, really interesting Family Hikes:
- Hiking to an active lava flow in Hawaii Volcanos National Park
- Family hike through Marrinup POW camp, Dwellingup
- Family fun at Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk
#7 Find something you all like listening too
It is normal to have different tastes in music to your travel buddy, especially if that buddy is two years old. Maddie gets bored of our podcasts and us adults don’t particularly want to listen to Playschool for hours on end.
Luckily, we found that Maddie loves Bill Bryson audio books. We have always favoured audio books on long journeys and were delighted to discover that Maddie enjoys the melodic tones of Bill. Some of our favourites are A Short History Of Nearly Everything, At Home: A Short History Of Private Life, A Walk In The Woods and Down Under (of course, Australia is our favourite country to explore!)
#8 the Anywhere Change Table
Having all the nappies and wipes close at hand and contained in one place has taken the stress out of road trip poo-splosions (well, partially). IKEA have a compact, padded change mat with inflatable sides that takes up minimal space in the car. A plastic box can hold a few days supply of nappies and wipes conveniently in one space.
Whether it be on the bonnet of your car, a highway rest stop, picnic area lookout or even on your camp trailer, you will always have everything you need right there. Plus, the change mat makes a great floor time play area for younger children when there are no other suitable surfaces to put them on, such as damp ground.
There are several choices of Travel Change Mats available online at Amazon. These are compact and fold away small. Personally, I prefer the IKEA SKOTSAM mat as it has more padding (if you were wondering if I’m just directing you to my affiliate links without caring about the product here is your proof that I actually want my readers to have the best experience – I’m directing you to an alternative that is NOT an affiliate link 🙂 integrity is important to me xx)
#9 – the Shituation
Be aware that if your child has regular motions, they may not when travelling long distances. Being sedentary for a long time slows down the gut. Once your child is freed from their car seat restraints and run around for 15mins, they get the sudden urge to go. Alternatively, they may need plenty of exercise to get things moving properly again. Either way, have nappies, wipes and nappy bags close at hand. And most importantly of all have somewhere to put that stinky nappy! Not everywhere has bins so you may need to carry the poop away with you and nobody wants several hours with a poop filled nappy for company. Double bag if necessary or even better, store it in your camp trailer, roof racks, etc… until you find a bin.
Remember that when travelling in remote areas it is likely that you will encounter drop toilets, or composting toilets. Please follow the instructions and do not drop anything in there that you shouldn’t. Adding any chemical (such as from caravan waste systems), washing up water, nappies or sanitary products will disturb the microbe ecosystem that breaks down the waste.
#10 the Baby Cage – oops, I mean playpen.
One thing we have found to have more uses than we ever imagined was a fold out playpen with a sunshade. We picked up this one from Aldi for around $65 and have taken it everywhere with us. Sometimes, we have to stop in places that are less than ideal, or sometimes (as you will find out if you ever venture into the Outback in the summer) there are just a lot of flies.
The road to Wooleen Station is a dusty, unpaved track for several hundred kilometres. We stopped for lunch at a stunning riverside picnic area but the flies were maddening. We popped up the baby cage and threw a fly net over the top so Maddie and I could enjoy our sandwiches in peace.
The playpen is also very useful for those times that require both adults attention, such as hoisting the camp trailer tent. That’s when we pop Maddie in the playpen with some crackers and she keeps herself busy for ten minutes and cannot get into any trouble.
This pop-up cot/play pen is great for smaller babies (available in pink and blue). This collapsible outdoor play pen is better for toddlers. Alternatively, just use your travel cot with a mosquito canopy – a cheap and convenient option if you’re already travelling with a cot.
#11 cool, comfortable clothing
Keeping the little ones happy while seated for a long time is a lot easier when they are comfortable. We carry a few changes of loose, soft tops and pants. Try and avoid anything that will bunch up or leave an uncomfortable bump such as lots of ruffles or anything that ties at the back.
#12 Involve your children in the journey
Talk to your child and tell them where you are going. Get them excited and talk about all the fun things you are going to do when you get there. At 2 years old Maddie is only just starting to understand the concept of time so ‘tomorrow’ and ‘soon’ are only now starting to be comprehended. It can be nice to ask them “do they want to stop for a snack?” or “are you ready for a run around?”. Some toddlers are very independent and will respond better to being given a choice, even if those choices are manufactured to suit us. Sometimes Maddie will say she doesn’t want to stop as she is enjoying watching Toy Story so we take advantage or her comfort and keep driving to the next rest stop.
Toddlers are the perfect age to start playing those classic car journey games such as eye spy. This can be both fun and educational. You can count the cars, or ask what colour they are, name the animals you pass and ask what noises they make.
#13 GO WITH THE FLOW!
As with everything we are trying to do as parents, we are still learning to go with the flow. Too many times Jed and I have become stressed trying to stick to a routine or a plan, when it’s just not going to work. For example when we planned a nice family hike through the gorges in Kalbarri National Park, only to find Maddie was not at all happy to be carried in her carrier. Instead, Jed took Maddie to walk along some of the easier trails in the national park while I enjoyed my first solo hike since becoming a mum, the challenging grade 4 Loop Trail. We all had a lot more fun when we changed up our plan.
The same goes with road trips. It’s great to get to your destination in a timely manner, but what’s even better is enjoying everything along the way. As they say, it’s all about the journey, not the destination.
So relax, see what treasures you find along your drive, enjoy the freedom and go with the flow 🙂
We may have a travelled our fair few kilometres with a baby/toddler, but we are always keen to learn more! If you have a tip you’d like to share, please drop it in the comments below or on one of our Facebook or Instagram posts.
Love, The Joneses
More tips and tricks from Keeping Up With Little Joneses:
- 5 Tips for Flying Long Haul with a Toddler
- How to keep yourself and your family safe from venomous snakes
- A Beginners Guide to Astrophotography
Places to Road Trip to in Western Australia
- Best Beaches around Denmark and Walpole
- Wooleen Station: An Outback Eco-Tourism Oasis
- Wildflowers of Western Australia