Taking kids on long car journeys - survival guide

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Children get bored easily.  Being crammed into the small space of a car for hours on end can bring out the worst in both parents and children, but when you are driving it is important to not get stressed for safety reasons.  So, how can you keep sane and ensure the children arrive at their destination happy?

Preparation is the key.  If you are on a motorway then it could be a long time before you can get to the services to pick up whatever is needed, and then it will be expensive. I regularly drive long distances with children that last around 8 hours total journey time and here's what I've found allows all of us to arrive happy and smiling:

Firstly - your car

Make sure your car is clean and tidy and safe.  Check that your spare type is in good order, the rest of the tyres do not have worn tread, all your lights and your brakes work.  Check your oil, washer and power steering liquid levels.  I always carry an emergancy kit in my car that consists of:

Tyre tread gauge (prevention rather than cure), windscreen washer liquid, first aid kit, travel blanket, small car fire extinguiser, warning triangle, an umbrella and waterproofs (isn't it always raining when you break down?), water for topping up car liquid levels, fluorescent over-vests (for high visibility in poor weather), snap light sticks, a torch and finally, a bit of emergency rations - chocolate, crips, drinks.

If you don't feel that your car is up to a long journey then eBay Motors is a good place to get a new one or pick up missing parts for your current car.

Navigation

Even if you've driven the route many times before, one of the biggest stresses in driving is being stuck in traffic.  When you are on a long journey, those extra minutes count and will add to your tiredness and so decrease your abilities as a driver.  If you've not already got one, get a GPS navigation device.  At the first sign of "long delays ahead" you can divert and automatically be rerouted to your destination without arguments over maps.  Some of the more expensive ones include subscriptions to live traffic news and will automatically adjust your route, but I find a standard one fits my needs.  Unless you have one built in to your car, don't forget to remove your GPS when you park and store it out of sight as these are currently high on the hitlist for opportunist thieves.

Food

When kids get bored, they get hungry and thirsty.  It's important to take enough to keep you all going without lots of little stops.  You may plan to stop and have a proper meal en route, but I have had most sucess with a small snack every hour and a half.  By making sandwiches and having drinks and fruit to hand I can keep the children to "normal" mealtimes and can let them eat while I continue to drive.  Essential for this is a cooler bag.  The inside of cars get hot and can spoil sandwiches and warm drinks.  If you can present the kids with "proper" food rather than fast food junk then they won't get the carbohydrate crash and get grumpy a couple of hours after you've stopped.  If you don't like the thought of eating in the car while driving then many service stations have picnic areas where you can eat your own food.  For me, a thermos flask is a must.  Even on hot days, a cup of tea keeps me calm and relaxed and whenever I have to stop for petrol, I pour some into my travel mug so I can drink safely while I drive.

For an 8 hour journey, I usually take the following per person:  4 cartons of juice (no fizzy cans!), 2 bags of hula hoops (they leave less crumbs than normal crisps and are fun), 2 meals worth of sandwiches (uselly small filled rolls so they don't fall apart in the car!), 2 pieces of fruit (not bananas), 2 fruit winders or other fruit based sweet substitutes (if anything have more of these) and sometimes some cheese dippers.  I also have 2 "emergency" cans of red bull for the driver - having them stops the worrying about what to do if I get tired and so I don't get tired - if that makes sense. 

Inside the car

Following on from food, other things you may want inside the car are:  tissues, cleaning wipes, hand cleaning gel and a car seat tidy to collect rubbish and store their things.  If your child needs a booster seat then make sure it is the correct size - too big and you risk safety, too small and your child will be uncomfortable for the journey.

Entertainment

This is the big one.  How do you keep children amused for a long time without a TV/computer etc...?  You can get in car DVD players but may find that this is a distraction to you driving and if the device is mounted behind your seat, having a child putting in and taking out the DVDs may cause safety issues as they will be leaning forward a lot and probably supporting themselves on the back of your chair, distracting you - the main reason why I don't have one.  I find story tapes or story CDs (depending on your car) really useful.  The unabridged Harry Potter audio books can make a journey fly by, but there are plenty of different stories out there.

One thing I would recommend to avoid are travel games.  Children playing games can cause arguments and anything with lots of small pieces can so easily be dropped in the back of the car preventing play continuing. Top Trumps is a good alternative, easy to learn how to play and it's not the end of the world if a few cards get dropped.  There are loads of different sets available so you can find a few that are suited to your child's likes. 

If your child does not get car sick while reading then a good choice of books can be really useful.  I've found that some Guinness World Record annuals are also useful as they capture imagination and can be picked up and fill the 5-minute attention span before being put down for something else.

The one thing I have relented on is giving them each a GameBoy Advance.  One each to avoid argument, but they have to share games.  If they are playing while I'm driving then they either play with the sound off or headphones on so I can't hear it, and they stick to these rules.  The last big journey they actually spent more time talking about world records and playing top trumps than on the GBA.

Lastly

Make sure they're wearing something comfortable if possible - I have horrendous memories of wearing itchy jumpers and trousers that were too tight when I travelled around as a kid and I know it made me grumpy.  Give them a good filling meal before you start off and ensure that everyone goes to the toilet!

Finally, don't forget to look after yourself - if you are tired or lacking in patience then you will get wound up easily while driving, and this is dangerous.  Get a good nights sleep the day before and make sure you are relaxed and happy.

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