Planning a Cross-Country Road Trip With Small Children

My family recently moved from the Washington, DC area to Portland, Oregon.   In doing so, we packed all our belongings into a moving company trailer, and let them haul it across the nation while we embarked on an epic, 4800-mile road trip of our own.   As the trip was taken with two small children, there was plenty of extra planning that went into this trip in an attempt to make it an enriching, and actually pleasant way to make it across country.   And, seeing as we were pretty successful in that, arriving to Oregon in one piece with many stories to tell, I figured I’d share not only the trip itself, but the preps that went into it, should any of you other families want to embark on something similar.

Planning the Route

One of the first things we did was to plan the route we’d be taking across country.    During my late teens and early 20’s, I was a man consumed by wanderlust, and as such had hit nearly every State in the Lower-48 via road or train, with the exception of Montana, the Dakotas, Louisiana and Mississippi.    I decided I wanted to at least scratch South Dakota and Montana off that list, so my wife & I selected a northern route.

After trying a number of different tools to attempt to plan the trip, I settled on Roadtrippers  as a platform for planning the trip.   Roadtrippers allows one to set a basic route, and then easily search for hotels or campsites along the way, giving you a threshold of how far off your route (i.e. ~20 miles) you are willing to go in order to hit a campsite.

Cross-Country Adventure! | My new trip on!

We had a couple of criteria when designing the route.

  1. Try to keep most of the days to less than 7-8 hours of driving, so as to provide plenty of time to locate & set up campsites on the days we’re camping, and also to preserve sanity for the children and allow them enough time to expend calories during the day.
  2. As we were on a budget, try to camp as much as possible, with only a few we-know-we-will-have-to-bite-the-bullet hotel destinations.

The map above is the route we came up with, one we continued to modify until it was just right.

Preparing the Children

We started focusing on this facet of the trip about a year before we left.  We wanted this to be a memorable, pleasant and enriching experience for the kids, despite the fact that they’re only 3 & 4.   As any family who’s done a drive with toddlers of  any duration longer than an hour, car trips with kids can be complete hell if you haven’t really prepared AND gotten buy-in from them as well.

We really wanted them to feel like this was their trip as well – not just something their parents were making them endure.  But doing that, required a lot of gradients in between – as to communicate a good answer to “Daddy, WHY ARE WE STILL IN THE CAR???”, the kids would need to know where we were going, how to see that on a map, and before that, what a map even is.

So, here’s how we prepared:

  1. What is a map?  Before trying to explain to them where Oregon is on a map, they had to be able to know what a map was – to be able to see that a line on a paper could be correlated to something in real life.  So, I used the one thing that was really real to both kids:  trains.We made a set of train tracks in their play room that covered the entire floor, and then decided to name the tracks “The Blue Line” and “The Orange Line”, etc – similar to the DC Metro that the kids love so much.   We then drew a map of the tracks in the room, and had the kids do drills to find out how to get their trains from one spot to the next, using the map.   It definitely impinged.
  2. Geography lessons on Google Earth:  Starting last summer, I started taking both kids for tours around the world on Google Earth, trying my best to ding in the idea that we live on a planet, that it’s a really big place, and the USA is also a REALLY BIG PLACE, with a lot of different things to go see.   Every time we’d learn about some new place or land form (the prairie, mountains, canyons, etc), we’d go see it in 3D on Google Earth and see where one would find places like that.
  3. The Big Wall of Maps: starting about 6 months before the trip, we turned one wall of the kitchen into a wall of maps, with a map of the DC area, a map of Oregon, a map of Portland, and a map of the USA.    We used string & wacky-tacky to show the route we’d be taking across the country, and had the kids regularly refer to the map to show were we’d be seeing lakes, mountains, forests, waterfalls, etc.
    Pointing out States on the Map
    We used our big road trip map to do drills on the names of the states, to list out what animals we might find in the different states, etc.

    Before going on our big trip, we were able to do a few smaller “test run” trips, including a road trip down to Clearwater, Florida to visit with my mom & sister, as well as taking the kids down to Tennessee when I had to go there for work.    Each time we’d go to a new place, we’d show the kids where that was on the map, using (where possible) major features like lakes, rivers, oceans, etc to reinforce places that might be real or understandable to them.

  4. Learning About What We’ll See:  This was arguably what all of this map action was building toward, in terms of being able to associate places on a map, with cool things one is planning to see along the way.   There were countless items we read about & learned about, but a few items & resources were:
    1.  The ABCMouse curriculum includes lessons organized into step-by-step paths through an “environment”, where a child navigates through a mountainous region, a wetland, a desert, a prairie, etc to do their various lessons – and all along the way, they can take pit-stops and learn about animals, plants, etc that may populate such an environment.  This simple tactic that ABCMouse took was curiously effective in dinging in the message that there were actually different types of land that one could be in, and in those different types of land, one may see different kinds of animals.    This very fact was instrumental in being able to get kids excited about the next leg of the trip, as they could have something to be excited about or interested in seeing.Additionally, ABCMouse has a series of “Search and Explore” books on various U.S. landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Grand Canyon and Mt. Rushmore.    And while Golden Gate & the Grand Canyon are not anywhere on our route, Mt. Rushmore certainly was.  The kids ended up nearly memorizing the entire storybook about Mt. Rushmore, as well as the song that went along with it.    So, as you can imagine, that was a high point of the trip when we finally got there.
    2. The book, Paddle-to-the-Sea, follows the journey of a little wooden indian in a canoe, fashioned by an Indian boy who wants his creation to go on the adventures he couldn't take, and paddle all the way through the Great Lakes to the ocean.
      The book, Paddle-to-the-Sea, follows the journey of a little wooden indian in a canoe, fashioned by an Indian boy who wants his creation to go on the adventures he couldn’t take, and paddle all the way through the Great Lakes to the ocean.

      The book Paddle-to-the-Sea:  The book, Paddle-to-the-Sea, was one of my favorite books as a child.  In the book, a Native American boy in the Nipigon Country above Lake Superior fashions a little wooden Indian in a canoe – and postulates this indian’s journey through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway to the sea.   The book illustrates each of the Great Lakes, their geography, as well as all of the flora, fauna and even industry that would be encountered as one traverses the lakes.

      The book is a fantastic vehicle to explain a number of concepts – the shapes of the Great Lakes, the animals that populate them, the fact that rivers & lakes all eventually empty into the sea, and does so in a way that is intriguing to kids.    My daughter can now identify all of the Great Lakes on a map, and was also then proportionately excited to see them in real life.

    3. Video Tours of National Parks:  For our “movie nights” on several occasions, we would seek out video tours of parks like Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, as well as sights like Niagara Falls, the buildings & trains of Chicago, and so forth.   We’d make a particular point to then discuss them for days afterward.   We’d also have the kids go through the National Geographic Kids magazines that they get, and cut out animals that they would expect to see in the various areas of the USA, and stick them to our big road trip map in the kitchen.
  5. Practice Trips:  Before going on our big cross-country trip, we intentionally took two other long road trips with the kids, in order to hone our game – an 8-hour trip to Tennessee, and an 18-hour drive down to Clearwater, FL.   Through that we were able to see how long the kids could do well without a leg-stretch, and how long the optimal day was where we could make good time getting across the country while not making it painful for us.

Through all this, we were able to make this trip the far and away best road trip I’ve ever had.   And as this one’s long enough already, I’ll do up another post with the results of our trip!





3 thoughts on “Planning a Cross-Country Road Trip With Small Children

  1. Thanks for posting. I was going to ask you guys about how you prep’d the kids. Sounds awesome and I’m totally taking these pointers for our road trip!

    1. Glad it could help! Definitely found a direct relationship between how much work we spent prepping them and making them understand the scope of the trip and what they’ll see (even if it’s just spotting bridges or trees or water), and the lack of meltdowns about why they can’t be watching a movie.

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