Holiday Road Trip Survival Guide: from kid-friendly games to vehicle safety, we’ve got you covered

V1 Staff

Ben Francis / Creative Commons 2.0

The holiday seasons mean many things to many people. Some of our celebrations are religious, while others are secular. Sometimes we gather with family members and at other times with friends. One thread that likely connects us if we’re parents, however, is the need to drive long distances with our children under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Holiday road trips can be stressful. If little minds aren’t occupied, little bodies squirm in their seats. Fatigue-induced tantrums are a possibility for both children and adults, and the term “blowout” can apply to tires and diapers. On this page, we’ve compiled a range of helpful tips, including how other Chippewa Valley parents keep their kids occupied on the road, what you must be sure to pack for your upcoming road trips, and how to make sure your vehicle is ready for whatever winter throws at it.

Keeping Little Minds Busy

My family plays the Animal Game while waiting at restaurants and car rides. It is like Twenty Questions, but specifically about animals. We will ask questions like, “Is it a bird/mammal/insect/reptile?” along with guessing if it lives in Wisconsin or other places. You can ask as many questions as needed, but you only get three guesses about which animal it is. It is amazing how much children learn about animals on Wild Kratts and how tricky they can be.

– Erin Anderson

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The old-school magic marker books in which the color shows up as you draw with the white marker saved us on a long road trip. It was the best $5 spent at a gas station the whole trip. Melissa and Doug’s reusable sticker books were great, too.

– Jodi Baglien Sparkes

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Here’s an oldie but a goodie: Keep track of license plates. On a road trip to South Dakota last summer, our family spied more than 30 different states as well as a few Canadian provinces and some other rarities. (Who saw a District of Columbia plate in the Midwest? This guy!) To make the game even more complex, keep track of specialty license plates – like those that commemorate veterans, sports teams, natural resources, alumni groups, etc. You can get a lot of geographical and social education just from these small rectangles of metal!

– Tom Giffey

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Here are some games my family loves on car trips (thanks, Buzzfeed):
The Yes/No Game: Whoever’s “it” has to answer all questions without saying “yes” or “no.” (One trick is to say to whoever’s “it,” “You just said ‘yes!’ ” And they come back with, “No I didn’t!” And then you’ve got them.)

Think of Something: Each person is asked to think of an object with a particular characteristic. The parent has to vary the questions to fit the level of the child. My 4-year-old might have to think of something green, while my 8-year-old might have to come up with something Japanese.

Car Color Bingo: Pick a color, score a point for each color you drive past. First one to reach a certain number is the winner. (Silver’s the most common.)

5-4-3-2-1: Players take turns spotting an interesting object outside. If it’s a cow, they say, “Cow! 5-4-3-2-1.” The other players have to locate, point to, and say the name of the object before the countdown reaches one. Whoever identifies it first is the next speaker. (The driver shouldn’t play this.)

Character Counting: Each player takes a turn naming a character from a film or TV show or book, with others helping out if they get stuck. It’s a collaborative game where everybody works together. (Disney films, Harry Potter, etc.)

– Zach Schultz

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Interesting snacks and toys/games/books/movies they haven’t seen before. Anything novel is higher-value, and will hold their interest and make it fun; novel music, novel games you can introduce to them (even if they are made up), a new box of crayons and a dollar store coloring book, “I Spy” games/books, new books from the library. Whatever you bring, keep it a surprise until you are on the road. It’s so exciting to rifle through a travel goodie bag for hours of entertainment.

– Jennifer Leavitt

Vehicle Safety

Keeping your vehicle safe as the weather grows colder means following a few common-sense steps (and by “common sense” we mean “things your dad probably reminded you to do”). AAA Wisconsin has the following suggestions:

• Check your battery. “At zero degrees, a good battery has 35 percent less starting power,” AAA advises. The driving range of electric vehicles takes a big hit during cold weather, too.

• Use your garage. No garage? Cover the hood with a tarp or park it somewhere to protect it from prevailing winds. Another cheap life hack: Put a plastic trash bag between the doors and the frame to keep them from freezing shut.

• Don’t run on empty. Keeping your fuel tank at least half full to keep your fuel line from freezing up.

• Prep an emergency kit. AAA lists the following must-haves: Cell phone and charger, jumper cables, warm gear for all potential passengers (boots, hats, gloves, blankets, etc.), flares, flashlight and extra batteries, extra food and water, general first aid kit, non-clumping kitty litter, ice scraper, snow brush and shovel, and windshield washer fluid.

• Look vigilant for slippery surfaces. Even when roads look clear, black ice could be lurking.

• Clean off ice and snow. We’ve all been guilty of only scraping the bare minimum amount of ice off our windshields – but we all know better, right? It’s also advisable to clean your mirrors and lights and to sweep all the snow off you vehicle to keep it from blowing into your (or someone else’s) windshield.

Passenger Safety

Strapping your wee ones into their car seats can be a challenge, and that’s doubly true in the cold weather. Safe Kids Worldwide (, an injury prevention group, offers this advice to making sure your kids have a safe trip:

• Avoid bulky winter clothes. Understandably, you want your kids to be warm, but bulky coats can compress in a crash, leaving the car seat harness loose.

• Take the pinch test. “Make sure the (car seat’s) harness straps are adjusted to the correct height – they should be at, or just below, the child’s shoulders when the child rides rear-facing, and at, or just above, the child’s shoulders when a child is forward-facing. Then buckle and tighten the harness straps. Place the chest clip at armpit level. Now pinch the strap at your child’s shoulder. If you are unable to pinch any excess webbing, you’re good to go.”

• Ensure comfort. Once your child is snug, keep him or her cozy by putting a blanket or winter coat over the car seat harness.

• Check your tailpipe. Snow or ice in your vehicle’s tailpipe can force dangerous carbon monoxide in your car. This is particularly dangerous if you get stuck in the snow and leave the engine running to keep warm.

Packing List

1. Snacks, snacks, and more snacks. Pack as many snacks as you think you need, then add a few more. For less mess, go for drier finger foods (crackers, pretzels, dried fruit) rather than sticky, juicy options.

2. Beverages. Sure, getting dehydrated may mean fewer bathroom breaks, but it’s not healthy. Remember to pack water bottles, sippy cups, and thawed or pre-made milk or formula for infants.

3. Keep toys in easy reach. A car organizer (the kind that hangs on the back of the front seat) may be a wise investment. Mesh bathtub or shower caddies work as well: The pockets are ideal because they let kids see what’s inside.

4. Surprise bag. Keep a stash of books, toys, and other goodies out of sight, and pull them out as needed. A couple of bucks at a dollar store or garage sale can translate into new “treasures” that can keep the kids occupied for hours.

5. Don’t forget the tunes or flicks. If you’ve got multimedia capability, remember to pack the CDs, DVDs, or downloads you’ll need. The same goes for chargers for phones, iPods, or other portable devices you and your kids use.

6. Sleep gear. Hopefully, your family can get some shut-eye on the road (everyone but the driver, that is). Remember cozy blankets and neck pillows, as well as head-positioners for infants in car seats.

7. Clean-up prep. Paper towels, tissues, and wet wipes (and not just for baby) can be lifesavers for all manner of problems, from sneezes to spills.

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