One of the more intimidating parts of a PCS move is the long car ride between duty stations. Interstate trips lasting several days are daunting for any military family, but are especially challenging if you have children. These tips will help you get your whole family ready for a long-distance PCS car trip with kids.
What to pack: You’ll want the diaper bag well stocked and in a convenient location, so you can easily spread out the mat on the car floor or seat to do a quick diaper change at each gas station or rest stop. Include extra outfits for both warmer and colder weather, as temperatures may change during your drive. Calculate the number of diapers your baby uses each day, add a few extra, then multiply that by the number of days of the car trip. Purchase that quantity before the trip, so you won’t be forced to find a store in an unfamiliar town. The same is true for baby food, medicine and any other essentials your baby will need during the trip.
Car trip hacks: Use a “no-throw” strap on the car seat to attach their bottle or favorite toy to prevent it from getting thrown out of reach on the car floor. Use a seatback storage pocket that contains a pacifier, burp cloth, bottle or sippy cup, favorite toys and anything that might soothe your baby. This keeps essentials in easy reach, so either you or an older child can grab them easily. If you use formula, pack it in a convenient place with several bottles of water, so you can mix up a bottle on the go. Take baby out to stretch and burp at every rest stop, even if it is only for a few minutes. When driving through mountains, massage the baby’s cheeks right next to the ear, in small circles, to reduce the pain from the eardrums “popping” in elevation changes.
Toddlers and Preschoolers
What to pack: Expect accidents, so be prepared with changes of clothes packed in an accessible location. Keep paper towels, plastic grocery bags and Ziploc bags handy for car sickness or storing soiled clothes. If your child is potty training, use Pull-Ups during the trip, or practice with a travel potty ahead of time. Improve the chances of nap time with car seat pillows and blankets.
Best entertainment: This age does well with a “busy bag” of assorted activities that can be changed frequently. Bundle toys into individual bags or pencil pouches, so you can give them one bag at a time. Allow them to choose some favorites, then add a few new toys as surprises. Use a small cooking sheet with magnet letters, a static sticker book or a magnetic drawing set for mess-free creativity.
Car trip hacks: It’s okay to use bribes during this long trip! Purchase cheap dollar toys or coloring books from the dollar store before your trip. Hand out these “prizes” when you cross a state line or they take a nap. Portion out snacks into individual baggies so you can toss them to kids. Avoid chocolate (which melts), cheesy snacks (which stain fingers), or trail mix (which gets picked apart and thrown everywhere). When changing altitudes, let them suck on lollipops or eat chewy candy to relieve ear pressure.
What to pack: This age can help prepare for the trip. Let them choose favorite books, toys, activities and comfort items. They may need a change of clothes for spilled food or other accidents. Keep jackets handy for changing temperatures. Pack one gallon-sized snack bag per child with all their snack options for the day and let them help themselves throughout the trip.
Best entertainment: Bring all the electronics! If your child has a hand-held gaming device, charge it every night. Consider mounting an iPad holder on the back of a seat rest. Or go old-school. Get activity books with mazes, crossword puzzles or coloring pages. Play classic car games like bingo, finding letters on road signs, filling out a state license plate sheet or listening to audiobooks.
Car trip hacks: If you have multiple children, use a headphone splitter so two can watch the same device at once. Before stopping for lunch, go to a playground first to let the kids run around. Then eat on the road so they can rest afterwards.
Preteens and Teens
What to bring: They are able to pack themselves but double-check for adequate clothing and toiletries. Make sure they include chargers for all electronics, a book to read and a car game or activity. Consider giving them a budget for snacks from gas station stops.
Best entertainment: They will want their phone, a charger and headphones. Use an exterior battery pack to extend their phone’s usability. Have them download their playlists and favorite shows in advance if they won’t have Wi-Fi on the road. Audiobooks can be entertaining for the whole family, especially if it is an intriguing genre like mysteries or spy action stories. Or see who can find the most interesting or weird facts about each state you pass through.
Car trip hacks: If your teen isn’t driving yet, let them co-pilot. They can help navigate, prepare money for tolls and save receipts. Talk them through driving scenarios or quiz them on road signs to prepare them for driver’s ed.
A long PCS car trip can be intimidating, but with the right preparation, it can also be a fun, memorable event for your family. No matter how far you drive for your next PCS move, plan ahead to make the ride enjoyable for everyone.