It was going to be a long trip through Utah, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and we knew it would be challenging. We plotted a course through five national parks over the course of 12 days this summer, sneaking in overnighters at a few hotels along the way to freshen up and do some laundry.
We wanted to do it all without worrying about charging an iPad or getting a signal so someone could “level up” on the game they were playing. So we left the technology at home, hitting the road for 3,200 miles in a car packed full of kids — one kid for every available seat belt.
It turns out, we spotted every single horse along the route, because those five kids were actually looking up instead of down. We didn’t ditch the tech devices for the seemingly never-ending “Horsey!” announcements. We did it because we wanted our kids to actually experience the new places we were driving through.
It was intentional, but not punitive. After all, it’s how we as parents experienced road trips as kids.
None of the kids will ever forget braving a blinding thunderstorm on our way into Yellowstone National Park or pulling over so everyone in the car could get a closer look at the bison roaming a field as we reached the Montana-Wyoming state line. We also stepped out to look on as a herd of bighorn sheep snacked during the “magic hour” inside Zion National Park.
We heard their excitement from the backseat when they spotted elk, and pulled over so everyone could peek through their binoculars. And we kept our speed low so everyone could see every second of Going-to-the-Sun Road inside Glacier National Park, where waterfalls spill down to the winding road at seemingly every turn, and a mountain goat graced us with a majestic pose as if he knew that was the photo everyone was looking to capture.
We can only imagine what our kids would have missed on these drives if they had been distracted by technology. YouTube, Instagram and texts could wait. These places couldn’t.
To be real, the absence of technology on a road trip can be a challenge, especially for the adults involved. We had to manage arguments related to someone’s elbow taking up too much room, and someone not sharing the coveted neck pillow we awarded to the poor kid who had rotated to the car’s lone middle seat.
This is childhood, and parenthood. Those arguments are constant, with or without technology. But without technology, there are none of those zombie-quiet moments in the car. It’s an adjustment, but one that’s worth it.
As part of our survival toolkit, we stocked the car with new activities they hadn’t seen before. We found a chunky edition of Mad Libs, bought all new dry-erase markers for the boards we keep in the car, and picked up a couple of brain puzzles that progressively stumped each kid at some point.
And, we scored Highlights. Remember those magazines from our childhood? The hidden pictures? They still exist, and they are just as engaging for kids today as they were when as kids we used them to kill time in the doctor’s office.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and a tech-free road trip proves that over and over. Together, five kids managed to find a way to play Uno across two seats — each kid trusting the other not to peek. Bummed as I was, we couldn’t find a way to play travel Scrabble in the car with all the tiny pieces, and the Oregon Trail game we found required a big, flat surface we didn’t have.
But we did go through an entire spool of rainbow-colored yarn. I remembered how to finger-crochet, gave them a 10-minute lesson, and before we knew it, they were making bracelets and necklaces and even dream catchers out of a $2 spool of yarn.
The activities kept them busy on the parts of the drive that were less interesting, and allowed them to eject immediately when there was something amazing happening outside. We can’t say the same would have happened had they been gaming, or FaceTiming or texting.
Without smartphones, apps and iPads, the experiences they were having in that moment took the front seat. And that was the whole idea.
Tech-free road trip survival tips
- Magazines and activity books for kids. We stocked up on Highlights, Time Magazine and National Geographic activity books from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and local bookstores.
- Brain puzzles. A few Rubik’s cube-type handheld games challenged our kids to solve color and shape puzzles. We found a couple of these puzzles at Target.
- Card games. Believe it or not, Old Maid and Go Fish are still a hit. Kids can also manage Uno in the car.
- Simple crafts. Beading, embroidery (if it’s not their first time) and yarn crafts helped put the kids in a state of concentrated, creative flow.
- Frequent stops. We learned to get everybody out of the car as often as possible, letting them explore the creek or nearby trail. For everyone’s sanity, let go of a rigid schedule and let the wonder unfold.
- Road trip? Try listening to an audiobook as a family
- Exploring the beauty of our national parks
- Learning to paddleboard in the Sonoran Desert
- Obstacle course races offer family fitness and fun