Day Trips with Young Kids – 5 Tips for Success

I love planning adventures with James and Julia and we get outside for something most days of the week, although we’re usually home for some downtime in the afternoons.

Day trips, on the other hand, can be daunting. There were a couple of things that pushed me into doing solo day trips with my kids. First, I decided to stay home with them after James was born, which meant my role as activity manager became full-time when Peter returned to work from parental leave. Second, Peter was unexpectedly hospitalized with a collapsed lung over the summer last year (he’s fine now – risk factor of being tall and male). When he got home, he needed a lot of rest and quiet and couldn’t lift more than 15 pounds for awhile, so getting the kids out of the house for long stretches was important for his recovery.

Planning for day trips is one of the things I get asked about most in messages on Instagram and something I’ve spent a lot of time practicing.

Here are 5 tips that usually help prevent total meltdowns (by me and the kids!):

1. Choose destinations with multiple activities

Nothing is worse than driving a long ways to an activity for it not to work out, or for my kids to spend 10 minutes on an activity I thought they would love (so unpredictable!).

When I’m planning for us to be out for a long day, I try to pick a destination that has multiple things we can do (and often even a ferry ride or other interesting transportation method). On a trip to Guemes Island, for example, we hiked to the top of Guemes Mountain, picked up takeout from the general store and then went out to the beach to play. I had also thought about driving around the northern side of the island for more outdoor exploration, but didn’t end up needing that many back-ups.

A trip to Fort Ward Park on Bainbridge Island similarly had hikes, old military bunkers to explore, a paved trail for biking and waterfront picnic tables for the takeout lunch we’d bought nearby.

2. Strategize for “ins and outs”

Particularly during the COVID pandemic, thinking about what/where everyone will eat and use the restroom is really important in the day trip equation.

I like supporting local restaurants and businesses in the areas we visit, so I usually do a very quick Google search for coffee or restaurant suggestions nearby. We usually eat breakfast and dinner at home, but plan for snacks and lunch on our day trip where I purchase one meal and pack the other.

Car snacks are also important. When it’s just me and the kids, I usually have a small bag on the passenger seat with snacks that aren’t too messy or likely to cause choking (goldfish, dried fruit, o-shaped cereal). I hand them to the peanut gallery as needed to help keep the peace.

Where restrooms are concerned, it gets a little tricky right now since many public restrooms in restaurants and coffee shops are closed. I bring Julia’s toddler potty and pack it into a giant trash bag in the back of our Outback along with hand sanitizer and toilet paper. While I’ve awkwardly crouched in the back in a pinch, I’ll usually park the car next to a restroom in a park and lock the kids inside (legal in Washington since it’s not running and I’m not going to a bar, but check local guidelines in other states) while I briefly run in with my mask on.

3. Plan for naps (or adjust other sleep)

Playing nap roulette is one of the major hurdles of a day trip for me. When Julia still napped, she was great at sleeping in the car or napping in a stroller. James has Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and isn’t a great car or stroller sleeper, especially not when big sister might be doing something cool nearby.

What usually works for us is to put him in our LilleBaby toddler carrier (we have the Complete Airflow; it has a wider seat than the infant version of the same style) on my back while Julia and I take a hike. I have to move relatively consistently to get James to go to sleep and stay asleep, so hikes work better than urban walks and I have to plan for that.

To be honest, this is still the hardest piece. I only plan day trips once or twice a month because I have to mentally prepare to sacrifice the quiet time for me that comes with naps at home and the potential for a cranky toddler if he doesn’t nap. His naps out are usually shorter (1 hour vs. 2), so I don’t plan for an evening activity on those days either.

4. Bring back-up toys/games/books

Just like adults, kids sometimes need a quiet activity to help them reset or just to pass the time on the car ride to and from an adventure.

We typically have some combination of the following in the car for a day trip:

  • Spotify playlists (Frozen II, They Might Be Giants the “No” album, and the Weezer “Teal” album are their favorites)
  • Magnetic drawing tablet for James and a notebook with colored pencils for Julia’s drawing
  • Sand toys – they’re great for the beach, but also for filling with water from puddles or pine needles on a trail
  • Blanket/towel – we have the Rose Hip Warrior blanket from Eighth Generation that is both warm and durable, so it makes a good picnic blanket or something cuddly if it’s chilly out. I also typically have a grungy towel for wiping off dirty feet.

5. Weigh the pros and cons of company

Sometimes an extra set of hands can be really helpful when you’re out with the kids. During the pandemic while we’re not supposed to gather with folks outside our household, particularly indoors, some families like to meet grandparents as a way of including them.

Call me crazy, but I actually prefer to do day trips solo (I even like leaving my husband at home sometimes)! For me, full day adventures require flexibility and the ability to change plans quickly if something doesn’t work out as planned (the kids got tired or bored, we missed a ferry or the coffee shop is closed). That makes it more stressful if I have to rally additional troops around a new plan, or consider many people’s preferences and abilities in deciding what to do.

I also like that day trips give me time that is 100% focused on my kids — I’m not thinking about chores at home or what craziness is going on in the news that day. Leaving other adults at home also means that I can have some really wacky and interesting conversations with Julia (and sometimes James). Their behavior and attitude also seem to improve with my increased focus on them, so it’s a win-win for everyone.

Bonus Tip: Save ideas for later to make planning easier

I love Instagram and Pinterest for inspiration. Whenever someone posts something that looks like a cool day trip, I save the post for later or add it to an embarrassingly messy spreadsheet of ideas. When it’s been awhile since we’ve had a day trip together, I go back to my saved posts and try to pick something that fits our current interests/abilities/weather forecast.

What are your tips for day trips with kids? Are there any questions I can answer to make full-day outings seem more possible?


Vashon Island Day Trip

During this pandemic world we’re living in, I’ve started to toy with the idea of buying an electric cargo bike to tote the kids around and make our short neighborhood trips feel more adventurous (and environmentally friendly). However, the bikes are a big investment (even used, if you can find one!) so I didn’t want to buy until I could try it out for more than just a ride around the block. The closest spot to rent a bike was on Vashon Island, so I organized what I thought would be a half day trip, which turned into a full day trip. Here’s our rough itinerary:

9:30 a.m. – Ferry from Fauntleroy (West Seattle)

With the West Seattle bridge closed for the foreseeable future, it took awhile to get to the Fauntleroy Ferry from West Seattle. We could have also driven down to Point Defiance, but this was slightly shorter. This particular ferry schedule is a little wonky, possibly because the ferry also continues on to Southworth, so there were 9:10 and 9:30 a.m. ferries on a weekday, but the next ferry wasn’t until 10:25 a.m. Check the ferry schedule on WSDOT’s website. The ferry crossing is roughly 20 minutes, and it’s about another 20 minutes from the terminal to the Jensen Point Boathouse to pick up the bike.

10:15 a.m. – e-Bike Rental Reservation

I wanted to stop for coffee at the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie, but the line was too long, so we moved on to our reservation at Vashon Adventures. They require advance reservations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but same day reservations are available. I had called a week or two ahead to check on cargo bikes – we reserved a long-tail rather than the front box style because it’s the type I think I’d be most likely to purchase. Erin had the bike all set up out front with child seats for us and was very thorough in explaining how to operate the bike. I really appreciated her patience since I haven’t ridden a bike in several years (and not regularly since I was a kid). I brought the kids’ helmets since I knew they would wear them, but borrowed a helmet for myself. There are kids’ helmets available and they were in good shape.

Checking my seat height with two happy campers on our Tern cargo e-bike

After a few practice laps around the boathouse parking lot and a review of the Vashon map, we were off! Getting used to the bike took me awhile, but probably wouldn’t be as challenging for a regular rider. I had to acclimate to the heavy weight at the back of the bike (especially 70 lbs of wiggly children), which meant that stopping at a stop sign was hard at first, as was keeping the bike straight on some of the more uneven road edges. However, the area around the Jensen Point Boathouse and the Point Robinson Lighthouse (our destination) is full of hilly, but relatively smooth, roads with low speed limits (35 mph or less), so it was a perfect spot to practice.

11:15 a.m. – Point Robinson Lighthouse

Point Robinson always comes up when I search for tide pools in the Seattle area (there’s even a low tide festival most summers, pandemic not withstanding). In researching our trip, I noticed that low tide was supposed to be around 11 a.m., so it seemed like a perfect destination. Getting there took a bit longer than I expected, so we didn’t end up seeing the tide pools, per se. However, the kids loved knocking on the lighthouse door, shoveling shells, and eating their snacks in one of the many driftwood forts. Impending naptime and my nervousness about returning the bike on time meant that we only spent about 40 minutes at the lighthouse.

Running toward the (closed) lighthouse to knock on the door
Climbing in one of many driftwood forts while snacking

Distance: the lighthouse is a 14.5 mi round trip ride from the Jensen Point boathouse. It took us roughly 35-40 minutes to bike each way, and 17 minutes to drive.

*Note on accessibility and facilities: only the upper parking area is open, so you’ll have to walk a medium sized distance down a steep hill to the lighthouse area (unless you bike!) and possibly park on the road if the small parking lot is full. There are one or two spots by the beach for people with disabilities. Fairly clean porta potties are available by the beach and in the parking area.

12:15 p.m. Return Bike, Back to Point Robinson

On our way back to the boathouse, I could feel my phone vibrating in my pocket and could see it was Vashon Adventures when I stopped to check. We were running a tiny bit late, so I thought they might be calling to make sure we were on our way back. When we got to the boathouse, though, Erin told me she had called because a pod of transient orca whales was on their way to the lighthouse and she wanted us to feel free to stay and watch. So thoughtful! I had never seen orcas in the wild, so we hurried back to the lighthouse to spot them. After 20 minutes, the kids were getting antsy and we hadn’t seen anything, so we were just packing up to leave when I saw a flash of dorsal fin! We were on the far end of the beach, which happened to be in the whales’ direction, so we got a front row view as 6-7 whales (including what looked like a couple of juveniles) swam back and forth. Erin had mentioned that the beach has a steep drop not far offshore, making it easy to see whales because they can come close as they hunt for seals. It really did feel like they were magically close and it was an amazing end to our trip. A lucky little harbor seal also popped their head up after the whales had swam by, so we got a bonus wildlife sighting for the day.

3:20 p.m. – Ferry Home

Pro tip that should have been obvious from our recent Whidbey trips: Google isn’t smart enough yet to review ferry schedules, so it assumes you just hop on a ferry when you arrive at the terminal. Our visit with the whales threw me off and I stupidly believed Google when it suggested the Vashon/Fauntleroy route would be faster than the Point Defiance ferry and didn’t check the schedules. We arrived at the terminal at 2 p.m., but the ferries depart at 1:40 and 3:20 p.m. So I opened all the windows on a hot day, read every book in the car, looked at laminated placements with shapes/instruments/states and sang ridiculous songs for a over an hour before doing it again for the 20 minute ferry ride. Lesson learned – check the ferry schedules!


We pulled into our driveway at 4:30 p.m. so our trip was about 2-3 hours longer than I had planned, but it was a really beautiful day with some unique adventures and everyone felt it was worthwhile. I joked with a friend that it was like playing Pacific Northwest bingo – we took a ferry, rode a bike, climbed near a lighthouse, played on a rocky beach, saw orcas, and almost had locally roasted coffee. If I were doing the same trip over again, I would:

  • Print out the ferry schedules for all nearby ferry routes. It’s not normally necessary because most ferries are at predictable intervals, but would really have helped me when we unexpectedly extended the trip.
  • Book the 3 hour or full day rental next time. I was nervous about James’ nap time and thought the kids might hate the bike, so I booked the minimum 2 hours. Julia absolutely loved the ride and James took a short nap in his seat (he’s flexible, but a terrible trip sleeper, so I should have expected that). We could have stayed longer at the lighthouse or stopped for coffee/ice cream with more time. That said, there weren’t too many other renters, so I also could have probably called and asked for an extension.

As for an e-bike purchase? The jury’s still out. I would absolutely rent one again in an easy environment like Vashon Island. However, I’m not sure I’m a confident enough rider to handle Seattle’s streets. The arterials are full of oblivious drivers (I’m guilty of that sometimes, too) and parked cars apt to throw open their doors at any time, and there frequently aren’t bike lanes, or they’re heavily shared by buses and turning cars. Even the side streets are narrow with cars and bikes navigating a small shared space, leaving the potential for a lot of stopping and starting. For now, I think I’ll repeat this day trip instead!