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?