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12 sanity-saving road-trip tips from a Canadian mother of 5

Whether you're taking your kids to see family over the holidays or on a long-weekend getaway, this road-trip survival guide will save you. Trust us.
Whether you're taking your kids to see family over the holidays or on a long-weekend getaway, this road-trip survival guide will save you. Trust us. Creative_Outlet, Getty

When it comes to travelling with kids, Kelly-Dawn Aulenbach — who has five of them, ages one to 12— is the most prepared parent you’ll probably ever meet.

The 35-year-old Edmonton mom has developed a road trip survival system that took about five years, dozens of ideas and even help from a child psychologist to perfect.

“[It’s] allowed us to go from dreading the ‘getting there’ part of our trip to craving that time in the car together,” Aulenbach said.

In the past 12 months alone, she and her husband Jerry broke a new family record, covering 10,760 kilometres over five trips (three of which were in Alberta, one in Arizona) with the kids, whom she describes as “very intense and spirited.”

“They don’t have a low gear … Jerry’s word for them is ‘unrelenting.'”

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The longest stretch was a 5,000-km drive from Edmonton to Tofino, B.C.— a far cry from the family’s “chaotic” road trip beginnings.

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The Aulenbach family in Tofino this August. From left to right: Karen, 10; Ian, 7; Jerry; Thomas, 1; Kelly-Dawn; Leah, 6; Alexander, 12.
The Aulenbach family in Tofino this August. From left to right: Karen, 10; Ian, 7; Jerry; Thomas, 1; Kelly-Dawn; Leah, 6; Alexander, 12.

READ MORE: Road trip! Your guide to uncover Canada’s hidden gems

Even though the Nova Scotia native grew up doing cross-Canada treks to see her grandparents in Alberta, it took her a while to enjoy driving long distances with her own kids.

“Jerry and I almost vowed to never take them anywhere again,” after a particularly disastrous trip five years ago in Glacier National Park.

On what’s supposed to be “one of the most spectacular drives in the U.S.,” one of their then four kids (aged two to seven at the time) hid under a blanket and began screaming— “missing the whole view and making it really horrible for the rest of us.”

The parents couldn’t put the brakes on family road trips forever.

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“We didn’t have childcare. And more importantly, Jerry and I feel strongly that travel is one of the best forms of education,” Aulenbach said.

So through a lot of “trial and error,” she set out to turn her kids into travellers.

WATCH: Travelling with kids can be done if you’re prepared

Now when life starts to feel too busy or she feels disconnected from her kids, she’ll tell her husband: “time for a road trip.”

Here’s her 12-step road map to a successful family trip (you can find more tips and tricks on her blog, the Zoom Family).

1. Have a family meeting

Before you hit the road, Aulenbach recommends a brief family meeting to explain the trip, and most importantly, to set boundaries.

For the Aulenbach kids, the biggest problem in the early road-tripping days was sibling rivalry.

“You cannot get away from your siblings,” Aulenbach said.

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That’s why she thinks it’s important to set some ground rules, like: who will sit where and get to choose the music, what they can touch, as well as how much and what each child can bring.

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2. Limit what children bring

Rather than bring backpacks filled to the brim with toys, Aulenbach gives each of her kids a zippered binder.

“If it doesn’t fit in your binder, they can’t bring it.”

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This is where she also puts new crayons and colouring books.

Head phones, spending money and “fidget toys” can go in this binder too, Aulenbach says.

This is also where any drawing or craft supplies go.
This is also where any drawing or craft supplies go. Kelly-Dawn Aulenbach

3. Prep before each stop

Ten minutes before you make a pit stop, tell everyone to find their shoes and zip up their binders.

Decide who gets out first, flips seats and empties the garbage.

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4. Create a visual map on the ceiling

This one calls for scissors, painter’s tape and paper.

“Cut the paper into small squares and have the children draw your home city on one, the cities you will stop at or pass (one per square) and a small vehicle (representing your car).

“Tape these on the roof of the car in the order you will pass them. Have the paper vehicle  ‘move’ along the journey as you pass these milestones.

This map that you tape onto the roof of your car is perfect for curbing those “are we there yet” questions.
This map that you tape onto the roof of your car is perfect for curbing those “are we there yet” questions. Kelly-Dawn Aulenbach

“When you get in inevitable ‘are we there yet?’ Just point to the map.”

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5. Organize games

You can find a lot of travel games online. But you can also make your own, as Aulenbach does.

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Bingo is a favourite.

The kids have to cross these off as they happen to win "Bingo."
The kids have to cross these off as they happen to win "Bingo." Kelly-Dawn Aulenbach
The kids have to cross these off as they happen to win "Bingo."
The kids have to cross these off as they happen to win "Bingo." Kelly-Dawn Aulenbach

Don’t forget a prize for the winner.

6. Create a point system for kids to earn treats for good behaviour

Discipline can be hard to enforce when stuck in a car.

“You can’t impose traditional consequences, like a time out. Sometimes you can’t even pull over,” Aulenbach said.

So she likes to use a points system.

“Cleaning up, helping each other, amusing themselves for large blocks of time earns points.

“Yelling, hitting, being rude, or being messy costs them points.”

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They can cash in their points at any time for treats. Aulenbach stores those in a clear plastic container at her feet, so it’s easy to access when the kids want to cash in points.

“If you are not a fan of the point system, have them tell a joke or do a good deed before they get their treat.”

The Aulenbach family’s road trip point system.
The Aulenbach family’s road trip point system. Kelly-Dawn Aulenbach

7. Give kids turns being the “team leader”

Each day of the trip, the Aulenbach family appoints a new team leader.

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“That person get all the ‘privileges’ of the day,” the mom explains.

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The privileges could include getting to choose the music or picking snacks first.

8. Audio books are a must

You can get through the first four Harry Potter books on a 5,000-km road trip, in case you were wondering.

roadtrip-audio-books

These are some of the books the Aulenbachs have enjoyed:

  • Harry Potter series
  • Savvy by Ingrid Law
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
  • Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Lavine
  • Midnight Magic by Avi
  • Magic Tree House series
  • Fablehaven by Brendon Mull
  • The Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer
  • Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett

Check your library and ask about extended borrowing, Aulenbach suggests.

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“Even if some of you have read the books before, listening to them as a family adds a whole new level.”

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You can download these to a device and play it over Bluetooth if your car is newer, she adds Or buy a cheap Bluetooth speaker for the dash so you can use your phone library.

9. Have a parent “supply bag”

Fill it with tape, scissors, Gravol, Tylenol (for all ages), and bags for car sickness and garbage, as well as wet wipes.

“I also have my own surprise bag where I keep glow sticks for at night in the car. I’ll say, ‘look the sun has set, let’s get out the glow sticks!'”

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You can also add other fun things like stickers and bubbles (which you can blow through a car’s vents).

A parent’s road trip “supply bag.”
A parent’s road trip “supply bag.” Kelly-Dawn Aulenbach

10. Have each child create their own photo album

Buy a cheap photo album for each child from the dollar store. Then print a bunch of 4×6 photos of happy memories or loved ones who have passed or live far away.

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“Every so often, hand out a print and have them put it in their album. Tell your children the story of that image. Use this as a way to build a family narrative, touch on values and build self esteem.”

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11. Geocaching

Whether you’re at a gas station, provincial park or rest stop, the Geocaching app (available for iOS and Android for $9.99) turns the ground at your feet into a treasure hunt.

“Everywhere you go, you have a scavenger hunt to complete,” Aulenbach explained. “These do not have to take a lot of time. Set a timer for 10 minutes, if you find it great. If not, back in the car.”

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Using your smartphone’s location services GPS, the app allows you to enter your location and start looking for a hidden “geocache” — which can range from large plastic containers, to film canisters and even rocks.

Once found, take a picture and log that you’ve found the treasure to earn points.

geocaching-app

12. Bring toys for youngsters

“If traveling with an infant or young toddler, save all those annoyingly noisy toys people give you for the road trip. It’s much better than listening to them scream.”

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Baby toys.
Baby toys. Kelly-Dawn Aulenbach

Aulenbach admits even with all of this, there are still bumps along the way.

“Fights over movies and music, elbow bumps … But I can nip them in the bud a lot faster.”

WATCH: Tips from flying with kids from a mom who’s visited 31 countries in 18 months with her two little ones

The bucket list family’s adventures
The bucket list family’s adventures

Happy trails!

— With files from Nicole Bogart, Global News