This post was updated on June 17, 2022.
When it’s time to hit the road for family vacations, the idea of spending endless hours in the car can feel intimidating. Don’t get discouraged. There are things that you can do to get kids to burn off some extra energy on road trips. One year, I spent the entire summer on the road with my three kids (6, 8, 10) and we drove 14,000 km across Canada. But even on the biggest drives, my passion for the outdoors leaves me with a deep-rooted desire to keep the kids active.
Many times, I’ve been asked how do I do it. Here are some of my tips and tricks:
1. Stop at provincial parks for lunch
I can say with certainty that we have many incredibly well-taken-care-of provincial parks sprinkled across Canada. Some provincial parks have camping capabilities while others are day-use only. Generally, these parks are much less busy than our national parks.
Guest post by Van
Van holds a degree in biology and physiotherapy. She’s an avid outdoorsperson who documents her adventures with her kids and is a firm believer in health and wellness by way of fresh air. She is always hunting for family-friendly adventures. You can find her online at rollingwithvan.com or getkidsout.com, and follow her on Facebook and Instagram (@rollingwithvan and @getkidsout).
They often have picnic tables available which makes it easy to prepare sandwiches and healthy lunches along the way. Personally, I’d rather spend time outside than in restaurants so that the kids can run around and work out their wiggles. Sometimes, the parks offer geocaching, an activity that the kids love to do. These areas frequently offer natural sightseeing, historical facts, or geography of the region, lakes for quick swims or paddles, and/or beautiful trails with short hikes, perfect for little legs.
An added bonus with provincial parks is that they often have bathrooms available to empty wee little bladders before getting back in the car. They’re a win-win way to get kids moving while tying in a lunch stop. If there are no provincial parks in the area, playgrounds are a good substitute.
2. Pack an outdoor recreation bag—and keep it handy
Having an accessible duffel bag with some outdoor toys is a great way to keep kids moving on driving breaks. Our rec bag is one of the last things to go into the car. We pack baseball gloves, balls, skipping ropes, buckets, toy cars and trucks, and shovels in there. On most stops, this bag comes out with us.
3. Have a proper bike rack
We often travel with our bikes. They’re always the first things to come off at campgrounds and the kids love to explore our “home-away-from-home” loops with them. The bikes can also come in handy on the road, but only if they’re easy to load and unload.
If the rack is cumbersome, or if the bikes are strapped on the roof and difficult to get down, or even if you have to remove bike wheels to store the bikes, then they won’t get used on shorter stops. Our rack takes minutes to load and unload and so if there’s a safe place for the kids to ride, the bikes are fair game.
The best bike racks will also swing away, loaded or unloaded, from your vehicle’s hatch, trunk, or back door to allow for easy access to your bike helmets or your rec bag.
4. Play “Find the Monkey”
This is a game that we’ve been playing for years while camping. We use it on stops where the kids need a little extra exercise. We have a sock monkey mascot (any stuffy would work) that travels with us. The game is simple. First, set inbound parameters. Then you hide the monkey while the kids close their eyes without peeking. Our rules are that the monkey always has to have a little bit showing so that you can see him from a distance. Whoever finds the monkey hides it next.
We have loads of fun with this game. The kids love getting creative with their hiding spots. Sometimes, I run a good distance to make the kids think he’s far away, then I drop him under a bowl at the picnic table or under a camping chair, with only a little bit showing. The kids will listen for my footsteps and my strides which helps them develop some sleuthing skills on top of all the running, climbing, crouching, reaching, and stretching they might do to retrieve or hide the stuffy.
So much fun!
5. Save your recycling for creative time
When we’re on a camping road trip, I save our recycling, such as egg cartons, containers, plastics, and collapsed cereal boxes. If we’re at a campsite, or if we’re stopping for a longer period of time (for example, if the van needs to go into the shop, or you’ve got a flat tire, or you’re stopped for an extended lunch) pull out the recycling. Keep duct tape, scissors, and string with the recycled goods. Then challenge the kids to create.
On our trip last summer, I challenged the kids to build the best boat they could. They put some serious work hours on them at the campsite, but finishing touches continued on the road over several stops.
When we stopped where there was water, the kids ran for the shorelines. They crouched, reached, stretched, and ran. They used critical-thinking skills, imagination, and creativity, applying fine motor skills to make readjustments before floating their creations again. This STEM activity set the stage for water-safety chats as well as recycling and re-using discussions.
Their homemade boats were the most played-with toys on our cross-Canada trip.
6. Let the kids help set up camp
On our 64 days on the road, the kids were involved in setting up camp. My oldest would help with the tent because I couldn’t put it up by myself. Even the youngest carried her sleeping bag and mattress to the tent and set up her own sleeping zone.
I often keep several kettles handy and send the kids for water runs on arrival. They love this job because with the help of the park maps, they have to find the water taps (which are usually not far from the site) and they’re able to fill the kettles and still carry them. They spend endless hours running to and from the tap and strengthening their bodies from carrying small water loads.
When we have a long day on the road, I always plan to do something at the destination after we’re set up. On those nights, camping meals are kept simple and after clean-up, we explore the park on bikes or on foot. If we’re near lakes, we love to soak in the sunsets. The kids have spent many nights with headlamps playing on the sandy beaches on late arrivals.
On the mornings before we hit the road again, the kids stuff their own sleeping bags, tidy their things, and help with the takedown and reloading of the van. There are many strides taken from the tent to the van carrying loads. Trust me, they don’t always want to do this, but this routine was set early, and they have gained a sense of responsibility, a feeling of helping out, as well as confidence in their own camping skills.
Although this keeps them active before setting out again, I will readily admit that anytime we’re camping, the kids don’t need much encouragement to keep moving—they just do.