The 'Backpack Hack' Makes Traveling With Kids Less Stressful

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

For days before our extended weekend trip, my kids are begging me for just one peek. But they know I won’t let them—because if I do, I’m out of tricks. If your family is like mine, the holiday season and school breaks mean a lot of time traveling–traveling that basically tortures parents. For us, it’s travel via our semi-clean mini-van. We load up—each person in their designated seat—and off we go.

We used to get about five minutes (if that) down the road before one of my kids would profess, “I’m bored.”

Of course, the other three kids thought this was accurate, so they’d also begin whining—loudly and relentlessly. What time will we get to Grandma’s? Four hours? That’s forever! Did you bring me any snacks? I don’t like that kind of granola bar. Who farted? Mom! Mom! That smells so bad! Can we listen to Taylor Swift? I don’t like Taylor Swift! I want Imagine Dragons! Can we watch a movie? It’s my day to pick a movie. I am not watching Frozen again! Mom, make him stop singing the songs! I can’t hear the movie!

Now I know what you’re thinking. Hand those kids a device! But because we limit electronic time at home, we do so in the car, as well. We might use devices for half the trip—but not the entire time. Which means I needed to come up with something for my kids to do for a few hours.

This was no easy feat. I have two tweens, a first grader, and a preschooler. And if your kids are like mine—everything must be 100% fair. Otherwise, I’ll spend a solid hour fielding (more) complaints.

One year, as we prepared for the another trip, I came up with a mom hack that made our traveling a lot easier. I’m here to let you in on the magic, too.

A few years ago, I was cleaning out our closet and found several worn-but-still-functioning backpacks that we’d replaced with newer versions for school. I was about to throw them into our donation pile, until it dawned on me that I could re-use them. And not just re-use them, but utilize them to make our traveling potentially much easier.

After washing and drying the backpacks, my first stop was our play room. I grabbed pencil cases we’d gotten for free from our library. I threw in a hodge-podge of washable markers, crayons, and pencils. I also found mini-clip boards from Grandma, and I clipped stickers—because we have so many—to each one. Then I dug through our stack of coloring books and found one for each kiddo. In addition, I found several spiral notebooks, one per kid.

My kids love to be cozy in the car, and we usually bring a blanket for each one when we travel. But what about something to squish and snuggle? I found one small-ish stuffed animal for each kid, adding those to the backpacks.

Next up—books. I raided each kiddo’s room. I grabbed old favorites as well as ones that had fallen behind their shelves that they’d forgotten about. I also found a few magazines. Additional hack: toy catalogs that come in the mail are amazing for occupying children.

I decided to add some small toys for each child. Again, I dug through their bedrooms. I do have a few rules, because I have to be a mean mom sometimes. The rules are absolutely no slime, dough, or putty, no teeny-tiny parts that will never make it home again, and nothing that makes obnoxious noises that make me want to drink at 9 a.m.

So what toys do I put in? I grabbed some action figures, little vehicles, fidget toys, and card games. Sometimes I’ll buy—and wrap, because why not?—the kids one small new toy, movie or book. I don’t always leave these in the backpacks. I might temptingly leave them in a stack on the console and build up some anticipation until the kids need a change of proverbial scenery. Insert evil laugh.

If you’re feeling brave, add some snacks and a water bottle to the backpack. We don’t–because my kids would eat all their snacks in the first ten minutes of the trip, leaving nothing for later. But hey, whatever works for your kids.

We usually start off our driving adventure with backpack time, then switch up to a movie. After a quick lunch stop—where yes, we do mandatory jumping jacks in the parking lot—the kids play their devices for awhile. Then we go back to backpacks.

The backpack hack is also fantastic because the kids can carry their own—whether we head into a restaurant or an obligatory relative pit-stop in which the kids are expected to be polite and calm. They can drag their backpack from place to place, knowing they have an entertainment go-to.

We’re preparing to embark on several car trips over the next month and a half, and yes, the backpacks are ready to go. My kids anticipate them—every single trip. It’s like Christmas morning, in the car, with their own (forgotten) items. And they require little from me. Yes, I clean them out once in a while, maybe adding in something new or taking out something they no longer are interested in.

We are never more than five hot seconds from home, headed to their aunt and uncle’s house, when my kids frantically open their backpacks to see what treasures are inside. Meanwhile, hubby and I turn on the seat heaters, whip through the coffee drive-thru to order something tall and strong, and turn on music we want to listen to.

Then we hop onto the interstate, cruising down the road in (temporary) bliss.

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