Next weekend we’re off to visit my in-laws. But instead of over the river and through the woods, our 21st-century car trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s house involves nearly 300 miles in my beloved Subaru Outback. At least most of it is on interstate highways, but you can do the math: We’re talking at least five hours of actual “drive time.” And that doesn’t count stops.

I’ve spent most of my adult life living far enough away from family that a long car trip was generally the cheapest and easiest way to see them. Whereas my younger single self sometimes took a train or plane trip instead, the cost and hassle of doing this with kids has made my trusty all-wheel-drive station wagon the automatic default choice for visiting most of our far-flung family. In fact, my husband and I were so used to packing up the car to see our folks that we thought nothing of planning three road trips for the first two months of our firstborn’s life, including a 350-mile-each-way drive to my mother’s house in the dead of winter, so our 22-day-old daughter could be baptized in the church where we were married. (Whenever I look back on that trip, I ask myself: What were we thinking?)

Each time we do a major road trip, it gets easier – in part because our kids get older, which cuts the amount of gear I feel absolutely, positively compelled to haul along. My kiddos are the first grandchildren on both sides, so the first time my husband and I took Kimmie to visit our childhood homes, our parents’ houses had not been occupied by a newborn for well over three decades. In other words, we had zero gear waiting for us on arrival.

How not to pack

So into the car, along with our own clothes and whatnot, went the half-dozen outfits per day for Baby (What if it’s too hot or too cold? What if the baby has multiple diaper blowouts or major spit-up episodes in the middle of the night, before I’ve washed the pajamas from all the previous clothing catastrophes?), the breast pump with extra batteries, plus enough bottles and containers of milk and diapers to get us from point A to point B (which was suddenly an 11-12 hour trip, not a 6-7 hour one as before), and still have a few clean spares of each on arrival. (Both my girls had enough trouble nursing in their early months that I figured planning to stop every time they wanted to eat would make our trips even longer. Unlike nursing, both pumping and bottle-feeding can be done in a car barreling along the highway at 65 mph in a pinch, so long as the grownup doing them is not also the one driving!)

But that was only the start: Also into the trunk went at least one play yard, sometimes two. And the baby bathtub. And then a high chair, lest I be the one stuck holding a baby in my lap for three meals a day (and consequently, end up wearing Baby’s meals three times a day). And the baby monitor, noise machine, music box, and nightlights. And the assortment of bibs, sippy cups, tiny BPA-free plastic spoons, and small unbreakable plates and bowls that gradually replaced the bottles and milk storage containers – not to mention enough baby cereal, yogurt, bananas, rice cakes, etc. to last until we made it to the grocery store. And later still, multiple potty seats (one for each floor of the house) and multiple step-stools (lest every trip to the bathroom by our preschooler require an adult chaperone to turn the water on and off at the sink).

And the toys – holy cow, the toys! – because the only thing more exhausting (I’ve learned) than visiting the home of someone who doesn’t have small children, is visiting such a home when there are no toys present, either supplied by your host or brought along by you. As far as small children are concerned, the entire world is full of toys waiting for them to explore. They are far less bothered than grownups are by the fine distinctions we draw between, say, Acceptable Toys for Baby (teething and otherwise) and Everything Else (china and crystal knickknacks, grownup books and magazines, remote controls and other small electronics, the dog’s water dish, the cat toy under the couch that belonged to the cat who died a decade ago, etc.). And when you’re talking toys for a trip so far from home, you’re really talking TWO sets of toys: one set for playing with once you reach your destination, and another set whose sole purpose is to keep your little angel behaving angelically for as much of the long drive as possible.

Tips to help you plan smart

I’ll devote future posts to such topics as packing for an overnight trip with Baby, flying with small kids, and actually surviving the drive itself (especially if you’re the only adult in the car!), among other topics; but for now, my parting suggestion on taking that car trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s house (or any other overnight destination you plan to visit regularly) involves seeing what advance planning you can do on the other end, with grandparental assistance:

  • Do they have friends from whom they can borrow baby gear? If so, is it current/recent and safe? In our case, all of our parents’ friends had older grandchildren – and the only gear either set could dig up at first, old highchairs, bordered on inconvenient at best and unsafe at worst (let’s just say that restraining systems and trays have come a long way). So this wasn’t much help for us, but it’s a crucial place to start.
  • Is there a gear exchange or rental service you can access on their end? Larger cities and vacation destinations often have businesses that rent baby gear to traveling families. If your parents’ town doesn’t, perhaps they can borrow some things from their church or another community organization.
  • Might they consider acquiring a few staple items? Especially if their prospects (or hopes) for additional grandchildren are good, or you plan to visit them every few months, your folks might be more than happy to invest in their own stash of baby gear, preferably in consultation with you (i.e., so you can keep them in the loop on 21st-century safety standards, so they know that a crib full of blankets and stuffed animals, with slats wider apart than a soda can, is not part of your nursery-away-from-home wish list for your newborn). In consultation with you on your own preferences and concerns, they can easily stock their home with a small stash of age-appropriate toys via their local church’s annual rummage sale (where my mom scored most of her collection), yard sales, or local thrift shops. Craigslist (if they have a good one in their area), for-sale bulletin boards at work and community centers, and secondhand stores oriented toward baby and kid gear are also super places to pick up used gear at a fraction of the cost of new stuff; the internet, discount stores that sell overstocks, and clearance sales on discontinued patterns or models are also a good way to go.
  • If the grandparental units can only afford the money and/or space to make one investment along these lines, I’d recommend a very basic play yard (such as the basic Cosco model we got on clearance in a discontinued pattern as a second play yard for travel; we eventually convinced each set of grandparents to get one, so we’d have one less thing to schlep back and forth). If their house is multistory or very spaced out, see if they’d consider getting two – one for sleeping in, and a second to contain Baby and Baby’s toys in the main living space where you’ll spend your days, or outside in the yard. (One definite advantage of the Cosco model is it’s small enough and light enough to carry through most doorways without breaking it down first.)

As you may have discovered already, play yards are for so much more than playing in. They can help block access to, stay, a stone hearth your kiddo might otherwise crack his noggin on; they can provide a portable crib for Baby; they can create a “Baby-safe zone” where Baby’s toys (not to mention Baby) won’t become deadly tripping hazards for unaccustomed-to-stepping-over-such-things grandparents; they can help to keep Baby separate from Grandma and Grandpa’s friendly resident pets; and they can help keep Baby safely contained in Grandma and Grandpa’s unfamiliar yard, on their back deck, or on the patio near their pool. Hence, if your folks are willing to spring for just one item that will simplify your life when bringing their beloved grandchild for a visit (and thereby increase the chances that you’ll visit again), then this is the one I’d recommend.

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