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Family travel is such a privilege and gift, and still, the process can be harrowing. As we packed for our current road trip, I realized there are a few habits I have developed over the years that help planning and packing for the road feel smoother and more approachable. I jotted down three impactful tips below for you to borrow and make your own.

1. Delegate Packing with Lists / Getting everyone properly packed and ready to go can be stressful! Regardless of age, children are often eager for travel, so several years ago, I began channeling that energy into letting them pack their own bags, even if it was just for the weekend. I would then check and edit what they packed and they were done! Now everyone packs their own bag, but to ensure we don’t leave out any of the essentials, I create a list ahead of time for all of us. It saves so much energy and tugs-of-war about what is essential. These lists are extremely helpful for me, too, as there are so many details to keep in mind. Here’s my process:

  • Create a Reproducible List | Make a family packing list in GoogleDocs (or some other program), titled with the season, location, and time period, i.e. “Two-Week Summer Road Trip / UT, WY, MT.” This will be helpful to reference and copy/paste for future travel.
  • Label Lists Clearly | Make the list easy for everyone to use. Make specific lists for each child if they are too nuanced, or label one general list for all to follow. I find numbering items of clothing is helpful, too!
  • Print + Distribute to Each Child | Print a list for each child (maybe with images for non-readers) and clip it to a clipboard. Hand each one a clipboard and have them check off as they create their piles to pack.
  • Check + Edit Piles | When they announce they are finished, use the checklist and double-check their piles. Make any necessary edits, and have them load their bag and set it aside.

2. Pack Individual Food Bags / For longer travel trips, when food stops are imperative, we tend to pack our own food and drinks to save money and make wiser food choices. This idea works whether you are flying or driving. Sometimes distributing all the food during the trip becomes a part-time job, so we make food bags for each person to enjoy during the day, including a variety of dried fruits, meats, and nuts, little treats, fresh fruit, and bars. The idea is for each of us to choose what we eat and when during the day, but also to fill our bellies with foods that won’t make us feel bad or damage our digestion while we sit for hours in one space. For this trip, I purchased everything ahead of time on Amazon or at Trader Joe’s. Although I typically avoid pre-packaged snacks, for this purpose, it’s worth it for me. The same concept could be created from bulk. Also, for day-long drives, we pack lunch in a cooler to stop at a park along the way, to play, stretch our legs, and enjoy time in the fresh air. Here’s what is in our food bags this trip:

  • New Primal Beef Thins / These are crispier than most beef jerky and made without any of the preservatives. We love them! And this package came with them pre-packaged––perfect for individual use.
  • Justin’s Cinnamon Almond Butter packets with fresh apples and banana / These nut butters are delightful, and the individual packets help us to avoid needing utensils. There are a variety of flavors to choose, too! I also like having fresh fruit available for them to eat. It’s best if the banana is eaten early on since it tends to brown
  • Rx Bars or Clif ZBars / I love Rx Bars for their whole ingredients and substance, but not everyone in my family agrees. Wink. So I also ordered a box of Clif ZBars for the kids.
  • trail mix packets / You can find these on Amazon, too, but they are less expensive at TJ’s. I choose the mix without chocolate to prevent a melty mess.
  • a cranberry-orange scone / I picked up a packet of these at TJ’s so everyone would have a breakfast treat in the car to enjoy.
  • personal water bottle / Many places in airports and travel stops have refill stations for water bottles.

3. Create a Personal SOS Bag / SOS is a little dramatic, but we all relate with needing a few things on hand for TLC when we travel. Everyone brings something to read or draw/write on in the car, but I also have a little SOS bag for random needs along the way, even if it’s just for me. Wink. Here’s what I packed this trip:

  • Dr. Bronner’s Lavender Organic hand sanitizer / This is helpful to have on hand for all obvious reasons. I even use it to spray surfaces in a pinch. It’s made with lavender oils and without any of the toxic chemicals or preservatives. Plus, it smells so good.
  • Beautycounter Face Cloths / These are wonderful for travel! I use them to refresh, first with my face and then at times my pits and feet. They’re made with safe ingredients, are oil and fragrance-free, and are compostable, too!
  • Beautycounter Melting Body Balm / My skin tends to dry out when we travel, and this luxurious body balm feels so good on my hands, feet, and elbows. For the kids’ dry patches, I prefer this unscented option. It is also wonderful for mild eczema.
  • Ningxia Nitro / A friend gifted these to me for our trip, and I love them for the afternoon slump when I tend to crave an energy boost. These are less expensive through wholesale, so if you don’t know anyone who sells YL, I can connect you!
  • Essential Oil Roller / There are SO many resources with EOs for travel to cover here, but I love having 1 or 2 on hand while we travel. Sometimes I carry my own blend or one premade. My favorite blends are Peace+Calming, Stress Away, and Valor from YL.
  • Hydrating Facial Mist / Can you tell hydration is key for us? Lol. Sometimes I don’t need to wash or clean my skin, I just need a little moisture. This facial mist is fantastic! It releases a gentle mist with just the right amount of hydration. Two sprays is often plenty, so it often lasts forever. The peony ingredient smells so lovely, and it’s safe for the whole family, too.
  • Lip Moisture / I always keep lip balm, lip conditioner, and a Twig Sheer Lipstick (if I want some light color) on hand for family moisture. Spending time in the car AC or traveling to drier climates always dries out our lips. I reach for one of these often during travel.

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Some people prefer large soirees with friends and food and gifts to celebrate monumental birthdays, and we have hosted a couple of those fun events over the years. Yet as Mark’s fortieth birthday loomed, I wanted something quieter and more restful, something that wouldn’t require us crafting a menu or rushing through home projects to enjoy. Neither of us has the energy for that sort of work in late May and early June when the school year has just ended; instead we tend more toward collapsing, preferably somewhere cool and within a day’s driving distance.

During a conversation last spring with my friend Ruth, she side-mentioned her family’s rental property in Colorado, and after hearing a few details, I was instantly smitten with the idea of Vista La Plata, their charming home on 70 acres just outside of Durango, Colorado. I booked a week for our family over Mark’s birthday weekend and began planning the trip in secret, telling Mark only the dates to block from his calendar. Tim and Kristen joined us since the house was large enough to accommodate our combined seven children. It was the perfect surprise gift, one that didn’t require an ounce of work from him until we loaded the car.

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Vista La Plata is filled with light and flowing curtains, perfect for rising with the sunlight and coffee, and also for living with the windows open. Mark brought his hammock, which nestled perfectly on the front porch next to the rockers, and we all took turns during the week finding a little refuge there. After a long drive the first day, we were happy to plant ourselves on the property for the first day or so. The kids also enjoyed the freedom of exploring the property on their own, discovering different plants and trees and even a fort.  A few times, we drove down the road to Mormon Reservoir, a quiet and hidden reserve to kayak, fish, or skip rocks after dinner. We often passed small herds of deer nibbling the grasses, unbothered by our passing.

The lowest level of the home belonged to the kids for the week, where they played board games and enjoyed rest and art time. My older boys enjoyed their cave-like sleeping quarters (their favorite sleeping arrangement) and having a cool place to tuck away when the day felt hot and tired. Although there are so many family activities in Durango area, we took the week slow, keeping with the spirit of rest. We inadvertently spent two afternoons at the Durango Mountain Resort, where we let each of the kids pick one ticket activity. The boys opted to zip-line, while the girls bungee-jumped (feet down on a trampoline), and afterward Mark and I hiked alone with our boys, while Kristen and Tim took the other kids home for rest. On this afternoon, we discovered half of a snow patrol sled and carried it to a large patch of snow for play.

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On another other day, we all took the chairlift to the top of the mountain and ate lunch together, and afterward Mark and I took all of the older children hiking. Olive and Shepherd found flags along the way and carried them with us, and later when we crossed paths with another family, they asked if we were a mountain-guided school. We laughed, and then I thought how lovely that would be if this were our daily school.

We spent Saturday in downtown Durango at the farmers market, admiring handmade goods and tasting yummy foods. The kids walked away with balloon animals, and Olive’s popped on the long straw-like grasses within two minutes. There was a car show that day as well, which we wandered through and then waded in the icy cold Animas river. For lunch, we ate on the patio at Carver Brewing Co. and then meandered through Old Colorado Vintage and of course into Cream Bean Berry for gelato and affogatos (espresso poured over vanilla gelato).

A perk of having two sets of adults on a family vacation is swapping date nights, which we did. Mark and I strolled the downtown area for a bit and then went to dinner at the Cypress Cafe, which was a treat, especially sitting on the patio at dusk. I ordered salmon wrapped in grape leaves and Letters to Elliot to drink and have been attempting to re-create it ever since.

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Mark and I recently found a postcard from the 1950s in an antique store, where someone wrote to a friend, “we made the trip and only had to change our tires once!” Sometimes I forget how far travel has come in such a short period of time, that families regularly travel internationally, let alone a few states away in a car. I’m grateful for the ways travel broadens our scope of life and experience, how it teaches us patience and the power of improvisation. On the day of our arrival, just an hour from the house, Mark discovered a nail in two of our tires. Tim shuttled Kristen and myself to the house, helped unload, and then returned to pick up Mark and my boys. It was the longest day, but still worth it for the week that came after it. Happy birthday, my dearest.

For more images of our travels: HERE

For more ideas and activities around Vista La Plata: HERE

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Always there is something worth saying
about glory, about gratitude.
― Mary Oliver, What Do We Know

Arizona felt like a blip, a brief moment in our journey. Crossing another time-zone, we arrived to our tepee in Flagstaff at 11:30 pm, over-exhausted from our unexpected Tent Rocks hike in New Mexico earlier that day. Olive had asked at some point, “can we just stop and pitch a fort here to sleep?” “Here” being somewhere along the badlands of I-40. We laughed, tempted by her proposal and kept driving, finally collapsing into our sleeping bags just shy of midnight.

By 5:15 the following morning, our tepee was glowing with morning sun. I had forgotten what it’s like to sleep in the outdoors, to discern that early, quiet glory dispersing the fog and shadow. Night. And then, almost at once, day. Most of the time I miss it tucked behind my walls and covered windows. But that morning I was awake. I was alive.

After choking down the mediocre breakfast and coffee we regretfully bought at a local Rt. 66 diner, we drove (an anti-climatic) 1.5 hours for a day trip to the South Rim.  We had decided only to walk the rim this trip, skipping any descending hikes into the Canyon due to record-high temperatures, time, and our kids’ ages, but our few hours on the Rim Trail, including the occasional tree climb or observation point or lunch picnic, seemed the perfect first trip.  Plus, it left us time to eat at Flagstaff’s Beaver Street Brewery that evening.  Before bed, we walked again with that same sun now lengthening our shadows on the downtown streets, my heart (and stomach) swollen with gratitude.

I imagined this summer differently a few months ago. Mark had a full summer of classes planned and our family budget had dramatically shrunk this year, both leaving little room for a typical vacation. As usual, we carved out time to see our families, and I settled into the idea of being around our home more, filling our time with local activities, seeking some piece of clichéd summer americana to help form a new rhythm for our family. We sold my newer, nicer Toyota (we had just paid off last year) this spring to buy a cheaper, older Suburban to buoy our shrinking savings.  Although initially painful, Mark and I both agreed paying our bills and staying out of debt was better than driving a nicer car. Besides, this year, 2012, I had inadvertently declared “the year I get over myself,” testing the ever evasive limits of needs and wants. And it is truly evasive. In the meantime, Mark’s second summer class didn’t make, leaving us with more time coasting the long Texas highways in our new old car than I originally intended. I don’t know whether it’s the Suburban’s floating-living-room feel or the land, GREEN with sufficient rain, viewed from my window, but our family road-trips have been a part of my restoration this summer. And I’m brimming. That’s right, brimming. Who knew traveling in one car with four kids and without a DVD player or iPad I could leave me brimming?

We spent Independence Day this year in south Texas with Mark’s side of the family. They fed and housed our brood for several days, where we spent a day at the beach, swam at the waterpark, visited the family farm (where they each rode on the combine harvesting grain and ran in the cotton fields), and watched fireworks over the bay. Here’s a few pictures I caught with my phone.