Raising Richmond: My 6 preschooler road trip must-haves

Our family is really great at road trips–partly because we’re just good sports in general, and partly because we’ve zeroed in on a few essential items that help make the difference between a weekend spent enjoying each other’s company and one spent tearing each other’s hair out. Read on to find out what made the cut…and be sure to share your faves, too.


As I write this, piles of dirty laundry sit in the corner of the room taunting me. The grass in our front yard stands alarmingly tall and thick because I wasn’t here to tame it with the lawn mower, as I’m known to do on a Saturday afternoon. The house that was already dirty on Friday is somehow dirtier than it was when we left, even though not a soul has set foot inside for over 48 hours.

And me? Well, other than talking to you fine people, I’m mourning the end1 of my family’s weekend trip to Blacksburg for the Virginia Tech Hokies’ Spring Game.

My husband Ross, my three-year-old son JR, and I made the drive down on Friday afternoon and spent the evening strolling around campus and playing on the Drill Field. Saturday was Game Day, complete with our own fantastic little tailgate; although we eventually got rained out, forcing us to go back to the hotel and spend a couple hours cuddled up in a king-size bed. After breakfast on Sunday we packed it in and headed back to the good ol’ RVA.

To look at it on paper, some might think the trip had a lot of disaster potential. I mean, think about it:

  1. A long car ride with a three-year-old.
  2. Sharing a hotel room with a three-year-old.
  3. Taking part in an all-day event that involves a lot of sitting, standing, waiting, and no napping…with three-year-old.
  4. Doing all of these things without getting any sort of break from said three-year-old.

But, guys, it was awesome. And I cannot wait to do it again.

Not to toot our own horn here, but I have to admit that the awesomeness was due partly to the fact that, when push comes to shove, we in The Catrow Family are good sports. Once we decide to have fun,2 it’s pretty hard to shake us—even when the entire reason for our trip falls through. However, we definitely owe our road trip success to a few essential items that helped make the difference between a weekend spent enjoying each other’s company…and one spent tearing each other’s hair out.

Juice pouches

We stick to reusable sippy cups and the like at home, but juice and water refills are a bit tricky in a moving car.3 Plus, I also wanted JR to have his own “special” beverage to enjoy during the tailgating festivities (just like Mama and Dad…but less boozy). We went with Honest Kid’s Berry Berry Good Lemonade (no high fructose corn syrup! lots of organic ingredients! less parental guilt!) and they were a huge hit. Now I realize the juice pouches are more likely to lead to a spill than their boxy counterparts—the boxes are more resistant to the surprisingly strong grip of a preschooler—but they are way more fun. JR spent a good 45 minutes in the car inflating and deflating the pouches as he squealed with delight.

Baby wipes

Even though JR is completely potty trained now, I still live in constant fear of him peeing or pooping his pants. Meanwhile, JR lives in constant fear of having something sticky on him for more than 0.3 seconds. Consequently, baby wipes are probably going to be part of our lives for a good, long while. I keep a package in my purse, in JR’s little book bag, in the backseat of the car, and in the trunk. Clean-ups are quick, thorough, and can be done on the go.4

Clif Bars

JR and I both have a tendency to lose our damn minds when we’re hungry. And when we’re hungry at the same time it can get…Hulkish. So to spare my poor husband from having to deal with two thrashy beasts, I try to keep a stash of these bars on me at all times (our favorites are Blueberry Crisp and Oatmeal Raisin Walnut). They came in handy as JR flirted with having a major breakdown on Friday evening as we walked around campus before dinner. A few bites of one of these babies and he was good to go. The major bonus: they’re made with whole, organic ingredients and will fill your little one up better than Goldfish ever could.

Lisa Loeb’s Silly Sing-Along: The Disappointing Pancake

We’re all about exposing JR to different kinds of music, but sometimes a kid just needs to feel like the target audience, you know? My brother gave JR this little gem by everyone’s favorite 90’s-era, cats-eye bespectacled singer5 for Christmas, and it’s been in our car’s CD player pretty much ever since. JR loves it…and we can listen to it without wanting to die! In fact, I’m going to just be straight with you all and confess something: I listen to this CD (and sing along with it…loudly) when JR isn’t even in the car. See, it’s a nice mix between original songs and little ditties I sang when I was in Girl Scouts and it’s just really fun and catchy and…QUIT LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT.

Deck of cards

Building card houses and bridges, playing War, sorting by suits or colors…the possibilities with this one are endless. We picked up a $2 pack at CVS on our way out of town, and it was probably the best money we spent on the whole trip. JR loved sifting through the cards, checking out the details, and it was fun to play games with him that weren’t Candy Land.6 Also: 52-Card Pickup is never not funny.

Earphone splitter

Full disclosure: we forgot to bring one of these for this weekend’s trip, and “bummed” doesn’t even begin to express my feelings on the matter. But I figure my sadness over this little treasure’s absence proves how essential it is. You see, when you share a hotel room with a three-year-old, your night pretty much ends when the kid goes to bed. We stretched JR’s bedtimes a bit this weekend, but we still found ourselves lying in bed in a dark room before 8:30pm with our son three feet away. Had we brought the earphone splitter with us, we could’ve settled in and watched hours and hours worth of Parks and Recreation like good Americans. Instead we read a bit and fell asleep before 10. I guess that’s not so bad, but I’d choose Ron Swanson over sleep any day.7

— ∮∮∮ —

We’ve got another trip coming up in May, so I’d love to know what I should add to our arsenal of secret weapons. What are your road trip must-haves when you’ve got little ones along for the ride?

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. Although for me, vacation doesn’t officially end until you pick up the dogs from the kennel. Shit gets real again once you have 110+ lbs. of canine riff-raff back in your house. 
  2. We were thisclose to calling off the trip after seeing the weather predictions for the area. But then I decided that we would just pretend that we lived in a time when we couldn’t monitor the hour-by-hour forecast. Like pioneers, we were! 
  3. The Catrow Family stops for no one. 
  4. See footnote number three…although we will stop for bathroom emergencies. I mean, we’re not monsters. 
  5. Go on. You know you want to. 
  6. Mostly because he always kicks our asses at that friggin’ game. 
  7. Let’s be honest, I’d choose Ron Swanson over anything any day. 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is managing editor of RVAFamily. When she’s not oversharing her parenting struggles and successes, you can find her raising a preschool-aged boy and watching 90s television shows.

7 comments on Raising Richmond: My 6 preschooler road trip must-haves

  1. Keli on said:

    First of all- LOVE LOVE LOVE your articles! I have an almost 4 year old and can relate to the crazy-joy-love-frustration cycle. I have a similar list of stuff that we take when we hit the road (or even just for a long dinner out with family). I also add few things for entertainment: a notebook and pen (so much cooler than crayons for the Boy), a small container of play-doh (the party-size ones), and a small magnadoodle-type board (write or draw with the special stylus, then erase and start over!). These seem to keep him busy and provide lots of opportunity for imaginative/inventive play.

  2. Beth W on said:

    Gogo Squeez applesauce is also a great thing to take along with young children. It comes in a squeeze tube so it’s no mess and it can also give parents peace of mind because it’s 100% fruit, all natural, has no additives and you can even send it into a sister company if you want to recycle. I’m not a parent myself, but I babysit a 14 mo old and a 5 year old. They both loooooove it but it is more expensive than a regular pack of applesauce, so I feel like it should probably stick to being a snack for roadtrips or on-the-go situations.

  3. Keli, so true about pens. JR wants nothing to do with crayons and markers these days. I’m thinking of adding an Etch-a-Sketch to our list; I think it’d be fun for everyone.

  4. Does JR get frustrated easily with difficult physical tasks? Because Etch A Sketches are hard as a butt. Magna Doodles on the other hand…

  5. Jeb on said:

    It tickles me to no end that Lisa Loeb has this funny secondary hitmaking career with kids’ music. We’ve got Big Rock Candy Mountain and it’s just cute. We also have found the Wiggles to be listenable (no, really, especially after seeing them at Carpenter Center).

  6. Our favorite kid musician is Justin Roberts – six CDs on rotation in my car, and I think that means we have to leave one out.

  7. I LOVE LISA LOEB. (as in, can sing every word of many of her songs. should i not admit that? oh, ok. :) Also, we love the apple/fruit sauce in a pouch deals–they make me feel better about my kids getting something fruit-like while on the go. :) we have NEVER done a hotel. I am terrified. :)

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