The epic road trip — and its attendant refrain of “Are we there yet?” — has been a mandatory rite of passage for American fathers since the Eisenhower administration. That’s also seemingly the last time either the interstate system or the time-passing games played by families traversing it were updated. National infrastructure is above our pay grade, but modern updates to classic road trip games — those are right in our wheelhouse. The five described here turn passive scenery watchers into active, engaged trip participants that are 65 percent less likely to spend hours at a time relentlessly kicking the driver’s seat.
Scavenger Hunt 2.0
Start by printing out a bunch of these free road trip scavenger hunt lists. There are longer word-oriented lists for older kids as well as picture-based ones for the littles. Categories range from road signs to animals to trucks. Once you have a few pages in hand, use the little known “places of interest” feature in Google Maps and add custom items to the printed lists. Things like the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas (or Darwin, Minnesota — there’s some debate), the cathedral of junk in Austin, or Lucy the Elephant in Margate City, New Jersey. Whoever spots the most items between “interesting” destinations wins. Or, ask the kids for a list of things they hope to see on the trip and incorporate those into a personalized scavenger hunt. They’ll feel like they helped plan the trip, which will keep them engaged. Either way, this activity will foster some friendly competition and kill some serious time.
Dash Cam Documentarian
Put kids in charge of something and they’ll stay engaged for longer periods of time. On a road trip, that means putting them in charge of capturing B-roll for the vacation recap montage. A decent dash cam won’t cost more than the price of a few tanks of gas, can be mounted in minutes, and will store hours of high-quality video. Some can be instantly kid-activated via push-button remote. (“Look! Another red car!”) And of course, it can always be spun around to get the classic family vacation car selfie. Before the trip, parents can help their kids decide the story they want to tell, then sit back and relax as the kids vigilantly watch the road, waiting to capture the perfect shot. Afterward, everyone can help cut the files into an extended video, share it, and watch the ‘Likes’ stack up for miles.
License Plate Hunter
Trying to spot a license plate from every state is another road trip standard in dire need of an upgrade — and a case where it’s okay to use your van’s mobile hot spot capability to throw a screen into the mix. The FindPlate app gives the classic game a Scrabble-like scoring system based on population (maximum points for Alaska and Hawaii). When a new plate is spotted, tapping it in the app screen activates a list of cool state facts. Since it can take a long time to collect all 50 states, the game can save plates for later, too. Although there is something to be said for extending the old-fashioned version of the game by “forgetting” which plates you’ve already spotted. Either way, this one is likely to evolve from road trip game to everyday grocery trip game.
Mind The Map
No father can call himself properly prepared for a road trip until their vehicle is furnished with an old-school paperback atlas and gazetteer, preferably the classic version from DeLorme. In addition to being a great reference for back roads, trailheads, and public lands, these durable paperbacks can be used for innumerable road trip games, including this favorite. First, flip open the book to your current coordinates. Then, without leaving the page, locate a place of interest — this could be a lake, a peak, a beach, whatever. Now hand over the book to the next person and tell them what they’re looking for. They have 60 seconds to find it. It’s like road trip Where’s Waldo, only the entire game isn’t ruined when someone circles Waldo in permanent marker.
Dropping pins along a road trip route is convenient from a planning perspective, sure, but it also opens the door to fun kid activities. The night before you hit the road, hop on your favorite maps app and spend a few minutes associating pins with places you could potentially stop to check out. Once you’re on the road and the kids start to get ornery, ask your voice-activated, satellite-linked navigation system to show them the route and distance to the next pin, which could be anything from a roadside attraction to a fast food joint. (Never underestimate the power of a shake from the drive-through.) You can also drop pins that aren’t exactly on your planned route and print those maps to create custom connect-the-dot games featuring your various destinations.