Travel writer Jamie Pearson and her family pose during one of their many road trip family vacations. Pearson’s favourite road trip tip is to play audio books to pass the time. // Road trip(Jamie Pearson)

Life may be a highway, but when you're on the road with cranky kids in the back seat, the last thing parents want to do is ride it all night long.

That's why Tobie Smith has drawn up a road trip war plan with military-like precision to help her and her husband get through a cross-country drive that will span 8, 370 km, 11 states, and 26 days with their boys -- intact. Her strategy is impressive. It involves everything from cookie sheets-turned-lap desks, zip-lock-bagged outfits for her boys -- seven-year-old Max, and five-year-old Sam -- and a cache of daily gifts for good behaviour as a pre-emptive strike against backseat mutiny.

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"I don't usually believe in bribery and the reward system, but for 26 days, I'm making an exception," said the 37-year-old Missouri mom.

Being flexible is one of the most important survival techniques to a successful, family road trip, experts say. Meltdowns can be avoided -- or at least reduced -- if parents get their children involved in the planning process from the get-go, says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, co-founder of WeJustGotBack.com, a family travel website. Get the kids invested in the trip. Show them the route you'll be taking on the map, for example, and research roadside attractions along the way together, she says.

"Road trips are a great opportunity to teach the kids that it's about the destination, not just the journey," she said.

It's a strategy Smith, a high school guidance counsellor, has been employing in the months leading up to her family's summer road trip odyssey from Missouri to California and Texas. Every day her boys attend "adventure school" in their parents' bedroom, where mom has hung up a large U.S. map on the wall. The kids pick a different state to talk about and have even penned songs for each of them. Smith will also provide a printout of the U.S. map for the kids, so that they can colour in each state as they pass through.

The map is just one element of her homemade car kits. Cookie sheets are used as a lap desk. It's a natural canvas for magnetic toys and acts both as a writing desk and a food table. A file folder attached to the back of the sheet holds the kids' colouring sheets and maps and the whole thing slides in nicely between the door and the seat.
Dry-erase markers also adhere to the tray with magnetic tape, so that mom and dad don't have to climb over the backseat to hunt down escapee markers along the way.

But not everything has to be so elaborate. Toronto-based travel writer Kate Pocock remembers a family road trip in which a simple tape recorder and microphone occupied her three kids for hours, while en route to see the grandparents in Gatineau, Que. It was all very impromptu, she remembers, as the kids simulated a mock radio show. One was the news anchor, another a reporter, and the youngest appointed the weather girl. They took turns interviewing each other and made up segments like science and headline news.

"In the end it was fun for the grandparents because they got to hear a play by play of what they had seen during the trip," said Pocock, author of Fodor's Around Toronto with Kids.

Jamie Pearson, of TravelSavvyMom.com, swears by audio books as a no-fuss way to entertain the family during long car rides.

"You can get them for free at the library and they keep the kids happier and quieter than DVDs," she said from California. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was 17 hours of listening and everyone was interested."

While every family is different and some kids more tolerant of long rides than others, experts also recommend making regular stops to let the kids run around before they self-combust. One of Kelleher's favourite road trip tips is to stop at hotel chains off highway exits for bathroom breaks rather than filthy gas stations.

And while you may not be able to head off sibling squabbles, Smith has devised a way to try and keep everyone happy for at least an hour a day.

"Both will get one hour of being in charge -- within reason," she said.

For example, they'll get to choose what DVD movie they want to see, and what music to play in the car. Everyone has a folder on the family iPod of their music choices. And while no one else likes hip hop, come Max's turn, the family car will be blaring 50 Cent, Kanye West, and Run-D.M.C.

Kelleher also recommends that parents create a wish list of things each family member wants to see or do during the trip. That way, everyone gets a turn and you minimize the "it's not fair's."

"It teaches the kids about democracy," she said. "It's teaching mutual respect for each other's choices."

Here are a few mommy tips on how to survive your family road trip this summer -- and live to tell the tale.

  • Bring an arsenal of simple toys and diversions to keep the kids happy. They could include: A tape recorder, pipe cleaners to make fun shapes, audio books, chalk for pavement hopscotch during bathroom breaks, new, unread books, small dollar store gifts for good behaviour.
  • Use hotel chain lobbies for bathroom breaks instead of gas stations
  • Try to plan roadside picnics at parks along the way and minimize fast foods
  • Make regular stops and try to refrain from being too destination and goal-oriented during the trip
  • Try to start the trip either early in the morning or late at night during bedtime hours so the kids can sleep most of the way. This makes for a quiet, peaceful start to the trip for mom and dad.
  • Zip-lock bags are your friend. Put each outfit in a bag (including underwear and socks) so that at hotel stops, late at night, you just have to pull out a bag of clothing instead of the whole suitcase.