Trundling the languorous landscape of backwater Southeast Asia by bus, boat and bike with nothing more than a backpack might feel past the edge of one’s comfort zone. Cycling and living in a tent across two continents, for a year, might seem downright crazy… and yet, somehow appealing. These are the parents who track me down and ask their million questions. The ones with souls of adventurers and a healthy respect for the gravity of their jobs as parents.
If you’re one of us, one of the mamas with more courage than complacency and more kids than sense, let me encourage that you can go, and you can take your kids. I do, however, have some road tested, learned the hard way, boots (and booties) on the ground strategies that might help you find more joy in the journey.
Why Overland Travel With Kids is Different
You have to carry everything you need with you. Home is the atmosphere you create, not the place you’re getting to. Every day can’t be treat day, or you’ll soon have no money, and bodies that are cranky and sickly feeling. Routines need to be created and respected. It’s real life, not a holiday. If, to this point, you’ve done the holiday sort of travel with your kids and you’re planning something more, think carefully about that, and make plans for everyone’s comfort and happiness.
The Essentials of Overland Travel With Kids
Less is More
Accept the fact that you can’t do it all; with, or without, children. Be okay with that. What you see, you will have seen thoroughly; everything else can be left for another trip. Kids want to play in the park in Vienna, and you should let them. Vienna has a dozen fantastic parks. They want to sample every gelato joint in Venice, and they should absolutely be allowed to. A liberal application of gelato makes St. Mark’s much easier to swallow, trust me on that.
Plan Your Days
Know your kids and plan your outings when it makes sense for their energy levels (and yours). For our family, this always meant mornings for work and school time, quiet down time, and slow wake ups. Afternoons are for adventure. That’s when we get out and explore, play, and discover what’s around us. When they were very little, everything revolved around nap times. Not because I’m a nap nazi, but because they were happier, and by extension, so was everyone else, if they slept according to their natural patterns. Don’t be pressured into the idea that you “must” do family travel any certain way. Do it your way. Respect the individuals you’ve been gifted with, and organize the adventure around the enjoyment of everyone.
My basic packing list for a family
You don’t need more. You really don’t. If you want more, then bring it, but remember that you’ve got to schlep every last pound.
Consider Modes of Transportation
Southeast Asia is going to mean motorbikes, tuk-tuks and river boats before it’s over. Small backpacks are handiest on those forms of transport. We added a collapsable waterproof bag that we can toss electronics and underwear in to guarantee that something is dry at the end of a monsoon afternoon, or a long wet week on the Mekong.
The idea of backpacking Europe is popular, but traditional backpacks actually kind of suck for travel in Europe. Consider more traditional carry on sized luggage, or a backpack built for city travel, like the ones Tortuga Backpacks makes. If you’re bicycling, my personal, road tested, family of six recommendation is Ortlieb paniers. One word: Waterproof. With kids, two things matter at the end of the day: warm, and dry. Make that happen.
Backpacks for Kids
Our younger boys were 8 and 10 when we decided to take off for a couple of years on the other side of the planet without our bicycles, necessitating backpacks. There’s a lot of junk on the market for kids. There’s not a lot that’s good quality. And quality is key with bags you’re living out of, especially for kids, who are notoriously not careful with seams and zippers. The best we could do at the time was the REI jr. packs. I have to say, after four years of very hard use, they held up great, and we just recently passed them on to another traveling family, so they’re still going!
More important than the bag you choose for your child, is what they carry in it. It’s one thing if your kid is only packing weight now and then, on a day hike. It’s entirely another if they are living in their pack for months, sometimes walking miles, and truly wearing the weight.
Too much weight is damaging to a growing child. It’s very important that your kid’s bag falls within a weight range that is safe for her to carry. A good rule of thumb is, not more than 10% of her body weight. Review the AMC guidelines for children as you pack. It’s going to feel like that isn’t very much stuff, because it isn’t! Pare down, carry less, and invest in good, lightweight gear. It’s also a good idea to have your backpacks properly fitted by a professional. REI will provide this service for free.
iPads weren’t a thing when I had little kids, and we had a pretty unplugged approach anyway. Instead, I always, always, carry a treasure trove of analog fun that can be busted out when boredom strikes. What’s in it? It varies widely: balloons, crayons, stickers, wikki stix, a book, cards, marbles, glo-sticks, tiny rubber balls, high protein snacks, you get the idea. Cheap stuff. Simple stuff. Fun stuff. With a secret weapon on board, your kids won’t dread waiting, and they’ll become pretty great at it.
On the big boats, and ships, pay extra for the room with sleeping bunks. Do not cut corners and think that pullman seats are going to be okay for an overnight crossing of the Med between Italy and Africa. There will be a storm. The entire boat will be vomiting, including your kids, and your husband. You want a room. And a bathroom. Trust me. I’ve done it both ways.
The other kind, the dodgy ones with the destinations painted on the front, if you’re lucky, are a great adventure with kids. Take them. Do not, however, eat the fried grasshoppers that are passed around on skewers. There will be intestinal distress in your youngest child. It will not be pleasant. Pack snacks. Pack your sense of humor. Pack your secret weapon.
If you’re out for the longer haul, even bigger kids might appreciate a tandem or an attached bike instead of the responsibility and struggle of pedaling their own bikes over the longer distance. Get a good night’s sleep before cycling into Prague, it felt to me like Mexico City with more cobblestones. Not my favourite morning.
My best piece of advice, if you have six people in your family: drive a Suburban, not a Clio. And yes, I’ve done both. Of course the kids were smaller, and we were in Tunisia, where capacity in vehicles takes into account, sheep, chickens and occasionally a small camel, so no one was shocked to see “just” four kids jammed into the back of a Clio for a week. Other advice: pack a bigger secret weapon, never drive more than six hours in a day, Bonine is the best anti-nausea med if you have a puker, and an inflate-a-potty is a piece of genius. Just sayin’.
Make sure most of the weight in their very light packs is made up of fun stuff and food they like. My children would like to add that Pirate Scott is right: “Coke is good for morale,” and cold Cokes should be had on long afternoon walks.
Read more about traveling with kids:
- 21 Reasons to Travel RTW With Kids
- 5 Reasons Parents Should Travel With Their Kids
- Hosteling With Kids
- 5 Ways to Prepare Your Kids for Big-Time Adventure