03/11/2011 02:38 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Road Trip Survival for Dads

Back in my 20s, my then-roommate said one word to me that induced me to leap off a couch and jump into a car at 11 o'clock on a Friday night: "Vegas!" Before I knew it, I was crammed into his red Mitsubishi Eclipse, barreling down Interstate 15 for a four-hour road trip from L.A. to Sin City. I hadn't even bothered to take a toothbrush. Thirty-six hours later, and a few hundred dollars poorer, we returned to our beachside bachelor pad feeling dizzy and nauseous. My shiny Calvin Klein "going out shirt" reeked of Red Bull -- well, vodka -- and Axe Body Spray (which, incidentally, did nothing but repel the ladies all night long). I'm not sure how much fun I had at the time, but as the years go by, the story is retold with increasing fondness.

Fast forward to the present: Gone are the days of hopping into a sports car and dashing off into the night. Now I drive a moderately fuel-efficient SUV, fully loaded with not one, but two car seats (both highly rated for safety). My wife Anna and I have become enlightened to the harsh reality of how spontaneous and ill-planned travel can quickly backfire when you're catering to the whims of little people with limited verbal and motor skills. We've suffered through begging other parents for diapers in airports, improvising BabyBjorns out of scarves, and making flimsy pillow fortresses in lieu of a Pack 'n Play. Once we make it to our destination, we can usually regroup -- but when we're in transit, we're completely exposed, which is why we've turned our road trips into highly choreographed military operations.

Here's what one three-hour drive to my parent's house for the weekend entails:

We pack the car the night before with all our bags. In addition to clothes, we make sure to take a stroller, snacks, stuffed animals, pillows, night lights, blankets, games, books, bath toys, kiddie toiletries, paper and crayons, our entire CD collection of children's music and movies, and the all-important DVD player and charger -- must not forget charger -- and that's just for our toddler.

For our baby, we bring diapers, wipes, monitors, a white noise machine, a BabyBjorn, toys, teethers, organic baby food, bibs, spoons and sippy cups. But really, it's all about the pacifiers. Some kids calm down on their own, but not ours. We don't just bring one pacifier -- we bring 15 or so. Even with clips and straps and whatever invention is made to try to keep these things attached to your child, they always seem to disappear. It's gotten to the point that when I leave the house I check my pockets for my wallet, keys, and at least one spare pacifier. It's just too vital.

Loading the car up can often feel like an intense game of Tetris, but the real trick is strategically placing key items (let's call them Tantrum Busters) within an arm's reach of the front passenger seat. This way, Anna can flip snacks to the kids in the backseat without even having to pause our conversation as we cruise down the highway at a safe 65 miles per hour. (OK, let's be honest -- I go 71.)

The other critical variable is timing. Bathroom trips, nap schedules, feeding schedules, our car's fuel range, and even the DVD battery life all factor into the exact moment we decide we can leave and the duration we stay in the car. Once we're in the vehicle, the tension is high. Do we do a preemptive pit stop, or do we trust our toddler to hold it in? If the baby falls asleep, that's good, but what if it happens too close to our arrival? Do we wake her up or sit in the car with her as she sleeps? Should we refuel at the next rest area, or can we make it to that one town I know always has cheap gas? Anna and I know we are at our daughters' mercy. At any point during our trip, either one of them could melt down on us, or worse -- they could go nuclear and do a chain-reaction explosion. Just thinking about that makes me shiver. Thank goodness our destination lies the land of milk and cookies: Grandma and Grandpa's house.

Once the front wheels turn into my parents' driveway, I can feel the tension draining from my shoulders. It's time to unload and relax. It's always great to see Mom and Dad and how excited they get each time we visit. Anna and I are especially appreciative when they offer to babysit, so we can escape for an evening out. When that happens, we hop in the car and dash off into the night (making sure, of course, to be back by 11).