When we head out on a road trip, I inevitably overpack (especially with food!). Driving isn’t like flying, I don’t have to be as choosy about what I bring, which is both good and bad… I have gotten better over the years about figuring out what we actually end up using on our trip and what stuff I don’t necessarily need to bring along. Here I have compiled a list of top 10 road trip packing tips for families in hopes that my road trip packing experience will help someone else. These are things I consider essentials when traveling with kids on a road trip.
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Road Trip Packing Tips for Families
- Use an app like Paperless. My sister recommended this app and I LOVE it because you can re-use your list and you don’t have to go back in and uncheck everything like you do with Evernote. There is an option to “uncheck all.” We have a list for each of us as well as a list for food and items we need to remember to do before we leave (i.e. stop the mail, water the plants, turn up or down the thermostat, etc.).
- Get a plug-in cooler. We got this Coleman plug-in cooler when we first got married (about 13 years ago) and have loved having a cooler that doesn’t require ice. It’s also important for me with my Type 1 diabetes as it keeps my insulin at a more consistent temperature. It has a car plug as well as a wall plug adapter, so we plug it in to the back plug in our Pilot and plug it in at the hotels we stay at en route to our destination. It keeps food at a consistent temperature and means we don’t have to buy and drain ice all the time. A time and hassle saver that works so much better than a traditional cooler!
- Invest in a seat back organizer. I have this awesome mesh pocket organizer that I found at a garage sale. I have no idea what it is supposed to be used for (I suspect it may be a shower organizer), but it works perfectly to hang on the back of the front passenger seat in our Pilot. Fill it up with pre-portioned snacks, napkins, and activities for the car. The mesh pockets are great because the kids can easily see what is in each one. It is also convenient that there are different size pockets, as it fits everything I want the kids to have access to. If you can’t find something like this, there are a lot of seat back organizer options out there, just find one that works well for your needs. This is the closest I could find on Amazon to what we have.
- Put your DVDs and audiobook CD’s in a CD wallet. I am sure many of you already do this, but I thought I would mention it just in case. If you have a DVD player in your car or a travel player, put your movies in a CD wallet. We do this with the audiobooks we rent from the library as well. We have a nice, compact round one similar to this. It saves a ton of space and keeps everything organized in one place. I always put the movie and audiobook wallets under my seat in the front so I can grab it when the kids want to pick something to watch or listen to. Our favorite family audiobooks are listed here.
- Load your phone or iPod with podcasts and family music. Before you leave load your phone or iPod with family-friendly Podcasts and music. I plan to try the free trial of Amazon’s Audible for our trip in July as it seems like a good option for audiobooks. Here’s our list of our favorite family podcasts.
- Have something to contain your trash. There are lots of options out there for this one. We used to have a weighted bottom car garbage bin that sat on the floor of our car but it constantly got stepped on and tipped over. I found a hanging one at a garage sale, similar to this one, and that has been working much better.
- Don’t forget the hand wipes! When you’re on the road, soap and water are not always available. We have found that it feels better to wipe our hands on a cloth rather than just spray them with a hand sanitizer. I bought Wet Ones containers and threw out the Wet Ones (lots of yucky ingredients) and then washed out the containers and filled them with homemade hand wipes. I like this alcohol free recipe from Cindy over at One Part Sunshine. You can cut one of those select-a-size paper towel rolls in half and then roll enough to fit in the wet wipes container (not too tightly or they won’t come out very easily), then dump the liquid mix on the top and let it all absorb and you are ready to go.
- Keep other snacks and activities accessible. Keep other snacks and activities in a bag or basket up front near you and the kids where it can be easily reached. This includes things like the iPad, headphones, plastic cups (for portioning snacks that are in bags like crackers, chips or sunflower seed shells, which Ross chews to stay attentive when the driving day gets long), etc. I recently picked up one of these wire framed baskets at a garage sale and I think it will be perfect for putting up between the kids. The wire frame would help things not to get so squished.
- Air mattress. This is not a car packing tip, but is something we never leave on a road trip without. The kids each have these Aerobed Toddler Air Mattresses that they use quite often on trips (a shorter adult can fit on these beds, so they are not just for toddlers). We bought them many years ago when they had them at Costco and it is one the best travel purchases we have made. We always bring at least one of them with us on road trips. Both kids are not fun to sleep in the same bed with (one is a suction cup, the other flops their legs and arms onto you quite often throughout the night and likes to take up the entire bed), so we can’t put them in the same bed or no one will sleep. We also often get rentals that only have 2 beds, so one of the kids will often end up sleeping on the air mattress.
- Pack a laundry bag. No one wants their dirty clothes in the same suitcase as their clean clothes, so we always use the hotel laundry bags for our dirty clothes (if we stay in a hotel). The last trip we went on was 18 days long and we stayed in a mix of rental homes and hotels. We wish we had a packable laundry bag to contain our dirty clothes until we got to a place where we could do laundry.
- Insulated lunchbox or small soft-sided cooler (if you will be hiking or in a place where food isn’t readily available). For us, this comes in handy for packing lunches to leave in the car to eat after a hike.
- Sea Bands. Sea Bands can be useful if you or your kiddos get car sick or for seasickness if you have any ferry rides planned in your trip.
- Plastic cups. Disposable plastic cups are another item that proves useful on road trips. We use them for sunflower seed and peanut shells, as well as snack cups, and sharing ice cream or drinks that we’ve picked up from restaurants along the way.
- Travel White Noise Machine. I wouldn’t even think of leaving home to sleep overnight somewhere without brining this white noise machine with me! I got a couple these on Ebay, they can be finicky sometimes but there is a reset button in the battery compartment that usually sets them right if the screen goes blank on you. I use a larger one at home as well but love this small size for travel. It is awesome for blocking out hallway noise at hotels (or any noise Ross and I make when in a hotel and the kids are still trying to sleep).
- Re-usable water bottles. Our family pretty much only drinks water, so this is a necessity for us. We feel like buying a bunch of disposable water bottles is wasteful. We can usually find a co-op or grocery store that has a water re-fill machine so we bring full gallon jugs of water with us and then try to find places to re-fill them when we’re on our trip (that doesn’t always work, but we can always find new big jugs of water if the re-fill option is not an option, ha!). Our current favorite water bottles are these, they keep the water cold for a long time and I like the smaller cap that you can unscrew to drink from. We found ours at Costco.
- A few other things you may not think of… Plastic silverware (esp. knives and spoons), ziplock bags (snack, sandwich, and a few gallon size), chip clips, and paper towels. I always pack snack size ziplock bags to replenish portioned out snacks on the road and sandwich size bags to pack lunches at the hotel so our lunches are ready when we’re ready to stop (this is also a time when plastic knives are useful). We use plastic spoons for yogurt (we like yogurt for breakfast every morning). Gallon size bags come in handy when the chip or cracker bags have a blow-out. I bring a roll of paper towels to use for napkins, spills, a clean surface to make sandwiches, and much more. You never know when these items will be useful, but I guarantee that if you bring them, they will be used and you will be happy you have them.
When heading out on a road trip with little ones it is most important to be prepared. If you have the things you will need within easy reach it makes for a much smoother trip and happier kids. I especially love having some snacks and activities within easy reach for my kids so I don’t have to turn around and dig for the things they are wanting. I hope these tips come in handy for your next family road trip! Happy traveling!