The key to packing for a road trip is the same as packing for any trip. Don’t over pack. Through the years, I have packed many things that we never touched. I have also learned what is essential to pack when traveling with kids. Here are my go to lists. You will probably have your own based on your own experiences or circumstances. A note on trash… Keep it consolidated while driving in a small plastic bag and throw it out each time you stop. Maintain this habit and your vehicle (and your nose) will thank you for it. See the end of the page for printable checklists you can use.
I don’t pack anything specific for ‘the vehicle’. I do make sure it’s been serviced and is full on all of it’s fluids. If something happens, AAA is my way to handle it. Get a good 24-hour roadside service before you go. They pay for themselves the first time you have to use it. Do bring spare keys for your vehicle and keep them separate!
The Basic Necessities
Bring maps of where you are going. Print off directions in case your phone or GPS is not working or does not have service.
I always have an ‘emergency’ kit in my vehicle cubby. Whether I’m on a road trip or not. It consists of:
- Small scissors
- Small leatherman-type tool
- Finger nail clipper
- Two hair bands
- Two small candles
- Box of matches
- Two small pencils
- Lip balm
- Small can opener
- Chewable pepto-bismol
- Elastic cord with clamp
- Two syringes (no needles)
- Two carabiners
- Wet naps
- Hand sanitizer
- Plastic Jif Container that it all fits in
- Plus: tampons, flashing light, black garbage bags, pull starter cord (just because), tire pressure gauge, padlock/key, phone chargers, tissues, Tylenol, bungee cords, $$$, sunglasses, road atlas, extra AA and AAA batteries
In addition to my ‘emergency’ kit, I always bring along our ‘Medicine Bag’. It’s a small travel bag filled with:
- Basic first aid supplies (bandaids, gauze, anti-septic wipes)
- Anti-itch cream
- Isopropyl alcohol
- Pain relievers
Food & Drink
Coolers: I have been known to bring a cooler on roadtrips, but mostly, I find they end up being more trouble than they are worth unless you’re camping or only going for a daytrip. Anything perishable, we tend to pick up along the way and use within a few hours. Cold drinks are purchased at gas stations. We’re used to drinking room-temp water and are fine with that. Coolers take up a lot of room, they are heavy, and they require ice. Too much trouble.
Picnic Baskets: I have brought along paper plates, plastic silverware, and napkins, but never an entire picnic basket. Again – probably more trouble than they are worth unless camping or only doing a day trip.
Snack Bag: Snacks are important when traveling with children (or men). I like to buy in bulk and then throw them all into a cloth tote for transport. Usually a variety of ‘healthy’ and ‘indulging’. Salty and Sweet. Nothing that will melt in a hot car… that can be quite a mess! Oranges, apples, and bananas can work well (fresh and dehydrated) as well as protein bars, chips, nuts, popcorn, beef jerky…
Drinks: We buy cold/hot drinks from gas stations when needed, use refillable water bottles, and insulated cups for coffee refills. If we’re doing a lot of hiking, we’ll buy a case of water or a couple gallon jugs to refill.
Having some things to play with at stops or destinations is key to relieve boredom, expend some energy, and keep your juices flowing. We typically pack a Frisbee, tennis balls, water toys & goggles (for the pool), and a nerf football. Also bring a small backpack for carrying water and snacks while hiking.
Games and Entertainment
Each kid should have their own small bag/backpack to carry their ‘stuff’. Make it their responsibility. My kids have had hand-held game systems since they were small. We always had a new game for each of them. You could do something similar with the iPads/phones that kids have today. We also have had DVD players for every road trip except the first one. Shared and individual. I’d have the kids pick out movies to bring along and then for every long day of our trip, I would buy a new movie. They would not get the new movie until after lunch that day (once we were back on the road). We made it into a guessing game where I would give them the first letter of the Title and they would take turns asking questions until one of them guessed it. They still enjoy this game today and they are 24, 21, and 17!!!
When the kids were small, I would buy age-appropriate activity books or small games. I would wait to give them out until the kids grew tired of what they already had. They enjoyed the novelty of something new to break up the boredom.
Don’t forget the music! The radio gets old and sometimes stations don’t come in out in the boonies.
We always pack a couple sleeping bags, and each kid brings their pillow, one stuffed animal, and a fleece blanket. They stuff the animal and the blanket into the pillow when moving from car to lodging and back. Their responsibility and gives them a comfort from home. Also helps with car naps!
Each person has a suitcase and they have a list on what to pack. Keep it simple. Make it their responsibility. With small kids, you can divide clothes up into days. Jeans, shorts, shirts, sweatshirts can generally be re-worn a few times or washed along the way. Each person should have a bag for laundry. Pack enough underwear and socks for each day. Don’t forget pajamas, swim suit, and flip-flops. Having everyone pack a rain jacket is something we learned along the way. You just never know when mother nature will try to foil your plans. If you’re going to be somewhere cold, make sure everyone packs a jacket, hat, mittens/gloves. Nothing worse than being miserable when you’re trying to have fun!
So, that’s my current advice on how to pack for a roadtrip. When we pack this way, it all fits nicely in the back of our extended length Ford Expedition (the kids have their pillows/blankets & backpacks with them on the seats). If you can think of something I’ve missed or have some of your own experiences you’d like to share, please comment below. The links below provide you with printable checklists for your next road trip adventure. As always, thanks for reading!
I really liked all the advice given about packing for a road trip.
I have travelled a bit with my kids too and your advice is very practical and helpful.
What I have learnt too is not to overpack. On one of our first trips we took so many clothes and the kids just wanted to wear the same thing. They were no longer interested in their toys they wanted new ones.
It was funny one year we went around the South Island of NZ in a camper Van and all they wanted to do when we would get to our destination was to watch DVDS.
So yeah I think the DVD’s are #1 on the list.
Great advice and love your site.
Hi Rose! Thanks for the feedback and story! So funny about the DVDs. There was one trip we did out to Yellowstone National Park and the kid’s favorite thing they did was swim in the hotel pool! So funny! It makes us remember that it’s not as hard as we think to have experiences with our kids that they enjoy and remember.
Very helpful list of things to bring on a road trip which I will need to reference this summer as we’re planning a road trip up the west coast. How about some flares or jumper cables for the car? Triple A is great but if you’re in the middle of nowhere then would these things help you while waiting for Triple A to get there?
Hi Grace! Thanks for the feedback! Jumper cables might be a good idea of you tend to leave your lights on! LOL! Flares or collapsable cones are also a good idea if you’re stuck on the side of the road. Great adds!