road trips with kids: the essentials

02 Jul road trips with kids: the essentials

A lot of folks have asked how we pack for our annual summer road trip. Aside from the obvious – clothes, toothbrushes, snacks – there are a few items I don’t leave home without. I drive a Honda Civic Hybrid and both kids are still in carseats, so our space is quite limited. We drive across the Southwest, through long stretches of desert where there are no towns or rest stops, so I have to consider that when I pack too. Here’s what we bring for our month-long escape:

In the trunk:

  • 2 suitcases (big one for adults, little one for kids) with 7-10 days worth of clothing. We travel for a month, but we do have access to laundry.
  • small bag with our hiking shoes, hats and rain jackets in case we need them at a stop along the route
  • separate bag with toiletries and 1 change of clothes for hotel stops (much easier to grab this than haul our suitcases out for a quick overnight)
  • DSLR camera & case
  • Gallon container of water (for emergencies)

In the backseat:

  • The kids each have a canvas tote with toys and activities they’ve chosen for the trip. Whatever they can fit in the tote is all they have for the whole month. This year they chose sketchpads, colored pencils and a handful of small cars, ponies, wooden fairies, a bug net & jar and superhero capes. I’ve found it’s plenty to keep them entertained, forces them to use their imagination and play outdoors more.
  • Water bottles for each kid
  • Favorite blankets and lovies for naps in the car
  • Books (they like Richard Scarry and Where’s Waldo books in the car). This year we also brought an early reader workbook for B to do in the car.
Front seat:
  • Small grocery bag of snacks and drinks, at arms reach for me to hand back to kids
  • Trash bag
  • Baby wipes
  • Cell phone/GPS preloaded with music and books on tape
  • Kindle preloaded with a couple kids movies (last resort if things get ugly in the backseat)
  • I also have an emergency kit in the glove compartment with a full first aid kit and WakaWaka solar-powered cell phone charger. The solar charger actually came in handy this year when we needed to run the GPS feature on my iPhone and my plug-in charger broke. It’s great for camping as well. The Waka Waka doubles as a solar-powered light. Check it out here.

Other tips:
  • I have a little bag of treats (fruit snacks, mints, cookies) in the front seat to dole out if needed. But if the kids ask “are we there yet?” or if they fight and whine, I take one treat away from the bag. I’m all for bribery on road trips!
  • Bring a car-friendly craft like sketchpads, pipe cleaners (can be sculpted into necklaces or various other animals/people/toys), origami paper
  • Pack a couple mason jars or other containers for collecting flowers, rocks, leaves or other souvenirs along the way.  
  • Bring colored pencils or washable markers instead of crayons, which can melt in a hot car
  • Pack active toys like jump ropes, Frisbees, tennis balls, or a kite
  • When the kids were potty learning, I packed a very basic toddler potty from IKEA for roadside bathroom breaks.  

Think carefully about what you really need and will actually use on your trip. Remember that kids are entertained by new experiences more than toys. More stuff means more to keep track of and a greater likelihood that you’ll leave something behind at a rest stop or hotel. Less is more!

Have fun!

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