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A road trip is the quintessential American family vacation, but it can be intimidating to hit the road with a car full of kids. Planning ahead and keeping some family road trip essentials in mind smooths out the stress points so that you can keep the focus on making new memories.
Over the past 6 years, my thoughts about the promise of the open road have transitioned to the idea of a budget friendly getaway that allows us to experience the country together as a family. Though I sometimes miss the days when John and I could throw our tent and a few duffels into the car and take off for a long weekend, I also love traveling with the boys and seeing the world through their eyes.
Road Trip Essentials For Kids (and their parents)
Our family has spent a lot of time together on the road. My mom drove across the country with me when I moved to New York in 2006. We had so much fun that she flew to Virginia to join our move back to California a little over a decade later (this time with a husband, two kids, and a dog in tow). John and I have been driving the boys up and down the state ever since!
We’re in the process of getting ready for our next trip right now, so I thought I’d share some of our favorite tips and our packing lists while they are fresh on my mind. In this post you’ll find:
- The Family Road Trip Packing List we developed to help us remember the details that make life on the road easier.
- A quick and easy guide to to Road Trip Meals and Snacks.
- The best road trip advice we’ve ever been given: The 50 Mile Game.
- Family road trip boredom busters.
- Some of our favorite planning tips and tricks.
I’ve also included a printable summary below that can be used as a packing checklist.
Road Trip Essential #1: The Family Road Trip Packing List
The following are the road trip items we always have with us these days. They’re the things you need to keep safe, to find your way, and to help you and the family stay comfortable throughout your trip.
This section won’t include the kinds of things that you need to drive everyday. These are simply the extra items you’ll want to bring to help you feel like you’re on vacation time when you’re in the family car for hours on end.
Top Five Road Trip Essentials
Keep stress levels low by making sure you have these on hand:
- Road Atlas: Growing up we always had one of these in the car. These days we use Google Maps and Apple Maps for pretty much everything, but we’ve definitely had stressful moments when we couldn’t get our GPS back online after a stop. Keep one of these handy when you’re driving through unfamiliar places with spotty service, so you can continue moving in the right direction.
- We rely on our phones for everything. Make sure everyone stays charged with a charger or powerbank.
- Keep a flashlight close by in case you need to do some problem solving when it’s dark out.
- A sturdy multi-tool comes in handy when situations require some McGyvering.
- There’s nothing worse than coming up to a “Cash Only” toll when you have no cash on hand! Keep cash with you, including in smaller denominations, so that you don’t have to worry about mailed penalty tolls or not being able to enjoy cash-only roadside stands.
Family Road Trip Essentials to Have on Hand in Case of an Emergency
Our road trip motto: hope for the best, prepare for the worst. The following are some things to keep on hand in the car and hope that you’ll never have to use. But if you happen to have a sick kid or roadside emergency, you’ll be ready to deal with it just fine.
- Our kids are usually pretty good when it comes to motion sickness, but every now and then it catches us by surprise. Keep Motion Sickness Bags or even a plastic bucket within reach (easier aiming for little ones). Always keep some cleaning wipes and an easily accessible extra set of clothes handy. If you’re on a winding road, make sure your kiddos turn away from walls and cliff faces. Consider keeping some ginger tablets up front in case you hear “my tummy hurts.” If it’s a more common issue for someone in your family, be proactive with kid-friendly Dramamine.
- For other kid-related concerns, make sure to have a good First Aid Kit on hand, Benadryl in case of surprise allergy flare ups, and Tylenol or Motrin. You might want to include some Cortizone, Aloe, and other anti-itch medications depending on your destination. Tweezers are also good to bring along in case of ticks.
- Last but not least, make sure you have your roadside assistance information at the ready. Consider bringing along a Roadside Assistance Emergency Kit, check your spare tire situation, and pack a set of chains if you’re heading where it snows. It’s always a good idea to inspect your tire pressure, brakes, and oil levels before leaving on a road trip too.
Keep the Family Comfortable on the Road
After safety, the next family road trip essential is keeping everyone comfortable on those long drives.
- We like to leave early in the morning, so the boys’ blankets, pillow pets, and favorite stuffies are usually the first things in their seats. After a day taking photos of JJ in cool places wearing his Spiderman PJs, we put them to bed the night before in comfy casual clothes that they can wear the next day. If we’re lucky, they’ll snuggle in and fall back asleep. Though they’re usually too excited to sleep again for the first few hours.
- If you have young kids, you might want to add some window shades. Nothing keeps littles from napping like the hot sun beating down on them on the road.
- Figure out how you’re going to manage the trash situation ahead of time. For us, keeping a roll of trash bags up front works just fine. Some people like each kid to have their own trash bin. Whatever keeps you sane is fine, but you want to have a strategy before the car looks like a waste basket itself.
- Keep a small bag of microfiber towels, cleaning wipes, and hand sanitizer for easy clean ups on the road. It’s also nice to have a travel broom and dustpan set on hand if your trip will bring you to a beach or dusty area.
- Packing cube organizers are great for finding things on the road. If you share bags, consider color coding for each family member. This way you can quickly locate what you need in a duffel without having to rifle through everyone’s clothes.
- Last but not least, I love the idea of putting cupcake liners in cupholders for easy clean up. Never worry about getting all those little crumbs out of cup holders again!
Prepare for Fun and Easy Stops
A road trip isn’t a road trip without fun and quirky stops. Have the following items ready to go so that it’s always easy to hop out of the car.
- On any trip, we obviously have our cameras with us to make sure we capture the moments. We use our iPhone for most photos, but bring the GoPro along just in case. We have a selfie stick with stabilizer for videos and for when we want to try and be in a photo together. At this point, we have almost given up on professional photo shoots. Looking a bit silly is worth it to me for a few decent family photos!
- Prepare for unpredictable weather by having easy access to layers. Save room by bringing items like multi-use rain coats that you can wear anytime. A good one will be windproof, waterproof, easy to pack, and much more useful than an umbrella.
- Another weatherproof item that always comes in handy are picnic blankets. We love the kind that is weatherproof on the bottom and soft on the top. A picnic lunch stop is more fun, budget-friendly, and healthy than a restaurant stop or a drive through. Have a ball or frisbee on hand as well so the kids can burn off some energy after they eat.
- You might also want to pack a separate bag for swim gear and towels so that they’re easily accessible without having to dig through other bags. Bring some wet bags for easy storage once you get back in the car.
- Last, but not least in these COVID times, we always have a pack of disposable masks in the car just in case something happens to one of our go-to masks.
Road Trip Essential #2: Meals and Snacks
Over time our approach to meals and snacks has shifted from restaurant stops to picnic stops. As COVID forced us to rethink where we got our meals, we found some amazing regional and state parks to stop at, and enjoyed being able to walk or play after lunch. We also found this approach to be more healthy and budget-friendly. We’ll still enjoy some restaurant stops with outdoor options, but they are more likely to be stand-out places to help break up the monotony than part of our routine.
For water, we buy a few gallon jugs and refill our water bottles along the way. We tend to buy more than we think we’ll need, and continue to use them back at home if we end up with extra.
As for snacks, I’ve definitely gone a bit overboard on sugary options and regretted it. Not only does this increase the chance of our boys feeling antsy or sick, the candy is sticky and loses its novelty after awhile.
Our go-to snacks are non-sticky and not as sugary: granola bars, Babybel cheese, nuts, pretzels, sweet peas, apple slices, applesauce pouches, Goldfish crackers, and often a trip-themed gummy treat. I dole out snacks as part of our 50-mile game to space them out and keep it fun.
Road Trip Essential #3: Making a road trip fun for kids
The 50 Mile Game is by far the best road trip advice I’ve ever heard. Every 50 miles we give the boys a little surprise. Sometimes this is an activity or picture book that can keep them occupied for the next 50 miles, sometimes it’s a snack, and sometimes it’s a small toy related to our next destination.
I tend toward the theme-y side, so I like to tie in items that can build up excitement about our next destination. For example, on our way to Death Valley the surprises were things like Death Valley coloring books and crayons, camping I-Spy books, sunglasses, gummy snakes, and small road runner and big horn sheep stuffies.
The 50 Mile Game started as a one-time thing, but it’s become a big part of our road trips. It takes a bit of advance planning, but spacing out new toys and snacks keeps things novel and interesting for the kids. John and I found that it helps us pass the time too!
Road Trip Essential #4: Boredom Busters
We’ve never fully escaped the dreaded “are we there yet?” inquiries, but the following boredom busters have helped!
- Family Road Trip Playlist: As for what’s playing in our car, we have a family road trip playlist that I made before our big cross country road trip move to California. I add in new songs that we all like and take out some duds, but the first few songs have been the same since I made it. It’s our signal that we’re on the road and ready for adventure
- Games are another great way to pass the time. The boys love conversation games like Animal: Guess in 10, I-Spy, and Travel Bingo. Magnetic tangrams and puzzles are popular for younger kids. Older kids might appreciate magnetic checkers or games like Travel Battleship.
- Backseat Movies and Video Games: We aren’t road trip purists. Once we are rolling, we allow the kids to watch movies and for JJ to play games on his Kindle Fire. We have these seat back DVD players that allow them to watch movies while John and I listen to an audio-book. I’ll always download some books before we leave. Our go-to’s are memoirs or autobiographies told by the author in his or her own voice.
- Car Seat Organizers are helpful for keeping favorite games, books, and snacks within reach. We had a tray organizer for 2 year-old JJ, but he didn’t like it covering his legs. Now we just use simple containers that they can keep stashed next to them. Finding an organizing system that works for your family is a huge help when it comes to keeping everyone entertained.
Road Trip Essential #5: Planning Tips and Tricks
- Plan for Road Trip Fatigue: Aim to begin with longer mileage drives. Longer drives are more fun at the start of a trip when you’re still feeling the excitement of being on the road, but are not as fun after several days. The same goes with lodging comfort. I try to book campsites in the beginning and end with more comfortable and spacious options.
- Be Prepared to Stop: Check out some interesting stops along your route. Apps like Roadside America, TripBucket and Playground Buddy can help you find fun places to stretch your legs along the way. And if you happen to pass by a point of interest sign leading to the World’s Largest Ball of Whatever, stop and take a look!
- Prepare Kids Ahead of Time: Based on my experience working in museums, telling people they should appreciate something because “it’s important” almost always backfires. Take time to introduce the context of your destination before you leave through picture books or kid-friendly shows. It can make a big difference to how kids experience your trip.
- The Night Before: We like to leave early in the morning, so we usually spend the night before going through our packing lists and loading as much into the car as possible. I pack cooler items together in the fridge, so the only thing we have to do in the morning is transfer the fridge bags to the cooler, pop it in the car, and go. Truth: we’ve actually forgotten the one fridge-to-cooler bag before. Mornings like that are why I love lists!
The Most Essential Family Road Trip Tip
A happy family road trip moment: sunrise at the Grand Canyon.
When things get stressful, try to remember why you wanted to take the trip in the first place. For most of our road trips, this is pretty simple. We want to make some new family memories, get outside of our comfort zones by doing new things, and hopefully share some good laughs along the way.
If my awesome itinerary is getting in the way of us enjoying our time together as a family, then it’s time to throw some things out. This can be embarrassingly difficult for someone like me who wants to see everything. I’m putting it out there for those of you who, like me, need the occasional reminder that it’s ok to toss the careful plans aside and live in the moment.