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How to Pack for a Road Trip with Kids

  • 01/01/2021

With baby on board, traveling to the farthest reaches of the globe becomes more challenging. This is doubly true once you add Kid No. 2 to the mix … and anything more than that quickly becomes infeasible vis-à-vis trains and planes. At this stage of the game, many parents opt to ditch international vacations in favor of interstate or even in-state travel.

Road trips fit the bill nicely. In a recent survey by Outdoorsy, reported in Sunset Magazine, more than 90 percent of Americans planned to take a road trip at some point in 2022. The transition to work-from-home models during the pandemic has forever changed the way America does business, meaning more families are freer than ever before to hit the road when they please. For many parents, this kind of travel just makes sense.

Plus, the variety of different landscapes in the US means no matter where you live, you’ll be able to experience something new. You can forget the hassle of passports and customs forms. Your car is trusty, familiar and already has many expedition necessities on hand. And you can bring more gear than you ever could without said car.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to pack, though, and doing it wrong has consequences. Spending all day in your temporary home-on-the-go can quickly get suffocating if little ones get grumpy and adults feel stretched beyond capacity. One of the best things you can do to counteract this possibility is to pack well. Seemingly optional items such as shelf-stable but healthy snacks, chargers, emergency supplies and head support for Baby all make a huge difference in your comfort and enjoyment.

Here’s your handy guide to loading up smart on the road.


Road trips involve a lot of moving parts, no pun intended. Luckily, we live in the future, where there’s an app for that. In all seriousness, technology can make your job lots easier if you think ahead a bit. Here are a few of the best gadgets to have on hand before you shut your front door:

Item locators: There are plenty of items you can’t afford to leave behind in a hotel room, and item locators make sure you don’t. These Bluetooth-enabled tags are made by lots of different companies (for instance, AirTags by Apple). You simply hook them up to your phone then attach them to specific items et voilà, you can track them anywhere. Consider placing one on special stuffies or sets of keys to make life easier.

Multiple-device car charger: Whether you’re traveling with a partner, friend, or just the kiddos, there are likely to be multiple devices to charge. Instead of plugging and unplugging chargers constantly, get a gizmo that enables you to plug them all in at once. You can find models that interface with the cigarette lighter or, for newer cars that don’t have one, you can use USB splitters.

Portable shower: If that sounds too magical to be true, it’s not! Now you can create water pressure on the go with shower bags, some of which can be heated using solar energy. There are tons of options available, and no parents should be without some rinsing capacity on the road.

Portable air purifier: Especially if you are traveling during smoke season on the West Coast or the height of hay fever in the Midwest, air purity is very important. A portable air purifier can clip to the back of a seat or ride securely in the back, keeping your air clean without getting in the way.


Getting the right food while traveling is always a tricky proposition. Whether you’re taking planes, trains or automobiles, the struggle is real when it comes to eating right – and doubly so when you’ve got little ones in tow. As with adults, they have specific nutrition and calorie requirements. Unlike adults, theirs are based on age and growth activity. Failing to meet those requirements not only isn’t good over the long haul, but it will majorly impact the Fussiness Factor of your trip.

Here's a basic breakdown of the amounts and types of food your children should be getting, even on the go. Naturally, you can bend the rules a few times on your trip, but overall you’ll have more success if you stick to the basics. That means making the basics portable, though. The following will give you some ideas of how to get macronutrients in car-friendly form:

Protein: Peanut butter packets, cheese sticks, beef jerky (just check the sodium levels), trail mix, no-bake energy balls (plenty of recipes online and they last outside the fridge for a few days), nut bars and popcorn with parmesan cheese all fit the bill.

Veggies: Baby carrots, sliced veggies such as peppers and celery sticks, veggie chips, sliced radishes, guacamole and tortilla chips, cherry tomatoes and zucchini muffins are easy to make ahead and bring with you. Many of these snacks you can even make in a hotel or Airbnb.

Carbohydrates: While many adults have turned their back on bread, kids need lots of carbs to keep them going. Make sure that most of this is whole grain and fibrous, so that it releases energy slowly. Mix a healthy amount of whole-grain crackers, crisped brown rice cakes, air-popped sorghum or popcorn, rye bread crisps and similar snacks with energy-ready options: bananas, dried fruit and a few treats, such as chocolates or fruit snacks.

Keeping food stocked is also a challenge, so keep these tips in mind:

Do a quick spin of the gas station store when you stop, even if you have plenty of food. You’d be surprised how long the stretches can get between stopping points, and you want to take advantage of every good snack you find along the road.

Replace food while you still have 24 hours of edibles left. That way you’ll never be caught without something to eat, even if an emergency occurs.

If you’re staying in hotels, grab a menu as soon as you check in and order anything that looks shelf-stable for breakfast the following morning, then stash it. Think boxed cereals and applesauce or dried fruit.

It takes a little practice, but eventually, you’ll have a foolproof system for every time you travel.

Clothing and Toiletries

The routine on a car trip should be as close to possible as the routine at home, so bring whatever your children normally use to gear up in the morning and wind down at night. If you can get toiletries in travel sizes, that’s great, but avoid switching brands, which can increase the feeling of disjuncture for young children. Instead, if you need to save space, get empty travel bottles and fill them with familiar products.

Regarding clothing, always bring multiple sets more than you will need for every day of the trip. Assume that you will not get to do laundry as often as you like, and you’ll be happier. For the underwear and socks allotment, straight up double the count. Also make sure that everyone has two pairs of sturdy shoes, so that there’s something to wear if the other pair has to dry.

Safety Supplies and Emergency Gear

Road trips can be a massive amount of fun, but when they go wrong, they can go really wrong. Summertime brings detours from fires or construction, sometimes lasting all day. If you’re being rerouted along with hundreds or thousands of others, you might find yourself without accommodations at nightfall. Even those equipped with camping gear can’t always find a place to pitch it, and just like that, you’re apocalypse camping right there in the car.

Ditto in winter, when storms can blow in quickly, especially up in the mountains – a common vacation destination for young families. If that happens, you need to keep everyone calm while you wait for help to arrive, which can take up to 12 hours (or more). With the right equipment, that’s not a deadly amount of time, but you need to be prepared. Among the most important items are:

Safety hammers that break windows and cut seat belts or car seat straps so you can get out quick in an emergency

Space blankets to hold in body heat if you get stuck in the snow

Jumper cables

Extra water, about 6 cups on average for grown adults and enough for pets as well

Warm shoes and clothing in case you need to leave the car

Flashlights and lanterns

Extra batteries and chargers

Owner’s manual or basic car repair guide if you don’t have the manual

A tire and jack just in case your roadside assistance gets held up

An extra can of gas

Chains if you might hit cold weather

A first aid kit that contains basic supplies as well as compression bandages, fever reducers, allergy medicine, a week’s supply of everyone’s prescriptions and a first aid manual

Extra eyeglasses for any driver who needs them to see

Remember that in an emergency, you aren’t going to want to waste valuable time standing in the cold or the smoke with the back of the car open. Your emergency supplies need to be accessible, which gives you two options:

Ideally, place them where you can reach them from inside the car. That way you don’t have to compromise the car’s interior environment. (This is another good reason to have an air purifier.)

If you do not have space within reach, pack them on the outside of your bags, so that you can grab them with a quick open-and-close of the trunk.

On a final safety note, remember that very small babies will need head support while traveling. Long periods in the car when they’re napping can put pressure on their necks, but you can easily relieve it with a safe, simple support system that keeps their spine aligned on the go.

Making the Best Use of Your Space

If you’re like most American families, you live in a house with at least one bedroom, one bathroom, a kitchen, a living room, some sort of mudroom or utility space, a few closets, and possibly an outdoor storage area. That’s a lot of territory you likely take for granted, and as soon as you climb into the car, it’s right out the window. Suddenly you’re living a 21st century life in a space equivalent to a dwelling from the 21st century BC.

It's therefore critical to make the most of trunk space. Fatherly recommends getting the same size and make of bags for everyone in the family so that they stack neatly in the trunk. Additionally, adds the publication, soft bags are better than hard ones. That way you don’t waste room if bags aren’t all the way full, and you can squash more into the squashable spaces.

Before you start Marie Kondo-ing your car, here are a few more tips to keep in mind:

Don’t start packing until all the gear is ready to go, otherwise you may discount something large or difficult to pack.

Load the bags you’ll need first into the trunk last.

Secure heavy, bulky, sharp or potentially suffocating items securely so they can’t move around the car, even in a wreck. This makes it much safer for your children, especially small babies who can’t move.

If you need something large at a destination and can ship it, do so.

If you need something for a short period of time at a different destination and can rent it when you get there, do so.

On a final packing note, always choose roof bags over hard roof containers. While the hard shell does provide nice protection, today’s roof bags are sturdy, waterproof and easy to secure to the car, and you can wrap them up tightly when you’re not using them. They’re a better way to go for ease, simplicity and washability.

That’s it! If you have any tips to add, please do let us know. Until then, happy trails.


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