Planning a road trip with kids this year? Keep scrolling to find out the best family road trip packing hacks and tips plus everything you need to put in your road trip survival kit!
This post about family road trip packing hacks and tips was written by family travel expert Marcie Cheung and contains affiliate links which means if you purchase something from one of my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission that goes back into maintaining this blog.
Many families are hitting the road for the first time, and it can be hard to know where to start. Should you travel across the country or stay local? Are you visiting friends or family or is it more about the road trip stops?
Road trips also don’t need to be super long to qualify. Just driving a few hours from home counts as a family road trip and you’ll want to be prepared with these road trip packing hacks and tips.
Loving these road trip packing hacks and tips? Find out the best road trip car gadgets perfect for family travel
Family Road Trip Packing Hacks and Tips
The family road trip usually leads to one serious headache: where to put that seemingly endless pile of stuff everyone packed. There is an art to packing well for a trip.
That’s why we’ve come up with a few road trip packing hacks to help make sure we don’t overpack.
The One-Suitcase Rule
A great place to start is the one-suitcase rule. For each child or teenager old enough to pack their own bags, give them one small suitcase or duffel and let them have the flexibility to pack what they want.
For infants, toddlers, and young children, restrict yourself to the same rule for their gear (or it will quickly get out of control, trust me). Parents must follow it, too.
We find that using packing cubes is a great way to maximize suitcase space and stay organized. Each member of the family gets their own color. You really only need one suitcase to pack all your road trip outfits.
If you’re expecting, make sure to read my full guide on road tripping while pregnant.
Multi-Purpose Travel Gear
Don’t try to reproduce your entire home on the road. That just isn’t necessary. If you have a baby or toddler, look for gear that does double-duty, such as car seat/stroller combos.
If you will visit family on this road trip, see what gear they have on hand. Check ahead with hotels, too, which usually can provide cribs or sleep cots.
And this applies to beauty products, too. Instead of bringing your usual slew of moisturizers, cleansers, etc, find one product that does an “ok” job to save space.
Plan Ahead to Lighten your Load
Sometimes, simply how you plan your trip can help tremendously to reduce family road trip packing clutter.
You can save a ton of space in everyone’s bags by booking at a hotel with on-site laundry, for example. (And bring your own soap to save money!)
You can pack fewer snacks by staying at accommodations that offer free breakfast.
You can pack fewer toys and games by hitting a destination (or campground or resort) with plenty of children’s activities or playgrounds.
Pack the Super-Mom Travel Tote Bag
Instead of having everyone bring a hodgepodge of clutter to spread around the back seat, pack one large tote bag filled with on-the-road needs: games, books, maps, toys, snacks, and anything you would want to grab in a moment’s notice when the cries of, “Are we there yet?” start mounting.
Keep it at the feet of mom or dad in the front, and you’re ready for any requests.
Want to bring a few new toys? Check out my top toddler travel toys!
Yes, You Will Forget Something
Make your peace with this idea, and it will free you to leave more behind. Yes, you just might need that bulky sweatshirt if a cold spell hits. So? Why not wait and see. The bonus is you can get a souvenir sweatshirt on the trip.
If you are in doubt, and it is easy enough to replace en route, just leave it behind. If you’ve packed lightly, you’ll have room for any extras you buy on your road trip.
Family Road Trip Survival Kit (RTSK)
No matter the size of the family or ages of the kids, road trips are rarely the idyllic family bonding experiences that parents are hoping for.
However, with some simple planning and small purchases, your family can attain some measure of sanity and, if you’re lucky, even enjoyment, on those long car rides this summer.
The key to the Road Trip Survival Kit is self-sufficiency and rationing. Each child will have his or her own box or bag – they’re own RTSK – so that they can direct their own activities, get their own snacks, have their own special prizes, etc.
As important as it is to teach kids to share, road trips are just not the place. Save yourself some stress and just make bring enough items for everyone.
This also minimizes mom or dad having to reach back, find items, and be generally bothered the entire way. When you are confined in a small space with your whole family, you’ll want a few moments to zone out and get a break.
The items in the Kits may need to be refreshed at some point either mid-way or maybe just for the return trip, so be prepared with “bonus” items. Or, if the kids are close in age, you can switch toys and games out.
The RTSK Container
The container for the RTSK (Road Trip Survival Kit) should be small enough to fit beside or below them in the car.
Consider color-coding or otherwise identifying whose Kit is whose to avoid an argument (“Hugo took my baaaaaaag!”).
Snacks are essential parts of any road trip. The best way to handle snacks is to pack each child their own snack pack in a Ziploc bag and explain that when they’re gone, they’re gone.
You can adjust for your child’s age and preferences, but here’s a good list
- 1 small pack of sugar-free gum
- 3-4 “fun” sized candy bars
- apple slices or a whole apple
- granola bars
- crackers or Goldfish
- chips or Veggie Straws
Pack double the amount you need of these snack packs and stash half away so you can refresh mid-way or on the return trip.
If the kids are into drawing, coloring, or writing, pack each one a clipboard as well as the appropriate writing tools and paper or coloring books—crayons for the little ones, pencils, and pens for the older ones.
Markers tend to be a problem (it’s so easy for them to end up on car seats), so opt for colored pencils instead.
Clipboards come in handy as a hard surface to draw on. So even if you don’t give everyone their own, have one on hand just in case.
Puzzles and Games
To encourage their use, consider a small prize like a quarter or small candy for each one correctly completed. They can cash out at the end of the trip.
Road trips are an excellent time to catch up on reading or maybe start tackling that school summer reading list.
Pack a new book or two for each kid. If it’s for summer reading, also give them a notepad for taking notes along the way. Even if your kids aren’t readers, consider comic books or magazines to keep their minds moving.
If you are traveling at night, toss in a book lamp too.
Costco is a great place to find discounted boxed book sets for younger kids or YA books for tweens and teens. Or hit up a local thrift store to score amazing book deals.
Avoid the “Where are we?” and “How much longer?” by giving the kids maps.
Purchase simple map books for each kid or print out maps of your route on your home printer. It might be helpful to have one map for each state.
Mark landmarks along the way and clearly note the destinations. Include a highlighter so they can keep track of your progress. This not only keeps them occupied but builds some map-reading skills.
Do not get folding maps; adults don’t even know how to use them. Your kids will end up getting frustrated and it’s just not worth it. But, the pop up maps can be kind of fun.
Be sure to announce when you hit a new state, so they can switch maps.
As much as all parents would love to avoid electronics in the car, they certainly do serve to occupy the kids, especially when it gets darker, and reading is more difficult.
Handheld video games: In each RTSK, include a new game to try out (check out used games to save a little money). Put time limits on the games! Tell the kids they have to unplug after a set amount of time.
Tablet: If you have a Kindle or iPad, download some movies and games that don’t require WiFi and then set a timer on how long kids can use screens.
DVD players: If your car comes equipped with a DVD player, pack each kid their own movie. When it’s their turn, the other kids can watch or dig into their RTSK’s.
iPods/mp3 players: If the kids are too young for their own phone, get them an inexpensive iPod or mp3 player. Make each one their own “Road Trip” playlist on yours with some of their favorites and newer selections.
Or encourage them to add new music to their phones.
A good policy is to have ample snacks but minimal drinks. This keeps the kids’ munchies at bay while minimizing the need for extra potty breaks.
Hold onto the drinks if the kids aren’t old enough to ration themselves. Pass them out the hour to a half-hour before your planned stops, especially if your kids tend to chug drinks.
The Parent RTSK
Mom and Dad need their own Survival Kit too! The Parent RTSK should include a roll or two of quarters and a small bag of candy for prizes. Pack a few extra writing implements and maybe a surprise family favorite movie.
For your own sanity, update your phone with parent-friendly music (and noise cancelling headphones) and bring a good book or magazine.
Don’t forget snacks! Trail mix, fruit, a little candy, whatever your tastes. You might want to pack a mini first aid kit (Tylenol, band-aids, antacids, antibiotic cream, tweezers) just to be safe.
With this Road Trip Packings Hacks Survival Kit, your family should get to your summertime destination happy and with minimal chaos. Even with all the stuff to do, don’t forget to remind the kids to just enjoy the scenery for a while.
After all, what are road trips all about?