Summer road trip packing essentials for families traveling with kids

Family Road Trip Packing List (& What Not To Pack)

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We have a standard packing list for all kinds of trips: beach vacation, city trip, skiing holiday, and, of course for our favorite way of traveling – road trips with kids. But I recently looked at our family road trip packing list and realized how outdated it was. So it’s high time to update our family road trip packing list, and I thought I would share it with you as well.

This road trip packing list contains all the items that make our life easier and road trips with kids more enjoyable. At the same time, it’s not a complete road trip packing list.

I guess you don’t need someone else to tell you how many socks or t-shirts to pack for your upcoming road trip, or to remind you to carry car registration and insurance documents or a passport if visiting a foreign country…

There are two types of road trips – the ones you make with your own car/ campervan, and the ones where you travel overseas and rent a car. Needless to say, you will be able to pack much more if you are traveling close to home. After all, you are probably not going to carry a huge cooler or a car seat organizer on the plane.

So use this ‘road trip essentials’ packing list as a guideline, to check if you haven’t forgotten any of the useful items that will make your family road trip more comfortable. Find out!

READ ALSO: Top Tips for Traveling with Kids

Before I tell you about the more traditional items you need to pack for a family road trip, let’s start with the most important things first. You may not have needed any of this ten years ago, but now it’s unthinkable to set on the road without these items.

This is our road trip packing list for families:

Tech gear and entertainment

  • Smartphone and charger
  • Battery pack to charge all your electronic devices. It’s a true life-saver if your phone tends to run empty long before you reach your hotel for the night. Check out this best-selling battery pack!
  • Make sure you also pack chargers for each of these devices. That’s where the battery pack comes in handy. We also always pack a USB-charger for in the car.
  • GPS or Google Maps app on your smartphone. Make sure you download the maps of the area where you will be road-tripping. In the past, we used to pack our TomTom GPS for every trip. Nowadays, we usually rely on Google Maps, unless traveling to a place where it doesn’t work well.

First aid essentials

The following items are among the most important road trip essentials for kids. So put these on your checklist and make sure you always have them at hand!

  • First aid kit (such as this compact first-aid kit) is good to have on any trip. But it’s literally a life-saver on a family road trip!
  • Ice spray. Ice spray or a cold pack is a must when traveling with young kids. Our boys are so active and adventurous, so when they were little, they used to fall all the time. But on a road trip with kids, you don’t have an ice pack or ice cubes at hand. An ice spray is a real life-saver!
  • Band-aids. Make sure to pack some in different sizes and always keep at least a few of them within an easy reach.
  • Pain medicine (for kids and adults).

Road trip essentials for kids

Here are some of the main items for your road trip with toddler checklist:

  • Comfortable car seats for kids adapted for their age. When traveling in our own car, we use Britax belt-positioning boosters for all our kids. When children sit in a car for hours, it’s important that they are comfortable, safe, and also have good head support. When we rent a car overseas we never rent children’s car seats. We carry our Trunki BoostAPak for each of the kids instead.

READ ALSO: Best Booster Seats for Travel

  • Car seat organizer. Car seat organizers are really useful if your family likes road trips a lot. They will hold all the kids’ stuff in one place and will save you lots of frustrations (‘mom, where is my…’ or ‘dad, could you pass me my… ‘).
  • Crayons, pencils, and pens. We usually pack twistable crayons since they last longer.
  • Magnetic car games. If you are planning to pack any games to play in the car, go for magnetic versions!
  • Extra diapers/wipes/clothes/quiet toys for the youngest ones.
  • Sickness bags and an easy-to-access clean pack of clothes for the kids. Motion sickness bags are ideal to pack for a road trip.
  • Ball or a frisbee. If you have some space in the car, pack a ball. It’s a great way to tire out the kids during short stops on the road. Alternatively, pack a frisbee or a foldable frisbee.

READ ALSO: Toddler Car Travel Tips & Best Travel Gear for Kids

 

Food and drinks

Here are some useful items that should be on your family road trip packing list as well:

  • Reusable water bottles. We usually pack one reusable water bottle per family member. In most places in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe you can easily refill water bottles with tap water. It’s free, it’s healthy, and it’s environmentally friendly. On top of that, water doesn’t leave any stains if the kids spill it in the car. We always buy a few large bottles of water as well, so that we can refill the bottles if there is no good tap water available.
  • Cooler. If you have space in your car, then a cooler might be a nice thing to pack for a family road trip. If you’re looking for a heavy-duty waterproof and leak-proof cooler that has plenty of space to store food and drinks for the whole family, check the Tourit Portable Travel Cooler. Not only does it have a practical and stylish design, but its advanced cooling performance with high-quality insulation also promises to keep your food and drinks cold for up to 3 days. There aren’t many other coolers out there that can do that! And yes, quality has its price, but we had to throw away several cheaper coolers (and the food inside) after just a few days of use, so now we rather go for quality and certainty.
  • Snack container with separate compartments, like this or this one.
  • Dried fruit, nuts, cookies, etc. Small snacks should always be on your family road trip checklist! There’s nothing worse than a couple of tired hungry kids stuck in a traffic jam for a few hours…

Miscellaneous

  • Printed map, a road atlas, and a travel guide of the area you are traveling to. Do you really want to drive on the main highways all the time when there might be an alternative scenic road leading to your next destination? Plan your trip well: include some stops for the kids to play, add a few off the beaten path places to your itinerary. When you use a good old fashioned map, you can see so much more! GPS is important in order to guide your family to your hotel or camping at the end of the day, but it can ruin the joy of a traditional road trip.
  • Roadside assistance emergency pack and a Swiss knife. We never ever leave on a trip without our Swiss knife. We have used it on more occasions than I can remember and it served many purposes, from peeling apples and carrots in the car, to repairing a broken air pipe of our car’s engine. And while we always have good travel insurance, without that Swiss knife we would have probably been stuck in the middle of the highway in France on a rainy Sunday evening… Since that trip, we always have a Swiss knife and a roadside assistance emergency pack or at least a couple of screwdrivers in the car.
  • Flashlight.
  • Paper tissues, wet tissues, kitchen towels, and – if you have some space – a picnic blanket. You will need all of these when road-tripping with kids.
  • Trash bags
  • Sunglasses.

Best bags for road trips

  • Duffel bags. Pre-kids we always traveled with hard-shell suitcases. But if you ever tried to squeeze more than two suitcases in the trunk of the car, you know that they are pretty useless. No matter if we are making a road trip close to home or flying overseas, we always use duffel bags with wheels. Here you can read more about the travel bags that we have used for the last 3 years – Thule Subterra luggage.

READ ALSO: Best Travel Bags for Kids

Clothing that is always in our car

As already said, I’m not going into detail on all the clothing you should pack for a road trip. So here are just the main, essential clothing and footwear that you should always have with you when road-tripping with kids:

  • Sneakers or walking shoes. Also Flip flops or crocs.
  • Sun hat and swimwear.

Nice to have for road trips

  • Binoculars. We have small binoculars for each of the kids and it keeps them busy on the road. We used them in Africa, in Australia, in Yellowstone, and pretty much on any road trip ever since.
  • Travel mug, in addition to a reusable water bottle. We only pack these when driving in our own car from home.
  • Neck pillows and blankets. We always pack light fleece blankets in the car for kids if planning to drive at night. They are also very handy for those winter road trips to the mountains! If you are looking for a compact neck pillow that doesn’t take too much space, take a look at this highly-rated Amazon best-seller.

What not to pack for a road trip

Here are some items that you better leave at home:

  • Hard shell suitcases.
  • Too many toys for kids. Definitely leave all the noisy toys at home.
  • Umbrella. We never pack an umbrella for a road trip. Take a rain jacket instead.
  • Too many clothes and shoes. Pack less and make sure you can layer when needed.
  • Sweet food and drinks, or anything else that gives too much energy and makes their hands sticky.
  • Too many food containers or other items that take a lot of space in your car.
 

So, these are our road trip packing tips for families road tripping with children. Do you have any tips or packing essentials to share? Please feel free to leave a comment below!

READ ALSO: Most beautiful road trips in the world

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Family road trip packing essentials
Packing essentials for a road trip with kids
 

Comments

  1. A very comprehensive travel list Jurga. Thank you so much for taking the time to share essential items and reasons for bringing them.. It did help me remember a few things I had not thought of.

    1. Author

      Glad to hear that, Al. That’s how we use our packing lists too – to quickly check that we didn’t forget something essential.
      Happy road-tripping!

  2. Thank you for sharing these packing tips. It is so helpful for this summer as we are planning to take our first road trip EVER.

    1. Author

      Glad you found this useful, Jennifer. Enjoy your trip!

  3. This is a very comprehensive list to have a successful and smooth road trip. Having a road trip means that you want to have fun, relax and enjoy your vacation which is why it’s very important to check almost everything to avoid any hassle along the way. The least we wanted is to get stuck on the road due to car problems instead of enjoying our trip. That is why I make sure that my car is in great condition before the said date. What I usually do is to visit my car shop at least a week before to have my car checked for possible repair and maintenance. I think this would be a great addition to your list.

    1. Author

      Hi Erwin, yes, absolutely – checking that the car is in good condition is vital before any road trip.

  4. Thank you for the helpful post.
    Google Maps is awesome for driving directions, but it’s infinitely more fun to track your progress on a real, printed-out atlas. Trace your route on the map as you go along, then hang it in your bedroom or office to smile at every day.

    1. Author

      There is definitely charm in traveling with a real paper map or an atlas, that’s for sure. We used to do it all the time…
      But I love the peace of mind of having a good navigation system these days – so much more relaxing, especially in the cities or when trying to find your accommodation after a long day’s drive.
      One mistake people make a lot is switch on the GPS and just take the fastest route. That’s not what road-tripping is about. So having a good map (or preparing really well in advance) is a must if you want to explore some great stops along the way, rather than drive from point A to point B…

  5. Yeah I agree with everyone mostly the Aussie dad

  6. where the hell are you planning to keep all this gear ? you’ll need a dam truck (sarcasm) to carry half this list.. I didn’t read any where about .. roof racking and luggage pod! or a trailer. Surely that’s essential for any one wanting to travel with a family ??

    1. Author

      🙂 Your comment made my day. I went back through this list again and didn’t find anything we wouldn’t take or anything that would require too much space. This is pretty much what we pack on every road trip with kids. Also when we rent a car for a road trip overseas (with very few exceptions depending on the destination). And no, we never have a roof rack or a trailer 🙂 . Actually, we usually travel with 3 soft duffel bags (check this out to see what luggage we use if interested), kids’ car seats (Trunki boosters), and a small backpack or two.
      If you take the time to actually read this post, you’ll see that most items are actually very small. The only thing that’s bigger in this list is a cooler and I have to admit that we only took it once when we had to fly/drive on our road trip in Namibia, otherwise we wouldn’t take such a big item when flying. But when we travel with our own car, we pack all of this and much much more – just think of all the clothes and shoes you need for a family of 5… And you’d be surprised at how tidy our car trunk looks.

      1. We are a family of 7 (2 adults and 5 kids). We make a family road trip up to Oregon each summer to visit grandpa. I carefully read your whole list and I agree that most items you listed are essential for safety as well as comfort. As the kids have aged out from one stage to another some items may not be needed (booster chair, etc.) but I think your list is awesome. The one thing that I have learned is that technology may not always work for one reason or another so it is a good idea to have a printed map (AAA members get them free) just in case. Toilet paper and wipes are always good to have for sanitary reasons. If we are not able to sit on a picnic blanket (ants, etc.), our family has packed a 6-seater portable bench if they want to stretch out legs and snack outside if no facility is available. The snacks help a lot so we can avoid the “fast food” diet and sugar rush. For movies, the kids can download them on their tablets before they head out on the road trip. We also have a portable battery charger (we acutally used it a few times to jump our battery or help another family on a road trip, including inflating tires. It also charges devices if needed). Thanks again for your list! It was fantastic. =)

        1. Author

          Thanks for sharing your experiences and practical tips for packing for a road trip. I never even heard of a portable bench, just looked it up now here – looks quite fun for a big family :). It’s always useful to learn from other people’s experiences…
          Happy travels!

    2. I’m surprised at the frustration at the size of the list and the things to take. It makes sense to me.
      My family of 5 has repeatedly made the trip from Portland, Oregon to Salt Lake City, Utah in a murano without trailer or roof rack.
      I pack the family clothing in space bags then put them in a rubbermaid tote for the drive (usually 2 days there then back). We don’t have to get into them while we’re on the road, each person has a personal bag (backpack size) with a change of clothing and items for in the car.

      1. Author

        Hi Susie, yes, it’s so much easier if you can pack whatever you need close to you, so you don’t have to unpack everything during the trip. Thanks for sharing your experience.
        We always try to pack light for our road trips, but there are still so many little items that we end up taking with us, because they make our road trips so much more comfortable.

  7. This packing list is truly awesome. You need these things and it’s too easy to forget something. I have bookmarked this for future when I take my next roadtrip.

    1. Author

      Good to hear you found it useful, Edward. I also always have to remind myself to quickly check the list before we leave and indeed I often forget one or the other thing. And something trivial like a game to keep the kids busy in the car can make or break the whole trip 🙂

  8. Such a comprehensive list Jurga 🙂 We’re doing a small road trip through the state of Victoria in Australia next month and it was good to be reminded of what I have forgotten to pack.! Thanks!

    1. Author

      That’s the reason we always check the list too. No matter how many trips you make, there is always something you forget to pack. 🙂 Enjoy Victoria! We loved the Ocean Road and also The Grampians!

  9. I’m with you on the twistable crayons, but you’ve also given me a few other tips – I’ve heard about these quick drying towels – what a great idea! And, I’d forgotten to put picnic blanket on the list

    1. Author

      Honestly, we only take picnic blanket when we travel with our own car here in Europe, Alex. It’s too big to carry on the plane. But it’s always so nice to have, as we love picnicking so much.

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