Whether you’re taking a road trip to visit relatives, to explore exciting new places, or to revisit old favorites, road trips are an important part of family life (especially summer life) for most families.
I used to have a serious love-hate relationship with road trips. We’ve always lived several-hours’ drive from relatives – so five- to twelve-hour drives have been part of every family reunion (and we really value getting together with our families). Plus we love to do a big family road-trip for Spring Break each year. I used to see the road trip part of each vacation or reunion as a necessary evil. The packing was stressful and I often ended up bringing too much of some things and too little of others. Then the time in the car was exhausting as I tried to keep babies and toddlers and preschoolers happy with songs and games and snacks (I felt like I was keeping a three-ring circus going for hours on end).
But as with so many things, “that which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the task itself has become easier, but that our ability to perform it has improved” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). I’ve persisted and I’ve learned a lot about what to pack and how to pack it. I’ve learned about how to make car time not only bearable, but actually quite wonderful. And the kids have gotten older which has certainly made many things easier (but adds it’s own challenges as well). Those once-dreaded car trips are now some of our favorite family experiences.
Of course, different things will work for different families, but here are some hard-won tips that work for my family and that might make your road trips less stressful and more joyful:
- I only bring 2-3 outfits per person (plus an extra shirt or two for younger kids) and plan on doing some laundry somewhere (laundromats are everywhere). The less “stuff” we’re lugging around, the better. And if the kids’ clothes are only a little dirty, I spot clean. Super clean clothes just aren’t worth the bother on vacations. I bring clothes I don’t care much about. Clothes always seem to get ruined on vacation and I want the kids to have fun w/o their mom being stressed out about them ruining their nice clothes.
- I use a big duffle bag to pack all the kids’ clothes together – but I organize the contents by using small bags that fit inside the duffle (plastic grocery store sacks work fine – just loosely tie the handles together). I put all the kids’ underwear (3-4 pair each) and socks (3-4 pair each) together in one bag so I can quickly grab underwear for kids in the shower or bath and socks for all the kids as we head out the door each morning. I put all the kids’ pj’s together in another (you often need them so kids can put on their pjs in the car and fall asleep in the car and easily transfer when you arrive). I sometimes pack all the shirts and pants together in the duffle and sometimes put each child’s pants and shirts in their own plastic bag to keep them separate and easier to find. I use a sharpie to write on the bags – “underwear,” “Ashton’s clothes,” etc.
- I pack a separate bag with just everyone’s hiking/running/closed-toed shoes if we’ll be needing those. I don’t like dirty shoes mixed in with the other clothes and most of the time the kids will be wearing flip flops or sandals in the car and for lots of the stuff we’ll be doing.
- I pack a separate bag with just everyone’s sweatshirts and keep that bag in the car all the time during our trip. Then, when it gets chilly and everyone wants a sweatshirt, we can easily grab sweatshirts without rifling through everything else.
- If we’ll need Sunday/dress-up/nicer clothes, I pack everyone’s nice stuff (shoes, socks and clothes) into one shared garment/hang-up bag. Since all need that stuff at the same time – and likely just once – it’s great to have it all together and put it away all together at the bottom of the pile in the car when we’re done with it for the trip.
- When all 7 of us travel, here’s what we bring: a large duffle with all the kids’ clothes (3 shirts, 2 pairs of pants or shorts each, a bag of 3 pairs of underwear and 3 pairs of socks each, a bag of all the kids’ pajamas), a small duffle bag for me and one for my husband (I don’t like anyone else messing with what’s in my bag…), a garment bag with everyone’s dress-up clothes (if needed). My husband and I can carry all this in one load, easily. Works great. Of course, we used to have a stroller and port-a-crib (or two thanks to the twins), a couple baby blankets, and quite a few diapers and wipes stuffed into the kids’ duffle bag – but still, we traveled relatively light and that made trips nice.
- I have a checklist of what needs to be packed and done that I use for every trip. This makes it SO much easier and keeps me from forgetting very much. You can make a list and then tweak it after your first road trip. Then every time you’ve got a road trip coming up, you print out your list and follow it and it’s so simple!
- I have the kids help me pack. I send one child to get 3 pair of underwear for each person. One to get all the socks. One to get the pj’s, etc. When they come back with each item (and I check to be sure it’s the right stuff and pack it into the bag), I check it off my checklist.
- I do laundry the day before a trip and put the stuff I’ll be packing into piles as I fold the laundry. Then I usually pack in the laundry room so that I can pack the freshly folded laundry for each person right there in one place rather than having to go room-to-room to gather everything needed.
- I pack a draw-string laundry bag or trash bag so that I can keep dirty clothes in one place (and I really check clothes to see if they are actually very dirty before they go in the bag – I really like to minimize laundry).
Snacks: We have a small collapsible cooler that we fill with fruits and veggies and a few other healthy snacks like almonds, Trader Joes honey whole wheat pretzels, etc. We give out the fruits and veggies to tide people over until a meal break, to be sure they’re getting better nutrition than fast food or convenience stores alone can provide, and to keep them hydrated. Looslis don’t get to drink very much in the car because drinks=bathroom breaks and we try to minimize those. If they’re thirsty, an apple or carrot helps without making the bathroom need imminent! We get the kids to drink a quite a lot about a 1/2 hour before we’ll be stopping for gas or for a meal – then they can use the bathroom during a scheduled stop. For drinks, we only allow water in the car which means no messy spills and less superfluous drinking.
Screen Time: Back when our kids were little, our road trips were revolutionized when we bought a little portable TV with a built-in VCR and the Wiggles and Veggie Tales and Bob the Builder became very welcome parts of our road trips. Later on we upgraded to a nice built-in DVD player in the car and enjoyed grabbing a DVD or two at a Redbox as a special treat during road trips. But even when the kids were really little, we play lots of games in the car and held off on screen time until it we’ve done other fun stuff first. And now that the kids are older, we’ve really decreased screen time in the car and increased the reading time and family car-game time and discussion of the scenery and history of areas we drove through. Then last year, our in-car DVD player broke and we decided not to replace it. It’s been great to not even have the temptation. The kids enjoy some limited time playing on a smart phone or on our Kindle Fire, but we really limit screen time in the car these days. We have an absolute “no screen time” rule when we’re passing through an area with interesting scenery.
Car Supplies: Along with snacks, we try to keep the car constantly stocked with these things in easily-acessible places (door pockets, under seats, cup holders, etc.):
- Water bottles (we refill at each stop so we have less bottles to lug around plus it’s the environmentally friendly thing to do)
- Wet wipes
- Tissues or paper towels (or all the extra napkins you don’t end up using at a fast-food place)
- First aid kit with bandaids
- Bug spray
- Sun Screen
- Books to read
- Journals to write in
Car Activities: We play “I Spy” and the alphabet game a lot. We tell stories where each person gets to add a part to a silly story. We read from chapter books together or listen to audio books (from Audible.com or from the library). We listen to favorite songs (my big kids love making playlists for road trips or playing their latest favorite songs for us in the car – and certain songs end up becoming theme songs for certain trips which is really fun). Sometimes Jared or I sit in the back so that one of us can do story time or a fun game and one of the big kids sits in the front with the driver to enjoy a little one-on-one time up there. Thanks to our smart phones, we have the big kids look up information about the area we’re driving through and give a little report to the rest of the family.
I hope some of these tips and ideas will help make your next road trip into a fun and meaningful family time. And there are some more GREAT tips from our Power of Moms readers on packing and planning and making family trips more of a vacation and less of a hassle here: How do you take the stress out of family vacations? Please add your own tips and ideas in the comment area below!
QUESTION: What works for you when it comes to packing and enjoying family road trips?
CHALLENGE: Decide on a few things you’ll do to make your packing experience more effective and less stressful and make your car-time more fun and meaningful.