Road trips are one of the best ways to explore new areas, and I actually prefer them now that I have kids. Unlike when you fly, you can pull over whenever you see something interesting or if you need a break (which can be often with little ones, am I right?). However, you’ll want to make sure you have the right sites on your family road trip checklist, as it can make or break the trip.
From driving around the island of Hawaii to going on an Olympic Peninsula road trip in Washington, I’ve been on dozens of road trips over the years. I love this form of travel, which is why I continue to plan new road trips year after year. That’s also why I continue to refine my family road trip packing list, as I learn a lesson each time we take the kids somewhere.
Based on all my experiences (both great and poor), I’ve put together the ultimate road trips with kids checklist. From what to know before you head out to understanding what essential things to pack for your drive, this road trip packing list will help you prepare for your trip!
Helpful Tips for a Road Trip Packing List for Families
Here are a few road trip tips to keep in mind while you’re planning your trip.
Plan Your Stops Ahead of Time
I’m all for winging it sometimes. But on long road trips, I want to know where I’ll be spending the night every night. I discovered Roadtrippers about a year ago and love this for planning. You can add in all the places you have in mind for stopping to see the distance between them.
I used this app constantly when I was planning my road trip from Seattle to San Francisco. I then switched to the app when I’m on the road. It even calculates how long the trip will take you in total and how much they estimate gas will be. This is one of my road trip necessities to help save money.
If you bring your pup with you on trips, this is especially helpful to find a pet area at a rest stop or other area so they can relieve themself when you’re traveling cross country with a dog.
Get Your Car Ready
While you can’t prevent breakdowns during your trip, you can try to prevent them by making sure your car is ready first. This means filling up the wiper fluid, checking your oil levels, filling your tires with air, and anything else that you might have been putting off.
You should also know how to change a spare tire and have an emergency road kit in your car. These are all essential to add to your family road trip checklist.
On that note, if you have kids, you’ll want to make sure everything is ready for them. Knowing how to travel with a car seat correctly is important to make sure they stay safe.
I’ve been using Spotify for years and love the wide variety of music and podcasts they have for a small fee each month. Before you leave, make a few different playlists and download them to your phone so you don’t have to worry about using up data or in places you don’t have service.
You can also get creative and make your own road trip playlist to put on your road trip packing list for kids. That way, you’ll be guaranteed to love every song that comes on. I consider this another road trip necessity, as there are likely parts you drive to that won’t have service to connect to the radio.
I’ve also recently gotten into podcasts, and they have almost every topic you can imagine on Spotify. What better time to educate yourself on a topic than when you’re stuck in the car?
Learn Where the Gas Stations Are
When you’re driving through big towns, you’ll have no problem finding gas stations. Once you get out on the wide-open road, gas options will be few and far between. When I did my Vancouver to Banff road trip, it was especially important to know where the gas stations were, as they were rare in some areas.
In addition to double-checking my family road trip checklist, I love using Gas Buddy to see not only where the nearest gas stations are but also which ones are the cheapest. Make sure to download this app before you leave as part of your road trip packing list checklist.
Go With the Flow
Many times when you plan a road trip, the trip doesn’t go 100% according to schedule. For example, when doing a long drive like a Seattle to Glacier National Park drive, you can’t expect to always stay on schedule each day.
There will be traffic, or roads might be closed that you were going to take. Try not to get stressed and think of it as a way to explore an area you wouldn’t have seen before.
For example, I found out after the fact that one of the most important things to know when visiting Yellowstone is to go early. However, when I was stuck in the middle of a traffic jam once I was there, I couldn’t do anything but breathe and wait for it to clear. While your kids may lose their cool, trying to keep yours can help defuse the situation.
Know Where Your Manual and Insurance Are
While we’re on the topic, you should also know where your car manual is, whether you’re renting a car or using your own. That way, you can quickly look up the issue you’re having. You should also know where your car insurance is in case of an accident. I go on many road trips and always make sure these are ready to go, just in case.
Have a Checklist
I use Evernote for everything – writing notes when I plan my trips, including helpful links, and even uploading pictures or screenshots. It syncs from the app on my phone to my computer so I can easily edit the documents back and forth.
Write down everything you need to do or pack on here. You can then check each task off as you get it done to help you plan a road trip. I used this method when we did our road trip from Los Angeles to Yosemite, and it made the process much easier.
Plus, the family road trip packing list below will help you with just that!
38 Essentials for a Family Road Trip Checklist
You can always pick up anything you forget on the road, but you’ll save time and stress to have these items in advance. I recommend checking out my road trip organization hacks to start your trip on the right foot.
Also, I recommend signing up for my free packing list so you can get these in a family road trip packing list printable PDF that you can check off as you go.
However, here’s a more detailed section about why I recommend putting all of these on your road trip with kids packing list.
1. Comfortable shoes
There’s a reason this item is at the top of my road trip checklist for families – if your kids can’t comfortably walk, tantrums will ensue. That’s why I always make sure my kids wear tennis shoes that fit them well for any activities they want to do at stops.
2. Warm jacket
Even if it’s the middle of summer and hot at your destination during the day, some places can get very chilly at night, particularly if you do a desert road tip, so you’ll always want a warm coat.
Don’t forget clothes for yourself! I love the KUHL Trekr Short when I travel due to its comfort and how quickly it dries. They are always my go-to brand for traveling and hiking, as every item I’ve tried from them is cozy.
You should always have a lightweight rain jacket on hand in case of a sudden rainstorm. Even the places that hardly get rain can suddenly get dumped on, and you don’t want to be stuck in your car. A rain jacket lets you continue to explore the area, so it’s necessary to put on a road trip packing list with kids.
Kids will swim in almost any temperature water, so having a swimsuit on hand makes it easier for them to get out on a quick stop to get their energy out.
I’ve been using Roadtrippers for years to help me plan out my trips and find fun stops along the way. Use my code “BTR5QTP” for $5 off when you sign up!
Sunglasses seem like a simple item you’d always include, yet I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t check if I had them and went on a very sunny drive without them. I recommend getting polarized sunglasses to best protect their eyes (especially if you’re looking at sights on a Grand Canyon road trip).
Road trip snacks are essential to put on your family packing list for a road trip, which is why I have an entire article dedicated to road trip snacks for kids. You’ll save both money and time when you have snacks ready to go.
Here are some of my essential road trip snacks:
- Trail mix
- Protein bars
- KIND bars
- Fruit (cut up before you leave or at night in the hotel)
- Hard-boiled eggs (peel before you leave for a quick breakfast)
- Dark chocolate (for a healthy-ish treat)
7. Reusable water bottle
One of my must-haves for a packing list for a road trip with kids is a refillable water bottle, and I take them for everyone in my family. You can easily get dehydrated from traveling and eating salty snacks, so fill up everyone’s water bottle whenever you get a chance.
On the same note, having multiple drink options is helpful to prevent stopping as much on a long drive. I try to stick to mainly water but may include a few juice boxes.
9. Electrolyte packets
I always thought these were overrated until I started taking one every day I travel and felt so much better. They have kid electrolyte packets as well to keep them hydrated and feeling healthy. These are especially important to use when you’re on a hot and dry place like a LA to Joshua Tree road trip.
A cooler is an item I’ve put on my list of what to pack for a family road trip for years to keep drinks and food cold. When I drove across the country in the middle of summer (and pregnant!), nothing gave me more relief on some of those blistering summer days than to grab a cold drink. Your kids will feel the same.
Not much explanation here, but you always need way more napkins than you think you do with kids for all the messes they inevitably make. Bring three times the amount you think you need when packing for a road trip with kids.
Older kids will love listening to the custom playlists you put together before your trip, and it keeps them from watching their tablets too much. You can help them create multiple ones for maximum entertainment.
Make sure to reserve your rental car ahead of time! I love using Discover Cars for my trips.
These are also easy ways to entertain older kids while not having them stare at the screen. Just make sure you download all audiobooks before you go so they have access to them.
Road trips almost always have long stretches where you or the people in your car might start to get bored. That’s why a family road trip essential is having travel games for kids if you have young ones in the car.
I also love having road trip trivia questions ready to go for when you all hit a stretch when you’re a bit bored.
When there’s a delay in your trip, you’ll be glad you have a book to entertain you. For example, during my LA to Joshua Tree drive, we got stuck for almost two hours just trying to leave Los Angeles. I wished that I had a book or some type of entertainment when I realized we would be at a standstill for a while. Having a book or Kindle can temporarily distract kids when you’re stuck in traffic.
I wouldn’t have put this on a list a few years ago, but having two kids now and being a family that likes going on road trips, I will say having a tablet has been a big help. However, my husband and I always try to give them this as the last resort (as in after they’re sick of their books and games).
Traveling with an infant? You’ll want to know all the road trip tips with a baby first.
I’ve been using Roadtrippers for years to help me plan out my trips and find fun stops along the way. Use my code “BTR5QTP” for $5 off when you sign up!
I’ve been traveling and taking photos for my websites for almost a decade, so my kids started noticing I always had my camera. I got them both this cute kid’s camera that is affordable but lets them be part of the action.
I always have road trip captions for Instagram ready to go so I can quickly post a picture.
18. Charging cables
I know it seems like such an obvious one, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten my phone charger before a trip and had to buy a new one. One of the most essential things to put on a vacation packing list for a family road trip is chargers for everything – Kindles, tablets, phones, etc. – for everyone.
No one wants to hear the same Daniel Tiger episode playing over and over (kids know what they like, don’t they?), so get headphones for all of your kids to make sure they’re the only ones hearing their show.
20. GPS device
This is an optional item depending on where you’re going, but I wish I had a GPS device multiple times when I’ve been on trips where there’s not any service for hours. You can’t always rely on your phone to guide you.
21. Car phone mount
Similarly, your phone isn’t any good if you can’t see the directions it’s giving you. Don’t put yourself at risk by holding it in your phone, and put it in a sturdy phone mount instead.
22. Offline map
Technology is great, but you can’t always rely on it. Service will cut out in the middle of using your GPS, which is why you should have a paper map that won’t fail you. Mark your general route on there so you have an idea of where you are if you get lost.
23. Navigation app
While this may seem simple, many people forget to do this before they leave and try to download it when they suddenly need it. What happens? They can’t download it, because they don’t have service! Whether you use Google Maps, Waze, or another app, make sure it’s fully downloaded on your phone first.
24. Hand sanitizer
I always have hand sanitizer when I travel and especially on a road trip. You never know when that gas station you desperately need to stop to go to the bathroom is out of soap. Keep this in your glove box so it’s easily accessible.
25. Insect repellent
We’re lucky not to have many bugs in Seattle, but other parts of the country aren’t so lucky (I’m looking at you, Florida). Have bug spray ready to go so your kids don’t complain about bites for the rest of the trip.
I’m so much better about putting sunscreen on now that I have kids, and I’m religious about always putting it on them. Keep their skin healthy, both by not getting immediate burns or putting them at risk for future health issues.
27. Toiletry bag
Sometimes you get to your hotel really late at night and are desperately wondering where your toothbrush is. Having a small toiletry bag for everyone makes it easy to grab the essentials.
28. First-aid kit
Kids are adventurous, and thus, kids get hurt often. Even if they’re just minor scraps, having a first-aid kit ready to grab makes it effortless to ease their pain and bandage them up.
Having a blanket will help you out for multiple reasons during your trip – you can have an impromptu picnic on it, cover up kids when they’re cold, and have them use it to make car naps more comfortable. That’s why it’s always a road trip with kids checklist essential for me.
Just the same, having a pillow will make it even easier for them to take a nap or fall asleep on a late-night drive. You might as well get one for yourself as well to get some shut-eye (assuming you’re the passenger, of course).
Do your kids love to scream for the ice cream man the second they hear that song coming down the street? Have you ever been like me and discovered that many of these trucks only take cash still? That’s why I always have cash on me (because ice cream trucks love to live at every park in the summer).
32. Car insurance
While you hopefully have valid car insurance, you should also quickly know where it is in case of an accident or other emergency. I keep mine in an envelope along with my registration in my glove compartment so I can grab it.
33. Portable tire inflator
Gone are the days when you have to look under the seat for quarters to pay per minute for filling up your tires. This portable tire inflator is now one of the first things I put on our family road trip checklist so we can quickly refill the tires and be on our way.
34. Portable jumper cables
While you hopefully won’t ever have an emergency, one of the most helpful items to include when packing for a family road trip is an emergency roadside kit. This kit should include jumper cables and a flashlight in case your car dies at night.
35. Spare tire
Most cars already have a spare tire on them, but if yours doesn’t, get one ASAP. Otherwise, make sure that your spare tire is still in good condition and has air in it, or it won’t help you if you get a flat.
36. Trash bags
A simple item to throw in your bag is a few garbage bags. These make it quick and easy to clean out the car at the end of the day, so junk doesn’t start piling up. This is also helpful to have if you pull off for a picnic and the area doesn’t have a trash can nearby.
37. Wet wipes
It’s safe to say wet wipes are among my top 5 things of what to bring on a road trip with a family. Wet wipes can do anything – wipe sticky hands, clean up juice kids spill on the floor, etc. They’re essential!
Whether your kids get wet from a quick swim stop or muddy unexpectedly from exploring a hike, you won’t have to worry about bringing that into your car. A quick-drying towel will clean you up and dry you quickly.
You should now have plenty of ideas for things to bring on a road trip with kids! You can always stop and buy most items if you forget them, but having a family road trip checklist in advance makes your trip that much easier.