How to Pack Your Car for a Family Vacation or Road Trip

By Candyce H. Stapen

Loading the family car for vacation or road trip —kids and cargo—can feel as complicated as going through a space shuttle launch checklist. To make sure you pack everything you want and need, plan ahead. Like a rocket launch, simplify the process by thinking in stages.

Packing Car for Road Trip

Stage 1: Prep the backseat, the kids’ domain

Fill a backpack with fun. Each child should stuff his backpack with whatever road trip supplies he needs to occupy himself, whether it’s a favorite game, stuffed animal, coloring books, crayons or kid-friendly tablet.  Make sure that most, if not all of it, fits inside the backpack. ‘Tweens and teens might want to pack cell phones, cameras, iPods and tablets for listening to music and watching videos.

Create an essentials bag. Create one bag for each child. Keep extra batteries and charged battery packs for headphones, tablets, smartphones and other hi-tech toys; a mini-flashlight (this helps youngsters find lost crayons and toys when it’s dark) and a bottle of water. Place the bag on the floor near each child.

Add comfort. For a long car ride with kids, especially at night, ask each child to take a pillow and small blanket. Place an empty garbage bag between the children. This serves as a “border” for each kid’s “territory” and gives youngsters a place to put banana peels, apple cores and candy wrappers.

Road Trip with Kids

Stage 2: Consider the front seat, the adults’ area

Take cleaning items, snacks and water. For those unavoidable messes, keep wet wipes, paper towels and hand sanitizer within easy reach. Pack healthy kids snacks, water and drinks as well as some treats for you, your spouse and kids. If there’s room, place these necessities in the front. If not, tuck this bag on the floor of the seat behind the driver. That way, whoever rides shotgun can easily reach these essentials.

Keep first aid supplies handy. If anyone gets car sick, bring along a physician-approved, anti-motion sickness medication – especially if you’ll be traversing those switch-back mountain roads.  Be sure to have an emergency medical kit containing bandages, a thermometer, aspirin or aspirin substitute, allergy medicine and any other medicines you or your children require.

Add your comfort items. Travel pillows, a light throw, candy bars, your smartphone, a thermos of coffee, your Kindle and tablets are good for non-driving grown-ups.

What to Take on a Road Trip with Kids

Stage 3: Stow the luggage.

Layer the trunk. Put the big bags on the bottom. While it’s best to ship breakables and fragile items ahead of time to your destination, if you are bringing these wrap them with padding (the extra blanket will do) and position these items carefully in a box atop the other luggage.

Pack day bags. Think of necessary changes of clothing and fun stops. For those “just in case” moments, each child (and adult) should pack a day bag with an extra pair of jeans and a T-shirt; a sweatshirt or sweater; and a rain jacket or umbrella. Add extra diapers, a bib, socks and an extra set of clothing to each tot’s day pack. For fun stops, think about what you’ll need. Consider a swimsuit, cover-up and towels for that lunch break at the state park with a lake. Place each passenger’s day bag on top of the other items in the trunk. That way what you need will be within easy reach.

Now, you’re ready for takeoff!

Ready to hit the road? Pick the destination.

Long Car Trips with Kids

Long-time family travel guru Candyce H. Stapen writes for many publications and outlets. She has written 30 travel guidebooks, including two for National Geographic. See gfvac.com for more information.