How to Organize Your Car for a Road Trip with Toddlers

Image of an open hatchback car trunk will suitcases, ice chest, and ball neatly organized showing how to organize your car for a road trip

Determining how to best arrange your car for a road trip is never a simple task. With limited space and a multitude of things to pack, it can be a bit challenging figuring out how to even get started. When trying to organize your car for a road trip with toddlers, the chore of can often seem even trickier. 

Fortunately, there’s no need to get stressed. These simple tips will help you get your car organized before embarking on your next road trip with small kids in tow. 

When Traveling with Toddlers Don’t Skimp on Clothing

We all know the advice about packing lightly, and it’s true that less is often more when setting off on a trip. When going on a road trip with toddlers, things are slightly different though. With spills, diaper malfunctions, potty training, and playing outside, toddlers often end up needing to change clothing much more frequently than older kids and adults.

The upside is that toddler clothing is generally much smaller and easier to pack. Pants, leggings, and lightweight shirts can be folded in half lengthwise and rolled so that several pieces can fit in one gallon-size zip-top bag. Method 1 from this tutorial will help get you started. 

Doing laundry on a road trip is possible, but it tends to be a bit of a hassle. On shorter road trips, try bringing at least two toddler outfits for each day of the trip. For longer vacations, bring as much as possible and plan on doing a load or two of laundry at some point during the trip.

Image of an open suitcase with clothing rolled and neatly packed. There are also some sandals and a pair of sunglasses in the suitcase.

Keep a Few Engaging Toys in the Backseat

While bringing enough clothing is crucial, don’t pack too many toys. Instead, focus on choosing engaging items which will keep your toddler preoccupied for longer periods of time in the car. 

Some good choices include books with lots of pictures, erasable doodle or magnetic boards, hidden picture puzzle books, and simple sketch pads. Resist the temptation to rely on devices such as cell phones and tablets to keep your toddler occupied. Check out this post for details about the many benefits of keeping your road trip device-free

Pack a Couple of Special Toys for Kids to Play with at the Hotel

Consider packing a couple of special toys that won’t be used inside the car. This can be a great way to keep kids occupied if you’ll be staying in a hotel or at the home of friends or relatives without similar-age children. 

It often works well to choose a couple of toys that are different from what your toddler normally plays with at home. This adds to the novelty and generally keeps kids preoccupied for longer. 

Don’t feel you have to spend money on new toys, though. Try to come up with a creative solution. In the past, I’ve borrowed a couple of old toys from my sister’s kids specifically for this purpose. My toddlers loved playing with the “new” things, and we returned them to their cousins as soon as we got back . 

If you don’t have someone to borrow a few toys from, digging up some of your toddler’s older toys that they haven’t played with in a while can even do the trick. 

Whatever you choose, make sure to keep these in the trunk until you reach your destination each day. This way kids won’t have a chance to tire of them while playing in the car.

Use Ziploc or other Zip-Top Bags for Organizing Small Items

Zip-top bags are indispensable when packing for a road trip with toddlers. In addition to keeping snacks and food items, they come in handy for organizing a full range of items.

Try using a permanent marker to label bags with the various things you’ll need to pack. Consider creating dedicated bags for personal care products, art supplies like simple colored pencils and erasers, clothing items (as described above), toys for in the car, and so forth. 

Once the zip-top plastic bags are packed and labeled, it will be easy to decide which ones should go inside the car, and which can be packed away in the trunk.

You Don’t Need to Purchase a Backseat Organizer

If you read many articles about packing for trips with kids, you’ll likely encounter advice to purchase backseat organizers. While this may seem like a good idea on the surface, there are a few drawbacks you should keep in mind.

First of all, budget conscious travelers will want to avoid unnecessary expenses. It can be tempting to buy all the travel organizers and gadgets on the market, but many of them are cheaply made and won’t last long. Likewise, it doesn’t make sense to buy a lot of things that you won’t use after your trip and will have to find a place to store. 

Another downside to backseat organizers is that they often become a source of frustration for toddlers. Kids who are still in backward-facing car seats won’t be able to see or reach items in a backseat organizer. This means they’ll likely be asking for help, and it is difficult for parents to reach into the backseat and find items in the organizer while the car is moving.

Forward-facing toddlers often get similarly frustrated with backseat organizers. Depending on the position of the front seats, it can be difficult for the toddler to reach items in the organizer while buckled. Similarly, even if they can reach into the organizer, it’s sometimes easy for toddlers to drop items when trying to remove or replace them. 

All of this, of course, leads to even more requests for help from parents who will have difficulty reaching in and navigating everything going on in the backseat. It also can lead to additional messes when things end up inevitably getting dropped and spilled out of the organizer. 

An easier solution is to keep one medium-sized bag in the car packed with the individual zip-top bags described above. Parents can easily grab the needed bag and give kids relevant items when needed.

Use Foldable Fabric Bins to Organize the Trunk

Again, it’s not necessary to go out and purchase these. If you already have them on hand, however, foldable fabric bins or boxes can be useful for organizing the trunk of the car.

Items that won’t be needed as frequently can be stored in bins toward the back of the trunk. Those things you’ll want to bring inside each night can be kept either in a small suitcase or fabric bin toward the front of the trunk for easy access. 

One of the benefits of using foldable bins is that when consumable items are finished as your trip progresses, you can fold up the bins to allow more space in the trunk.

If you don’t have foldable bins, try using any spare cardboard boxes. Once they aren’t needed, remove the tape and recycle them as soon as possible in order to keep the trunk tidy and uncluttered.

Don’t Pack Messy Snacks

Snacks are an essential part of any road trip with toddlers. Choosing the right kinds of snacks can help keep your car in order.  

A tidy car is easier to keep organized. Once you have crumbs and food stains all over the seats and floorboards, it’s easy to give up and let pandemonium prevail. By aiming to keep things as neat as possible, it’s less challenging to stay motivated in keeping the car organized as well.

Avoid snacks that are particularly likely to lead to crumbs and sticky messes. Instead aim for foods which can be easily eaten by toddlers with minimal opportunities for making a mess. 

Store Liquid Products Like Shampoos and Lotions Upright

Shampoos, lotions, and sunscreens are all road trip essentials. If you opt to pack full-size products as opposed to travel sizes, make sure to keep them upright.

Beauty and personal care products packed and stored on their sides are liable to spill out or leak. One leaking product can cause quite a mess and lead to time wasted cleaning everything in the bag. 

In order to avoid this issue, simply store all liquid personal care products upright and packed fairly tightly so they remain the way you’ve packed them. This significantly reduces the chances of spills. Just to be on the safe side, though, keep them in a plastic trash bag or something similar. This way, if a leak does occur despite your best efforts, it won’t ruin the interior of a cloth bag or suitcase.  

Keep a Package of Baby Wipes in the Glove Compartment

Baby wipes are immensely useful when it comes to road trips with small kids. In addition to wiping down sticky hands and faces, you can use them for cleaning surfaces inside the car.

They can also come in handy for wiping down things like picnic tables and such which you may want to freshen up throughout your trip.

Shop for Necessities During Your Trip

Especially when it comes to food and snack items, it’s often easiest to buy things as you go. This allows you to buy your toddler healthier food items that would otherwise spoil. 

Image of an empty shopping cart on an aisle in a grocery store with the foods on the shelves blurred in the background

Shopping in grocery stores in unfamiliar places is also a great way to get to know a new city or town. At hotels, campgrounds, and tourist spots, you’re likely to mostly encounter other travelers. Doing more mundane things like grocery shopping will let you meet locals and get a feel for the differences in daily life.

Something as simple as comparing prices on food items you typically buy back home can be enlightening. Even within the same country (and sometimes within the same state), there are differences in culture and daily life which can be interesting to experience. 

Don’t Aim for Perfection

Even if the car is in perfect order when you set off on your trip, chances are it won’t stay that way. Most toddlers are a bit messy by nature, and road trips always entail some things which are unexpected. 

It helps to go with the flow. Acknowledge that keeping a perfectly organized car for the duration of the trip may be an unrealistic goal, and instead aim for keeping things as orderly and tidy as you can without going to extremes. 

Leave a Comment