Packing is probably one of the least enjoyable parts of going on a road trip. There are a variety of important items you’ll need to bring, and it can be difficult to remember everything. This post won’t cover all of them because, in general, I’ve found a focused approach to packing works better. This list provides the road trip essentials specifically for kids.
The list is arranged by category to help make sure you don’t forget anything, while also making it simpler to adjust based on your individual kids’ likes and dislikes. So, grab a cup of tea or coffee and get started with your packing list for the kids.
1. Clothing Items
The amount of clothing you’ll need will depend on the circumstances of your trip. Longer road trips obviously require more changes of clothes. Similarly, if you’ll be stopping often at the homes of friends or family, you’ll have easier access to laundry.
When our family goes on long road trips, we spend most of our nights at hotels and motels. After a long day in the car I prefer to relax in the hotel room, as opposed to doing laundry. For this reason, I usually pack quite a bit of clothes for the kids.
On longer trips, I still have to do laundry, but it will only be about two to three times. Fortunately most hotels have coin-operated washing machines and dryers, so it’s not too burdensome. I bring along a few laundry detergent pods for this purpose as well.
In this category, also consider items such as sunglasses, swimsuits, sun hats, gloves, kids’ umbrellas, and hair ties. Also think about the kinds of weather you’ll encounter on your trip. Will you be in both hot and cold areas? Will some areas be dry and others rainy? Make sure to pack appropriate clothing for whatever types of weather you’re likely to encounter.
2. Personal Care Products
You’ll want to pack small amounts of basics such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss, shampoo, lip balm, sunscreen, and lotion. Depending on the time of year and whether you’ll be camping, you may also want to take along bug repellant.
The good thing is that if you forget any of these, they’ll be readily available to buy. I always prefer to avoid last-minute runs to the store when possible though, so I try to make sure these are all packed.
Snacks are another thing you can usually buy during the road trip. I like to stock up on some before we get going, though. Usually, back home it’s easier to find the best prices and choose exactly what you want.
On long cross country road trips, I like to pack gallon size zip-top bags with a mixture of snacks in each bag. It’s easy to bring these along in the car and hand them to the kids in the backseat.
This helps avoid having to stop for snacks during the day, and it also means less hassle packing food for the kids during the trip itself. I like to keep vacations as low-stress as possible, and this works well for me.
4. First Aid Kit
A first aid kit is always important on any trip, but it is even more crucial when traveling with kids. Make sure you have all the basics like bandages, antibiotic cream for cuts and scrapes, a thermometer, and any medications your kids need on a regular basis.
Of course, make sure you keep this packed away safely out of reach of the kids, and ensure that any medications have child-proof caps.
5. Outdoor Fun Equipment
Depending on the age of your kids, this may vary a bit. If you have space, bringing bikes or scooters can be great. Smaller items that also work well include balls of all sorts, a frisbee, jump rope, bubbles, and skates.
The key here is to choose items that will help the kids get in some exercise during stops at parks and other time spent outdoors. For more ideas about how to make sure your kids get enough exercise on road trips, check out this post.
6. Toys for Hotel / Motel Room
I like to pack my kids a few toys that are just for the hotel room. This helps to keep them busy and interested once you settle in for the evening. If the toys are also used in the car, or are things they are already bored with back home, it doesn’t work as well.
For this reason, I usually borrow a few toys from my sister’s similar-aged kids before going on trips. The novelty of playing with these new things usually keeps the kids nicely occupied during our vacation, and we return them when we get back.
This works particularly well for younger kids, and I discuss it–along with some other tips–in this post about organizing your car for a road trip with toddlers.
7. Beloved Stuffed Animal, Doll, or Blanket
Some kids are very accustomed to having a special toy or blanket to cuddle while they sleep. Forgetting to bring this along can lead to stress and lost sleep during your road trip. So, if this applies to your child, make sure you include it on your packing list.
People vary as to whether or not they can read while riding in a moving car. It makes me feel sick and has since I was a child. My son, on the other hand, loves reading in the car and feels completely fine doing so. Books are the primary way he stays entertained during long car trips, so we make sure to pack quite a few.
Even for kids who don’t like reading in the car, bringing a few books along can work well for providing entertainment in the evenings before bed.
9. Plastic Garbage Bags
This one is essential regardless of whether you have kids in the car, but it’s even more important on a road trip with little ones. For this reason, I decided to include it here. These serve a multitude of purposes including stashing trash from snack wrappers and food packaging, storing wet or soiled clothing, and even keeping items you’ll be taking in and out of the car such as soccer balls and frisbees.
It can be an annoyance trying to put things in and out of a suitcase each time you stop at a park for a bit. A trash bag with essential park items ready to go can easily be carried to the park and then put right back in the trunk when you’re done.
10. Sippy Cups, Water Bottles
For younger kids and toddlers, bring along a sippy cup or two. Older kids will need a reusable water bottle or bottled waters to drink during the trip.
11. Simple Art Supplies
Basic art supplies are great for keeping kids occupied in the car. You won’t want to pack messy supplies like paints or markers. Instead, some blank paper, colored pencils, erasers, a pencil sharpener, and maybe a coloring book or two will do the trick.
Try to keep these all together in a gallon size zip-top bag (or separate bags for each child), so that it’s easy to hand them to the kids as needed.
If you’d like to read about the many benefits for kids of a device-free road trip, check out this post.
12. Atlas or Road Trip Book Geared Toward Kids
Bringing along a road trip atlas written for kids can be a great way to help older kids better understand where you’re going and where you currently are on the trip. Road trip atlases can also help teach kids geography as well as map-reading skills.
These books usually also have fun facts and landmarks in each state which can be fun for kids to read and share. I also like to print out blank U.S. maps like the one available on this page before leaving for the trip. My kids enjoy coloring in each state they pass through.
While not absolutely essential, backpacks can be helpful. Especially if you go camping, hiking, or for any long walks, it can be nice to allow kids to carry a lightweight backpack. They can pack it with their water and snacks, for instance. This way, they can access their things as needed, without having to continually ask a parent.
14. Items Specific to Your Trip
It would be too much to include a truly comprehensive list here, but think about items that will be needed for your specific trip and the activities you’re planning. This could include things like camping or hiking gear for kids, lifejackets, swim goggles, or even ski gear.
Try to think ahead about the kinds of things you’ll need. It will likely be much cheaper to bring these along as opposed to having to buy them at your destination.
15. Optional Fun Items: Postage Stamps, Binoculars, Camera, Journal
Many kids love buying postcards and mailing them to friends or relatives while on the road. If you think this would be a fun activity for your child, bring along some postage stamps. Other fun things to take along, if it makes sense for your particular trip, include binoculars, a blank journal for the kids, and a camera (with batteries and charger) for their use.
Again, these aren’t essentials, but they are fun extras if you have the space.
Tips for Putting Together Your Packing List for Kids
I like to create a Google Doc and work on adding items as I think about them. You can also make a list by hand, of course. Begin by going back over this post, and notung down all of the items that apply to your kids for the specific trip you’re planning.
Another worthwhile method is to allow the kids to make their own packing lists. Just make sure they understand that it may not be possible to actually bring all of the items on their list. Talk to them about essentials and the kinds of things they think they will benefit from the most while traveling.
Before going on long road trips, my son likes making a packing list for the whole family. I make my own list, of course, but I actually find that going over his list is really helpful. He often remembers a few things that I forget. The exercise in creating the list is good practice in handwriting, spelling, and planning.