Before embarking on our family vacation through New England, our kids had never been in the car for more than about three hours in a single day. We had taken short trips, mostly to my parents’ house or the beach, but we certainly had never gone on a full-fledged road trip with our toddler (2 1/2) and baby (5 months).
We had no idea what to expect, and we learned a lot of lessons from our first big family vacation. One of the biggest learnings we had was the importance of packing well. Unlike when M and I jet off on a trip together, traveling with young children requires a lot more planning and stuff. Today, I want to share ten items that we found especially useful while road tripping with our toddler. I hope that this list helps set you up for success on your own family vacation with a little one, and I’d love to hear your favorite toddler road trip essentials and tips in the comments!
And PS: If you’re also traveling with a baby, don’t miss my list of fifteen road trip essentials for babies!
10 Toddler Road Trip Essentials
1.) Car Activity Bin
One of the funnest parts of preparing for our road trip was spending a morning putting together a little bin of things for E to do in the car. I hit up Target and a Dollar Tree and grabbed some cheap crayons, a coloring book, a dinosaur-shaped pop bubble fidget toy, a wooden puzzle, a book, write and wipe workbook, two Matchbox cars, a couple of activity packs, and glow sticks for night drives.
I also threw in a puzzle game that E loves (more on that later), one or two Water Wow! books, and some new issues of his High Five and Ranger Rick Cub magazines to keep him busy. All of it fit into a small, flat container that was easy to stash on the floor at his feet or under the seat in front of him.
If you’re craftier or more creative than I am, there are plenty of ideas on Pinterest for DIY games and crafts and activities for kids in the car. We kept things pretty simple, but it seemed to work well and Ethan loved asking for “something from the box.” I also chose to populate the box with lots of new things, which was easier to do when more than half the contents were a dollar apiece at the Dollar Tree. My goal was to make the box feel special and hold his interest for as long as possible, but you could just as easily fill your own box with toys and activities you already have.
2.) Car Seat Lap Tray
With all those awesome activities in his bin, having a flat, contained surface for E to play with everything was essential. We were fortunate to have received two lap trays as gifts last Christmas: one that was a basic black and had low, sturdy sides and one with a cool racetrack print on the tray. We ended up taking both along – frankly, I didn’t get a chance to test which would work better beforehand – and each was a success.
I like that the one pictured above has a dry erase surface and more compartments for drinks and supplies, plus that tablet holder would be clutch if you’re planning to take one along. (You could also store coloring books and other flat goodies in there if you’re trying to go screen-free.)
3.) Wooden Magnetic Puzzle Toy
While I covered toys and activities above, this particular toy deserves to be highlighted on its own because of what an asset it has been to us. After receiving it as a big brother gift from a family friend, E has used it in church, doctor’s offices, restaurants, the car – anywhere we need to keep him quiet and occupied. It slides easily into our diaper bag and is incredibly effective at passing time. If you’re embarking on a road trip with a toddler, you won’t regret picking up this toy or something like it for all those long drives and restaurant stops.
4.) All the Snacks
Anyone who has a toddler knows that snacks are life. If you’re planning a road trip with a toddler, make sure you’re well-equipped with snacks not only for the car but also for your daily activities, nights in your hotel, and any other time those hangries strike.
Before we left, I made a trip to Aldi to grab some inexpensive, tasty, and/or healthful snacks for our time on the road. Our stash definitely came in handy during long drives and hikes as well as while we were staying in some more rural spots without easy access to grocery stores and gas stations.
5.) Water Bottle
Similar to the snacks above, you don’t want to be caught in the middle of nowhere when the “I’m thirstyyyyy“s hit. Make sure you have a good leak-proof water bottle for those long drives and days of sightseeing. In addition to keeping your toddler hydrated, happy, and healthy, you’ll save money by not having to buy drinks on the road. You can even invest in a Yeti to keep beverages cold even if they’re left in a hot car while you’re out and about.
6.) Roll-Up Smock Bibs
M and I love these bibs for daily life and they are even more amazing for travel. The wide front and long sleeves have saved more outfits than we can count, and the whole thing rolls up and snaps together for easy packing when mealtime is through. They’re so easy to toss in a diaper bag, and since you roll them into themselves any mess is contained until you’re ready to wash them.
We made sure to pack two smock bibs for our road trip and used them constantly. Whether you grab one for your own toddler travel or just for normal weekday mealtimes, you won’t regret it.
7.) Blow-Up Toddler Bed
One of the biggest conundrums we faced when planning our road trip with a toddler was where E would sleep. At two and a half, he was too big for a pack and play but too small to sleep safely by himself in an adult bed.
Fortunately, my mom had bought this blow up toddler bed to use at her house and we knew that it worked great to keep E contained at night. We used it without the removable mattress, blowing up the surrounding part with the bumpers and placing it on top of a bed. Throw in some sheets, a pillow, a blanket, and a couple of stuffed friends and he was good to go! The surrounding sides kept him well contained while sleeping and the contraption was big enough that we didn’t have to worry about it sliding off the bed.
We were lucky that E had his own bed and bedroom at each of our stops along the way, but this bed would definitely be a lifesaver if you have to share a room or are short on beds. I also appreciate that it’s something that we’ll get a lot of use out of after the trip, as well, since we can take it along when visiting family or offer it to kids spending the night in our home.
8.) Night Light(s)
This was something I didn’t even think to bring along but immediately missed on the first night of our trip. Not only is E accustomed to having a little light in his room at night, but complete darkness coupled with the unfamiliarity of a new place was not a great recipe for a fuss-free bedtime. S also decided to sleep a bit fitfully throughout the trip, so having a night light in our room would have been nice for tending to her as well.
Thankfully, our first Airbnb had a nightlight in the bathroom that I was able to move into E’s room, but we ended up leaving the hall light on at the next place and a big bedside lamp at the third. Next time, I’ll travel with a small nightlight or two just in case!
9.) Laundry Detergent
I could count on one hand the number of times that I’ve done a load of laundry while on a weeklong vacation… until I had kids. In New England, I did at least four.
We ended up having to pick up a container of laundry detergent from a grocery store, but it would have been much better – and taken up less space – if we had just packed a small bottle of our own from home. I’m not generally a detergent pod user, but Tide PODS® (or something similar) would be ideal because they’re small, easy to pack, and are less likely to spring a leak. A stain stick also wouldn’t be amiss to treat messes until you’re able to do a load of laundry; we used ours constantly.
Tip: Make sure to bring high efficiency detergent (marked with an HE symbol) so that you can use it in any washing machine.
10.) Kids' Toiletries
Thinking I could just use my own shampoo and body wash to bathe E after a day at the beach was a mistake I only made once. I was trying to streamline the cleanup process by hopping into the shower with him and forgot to grab his no-tears wash and shampoo. The poor little guy got soap in his eyes almost immediately, and I felt absolutely terrible. When we were packing our toddler road trip essentials for this trip, you can bet that E’s bath soap was one of the first things in the suitcase.
With a few exceptions, most places you’re taking your toddler probably won’t be stocked with kids’ toiletries. Make sure to take your own along – either by filling reusable bottles or grabbing a travel toiletry kit – to avoid bath time tears or irritation to sensitive skin.
Honorable Mention: Toddler Suitcase
We bought this cute airplane suitcase for E as a Christmas gift last year, and he has loved helping to pack it and pulling it along when we visit his grandparents or go to the beach. While I wouldn’t consider it absolutely essential in the same way I would the items above, it’s still a fun gift and a great way to get your toddler excited about travel.
So there you have them: ten (plus one!) road trip essentials for traveling with a toddler! Did any surprise you? Which items seem most helpful? What did I miss? Let me know in the comments, and good luck with your own family road trip!
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