long road trips with toddlers | travel with kids | family travel

Long Road Trips With Toddlers Can Be Fun! (Yes Really)

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Does the thought of long road trips with toddlers fill you with excitement or dread?  Long family car trips are doable, can be fun, but you need to plan more than for a short road trip with a toddler. Here’s how.

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Before our daughter was born, some of my favorite trips were long road trips.  My husband and I have an old Volkswagen camper van and we’ve driven that out west to the Rocky Mountains and also more local places to camp.  We also seem to take my little Honda Fit often on road trips; one of my favorite trips in the Fit was driving and camping our way to Longmont, Colorado and back through Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park.

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long road trips with toddlers | travel with kids | family travel
Pre-toddler road trip (look how relaxed we were)

11 Sanity-Saving Tips For Long Road Trips With Toddlers

When our daughter was born, we didn’t think long car trips and camping had to end (we were hoping anyways!)  

Long road trips with toddlers are not the same as traveling as a couple, or road trips with older kids.  In some ways even traveling by car with a baby can be easier because toddlers are in that go-go-go demographic.  

How do you keep an active toddler busy in a car seat? Extra planning is essential.  Here is your survival guide to long road trips with toddlers so you can keep on adventuring.

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1. Get your toddler used to being bored

This is by far one of my favorite tips for long road trips with toddlers, and it’s something you do before you even start your road trip.

Before you go on long family road trip with toddlers, let them get used to the feeling of being bored.

Kids don’t always need to be entertained but if they are through constant interaction with parents or through a lot of screen time, they will get used to being entertained. Little kids are just starting to develop their imaginations and they have amazing ones. They don’t need constant exciting noisy toys around the house or when they’re playing outside. Exploring leaves and dirt and twigs outside is fun.

Leaving kids be to get a little bored will be such great training for when you’re on a long family road trip.

When inside the house, you’re not your toddler’s hired entertainer (though I know I personally feel like I am on some days). It’s perfectly fine to spend time playing and reading with them, and then go to wash the dishes. You don’t always need to set them up with something. They can play with a toy they choose or they can play with nothing, and yes that’s a great option too.

Don’t knock yourself out trying to schedule in boring time for your toddler. But do let it happen naturally, work on your own discomfort with boredom, and don’t be too quick to fill all their time.

Getting your child used to feeling a little bored on occasion in their everyday life will set you up well for traveling long distances by car with a toddler.

2. Take your long break when your toddler needs to NOT when you need to

On a road trip with kids, definitely stop if you need to get gas or for washroom breaks for anyone. But wait to take your long break on your toddler road trip until your toddler needs it. 

You will know when your toddler needs it!

Snacks and toys and other distractions will stop working and they will get fussier or if you’re really lucky you could get a full-blown tantrum.

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We try to catch it before our toddler gets to that point and find somewhere to stop. If we are doing a long day of driving we will usually time our stop around lunch. She gets to escape from the car, we all eat, and she can run around and play. She’ll usually doze off sometime in the afternoon drive.

We don’t pick a set time for this lunch stop. It could be 11am or it could be 2pm. She gets snacks throughout the drive (more than she gets at home) so this lunch stop is less about the food and more about letting off energy. If she’s getting really squirrely earlier we will stop then. These road trip breaks are usually a whole hour and make a big difference to her mood and our ability to do longer days on a long road trips with toddlers.

long road trips with toddlers | travel with kids | family travel

3. Bring new books AND familiar books

This is something I forgot in the mountain road trip we took last spring. I bought a few new books, I took a ton out from the library so we were covered on new toddler books. But I forgot to bring some of her favorite standbys on that trip and she asked for them.

On the most recent long road trip with our toddler we took, I brought a good mix of old and new books. Especially when she was tired at the end of a long travel day in the car she wanted the books that were her own.

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I love love love this book for road trips that doubles as an activity and learning toy.  There are so many different things in this book to figure out and play with, including a clock for learning to tell time, shoelaces to learn tying, buttoning, and much more.

4. Start low tech

When starting out on a road trip with a toddler, when your toddler needs something to play with, start low tech. Give them books or little games, a stuffed animal or something like this reusable water color set which is a no-mess paint with water coloring book.

Our toddler also loves this magnetic doodle drawing toy and will play with it for up to an hour by herself.  There are fancier ones but we have this really basic one and she loves it. 

You might need to work your way up to the blingier toys on your family road trip, but start with the quieter, simpler ones. Again this goes back to my point about letting your toddler experience boredom in their everyday life so it’s not so unsettling on a road trip.

One of my favorite travel toys is a travel busy board.  We have this wooden latch board below and our toddler will spend so much time opening and closing all the different latches – she loves it.

This next travel busy board is more of a splurge but it’s absolutely gorgeous!!

And a plush activity cube:

This adorable wooden cheese threading set is small and would be perfect for long road trips with toddlers:

5. Use screen time if needed on road trips with kids – and don’t feel guilty

When we need a bit of electronic distraction (we use this sparingly at home so it’s a treat and a novelty on road trips with our toddler) we use these:

2-in-1 LeapTop Touch – Our toddler only gets to use this on trips, or at home when I have a conference call for work.

Call & Chat Learning Phone

Calculator toy – my toddler adores calculators of all kinds.  My mathematician father would be proud.

I like the learning component of all these toys, and for electronic toys that make noise (the calculator doesn’t), I find these ones the most pleasant to listen to. Which matters a LOT if you are on a long road trip in a small space together.

6. Comfortable clothing

This makes sense in general, you’re not going to get very far dressing a toddler in something that they don’t find comfortable.  This goes for a short trip to the library but it’s essential for a road trip with a toddler.  Even though our daughter is perfectly comfortable wearing jeans in everyday life, I don’t put her in jeans for a long road trip.  Jeggings are okay, so are leggings or sweatpants or even pajama bottoms, but I never dress her in pants with more structure or any that have buttons, snaps or a tighter waistband.  I also don’t dress her in a hoodie for long car trips.  The extra material of the hood behind her back I would think would be super annoying if you’re all harnessed-up in a car seat.  Channeling my inner toddler for that one.

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7. Snacks, snacks, and then more snacks

On a road trip with kids, having lots of snacks and drinks to offer are essential for family road trip success.  My favorite cup I bring everywhere for my toddler is this insulated thermos with a straw.  It’s hard to spill (not impossible if you have a rascal of a toddler but much better than most cups), and keeps drinks cool for hours and hours.  This means she can have milk during the drive and I don’t have to think about putting it back in the cooler so it stays fresh.

I pack easy to eat car snacks.  There is definitely more packaged food on long road trips than I would give my toddler at home. 

Certain foods that I give her at home when she’s eating at a table, like raw baby carrots, I would not give her while we’re driving. 

Crackers, dried fruit, and even trail mix (with small pieces like pumpkin seeds and cashew pieces) are a hit.  Yes your car will be a disaster and you will need to vacuum it when you’re back.  Let this go.

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8. Figure out a diaper change area ahead of time

Your toddler will not poop conveniently when you are at your rest stop at the gas station or visitor information center.  They will need to poop when you are in the middle of nowhere.  If you have a toddler in diapers, think about where you will do diaper changes.  If it’s cold and windy and you are nowhere near a rest stop and your toddler needs a diaper change, stat, you’ll want to know where you will be changing them.

Some of you might be wizards who can do diaper changes with your toddler standing up but that doesn’t happen over here.  We have a small hatchback so sometimes we have laid her diaper pad on top of the luggage in the back, but we made sure there was enough room ahead of time.  If you have a bigger vehicle you’ll have more options as long as you don’t over-stuff your car or van or truck.

If you’re one of the lucky ones with a potty trained toddler (can you tell which group I am in?), bring the potty with you.  I wouldn’t say a long road trip is the best time to break out a brand new travel potty. 

Toddlers are known for being, uh, particular about the way things are done.  Bring the potty they have used at home.  If you only have room for a smaller road trip potty, have them get used to this new travel potty at home before you go on your long road trip.

9. Pack a first aid kit on family road trips

Bumps and bruises can happen anywhere.  At home you’re equipped to deal with these things.  On long road trips with toddlers, make sure you have all the basic first aid items in your car. 

You might be in the middle of nowhere, not anywhere close to a pharmacy.  Also include Kids’ Tylenol or Advil and I usually bring Benadryl too just in case.  It’s better to be more prepared than less.  There is a luxury first aid kit and a more budget-conscious first aid kit for car below.

10. Keep things reachable

It’s not very useful if all the items you carefully packed for your long road trips with toddlers are out of reach.  Keep a bag or tote close to you so you don’t have to stop driving to pass your toddler food or toys. 

If you don’t have a toddler with a penchance for throwing toys and snacks, you can also consider getting a tote where your toddler can reach some of their own goodies.  If you go this route I would still keep some things in the parent tote.  Novelty is your friend on long road trips with kids so you want to hold some things back for when they’re really needed.

11. Be prepared to sit in the back on long road trips with toddlers

At the end of the days on long road trips with toddlers, expect that you might have to sit in the back seat and be the entertainment, or the comfort, or the prep chef or all of the above.  Leave room in one of the back seats so you’re not having to shift all the things last minute when your toddler is starting to have a meltdown.

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Let’s recap…

How to take long road trips with toddlers:

  • Get your toddler used to being bored (before the trip)
  • Take a long break each day
  • New books/toys and familiar books/toys
  • Start low tech
  • Embrace some electronic distractions when needed
  • Comfortable clothing
  • More snacks than you think you need
  • Plan a diaper change area or bring a potty
  • Pack a first aid kit
  • Keep things reachable
  • Be prepared to sit in the back

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long road trips with toddlers | travel with kids | family travel

What are your best tips for long road trips with toddlers?


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25 thoughts on “Long Road Trips With Toddlers Can Be Fun! (Yes Really)”

  1. Hello,

    Thank you for this post! My son just passed the toddler stage but these tips are still very very helpful. I especially like the part on getting the kids used to being bored. My son has a habit of going on an on about how bored he is even in short car rides. And at home, its harder to complete tasks because he often wants to play with me. I guess it’s time for us to practice some new skills.

    Best,
    Sigrid

    1. Hi Sigrid! Glad this post on long road trips for toddlers was helpful even though your son isn’t a bit older. Getting kids more comfortable with the feeling of being bored is a tough one! When I’m at home and tempted again to just set something up for my toddler to occupy her so I can stop being followed around for two minutes, I think about the future. If she can be just a teeny bit more familiar with not being entertained, maybe it will be easier for her (down the road!) to wait in lines, be stuck in traffic, go on a long road trip etc. I think tolerating boredom is such an awesome skill to practice, but not an easy one at all (for parent or child!!). Some of the time I set activities up for her to do so I can get chores done and sometimes I let her be bored/figure it out on her own. It’s a practice for me too 🙂

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  5. Hi,
    I love these tips!! 🙂 I especially like taking breaks when your TODDLER needs them, books, and those adorable busy boards tips! This post is well done! 🙂
    I responded to your comment on my blog looking for a holiday pop-up book for toddlers. You inspired me to add a book review to this post. (Thank you so much for your awesome comment!) https://www.teacher-librarian-forlife.com/2018/12/03/5216/ Go to the end of this post for the review and the recommendation.
    Thank you,
    Christina/The Blog for Teachers, Readers, & Life!

    1. Great addition Christina! Thanks for your nice words about my long road trips with toddlers tips. We have already gone on lots of road trips with her and hope to go on lots more!

  6. I found this post through Pinterest. We’ve been taking a lot of long car trips lately with our little one, and your advice is spot-on. I especially like the part about letting them get used to being bored. This is something we’re trying to work on in general.

    One thing that’s helped me is realizing what certain behaviors mean. Our daughter has gotten pretty whiny lately, sometimes verging on a full meltdown. I used to think that we needed to pull over and get some fresh air but now I’ve realized this is how she behaves when she’s very tired. When she gets upset I give a good 15 minutes to see if she’ll fall asleep. She usually does.

    1. Well I’m glad you found me 🙂 I catch myself all the time wanting to “fix” my toddler’s boredom, but it’s not really something I need to fix. Parenting is such an awesome teacher. Love your tip on figuring out your own child’s behaviors on long road trips. Sometimes they are like adorable little puzzles 🙂

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  8. these are great tips! We have that one caddy that folds up and you can put it in the backseat with the kids. We have 2 kids and no space, so there is no climbing into the back with my toddler, and the fighting gets intense. BUT the NEW toys / trinkets is really helpful! and thank goodness you can download Netflix shows now. We do long trips a few times a year with the kids that are 10-18 hours!

    1. It a whole other ballgame with two – sometimes they can keep each other occupied but then you get the car fights! (I remember those from growing up with my sister and going on family road trips…) With one kid there isn’t the fighting but they can get bored so quickly and want to have someone beside them. Way to go on all the long road trips with your kids! They’re not always easy but they make for awesome memories.

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  14. Helly

    Hiya, we want to do a road trip to visit my sister in another country and the journey is 26 hours. We have two route options, one passes through two countries and requires an overnight ferry and the other passes through 5-6 countries all on road. We’ve done the route with the ferry twice and it takes us about 5 days because my husband doesn’t drive. He said he’ll learn so we can do it faster but I’m just thinking it’s too long for a 1.5 year old? We’d prob still break it up into 4/5 days but with a different place to sleep each night are we just asking too much of her? We did a road trip with her at 6 months which was 5 hours and an overnight ferry and she was amazing, but it’s a whole other ballgame now she’s older. What would you do? I’m thinking we should fly in the end but with everything that’s happened lately the car seems a cleaner environment, not to mention lugging strollers and travel costs through the airport and after is a nightmare!! Thanks x

    1. Hey! Personally I can’t imagine when the next time is that we’ll be flying but that is totally a personal preference thing when this lets up a bit. I don’t think we’ll fly until there’s a vaccine. I would pick one of the driving options myself. I also just really love road trips 🙂 We often move around each night when we do road trips with our daughter. We find that she does really well. She likes new places, and she loves exploring different hotel rooms so much that she needs less toys 🙂 I like having our stuff with us in a vehicle too, that’s kind of nice. We did long road trips at that age and watched her cues. We always put in the longest day on the first day. It makes such a difference. She’s not yet tired of being in the car and is excited about it because it’s different. Then we taper from there. We make sure there is one full hour break each day where she can run around. At 1.5 (and still now) we can do about 7 hours of driving in a day, broken up. This will depend on the kid. Good luck with your decision, hope this helps! xx

  15. Yes I have kids and I really enjoy spending time with them and going on road trips with them. It does has its flaws but we as parents its our responsibility to cooperate and make sure to keep our kids entertained during such trips.

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