Does the thought of long road trips with toddlers fill you with excitement or dread? It is 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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11 Sanity-saving tips for road trips with toddlers
When our daughter was born, we didn’t think road 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 with a baby can be easier because toddlers are in that go-go-go demographic. Extra planning is essential. Here is your survival guide to long road trips with toddlers so you can keep on adventuring.
1. Get your toddler used to being bored
Before you go on long road trips 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.
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 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 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.
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 vehicle, 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 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.
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 she wanted the books that were her own.
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 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 one 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!!
Here is a fun cube version:
And a plush activity cube:
This adorable wooden cheese threading set is small and would be perfect for long road trips with toddlers:
And this one helps your toddler practice clothing closures like buckles, buttons, laces, and zips. It also is lightweight and can be rolled up so it’s great for travel.
5. Use screen time if needed
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.
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.
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.
7. Snacks, snacks, and then more snacks
On a road trip with kids, having lots of snacks and drinks too offer are essential for 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.
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 travel version, have them get used to this new tool at home before you go on your long road trip.
9. Pack a first aid kit
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 toddlers so you want to hold some things back for when they’re really needed.
11. Be prepared to sit in the back
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.
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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What are your best tips for long road trips with toddlers?