Best road trip hacks with kids
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10 Road Trip Hacks – How We Survived 28 Hours In the Car With a Toddler

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Are you planning a road trip with kids? Read on to find out some great road trip hacks for traveling with kids!

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My husband and I recently went on a family road trip with our toddler. We drove west from the prairies out to the Rocky Mountains. It’s a beautiful trip passing through so many different landscapes. We’ve done the drive many times before together before our daughter was born. It’s fourteen hours in one direction and we usually do it in two days. Before this trip the farthest away we have driven with Squish was seven hours, but it took us three days to get there!

I knew for a twenty-eight hour round trip road trip with a toddler I would need to do some preparation. You don’t just plunk a toddler in the car and hope for the best.

Related reading: Ditch the disposables! Best kids lunch boxes, bags, and snack packs

We had planned on taking our 1984 Westfalia camper van and I was so excited for the first van trip of the year. With such an old vehicle, it needs a lot of TLC each season to get it all ready to go. My husband worked on it and got it ready in time but then we looked at the weather forecast. It was going to be super hot and sunny the whole time we would be driving. It didn’t seem like a great idea to be camping in a van in such heat with a toddler who is prone to heat rash. We changed our plans and took my little Honda instead.

That meant we had to be frugal in our packing – there just wasn’t room to bring that much since I don’t drive a mom-mobile. Not knocking those by the way, there are huge advantages of having more space. I love our van for room, but that wasn’t our situation on this trip with my small hatchback.

When she needed a change on the road we changed her in the hatch lying on top of our luggage

Related reading: 5 tips for van camping road trips with a toddler

Let’s delve into the things that worked well on our family road trip, and also something I wish I had remembered to bring.

10 Road Trip Hacks with Kids

First of all I did not want to spend a whole lot of money on this family road trip trip.  We are a frugal family and while I knew we would be spending money to go on a vacation, I wanted to keep it at a minimum.  It is very possible to keep the kids entertained on a road trip with kids without spending a lot of money.

Road trip hacks #1: Don’t give them all the goodies right off the bat

Since we took a small vehicle, we didn’t have the luxury of being able to over pack and bring everything she could possibly want. We had to be choosy. I didn’t want to run out of interesting distractions for her, so I waited until she really needed something before I started doling out the goodies. This worked out well. Let your kid sing, talk with them, let them look out the window.

It’s important to give even young kids a chance to do not much at all, and yes, even feel a little bored. We don’t need to immediately fill all their entertainment needs right away. When Squish was content back there, I let her be. When she started protesting, I would figure out if she needed a snack or toy or book (or of course diaper change or drink).

Road trip hacks #2: A quiet non-messy activity that they will spend more than 5 minutes on

These water coloring books are amazing for travel with kids. You simply fill the pen with water and the kids color in the drawings with water. They are tidy in the car and entertaining for young kids. I especially love that the pages are reusable; when the pages are dry the color disappears so kids can color the same picture over again. They are a must-have for any kind of traveling with kids, whether it’s by airplane or a family road trip.

Road trip hacks #3: Inexpensive little new toys

You don’t need to spend a lot on this at all, it is the novelty that will count on a road trip with kids. Some things I bought: little plastic binoculars (these are similar, large stickers, a coloring book, little plastic dinosaurs, and a small new stuffed animal.

Our final destination: it’s not ugly

Related reading: Long road trips with toddlers – your survival guide

Road trip hacks #4: Library books, and lots of them

A road trip essential when traveling with kids is books, and lots of them. I bought her a couple of new books for the trip, but a couple of new books won’t cut it for a family road trip this long and I wasn’t about to purchase a whole stack of new books.

I am a huge library lover; what’s not to love about free books? I took out 16 books for our one week trip and this was the perfect amount for us. I would suggest two new (borrowed!) books a day per child at a minimum.  Lots of books are definitely a road trip essential!!

Related reading: Summer Bucket List: 50 Ideas For Families (plus free printable)

Road trip hacks #5: So many snacks

On a road trip with kids, a variety of snacks and particularly snacks that your little one doesn’t have all the time will save the day.  For this trip I brought organic goldfish crackers, Amy’s cheese crackers, bunny crackers, Snapea crisps, fruit in packs (peaches, mandarins), nut-butter filled CLIF bars).

I used these reusable snack bags – they are great for rationing out snacks.  I learned the hard way that you don’t pass a toddler an entire box of bunny crackers and think they won’t intentionally dump them all out in their lap for fun. A one-time purchase means savings down the road as you don’t need to keep buying regular ziplock bags. They’re also super cute and come in many prints.

Related reading: Mountain road trip – frugal activities in Canmore with kids

Road trip hacks #6: Embrace a bit of screen time

Neither my husband nor I have a tablet, and my little Honda did not come with an in-car video player. Squish doesn’t watch much T.V. (we don’t have one). Since it is a novelty it does distract her for a while. In cases like flights or family road trips, I am all about letting her have more screen time if it works!

We bought this toy for her at Christmas. We save it for special occasions like road trips or flying or sick days at home. Since she gets it rarely, she will play with it for much longer when we need her to, like on very long car rides! I like the Leaptop because I don’t find the sounds too loud or annoying for a battery-operated toy. This is key when you are in a small space.

Road trip hacks #7: Take enough breaks

This is one of the road trip hacks that is super essential.  For us on a family road trip with a two year old, this meant breaks roughly every three hours. Pick a rest stop where your child can run around and let off some energy.  It’s worth driving an extra few minutes off of your route to find a playground for them if available (it wasn’t always for us, see below). They will have fun, you can stretch your legs too and enjoy being outside, and everyone will be happier getting back into the car again.

We would start driving first thing after breakfast, drive for a few hours and then stop for lunch. She would run around and play and we would get going again for the afternoon. If we were lucky she would nap for part of the afternoon drive.  On our mid-day break we gave her a whole hour outside of the car, for lunch, diaper change and running.

We intended to always pick a place close to a park where she could run around. Well that didn’t turn out so well one day as she absolutely needed a stop and there was no green space as far as the eye could see. We settled for a quiet parking lot, let her climb on rocks and pull weeds and called it a day.  So do what you can  🙂

This was a much nicer rest stop than the aforementioned random parking lot stop

Road trip hacks #8: Don’t push it

On a family road trip, we choose to drive seven hours per day max (plus rest stops). Even though we could do ten or twelve hours when it was just the two of us, seven hours feels like a super long day with a toddler. Don’t push it. It’s not worth the stress on you or them to squeeze an extra hour or two in that day on a road trip with kids.

Road trip hacks #9: Be prepared that you might not always get to sit in the front seat

Depending on the age of your kid (and if you have more than one!) and how long you are driving in a day, one parent might have to sit in the back and be the court jester for part of the trip. I was absolutely expecting to have to sit beside Squish and help keep her content for the latter few hours. I had to go back there a couple of times, but for the most part I was able to sit up front beside my husband. We pointed out a lot of things and kept the rotation of entertainment going, but she did better than anticipated here. Not all car trips have gone this smoothly though so be prepared that one parent might have to sit in the back at times especially with younger kids.

Road trip hacks #10: Bring from home any snuggly thing they use for sleep

If you will be in the car for the whole day and your child still naps, make it comfortable for them. Bring their favorite blankey or stuffed animal (this is a great travel-sized one) to help them nap for longer. The longer they sleep, the less time you will have to resort to using the other tools to distract them from the fact that they’re being confined for hours. 😉

Related reading: 6 best tips for air travel with a baby

A road trip with kids essential I forgot

While all the new plus familiar things in the list above worked really well on this long road trip, there is one road trip essential I forgot.  I should have brought some of her favorite books from home.  Yes this girl loves novelty and the many new books I brought from the library were a hit.  But when she was tired at night or before a nap, she wanted the familiar stories that she almost knows by heart.  She would quote from a couple of them and asked about others “Piggie and Elephant book at home?”  It felt like a big oversight on my part when she was looking for comfort in the known.  Next family road trip we are making room in our tiny car for even more books!   🙂

Road trip essentials for the adults

Though we don’t need road trip hacks as much as the littles, I make sure to pack some fun treats for us too.  I always bring my beloved travel mug everywhere because it’s great for hot or cold drinks and doesn’t spill.  And some kind of chocolate always seems to make its way into our road trip food stash.

My recent favorite car chocolate (that’s a thing, right?) is:

  • this dark chocolate almond bark

Was our ultimate family road trip all sunshine and rainbows?  Ha!  No.  At times it was so exhausting.  But it was also amazing.  It is definitely more effort when you are traveling with kids but you make great memories and it is so worth it.

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Ultimate road trip hacks with kids

Have you taken a long road trip with kids or a road trip with a baby?  Do you have any road trip hacks to add?


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50 Comments

  1. Denise from myowntotell.com says:

    We just got back from a road trip and number 6 helped me with my toddler a lot, though it left me with a little mom guilt for that much screen time but oh well … great ideas.

    1. I know what you mean. I figure I don’t really do much screen time in her regular life so for her it’s a treat. That helps with my mom guilt a bit 😉 I hope you had a great road trip too!

  2. We are planning another road trip soon, and you’ve given me a few new ideas! Thanks for sharing.

  3. You are so brave! And your hacks are brilliant. I honestly resort to hour after hour of unmitigated screen time when we travel. So much depends on the kid, too! We took our kids to China (16 hour flight) a couple of years ago, and my 18-month-old was an absolute dream. The only peep she made was to sing herself to sleep. My oldest, though, was a nightmare. These are great ways to prepare, though, so you have the best chance at a peaceful trip no matter what.

    1. I think I just love road trips so much that we have to keep doing them, toddler and all! lol But then it always ends up going much better than I expected. It’s so true that it depends on the kid. Our daughter is super high energy, not mellow at all, always on the go. I thought she would absolutely hate being confined for so long. I’m surprised it went so well with her personality and there is only so much you can do (some is luck for sure) but being prepared helps, even just mentally!

  4. I like the idea of bringing library books – and remembering some old, favorites too – because it’s a nice mix of comfort and new. Those water coloring books sound great too.

    Lauren

    1. I love the water coloring books. That’s something we didn’t have back when I was a kid on road trips!

  5. Great tips! We just did a road trip with our three kids (ages 6, 3 and 1). Bringing plenty of snacks proved to be the most valuable thing we did! We were exploring national parks and forests so there weren’t a whole lot of places to stop and buy food for our three picky eaters!

  6. love these tips! You are a brave soul to spend that much time in a car period-let alone with a toddler. So true not to give them all the goodies right off the bat!

    1. Haha, my mom doesn’t like being in the car to drive 30 minutes across the city, so she can’t understand this at all!

  7. The farthest we’ve gone is 5 hours (to visit family). We time it to leave mid morning, so we can start off with snacks. Then we stop for a lunch break and let them run. Once they’ve had a chance to ware off their energy, we get back on the road and they nap through the section with the slowest traffic. I’ll try some of your hacks for the last bit, as we haven’t mastered the portion of the trip once they wake up.

    1. The last bit is the most challenging! That’s when they’ve already been in the car for a while and the novelty has worn off. I save the extra fun things for the last couple hours and speed up the rate that I pass her things compared to the beginning!

  8. Bookmarking this for future reference! Such excellent tips. We haven’t gone very far with Jax so far.. car ride for 4 hours and plane ride for 3.

  9. This article came just at the right time. We are leaving for vacation on Saturday and we have a 7 hour trip with 2 toddlers. Awesome advice here! I will be referencing this as we pack up the car! Thanks!

  10. This is a very comprehensive and useful list. I especially like the point about not giving them all the activities right at the beginning. Very wise indeed.

    1. Sometimes I get excited to give her something new, but then I hold myself back! lol I know I will need those new things the longer we are in the car. I hope you’re having a great day!

  11. These are really great tips. You make a great point with #9 in particular. And the watercolor activity looks really fun! Thanks for sharing.

    1. I wish they had those watercolor sets when I was a kid! That’s a fun part about being a parent – getting to play with your kids’ toys too! lol

  12. What a great list! I’m for sure saving this and sending it to my mom group to help save some sanity in the summer travel months!

  13. Amazing post. Your tips are very helpful to me as my husband has planned a road trip so that we can spend some time with our kids. I liked your idea of watercolor and I would love to purchase it for my kids so that they can kill their time as well be creative.

    1. I love those watercolor sets so much! I find them relaxing for me to do too – might have to get one for myself lol. The next trend after adult coloring books! Have a great trip Monica! There’s nothing like getting to spend concentrated time together as a family on a road trip – it’s the best.

  14. We drove with our two toddlers 2 and 3 around Europe was a 4 day drive from Northern Ireland To Bulgaria And Greece. Via Maduradam the model city in Holland, which the kids loved. Was an awesome experience and the boys where very good most of the trip 🙂 As long as they got their food stops on time. They tended to sleep for quite a bit of the journey. And of course as you said in your hacks, plenty of snacks to keep them occupied 🙂

    1. That sounds like a fantastic trip! I think kids just love so much family time so even if it sounds crazy to be cooped up with young kids in the car, it can end up being a blast! With preparation, with some luck too… 🙂

  15. These are some great tips, I especially like the advice to mix old and new toys/books. We did a couple of long trips recently and mostly got through it by handing over the tablets but planning a good long stop during the middle of the day helped a lot too.

    1. Thanks Sarah! Some of these hacks I put together from figuring out what didn’t work as much as what did work! lol

  16. Amazing post. Your tips are very helpful to me as my husband has planned a road trip so that we can spend some time with our kids. I liked your idea of watercolor and I would love to purchase it for my kids so that they can kill their time as well be creative.

    1. Thanks Kanika! I’m glad these road trip hacks were helpful. I’m excited for you about your road trip with your kids. It takes some effort for sure but is a great way to spend time together. Those WaterWow books are awesome, we have several of them now 🙂

    1. Bev, thanks so much!! 🙂 I was honestly surprised at how much I love traveling with her – haha!

  17. Christine says:

    We don’t have nearly as much road as you guys (although I secretly wishh we did) I’m from a small Caribbean island called Trinidad and Tobago… Our road trips are just about 2-3hrs depending on weather and road conditions. We have a 7yr old and a 5month old… I’m in the back and well our 7yr old sits in front with dad. I’m still breastfeeding so I need to be close. My problem is baby doesn’t like the car seat so she’s in my arms most of the time. I’m kind of getting used to it but sometimes it can be exhausting… We don’t usually stop for breaks although I wish we did sometimes.. Butt cramps are teribble.. ? Our older draughter uses her tablet and I have the fun job of entertaining our little one. She’s a very curious one, so it can become challenging as you have to change up the entertainment ever so often. Overall it’s not bad 2-3 hrs are tough as that’s our longest here, I guess it would probably be tough over there with all that road… But I’m guess depending on where you go and where you pass will have lots to see…. BTW I was looking for a quick yeast bread recipe and ended up on your site… Great blog… Great read. Thanks for the share.. I enjoyed reading it.

    Christine p. s the dough is rising atm… I have to bake now as our little one sleeps, she just started creeping so I’m busy all day.

    1. Thanks for your comment Christine and so happy you liked the post on road trip hacks with kids! We usually drive about 3 hours-ish before stopping, but we always go based on my daughter’s cues (except for fuel and bathroom stops). Usually about 7 hours in a day. I hear ya on the butt cramps – haha! It’s nice to get out and stretch a bit. Our daughter is super curious too and a total mover and shaker. I’m honestly surprised at how many road trips (and long ones) we’ve done with her because I thought with her personality it just wouldn’t go well at all!! It’s definitely challenging but I still love it. I hope you love the bread too! 🙂

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