Family road trips can be either amazing or super stressful. This is especially true with younger kiddos who have a harder time sitting still and entertaining themselves. But clocking in over 50,000 on the road in the last few years with our 5 young kids has taught us some tips to road trip with a toddler.
Here are some of our favorite toddler road trip tips, road trip hacks, and family road trip essentials. I hope they help make your journey a little smoother and more enjoyable!
1) Start Small to Road Trip With a Toddler
My first tip to successfully road trip with a toddler is to start small. A full 8 hour road trip with kids is probably not the best way to start out. Kids take time to adjust to new situations, and if you haven’t road tripped before, that’s a lot – even for an adult! Instead, start small. Start with a 1-3 hour ride. Get acclimated and make sure everything is comfortable and in working order. Once you have a few of those under your belt, you can slowly start to increase your hours in the car. You will be a road tripping family in no time!
2) Pack Clean Snacks
If your kids are anything like mine, they like to be eating practically nonstop when in the car or RV. But we’ve definitely made the mistake of choosing snacks that cause a giant mess and we regret it forever after. We also don’t like giving them tons of junk – that just makes them even more wiggly and unsettled. It works better for all of us if they have regular meals and healthy snacks. Definitely our most important family road trip essential!
Here are 50+ of our favorite healthy (and non-messy) road trip snacks for kids!
3) Use Stops To Get Out Wiggles
When we first started road tripping, we’d treat stops like we did when it was just adults – to sit and eat food. But we quickly figured out that road trip stops with kids are a different animal. Instead, with kids, we like to use these stops almost exclusively for movement.
It’s hard for young kiddos to sit still for long periods of time in a vehicle. Their bodies are designed to be moving frequently! So whenever we paused for gas or for a break, we make sure to take this time to get out wiggles. This might mean pulling over near a big field or playground where they can run around. Or it may mean doing jumping jacks on the grassy area of a gas station. Either way, we try to get out as many wiggles as possible.
Plus, movement often takes less time than sitting and eating. Kids often get antsy sitting down for full meals, anyway, so there’s no reason to make them sit in a restaurant and then sit even more in their seats. Instead, we like to pack easy-to-eat road trip meals that they can have while we’re on the road.
Of course, be very cautious about food that you give to young children and make sure they are supervised, and avoid choking hazards.
4) Always Use The Proper Child Restraint
It can sometimes be tempting to allow a young child to slide under a shoulder belt to sleep while the car is moving. This could be super dangerous in the event of a crash. Instead, if you have a child who is likely to fall asleep in the car at some point, avoid using a low-back booster that requires them to keep their bodies upright.
Instead, a 5-point harness is a safer option when road tripping with toddlers. If your child has outgrown a 5-point harness, a high-back booster or this booster Ride Safer Vest are great options that keep them in better positioning. (Here are our favorite travel car seats.)
5) Make Sure Everyone Packs An Activity Bag
I love having each of my kids pack their own travel backpack with essentials that they can easily access. This also tends to keep things better contained than a basket of stuff, which often gets stepped on or otherwise destroyed.
I love that having their own activity bag means they can choose what they’re interested in for a long family road trip. This makes it so they are much more likely to stay engaged with those activities. This is a great way to keep toddlers busy on long road trips.
Here’s everything they keep in their kids’ travel backpacks. They often bring more activities for a road trip than when flying, of course – more books and perhaps a few little toys to keep them occupied. And here are our favorite toddler road trip activities!
6) Give Everyone A Spillproof Water Bottle
When on a road trip with toddlers, spillproof water bottles are the very best way to make sure spills don’t ruin the car and its contents. We make sure everyone has their own so they can stay hydrated.
Insulated kids water bottles are my preferred oens so that drinks stay cold for a while (especially helpful if you need milk for younger kiddos). I like this hard spout insulated sippy for babies and young toddlers. The Contigo Stainless Steel Water Bottle Autospout and the Thermos Funtainer 12oz. are great travel water bottles for younger kids. I also like the Contigo Spill Proof Tumbler (which is surprisingly spill-resistant, but the straw can get dirty since it doesn’t have a cover).
My older kids absolutely LOVE the Takeya Actives Insulated Water Bottle – it’s a great size, fits in a side pocket, and keeps drinks cold for sooo long. If we’re planning to hike quite a bit on our travels, my kids pack their amazing kids hiking hydration backpacks and generally just use those for water on the road trip (we don’t often fly with these).
For adults, we really love the Contigo Autospout Water Bottle and Hydro Flask Wide Mouth Straw Lid.
7) Listen to Audiobooks & Music on Long Road Trips
Audiobooks are for sure our #1 favorite way to pass time on long road trips with kids. We almost always download them from the Libby app through our library, then play them via Bluetooth on our car’s speaker system. Everyone stays interested and engaged and QUIET, and the grown ups like them as much as the kids. You could also just read out loud to everyone if you prefer! Podcasts can also be great, especially for younger kiddos (Circle Round is wonderful even for toddlers!).
If kids want to listen to individual audiobooks, the Yoto player is perfect for that. These headphones are perfect in the car because they’re soft and don’t interfere with car seats. (My oldest prefers these.) Music on the Yoto is also really fun to listen to! (You can use this link to purchase, and the code PREETHI10 for 10% off the regular Yoto player.)
Here are some of our favorite USA road trip novels for kids.
8) Pack 8 Million Baby Wipes to Road Trip With a Toddler
Even if you don’t have kids in diapers. Even if you think you have enough. I promise, you will use them for everything. Cleaning faces and hands. Wiping down the car dash or seat. So many things on a road trip with a toddler or even big kids.
9) Keep Trash Bags Accessible
All those baby wipes need to go somewhere! A great long road trip tip is to hang trash bags where kiddos can reach them and immediately throw stuff away instead of letting it all accumulate. Of course, be very cautious about not having plastic bags too close to babies and young children.
10) Put On A Bib For Little Ones
We absolutely love full coverage bibs at home – they’re the only ones that actually work to keep kiddos relatively clean, it seems. And they work in the car, too! Since they go on from the front, we just put them on their arms on top of the car seat, and it keeps them a little bit cleaner during family road trips.
Ikea is the cheapest place to get them (and ours have held up perfectly for years and years), but if you don’t have one close by, you can also purchase the Ikea one on Amazon. There are also some similar ones available, as well.
11) Pack Extra Ziplock Bags
This is another item where I’m often shocked at how useful they are. Handing out snacks. Gathering up snacks. Or, in the event of a car sickness emergency, handing back as a sickness bag that can then reseal. They’re so helpful in so many instances when road tripping with kids.
12) There’s No Shame in Technology On Family Road Trips
There’s no shame in watching movies while on the road. We usually hold off on them because our kids tend to get grumpy when we watch too much. So we might have one at the end of a really long road trip driving day, but they’re rare. But if they work for you? Awesome. They might be absolutely worth it for your family and might be great with your kids. There’s zero shame in that. Use it if you need to. Use an iPad if you need to. It’ll be just fine.
We personally LOVE traveling with kids Kindles. They’re easy to pack, the battery lasts for forever, and they hold soooo many books. They keep our reading-on-their-own age kids occupied for hours especially on busy family road trips.
13) Use Sleep Cues to Successfully Road Trip With a Toddler
If we’re driving late on a long road trip, it’s often best if we can get our kids to fall asleep in the car. Neither Dan nor I is good at staying up through the night, so we never drive that long. We have gotten in well past kiddo bedtime many times before.
We find it’s really helpful to have their regular sleep cues handy while driving. As it gets closer to evening, we have them change into pajamas, get an animal (and pacifier for the baby), and sometimes a blanket or pillow (easier in the RV).
We also have one particular CD of peaceful religious music that we’ve had for years, and it always signals to our kids that it’s time to go to sleep. They’ve heard it during enough late-night drives that it cues to them to settle down. We’ve also been known to play white noise on an app on our phones that we play through Bluetooth on the car stereo, but this is obviously less pleasant for us to listen to. 😉
14) Carry Emergency Supplies for Family Road Trips
There’s nothing like having a vehicle break down while on a road trip with kids. We always like to carry a few emergency supplies just in case. Here are some family road trip essentials for emergencies:
- Portable car battery jump starter (can jump your vehicle without another one present)
- Car tire air compressor
- First aid kit
- Drinking water
- Portable phone charger
“Practice makes perfect” is true for road tripping with kids, too. My final tip to road trip with a toddler is to practice. Our kids have gotten really good at road tripping and occupying themselves on the road because they’ve done it a ton. And anytime we haven’t been on a long ride in a while, they get more antsy the first day, but then get the hang of it by the 2nd. If it doesn’t work out the first time, try again. Try different things that might work for your family. Stop frequently if you need to, or drive longer through the night if it works better. Figure out what is best for your family to successfully road trip, and do it.
IF YOU LIKED THIS POST ABOUT TIPS TO ROAD TRIP WITH A TODDLER, YOU MIGHT LIKE THESE POSTS TOO:
- Toddler Road Trip Activities
- 50+ Healthy Road Trip Snacks for Kids
- Tips for Travel with Baby or Toddler
Hey Preethi! Love this post:) we have almost 5 kiddos (#5 in June) and our eldest is 6. I want to be more comfortable with road trips and I found this really helpful. I can’t find a link for the bibs you recommend. Any chance you could share that with me?
Congratulations on your baby!! I’m so glad this was helpful. And so sorry about that – I’ve updated the bibs info with links. Enjoy!
Love this! My parents live about 3hrs away, do kids are used to a longish drive. We are inbarking on our first big road trip this Spring.
Q – how many hours do you try to drive a day, if you’re going far from home? Especially without an RV? I(‘m anticipating that 6 hrs is the most we might do in a day, and am really only expecting 4 hrs at most before meltdowns begin.)
Hi Leticia – how fun!! It really depends on how far we drive based on our destination, how much we’re seeing along the way, etc. If we’re just trying to get to a destination, we’ve done up to 12-13 hours in a day before. I wouldn’t do that as a first big road trip, but it also totally depends on your kids. Have a great trip!!