packing for a road trip with young kids

Just over two years ago, my husband, my daughter, and I packed up everything we owned and moved from Minnesota to Florida. Since that move, we have added two more little boys to the family, and have made the drive back to the midwest 3 times. We opt to drive straight through, because we usually have our dog with us, and because unpacking multiple children, suitcases, and bags for a few hours of sleep in an unfamiliar hotel seems like a waste of time and money. The drive would be around 18 hours with no stops, but often ends up being closer to 20 or 21. Yes, you read that right. Almost a full day in the car with an infant, a toddler, and a preschooler. Yikes.

So with that background knowledge, you can see how we have been motivated to find the best ways to pack our belongings and organize the van for optimum sanity. Below I'm offering you our best frugal, healthy, and organized tips for surviving a road trip with very young children. 

This post contains affiliate links. That means that if you use the links to purchase something, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting my blog!


• This is the most organized I have ever been about packing, and it really paid off! It truly made getting the kids dressed and ready on vacation that much easier. Each kid received their own (tiny) suitcase for Christmas last year, so I chose three small packing cubes for each suitcase, and filled one with pajamas, one with outfits, and one with swimwear. I also packed 7 separate outfits for each child, and put the entire outfit (undergarments, socks, etc included), in a gallon-sized Ziplock bag. I used them as a faux vacuum bag by rolling them up to squeeze out all the air, and zipping them up so they were nice and flat. Don’t worry - I saved the Ziplock bags and stored them in the suitcase after our trip to reuse in the future!

• I also packed one giant suitcase for the baby and me. The packing cubes were instrumental in staying organized! I used a large one for all of my clothes, another large one for my workout and lounge clothes, a medium one for undergarments , layering tanks, and swimsuits, a medium one for Lewis’s clothes and onesies, and a final medium sized one for Lewis’s pajamas. I put my shoes, blow dryer, and curling iron on the bottom of the suitcase in between the ridges to maximize space, and set the flexible packing cubes on top of them. In the mesh pocket on the inside top of the suitcase I stored burp clothes and any extra things I threw in at the last minute. Finally, I set my toiletry bag on the very top.

• Another option would be to pack small overnight bags for each member of the family while filling a large plastic storage bin with the rest of the clothes and shoes, organized by packing cubes. This would make sense for you if you're making short stops along the way!

• One hack I learned awhile back is to bring a mesh laundry bag. It’s so small and lightweight you can stuff it into any bag or suitcase. Once you arrive, you can use it to stow your dirty laundry. This will help keep your suitcases organized.  If you’re lucky enough to be somewhere with a washer and dryer, you can even reuse some of the clothes you packed!

{TIP} Pack diapers and wipes in a 3 drawer storage tower. It makes use of vertical space, and keeps the essentials for changing your baby and/or toddler accessible when you make pit stops. Then when we arrive at our destination, we automatically have a diaper changing station where family members can easily help out without having to ask where everything is or dig through suitcases. If you no longer have kids in diapers, use the drawers for snacks, toys, books, or extra blankets.


Have healthy snacks and meals available in between the two front seats in a medium sized cooler. We bring:

Related: 30 Day Nutrition System Review

Related: Healthy Summer Snacks for Kids

If you have older kids, you can place a cooler in back by them, but my kids are 4, 2, and 3 months, so we have the adults distribute meals and snacks as needed. We drove over 20 hours with the kids without having to stop for any fast food or gas station snacks.

{TIP} If you have young children, bring a few plastic kid's cups along to distribute snacks. Fill them with crackers, chips, popcorn, fruit, or veggies, and put them in your child's cupholder. It helps corral the mess...a little. 


• I kept a basket of toys and books in between the older kids’ seats. They couldn’t quite reach it from their carseats, but it was easy for me to turn around and grab whatever they were requesting. Melissa & Doug Water Wow books are awesome, as are Boogie Boards, reusable sticker books, and toy laptops for learning the alphabet. For movies, we download some movies from Netflix on the iPad, or buy a movie on iTunes, and use the headrest iPad holder. This comes in handy after dark, or when one kid decides he won’t sleep in the middle of the night and the only thing that will soothe him is the Minions movie.

• You could also have each kid pack a backpack or small plastic storage bin with a few toys and coloring books if your kids are a little older. 

Related: 50 Road Trip Activities for Toddlers and Preschoolers

Related: How to Make Road Trip Binders for Your Kids

• We bought some bins and baskets from the Dollar Store to help corral odds and ends during the trip. I used the tall thin beach basket (similar) for books, my laptop, headphones, a sweater, and anything else I might want handy during the trip, and kept it right by my feet. It was thin enough to still leave plenty of space to stretch out my legs.

The shower caddy was placed in between the front seats as an extra set of cupholders or a place to put sunglasses. When you’re driving for over 18 hours, you tend to accrue multiple beverages to help stay awake - Yeti tumbler full of water, coffee, electrolyte drinks, you name it! Finally, we grabbed two suction cup toothbrush holders from the Dollar Store to put on the windows next to each car seat. They could use it for snacks, drinks, crayons, etc.

• Another tip is to make sure you have a few plastic bags and a package of wipes handy. The plastic bags make great garbage bags, or can stow wet clothes in the unfortunate event of an accident or spill, and the wipes are perfect for cleaning up sticky hands and fingers.

• We brought a rectangular laundry basket for beach towels, water wings, and extra baby blankets which we could then bring out by the pool with all of our swimming accessories in one spot. On top of the laundry basket we kept our DockATot and nursing pillow.

• {Edit for 2018} This year, we packed 2 large plastic storage bins in the trunk. One was our food bucket, one was our outdoor bucket. The food bucket contained our personal sized blender, cereal boxes, PB&J fixings, kid plates/cups/bottles, and Isagenix shakes, bars, and supplements. The outdoor bucket contained towels, swim floaties. sunscreen, bug spray, goggles, and a few outdoor toys. We LOVED having the buckets, as it made organizing and stacking a breeze. We will definitely be doing that again!

So those are my tips and tricks for packing and organizing the car for a road trip with young kids! I would imagine things get a bit easier as the kids get older - I remember each being in charge of packing our own bucket that fit under the seat with things to do when my family would go on road trips as a child. There is a certain chaos that comes with packing for little ones, but it is certainly less overwhelming when you organize and plan ahead of time.




What tips do you have for traveling with young kids?