Road trip essentials for kids: packing list + advice on how to stay sane

Long car rides with kids are not easy. Long road trips with kids are even less easy.

That’s why it’s important to pack some essential things in the car with you – to make the trip easier for both the kid and you. And it’s important to know some things before you set off, as well.

We’ve had quite a few looooong… long… long… car rides with Emma since she was half a year old. Some of them went better, some went worse, but I think I’ve had quite a lot of experience to put together this Road trip essentials for kids list.

From the time that I, Emma, and the car got thrown up all over, to the time where we had to stop every 30 minutes to let her run around because she couldn’t sit anymore, I’ve learned. A lot. About kids and road trips.

So I’ve put together this list to help you, my dear friend, have a better road trip or long car ride with your kid.

You will not find things like what to pack in your suitcase or what kid’s stuff needs to be in the first aid kit. No, no, no. This list is completely meant for the ESSENTIALS for kids that will help make the road trip better.

a car seat in a rental car in Italy - a car seat is mandatory when driving in italy

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Road trip essentials for kids packing list for the car

These are like the essential essential things that should be in your car if you’re setting off for a long trip with your kids.

Basically, here you’ll see a family road trip packing list of things that should not be in a suitcase.

These things should always be within easy reach so that you can safely and easily access them during the drive.

1. Back seat organizer

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One of the best things that we’ve purchased for car rides. It’s at the top of my road trip essentials for kids list, as it just helps with the “easy access” thing.

Long car rides require lots of things to be reached comfortably, and all of those things take space. For the first road trip that we went on, we didn’t have an organizer, and it was such a mess around me that it took way tooooo long to find the things that I needed.

So, when we came home, one of the first things I did was find a back seat organizer so that at least some of the stuff could be comfortably stored.

Ours has a few pockets for whatever where I keep a burp cloth and wet napkins, snacks, some entertainment stuff, and things. Plus, it has two pockets for drinks.

There are others, though, that would hold your phone or tablet so that the kid can watch a show easily. I regret not getting such, actually.

It really is a road trip essential, and not just for kids, I’d say.

2. Window shades

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Another road trip essential for kids.

The shades keep the kid from heating up in the direct sun. Just make sure to get ones that cover the windows properly – I ordered some on Amazon without measuring the windows, and they are a bit too small. That means I have to move them all the time when the car or the sun turns, which is rather annoying.

I always take a blanket with me just in case as well. Usually, though, instead of using it for its main purpose, I fix it in front of Emma for naps so that it’s not so light in the car. Like, the blanket covers the passenger window and part of the driver’s window, so she’s in more shade.

If it sounds weird but it works, it’s not weird, right? …right?

3. Car seat insert

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Once, when Emma was just over half a year old, she got overheated in the car – although she was dressed in only a onesie and leggings and the car wasn’t hot, the car seat heated her up so much that she threw up all over everything.

Since then, I had been looking for a way to keep her cooler in the car. One of the answers is a car seat insert.

Now we’re using an Aeromoov insert, and she seems to be much better. She definitely sweats a lot less and seems generally happier during the car rides.

4. Snacks and drinks

The big ones.

First, we usually use straw cups, sippy cups, or a “sports” plastic water bottle for Emma to avoid spillage. For the most part, we pack water for her instead of juices or tea. When she was an infant who couldn’t yet drink water, we would just stop for breastfeeding sessions whenever she needed it.

Drinks are easy, but snacks are definitely more complicated road trip essentials for kids.

The younger the kid, the more careful you have to be with what you pack – there’s a choking risk, a spilling risk, a “I’m not gonna eat it, but throw it all around the car” risk…

Mostly, though, it depends on what the kid likes. And doesn’t that change all the time?

We try to pack both sweet and salty snacks, as well as healthy and not that healthy.

Our go-to snacks for road trips with Emma are: cut-up veggies (radish, cucumber, and carrot lately) and fruit (banana, apple), some corn cracker things, snack bars, and occasionally some chocolate or something else sweet. For now, it’s worked.

5. Toys and entertainment

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Did I say snacks and drinks are the big ones? I might have been wrong. Toys and entertainment are even more important road trip essentials for kids, as they will help keep the parents sane until the end of the day.

For toys, during road trips, it’s much less about being educational and developing, but more about how long the toy can keep the kid busy.

Some blogs suggest that you should get special toys for trips, or get a new toy for each trip, but we found out that that doesn’t really work that well for Emma. She likes to learn and explore the toys, but that’s not so easy in a car seat.

Make sure to not pack things with you that have small details – we made this mistake last time when following the “new toy for the trip” advice and bought that magnetic fishing board thing for Emma. Well, let’s just say, the toy didn’t last too long because all the pieces went into the black hole of the car between the seat and the door.

What worked, though, was a magnetic drawing board.

Other things that have worked are some rattling toys, sensory ones like those animals that you can attach to the stroller, and (we’re lucky Emma isn’t car sick, tfutfu) – books.

Ah, and the winner for the last few months has been a pop-it toy. Say whatever you want about them, but they work.

If your kid is already older, you can play some road trip games like finding different colour things around them. Or get a road trip travel diary on Amazon for different road trip activities and places to write down their impressions.

And now the most controversial advice of them all – get a Netflix, YouTube Premium, Amazon Prime, or whatever other subscription that lets you download videos for watching offline and use it when whatever else fails. Remember, your sanity is the most important road trip essential for your kid.

6. The favourite toy

Or the paci, and a few extra pacis, if your kid uses them.

If you did forget, turn back.

The tantrum is just not worth it, right?

7. Hygiene items that will help keep everything clean and tidy (-ish)

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Wet napkins, paper napkins, burp cloth, trash bags, ziplock bags, sick bag, disinfectant wipes

A nice list I have there, huh?

Wet napkins will help keep everything clean. And I mean everything – the kid, you, the car, and whatever the kid touches outside. The water wipes are the best. Disinfectant wipes are good to have as well, as kids tend to touch… everything.

Paper napkins? Good for running noses which tend to happen at the most random of times.

And we use a burp cloth because generally they are thinner than a towel and dry faster as well, especially the muslin ones. That means that if some water spills, it’s easier to wipe it up with a burp cloth than paper napkins.

I take both trash bags and ziplock bags with us for the trash. Banana skins and apple cores tend to smell up the car really quickly (let’s not even talk about diapers, haha), so it’s better to pack them in the ziplock bag. I use just general ones that can be bought in Ikea, and they work really well.

As for the sick bag – just a normal plastic bag that is big enough and can survive until the closest possible parking spot. After being thrown up on a couple of times, you kind of learn to pack it… The sick bag is especially important if anyone in your family suffers from motion sickness.

8. Change of clothes within easy reach, not in the suitcase

See above about being thrown up on.

Take a change of clothes for both you and the kid in case there’s an accident that requires changing quickly. Again, speaking from experience here.

Definitely make sure you can quickly access the clothes. Once, Michal had to pretty much unpack half of the car just so he could reach my clothes in the suitcase. In the meantime, I was standing in a toilet in a very crowded gas station on a highway in Poland with vomit all over me.

Did I mention it was in January?

Well, at least Emma had her change of clothes in the diaper bag, lucky kid.

9. Potty

Whether it’s a travel potty or just a normal one, it’s nice to have it within easy reach for that “mummy, I need to pee now”. It doesn’t matter when the kid was potty trained or when they went the last time – if they need to pee, you better stop and act quickly.

We’ve had this happen on a highway, so it was really helpful to have the potty within easy reach. While Michal was looking for the nearest stop (we got lucky, it was close), I prepared the potty on the back seat. As soon as he stopped, I took Emma out of the car seat and put her to pee.

Road trip essentials for kids who still use a diaper – in a bag to easily take with you

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  • Diapers + wet napkins
  • Diaper rash cream
  • Changing mat
  • Ziplock bag for dirty diapers
  • Formula/milk
  • Extra clothes
  • A toy
  • Drink
  • Snacks

Doesn’t necessarily need to be in the diaper bag even. On most of our family road trips, I was using a normal backpack, as it had my laptop which I didn’t want to leave in the car.

But anyways, make sure to have the diapers, wet napkins, diaper cream, and the changing mat in the bag.

Many places, at least in Europe, whether it’s a gas station or a restaurant, don’t have changing stations in the bathrooms. I’ve had to change Emma by holding her in my arms, in the car, or on a seat by the picnic table. In these cases, a toy is an absolute essential.

As for extra clothes – see above. Just have it with you, better safe than sorry.

The food stuff is very useful to have in the diaper bag just in case something takes longer than necessary or for quick stops to see things.

Essential advice on making the road trip with kids as enjoyable as possible

There are just some things that you learn when you have driven a few times with your kid. You learn when to go, what is important to take and what can remain, and how much your kid can survive.

Put the kid in not-warm clothes and use blankets instead when needed

kid in a car seat road trip essentials for kids
The fewer clothes, the better. Plus, you can see that this kid has a cooling insert in the car seat. /Image by ©Jaspe via

The fewer clothes on, the better – even in winter.

It gets warm in the car quite quickly, and even quicker for the kid who is all snuggled up in a car seat.

Just put a blanket on top of the seatbelts and take it off when it gets warm enough in the car.

That’s easier than finding a place to stop, taking the kid out, undressing them, putting them back in, and driving on. Just an unneeded hassle.

Sit in the back seat with young kids

For the rides that take less than an hour I sit in the front of the car, but for the longer ones, I’m in the back with Emma. Honestly, we’ve found that for 40 minutes she’s ok but not more for now (she’s only 2, though).

When a kid is in a car seat, they can’t possibly reach the things that would entertain them, or food and snacks, which means you’d have to either lean back or stop often.

And it’s just more interesting and entertaining for them when you can interact normally instead of turning back all the time.

Let them nap whenever

This is another controversial opinion of mine, and it might not work for you, obviously.

Of course, if the ride is relatively short, we try to depart around her nap time – Emma sleeps in the car, and for the rest of the ride just plays or watches a cartoon or whatever. But if we plan to drive for the whole day, I let her nap whenever.

Car rides are tiring. They just are. So I let Emma nap whenever she looks sleepy without too much thought so that she doesn’t become a little overtired monster.

Make sure to plan a lot of breaks – as a minimum every two hours

girl looking out the window
Image by ©Rido via

Remember that the children shouldn’t sit in the car seat for longer than 2 hours in a row as it’s not safe, so plan your breaks at a maximum of 2h of driving.

To be fair, we don’t plan breaks, per se. When it’s coming to be around 2 hours of driving, we just stop at the nearest rest spot. (Well, it is one of the basic road trip safety tips, even if you’re driving without kids).

Or if Emma is getting restless even after only an hour of driving, we stop.

The same for lunch or any other serious non-snack food time – we don’t stop at specifically the 2 hours.

And, by the way, plan for a 30-minute break if it’s just a stop and longer if it’s a lunch/food stop.

On that note…

Add at least 2 hours for every 6 hours of driving time that google maps show

When checking Google Maps to see how long the drive would take, we add some 2 hours to know how long the day would be.

Of course, that’s an average time window. For the last road trip, it was actually 3 hours longer – so we spent 10 hours on the road instead of 7 because Emma couldn’t sit at the end and no amount of screen time helped. We just had to stop like every 30 minutes so that she didn’t scream the head off.

Road trip essentials for kids – some last words

So, these are my main road trip essentials for kids.

Road trips with them are not easy. Honestly, it’s so much harder than we thought it will be.

But, when you learn what the kid needs and what helps them keep calm and happy, you can make the road trips so much more enjoyable!

In the end, it’s soooo worth it to get these memories with the children.

What are your road trip essentials for kids?

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