How to organize your car for your family road trip

How you organize your car for your family road trip is the most important planning step for a successful cross country trip with kids. I repeat. This is the most important part of your road trip! 

No matter what type of vehicle you are taking cross country, you need to organize your car ahead of time. Whether you have a small sedan, an SUV or a full RV; your vehicle is where you will be spending all your time on your road, so it has to function like a well oiled machine. Break your vehicle up into different zones. Back, middle and front. Or, luggage, kids and grown-ups. 

The Luggage Zone:

We will start the planning for how to organize your car for your road trip at the back of the vehicle with the luggage. A cross country trip affords you a little extra wiggle room with packing, where you’re not limited to airline overhead space and checked bags, but you still need to pack smart. Plan for enough clothes for the first half of your trip, with a laundry day once you reach your destination (hopefully a house or super cool updated motel that’s family friendly with laundry facilities). One suitcase per person typically suffices. Consider keeping a “go-bag” in the car which has just the necessities for an overnight stay so you don’t have to fully unpack the car to pop into really cool retro motel along the way. Pack PJ’s, one comfortable outfit per person/day on the road and toiletries in the smaller go-bag and you can leave the larger suitcases in the car, assuming it’s a safe and secure parking lot. If it looks like crime could be an issue, go ahead and bring everything in with you. 

Organize your clothes planning by making a whiteboard list while packing and count out the number of days you will be traveling. Divide that by two, then plan for your outfits. I like to get my kids involved in having them help count out the number of socks, leggings, shirts, etc. we will need and let them help pack their own suitcase. It’s a great way to teach them about planning and organization, and to get them excited about the trip. 

Pre-plan any nice outings you will have along the way and pack a couple of outfits that will fit the occasion. Consider a family hanging bag that can lay over top your luggage to avoid wrinkles in your nicer garments. While I’m mentioning your pre-planned outings, go ahead and make dinner reservations to those hard to get into restaurants or purchase tickets to that cool event you are planning to attend. Print out all tickets and keep them in a secure pocket in your luggage or a dedicated travel folio. 

To plan for fitting everything in the car, plan to organize your suitcases for your family road trip first. Suitcases work best laying flat in the trunk space, and duffle bags sit nicely on top. Keep the back window free and clear of bags if possible so you have plenty of visibility while driving. Other loose items like coats, hats and blankets can easily lay over top the bags as well. 

The Kid Zone:

For the kid zone, you want to give this space ample consideration. The key to organizing a successful road trip with your kids is giving them everything they need to be self sufficient while passing the hours on the road all the while ensuring their safety and comfort. 

Hello, Sun!

While road tripping, you are going to battle the sun. It’s completely out of your control how brightly it shines into your little ones window (though they may not understand that) so first and foremost, be prepared with a sun shade for each back passenger window, and preferably one you can position as needed around the front of the car as well. There’s nothing more upsetting to a child than having the sun in their eyes for what seems like an eternity. 

For the sleepy

We like to get up and go early in the morning (my husband really has a thing for driving at 5:00 am) so comfortable sleeping in the car is a key consideration. When kids are in full carseats, they are comfortably cradled and can fall asleep easily while staying in a safe riding position. Once your child has graduated to a backless booster, it’s nearly impossible for them to sleep sitting straight up, but unsafe to have them slump over and lean on the car door or lay down completely. To solve this problem, we purchased detachable headrest supports on Amazon that make everything right in the world. Simply attach the paddle like wings to your existing headrest support and your child can comfortably rest their head and sleep sitting up when they need to. They work great for grown ups, too.

Allow your kids to pack a couple of creature comforts so they feel warm and cozy. A small blanket and a stuffed animal or small pillow will help keep them content while hanging out in the car all day. Don’t let them go overboard with blankets and stuffed animals though, as they really do get in the way while getting in and out of the car. 

Let them be entertained

Pack a small basket that sits within reach of your kids for their entertainment zone. We have a rule of no loose paper in the car as it ends up crumpled up on the floor or getting torn up into pieces, which drives me nuts. When planning for our entertainment basket, here are some of our favorite things:

  • A map of your route with key stops labeled – We make this the front cover of the kids binder (see next item)
  • ½” ring binder with a small stack of plain printer paper and printed out car activities – Search Pinterest for Kids Road Trip printouts for fun coloring pages and games to print off for free
  • Letter size dry erase boards (attach a zippered pouch to the back with dry erase markers that have erasers on the top)
  • A handful of coloring and activity books
  • Scratch off doodle books
  • Where’s Waldo books
  • Scavenger Hunt for Kids Card Game
  • Reading books (chapter books for elementary and older kids, picture books for younger kids)
  • Zipper pouch of crayons
  • Electronic entertainment (I.e. A Kindle or iPad)
  • Mini backpack of small(ish) toys like little dolls or cars
  • Kids camera
  • Small cross body bag with little notebook and multicolored pen. The multicolored pen—the type with a bunch of colors you can push to activate—is awesome for restaurants when they bring out paper menus for the kids but are out of crayons – it happens all the time! Tip: restock the kids paper supply at each hotel with the pads of paper by the telephones. 

Electronics

We try to keep electronic media to a minimum but let’s be realistic with ourselves. When sitting in the car for 7 hours, a movie is in order at some point. All devices should be fully charged and have a dedicated charging cord readily available if the device needs a mid-movie recharge. Also, download a variety of movies and/or games to your device as internet is spotty when you are on the road. We only access downloaded content and turn off all other options for our kids as it mitigates frustration along the way when Wi-Fi isn’t available or cooperating. If you have two or more kids with multiple devices, you can load a variety of content across the devices and have them trade out to maximize downloaded storage capacity on each device. Pack headphones for each kid as well so you can keep the music playing in the car while the kids are happily entertained. 

Kid backpacks

We get our kids involved in organizing the car for family travel, too! Before we leave for our trip, we give each of our kids their mini travel backpack – these are smaller than their school backpacks and fit just the right amount of toys for the road. This is the one we have and they have held up great for several years and are the perfect size. We let them fill their backpacks with toys for the trip. The only rule we have is nothing too tiny. Tiny things (think mini Shopkins or micro mini cars) tend to get lost under seats, in hotel rooms or when getting out of the car. We encourage things like Barbies or pretend play action figures. Hang their small backpack on the back of the seat in front of them so they can easily reach their toys, and encourage them to put them up when done playing. That way the backseat stays organized the whole trip with plenty of fun things at their fingertips. 

We equip our kids with inexpensive kids cameras for trips and love watching them look out the window and take photos along the way. Small cross body bags are perfect for toting the cameras around town, along with a small notebook and multicolored pen – perfect for mealtime entertainment and jotting down fun memories along the way! 

The grown-up zone

The most critical area of the car for organizing your successful family road trip is the grown-up zone, AKA, the front seat. This is Command Central. Clean out any unnecessary glove box items leaving only your car insurance and AAA cards, and any other must have items, and send everything else to the trunk or remove completely. Empty your center console if you have one as well. You want to fully maximize all available storage compartments for snacks and road resources. 

Trash, runny noses and sticky fingers

Pack a small box of 1 gallon trash bags that you can stash in your doors lower pocket. These will come in handy collecting trash from snacks along the way. Go for the unscented kind, as the scented bags are really overpowering in the small space of the car (trust me on that!).

Pack a small travel case of facial tissue, unscented hand wet wipes and plain dry napkins. I keep these types of things in my center console along with all chargers for devices such as phones, tablets and cameras. 

Coffee

Bring a good insulated travel coffee mug for the grown-ups that will keep you fueled for the road for hours on end. We’ve tried all the brands of travel mugs, and this one is by far our favorite. It doesn’t leak, can be washed in the dishwasher, is super sleek and your drink will stay hot (or cold) well into the next day. It’s pretty much amazing. If you bring your own mug, you can have coffee shops make your coffee in your travel mug so you cut down on waste and car trash and your drink stays hotter than a traditional paper cup. (Side note: if you are at any point heading into a large public event like a parade, concert or sports event, leave your your nice travel mug in the car as security may make you toss it out… even if  you beg and plead.. been there, done that).

Snacks

Pack snacks, and plenty of them! Think healthy, low in sugar and nutrient dense. You want your snacks to work for you, not against you. The goal is to satisfy your family and help them stay calm. If you load your kids up on sugary snacks while they are strapped into a car for hours, it’s not giving their body the opportunity to burn off that extra sugar and it will work against you. 

We like to work in fruits, nuts and grains while in the car. For our fruity treats, we pack Solely Fruit Jerky which provides a whole piece of fruit and oftentimes nuts with each strip.  My personal favorite is the banana and pecan, where my husband opts for mango. The kids love them, too. We also pick up the Whole Foods 365 Organic Fruit Strips for the kiddos. Applesauce packs are another favorite choice for our kids in the car. They are small enough that they stack well in little car pouches and do well in mild temperatures. We did make the mistake of leaving them in the car overnight in the -1 temperatures in Flagstaff, AZ and came out to a bunch of frozen applesauce pouches. They eventually thawed and were just fine though. For a snack that will really satiate the hunger, we pack loads of granola bars. Not the super crunchy type that are prone to creating a carseat full of crumbs, but rather the Made Good brand of granola bars that are soft and deliciously healthy.

Organize snacks in the glove compartment, side door pockets and center console. If you plan to only stop for breakfast and lunch at a local diner or deli, and arrive at your destination before dinner, snacks will help carry you through the remainder of your journey and avoid drive-thrus and gas station snacking along the way. You can feel good about giving your family a full piece of fruit or healthy granola bar as opposed to deep fried drive-thru items or gas station food. Make sure you have a lidded cup with a straw for each kid (we love the kids stainless cups with silicone lids from Amazon) and have a couple of water bottles for the grown ups stashed in your door as well. 

Ok, you’ve learned how to successfully organize your car for your family road trip! You’re ready to go, now it’s time to get packing! 

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