What are the essential things to bring on a road trip? A road trip checklist for families
There’s never been a better time to hit the road and explore by car. When it comes to planning a great family road trip, what do you need to think of beyond plotting your route?
Getting you and your car ready for a long road trip, we’re sharing with you here all the gear we have found helpful to have with us on the road when travelling with kids. Some are nice to have, especially if you’re able to use your own car, others are essentials that we couldn’t survive without, and of course, some items are mandatory for safety.
Let’s get you set and ready for your next family road trip!
This post is part of our family road trip series and our essential packing lists for all your family travel needs.
Road Tripper Resources
Before we dive into your road trippers essential packing list for families, you may also be interested in:
45 Essential items to pack road tripping with kids
Before you go – car safety checks
Before hitting the open road there are some essential maintenance issues you need to be sure you’ve taken care of. Some are simple checks, but you may want to see a mechanic before a long drive to make sure everything is in good shape:
Wheels – have your ties got enough tread, wheel balancing and enough air? Make sure your spare tire is inspected too! Always keep a jack in your car.
Vehicle maintenance – Check your breaks, wipers, lights, oil and air filter change, water and wiper fluid levels, coolant, battery and of course, a full tank of fuel.
Vehicle registration – make sure for vehicle registration does not expire while you’re on your journey!
Clean your car inside and out – yeah, we know it’s gonna get filthy regardless, but let’s start with a clean slate!
And for rental cars
The above care and maintenance issues should already be taken care of by your rental car company, but as a driver, you have responsibilities too:
Inspect the car’s bodywork – it’s vital that you check the condition of the vehicle before you drive it off the lot. This includes even the tiniest of bumps and scratches. Photograph and video anything you think may be an issue as the excess charge on even a tiny bump that you may not have caused can be excruciating.
Check for included extras – will you be getting any car seats, inbuilt GPS system? These can save you in transporting around many extras getting to your road trip destination.
(NB hiring a car for several weeks its almost certainly cheaper to bring your own car seats – make sure you use an appropriate car seat protector bag when transporting car seats to your destination)
Road trip essentials for your car
One of the most important things to check you have in place before a long road trip. Check your personal car or travel insurance covers not only you and any other car but a personal liability as well – some countries are more litigious than others! (NB travelling more than 30 days? Check you’re adequately covered!!)
Separate from your insurance which is for accidents, what happens if you get a puncture or the car starts to overheat, who ya gonna call? This will vary widely by country.
If you’re renting, your rental company may cover you, otherwise, look to take out a policy with good coverage for the area you’ll be travelling to.
Licence and registration please! Be prepared in the event of any mishaps to show proof of ownership/rental contracts, plus your own valid driver’s license.
An important road trip essential, check if your driver’s licence is accepted at your destination or will an international drivers licence be required?
Also, check your car’s manual is kept in your glove compartment or somewhere in your car – you never know when things may go wrong and you have no internet connection!
I can’t tell you how much we have fallen in love with this navigation app (Google Play | App Store)! If there’s one upgrade, you make to plain old Google Maps THIS.IS.IT! You can have a play with the free version, but it only allows you 7 stops – once you see how powerful it is, you’ll want more!!
Grab yourself the Plus Version of Roadtrippers and you have unlimited use of their trip planning tools, navigation, live traffic, offline maps and more ad-free (our full review coming soon). Globetrotter readers can get $5 off here! Code: BTR5QTP
NB – currently only detailed maps are available on Roadtrippers for USA, Canada, Australia & NZ
Hands up who doesn’t use their cell phone not just for maps, but music, photos, messaging family. Some even take phone calls on them! Road tripping for long hours can drain your battery fast so make sure you have it plugged in with a car charger.
Most cars now have a purpose-made USB socket for phone chargers this (or a USB adaptor that can fit in the lighter socket on older cars). Just check if you need USB, USB C or a combination of both + the cord to plug your smartphone in!
Car phone holder
If your navigation systems is not built-in to your car and you’re using maps it’s essential you can easily see these without taking your eyes off the road.
A car phone holder need not be an expensive addition, something simple like this can do the job and keep your eyes safely where they should be. However, many holders now come with the phone charger built-in so you can kill two birds at once with fewer gadgets just spending a couple of dollars more.
Windshield sun shade
Especially when road tripping in the summer of hotter climates you’ll be so thankful for one of these. There are some which just cover your dash and gear sticks, whilst others are designed to cover the whole front windscreen while you’re parked up in the sun – remember larger SUVs you need a specialised fit.
Don’t forget your side windows too. Your best option are sunshades that can suction to your child’s window will help keep them happy too. Remember SUV’s and larger cars to get a larger shade to fill the whole window.
De-icer & scraper
Conversely, in colder climates or areas prone to frost you may need to de-ice your car before you set off – this includes scrapping as well as removing internal moisture.
Emergency car kit
Even with roadside assist, there may be a few running repairs you can take care of yourself. Consider packing your own jumper leads, spare bulbs, small torch, screwdriver and tape – or even easier, invest in an emergency kit. Get something small enough it can tuck in your wheel arch and not take up valuable trunk space.
Crossing UK to the EU? Important extra car safety considerations for EU travel
Road trip essentials for your family
If you’re anything like us with a burgeoning trunk and bags under our feet, you know how messy and chaotic the car can get! Here are the travel essentials and personal items we keep within easy reach for a safe and comfortable journey.
First Aid Kit
Yup, anywhere you’re headed with kids we know just how important it is to bring a basic first aid kit along. We talk in much greater detail about what gets packed in our family first aid kit over here.
Tissues & water wipes
Always a good idea, both wet and dry tissues/wipes are your first line of defence on a road trip! Snotty noses to spills you will go through a TONNE of these! Have handy supplies in the front and back of your vehicle.
Garbage bag system
And where do all those snotty tissues go, snack wrappers? Usually, a supermarket plastic bag will do as a collection point but make sure you DO set up a designated spot (big cars front and back) so the kids become responsible for cleaning up after themselves – for a nicer look try something like this.
Everyone in the family should have access to a water bottle throughout to prevent dehydration – but pro trip – don’t make them huge! Cue constant toilet stops…
Reusable coffee mugs
Almost compulsory road-tripping Australia in the battle against eliminating single-use plastics, our travel coffee cups and coffee thermoses come EVERYWHERE now! I started with a classy looking Keep Cup, but we’ve moved hard core now with insulated travel mugs with spill-proof lids – superb for keeping coffee warm long after it’s purchased!
Did someone say SNACKS! Why wasn’t this #1 on the list! Our regular followers will know our obsession with the need for snacks travelling with kids; air travel to dealing with delays, hiking and yes on road trips!
Seeking snack inspiration? Here are our top 30 Healthy snack ideas for your next road trip from granola bars to fruity favourites (+ try these homemade high energy snack ideas if you’ll be hitting the trails)
Even on a cloudy day sun glare when you’re driving can be an issue. Make sure the driver especially has some good 100% UV protection sunglasses and all passengers may well want a pair too. (This is something it never hurts to keep a spare of in the globe box too)
Be it road tolls, parking meters, paying tips. One of the most basic things that’s easy to forget as we move towards a cashless society. It’s always handy to keep loose change in your car for those emergency occasions.
Road trip essentials for entertainment & comfort
Now that we’ve got all the safety and travel essentials sorted out, how do we get cosy and entertained?
A neck pillow
One of the most important things for your little passengers is to get everyone comfy. For our kids, once they were outgrowing their snug infant car seats it meant dealing with that head wobble!
Depending on the comfort level you’re seeking, this can be solved with a simple seat belt cosy, or get a good kids travel pillow (our Bcozzys have literally travelled the world! They clip on to their back backs and we use them for planes, car journeys, trains, you name it!)
Music, Audio books, podcast
Most of us have our entertainment on our smartphones these days rather than needing another portable player, try Spotify Premium or Music Unlimited on Amazon.
You may also like to try audiobooks or podcasts. Getting one to please the whole family with mixed age groups and interests can be a challenge though – we look in much greater detail at great family podcasts here, and our selection of the best audiobooks for road trips here.
Very important for a family road trip, right behind snacks! Whether it’s keeping your toddler engaged or something for the older kids, we have a comprehensive guide to travel toys for all ages here – and really detailed lists for every age group to try.
Don’t forget a few items for roadside stops too. A small frisbee is super easy to slip in a car, or if you’re on a coastal drive flying a kite along a beach is one of our kid’s all-time favorites.
Long gone are the days where I feel the need to fight kids screen addiction. We DO have legs of our road trips that we call out as no-electronics but having traversed the 4-hour drive (both ways) to grandma & grandad’s house a dozen times, I’m happy for them to have a tablet if it keeps them engaged and not fighting.
Just be mindful of what apps and downloads you might need in and advance if there’s no wifi or data available. Also, think about how this will be held in the car. We hate having their noses glued to the screen so consider a seat back car holder for tablets or combine it with a car seat travel tray that can also hold toys and drinks
And the next essential is therefore headphones! There’s nothing worse than being distracted by said electronics so I’m a strict headphone only mama! If kids want to listen to a device together, consider getting a headphone splitter.
Remember toddlers need special headphone’s that are noise limiting and fit smaller heads – while tweens and teens may prefer earbuds or headphones that are noise cancelling.
With a family, you will quickly run out of USB plug points in the car for all your devices (driver always wins!). The easiest way to solve this dilemma is to have a spare battery pack tucked away.
We’ve found this 20,000 mAh battery pack brilliant for catering for the whole family on long road trips (it’s always the winner in the “who gets to use the powerpoint first” battle when we get to our accommodation!!), alternatively, a smaller battery charger and cord each if you don’t want any charger wars en route.
In addition to the kids own toys, it’s a great idea to have plenty of word and knowledge games you can play without any accessories. Especially now our kids are all school age, we’ve moved beyond simple I-spy to much more fun “would you rather” and alphabet games.
We have a bumper list of family travel games you can try here.
This may depend if you’re flying and hiring away from home or driving domestically. Keeping your car organized can be a huge help. Try these ones for your visor, or these are great options that hang off the back of the front seats.
Road trip essentials for roadside stops, picnics & outings
Especially when travelling with small children, regular rest stops are essential; be it a quick loo break and leg stretch at a gas station, or taking on a longer hike or sightseeing en route. Here’s what we recommend you have packed ready for those short trips away from your vehicle.
Goes without saying, right? It comes everywhere these days, with every child having one clipped to their own day packs, plus the first aid kit, the purse! We like to buy a bulk bottle of sanitiser to save, then we refill their cute novelty clip on every day or two while traveling.
Equally important, before we eat anywhere new or touching anything in public places (bar playgrounds – it just becomes impossible then) a good wipe down with a sanitising wipe will do the job.
Regardless of the rules in your location, a mask in this post-COVID world is a sensible idea for all members of your family old enough to wear one. Remember you are moving from one destination to another taking whatever you have with you, play it safe in 2021.
A small day bag
No big bulky backpacks with all their toys. For short day trips, it’s best, if possible, to get down to one family day bag. We love Osprey for day bags including a drink pocket, but small enough it doesn’t weigh us down.
If you’re hitting longer trail stops or hikes along your way, then check out our complete hiking with kids packing list.
Quick meals don’t go wasting plastic cutlery, even if you’re getting take away we’ve got the whole family equipped now with their own straws for drinks and an easy set of cutlery – just give them a good sani-wipe down when you’re finished. We love these metal sets as we have a different colour for everyone!
Fresh foods won’t withstand a full days car journey without being chilled. We normally have a larger cooler box in the trunk (Esky in the boot for my Aussie followers!) and a small cooler kept in the car with fresh snacks and drinks for that leg of the journey. Some soft ice packs we find are better than ice when travelling, then we re-chill at the next overnight motor stop.
We love a padded picnic blanket when we’re road tripping close to home and have space, but when road tripping overseas, we find these ultralight waterproof and sand-proof blankets do the trick perfectly well and are real space savers.
Small cooking stove
I thought this was an elaborate extra – well a fussy family with 3/5 who won’t eat a plain old sandwich – the stove has been an awesome solution for quick heat ready meals. It comes overnight camping with us too!! If you’re looking for “meal in one” ideas that need very little prep, just heating, check out our favourites here.
Sunscreen & Mozzie/Bug spray
Especially in the summer, it doesn’t take long out of the car to catch the sun. And nothing ruins your roadside stop more than bugs, mozzies, midges – you name it – hanging around your picnic. We always keep a bottle of Babyganics Bug Spray in our roadside stop bag, plus some sunscreen and lip balm.
Conversely, winter road trips are likely to require some sort of rain protection. Don’t skimp on the necessity to stop just because it’s raining; pack some lightweight, waterproof rain ponchos, or get coats on everyone and get out there and stretch those legs still!
Ditto an umbrella, even if it’s for dashing out for gas stops in inclement weather or doing the supplies stop at the grocery store, an umbrella will prevent you from feeling unpleasantly soaked for the next few hours of your trip. Something that easily collapses and can fit in the car door is best.
If there’s a beach, a lake, or even just a sprinkler, you can be certain our Globetrotters will find it straight away! We always take with us in the car a few quick-dry towels ready for such occasions (plus one kept in our day packs – we’ve all got that one child who find every puddle!!)
If you’ll be making a proper beach stop on your journey, you’ll want our complete beach essentials packing list too.
Previously we packed one of these for those little accidents, but these days far more used for emergency sandcastle building! Another super slim and easy addition that you’ll find has many uses.
Fold out shopping bags
These shopping bags fold up so small you honestly won’t notice you’ve got them in your bag or slip them in your car door for when need be at roadside stops. A basic thing but so easy to forget, these are essential for playing your part in cutting out plastic bag waste (except maybe when we need a new car garbage bag!)
Looking at making overnight camp stops? If you’re camping on your road trip you’ll want to head over and grab our family camping checklist too.
Road trip essentials babies and toddlers
In addition to all the items we’ve suggested above, babies and toddlers bring all sorts of new challenges and needs for road trips! Here’s what you should consider when travelling with babies and toddlers.
(Don’t forget to also head over to our detailed guides for baby road trips and surviving road trips with a toddler)
It goes absolutely without saying that every young child needs a child safety restraint. Child seats work on your child’s size though check regulations in the state/country you are visiting on the exact requirements – some countries are much stricter than others on what class of car seat is acceptable, and if you’re flying to your destination, this may alter your decision on what type of car seat to travel with.
You may also want a cover for your infant seat during roadside breaks or to keep the sun shining in their eyes during the journey – we look at summer and winter infant capsule covers here.
Especially if your child is still in a rear-facing car seat, it can be difficult to see what they’re doing from the front or what might be distressing them. A car seat mirror will give you that added peace of mind.
Quick change diaper kit
For those still at the diaper stage, you’ll want a quick and easy to grab pack – including diapers, wipes, disposable baggies and diaper cream. Your larger travel diaper bag can stay in the trunk unless there’s a major disaster.
When needs must… This is a challenging time with toddlers but we know sometimes the timing of this stage cannot be helped. When bathrooms are not readily available and kids aren’t happy just taking a roadside squat, these simple travel potties may give them the confidence and you can easily take the mess away with you.
We have a detailed guide here for coping with the potty training stage and travel.
Another essential especially at your newly toilet trained stage – though don’t be surprised if these come in handy for some years, they put an extra layer of protection and are much easier to machine wash at your next stop than removing the urine smell from a car seat.
Pro Tip – when packing the trunk in a delicate act of Tetris, we always keep the kids’ suitcase nearest to the top; if emergency clothing changes are needed its the first we can grab
Car seat protectors
Frequent use of children’s car seats can damage your car’s interior. One solution for this is to use full car seat protectors that sit under your car seat. They will prevent indents to leather seats and work great for crumbs and liquid spills too.
Portable bottle warmer
If your little one needs their bottles warm you’ll be grateful for having a plugin travel bottle warmer. If you are travelling with expressed milk, keep your bottles fresh with a specially insulated bottle cooler, then warm them up while you drive and feed bubs at your next stop.
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