On the Road: Packing for the Family Road Trip

Summer is finally here! And so is that time-honored tradition: the family road trip.

Whether you’re hitting the road because it’s cheaper than flying or because you want to show your kids the beauty of the country, the one thing you probably dread about a road trip is packing. Unless you have an RV with unlimited space, knowing what to pack can be confusing, esp. if your spouse or kids demand that they be able to take every little thing they “might” need. There are some general guidelines you can follow to make sure that you have what you need and a few things that your family wants too.

General Packing Tips

Several weeks before your trip you should set some rules with your family. You’ll need to have your general packing plan in place so that you know how much space is available for each family member. Then clearly tell them your rules — and, yes, you and your spouse have to abide by the same limits:

  1. How many changes of clothing each is allowed (both for the road part of the vacation and the destination, as the weather may be decidedly different at different stages of the trip).
  2. How much entertainment they may pack. This may include tablets, smartphones, toys, DVDs for the car player, etc.
  3. How many snack items they are allotted. This includes both cooler snacks, like yogurt cups and dried goods like granola bars and fruit strips.
  4. Clearly list what they are responsible for packing themselves and which luggage they are allowed.

A few suggestions. Give each family member a book bag or small pack that will hold all their entertainment items for the trip. Get color-coded bags or label them so everyone knows which is theirs. Consider having a small lunch box or bag for each family member to keep in the car as well. This will hold their snacks for the day, so there will be no fighting over who ate whose granola bar or bag of chips.

Packing List

Every family will have a different packing list. Your destination, length of trip, number of family members, weather conditions, etc., will impact what you need. If you plan your packing around the following, you’ll have a good chance of not forgetting anything:

  • Clothing — limit how much clothing each family member can bring based on how much space there is in the suitcases. Remember to take into account different weather conditions at different legs of your journey.
  • Cooler — experienced road trippers know you need one big cooler for the back of the vehicle for large items and meal prep like sandwich meats or tubs of cut veggies and pre-made salads. You’ll also want a smaller cooler in the front or middle of the vehicle. This will hold just enough drinks and snacks for a given leg of travel. You can refill it at a rest stop or gas station.
  • Meal Kits — paper plates, napkins, plastic utensils, etc. Tailor the kit to the food you’re taking with you and keep it all in one big ziploc bag.
  • Itinerary — it’s good to have some sort of GPS device. If your car doesn’t have one, there’s probably one on your phone or tablet. You should also invest in a good road atlas. Get the big picture of your route and consult when the phone is out of range (it does happen, esp. if you’re exploring a scenic back road route). Apps — In addition to a good GPS, you can load up your device with other useful apps. Some to consider: weather, compass, elevation reader, mileage trackers, and apps for finding rest stops, gas stations, and roadside attractions on your route. You should also spend some time before hitting the road making sure your kids have appropriate games, music, and even books downloaded on their devices so they aren’t using your data on the road.
  • Adapters and Chargers — All those devices need charging. Make sure everyone has the chargers, earbuds, and adapters needed for their phones, tablets, iPods, etc.
  • Emergency Kit — You need two emergency kits. The first is for your car and should have a flashlight, tire repair kit, flare, etc.  You should also check your car’s first aid kit (you do have one, right?). Replace outdated items and replenish the supply of bandages and other first aid items as needed.
  • Clean up Kit — a small box or tub that slides under the seat can be used to hold trash bags, paper towels, wet wipes, and even a stain stick for quickly treating stains on the upholstery or your kids’ clothing. Don’t forget to have a plan for dirty laundry too. Toss an extra garbage bag in your suitcase or an actual laundry bag in the back of the car. It’ll make it easier to do laundry when you get home, or on the road if needed.

Now You’re Ready to Hit the Road!

Packing for a road trip is a lot of work. Having a clear plan, with guidelines for every family member and clear checklists to make sure everything makes it to the car is key. Better to invest the time now to minimize the stress in the days leading up to the trip. With a good system in place, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy the road.

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