Road Trip Essentials To Keep Kids Occupied, Organized, and Comfortable
The route is mapped out, the car is gassed (or charged) up, and endless interstate adventures are waiting for you at every toll booth. Road trips with kids can mean miles of smiles, or miles of boredom, tummy aches, and constant refrains of “are we there yet.” We much prefer the former, so we’re relying on these road trip essentials to keep the whole gang happy for hours on the highway.
In a pinch, don't forget about these old-school road trip games you probably played in the backseat, too. 'I Spy,' anyone? License Plate game?
In compiling the items below, we sourced recommendations from our team of parents, as well as our awesome readers, and you guys really came through! So many of you chimed in, with must-haves like lollipops to serve as a distraction and to alleviate car sickness, barf bags for the worst case scenarios, trivia cards to keep young brains active, Tylenol (for us and them!), a change of clothes in the glove box, and portable chargers, just to name a few. And of course, we all know to pack all the favorite road trip snacks. Just — all of them. Right? While this certainly isn't an exhaustive list of family road trip essentials, we tried to cover all our bases with old favorites, some things you may have never heard of, and the stuff you know you need, but always manage to forget.
Road Trip Essentials to Keep Your Kids Organized
Empty wrappers strewn about, water bottles rolling under the seat, and that missing blue crayon can spell big headaches for parents and kids crammed into a minivan for several hours. Organization is key in the limited space of any car, and having a place and a plan for everyone’s belongings makes a huge difference on long trips. Avoid unwanted spills, smells, and extra roadside stops with these essentials.
1. Travel Tray
The Lusso Gear Kids Travel Tray allows your little one to set up their own mini office right in their lap, with a tablet holder, whiteboard desk, and multiple storage pockets. This tray is especially great for kids in car seats, and older kids can use it too. We love the multitasking functionality –– it’s setup allows for viewing a movie and drawing a picture at the same time if they want, all while keeping snacks and drinks within reach.
An alternative, or better yet a companion, to the lap tray is the Lusso Gear Backseat Organizer. It comes with the same convenient storage compartments and a sleeve for electronic devices, slung over the back of the driver’s or passenger’s seat, so that your kids have access right in front of them. If you have multiple children, the organizer is great for one child if another has a tray. In addition to protection from scuff marks, eliminating those toddler kicks that rattle your spine every few minutes is a huge bonus.
Clutter is the last thing you want in a tight space for hours at a time, and the scent of everyone’s rest stop lunch filling the air can be nauseating. Rid your vehicle of trash and odor with the EPAuto Waterproof Car Trash Can. It can be mounted in a few different locations, has storage pockets, and a lid with an elastic opening to prevent spills and keep smells contained.
This toy might just save your back — and whatever favorite item has just fallen to the car floor.
4. Claw Grabber
Finally, a use for that grabby thingy lying around your house that doesn’t involve your kids torturing the dog. It’s likely that you’ve picked one of these up somewhere along the way, and they’re ideal for passing snacks or other items to the far corners of a full-sized SUV or minivan. Could you just unbuckle, turn around or ask for help? Sure, but we promise this is more fun.
Road Trip Essentials to Keep Your Kids Comfortable
Eat, sleep, pee, repeat. For a road trip that runs smoothly, you’ll want to get your family on a schedule where these basic needs are met efficiently and effectively. These essentials stave off hunger, promote rest, and discourage discomfort with minimal hassle.
Everyone knows that car bladders are smaller than home bladders. For times when emergency strikes and you have to pull over, parents give high marks to the TravelJohn. If you haven’t used one, imagine a urinal shaped cup that funnels into a plastic barf bag. After your little one goes number one into the bag, a polymer substance absorbs the liquid and turns it into a leak proof, odorless gel. The bags are disposable, and even reusable thanks to a resealable zipper closure. There’s a Jr. version made for younger kids, but these work well enough for the whole family.
Motion sickness is no fun for anyone. Remember to offer Dramamine before starting to drive. Photo by Rose Gordon Sala
If you already know that your kids suffer from motion sickness, it's always worth a preventative Dramamine chewable before you hit the road. It's easy for little tummies to suddenly feel queasy, especially if they've been watching the iPad, car TV, or even just reading. Pack the kids version into your car's First Aid kit, so it's always on hand. It comes in chewable flavors like grape and orange and is safe for ages 2 and up.
Neck pillows provide a cozy resting spot.
A kid's sudden car nap is a parent’s best friend on a long car trip, so make comfort a priority with these cute neck pillows. We love that they come in a variety of animal friends, so it doubles as a plush cuddly.
With multiple travelers on multiple devices, headphones for noise control are always road trip essentials. Traditional headphones are often too big and bulky for the littlest ones, and ear buds tend to fall out or are easily misplaced. CozyPhones presents a nice compromise, featuring small speakers implanted into an elastic fleece headband. They also come in a variety of character themes from Paw Patrol to Batman, so your child can pick their favorite.
Make the ultimate road trips snacks box with this tackle box turned kid snackbox.
9. Snackle Box
Snackle boxes are personalized, organized, and don’t leave behind trash, so we think they work out a lot better than individual bags of snacks. The term “snackle box” is inspired by the fishing tackle boxes some folks use, but we really like using jewelry organizers that can be found just about anywhere. Choose one with removable dividers so you can adjust the grid layout to your liking. Buy some stickers and paint markers for each child to decorate their own box ahead of time, and you’ve got a family art project. The boxes also work great for small toys and crafts.
10. Time Timer
Kids are visual learners, so when they inevitably ask "are we there yet," showing them an answer might work better than trying to explain how many seconds are in eight hours. These timers function like an hourglass, with a bright red circle that slowly vanishes in 60 minute intervals. Side note –– these productivity timers work great around the house. When I don’t feel like cleaning, I’ll set it for 15 minutes, and make myself work just until the red disappears. We know others who used them for homeschool or online school breaks.
Road Trip Essentials to Keep Your Kids Occupied
In my house, we all know the real king of this category, and maybe his name starts with "i" and ends with "Pad." That's fine, but we promise it IS possible to avoid the boredom blues on a road trip with limited screentime. From toddlers to teens, these are the games, books, toys. and art supplies to make the time fly by.
Kids old enough to read and write will feel important documenting their journey in one of these travel journals. There are writing prompts, games, activities, and maps that encourage critical thinking and exploration, while keeping them entertained. The pages of this journal pack enough fun for four separate trips.
Window notes help pass the time.
12. Post Its & Window Clings
Why just look out the window when you can play with it? Window clings with vacation themes are a great way for kids to engage in pretend play using what little space they have. The chances that you already have a stack of Post-It notes in a drawer are probably pretty high. Drawing pictures or writing thoughts on Post-It notes are a lovely way they can communicate with you and each other, without saying a word. We love that there’s no clean up after this art project, just peel them off the windows and start again.
Sticker books are great road trip essentials for busy toddlers. Photo by Rose Gordon Sala
Stickers are used to recreate scenes from real life in these activity books that kids adore. Because the stickers are puffy, they’re easy for stubby toddler fingers to peel and reposition onto the laminated pages. Choose from themes like Cool Careers and Pet Place. Pack several as they go quick!
14. Water Wow
I’ve never met a kid who didn’t love these things. It will never not be gratifying to watch the scenes come alive with color after painting the page with some water. The no-mess, no-stress promise is a big draw for parents, and after the pages dry, kids can start all over. The convenience of a 4-pack is totally worth it when you know they’ll definitely get used.
Here’s another crowd favorite among the toddlers who happily enjoy just about anything they can open and shut. They get to be in charge after all! These activity boards keep little minds active with latched wooden doors that contain a corresponding wood piece. Open the cookie jar door, place in the cookies, repeat for the rest of the doors. This is the closest they can get to hide and seek in a back seat.
We can’t resist a good throwback to our youth, and Mad Libs is just as much silly fun today as it was a few decades ago. There’s an “on the road'' version especially to compliment your car journey, and the Junior version uses pictures and helpful hints for kids who haven’t yet learned the parts of speech.
Packed in and ready to hit the road! Photo by Rose Gordon Sala
17. Would You Rather
My daughters are 12, 7, and 5, and they all love playing, "Would You Rather." They also love to argue over their answers, but that’s another story. Usually they’ll resort to googling a list of scenarios, but this book is perfect for the car, with over 160 different options and a system for scoring points.
My family first discovered these in a restaurant, and we’ve been hooked ever since. These moldable wax sticks that resemble something between modeling clay and pipe cleaners are another mess-free art project kids of all ages enjoy. Nab the traveler kit for the road, which comes with a 12-page idea booklet of different sculptures, and a handy carrying case.
19. Travel Tangram
When there’s not enough space to spread out a whole puzzle, tangrams save the day. The left side of the book provides hints on how the origami-inspired shapes should come together, while the right side has a magnetic board to which the puzzle pieces attach. It’s brain-teasing fun trying to get the shapes into the correct formation.
20. Travel Bingo
Keep an eye peeled for dogs, tractors, tow trucks and motorcycles on your way to bingo in this travel version of the classic game. These cards use sliding windows that turn red to mark off a space, so there are no stamps, stickers or other pieces to keep track of on the board.
The dollar store is a must-visit destination before any of our family trips, and it’s the perfect place to find party favors that can fill Easter eggs for timed surprises. You’ve already got your timer handy, so tell the kids how much red has to disappear before they get another egg surprise, and let them wait in eager anticipation. We like that these plastic eggs are hinged, so you end up with just one piece of plastic instead of two.
22. Road Trip Kit
Rather than buying multiple individual activities, why not try a road trip essentials kit that’s got everything you need in one place? The Lifetime Inc. Road Trip Kit has you covered, with old-school favorites like the License Plate game and visual scavenger hunts, as well as Hangman, Tic Tac Toe, and Battleship. There are two sets of each game so siblings don’t have to fight for turns. The crown jewel of this kit is the set of countdown cards. Fill in different destinations along your journey on each card, and clip them to a 5-foot-long twine string that can be looped through the grab handles at the top of your car doors. Kids love keeping track of the trip this way, and using the clothes pins to move the cards along the string.
For everyone's listening pleasure, having a few good audiobooks and podcasts downloaded and ready to play can occupy hours of time. An Audible subscription affords access to both, with hit children's books like Harry Potter and The Magic Treehouse, and a lineup of original kid-friendly podcasts. Bonus: No real work for the driver, and everyone can listen in.
Photos by the author except where noted.
This article contains some affiliate links, which means we might earn a small commission if you make a purchase. There is no extra cost to the reader. We only recommend products and services that we have personally used or have thoroughly researched.