Please note: This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small compensation if you choose to purchase any products linked below at no extra charge to you! Click here to view our disclosure policy.
This fall, we took a road trip to visit my brother and sister-in-law outside Dallas, Texas! It wasn’t our first road trip as a family of three, but it was definitely our first road trip with a toddler. We often drove the two hours to visit in-laws for our son’s whole life, but it was easy to plan those trips so he would nap nearly the whole trip. This trip was much longer, with each way being about five hours of drive time, including stops.
He was big enough to be easily entertained by a variety of toys and our Amazon Kindle for kids filled the gaps when toys were a no-go. He was also young enough that a nap or two on the trip was relatively easy.
I’ve rounded up some of my favorite tips, toys and items that made our road trip a little easier.
A few things to mention before we dive in. First, my husband and I typically rotate driving responsibilities every 2-3 hours. Whoever isn’t driving is typically in the backseat with kiddo. Second, I’m also working on a toddler road trip packing list, which I will link here when it is complete. Third, our kiddo was 18 months at the time of this trip, so these tips are great for kids about 18 months to three years.
Tire them out… but not too tired!
Our trip started out with a semi-tired kiddo. He went to preschool for two hours before we picked him up. This plan worked in our favor two ways: Kiddo got a little energy out before being strapped in the car for five hours and my husband and I both finished any last-minute packing and loading the car without having to worry about chasing him around!
Eat and nap on the road
We planned this intentionally: Pick him up from preschool at lunchtime, eat lunch, pass out. I hoped for the best and planned for the worst. My hopes panned out because not long after he ate his supervised PB&J, veggie chips, and fruit, he was asleep right at naptime at one. Had he not had a chance to run around and play at preschool, I have a feeling this step wouldn’t have been so easy.
He slept for about an hour and a half or two hours and not long after that, it was time for our first (and only!) pit stop. If your kid absolutely refuses to nap in the car… disregard this one. They’ll be overtired and frankly, make it a really, really rough trip. At the time of this trip, our kiddo was taking a small, 20-30 minute morning nap every now and then and a 2 hour afternoon nap.
Let them run and roam
This is the biggest piece of advice I receive before our road trip and the biggest piece of advice I pass onto other parents: Plan your pit stops at places they can get out, stretch their legs, be loud, and run (safely).
While stopping at a fast food restaurant with a play area is doable, it’s hard to easily supervise toddlers and kids under three since they are still pretty small and don’t listen to rules.
On our way there, we stopped in Paris, Texas to see the Eiffel Tower replica with its cute little cowboy hat. It added maybe 15 minutes to our total travel time, and it was completely worth it. Being a weekday in the fall, it wasn’t too busy, so we let kiddo have the run of the place. We all stretched our legs, took some selfies and got on our way.
Even though it seems natural to let them snack during any pit stops, we always use snacktimes as an easy way to pass the time (and not have to entertain!) in the car.
Pack ALL the snacks
Speaking of snacktime, come totally prepared when it comes to food. When I say pack ALL the snacks, I mean all of them. Okay, maybe not all, but not just your toddler’s favorite 2-3 snacks. I pack a little storage container similar to this one full of his favorite treats, healthy foods and things he very rarely gets, like candy.
I use my storage box as his snack central for every trip, whether it’s a long weekend road trip or a weeklong vacation. Be sure to wash it well before adding foods! The one pictured above is sold out, so it’s a little different than the one I’ve linked for you, but it is still great!
This box so incredibly handy: It fits all sorts of sizes of foods, wrapped or loose. Second, toddlers (and even older kids!) can easily make their own decisions about what they want to eat. The one pictured is sold out, so it’s a little different than the one I’ve linked for you, but it is still great!
Third, you only have ONE container to worry about, rather than ten bags of different foods. If it’s a longer trip, you may have to refill before you make your journey back; however, the
If you buy only one thing for your upcoming family trip, BUY THIS. It is my number one must have road trip item.
Keep things organized
And not just organized for your toddler. Trust me, your stuff, your partner’s stuff, food, drinks, magazines… it will be everywhere less than an hour into your road trip. With a toddler in tow, there’s no more room to toss the things you don’t need into the backseat (unless you want them chewed on or thrown out a window).
I use a few different items to keep things organized. First, let’s talk toddler organization: I use a caddy like this to keep basic small toys in. We have an SUV with second-row captain chairs, so we use the area between the chairs to store our organizational items, plus the area in front of our toddler’s seat.
After the caddy, keep a larger bin for “toy rotation.” This bin is relatively out of sight from kiddo and a bit harder to reach in the floorboards. I typically rotate these toys into the smaller caddy during pit stops or when we come to a stop.
Next, we keep a toddler bag with spare clothes, snack refill, easy access diapers and wipes. This stays under the toddler’s seat since if you need it, you’ll most likely be getting out of the car. Coming soon: A detailed packing list for your toddler road trip.
Finally, keep a bag for each parent. I recommend a backpack (my favorite is linked here!) or a bag you can easily sling over your shoulder and wrangle a 20-40 pound child. Our bags typically include things like our favorite non-perishable snacks, things to do (magazines, books, etc.), electronics, printed reservation confirmations and backup addresses/maps in case of no signal on our phones, plus chargers for our devices. This makes it easier to put all of our items in one bag when we get to our destination.
Lastly, bring an ice chest and/or adult snack box. I’ll list what I pack in terms of food for our road trips in a later post (gluten free for adults and favorite toddler foods!), but this stays in between the seats. I also keep napkins (cloth or disposable) and wipes on top of the ice chest because… toddlers. P.S. Get a LEAK PROOF cooler. You will thank me later.
Leave room in your car to change diapers and clothes
If the trip is more than two hours, it’s almost a guarantee there will be a blowout of some type – whether that’s a bodily fluid or an applesauce pouch. You may need to stop at a gas station with sketchy bathrooms… or on the side of the road. Either way, it will happen when you are far, far away from a reputable changing table.
When we pack our SUV, we put our larger suitcases and bags in last. That way, when you need to change a wriggly toddler, you only have to remove one or two pieces of luggage. Make sure you don’t overpack to the point your luggage is too heavy to remove once or twice during your drive! Or if you’re a light packer… simply leave a little extra space to change your kiddo. If not, you’re looking at those difficult upright diaper changes, which is no fun with a blowout diaper.
Without fail, on one particular trip, after about an hour, we made a pit stop because we (okay fine, it was me) had a water explosion all over the backseat and a mandatory diaper change (that was not me). I highly recommend if you make a mess to time it with a dirty diaper 😉
What are some of your favorite road trip tips for kids under 3?
My favorite road trip essentials are linked below!