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How I Survived a Long Road Trip with Toddlers (Twice!)

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Are you thinking about taking a long road trip with a toddler in tow? Then stick around because this post is for you! Honestly, if you’re thinking of traveling in any form with kids then these family travel tips will be helpful. 

My husband and I survived driving cross country with kids TWICE using these tips. I bet they’ll work for you too!

Let’s start with the absolute most important part – the planning. 

Toddler gearing up for an across country road trip.

How to Plan a Long Road Trip with a Toddler 

First things first, when preparing to drive long distances with the kids we always plan out our drive. 

How many stops will we make, where will we stop, what hotels will we be staying at and most importantly what will we eat? 

How Often Should You Stop When Driving with a Toddler?

It’s important to mention that it is recommended you stop at least every two hours when driving to move around and keep your blood flowing properly. I also recommend this for your own sanity. Trust me, you’ll need breaks from the “are we there yets.” 

Besides that, you need to think about how long can a toddler sit in a car seat comfortably and plan stops accordingly. 

While mapping out the trip, look for cool or interesting places for you and the kids. Long road trips with kids are daunting enough, not every stop has to be kid centered. 

Plan fun stops for your kids when going on a road trip with toddlers
Us at Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas on our first across county road trip with the kids.

Depending on where you are coming from some of the rest stops are great for this. For example, we loved Texas because all of their rest stops had play equipment for the kids, nice shaded areas for us and a few even had a dog area! 

And let me tell you, those little playgrounds made our road trip with toddlers so much more enjoyable!

Best Time to Leave for a Long Road Trip

Another tip when driving across country with kids is to try not to be in the car for long hours at a time. What I mean is, don’t think you are going to get through twelve hours of driving with a toddler in the backseat in one day. 

It’s not going to happen (at least not without hiccups) so plan for this. When we drove from California to Indiana I planned for no more than six hours drive time per day, which usually turned into nine to ten depending on the amount of stopping we did for potty breaks, wiggle breaks, and gas. Yes, it may make your trip that much longer, but it will also make it that much easier. 

It’s also very important to plan your drive time around major cities. Achieving this successfully involves leaving at the right time of day

For some, that may mean leaving before dawn. For others, it may involve sleeping in a little and leaving at noon. Hop on MapQuest or something similar and map out major cities, then calculate what time you need to leave to get there.

The goal at the end of your driving day is to stop in a big enough city to be able to find a good hotel, food, and a Walmart or Target if needed. In case you need anything. Or with regards to Target, in case Target tells you you need something, lol. 

Driving Overnight with Kids? Here’s How to Make That Easier

I get it everyone recommends leaving early in the morning for road trips, heck I even did. But you know your child best. So sometimes that’s just not the best idea. Having five kids, I’ve learned that for my younger two, family road trips after a long day of running around and playing will usually result in a much better outcome. Taking trips with toddlers can mean waiting until after nap time before heading on the road. But that could mean driving through the night if you’re looking to make good time. So how do you make that happen, safely?

Driving overnight with a toddler (or kids of any age for that matter) can honestly be easier on the parent. There’s not need to entertain a sleeping child which means you can turn the music up and focus on driving. But driving at night can mean falling asleep which can be extremely dangerous. Resting and sleeping during the day so you can drive through the night can help alleviate tiredness. And it’s important to stop if / when you become sleepy.

Road Trip Snacks for Kids

Once you’ve gotten your drive mapped out, things become a lot easier. From here now its just packing snacks and things to keep the kids occupied. Or quiet for as long as possible. 

Completely joking. Of course I want to hear my kids scream and laugh super loud for 16 hours straight, who doesn’t right. 

No, but seriously. This long road trip tip can mean the difference between an unforgettable vacation and one you’d rather forget (at least when it comes to the driving part!).  

So for snacks, try to pack things that are handheld and less mess. Also, the more you pack the less you have to make random stops. 

Handheld snacks are perfect for road trips with kids

Here are 13 of the best snacks to pack on a long road trip with kids:

  1. Raisins: depending on your child’s age these are a great and healthy snack. Opt to get the individuals boxes to make it easier on you. 
  2. Grapes: again, depends on your child’s age but we all love grapes and they are so easy and mess free. 
  3. Apples/apple slices: While I am all down for throwing an apple core out the window (its biodegradable), everyone may not be. So grabbing some precut apples cuts that problem out. 
  4. Fruit Snacks: Love to use these as rewards when playing games such as I Spy, Find the license plate or any other fun games I have listed below. 
  5. Fruit Strips: same concept as a fruit snack but in stripe form. These are great, especially if you get the organic ones that don’t have tons of sugar. 
  6. Dried fruit – the car can get cramped really fast, especially when taking a road trip with kids, so the less stuff you have to bring the better. Dried fruit can be kept at room temp which means no cooler necessary. 
  7. Crackers and even more crackers: This may just be me, but I love crackers. Club crackers, ritz crackers and even some peanut butter crackers. I can eat them plain or add a little topping and I’m in heaven. 
  8. Portable Peanut Butter Cups: see above for why these are a good idea. 
  9. Pretzels: I usually will get the individual bags so there’s not arguing over sharing. And Snyder’s has a pack with different shapes which is always fun for the kids. 
  10. Squeezable Applesauce/ fruits and veggies: being on the road you won’t get a lot of “healthy” food options, and if you’re like me you’ll want to counteract that. 
  11. Breakfast bars / Nutri-grain bars: Super easy and super good. 
  12. Gold Fish, Rice Cakes, Cookies etc: Bonus entry. These are all good things that don’t have to be kept cool.
  13. Slices of lunch meat, lunchables, string cheese, pepperoni, gogurt: if you do plan to pack a cooler these are all things that are easy to hand out and leave little to no mess. 

Other Road Trip Essentials for Toddlers

  • When you’re traveling with a toddler in the car (especially long distances), it’s best to prepared for just about anything. In fact, before I even start packing, I make a road trip checklist for kids.

First Aid Kit 

  • You never know what can happen, even in the car. Packing bandaids, alcohol wipes, and some kind of antibacterial cream (such as Neosporin) are the basics. In addition I also like to bring bug spray, Benadryl or other allergy medicine, Tylenol (children’s and adult), baby wipes, thermometer, scissors and Kleenex. Feel free to add anything additional based on your families needs. This first aid kit has over 200 pieces but it small and compact, perfect to fit in the car and not take up too much space.

Extra Clothes

  • Let’s face it. Accidents happen. If you’re taking a road trip with a 2 year old (or any age that’s potty training), keeping extra clothes accessible in the car (not packed in the back) is key to surviving a long road trip with a toddler.

Plastic Bags or Trash Bags

  • I can’t tell you the amount of trash you will accumulate on a road trip, especially one with toddlers. And if you’re potty training, having a place to through the dirty diapers/pull-ups keeps you from having to pull over so often.

Car Seat Organizers

  • This is one of my favorite road trip with toddler hacks. Toddlers are just plain messy, especially in the car. Having an organizer you can have all the toys, snacks, books etc in one place is heaven sent. It will help keep your car not so messy (because let’s face it, it will still get messy on a the road with kids), but will also keep everything your toddler (or any kid) needs right in front of them. Cutting down on the mommy where’s my car questions.

Sun Shades for the Windows

  • Great for nap time while driving, or if your road trip happens to be during the summer when the sun goes down well after bed time. We also love to use them to keep the sun out of the kids eyes.

Paper Towels or Wet Wipes

  • Any parent can attest that wipes are always a must have, even in the car. And you don’t want to be stuck buying the same pack of wipes from a gas station for double the price of if you had got them from Wal-Mart or Target. Plus there were plenty of times we stopped at rest stop and it was out of paper towels or toilet paper.

Fun Road Trip Activities for Toddlers (+ Free Printables!)

Okay, so you’ve mapped out your route, including places you plan to stop and you’ve gotten all your snacks and toddler essentials together. 

Now the hard work kicks in. How do you plan to keep yourself and those kids entertained while driving for so long? 

Games, games and even more games. Printables such as tic tac toe, mazes, and scavenger hunts are all fun ideas for long road trips and will keep the kids quiet while you drive. Download some free printable for your road trip here!

printable for your road trip with toddlers

Oh, and if you’re wondering how to entertain a 1 year old in the car, stock up on some board books! They’re very sturdy so you don’t have to worry about little hands ripping out pages, and the colors and pictures keep them intrigued.

Some more creative road trip ideas for toddlers include packing some “busy” bags or sensory bags that aren’t too messy. I also love water books. You know the ones with those little mess-free water markers? Fun for the kids – Easy (and clean) for me! And you can’t forget a portable DVD player. Just pop in their favorite movie and don’t forget to sing along to all the songs!

Looking for more interactive car entertainment? If you have older kids in the car, games like:

  • I Spy
  • How many (insert color) cars do you see
  • The license plate game
  • Hangman
  • Two truths and a lie
  • And storytelling 

Are all fun ways to have a good time together while driving. These games can literally last for hours if you let them. 

Some other things we did include audiobooks, podcast, puzzle games such as Mad Libs, and a good ol’ game of Super Smash Bros on the family Nintendo Switch. I bought this tablet holder that allowed everyone to see the screen while we played. 

My final tip is a free one. It won’t cost you a dime but it will save you a lot of stress and heartache. Honestly, there’s no reason to go all out if you plan to drive across country with kids. 

Yes, there are some things you can buy that make long road trips with toddlers easier, but ultimately its up to you. 

The first time we drove from California to Indiana with our children I was so stressed. I wanted everyone to have a good time. I had all these national landmarks planned out for us to stop at, and I had super high hopes that It would be the best road trip with children ever. 

But it was all those expectations that ruined it. 

Do yourself a favor, relax! The second time we made the trip of course I followed all the tips I listed above, but I didn’t put too much weight on it. 

If we stopped at all the places great, if not that’s okay to. I can’t tell you how freeing it was to be able to let go of the need for control and allow myself to just enjoy my family. 

Yes we were stuck in a car for 4 days while we drove from California to Indiana, but we were also experiencing it together. And for two of my children it was their first time exploring the country by road. 

Free yourself up to enjoy this experience. Allow yourself to release control over every little detail and go with the flow. This is probably the single most important thing I could of done my last trip that made a huge difference.  

I hope these long road trip tips, especially the last one, help shape an amazing trip for you as you drive across country with kids. And if you’ve ever taken a long road trip with a toddler, let me know in the comments what tips were invaluable to you! 

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