12 Handy hints you’ll want to know before you set off on a road trip with toddlers
I almost dread to think how many miles we have travelled with our car full of kids! From the Australian outback to the rugged roads of Jordan and navigating the ice roads of the Rockies, we’ve seen a lot of road in our time!
By far the trickiest age to road trip with kids is when they are toddlers. Babies and older children, of course, have their challenges too. However, anyone who has road-tripped with a toddler will assure you this is the trickiest age!
They don’t quite nap for as long as a baby; they definitely want more ‘entertaining’, and they definitely DON’T wish to be strapped in their seat for hours and hours on end.
So how do you do it? Is it even worth trying to road trip until they’ve passed this delicate age? ABSOLUTELY!!!
We’re going to share with you here all our favourite tips that have gotten us through many, many days of road tripping with toddlers, so you can start making your family memories on the road too.
This post is part of both our Toddler Travel advice and our family road trip series
(NB most of these tips will work pretty effectively with your older kids too!)
Toddler road trip advice – 12 Tips to Planning your toddler road trip
It should go without saying the most important thing you need for a great road trip with toddlers is the right car seat. Make sure not only the right fit for your toddler but also compliant with local car seat laws in the state/country you are travelling in.
1. Always keep the kids in mind when planning an itinerary
How many hours a day you spend on the road and how you break up those hours by time of day will make a huge difference to your road trip success with a toddler.
It is very, very rare these days that we will attempt more than 6 hours in one day in the car. Ideally, we like to stick to under 5 hours. We’ll get the lion’s share of the day’s driving done if we can before lunch, allow a good long break somewhere at this time of day, then leave ourselves a shorter leg to complete in the afternoon.
For your family, perhaps they are full of boundless energy in the morning and need to run around more before filling their bellies and a long afternoon nap – you will soon work out for yourselves what works best.
The absolute ideal is a playground during a roadside stop. See if the area you’re visiting has a good playground app; try using our favorite road trip planning app, RoadTrippers, or simply rely on good old Google Maps!
Ideally, if you have left yourselves enough flex in an itinerary, you can work it out as you go rather than having a cemented-in mile marker plan! Being determined to reach X by a specific time will only make you all fractious.
If you feel the driving days are simply too long (and your accommodation can be flexed) can you reduce your driving days down once you’re underway and slow the journey down?
Unless there’s an important event you are driving to attend, travelling with children is not a race, especially with toddlers. You are also not on a ‘see-it-all’ mission; you do not need to stop at every single roadside attraction. If they are blissfully sleeping in the back, it may be your opportunity to keep on driving through to the next opportunity.
2. Driving at night
It’s not everyone’s favourite method of road-tripping, but we certainly found the more we could drive when they were already sleepy, the quicker they fell asleep in their car seats.
I know I get uncomfortable driving unfamiliar roads in the dark, but when it’s a route I know well – like the 4-hour hike from Perth Airport to my parent’s place – I feel confident to tackle this of an evening whilst the kids sleep off some of their jet lag.
Of course, being able to split shifts with another grown-up is always best. If this is not possible, be incredibly cautious of driving by yourself overtired; I know how hard it is to drive as a solo parent. If the nights will cut down the squabbling or keep them calm for longer though, then go for it!
3. Toddlers sleeping in cars
So we’ve talked a lot about timing things for naps and sleeping in cars, but exactly how do they sleep in a car you might be asking! Especially if your little one is used to a darkened room and lying flat for their naps, will you have success getting your toddler to sleep in a car?
Ours have all been ardent world travellers since the day they were born and are easily adaptable to new sleeping conditions. Others not so used to breaking their routine could find this aspect of road tripping tough.
What I will say is, make their sleeping position as comfortable as possible in the car. This is about not only having the right toddler car seat but making their surroundings are comfortable too.
- Head comfort: Do they need an extra head pillow or comforter to stop their head bobbing around? (You can see our complete guide to toddler travel pillows here)
- Light: Do they need a sunshade on the window? There’s nothing worse than direct sunlight in their eyes to keep them from napping. We use these super easy portable shades to keep the sun away.
- Noise level: This one can be tough, especially if you’ve got younger or older siblings to attend to as well, but try and get the ambience right. Is there a softer soundtrack you can play, and quiet activities that those in the car who’ll stay awake can get on with?
- Timing can be everything: as we pointed out in itinerary planning above, you will need to judge when your kids can happily sit still for the longest stretches and when they will be naturally tired anyway. Always plan those longest stretches for when they’re naturally tired, and they’ve had some food and fresh air beforehand and will most likely drift off unaided.
4. Stock up on snacks
Now speaking of food, snacks! And more snacks! And not just any snacks, for your own sanity, I promise you you’ll want healthy snacks. The occasional sweet snack doesn’t go astray; however, remember, when kids are consuming a lot of carbs, they’ve got to have somewhere to burn them! Strapped into their car seats with a major case of the wiggles will help no one.
Some great road trip snacks for toddlers include:
- Whole grains and cereals
- Stringy cheese
- Rice cakes
Food to avoid in the car:
- Anything that needs utensils!
And don’t forget water too. We make sure each child has their own small water bottle, and use your toilet breaks to get these refilled – don’t make their water bottle too big, thinking that will lessen your stops; it only makes for more anxious emergencies!
5. Have some road trip game ideas up your sleeve
We’d 100% recommend bringing a few of your toddler’s favourite toys with them when tackling a road trip – a lovie/cuddly toy for comfort, as well as a few more hands-on toys to keep hands busy.
Some more games you can try in the car with young kids include:
- I-spy – colours (or phonics depending on how advanced their language skills)
- Counting games – this can be trucks, cows in the field
- “Would You Rather?’ – simple conversation starter games where
Another beauty of an activity that I can’t believe took us so long to discover was listening to audiobooks in the car. Even with mixed age ranges, we’ve found a great way to keep them all equally engaged is with audiobooks. We haven’t looked back since trialling audible on Amazon.
Remember, younger toddlers may not have the tolerance for a longer storybook just yet. They tend to have their favourite list of toddlers’ greatest hits that they’ll happily listen to again and again. You could also try much shorter podcasts for the car.
Getting yourself sorted with a Spotify playlist in advance is another great idea. We have a ‘family’ list and a softer soundtrack for when we want some quiet time (though not too soft and full of lullabies, it sends the drive to sleep!).
Older toddlers may be ready for some more advanced activities like scavenger hunts, bingo and car counting. If you sign up to our mailing list you can immediately access our full library of road trip games you can print out ahead of your trip.
6. Electronics or not?
Oh, this is tough. I’d love to pretend we have NEVER used electronics in the car, but we have. But not as an automatic. Often I will reserve this treat for my older child once the younger ones are asleep – this is a good reason for them to be quiet until the little one drifts off!
I know the whole point of your road trip is to expose your children to new things – but trust me, we’ve done long stints of nothing but trees and dirt for hours on end. If you feel a screen will pass a few hours, then there’s no harm in having this as a reward for set periods of time or certain legs of your journey.
I’d also only suggest introducing electronic entertainment once a child is capable of keeping headphones on their head.
7. Packing strategically and the right supplies
Packing isn’t just about the suitcases in the trunk! We’re talking here about what comes into the car with you – I like to call it my grab bag! It usually ends up sitting in the footwell of the passenger seat.
In this “grab bag”, you want easy-to-locate items such as:
- Toys (or they can take these in their own small toddler backpack)
- Wet wipes
- Disinfectant wipes
- Toiler paper
- Diapers and potty seats (see below!)
- A collapsible pail
- Sick bags
- Change of clothing
- First Aid kit
You can never have enough wipes, tissues and cleaning equipment on a road trip with toddlers! In fact, years later, wet wipes are still my number one line of defence in the car! And sanitiser, of course; if there are no taps nearby after a good play, do get the kids’ hands cleaned down before returning to your car.
If not in the same bag, somewhere easy to grab in the car, you should keep some instant picnic supplies too – a picnic mat, sunscreen, sun hats, maybe a ball and a few outdoor tools – make sure these items don’t strategically disappear in the depths of the trunk!
8. Preparing your car
Before we sum it up, let’s not forget the car too. You’re going to be spending a long time in it, so what’s the best set-up?
Getting your car ready: If it’s your own car, get all your safety checks done in advance of loading up the car; consider oil, coolant, battery, air pressure – and of course, a full tank of fuel!
For the car, get organizers in place for easy-to-grab items like tissues, and wet wipes and consider investing in a car seat travel tray that fits over your toddler’s car seat. These hold all your toddler’s essentials, like coloring, snacks, and water bottle. Some even come with a handy tablet holder too.
If possible, get new car mats fitted in before leaving on your road trip. Everyone knows travelling with little children can get messy. To avoid permanent stains on your car floor, it’s better to get durable waterproof car mats to protect your vehicle’s interior. Pack a travel cleaning kit, too for emergencies.
If you are renting, check what insurance and roadside assistance services come with the vehicle, or will your vacation insurance policy be able to cover these scenarios? Don’t skimp on the small print when it comes to travelling with toddlers! I can think of nothing worse than being stranded roadside with screaming kids in the car.
Separate kids – if you can! Anyone with multiple children will know EXACTLY what we’re talking about! If there’s going to be a troublemaker in the back, it’s almost certainly your toddler. Have you got a van where kids can sit in separate rows?
One thing we love about travelling in North America is just how affordable minivan hire is. By moving into a seven-seater, we have so much more room. If your budget permits, always give yourself that extra row of seats when travelling with siblings.
Packing and positioning: I know many parents like to think of this as an art form. Those countless hours of your own childhood playing Tetris were not wasted! Think about what items you will need in and out of the car daily and what is perhaps only needed for your final destination.
9. Dealing with toddler tantrums on the move
Remind yourself they are but tears. Yes, incredibly upsetting for you all, as well as frustrating, but should an outburst commence while you are full pelt on the interstate, stay focused on the road. Reaching your arm behind you to try and calm crying tots whilst your other hand is on the wheel can be far more dangerous for everyone.
Keep your eyes on the road, and if the crying and discomfort does not stop, find somewhere safe to pull over. It can be a wet diaper or clothing discomfort that’s troubling them or simply needing a hug from mum and dad.
Try soothing music, distraction, taking a drink and a snack once they are calm, and get their blood sugar levels back on track.
Or, like many toddler tantrums, you could be left scratching your head about how it ever happened and how it went away. Chalk it all up to an experience.
10. A full tank and a full tummy for you too
Don’t forget yourself in all of these preparations. If you get going early in the morning, make sure you have an energy snack and a coffee for you, too, as well as plenty of water for hydration.
As much as we love to drive through when things seem to be going well, don’t forget regular pee stops for you all, and all of the family will benefit from regularly stretching their legs.
11. What about toilet training on a road trip?
My first answer – if you can see the look of horror on my face right now – is just don’t do it!
OK, so I would never intentionally plan toilet training over a long road trip. But as you might know it, toddlers have a mind of their own.
Our Master J decided just before our Jordan Road Trip – where things like comfortable roadside stops and public toilets were NOT an option – that he was adamantly ready to ditch the diapers! We wrote up many of our top potty training while travelling tips here if you find yourself in a similar predicament.
Some things we will suggest:
- Suitable roadside stops can be few and far between. If they’ve gotta go, they’ve gotta go, but many kids are fearful of peeing without the comfort of a proper seat. It’s wise to include an easy-to-collapse portable potty and some toilet paper along with your grab bag.
- Even a recently trained toddler can continue to have accidents. A piddle pad for the car is a great idea (take two as you’ll need a replacement if one gets wet).
- We introduced early on the concept of special ‘travel pants’ for our little ones during that delicate in-between phase, just for cars and planes. When we get to our destination, they can change back into their regular underpants without the shame of failure.
12. Slow it down
Just like all things toddler travel, be it long flights, hiking with your toddler or taking a long car trip. Slow it down. It’s not a race. As cliché as it sounds, it is very much about the journey, not just the destination.
They WILL drive you potty with the 15th rendition of Tinkle Twinkle and the nonstop moaning! But wow, get ready for the trips down memory lane this experience will bring too. The early toddler years really will be over before you know it.
We’ve spoken a lot about driving long legs here, but if you’re new to the road-tripping game, slow it down. Go shorter and don’t over plan or get over ambitious on distances. Toddlers really do have short attention spans.
If your itinerary will allow it, no more than a few hours a day in a car.
We also break up our days where we can too. If you’ve had one long driving day, make the next day a rest day if you can, or a much shorter leg.
Just as when we talk about jet lag, give some deep thought to the “eat, activity, sleep” cycle when you’re travelling with toddlers. Most tantrums and tears can be averted with flexibility and careful planning.
Want more toddler travel advice?
Whatever way you like to travel with your toddlers, we’ve got several guides to help you through the early toddler travel years. We recommend you start with our Best Toddler Travel Advice homepage, then move on to:
- Hiking with a Toddler – how to make it fun!
- Toddler Flying Mistakes we’ve made (and I bet you have too!) – the do’s and don’ts of toddler travel for a smooth journey
- Toddler Essentials for the Beach – don’t get caught short out in the sun; our complete packing list for a toddler day out at the beach and important sun protection tips
- Camping with a Toddler – Tips and essential gear you’ll want to pack
- Disney World with a Toddler – Top tips and rides for tackling theme parks with young kids
- 20 Toddler Travel Essential – items we’d never leave home without
We also have a great range of toddler gear reviews to help you on your journey including:
- The best toddler carriers and toddler hiking backpacks – which carriers are best for your older infants and will see you into the toddler years? Will a standard carrier do, or do I need a hiking backpack?
- Best Toddler Reins & Toddler Backpacks – keeping your little one nearby when you’re out and about.
- Toddler sleep devices for overnight flights – what are they, and do they really help your toddler get a better night’s sleep?
- The best portable booster seats – advancing from their toddler car seat to a more compact booster that folds up smaller for travel.
- Traveling on planes with car seats – everything you need to know about car seats on planes from airline rules to allowed travel car seat brands
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