Road Trip With Toddler: Tips And What To Pack.

road trip with toddler

How to prepare when embarking on a road trip with a toddler.

Plus FREE printable one-page packing list.

As our daughter has gotten older, going on trips requiring a bit of driving time have become second nature. We go on a road trip with our toddler 1-2x in the winter, and multiple times in the warmer months. But lengthy car rides weren’t our thing when she was a baby.

Since Mia was born during the pandemic, we didn’t take her on any trips until her 1st birthday. In July of 2021, we traveled to Galena, Illinois and celebrated with family from Minnesota, most of whom were meeting her for the first time.

It was a 2.5-hour drive away from our home in the suburbs of Illinois and marked the first of many road trips with our daughter.

But before we left for the trip, I was worried about how she would handle the long drive since at the time, she wasn’t a big fan of the car. But she did well! We left around her naptime, and even though she hadn’t slept in the car since she was a newborn, she dozed off easily and spent a good portion of the drive sleeping.

first road trip - 1 year old in car seat - road trip with toddler

Mia’s first road trip in 2021

Now, as a 3-year-old, Mia loves the car. She is easily entertained watching all the sights through the windows, and I find myself trying to keep her awake even on drives home from the grocery store at 10am. Which is why we don’t shy away from lengthy car rides and have planned multiple trips this year.

In total, we have five confirmed road trips planned, three of which we’ve already completed:

  • In February we visited family in northeast Iowa – a 4.5-hour road trip.
  • 4th of July weekend we visited family in Wisconsin Dells – a 3-hour road trip.
  • Last weekend we visited my husband’s parents/family in southwest Minnesota – an 8-hour road trip.
  • In early August we are visiting a family member’s lake house in northwest Illinois – a 2.5-hour road trip.
  • Labor Day Weekend we are attending a family wedding in northern Minnesota – an 8-hour road trip.

For an 8-hour road trip with our toddler, we like to break it up into two days, with about 5 hours of travel on the first day and 3 hours the next. Because even I don’t typically enjoy an 8-hour car ride. We feel it’s best to split the drive into two days while Mia is still little.

However, breaking up the drive into two days means staying at a hotel on the way up and on the way back home, which adds another level of packing unless we want to lug everything into the hotel (we’ve been unprepared and done this before – it’s not fun)

So, this time while packing for our 8-hour road trip to Minnesota, I took a comprehensive inventory of everything I packed and HOW I packed it, in the hopes that it will serve to help other parents as they prepare for their lengthy road trip.

In the rest of this article, I detail what I pack for a road trip with our toddler and what I bring into the hotel, followed by tips and a one-page packing list. The list is specific to summertime trips.

Please note, the following section contains affiliate links. I may receive a small compensation, at no cost to you, if you click the link and make a purchase.

What To Pack On A Road Trip With A Toddler

CLOTHING

I pack A LOT of clothing for my daughter. Typically, I bring enough outfits to have two per day in case there are any spills/messes/she becomes a sweaty mess and needs to change.

I obsessively check the weather forecast ahead of time and plan accordingly, but even in the summer, I bring at least one pair of long pants and a zip-up jacket because you never know how cold it will be early in the morning or later in the evening. (Note: swimming attire is in the SWIM section)

Outfits (2 per day – mixture of short sleeve shirts and tanks with shorts, dresses, rompers. If there is some type of event we are going to, i.e., a family party, I’ll have an outfit set aside specifically for that.

Otherwise, I go with the flow and pick whatever I think best fits what we are doing that day – jean shorts and a nice top or a dress if we are going into town, comfy shorts with a tank if we are staying local.

  • Pajamas (1 pair per day plus 1 extra)
  • Underwear (2 per day, if potty-trained)
  • Long Pants (1-2 pairs)
  • Jacket
  • Socks (1-2 pairs per day)
  • Gym Shoes (1 pair)
  • Sandals (2 pairs – 1 dressy pair/1 that’s good for playing and doubles as water shoes – Mia has these Crocs Sandals)

BATH/HYGIENE

  • Shampoo/Body Wash (either Aveeno or The Honest Company)
  • Lotion (Aveeno)
  • Nail scissors (toddler pair)
  • Hairbrush/Comb
  • Hair Detangler Spray (The Honest Company)
  • Toothbrush/Paste (Tom’s toothpaste)
  • Potty Seat (I bring Jool Baby folding travel potty seat and the Minnie Mouse potty seat she uses at home)
  • Flushable Wipes
  • Stepstool

BEDDING & NIGHTTIME PREP

Since I co-sleep with my daughter, we don’t bring any toddler travel bed. But we do bring her pillows and a couple fleece blankets she likes – anything to make the new sleeping space more familiar.

When she was younger, we would bring the bumpers we used on the bed at home. They were a bit of a pain to pack but worked just fine. There are inflatable bumpers for sale on Amazon for convenience. I added bumpers and a travel bed to the packing list so others who use them won’t forget to pack them.

  • Toddler Pillows (2)
  • Fleece Blankets (2)
  • Sound Machine (Hatch)
  • Camera/Monitor (Infant Optics – DXR-8 PRO. This is not a wifi cam because I don’t like the delay/possible internet issues with wifi cams. The one we use has a 1000ft range and works great/is easy to pack)

TOYS

This section will obviously be specific to whatever your child likes to play with, but I like to bring a variety of toys.

On our most recent trip, we brought reading books/activity books, one doll, Disney/Hotwheels cars, a broken-down track, motorized Thomas trains, Peppa Pig toys, animals/dinosaur figurines, pretend makeup, puzzles, a few movies/shows, and her Amazon tablet.

  • Reading Books
  • Coloring/Activity Books (stickers, watercolors, crayons/markers)
  • Tablet/Charger
  • Battery-Powered Toys (cars, trains)
  • Pretend-Play Toys (dolls/makeup/TV show figurines, animal figurines)
  • Puzzles/Age-Appropriate Games
  • Movies (Rio 1&2, Encanto, Peppa Pig Specials, Thomas and Friends)
  • Tricycle/Scooter
  • Outdoor Toys (chalk, bubbles, balls, bug catcher kit – this kit was a gift she received from family for her 3rd birthday and it’s a big hit)

MEAL PREP

Since we had two hotel nights during the trip, I packed a small container of dish soap, a plate, fork, spoon, and food scissors. Depending on the trip, I don’t always bring those items if I know we’ll have a full kitchen wherever we are staying.

  • Toddler Cup (I love these Re Play sippy cups. I bring two on vacation so I can alternate, and one is always ready to go the next morning)
  • Toddler Fork/Spoon
  • Toddler Plate/Bowl
  • Snack Cups with lids/handles (2)
  • Food Scissors
  • Small Cutting Board
  • Food Storage Containers (zip-lock baggies, lock n locks)
  • Dish Soap (I pour some into a travel bottle)

FOOD/DRINK

We bring a hefty box filled with non-perishable food that sits on the seat next to the car seat and easily satiates all hunger needs. A YETI cooler filled with all cold food/drink sits on the floor.

  • Cooler (We have the YETI Hopper Flip in charcoal)
  • Vitamin (Mary Ruth’s Children’s Multi Vitamin)
  • Fruit Snacks
  • Various Crackers/Chips/Cereal
  • Smoothies/Pouches (Once Upon a Farm, Applesauce)
  • Turkey Sticks
  • String Cheese
  • Hummus/Dips
  • Juice Boxes (Honest Appley Ever After)
  • Fruit/Veggies
  • Water

SWIM

Since this was a summer trip, we packed a swim bag. The number of swimsuits I pack for my daughter depends on how much swimming we’ll be doing. For instance, if we are planning to swim every day, I’ll bring one swimsuit per day. This trip there was only one guaranteed swimming day, so I brought two suits and one towel to be safe.

  • Swim Bag
  • Swimsuits
  • Towels
  • Water Shoes
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses (These PolarSpex are Mia’s favorite – 2 pairs)
  • Pool Toys (torpedo, floating toys)
  • Puddle Jumper/Innertube
  • Sun Hat
  • Swim Diapers

SECURITY ITEMS

Security items are important! And would break my daughter’s heart if we forgot them. She suffered from reflux as a baby and in turn, became attached to her burb cloths as blankies. She now has about 20 blankies and sleeps with at least 10 at a time, including a few stuffed animals.

  • Blankies
  • Lovey/Stuffies

MISCELLANEOUS

  • Paper Towel Roll
  • Saline Wipes (Boogie Wipes)
  • Hand Sanitizer Spray (The Honest Company)
  • Sanitizer Wipes (The Honest Company sanitizing wipes)
  • Bandaids/Antiseptic
  • Small Diaper Bag (Ayla and Co – Ayla Mini)
  • Pull-ups (Pampers Easy-Ups, 6 per day – if not potty-trained)
  • Nighttime Pull-ups (Huggies Overnights, 1 per day)
  • Stroller (Uppababy Vista II, if space is an issue, I suggest getting an umbrella stroller)

OPTIONAL

Here’s what I pack sometimes, but not always, depending on the weather/where we are going.

  • Meds: Fever Reducers, Cold/Cough Remedies
  • Rain Boots/Umbrella
  • Toddler Noise Cancelling Headphones
  • Toddler Folding Chair (Minnie Mouse Foldable Chair)
  • Fan

Now that we have a breakdown of items packed, I’ll dive into what we bring into the hotel.

What We Bring Into The Hotel

What we pack for the hotel - Road trip with toddler

When an overnight stay at a hotel is needed, we try to book a one-bedroom suite so that when our daughter goes to bed, my husband and I can watch TV or hang out in the living room without disturbing her. These rooms sometimes have a kitchenette.

  • One Large Suitcase – Outfit for next day, Pajamas (1 pair), Toddler Pillows/Blankets, Sound Machine, Camera/Monitor, all BATH/HYGIENE, Blankies/Stuffies, Pull-ups (6 daytime, 1 nighttime); Plus, mine and my husbands’ clothes/toiletries for 1 night
  • Large Swim Bag filled with all SWIM items (we brought this into the hotel the first night and swam the next morning. We didn’t want to swim on the trip back, so we left it in the car)
  • Cooler and Food Box – Fits all FOOD/DRINK and all MEAL PREP, along with sanitizer wipes and paper towel roll
  • Toys – 1 weekender-sized bag, which fits about half the toys we packed
  • Small Diaper Bag (Ayla Mini Bag – typically has 3 pull-ups, sunglasses, hand sanitizer spray, extra outfit, small package of tissues, snack cup, toddler cup, my wallet/sunglasses
  • Toddler Potty Seat

That’s it for the hotel! What was left in the car were two big suitcases filled with the rest of the clothes/anything we didn’t need for that one night, along with the stroller, fan, more toys, and other miscellaneous stuff my husband and I brought for ourselves.

Tips

Tip #1: plan the drive around your toddler’s nap

We like to plan the trip so our daughter will likely fall asleep some time during the middle of the drive, which means we are never out the door right after breakfast. We make sure she has plenty of time at home to burn energy before the long car ride begins. Then she usually falls asleep about 1-2 hours into the drive and wakes up with 1-2 hours left.

Don’t assume your toddler is going to take the same length of nap they take at home. Our daughter’s car naps range anywhere from 30 minutes – 1.5 hours.

Tip #2: Pack seperately for the hotel

If there are any stops along the way requiring an overnight stay at a hotel or Air BnB, pack what you’ll need to take inside ahead of time and leave everything else in the car.

tip #3: pack plenty of food/drink

Make sure there is a variety of food and beverages easily within reach. I don’t know what’s worse, an over-tired toddler or a hangry one, and we want to try our best to avoid any hunger-related meltdowns.

Tip #4: have many in-car activities

Don’t assume that when your toddler is not sleeping, they’ll be occupied by outdoor sights and a tablet. No-mess coloring books, fidget/poppable toys, sticker books, and interactive books are all good options that should hold their attention for a while. Plus, anything new is a bonus in a toddler’s eyes.

tip #5: Buy window darkeners

My daughter does not need darkness in the car to sleep, but you wouldn’t want to be caught off guard during the trip and wondering if the reason they haven’t fallen asleep is because it’s sunny outside.

Tip #6: be mindful of driving time

Try to keep the driving time to a max of 5-6 hours per day. If you absolutely need to drive longer in one day, be prepared to take lengthy stops so that your toddler can stretch their legs and burn off some energy. Gas station pit stops don’t count.

Toddler at Wisconsin Deer Park - Road Trip with Toddler

On the way home from Minnesota, we stopped at the Wisconsin Deer Park in Wisconsin Dells before heading to the hotel for the night.

Key Takeaways

Planning for a road trip with a toddler doesn’t have to be stressful. Only a bit of preparation and efficiency is needed to make it as painless as possible.

And going on a road trips with our toddler is currently my preferred method of travel since I’m not limited regarding what I can pack (so long as it all fits in our truck) and packing light is not my goal.

My goal is to create wonderful memories without having to worry about going to the store for things I’ve forgotten or run out of. Vacations pass by way too quickly, and I cherish every moment of quality time spent with my family.

Packing List

Below is the FREE downloadable Packing List. Just click Download and print!

Thanks so much for reading! Is there anything I haven’t mentioned that you feel is essential to traveling on a road trip with a toddler? What do you enjoy and what do you dread most about traveling as a family? Let me know in the comments below!!!

Hi! I'm Kim.

A Registered Nurse turned stay-at-home mom to one lively little girl. I created this blog to share all things motherhood with an emphasis on the dynamic of parenting a single child. As this blog grows, you’ll find the occasional heart-tugging post but much more regarding fun things to do with a toddler in the Chicagoland area, tips and tricks for traveling with a toddler, my favorite products for babies and toddlers – especially those that I’ve found to be petite friendly. And last but not least, all the best places to grab a delicious margarita during mommy downtime.

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