How to Pack a Car for a Road Trip

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Staying organized while traveling is essential but it can be tricky, especially when you are going on a road trip.  But learning how to pack a car for a road trip will help make your travel time go smoothly.

Whether you’re going on a weekend trip to visit friends or a week-long beach vacation you’ll need to do a little preparation to fit everything into your car.

What To pack for a road trip

What you need to pack is going to depend on where you are going, the type of activities you enjoy and the ages of the kids.

I created a packing list that covers most of what you’ll need plus blank spaces for any extra items that are specific to your trip.

There is a list for adults, one for babies and toddlers and one for kids and teens.

Also, check out Genius Packing Hacks for tips on the best way to pack and save space.

Emergency Preparation

Take care of emergency items first so they aren’t forgotten in the whirl of loading up and heading out.

Roadside Emergency Kit

Even if your car is new or you have roadside service it’s still a good idea to have a car emergency kit. You never know what may go wrong with your car or how long you’ll have to wait for roadside service.

Invest in a car emergency kit or make your own. Keep it somewhere easily accessible, like in the glove box, console or under a seat.

how to pack a car for a road trip: roadside emergency kit

First Aid Kit

While many roadside emergency kits contain some first aid items, you should also have a separate first aid kit. Stand-alone first aid kits tend to have more than just bandages and alcohol pads. Plus, they are smaller and easier to take with you once you arrive at your destination.

Accidents will happen

Car accidents happen all too often. The roadside emergency kit and first aid kit should help with any minor accidents. Emergency services will need to be called for more serious accidents.

But the more common type of accidents you’ll experience is spills and sickness (and potty accidents for anyone traveling with young kids). Be prepared by packing plastic bags, paper towels, wet wipes, hand sanitizer and air freshener. The little tree air freshener won’t take care of the stink quickly enough. Opt for a spray air freshener.

The “Go” Bag

Have a “go” bag for each person. What is a go bag? It’s similar to a carry-on in that is holds:

  • Entertainment items, like an e-reader, tablet, toys or stuffed animals
  • Chargers for electronic devices (you don’t want to be caught with a dead phone battery)
  • Travel comfort items, like a sweater or jacket, travel pillow and blanket
  • Travel documents, like driver’s license or ID, travel itinerary/confirmations (if you elect to print them).
  • Snacks and gum

Overnight Bag

If you are planning to spread your trip out over two days or more, you’ll want to pack an overnight bag that contains toiletries and clothes and anything else you’ll require for your stop, like swimsuits so the kids can burn off some energy at the hotel pool.

Pack any valuables in your overnight bag so they aren’t left in the car overnight.

Organizing the Car for a road trip

So how do you fit everything into your car? The answer is going to depend on the car size, how much trunk or cargo room in the car, how many passengers, how long you’re going, how much you packed, what you packed. So obviously there are a lot of variables and I can’t tell you exactly where to place each suitcase. But I can give you some car packing hacks.

  1. Put the heavier bags or items on the bottom
  2. Keep the overnight bag and any other bags or boxes you need easy access to on top. You don’t want to have to unpack the car to get to what you need.
  3. Keep the “go” bags and cooler upfront since they will be used frequently.
  4. Save space by leaving the bulky suitcases at home. Instead use soft-sided bags, like duffle bags or weekender bags. Since the soft bags have less structure, it’s easier to wedge them in open spaces.
  5. Buy or borrow a rooftop carrier or hitch mount cargo carrier for extra storage. No roof rack? No problem. There are roof bags that can strap to the roof of your car. Extra storage is especially good for beach chairs and large sporting/hobby equipment.

Keeping Your Car Clutter-free

The inside of the car can end up a total mess if you don’t put some systems and organizers into place from the get-go.

1.) Limit each person’s “go” bag. Make a rule that you are only allowed to bring what you can fit into a backpack or tote bag.

2.) Invest in car organizers, like a backseat organizer, seatback organizer, or seat organizer to keep stuff off the floor.

3.) Utilize car trash cans throughout the car. If there’s not a trash can conveniently located, then it’s likely to get dropped on the floor.

Empty every trash can when you stop for gas, food or a restroom break.

4.) About 10 minutes before you arrive at your destination or overnight accommodations, tell everyone to pack up their “go” bags and gather all trash.

Road Trip with Kids

Taking road trips with kids presents a whole new set of challenges. They have less patience, less concept of time and need more things to keep them occupied.

A lot of the tips and products apply whether you have kids or not. But here are a few more that specifically for taking a road trip with kids.

Kids need frequent bathroom breaks. And let’s be honest, sometimes bathrooms aren’t around, there’s a long line or they are just plain disgusting.

The Potette Plus travel potty chair has come in handy more times than I can count and for more than just road trips. We’ve used it a lot for our younger two children when we’ve been at their older siblings soccer, baseball and softball games and bathrooms were too far away or the porta-potty was too gross.

A portable DVD player or two is a good idea when traveling with kids. Most kids have some sort of electronic device but may not have enough memory to download movies.

Toy Storage

As I mentioned in the “go” bag section, each person should be limited to just one. You may think that kids need a ton of toys but as long as they have some of their favorites and maybe a new toy or game they should be ok. When you add in the time spent on electronics, sleeping and eating, they don’t need every moment with toys.

The backseat organizers and car seat organizers should help keep their toys off the floor.

In addition, having games and other activities can help pass the time on a road trip. Mad Libs, travel bingo and travel activity books are all good options.

There are also a lot of games that only require little or no supplies or free printables. Check out 10 road trip game ideas from Mommy Poppins and various printables compiled by Good Housekeeping.

Looking for More travel organization tips?

Check out these articles:

The Best Travel Organizers

Staying Organized While Traveling

How to pack a car for vacation

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