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Ah, so you are ready to brave a road trip with a toddler?
You must either have extreme patience or just don’t know what you are getting yourself into, eh?
Or, you may just be like me, who loves to travel or logistically it’s just better or necessary to get to a certain destination via driving.
Either way, you are staring at what might feel like endless hours of torture in the car.
Just kidding….it’s not so terrible!
But Today, We Talk Road Trips With a Toddler!
Whether you are looking for things to do on a road trip, need some car activities for toddlers for a long drive or just simply are looking for ways to make a road trip with kids easier, here are our top tips after countless roadtrips with a baby and toddler.
1) Car Seat Safety
Did you know that every state may have different care seat regulations? For example, Nebraska just passed a bill mandating that ALL children under two MUST be rear facing.
If you are crossing state lines, make sure you are in compliance with any car seat standards or laws they may have. Here is a really great article that gives details for every state.
I also am just a general stickler when it comes to car seat safety. Here are some of the best car seats by age that are helpful to be aware of.
2) Strategically Plan WHEN You Will Leave/ Drive
We briefly touch on this in our, above mentioned, Family Road Trip post, but if you are planning a road trip with a toddler or baby, it’s really worth diving into more.
We were crazy enough to road trip with a newborn….several times.
When Lil B was a baby, we always planned to leave on our family road trip about an hour or so before nap time. He typically could manage to not be TOO fussy or crabby for about that long, then would pass out for a nap, giving us a really long stretch of several hours of relatively easy travel time.
On shorter road trips, we still go the “leave around nap time” route. Sometimes, he’s content for a bit and then sleeps almost the rest of the way if we are lucky!
If you are going on a long road trip that is going to take a good chunk of time, like most of the midwest roadtrips we take, or even just the drives to get us across our own state of Nebraska, then consider driving overnight.
Most kids, even the young’ins can handle an hour or two in the car, so again, leave while they are still awake so that you can knock out a few hours of drive time before bedtime.
Pack their jammies and anything else that are essential night time items (binkie, blanket and lovey for us!) and do a shortened bedtime routine, even in the car. We even turn on a white noise app on our phone since that is what Lil B is used to at home when sleeping. We then do a shortened version of what we do every night before bed:
- Read a book
- Sing a song
- Say good night to random objects “Good night car seat, Good night blanket, good night light bulb…”
- Give good night kisses
If there are two of you, you can take turns driving, giving you both a bit of sleep as well.
While driving in the pitch dark isn’t always people’s favorite time or ideal way to drive, this can be a HUGE help in making that family road trip so much more bearable for EVERYONE involved!
3) Toddler Road Trip Essentials
What to pack for a road trip can seem overwhelming when you have a toddler. In fact, I find it pretty easy to over pack when going on road trips because we don’t have to worry about luggage weight or space.
But here are some of the absolute basic, must have things to bring on a road trip when traveling with a toddler.
- Child’s Favorite Toy or Item (like a lovey, binkie, doll, etc)
- Food (see below for more suggestions)
- Hassle Free Activities (see the list below for our favorites)
- Change of clothes in case of spills or accidents
- Diapers/ Wipes if still using
- Water/ Sippy cup
- Mirror (Especially on long road trips, we like to be able to see each other. (Click here for Amazon’s Top Rated Baby Rear Facing Mirror)
4) Road Trip Snacks for Toddlers
When all else fails in keeping your little one happy, just start shoveling food at him. We keep a well stocked bag of good road trip snacks that are easy to grab, not a mess and will keep our son content, even if for just a few minutes at a time.
Of course there are the typical culprits of things cracker type snacks, fruit snacks, goldfish, granola or fruit bars, etc.
We also love to have healthy road trip snacks on hand at all times.
- I love giving my toddler a whole apple. That can keep him busy for at least 15 minutes! (Every minute counts when you are talking keeping a toddler occupied!)
- We also typically bring things like string cheese, cut up veggies (baby carrots, peppers cut into strips, etc), veggie squeezie pouches and fruit.
The key to a successful road trip snack is that it is age appropriate for your kid (you should not be feeding your baby food in the car seat if s/he can’t sit up on his own) and isn’t going to end up in a huge, giant mess that you’ll have to clean up.
Tip: Find something that you don’t normally feed your child. It doesn’t need to be candy or sweats, but what is something that you typically don’t have at home? Make this a special surprise and “treat.” Things like animal crackers, yogurt bites, ginger snap cookies….I don’t know, get creative and have it be something “new” and fun for them.
5) Decide If You’ll Be Screen Free Road Tripping Or Not
You probably already know that so much research is coming out stating the harmful effects of screen time on children under two.
However, I also get it. Sometimes we parents just need to go into survival mode. And if you are looking at that clock realizing you have 8 more hours stuck in the car with a grumpy toddler, it’s easy to decide that a tablet, IPAD or DVD is worth it to not go insane. If you choose NOT to use a screen, here are some great tips on keeping your kids happy.
Another great thing to consider if you REALLY want to keep your sanity is a set of children or toddler earphones so that you don’t have to listen to that ridiculous music on kid’s games or movies! But really, having earphones that are specifically made with a child’s ear and hearing in mind is great if you plan on traveling more with them.
HOWEVER, you’d be shocked at how much time you can pass with your little one strapped into a car seat if you just get creative. In Lil B’s first two years of life, we flew long haul international flights (totaling to almost 24 hours of travel time each!) 5 times and went on countless road trips and we never resorted to screen time.
Sure, it was more effort on our part to keep him preoccupied, busy and happy, but it wasn’t the end of the world. In the next section, you’ll see some of my absolute favorite screen free toddler activities for traveling.
Toddler Car Games, Road Trip Activities and Screen Free Activities
Alright, I may get a lot of flack for this, but I actually don’t do a TON of activities in the car.
Don’t get me wrong, I always have items on hand that will get us over humps, but even a toddler is capable of learning to “just be.” I mean, yes, that probably means playing a game of “What’s That” (Oh, you don’t know that game?? You know, the one where he literally points to the same thing a million times and asks “What’s that??”) for 30 minutes straight.
But I really love teaching my son from an early age that we don’t always have to be “DOING” something.
BUT, I also have the moments where I need a good arsenal of travel activities and toys for toddlers (tip– most of these are great for ANY type of travel, but are especially great for travel with toddlers in a car when you may not be able to be 100% hands on with them)
Toddler Road Trip Toys:
I actually have a very small set of toys that are only used in the car. This way they don’t get overused (and bored of) at home.
The key here is to have things that don’t have small items that are easily dropped, activities that don’t make a mess, and is something that will keep their attention for at least SEVERAL minutes! Some of my favorites are:
- Water Wow Books: (guys, these things are AMAZING! They are water pens (no, not messy) that color a page, that then disappears, allowing them to recolor a million times!) SO awesome!!! I bought this 3 pack and rotate them out for novelty effect. (This is also great because when he’s bored of coloring, I’ll then ask him to find certain things on the pages, buying us a bit more time!)
- Magnadoodles: I bought this travel pack, which is easy to take on trips
- Magnetic Building Blocks: These are quickly becoming a favorite now that my two year old is grasping the concept of “building” a bit more. Best part is that since they are magnetic, they aren’t as easy to drop off the side of a car seat. They also come in a perfect little travel pouch. #Winning! These are the ones that we use.
- Shape Sorter: Ok, while this one does have pieces, I love this particular travel specific shape sorter! It’s perfect for taking on trips and doubles as a great toy to have at your destination as well.
- Bunchems Travel Easel: These are pretty hard to explain, so just go check them out. There are lots of small balls, but since they all stick together, it’s harder for them to fall all over the place.
- Nuts and Bolts: I LOVE these for fine motor skill development and little ones can make tons of different shapes out of them. Here is the set that we have.
6) Car Activities for Kids and Travel Games for Toddlers
Busy Bags for Travel: I freaking LOVE busy bags while we are traveling. Here is a list of 100 ideas to get your brain juices flowing from Inspired Mama. Not all of them are exactly car friendly, but are still generally really great travel activities for kids. What isn’t the best to take in the car can be great to keep your little one pre-occupied when you arrive at your hotel or location that may not have many toddler friendly toys and activities.
Some of my favorites are ones like a color wheel sorter made with clothes pins, dress up peg dolls and a lot of the fine motor skills activities (like threading).
Eye Spy: Aaaah a classic! My toddler is just now able to see out the window, so we use things that aren’t moving too fast past us as well as items in the car to “spy”
Road Trip Books: You just can’t go wrong with a good book! I try to bring new (library) books as well as a few that I know he loves. Ones with flaps are particularly engaging for toddlers and again, you can ask them to find certain things in the books helping to keep their attention.
Tip: If you can, get books that have to do with your destination. It’s a great learning opportunity!
Name That Color: I simply love activities that get Lil B used to just having “conversation” instead of needing attention. We often play back and forth road trip games for kids like “What color is your shirt? What other things do you know of that are red?” (you get the point here….) At two, some of the answers you’ll get can be pretty funny! Other similar games are the favorite license plate game (for older kids), 20 questions, etc.
Food: Did I mention my go-to for making everyone happy is food!? It is.
7) Get a Toddler Travel Potty
If you are potty training or are just past that stage, then you are well aware of the fact that when your little one squeaks out an “I need to potty!” that it doesn’t mean “The next time we see a rest stop, I need to use the restroom.”
No, if your toddler proclaims they have to pee, you best be pulling over roadside or face a very wet car seat predicament.
It sounds ridiculous, but it’s seriously something to consider bringing along, even for the slightly older kiddos as well.
Here is our Ultimate Guide To Travel Potties For Toddlers that can help you decipher which one is best for road trips.
8) Have Good Playlist
Ok, this one isn’t so much for your toddler. But you can’t NOT have a roadtrip music playlist!? (and no, not children’s music). If you have a long road trip, make sure you’ve planned accordingly to help keep YOUR sanity while driving.
We also love audiobooks while on road trips.
Gone are the days of my leisurely reading (outside of books like One Fish Two Fish). I haven’t been able to pick up an adult chapter book since Lil B has been on the go, so turning an audio book on when on a long car drive is the perfect compromise.
(We recently finished Nick Offerman’s Paddle Your Own Canoe (Tv’s Parks and Rec’s Ron Swanson) and LOVED it!)
9) Safety, Safety, Safety
No matter how safe of a driver you are, you can’t control weather conditions, other drivers and some car break-downs. If you have your precious little cargo in the backseats during an especially long road trip, consider a roadside assistance program, like AAA. It can be worth having just for your peace of mind.
Also, when traveling anywhere, but especially with children, I think it’s pretty important to have a car safety kit packed away. When we lived in Europe, a kit like the one below was MANDATORY in all cars. I actually think it’s really valuable no matter where in the world you live if you plan on driving long distances.
Things you should consider having in an Emergency Car Kit are
- Reflective Vest (if you need to, God forbid, be out on a busy road for whatever reason)
- First Aid Kit (you can just buy a pre-made one here with all the essentials)
- Extra Water
- Extra Blankets if traveling in colder climates/ months
- Jumper Cables
- Shelf Stable Food (granola bars, for example)
- Crank Flashlights (so you don’t risk bad batteries)
We just bought a kit like this that has pretty much all of the above, minus the food and water and just keep it in the trunk. Just knowing it’s in the car provides a lot of peace of mind.
Click Here To Buy This All In One Car Safety Kit
Final Long Road Trip Tips
Go into it being positive: I know it sounds super corny, but kids totally play off your emotions. Go into your road trip with kids with a “We’ve got this!” kinda attitude rather than a “This is going to SUCK mentality.”
There Will Be Hard Times: Whether your toddler has a potty accident, he loses his marbles (either literally or figuratively) and decides to scream for an hour straight, or God-forbid, you need that doggy bag, sometimes travel with kids doesn’t go as planned. Take a few deep breaths, pull over if needed and remember that you can probably buy wine at your destination!
Going into traveling with kids with realistic expectations can make ALL the difference.
Tip: Have low expectations, then anything works out in your favor!
Sure, road trips aren’t always the best vacations for toddlers, but hopefully the end destination is well worth the long car ride. Traveling with kids (cough: toddlers!) isn’t always the easiest thing, but it is 100% do-able.
Have you taken a long roadtrip with a toddler? What are your top tips for other parents?
Facing a long car ride with your tot? What questions do you have?
If you know of a family ready to take a road trip, don’t forget to share this with them to get them prepared!