AWESOME tips for long car rides with toddlers: how to prepare, what to pack (+ a checklist!) and more!
Need some tips for longs car rides with toddlers?
Planning a car trip with your young kids and want to know how to SURVIVE!?
This article is for you!
I’ve made a list of my best tips, tricks (and snacks, naturally) for long car rides with toddlers.
YOU CAN DO THIS!
*There are affiliate links in this post. Read my disclosure policy to learn more.*
Planning for a long car trip with little kids
This section is the most important section.
Think through each one. Traveling with young kids is MUCH different than before kids. It requires a lot of forethought and planning. This doesn’t make it not worth it, it’s just requires more work than it used to!
Evaluate your trip/destination
Is this trip WORTH the HASSLE?
Traveling with littles is a lot of work. You’re GOING to get irritated with your spouse and your kids, they’re GOING to cry, and you’re probably going to have a minor disaster or two along the way.
Is this trip worth all of that?
I’m not saying it’s not, I’m just saying you need to think through and DECIDE it is, because that’s going to make the hassle and irritation worth it: you’ll have something to remind yourself when the going gets tough (and it probably WILL).
Travel-planning questions for long car rides with toddlers:
- Where are you going? Do you actually WANT to go there? (or do you just HAVE to go there; PSA: you don’t HAVE to go anywhere… with some exceptions, haha)
- How long is the drive? (don’t factor in stoppage time right now, just check Google maps if you’re unsure)
- How many days will you be there? (Is this long enough to actually enjoy the trip? Should you add/subtract days?)
- When are you traveling? (If it’s a holiday or busy traveling season, is there anyway you could adjust your days/times to miss traffic?)
- Who are you going to see? Does going to see them make traveling worth it? (or are you going to be stressed out of your mind and unpleasant the whole time? This isn’t good for anyone)
- What will you be doing there? Are your kids old enough to participate?
- Is this trip within your budget? Is this a wise decision at this time?
Hear me out:
I’m not saying that there’s never a time to do hard things that make us uncomfortable or inconvenience us (OF COURSE THERE ARE PLENTY OF TIMES FOR THOSE THINGS!).
I ‘m just saying that sometimes we make it harder on ourselves by going somewhere too far away, for too short a time, to do something our kids won’t remember anyway (and it causes unneeded marriage and family stress in the process).
Choose your trip wisely, and once you do, COMMIT to it, and keep reminding yourself that it’s worth it!
Plan to stop at a family-friendly attraction halfway through your long drive
I think I saw Kate at NaptimeKitchen post about this originally, and I thought it was genius!
If there’s some sort of family-friendly attraction between home and your destination, stop and spend a few hours there!
This will help break up the drive, get kids moving, and also be a great memory!
And, if you time it right, maybe the kids will fall asleep when they get back in the car!
*With Covid, this is a little trickier. We have stopped at playgrounds, had picnics outside fast food restaurants, and stopped at an outdoor attraction (Jockey’s Ridge). You may have to get creative!
If your trip is longer than 8-10 hours of driving, consider stopping somewhere overnight
If your drive is REALLY long, consider your toddler(s), driver(s), and sanity!
You can even combine the last tip with this one and stop in a cute town you’ve never been to, or a zoo you’ve always wanted to go to! Don’t push yourself (and your family) further than you have to!
Lower your expectations on long car rides with toddlers
This is definitely one of the best mindset tips for long car rides with toddlers:
Once you commit to driving a long way with a toddler, realize that even though it’s worth it, doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect. Expect road bumps (figuratively and maybe literally).
Keeping your expectations low from the get-go will allow you to enjoy the drive when things go smoothly!
“Prepare for the worst; hope for the best!”
Remind yourself to laugh when things get crazy
Relax. Laugh at the things that go wrong. Work with your spouse to find a solution and move on!
Let the problems (and crying) just roll off your back! Traveling will be more stressful if you can’t let go of the little things!
If it helps, choose a phrase to use to remind you to laugh at the craziness: “bananas” for instance. Remind your partner to say this to you (and you to them) for a gentle reminder that this is what you signed up for when you got married and had kids: relax and enjoy the ride! (*NOTE: Know thyself and thy spouse: this tip would probably annoy mine! haha!)
Map out and plan for extra rest stops (and therefore, extra time!)
In my experience, if you’re not driving at night, it will take you about 1 extra hour to every 4 hours of driving if you have little ones. At least that’s the number for us!
One stop for us is usually about an hour (less if we aren’t eating). It’s just hard to get the littles back in the car in under an hour. You want to give them time to move around and get their wiggles out before strapping them back in!
It’s a good idea to check the map and see where good places to stop are (rest stops, playgrounds, green spaces, restaurants). This way, you have kind of an idea of the available stops that suite your family’s needs. We have usually done this mid-drive, and while that’s okay, I wish we would have planned better.
SLEEP PREP tips for long car rides with toddlers: prepare for quality sleep in the car
Kids like routine! The thrive on predictability!
When traveling (which is different than most days, and schedules are thrown off), it’s helpful to keep as much the same as you can, to help your kiddos adapt to the changes that are being made.
Drive at night: THE BEST TIP THERE IS FOR LONG CAR RIDES WITH TODDLERS!
Our VERY BEST TIP for driving a long distance with little kids is to DRIVE AT NIGHT.
Y’ALL, this has been such a help and a huge life-saver!
Our kiddos do not like to ride in the car in general, and they have done SO WELL driving at night.
There are two options for driving at night:
- leave AT bedtime
- leave at some point during the night/early am hours (this requires a “sleeping-kid transfer”)
We’ve done both, but the second option is our favorite because we actually get some sleep. We go to bed when the kids go to bed (around 8), and then get up around 2-3am (depending on how long of a drive it is).
With the first option (since our drives have been between 6-7 hours total, with no stops because they’re sleeping) we transfer them to their beds around 2-3am and they wake around 6, and we get only a few hours of precious sleep.
You need to take into account your trip length, when you need to be where you’re going, and sleep for the driver, but DRIVING AT NIGHT IS WHERE IT’S AT!
If driving at bedtime, do your normal “bedtime routine” before placing them in the car
Our bedtime routine is simple: bath (every other night), put on pajamas, read books, brush teeth, go to bed.
We (try to) stick to this same routine before putting putting the kids in the car for a long trip.
Sticking to the routine signals to their brains that “okay, it’s time for sleep. It’s a little different, but this is the same. It’s time for sleep”
Sticking to as much of our normal schedule as we can has been very helpful for us!
If transferring your toddler to the car during the night, turn off internal car lights
My husband is a GENIUS and thought of this the last time we drove a long way with our kids!
Look is your car’s user manual, and see if there’s an option to turn off the internal lights of your car. Ours are SO INCREDIBLY BRIGHT IT’S LIKE A DENTIST OFFICE!
We knew our kids would wake up (or be REALLY woken up) as soon as we put them in the car lit up like Christmas; we were either taping the lights or turning them off.
Luckily, it was a pretty easy fix that yours might have as well!
Drive at naptime: THE SECOND BEST OPTION FOR TRAVELING WITH LITTLE KIDS!
If you can’t drive at night (or your trip isn’t quite long enough to warrant it), driving during naptime is your next best bet.
When doing this, we like to leave about an hour before lunch (the kids are happy and will play for about an hour before things get questionable…haha), then we will stop for lunch, get them full, let them run around, change diapers (or potty), and then get them back in the car. It’s usually not too long before one falls asleep, and then the other follows shortly.
(THIS IS NOT AN EXACT FORMULA, GUYS! SOMETIMES ONE (or both….) JUST DOESN’T NAP! KEEP READING FOR OTHER TIPS YOU CAN USE WHILE ONE NAPS OR IF BOTH REFUSE…. SOLIDARITY! haha!)
Dress kids comfortably
Make sure the clothes you’re putting on your children are comfortable for the long car ride!
For us, this means:
- No buttons, zippers, or hoods
- material that is soft and breathable (i.e. cotton)
- clothes that fit well: not too tight or loose
- shoes that are easy to take off and put on
If it’s nighttime, pajamas work wonderfully! For the daytime, comfortable play clothes should do the trick.
If dress clothes are required where you’re going (wedding, funeral, etc…), change into them when you get there! Have a bag with all of the things you need where you can get to it when needed!
Bring kids’ comfort items
Comfort items (like stuffed animals, lovies, blankies, etc..) are helpful tools for your toddler(s) to have in the car! They can be used to help soothe them, and also to help remind them that it’s time for sleep.
My daughter sleeps with a lovey, and my son used to, but now sleeps with about 2759230360 stuffed animals. Before our trip, I had him choose which stuffed animals he wanted to bring with him. (KNOW THY CHILD: bring them all to prevent chaos if needed!)
Use a sound machine if you normally use one (and to drown out any crying)
Another sleep association our kids have is their sound machine. We love it! It plays white noise and we’ve used it at every sleep time for our kids’ lives.
We have a travel sound machine that we like to use. It reminds the kids that it’s time to sleep, drowns out (some of) the noise of one crying-so the other can sleep, and also blocks out road/car noise.
This sound machine can also be used as a nighttime sounds machine for travel in general!
DISASTER PREP tips for long car rides with toddlers: prepare for toddler disasters while on the road
Be prepared for all the things that could possibly go wrong!
Have a change of clothes for everyone within reach
Someone is going to spill their drink, throw up, or have a massive blow out! It’s just inevitable in life with toddlers and ESPECIALLY with toddlers who are in a car for a long time!
Have (at least) one change of clothes per person in a bag that’s easily accessible. Two outfits is probably a safer bet for the kids!
Have a wet bag for soiled clothing
I LOVE THESE WET BAGS!
These are a carryover item from when we cloth-diapered and they’re SO convenient for trips! Just put the soiled clothes inside and deal with them when you get to your destination!
Now, you totally don’t have to have these (you can just as easily use grocery bags, trash bags, or plastic baggies) but we use these all of the time!
We actually keep the kids’ extra clothes in the front pockets, and then put the soiled clothes in the inside pockets. We also keep one in our swim bag to put wet bathing suits in!
Have paper towels, wet wipes, and a towel within reach
These three items should be in your car at all times (traveling or not!)
You never know when you’re going to need any of them! Better safe than sorry!
Have a potty and toilet paper easily accessible
If you have a potty trained (or potty trainING child), you must have a potty with you at all times. You never know when your kiddo is going to have to go, (not to mention a potty is MUCH more sanitary than a nasty gas station bathroom!)
Bring a lot of grocery bags to use for the poo/pee
I saw this tip somewhere and I can’t remember where… but bring lots of grocery bags to use between the potty “bowl” and the “seat”! Place a diaper or paper towel inside (to absorb pee, catch poop), let your toddler do their thing, then tie up the bag!
NO MESS; GENIUS!
SNACK PREP tips for long car rides with toddlers: Prepare for LOTS of toddler snacking while riding!
The number one rule of parenting: never be found snackless.
But really, kids get hungry quickly, and then HANGRY soon follows. It’s best to have snacks with you wherever you go!
Snacks are also a GREAT distraction for toddlers!
When traveling long distances with toddlers, favorite snacks, new snacks, and cleverly packaged snacks are a MUST!
Of COURSE, use your mama judgment with what snacks are safe for your toddler(s) in the car! Check out these toddler choking hazards, have eyes on your eating kids at all times, and know what to do if a choking episode happens!
Our favorite toddler snacks for the car
Toddlers. love. snacks (well, don’t we all love snacks!?)!
We love these three types of toddler snacks for the car: FRESH, PACKAGED, and NEW snacks for added interested!
Check out the lists below for some of our favorite of each kind!
We like to travel with a thermal tote for these fresh snacks:
- cheese sticks (I “string” these first- in halves for my 3yo and in fourths for my 1yo, as they’re choking size)
- pre-cut fruit (sliced strawberries, peeled and cut oranges, quartered grapes, etc…)
Some of our favorite packaged car-snacks for toddlers are:
- pouches (these are the safest for car rides, but could possibly be the messiest depending on how your toddler does with eating them! haha!)
- low-sugar cereal like Cheerios
- goldfish (of COURSE)
- meat sticks (that sounds SO disgusting, but think beef jerky. Cut these in half down the middle, and remove skin if necessary)
- rice cakes (these are definitely going to get everywhere, but they take a while to eat so that’s a win in my book!)
- *For even more ideas for packaged, healthy snacks (like A MILLION), check out Lindsay’s post!(TheLeanGreenBean)! She’s a Registered Dietician, a mama, and AWESOME!*
Our favorite “new” toddler snacks for the car
For “emergency” toddler car-travel situations, we like to have “new” (or less frequently available at home) snacks on hand! Toddlers love new things! These normally (sometimes, occasionally… just depends, y’all, because, #toddlers!) give us a few more minutes of driving peace.
- chocolate bunnies
- Homemade trail mix: throw random snacks (cereals, crackers, pretzels) into a bowl, add something sugary and yummy (marshmallows, M&Ms), package into plastic baggies or containers, and ration as needed!
- random gas station or dollar store snacks (buy a few before you leave!)
Bonus snack tip for long car rides with toddlers: Put snacks in containers for added interest!
Fun containers like these can add interest and be more time-consuming for toddlers to use on the road! Try them out and let me know if it helps!
ENTERTAINMENT PREP tips for long car rides with toddlers: How to occupy toddlers on long distance road trips
In order to distract your young kids from the fact that they’re strapped into a car seat for many hours on end, it’s best to have many different options for road entertainment!
This can come in the form of toys, activities, books, singing, playlists, audiobooks, and last but not least, technology!
TOYS: The BEST toys for traveling with toddlers
There are 3 types of toys you should pack for long car trips with little kids: FAVORITE toys, NEW (cheap) toys, and “EMERGENCY car toys”.
1) Bring your kids’ FAVORITE toys (that also work well in the car)
Not all toys are easy to play with in the car. Think through your kids’ favorite toys and choose a few to bring that you think will work in the car. Here are some examples of toys you may have at home that are ideal for car rides:
I don’t know about you, but I LOVE Daniel Tiger! My best friend’s kids have these figurines and they’re just precious! Perfect for playing at home and in the car; my kids love playing with them!
My son is REALLY into cars and construction vehicles. He has huge ones, but these are perfect for the car!
WE.LOVE.MAGNETIC.TILES. We have Picasso Tiles and love them, but I’m sure any brand will do!. They are played with every single day. These are perfect toys for the car; especially with a cookie sheet to build on!
magnets and cookie sheet
Cookie sheets and magnets keep my 3 year old occupied for minutes at a time on long car rides! haha! But really, he loves them!
Bring a small amount of your child’s favorite things to build with on car trips! (bonus if they stick or clip together in some way!)
Bring a favorite baby doll, plus a few of the most play-with accessories!
My daughter and son both love playing with pocket books! They love putting things in and taking things out. Put in some new Dollar Tree toys for them to discover for some extra car fun when disaster is about to strike!
Both of my kids still love these plush animals and barn! It’s similar to the pocketbook; they love putting them in, taking them out, and singing Old MacDonald!
There are a million of these and they’re all SO cute! BRING ONE tube (get it, Toob!? lol), otherwise you will have to keep up with a million tiny things!
2) Go to the Dollar Tree for cheap, toys for the long car ride
One of my favorite tips for long car rides with toddlers is this one!
I like to go to the Dollar Tree and pick up a few new toys for the kids for drives!
They are small, cheap, and NEW, therefore, EXCITING!
Do not spend a lot of money, just grab a few you think your kids will like and save them for when you need them!
3) “Emergency car toys” (electronic toys)
We don’t like toys with batteries or lights. The only ones we have “make sense” (like an ambulance with a siren and lights, or a kid leaf-blower that makes a blowing sound).
So, electronic toys with lights and sound can be a real help for the last 15 minutes before a rest stop on a long drive with toddlers. My best friend coined the term “emergency car toy”, and it has stuck!
Here are some we have and have used in the past: