Tips for Long Car Rides with Toddlers

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!

tips for long car rides with toddlers

*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).

surviving toddler road trips

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 may want to break up the drive by stopping at a hotel, or AirBnB, to break up your drive!

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!

best tips for car rides with toddlers

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.

road trips with toddlers

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!

what to bring in the car for a long trip with a toddler

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!

potty training essentials for car rides

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!

best snacks for toddler road trips

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:

  • pepperoni
  • 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!)
  • raisins
  • *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!

tips for roadtripping with little kids

Plastic tupperware

long car rides with little kids

Bento boxes

taking a long car ride with 2 year old

Craft organizers

books, toys, and activities for toddlers on long car rides

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:

best toys for long car rides with toddlers

little figurines

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!

small cars or construction vehicles

My son is REALLY into cars and construction vehicles. He has huge ones, but these are perfect for the car!

what toys to bring in the car for toddlers

magnetic tiles (bring a handful in a plastic baggie, along with a baking sheet or lap desk for easier building!)

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!

best toys for long car rides with toddlers

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!

traveling in the car with a two year old

handful of Duplos (plus a building plate, if you like)

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!)

toddler road trip survival tips

baby doll and a few accessories

Bring a favorite baby doll, plus a few of the most play-with accessories!

what to bring for toddlers on long car rides

pocket book with items inside

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!

car packing list for toddler road trips

animals and barn

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!

long car ride for toddlers tips

Toob animals

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:

how to survive a road trip with a toddler

Toddler Keys

surviving a road trip with two toddlers

Toddler Phone

best tips for driving a long way with a toddler

how to drive a long way with a toddler

Water Wow

THESE. ARE. SO. COOL. They are little books that you can paint JUST WITH WATER! SO much fun and mess-free! My son has just gotten really into these! *Make sure you fill up the little paint brush before you leave*

taking a long trip with a toddler

Color Wonder markers and paper

Y’all, people are SO smart. These markers and paper are MAGICAL.

The markers ONLY color on the special COLOR WONDER paper! IT’S AWESOME! No worry about getting markers everywhere!

best toddler road trip tips

Puffy Sticker Scenes

WE LOVE THESE! Well, I just about love anything Melissa and Doug make. They are amazing, and I think we would be BEST friends. These reusable puffy stickers come with a scene to stick them on! SO, SO FUN!

BOOKS for long car rides with toddlers: Bring FAVORITE and NEW books for your toddler

The older your toddler is the more likely books will be a big help in the car!

These must be books that they can enjoy just by looking at them! For us these are favorite books they have memorized, life-the-flap books, textured books, or seek-and-find books.

Here are a few examples of our favorite car books for long road trips with toddlers:

things for toddlers to do in the car

Peek-a-Flap series

best books for toddlers to read in the car

Never Touch series

toddler books for road trips

books toddlers can read by themselves

Dear Zoo

best books for kids in the car

Where’s Spot?

Mom tip: Re-enforce the flaps by adding tape to both sides! Toddlers love to rip them off! (They may still come off, but this tip will make them last a little longer!)

SING songs your kids know and love while riding in the car

We LOVE singing in the car!

Here are some of our favorite songs to sing without music (linked to music in case you don’t know one):

LISTEN to a fun PLAYLIST while on a long drive with your kids

Every toddler I know loves to listen to music!

Make a playlist with your kids’ favorite music and have a car dance party! Better yet, use the time to play some music that teaches your kids the truth of the Gospel!

Here are some of our favorite songs to sing in the car for toddlers:

LISTEN to AUDIO-BOOKS on long trips

I JUST started trying some audio-books with my three-year-old son at home, and he really enjoys them! I’ll definitely try to use them in our next long car ride!

Check out these audiobook recommendations for toddlers (as well as some awesome tips for how to begin using audiobooks with your toddler or preschooler!)!

Don’t start the habit of always having noise while in the car (be it music, a movie, or a tablet).

YoungMomMentor

Use the long car ride as a chance for intentional conversations with your toddler

One of our goals as a family is to cultivate good conversation with our young kids, so (hopefully) as they grow, they will continue to want to be open with us.

These conversations happen naturally at the dinner table and in the car.

Don’t start the habit of always having noise while in the car (be it music, a movie, or a tablet).

Talk to your kids.

Even when they’re just learning to talk; even when they talk your ears off (and maybe especially then).

Tell your kids stories, ask them questions, play car games (“I spy” is a good one to start with) like we did before technology took over the world.

Allow silence.

Conversation AND silence are both GOOD things for everyone.

Don’t drown out your kids. LISTEN to them. HEAR them.

LAST RESORT: Use screen-time for toddlers on long car rides

Our kids don’t play on tablets (ever), or watch movies in the car. We try to keep screen-time minimal in general.

I know the above tip was about NOT using technology, but sometimes while traveling, rules have to be bent in order to keep Mom and Dad from losing their minds.

NaptimeKitchen, once again, for the win here! She shared an iPad holder for the car and it looks awesome! You can download shows from your favorite apps to show in the car. Have some on deck for sanity-saving emergencies!

Some of our favorite kid-friendly shows/movies are:

Toddler Checklist for Road trips
Click to download my checklist for roadtripping with toddlers!

PACK THE CAR purposefully

My husband and I really have to work together when it comes to this one.

I pack the bags; he packs the car.

Communicate with your spouse about the following:

What do you need access to at all times?

What do you need within reach? Here’s my list (my kids are 1 and 3 and not yet potty-trained):

  • Stocked Diaper bag: diapers (x2) , wipes, changes of clothes in wet bags (x2)
  • My water bottle/coffee/cell phone
  • pillow and blanket if I want them
  • Favorite toys/books/car activities in a bin at the kids’ feet (make sure I can reach it)
  • Snacks in cooler bag, and/or tote bag (once again, within mama’s reach)
  • Emergency toys/books- out of kids’ sight to be used when needed
  • tissues, paper towels, towel (messes happen!)
  • grocery bag for trash

What do you need to be able to access at rest stops?

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had to go through the back of our van to get something we didn’t realize we would need!

Save yourself the trouble, and pack your car with these things in mind the first time:

  • Potty, toilet paper, garbage bags, and paper towels (for potty-training or newly-trained toddlers)
  • cooler (if you’re bringing water or soda for mom and dad, or packed a meal for the road)
  • Overnight bag with everyone’s necessities if you’re stopping overnight

Know that there WILL be crying

It’s okay, Mama.

Your toddler is going to cry at some point on the trip.

They may even scream.

Like scream at the top of their lungs (I am of course NOT speaking from experience, whatsoever; my children NEVER cry! haha!).

They are okay.

They are loved, cared for, clean, full, warm, and on their way to have a great experience, see family, or whatever the purpose of your family trip is.

Toddlers cry. It’s just the way it is. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom or neglectful in any way if you let them cry for a little bit (or more than a little bit).

HEAR ME: THEY.WILL.BE.OKAY.

They are allowed to be sad, mad, uncomfortable, whatever emotion they are having! Emotions, and the expression of those emotions (re:crying) is HEALTHY and GOOD and EXPECTED.

Let them cry. Validate their emotions. Be that safe place for them to express themselves.

That’s what we are here for.

Let them know that a break to move/eat/get out is coming soon. You hear them, you see them. They are safe.

You’ve got this, mama!

little kid checklist for road trips
Don’t forget to download my free Toddler Roadtrip checklist!

Final thoughts on road-tripping with toddlers

I hope you’ve found at least a few useful tips for long car rides with toddlers that you can put to use on your next trip!

Let me know what you think in the comments below, as well as any questions you may have about traveling with young kids! It’s tough, but the memories are SO worth it!

Lots of love,

Related “toddler travel” articles

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Tips for long car rides with toddlers

Hey, it's Anna! I'm a teacher-turned-SAHM of two young kids. I love to research all things parenting and kid-related and share them on here.

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