Pack It Up!
Family road trips have the potential to be an incredibly fun and relaxing time to kick back and enjoy life. To enjoy your family and the time you get to spend together.
But so many times family road trips become a source of stress and frustration before you even leave the house! So, how do you get to the fun and relaxing part? How do you leave the stress behind? How do you plan a family road trip without losing your mind?
All it takes is some preparation, some planning, and the power of a good packing list! Welcome to Part 3 of this 3 part mini-series dedicated to helping you plan, prepare, and pack for your family road trip without losing your mind. This, my Friend, is where the rubber meets the road. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself!) This is where you start tracking down all the things you need and packing it all up to take it with you.
Let’s get packing, shall we?
PHASE ONE :: PREPARING
As you walk through this phase of preparing, keep in mind everything in this post builds on Part 1: Create Your Packing List and Part 2: Vacation Meal Planning Made Easy. If you’re just finding this mini series, I highly encourage you to click the links to go back and start at the beginning! Don’t worry, this post (Part 3: Pack It Up!) will be here waiting for you!
Step One :: Have Your List in Hand
Remember that travel packing list you’ve been building? The one where you’ve been thinking through everything you’ll need on your road trip and writing down all the items to pack? This is the moment where your list gets to really shine. Make sure you have it in hand as you walk through the steps to pack everything.
If you’ve been following along with this mini series, but you haven’t yet claimed your Family Road Trip Packing List Set, now is your moment! Enter your email into this form and as soon as you click the button, these templates will be on their way to your inbox.
Step Two :: Purchase What You Need
Some of the things you’ll need on your road trip, you don’t yet have in your house. Oh, don’t get me wrong, you’ve added them to your packing list. You know you need to get them. But now is the time to get the things you need but don’t have.
Take a look at your packing list and see what you need to purchase. It might be some extra things like new coloring books or sketch pads for your child’s backpack. It could be a new puzzle or a new soccer ball you plan to enjoy at your destination. It could be purchasing another duffel bag, laundry bag, or toiletries bag for someone in your family. It could be making a run to the grocery store to make sure you have enough snack size zip top baggies and purchasing the snacks for your trip. Whatever items are on your list of things to pack and are not currently in your house, it’s time to get them!
Step Three :: Set the Stuff Expectation
It doesn’t matter how many people are in your family or how big your vehicle is, it’s always a good idea to set the expectation on how many bags each person is allowed to bring. In our family, each person gets to bring a duffel bag (complete with their laundry bag and toiletries bag) and their backpack with their neck pillow hooked on the outside.
All the things they bring on our road trip must fit into one of these two bags. On top of that, the items on their packing list must be in their bags before anything else is added. If they have extra room in their bags and would like to bring other things, they absolutely can. However, the essential items on their packing list must be in the bag first!
If you’re looking for a specific list of what needs to go in each duffel bag and backpack, check out Part 1: Create Your Packing List.
Now, it might sound harsh to limit what each person brings to only 2 bags, but remember, I have 7 people in my family! We travel in a minivan. So, everything we bring has to fit inside the minivan or in one of 4 plastic bins that ride on our trailer hitch platform. Due to our space limitations, we have to be very choosy about what we bring with us. And the best way I’ve found to easily set boundaries around how much stuff my children bring is to give them a set number of bags.
If you have more room to work with in your vehicle, by all means, make these guidelines work for your family. But the principle of setting the expectation of how many bags each person gets holds true. If you do this up front before the packing even starts, you will save so much time, frustration, and arguments about what each person can and cannot bring.
Step Four :: Decide What the Bags Hold
When you embark on a family road trip, there will be many more things to bring than just the duffel bags and backpacks of everyone’s personal stuff. You’ll have food and games. Beach accessories or hiking gear. Technology or winter gear.
These items are best packed category by category. So, take a look at the bags and bins you have available to pack. You can physically pull them out and look at them or just think through them in your mind. As you look through them, think through these questions:
- Which bags and bins will you be taking?
- What will you put in them?
- Will all of these bins and bags fit into your vehicle along with everyone’s duffel bags?
Here are a few suggestions on the type of bag or bin to pack certain items in:
- Cooler :: The perfect place for all your cold food to travel.
- Cooler Bag :: Perfect for water bottles and extra water jugs, particularly if your big cooler will not be readily accessible.
- Plastic bins or tubs :: Great for food storage and transport. Extra shoes, hiking equipment, sports equipment, or games also work well in these.
- Large bag :: Beach towels, poofy winter gear, extra blankets, or hiking backpacks can be rolled or packed flat.
I’m sure you get the idea. If you want to get really detailed, you could make a list of all the bags and bins and what will be in each one. The big idea is to decide what items (or at least what category of items) will go into each bag before the packing begins.
Step Five :: Find a Spot for Snacks
Before you start packing your vehicle. Before you even start packing your bags, you need to take a moment and determine where your snacks for the road will ride. This piece actually has two parts: You need to determine where the snacks will be and what container they will best fit into for the ride.
Now, determining where the snacks will be is a tricky thing! You want them to be accessible, but if you make them too accessible, all the snacks will be gone before you are 2 hours down the road! So, where will you put your snacks? Will they be on top of the luggage in the very back? Will they be stored where your children can reach them? Will they be stored where mom and dad can control them? For my family, the best spot for the snacks to ride is in the top watertight plastic bin on the luggage rack on the back of our van. This way, every time we stop we can grab a snack, but we don’t go through all the snacks in the first 3 hours of our trip!
Where will your snacks be? What container will they travel in?
PHASE TWO :: GET PACKING
Now that you’ve done all this prep work, all this list building, all this item gathering, it’s time to put your plan into action. This part feels really fun because you’re actually doing something with your hands, but it can also feel very intimidating because there’s so much to do. Remember, don’t panic! Just take it step by step and know it won’t be completely perfect, but it will get done.
Here’s one big key to remember in this phase: Don’t do all the work by yourself! Let others help you! Yes, it will be messier this way. But when everyone helps prepare for a road trip, they take more ownership for the trip. And, as an added bonus, when your children are helping you pack, they’re not following you around asking when you’re going to leave!
Step One :: The Bag Frenzy
If you haven’t gotten out the bags yet, now is the time! And don’t just get out one or two bags at a time. Get them all out at once! Spread them out to see the bags you’re going to bring. Give each person their duffel bag. Make sure they have their backpack. Make sure they have their toiletries holder and their laundry bag to go inside their duffel bag.
Once each person has their personal bags, start laying out the shared bags. If more than one person will be packing them, try attaching a tag to each bag identifying what will go inside it. You don’t have to get fancy with these tags, either. You can write what goes in the bag on some scrap paper with a sharpie and use masking tape or painters tape to attach it to the bag or bin. This simple act will help clear up any packing confusion before it even starts!
Step Two :: Let Each One Pack Their Own
Let each child pack their own bags! You’ve created the packing list. You’ve set the expectation of what must go into the bag. You’ve set the expectation of how many bags each child can bring. Now it’s time to give them their list and let them pack according to their capability!
But what is their capability? Here’s a general guide by age to get you started:
- Little ones 2 and under: You’ll need to pack for them.
- Ages 3-5: You’ll do the majority of the packing, but let them have a say in what you bring. For example, let them pick their favorite 3 shirts out of 6 options that you lay out for them. Don’t forget to let them help you pick the books and colored pencils and coloring books for their backpack, too!
- Ages 6-8: Have them gather everything they want to bring and lay it out on the floor. Before it goes into their bag, sit down with your child and walk through their packing list to make sure they didn’t forget anything.
- Ages 9-11: Let them gather everything and pack it all on their own. Talk through the list with them before they close their bags for the final time just to be sure they didn’t forget their socks!
- Ages 12 and up: Give them full responsibility! You’ve given them their list. If they forget something, let them take ownership of it.
Obviously, this is very generalized list. Each individual child will be different. Know your child and where they fit on this spectrum. But don’t do all the work yourself! Let others help you!
Step Three :: Packing the Food
You’ve planned your meals for your vacation. You’ve created your lists. (If you haven’t, click here to read Part 2: Vacation Meal Planning Made Easy.) You’ve decided on the snacks you want to bring. Now it’s time to take your detailed list of food and pack it up!
As you start packing your food, make sure to keep your ‘What to Pack’ and your ‘Prep and Pack’ lists from your Vacation Meal Planning Templates handy. These two lists will be your guide and quite possibly your best friend as you pack all the food you’ll need! (If you don’t have your Vacation Meal Planning Templates yet, click here to get yours now.)
Do you remember back in Phase One, Step Five when you figured out what container your snacks should travel in? Grab that bin and start by packing your snacks for the drive.
Here’s a trick I’ve learned through the years: Create structure and subdivide your food containers with cardboard boxes. This works whether your container is a soft bag or a hard plastic bin. When you use cardboard boxes, you can cut the box to the exact size you want. This allows you to create custom sections for your container. It keeps the snacks from sliding all around the container in their plastic bags. And it allows you to pack your food in bigger bags or containers without getting completely frustrated at the bags sliding every which way. As an added bonus, this extra structure means your snack food doesn’t get crushed before you eat it!
Next, pack the rest of the food you’re bringing with you. If you haven’t already, now is the time to prep any food on your ‘Prep and Pack’ list and then, pack it up. (If you’re not sure what I mean, click here to read Part 2: Vacation Meal Planning Made Easy.)
Here’s a packing trick for you: Start by pulling all the food items on your list out of your pantry and onto your counter. Once you can see everything you’ll be bringing, start by packing the items that are in boxes or are the heaviest at the bottom of your containers. The lighter, more pliable things can then fit around the heavier jars and boxes. Don’t forget, that rice in the zip top baggie works really well as padding between the glass jars in your bin or to take up the extra space between round objects!
Here’s one last trick for packing your cold items: Your cooler is going to be one of the very last things you pack. But, you can gather all the items that will go into your cooler and make sure they’re ready to go!
Here’s how you do it: Clear off a shelf in your refrigerator. Then, go through your list and put any cold items you’re bringing on that specific shelf. (Depending on how big your shelf is and how many items you’re bringing, you may need 2 shelves.) This way, when it comes time to pack your cooler, all the items you need are right there in one spot. This makes the final packing of your cooler much simpler.
Step Four :: Pack the Extras
Now it’s time to pack all the extra items. This includes all your entertainment items, all the things that will travel in your shared bags, and all the random items that need to come along but don’t fit into the duffel bags of clothes or the food bins.
Your Family Road Trip Packing List will be your best friend in this step! Use your list and check off each item once you place it into the bag.
Here are a couple tricks I’ve learned through the years:
- If any items on your list need to be accessible on the drive (for example your portable DVD player and some DVDs), start by packing those items. This way, you know where these items are, you know they are accessible, and it keeps you from having to unpack and repack anything.
- Once the shared bags are out, the things that will travel in these bags will naturally start gravitating toward them. Particularly if you put a tag on them with what will go inside. This makes packing the shared bags easier because there’s less time spent tracking down the items. You just need to make sure everything is in the right bag and track down only the missing items.
- Once a bag is fully packed, close it up. Simple and effective!
Step Five :: Make Sure Your Have Everything
While it may seem a little redundant, take a few moments to make sure you have everything on your list. Set yourself a timer for 20 minutes and go through your Family Road Trip Packing List to make sure everything on the list has made it into your bags. Again, this may feel a little redundant in the moment, but you’d be surprised to find that sometimes you’ll catch a very important item that never made it into your bags!
As an added bonus, you could start bringing the fully packed and closed bags and creating a pile in a specific spot in your house or garage. This trick works really well if you have an early morning departure!
Step Six :: Packing the Vehicle
Everyone packs their vehicle differently for a road trip. And not just every family, every person! My husband and I each have a different packing method when it comes to loading our vehicle for a road trip. Here are a few tips I’ve learned through the years when it comes to packing your vehicle:
- Have each person put their backpack on their seat. (Remember, no one is in the vehicle just yet!) This would also include neck pillows or anything that needs to stay accessible. This ensures the stuff you brought to do on the road doesn’t get buried in the back!
- Place any other bags that will ride in the accessible zone by the passenger seats in their spots.
- Clearly communicate what needs to be accessible. In particular, make sure you know where the snacks are packed and that you have a way to get to them!
- Choose one person to direct the vehicle packing. This is the concept of an orchestra only having one conductor. If too many people try to do the same job, particularly if they try to come at it in different ways, frustration happens and tempers start to flare even before you pull out of the driveway. So, choose one person to “conduct” packing the bags into your vehicle.
- Choose one person to make sure all of the packed bags get from inside the house outside of the house so they can be packed into your vehicle! There’s nothing worse than packing everything up only to discover when you reach your destination that you left the bag with everyone’s toiletries sitting right outside the bathroom at home (True story!)
And with that, my Friend, you are packed up and ready to hit the road! Congratulations!
PHASE THREE :: THE UN-PACKABLES
Taking a family road trip requires a lot of planning, prep work and packing. But as essential as these things are, you need to remember a few very important things to bring on your family road trip that cannot be packed into a suitcase.
#1 :: Set the Expectation
Let your family, particularly your children, know what to expect! Tell them how long the drive will take. Tell them if you have snacks along. Tell them if you plan to stop for meals along the way or if you brought a picnic lunch with you. This simple act of setting the expectation brings everyone onto the same page even before you pull out of the driveway.
Setting expectations can work wonders for each rest stop as well. Even before you pull off the road and park your vehicle, let everyone know the purpose of the stop, whether you’ll be getting snacks out of the back, and how long you want this rest stop to take. You’ll be amazed at how much more cooperative everyone becomes when they’re included in the plan!
#2 :: Eliminate ‘Are We There Yet?’
Let’s face it, one of the most annoying phrases on a road trip are these 4 words: “Are we there yet?” Over and over and over again… These words seem to be on repeat from the backseat…
But hold on a minute! They don’t have to be! Remember, just like you set the expectation for how long the drive will take, you can set the expectation for this question, too! In fact, you can make this question completely off limits as you drive!
Do you want to hear an easy way to let your children know where you are and allow them to keep an eye on your progress as you drive? Bring along a map! And not just a map on your phone, but an actual paper map. I know, this one seems a little old-school, but hang with me for a minute, okay?
You see, when you have your child find where you started on the map (your house) and have them find your destination, they can use the map to figure out a route to get there. Then, as you drive, they can check the map and see the progress you’re making on your trip.
Not only that, but they’ll learn the value of knowing how to read a map. The best part of all? The annoying “Are we there yet?” turns into “Hey Mom, can you hand me the map?”
#3 :: The Most Important Thing
The most important thing you could possibly bring on your road trip will not fit into a bag. It’s not tangible. But it will make or break your road trip. Can you guess what it is?
Patience! Patience is the most important thing you could possibly bring with you! Remember, this is a vacation. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be a time to relax and enjoy time together as a family. If you’re uptight and on edge from the very beginning, everyone else will pick up on that and act accordingly.
Yes, exercising patience takes a great deal of effort. Yes, this can be very difficult. But here’s the best part: When you’re patient with yourself and with those around you, that patience begins to spread. When you choose over and over again to exercise patience, it effects your family in a positive way.
Oh, I’m not saying it will be perfect, but you have the opportunity to influence the dynamics of your family road trip. Choose to influence and impact these dynamics in a positive way.
Hit the Road!
And there you have it, my Friend! Your step by step guide to planning, preparing, and packing for your family road trip complete with meals and snacks on the go! Now it’s time to hit the road and get going on your road trip!
- How to Plan a Family Road Trip without Losing Your Mind, Part 1: Create Your Packing List
- How to Plan a Family Road Trip without Losing Your Mind, Part 2: Vacation Meal Planning Made Easy
- How to Organize Your Vehicle
Elizabeth Tatham, founder of Inspiration in the Everyday, is a homeschooling momma of 5 who loves helping other homeschooling mommas create a unique homeschooling adventure your kids will love…without the overwhelm! Join in on the journey with 7 simple steps to make your homeschooling day go faster, easier, and with less tears here.