This past 4th of July weekend, we drove to Philadelphia to visit my sister and her family. This was our first major road trip with Tommy since our cross-country move from CA to NC when he was 4 months old. Road trips with an infant are no easy feat, but I was even more worried about attempting a long drive with a two-year-old. When T was an infant, we had to pull over often to nurse him and change his diaper, there were multiple changes of clothes for all of us, and we cleaned up a lot of messes that came out of both ends of the baby. But, he also slept more than he was awake, and while he was awake, he was content smiling at his reflection in the car seat mirror, sucking on a pacifier, or playing pat-a-cake with me. With a two-year-old, I faced the possibility of him throwing a tantrum through 5 different states and refusing to sleep for one minute of the 7 hour drive.
Luckily, we came prepared and the drive to Pennsylvania was a success… besides T shouting “I’m stuck!!” a few times at the top of his lungs (toddler translation: “Get me out of this car seat, now!”) and some serious screaming when he was jolted awake when Daddy had to brake suddenly while navigating some awful traffic (which added an extra couple hours to the drive). We drove home in the evening to avoid traffic, and Tommy actually stayed awake (and happy!) until 12:30 AM, which was amazing because then he slept in when we got home around 1:30 AM (so we could sleep in, too)!
For the details of how we survived our road trip with a 2-year-old, read on below for my list of 10 must-haves for a road trip with a toddler:
1. Laundry Basket: A small round laundry basket is the absolute best way to store items that I will need easy access to throughout the drive. Not only is it easy to transport, but it also allows me see all of the contents of the basket without having to dig to see the items at the bottom of the bin. We picked one up for $1 at Dollar Tree and packed it full of snacks and activities for the drive.
2. 13 x 9 in Cake Pan: Bringing a rectangular cake pan along for the road trip is a total game changer! It is the perfect size to serve as a little lap activity tray in the car seat, and the raised sides keep items from falling onto the car floor and getting lost under the seats.
Some of the items we brought to use in our cake pan/activity tray:
- Toy cars & trains– I drew a little map with a road and train tracks and placed it in the bottom of the cake pan. Tommy LOVED it!
- Stickers, markers, crayons, & paper: The raised edges of the pan keep the art supplies from rolling onto the floor. Stickers keep a toddler’s attention for a long time, as they can be stuck not only to paper, but also to arms, clothing, and foreheads.
- Play dough & tools: I rolled out some play dough in the bottom of the pan and threw in some cookie cutters and plastic utensils for easy entertainment!
- Building blocks: I brought along a small bag of LEGO® DUPLO® blocks and tossed them into the cake pan. T had fun building structures, and since the blocks click together, we didn’t have to worry about the block towers spilling all over the place when Daddy put on the brakes.
- Magnets: T entertained himself by sticking ABC magnets to the bottom of the cake pan. It would also be fun to play with some Melissa and Doug magnetic dress-up play sets or other fun magnet sets shaped like vehicles or farm animals.
- Puzzles: I brought along a small $1 foam alphabet puzzle from Dollar Tree. The cake pan gave him a flat surface to lay out the pieces and complete the puzzle while keeping it all neatly contained.
3. Sound Books: Books with sound buttons kept T entertained without me having to sit in the back seat and read to him. He had fun playing the songs in his Thomas the Train sound book, and we could turn on the radio in the front of the car so we didn’t have to listen to it.
4. Convertible car seat with a cup holder: Tommy quickly goes into a panic if he doesn’t have his sippy cup on hand the very moment he gets thirsty. A car seat with a cup holder ensures that he will have his drink close at hand when he needs it and it won’t roll onto the floor and under the seat. Tommy loves his Evenflo Symphony LX All-in-One Car Seat. Not only does it have two built-in cup holders, but it is super cozy with cushioning by the head perfect for dozing. The cover is also removable and machine washable, which makes it easy to keep clean.
He always uses a sippy cup with a straw and a lid that screws on to minimize the risk of spills in the car.
5. Snacks: Perhaps the most important thing to pack for a road trip is the snack bag!
Some good road trip snacks for toddlers:
- Fruit snacks
- Clif Kid Z Bars
- Raw veggies- baby carrots, mini cucumbers & celery sticks (if your toddler will eat them)
- Veggie straws
- Fruit/veggie squeeze pouches
- String cheese
Snacks to avoid in the car:
- Crumbly crackers & cookies
- Snacks with itty-bitty pieces (puffs, cereal)
- Fruit that will mush (bananas, peaches, pears)
- Fruit that will drip & stain (watermelon, oranges, berries)
- Gum and sticky candies
- Snacks covered in orange cheese powder (Cheetos, Doritos, cheese puffs)
Also, the cake pan came in handy as a serving tray for snacks throughout the drive!
6. Bib with a pocket: When it’s time to eat, I throw a bib my little road trip buddy! I love the silicone bibs by Ulubulu– there is a big pocket to catch falling crumbs and drips, and then I can easily wipe it clean when he’s done eating.
7. Garbage bags: I always keep a few tall kitchen bags rolled up in the back seat pocket. Besides the obvious use to hold food wrappers, wet diapers, and tissues, you can fold a garbage bag in half and lay it across your lap as a makeshift place mat. It can also save the upholstery to contain a mess in the instance that somebody gets carsick.
8. Smartphone with a data plan: This is a must-have for the grown-ups in the car! There are so many helpful apps out there that make the trip easier for everyone:
- For navigation, Waze helps us anticipate traffic jams and accidents (and suggests alternate routes), as well as alerting us to upcoming stoplight cameras and police cars to help avoid tickets.
- If we need to find a nearby place to stop to eat, the Yelp mobile app helps us find a restaurant that fits our budget and taste.
- I use Road Ninja to find upcoming gas stations, fast food, and rest stops.
- If we need to stop over somewhere for the night during a long drive, we use the Hotwire app to find a great deal on a hotel and book it right from my phone.
One of the very best uses for a data-enabled smartphone is the ability to set up a Wi-Fi hotspot. The iPad that Tommy uses is Wi-Fi only, but his tech-savvy Daddy taught me how to set up a hotspot to connect the tablet to my iPhone’s data plan. T having internet access in the back seat meant that he could watch endless kid-friendly videos using apps like PBS Kids and YouTube Kids so I didn’t have to fork over $20 for a single season of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
9. Tablet: In addition to movies, music, and e-books, my iPad is set with two screens full of apps just for Tommy that can keep him entertained for hours! For a full description of Tommy’s favorite apps (for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch) check out our Favorite Art, Shapes, and Colors Apps for Toddlers, our Favorite ABCs & 123s Apps for Toddlers, our Favorite Puzzle and Sorting Apps for Toddlers, and our Favorite Games & Video Apps for Toddlers.
10. Bedtime Items: So that Tommy had less of a chance of skipping naptime during the drive, I moved all of his comfort items out of his crib and into the back seat of the car. When it was time for him to sleep, I tucked him in with his favorite blanket, his little stuffed Elmo, and his “pup pup” lovey blanket that he always sleeps with in his crib. A small pillow is also helpful to prop up the drooping head.
Some other ways that I survive road trips with a toddler:
- I keep wipes, diapers, a changing pad and a change of clothes in the back seat pocket directly in front of Tommy’s car seat for easy access.
- I dress him in comfortable, easy-to-remove clothes and shoes. Pants with an elastic waist and no buckles or zippers are best for quick diaper changes, and slip-on shoes allow him to remove them himself and slide them back on easily when needed. I like to have him wear something that is cozy enough to sleep in, so that I can easily transfer him right to bed if he is asleep when we arrive at our destination.
- I keep hand sanitizer in the center console at all times! Gas stations and rest stops are full of germs- I try to remember to use hand sanitizer on the whole family before returning to the car and digging our hands back into the tube of Pringles.
- When he gets restless in the car, I move to the back seat and keep him company. He likes to talk about what he sees out the window (“blue car,” “big tree,” “airplane”), sing songs with hand motions (“Wheels on the Bus,” “Itsy Bitsy Spider”), and to have me read books to him.
- If time allows, we try to stop at kid-friendly spots to stretch instead of just gas stations and restaurants. After being confined to a car seat for hours, moving straight into a high chair at a restaurant is not fun for the little guy. He is thrilled if we let him burn off some energy by running around a park while we eat lunch at a picnic bench instead. A plus if there is a scenic spot for a photo-op, like this park we found just minutes off the freeway in Richmond, VA.
And if you have any air travel plans coming up with little ones, check out our 10 Must-Haves for Flying with a One-Year-Old.