How to Pack For a Family Road Trip

This is part two of three in my series on “How to Plan a Successful Family Road Trip.” Read part one, Planning an Itinerary and part three, Car Games.

Figuring out how to pack for a family road trip is not an easy task. I’ve taken tons of road trips with my family, and I’ve learned a lot by trial and error.

We’ve driven from the East Coast to the West Coast (and back!). We’ve driven from New Jersey to Florida many times. And we’ve logged many 10-12-hour driving days.

I’ve over-packed and under-packed. And sometimes I get it just right. Here are some key packing tips I’ve learned.

Packing Light and Right

This is a photo of our SUV during a recent road trip. We were staying in Lake Tahoe for two months and skiing, so we needed a LOT of stuff. Or so we thought.

car packed for a road trip

We really didn’t need half of our payload. We brought too many clothes, stuffed animals, and games, and we could have rented a lot of ski gear.

That brings me to my number one tip for packing: Always under-pack.

Bring half of what you want to bring. Figure out how to get by with one less pair of shoes. Re-wear those jeans for a few days.

There are exceptions (like camping). But in general, you can almost always get by with less. With a little planning and by doing laundry during your trip, you can save space and the headache of too much stuff to keep organized.

Another tip is to pack with space bags. This works best for a road trip where you are going to a destination, but don’t need everything while on the road. Space bags can condense bulky items – we used them for our ski jackets – and save a lot of space in your luggage. Just be sure you’ll have access to a vacuum when you need to re-pack to go home!

Bring fewer toiletries and makeup. Those bottles don’t pack and squish well, so get some trial sizes for the road and buy what you need at your destination.

Convince the kids they really won’t die without Fuzzy Bear, Mr. Unicorn, and every video game they own. My kids barely touched any of the “essentials” they brought along because we were too busy having fun!

trunk stuffed with luggage

Another option is to ship items that you’ll only need at your destination. Or if you’ve picked up extra souvenirs on your trip, ship them home. Shipping can be costly, so use this option as a last resort. To keep costs down, pack your lightest items to ship. Keep the heavy mugs and snow globes in your car and ship home your T-shirts and underwear!

One thing I do like to splurge on when allotting packing space is my pillow. Never underestimate the value of a good pillow in the car or at a rental home! It’s also good to have a light blanket for the car in case someone gets cold.

Organizing Your Road Trip Packing

It’s also very important to be organized in your packing. If the road trip is simply getting you to your destination, pack a smaller suitcase with just the things you’ll need for your overnights. Don’t unpack your whole car for every stop along the way.

But if the road trip IS the destination, pack according to days. Once you’ve worn everything in one suitcase or packing cube, set that aside to do laundry and move on to the next suitcase.


During our cross-country drive, we stayed in 8 different hotels. But we only unpacked one suitcase, a large bag with toiletries, and our computers and chargers. After 3 days, I did laundry. And since we were sitting in the car most of the time, we re-wore some clothing for a few days.

Car Safety

Making sure you are safe is also a huge part of packing for a road trip. Get your car road-trip ready by getting your oil changed, tires rotated and fluids filled a week before you leave.

You should also pack some safety essentials. Buy a plastic bin for your trunk and fill it with the following items:

  • 1-2 water bottles for each person in the car
  • Snacks such as energy bars, crackers, tuna in a pouch
  • At least one towel and preferably a blanket. You can buy emergency mylar thermal blankets that don’t take up any space at all. Pack one for each member of your family. Don’t forget pets if you’re traveling with them.
  • Whistle
  • Lighter/matches
  • Flashlight
  • Leatherman or other type of all-purpose tool set

It might seem like a waste of valuable space, but packing these basic safety items will give you peace of mind. And should you have an emergency, you’ll be so happy you’re prepared!

Most cars have USB ports to charge your phone these days, but be sure you keep your phone charged up. You don’t want to be stuck 100 miles from the nearest gas station in the middle of the Nevada desert with a dead phone.

There are many smartphone apps to make your road trip more fun. Some of my favorite apps for finding roadside amenities and even odd attractions are iExit, AroundMe, Roadside America, and Roadtrippers.

But don’t rely solely on your phone. There are still some places where you’ll get no cell service. Always have a plan and a paper map!

The bottom line for a successful family road trip is to be prepared. Pack light, organize your packing, and stay safe.

Continute to part three: car games.

packing image for pinterest

About The Author

3 thoughts on “How to Pack For a Family Road Trip”

  1. Like you, the shoe options would be the hardest for me. I just packed for a month and took four pairs of shoes. I’m pretty proud of that.:)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *