I’m currently writing a travel guide called, “Let’s Run Away Together. Explore the history, the mystery, and the Americana on your road trip to California.” This chapter excerpt is on road trip essentials, also known as how to pack your car for your next road trip to California.
My daughter was only 2 and a half and my son was 18 months old when I started doing our yearly road trip. It was a speedy trip down the coast, done without many stops, but at that age they were game for taking a break in different parks and they were, for the most part, totally content to watch movies the entire way.
A few years and one extra kid later, we did the drive in August and stopped in a park near Portland to stretch our legs on the way home from Disneyland. It was 100 degrees as we were driving through, the tail end of a summer heat wave that would choose NOT to follow us as we got closer to Canada the next day (it never does, bring a jacket). As we pulled into the parking lot of the park, we were excited to see a bubbling fountain of water with kids playing in it and families picnicking on the green grass.
For whatever reason, right at the moment we opened the van door, a group of parents looked over at us. I just happened to see them watching through the other side of the van as my husband unloaded the kids, and what followed ranks in my top 20 of embarrassing moments of my entire life.
As he unloaded the kids, all of the food wrappers, video games, books, and bags of dirty laundry we were taking home fell out, all at once. I’m only guessing, but to these stranger’s eyes, we probably looked like a homeless family living in our car.
I resisted the urge to crawl under the chassis of the minivan, but oh, did I ever want to. Instead, my husband took my cute, somewhat clean children off to play in the fountain and I spent the hour long stop cleaning out the car. I vowed in that hot, sweaty, and somewhat mortifying moment, that the next time I do this trip I will pack my car so efficiently that the floors will always be clear and a wall of trash doesn’t spill out, like so many clowns, whenever I slide open the back doors.
I learned, as you will, that the best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today, and that means planning and packing your luggage and your car with road trip essentials to make your drive comfortable, your kids happy, and your clutter to a minimum.
Invest in a car top carrier
A car top carrier, also known as a coffin tote, also known as a roof rack, is one of the most worthwhile investments you can make when you have a family and a family car, and it’s one of my absolute must-haves when doing this road trip.
There are quite a few reasons for that, but the most important is that it will store everything to make you feel equipped and comfortable, and it’s all locked up on top of your car so you only need to access it when you want to pull something out.
I store the following road trip essentials in the car top carrier:
If you plan on spending any amount of time at the beach, you’ll want to have your own chairs. I bring two sling chairs we purchased in California specifically for the beach. They fold up and have back pockets on the seat for extra items. Inside each pocket I put a bottle of sunscreen, a package of wet wipes, and after-burn or chafing ointment. I’ll get to why later.
You don’t want to have to try to sneak out the hotel’s towels when you’re heading to the beach. I always feel bad for anyone who has to dry off with a scratchy little towel after sitting in sand up to their eyebrows, and it really enhances your beach experience if you’ve brought your own. You can wash them in the hotel laundry after you’ve used them.
I’ve bought my beach toys in California before we’ve headed to the ocean for the day, but it gets pretty pricey if you’re constantly replacing boogie boards. That’s why I take two or three along with us, and put them in the car top carrier for when I need them.
I put a blanket made specifically for protecting my car seats from sand and other dirt during a road trip. If you stop and your kids get dirty, you’ll be grateful you brought it along.
A laundry bag and plastic bags
This is specifically for dirty clothes you’ll acquire while having adventures along the way. Once again, if your child has a blow out in the car or somewhere else, you’ll be grateful you had a plastic bag and a car top carrier to put it in.
One suitcase of extra clothing for everyone
I’ll share how I pack my kids daily clothes in another blog post, but I always bring along a small suitcase with extra clothes for everyone. I store it in the car top carrier just in case.
Road trip essentials: a set of sheets
This sounds strange, but I always bring along a set of dark sheets. I saw this done at a rest stop on more than one occasion before I got smart and brought my own.
We use them in case we need to pull over and sleep in a rest stop for a few hours. This is an entirely safe option if you’re tired and still driving, and I will place them in the crack of the windows all along the entire car so we have privacy while sleeping.
You can also use the sheets over the seats of your car if you go to the beach, and that will prevent the sand from getting into the tiniest cracks of your car. True story: I just had my minivan detailed and the guy who cleaned it asked, “So, do you go to the beach a lot?” I haven’t been to the beach since last August and it’s now April, so yeah, that was embarrassing.
Sand gets into everything, and it’s itchy when you sit on it. Avoid by covering your car with sheets.
Don’t melt your things
Road trip tip: don’t store anything in your car top carrier that’s perishable or could melt. I usually reserve space for any extra stuffies we acquire, but if it is something that has the possibility of melting in the 100 degree heat, I keep it in the car.
Packing for you and the kids
Hard side luggage has no give
Whether you’re stacking it in the back of your car or tying to stow it under your seats, you’ll notice that it’s really hard to work around a piece of hard side luggage. I know we all have kid’s suitcases they love to take along, but if you want to save space, you might want to reconsider them on this road trip.
Consider the wonder that is cubes
We stop and spend the night a lot on this trip, and if I have spent the time to carefully pack the kid’s bags, I don’t want those bags messed up before we got to our final destination. One solution I’ve used in the past are plastic cubes or milk crates. Packing everything for your kids in a plastic cube is easy, you can stack them in the back of the car, and when you’re stopping for the night just give each kid their cube and they can carry them inside the hotel.
Reusable shopping bags for luggage?
File this one under yes, it works: reusable shopping bags you buy in Marshalls or Home Sense make a great travel bag for a kid. You can buy them in different styles so they are easy to identify for each kid, they are soft so you can fold them up and squish them in your Stow-n-go or under the seat, and they are easy to carry inside a hotel. Pack everything you’ll need for your nightly stops in one bag and let your kids handle the carrying in.
Do you have space for coloring books?
I used to bring all sorts of coloring books and crayons, hoping someone would want to skip the movie or video game and color for a while. I don’t know why I deluded myself into thinking they would, and the first time the crayons melted into the carpet of the minivan was the last time I brought along a box of crayons.
What I will recommend is a box of Crayola markers and a note pad for every kid. My kids spent the first half of our last trip drawing odd comic book characters that we’ve since scanned and printed as a funny memory from our drive. My daughter also took a bunch of notes for the trip, and it make us laugh to look back over them after the drive is finished.
Road trip essentials you should eat with reckless abandon
This road trip (and every road trip) is your moment to eat like a lifer who’s just broken out of jail.
Buy the chocolate peanut butter cluster combo. Get 4 containers of Pringles for $5. Enjoy, because if you’re driving at 11 pm and you just want to nod off, those peanut clusters and salty chips will be your best friend. Eat them together, at the same time. Calories don’t count on a road trip.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and I do not actually know this to be true. What I will say is that I consider the space inside the vehicle to be liminal on a road trip.
You’re not there, you’re not here; you’re on the threshold of one and the other, and people get hangry in the threshold.
In the Pacific Northwest my favourite stops for road trip snacks include Target, Trader Joes, and Fred Meyer. Keep in mind if your starting point is British Columbia, you can’t bring any sort of fruit or vegetables over the border. You’ll have to stock up once you cross.
After you’ve lost your mind in the grocery store I also recommend picking up the following:
- Veggie pack to offset that chocolate
- Fruit of all kinds. Grapes are a favourite for mindless snacking, as are Rainer cherries in the summer
- A flat of water
I also recommend picking up several packages of wet wipes, Method hand soap, a few rolls of toilet paper, and some paper towel. I remember one trip we were in the middle of California and my little guy had a total blowout in his car seat. We pulled over at the first gas station we could find, I opened the side door to pull him out, and I was immediately swarmed by biting flies. Flies like baby poop, and he was covered in it.
Short of giving him a bath in a gas station bathroom sink, one I didn’t even want to wash my hands in, I had to think quick. I pulled him out, put his entire car seat cover in a plastic bag, put that bag in the car topper so I didn’t have to smell it for another five more hours, stripped him and poured bottles of warm water over his back to clean him up with hand soap and wet wipes. Then I cleaned up his car seat, getting bit by flies the entire time, put a towel down instead of the cover, and strapped a happy baby back in.
Every single thing I used in that scenario is something I would never do this road trip without. You might not need everything, but these supplies don’t take up a lot of space and you’ll never regret having them.
If you have any questions about packing for your road trip or road trip essentials, fire away. You can also find me talking on twitter about #roadtrips, #Disneyland, and all things #travel.