12 Tips for packing for a road trip

For all our complaining about airline luggage restrictions, the truth is that they work. You know that if you pack more than a carry-on bag of a certain size and weight you’re going to have to pay a hefty fine to check your bags and as a result we’ve all learned to pack more efficiently.

A road trip is different. The bigger your car trunk, the more things you figure you can carry and then at some point you’re playing a game of Jenga/Tetris with bags and suitcases as you try to figure out how to get it all in. Bags are put in, pulled out, rearranged, cursed, walked away from and then finally slammed haphazardly and suddenly your 10-year old is rolled into a ball in the backseat unable to stretch in any direction because he or she is surrounded by stuff.


It’s not the way you want to start a trip. Keep these 12 tips in mind as you prepare your gear and the packing will be easy. Your non-squished kids will thank you.


  1. Pack light: Start by approaching the trip like you would for a flight. Give each person one carry-on bag limit and avoid the temptation to fill it to capacity. After travelling the world for a year with only 2 weeks’ worth of clothes, I can guarantee you that you don’t need as much as you think you do. Plan to do laundry as you go (many of the Expedia.ca hotels offer self-serve Laundromats that are clean and convenient). The less you take with you, the more room you’ll have for things you may pick up along the way.
  2. Pack an empty bag: We have a small collapsible duffle bag that we always try to tuck into our luggage. It can help in a number of situations – beach tote and laundry transport among them. On nights where we are only overnighting in a hotel, we would pack it the night before with the basic needs (pyjamas, change of clothes, swimsuits, and toiletries) and leave everything else in the vehicle.
  3. Keep things where you need them: You don’t want to have to pull over to a roadside stop and dig through your bags every time you need a snack. Give some thought to what you’ll need along the way and where you’ll need it before you pack the car. Save the trunk space for items you won’t need access to on route. Planning for a roadside swim or want to change into shorts at the first sign of sunshine? Keep it in the car.  Planning a big hike at the end of your city-heavy travels? Keep everyone’s hiking gear together in one bag. It won’t leave the vehicle until you need it.
  4. Pack a cooler: If you have to pull over every time someone wants a drink or a snack you’ll never get to your destination.  A small cooler that fits well inside the car can be packed with water and juice boxes (freeze them and let them thaw as you go). If you’re crossing the border you’ll need to be careful with carrying fresh fruit from home; instead pop into a grocery store on the other side of the border crossing and stock up on the same healthy snacks you’d enjoy if you were home. Don’t overlook the cut-up vegetables in the grocery aisle.
  5. Set up garbage spots: Set up a clear area in the vehicle for the collection of trash. This vehicle is your home for the next few days and it won’t take long for the wrappers and empty bottles to begin to pile up. A plastic shopping bag tied to the back of a chair will work. At each rest stop dump the garbage and replace the bag.
  6. Keep a first aid kit in the glove compartment: If someone needs first aid you’ll want to know exactly where to find the kit. Keep it in the glove compartment up front and make sure everyone in the car knows where it is. Some great items to include in it: alcohol wipes, Polysporin, Band-Aids, personal medications, gauze and important emergency contact numbers.
  7. Have Kleenex within reach: Kids are messy and right now they are making their mess behind you. You won’t always know what they’ve been up to. Make sure there’s a box of tissues trapped in the backseat pocket in front of them so they can wipe when prompted. For that matter, make sure there’s paper towel and wet wipes handy too.
  8. Bring stuff to do: Limit your in-car entertainment needs to one small backpack/tote bag each. The bags themselves can double as day packs on days you’re doing small outings but in the car they’ll hold a book, any small games you’ve brought along, a deck of cards, etc. Don’t over pack the bag. Make hard decisions before leaving home (Are you really going to read both of those books?) and leave any toys with noises that are going to annoy you at home.
  9. Take cash: You’ll want to have change, in the currency you’ll need it, on hand in the car at all times. Unmanned, correct change only tollbooths can be major stress inducers. Have a small Ziploc or coin purse dedicated to the currency and make sure you’ve remembered to bring it with you.
  10. Take a real map: Your car may have a GPS and your phone may offer you fun, techy options but nothing beats an up to date road map of your route. You’ll be able to consider stops that are off-route as you go, you’ll never have to worry about losing power or signal and it gives the kids a great lesson in orienteering. While you’re considering old school techniques, pack a pen and some paper as well.
  11. Don’t forget your chargers and cords: Your high-tech devices are only of use to you if they are working. Pack extra chargers that you can leave in the glove compartment just in case. Also double-check to make sure you’ve got the right charging cables for any gadgets you bring along. And always do a sweep of any room you’re staying in to make sure you haven’t left them plugged into a socket when you’re leaving.
  12. Keep a clear view: Many small SUVs and hatchbacks have cargo areas that aren’t limited by a closed trunk. Be particularly careful of how much you put back there. An open trunk filled to the brim is a safety hazard. If you pack the car and things are falling forward onto the kids, you’ve taken too much. And if you can’t even get sunlight through there, that means the driver can’t see. After you’ve packed the vehicle, get behind the wheel and make sure you haven’t compromised safety for that extra pair of shoes.