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How to Pack for a Family Road Trip

Photo by: iStock

Whether you’re planning a beach vacation, a visit to Grandma’s or a quick weekend excursion, packing for a family road trip can be stressful and tricky. Depending on the ages of your children, you may struggle with what items you absolutely need to take—and what can safely be left behind. These expert tips and strategies can help you streamline the process.

First, Plan Ahead
If anyone understands the importance of pre-planning for a road trip, it’s the Barnes family, whose foundation, Noah’s March, is raising money for Type 1 diabetes. The family, including 11-year-old Noah and his father, Robert, is marching 4,000 miles across the country, with mom and siblings following behind in a Jeep Wrangler.

“The critical mistake I see with most people is that they plan and pack at the same time,” says Robert Barnes. “Sit down, grab a cup of coffee and an iPad and walk through mentally what exactly your vacation looks like,” he says.

Questions to discuss include in advance include how many days you’ll be gone, where you’ll you be staying, and how you’ll need to prepare for the weather. Of course, you’ll need changes of clothes depending on your activities.

Once you pin down exactly what you’ll need, you should then decide if you want to pack it or buy it once you arrive at your destination, says Ben Soreff, a professional organizer from Connecticut and the father of two young children.

“When traveling with kids, you want to cut down on the number of bags you are carrying,” he suggests. “If the item is not expensive, get it there. Assuming you are traveling in a non-remote location, you can pick up almost anything at a CVS or Target.”

Prepare for Departure
Once you’ve mapped out what items you need to bring, the second step is to prepare for packing by taking an inventory of the clothes you’re planning to bring. Create a checklist to make sure you don’t forget essentials.

“If you skip Step 1, you’re going to forget or overlook what you may need, and this can turn a great vacation into a nightmare,” says Barnes. “Pick a place where you can get organized. Lay out what you have and look it over. Check it for wear, holes and most importantly–does it fit?”

Barnes says that preparing for a road trip is not the time to pack clothes that don’t properly fit because you plan on losing weight.

“Just [take] what you need,” he says. “You will have plenty of other things to deal with and being uncomfortable just makes you irritable.”

The key to preparing to pack is to avoid “we could” scenarios, says Michelle Hale, co-founder of Henry & Higby, a professional organizing company in New York City.

“Often times, when we over pack, we are preparing for what we could do each day, so try to get ahead of it by plotting out what you will actually be doing each day and picking the appropriate clothes for the activity,” Hale says.

Get Everyone Involved
Young children love to be involved in vacation prep. Where age-appropriate, assign them tasks to help them feel like they’re being included.

“At a certain age, they can pack their own bags if given a list,” says Soreff. “Kids enjoy ownership of tasks.”

For example, putting children in charge of a task, such as packing activity bags or picking movies for the car, can help them feel helpful and responsible. Of course, you’ll want to monitor and check their progress.

“You don’t want to have a car fight over choosing movies,” he says. “If the number is limited, it makes the choice easier. Think about a diner menu with a million items that causes a headache.”

Soreff recommends packing a separate media bag with chargers and headphones, and activity bags should not have pieces that can get easily lost or clutter up the car. After all, this is not the time for intricate crafts or messy activities that can cause back-seat meltdowns while you’re on the road.

As for clothes, most experts recommend that “the roll” is the most effective.

“I prefer the burrito method, where you take a change of clothes and roll it into a burrito-undies, socks, shirts and bottoms in one roll,” says Barnes.

If a day requires more than one change of clothes, Barnes says he puts two or more “burritos” in a grocery bag to make travel easier.

“You take the dirty clothes and put them in the bag you just unpacked and you are all set. If you are driving, then you don’t need to unpack the entire car. You grab your toiletry bag and your day bag, and you are all set,” he says.

Parents shouldn’t worry about complicated folding when packing, says Soreff.

“Most busy parents aren’t going to have the time to triple-fold everything neatly,” Soreff says. “Roll soft items and fold stiff ones.”

You’ll also need to think about the size and weight of the suitcases you’re using, Soreff advises. While children can carry their own smaller suitcases or backpacks, keep in mind how heavy large suitcases can become.

“Big suitcases are great, but someone has to carry them. Think about how long that hotel hallway can get,” he says.

Are We There Yet?
While every family road trip will be different, Hale says that there are a few must-have items parents should have while traveling with children: activities and snacks.

To help keep children entertained on the road, pack a few surprise toys or activities, such as new magnetic or new crayon or marker sets and plenty of paper to draw on, she says. She also recommends that parents bring along special treats.

“We all know that snacks are key to keeping children entertained, but outside of the normal healthy items you typically give them, try having a few ‘forbidden’ items in case you need reinforcements,” Hale suggests.

Jennifer Brozak is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh who has a passion for all things parenting and education. She contributes to a variety of local and national outlets and blogs about her family’s escapades at One Committed Mama.

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