I Drove Across the Country With My 2 Young Kids — This Is the Road Trip Gear That Kept Us Happiest

After thousands of miles crisscrossing the United States, one road-tripping mom and her well-traveled brood have narrowed their kit down to the best of the best.

Car with Moonshade personal shade extension
Photo: Courtesy of Moon

On an epic road trip from California to Connecticut with our two kids last August, my husband and I found ourselves totally winging it after a mudslide on I-70 in Colorado wiped out our plans to mountain bike near the town of Carbondale. It wasn't the first snag we encountered in the past year, during which we made three major road trips in our Ford Transit camper van.

But, knowing we had tons of reliable gear on board, my husband and I didn't need to fret over the unplanned detour.

Instead, we huddled over Google Maps with our five-year-old son and 21-month-old daughter to cook up an alternate plan. Soon enough, we were parked at a brewpub in Steamboat Springs, enjoying rounds of Go Fish and — for Dad and me — cold glasses of Mad Creek Kölsch. Here's what we pack to cater for the unexpected on any road trip.

Get Organized — Like, Really Organized

Thule rooftop car storage, Luno seatback storage hanger, Paravel packing cube
Featured products, from left: Thule Pulse rooftop cargo box; Luno seatback organizer; Paravel packing cubes. From left: Courtesy of Thule; Courtesy of Luno; Courtesy of Paravel

Everything needs to have a place, be it a laundry bag for dirty clothes, a Luno shoe storage bag for muddy hiking boots, or a Thule Pulse rooftop cargo box for bulky items like sports gear. Luno also makes a great seatback organizer to keep frequently used items accessible.

Each family member gets a set of color-coded, name-tagged packing accessories like Paravel's personalized packing cubes. On the occasions when we take a break from #vanlife to unwind at a family-friendly hotel like the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, in Santa Monica, California, we can quickly consolidate all the clothing we need into one overnight duffel to take inside

Stay Entertained

Puro headphones, and Instax camera
Featured products, from left: PuroQuiets wireless headphones; Fujifilm Instax camera. From left: Courtesy of Puro; Courtesy of Fujifilm

If a toy or book sparks joy, it goes in the kids' backpacks, along with PuroQuiets wireless headphones for our son, volume-limiting BuddyPhones for our daughter, a printout of the National Parks Service Junior Ranger activity book, and an iPad with a hands-free OtterBox tablet case. Kids' podcasts like "But Why" keep creative juices flowing.

I also bring a giant Kule tote that my Roald Dahl–loving son calls the "BFG" or "Bag Full of Goodies." It holds all the random stuff: extra layers, wipes, water, quick-drying towels, a Sonos Roam speaker, Mad Libs, postcards, a Fujifilm Instax camera, and surprise snacks galore.

Keep Calm and Ultra-cozy

Bombas socks, Juniper Ridge essential oil, and a Therm-a-Rest travel pillow
Featured products, from left: Bombas grippers; Juniper Ridge essential oil; Therm-a-Rest travel pillow. From left: Courtesy of Bombas; Courtesy of Juniper Ridge; Earl Harper/Courtesy of Therm-a-Rest

Still, simple pleasures go a long way. We always keep a soft wool Rumpl blanket, Coyuchi sateen eye masks, and compressible Therm-a-Rest pillows on hand, along with Glerups wool booties for the grown-ups and Bombas grippers for the kids. An occasional spritz of an essential oil like Desert Cedar from Juniper Ridge ensures the van smells fresh.

Prep for Mealtime

Patagonia Provisions bean soup, Hydro Flask cooler
Featured products, from left: Patagonia Provisions' soup; Hydro Flask cooler tote. From left: Courtesy of Patagonia Provisions; Courtesy of Hydro Flask

Avoid fast-food joints by packing your own options. For us, it's often no-fuss sandwiches with Fishwife's smoked albacore tuna or a bowl of Patagonia Provisions' soup. Perishables go in our van's Dometic fridge; a soft Hydro Flask cooler tote is a good, no-power fallback. When off the grid, we heat things up with Solo Stove's Campfire, which contains the flames and ignites quickly with kindling.

Bring Your Outdoor A-game

Sea to Summit camping quilt, National Parks Pass, inflatable raft
Featured products, from left: Sea to Summit Cinder Down Quilt; America the Beautiful pass; inflatable Alpacka packraft. From left: Courtesy of Sea to Summit; Courtesy of National Park Service; Courtesy of Alpacka Raft

We're fortunate to have a large "gear garage" in our van, which can accommodate an inflatable Alpacka packraft, for impromptu paddles, and our three bikes. Even if your vehicle has less cargo space, carve out a spot for Snow Peak's foldable bamboo chairs, a MoonShade awning, Sea to Summit's Cinder Down Quilt, and an REI Co-op Camp Roll Table, all of which enable you to set up a comfortable picnic spot pretty much anywhere. For access to some of the nation's best parks, preserves, and other federal lands, we use an America the Beautiful pass.

Stay Safety-minded

Weego battery charger, Adventure travel first aid kit
Featured products, from left: Weego power pack; Adventure Medical Kit. From left: Courtesy of Weego; Courtesy of Rygr

Our Goal Zero Yeti 500x power station holds enough juice to run our mini-fridge, plus a laptop and mobile devices. A Weego 44s power pack can jump-start a battery, while the Weboost Drive X helps improve connections to cellular signals — a godsend in remote areas. We also keep our Adventure Medical Kit stocked and carry a Grayl GeoPress purifying water bottle, which removes waterborne pathogens and filters out chemicals and even microplastics.

Ditch the Plastic

Yeti water bottles, Parks Project trash bag, Porter utensils set
Featured products, from left: Yeti water bottle; Parks Project trash bag; Porter utensils set. From left: Courtesy of Yeti; Courtesy of Parks Project; Courtesy of Porter

Speaking of plastics, avoiding single-use items on the road is less challenging when you have reusable essentials at the ready. We like Hydro Flask's leakproof coffee tumblers, Yeti water bottles, Porter utensil sets, and Tickle Trunk metal storage containers. Helping pick up trash while hiking, biking, and exploring is another way to raise eco-conscious road-trippers. Some of our favorite cross-country memories are the moments my son would proudly carry his trash bag and gloves from Parks Project and call himself "Ranger Remy."

A version of this story first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Must-Have Gear for Your Family Road Trip."

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