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How to Pack for a Road Trip [Diagram]

There’s been a resurgence of the American road trip! More and more families are getting out on the road and discovering what new sights they can discover. But before you hit the road here are some tips for how to pack your car for a road trip vacation.

Our family has taken many road trips over the last decade and a half, and we’ve discovered a road trip packing system and layout that works for well for us. These tips will help keep everyone content on the long ride.

pin image for how to pack your car for a road trip

First, I suggest that each person (including kids) pack a small bag or tote of their favorite toys/activities. This will be kept nearby and contain things that will keep you busy.

For adults, this might be magazines, books, electronics. Kids might pack some books, coloring books or journals, electronic toy(s), printable activities/games, dolls, or legos.

A food bin is a big must for any road trip. I like to use a small box to store all our road trip snacks.

I make each of our girls their own plastic container of special snacks, this was learned after one too many, “but Mom, she already had two granola bars…”. If each child starts with the same number of “fun” snacks, they can’t argue if they eat all theirs.

We also pack some general snacks that everyone enjoys, but the special snacks — like granola bars and fruit snacks — are limited.

Diagram for How to Pack for a Road Trip

Diagram for Packing Your Car for a Road Trip
Diagram for how we pack for a road trip. © Stuffed Suitcase

1 – Passenger Seat

This is where the main passenger (usually me) keeps their stuff. I like to pack magazines, my iPad, and my purse in a narrow tote. I’ll also store some lip balm and eye drops in my bag

2 – Main Console

We keep electronic chargers here along with many of our road trip essentials. Depending on how your car is built, what you can store in this space might be limited.

Some essentials that should be stored nearby the front seats are paper towels, wet wipes, kleenex, dental floss, hand sanitizer, lotion, and a travel first aid kit.

See my full list of the 27 road trip essentials we bring on our road trips and figure out where best to store them in your car. Keep in mind what you’ll want to access easily while driving and what can be stored in the back for use at stops.

3 – Garbage

We have a special car trash can that loops around my seat belt latch and has an elastic opening so things don’t fall in or out accidentally. You can also use a plain plastic grocery bag looped around the gear shift.

I recommend each row of passengers have their own trash bag. If you’re traveling with kids you might even want to give each kid a garbage bag they can keep near their seat.

Having easy access to garbage bags will be a huge help for keeping your car clean and organized during your road trip.

4 – DVD Players

We’ve always had dual DVD car screens that we bought at Target, but now that our girls received tablets for Christmas, we’ll probably look into buying a tablet car mount like these tablet headrest mounts.

Our girls love watching some of their favorite movies while on a road trip. Of course, you may decide to skip this. One of my big tips, if you are buying DVD players, is consider buying a set that offers independent playing options.

As our girls got older sometimes they’d want to watch the same movie, but other times they didn’t and our players let them watch their own movies or they can watch the same one.

kid watching dvd movie on road trip
We’ve found that watching movies works well for entertaining kids on long road trips. © Kimberly Tate

5 – Kid Bags

Each of your kids should bring a bag of personally selected items for the road trip. It could include a book or journal, or a special activity/toy. Our girls use their school backpacks.

If you’re wanting to keep things off the ground, you might consider a backseat organizer that lets kids store misc stuff in pockets on the back of the seat. We’ve also used one of these middle seat organizers for the girls to share (see #7 below).

You can also consider packing a plastic lidded bin that is placed below your child’s feet. Just make sure it’s easy for the top to be removed while seated.

Related Post: Best Kids Travel Bag Activities to Pack

6 – Food

This is where we keep all the road trip snacks. We often use one of these clever crates and place it easy to reach for each person.

For kids, I recommend making them each their own snack bag or box so that there are no arguments about who’s had too many of one kind of snack. Each kiddo should get the same amount of fruit snacks, granola bars, etc. Make sure you remember wet wipes & napkins.

Another tip is to bring lidded/sippy cups for the kids. They work great for sharing a bottle of juice or water, and no spills!

For adults, consider a thermal mug if you’re a coffee drinker. Your hot drinks will stay much warmer than those disposable cups from the store. Bring reusable water bottles, too.

Related Post: Road Trip Snacks

road trip snack bin packed in car
Our road trip snack bin packed so each person has easy access. © Kimberly Tate

7 – Kids Activities

This is normally another bag and carries more kids activities and games. We normally have a blanket for each kid in this space too. If the road trip isn’t too long, this could be the only space you store kids activities. We’ve used boxes and this backseat organizer for placing between the girls’ seats.

8 – Luggage

Bags and stuff you don’t need to access while driving goes in the back. We often have one hotel stop on our main road trip drive, so we pack one overnight bag with all of our stuff for that hotel night so we don’t have to bring in each person’s luggage.

Another tip is to keep some extra snacks/treats or special drinks and such back here so you can dole them out when you stop. You can also store some of the other road trip essential items back here.

trunk packed for road trip vacation
Our trunk packed to the brim for a road trip vacation! © Kimberly Tate

I’m looking forward to creating a road trip packing list so be sure to follow along and watch for it! Hope this post has helped you get ready to pack for a road trip!

Check out my full list of road trip tips.

road trip packing guide

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  1. These are some great tips – and that diagram is on point. Very well laid out! I’m liking the tablet car mount, I’ll probably consider that for my little one since he’s addicted to Netflix and his tablet. :) Have a great one Kimberly and happy Friday! -Iva

    • Fabulous! Thanks for the kuddos. I stressed about if it would make sense and figured it would work for the majority of vehicles (even if you don’t have a third row). Have a great weekend & thanks for stopping by!

  2. Great tips. My family has done 10s of thousands of miles of road trips (not exaggerating) and we just recently started doing the overnight bag thing. It has made a huge difference and makes life so much easier on those one night stops with a ton of luggage.
    The way you use those thirty-one bags is great, I might have to look into that.

    Thanks for the great ideas, and happy trails on your next road trip

    • Having that one overnight bag is such a lifesaver! Our girls love their thirty one bags, they even have their names embroidered on them. :) Thanks for visiting & happy travels to you too!

  3. Found this on Pinterest and had to read… we’re driving from WI to AZ for spring break to visit my dad! 1/2 way is Denver on the way out, and going a different way on the way back, stopping at a friend’s house in KS :) Thanks so much for the organized tips!!

    • Thanks for popping over from pinterest! Hope the tips help – it’s become second nature to us. Hope you have a safe & fun road trip! (BTW, I’m from KS, so say hi to my homestate for me) :)

  4. Just wondering if you’re ever concerned leaving the rest if your luggage in the car when you take your overnight bag out? Last road trip we hauled everything up which was a pain but I worried something might happen if we left it in the car

    • We road trip from NJ to FL twice/year. We bring in anything we can’t afford to lose – medications, two days’ worth of my kids’ Rx formula, electronics – and leave the rest. So far, so good. We have 7 people and a packed-to-the-gills car that looks like a giant game of Tetris. It would take us almost an hour to unload/reload.

    • Hi Michele, we’ve always brought in our electronics and valuables (like Meg mentioned above). Our meds and stuff we can’t do without is normally already packed in our overnight bag. When we travel for Christmas, we bring in our wrapped gifts, just so there’s no temptation. We’ve always left our luggage in our car, and so far never had any problems. That’s not to say there’s not that chance. We actually leave the dvd players hooked to the headrest too, and cover them with the kid’s blankets. Most of our roadtrip stops are in small towns. Perhaps if you were parking/stopping in a major city, with more foot traffic temptation, you might have to reconsider what you leave in your vehicle.

  5. These are awesome tips–I also found this on Pinterest and couldn’t resist pinning (even if we have a family of 10 and a 15 passenger van). My family is leaving in a few days and I will definetly recommend some tips. Our last road-trip was from IL to MX – too bad I didn’t see this until now! Thanks for the tips…we travel QUITE a lot so this will come in very handy. Have a great day!

    • Great! Hope it can work and expand to fit your larger family! Let me know how it goes and if you discovered any tips that work for larger families. You might need two overnight bags to bring into hotel! :)

  6. I’m going to give this diagram a shot. We have 7 people (plus gear) crammed into a Yukon XL, and just about every square inch is in use. Kid bags and food are our nemesis — as they get bigger, the toys take up less space, but the amount of food to keep them quiet has exploded!

    • Such pressure Meg! :) I hope it helps. The food thing is the big one. Don’t forget you can store some extras in the back and add to the front food bin during stops. As long as you don’t have gum problems, I find pieces of gum go a long way towards the “boredom” snacking. Just make sure they know where to put it when they’re done!

  7. We don’t have the luxury of so much space in tiny European family cars :) but our car is packed in a similar way. Next road trip is to the Netherlands!

    • Netherlands…oooooohhhh! We are used to having big cars here in the states. :) Hope you have a fabulous trip!

  8. Great way to group everything into manageable quantities! Now to work on perfecting the spatial skills to play luggage Jenga! (Seen on Wow Me Wednesday.)

    • Thanks for visiting Katie! I am known as the spatial expert in the family (a little inside joke with the hubby), so I totally get the luggage jenga game! :)

  9. I love the diagram, I need to show this to my kids the next time we are getting ready to go someplace, they always have stuff everywhere!

  10. Thanks for the tips. I’m still looking for a way for my two kids who are in car seats to be able to reach their own fun bags. The floor is out. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Nan. Absolutely — so move the kids bags to the middle next to their seats. Then you’ll have to keep the extra toys or certain activities on the floor (behind driver works well for passenger to see/reach). Then you can grab the certain item they need if they don’t have it in their personal bags. Hope that helps.

  11. Just found this post on Pinterest and smiled when I saw that we pack our vehicle almost the same way! We do road trips every summer (10 days – 3 weeks in length), so we, too, have developed our “system.” One thing that really improved our packing of the suitcase stuff was to use Rubbermaid totes instead of suitcases – they stack and fit well together and always go back in the same way. We just got a smaller vehicle, though, so we will have to do some test packing to see what works :)

    • I love it Sherri! Glad to know there are others out there creating systems. :) My in-laws have done the rubbermaid bins and loved them. We’ve used them for camping trips mostly. Sounds like you’ve discovered that getting things to fit together nicely is part of the secret to a well packed road trip. Where’s your summer road trip this year taking you?

  12. Hi, I was wondering what type of car you own and if the middle had three seats or was it only the back?

    • Hi Talia, our van has a center seat that is narrow and can be removed. We drive a minivan, but I believe this setup should work for most people who have a three seat backseat. If you don’t have a middle seat, you could use a larger box or tote for the kids toys. Or even have a plastic bin in between the seats and place the kids’ stuff on top of the bin lid.

  13. Saw this on Pinterest; our family uses the same system!
    One thing that also works for us is using a cutting board between the bucket seats in the middle. It fits snugly on top of the arm rests and is a great place to set a coloring book or sandwich.
    Good luck road tripping!

  14. LOVE this! Just found it on Pinterest. Having an organized and functional car is KEY to traveling with kids. Strange question though, we’re car searching when baby #2 is on the way, what car is this that you have pictured?? I’m determined to not get a minivan but we need third row and captain seat option in the middle. THANKS!!

    • Great question Meredith, and unfortunately I can’t help determine the car as I found it in a stock photo site and I can’t even remember which site that was at this point. Sorry! I think I was searching for van interiors or suv interiors or something to find the image. My advice would be to do a google image search for something like “3rd row seating interior” and see if you can find something there since auto makers often place those kind of images on their websites.

  15. Love this! This is mostly how we pack our car for road trips, but I love your graphics. My husband can never seem to remember where to put anything when we pack. I think I’m going to print this out and put it in the glove box! I also love the idea of the seat mounts for the tablets. We’ve had a two screen DVD player forever but it’s finicky and my boys got tablets for Christmas. This way they can watch their own movies and use individual earphones without cords running all over the back of our car. Thanks for the tips & graphic!

    • Hi Shannon! I assume you’ll be using the truck bed for your luggage. For the kids, I’d recommend having them share a bin of activities that can be set in front of the shortest legged one. Then you might just have to rotate out some snacks at your stops. You could also consider plastic bins for each kid and have them stacked. Might help keep stuff contained a bit more. Is there a specific area you’re trying to come up with a plan for? I’d love to try and help! :)

    • I can help with this a bit. We just took a trip in our truck with our three kids. My kids are 7,15, and 17. We used some large rubber maid tubs for our truck bed. We had a large one that we placed all our clothes in. The key with this tub is to place each person’s underwear and socks into their own large ziploc bag with their initial or name written on it. We did not do luggage at all for the trip. We had another tub with any food items not going up front. A third tub with any extras not going up front. Under the two outer seats, we kept backpacks of what the kids wanted for the trip up and back like tablets, paper and pencils, etc. I have a medium sized picnic type bag that has no top but two handles and in it we placed the snacks which was then placed on the floorboard up front between passenger and driver. The middle child in back had hardly any room under his seat so his backpack was under his feet. The tubs in the truck bed were held in place with bungee cords. This was our first time doing it this way and it worked beautifully for us. If something in the tub was needed we just hopped up in the truck bed when we stopped and got it out. The tubs also kept the rain out really well. I will be posting this on my blog in a bit more detail in the next few days if you need more details.

      Kimberly, I just the layouts you have pictured. When we had our third row SUV we did the same type organization. It really does help to know where everything goes!

      • Thanks for chiming in Amber! It’s great for other readers to be able to benefit from people who have driven different types of vehicles! The rubbermaid bins are great. My in laws have used them before for when they took camping trips.

  16. This is great if you have three rows! With two kids in a tiny sedan, space is a premium. For a week-long trip, we have to store things under the kids’ feet and packed tight between them. This includes a full-to-almost-popping-open trunk. I wish we had the money for a three-row vehicle!

    • In this diagram we don’t actually have anything in the third row — #8 is the trunk space. But I agree it is tougher with smaller cars! One of the tips I like is to use plastic storage crates under feet in the floor boards in smaller cars to the kids can place their feet on them and the activities won’t be ruined by dirty floors or shoes! Thanks for stopping by Cheryl!

  17. I am leaving for my road trip in just a few days, but I am traveling solo. I am trying to figure out if I really need to spend all that much time worrying about what I am packing and where, if it is just going to be me in the car.
    Love this diagram and the ideas for kids, wish my parents would have been this organized, but it usually meant me cleaning the car every time we stopped, because I was searching for my shoes that always got taken off.

    • Hi Elyse – thanks for taking a minute to comment! My brother-in-law is an expert at keeping their car organized during road trips and they put everything away and clean at every stop. It really is the only way to manage it all! I hope you have a fun and safe road trip adventure!

  18. From personal experience: if in a car and packing things in a trunk be careful if you try shoving small things into all the small left over spaces. Last year on a family trip to the Sequoias my 2 adult sons were packing our car when we left to head home. They shoved things like jackets ect into the small spaces around the luggage in the trunk. Did not notice they had somehow managed to tug the middle brake light out of the housing and it was laying on top of the jackets. Sitting in line at the local Costco to get gas for the long trip home my son had his foot on the break. Just as we reach the pump (finally) we smelled smoke, I looked back and smoke was pouting into the car from the truck. Quickly popped opened the trunk and yeah there was a fire. Luckily had water bottles right in reach and were able to pull jackets out and extinguish the fire. Very scary esp at a gas pump!

  19. Nice tips and love the visuals! Glad you’ve mentioned the first aid kit. It’s important to check this before the trip and keep it where it’s easily accessible, especially when you’re traveling with kids. I usually keep a travel size pain relief oil, since it works for multiple situations. Also, a roll of toilet paper comes in handy to quickly clean up any spills or to wipe something.


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