Mom Chronicles: Hints from the road

Packing for Family Adventure Road Trips: 3 Secrets All Parents Should Know

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Uncle Greg and his ever cute niece, Chloe, take in the sunset on the Sea of Cortez in Baja.  How about his well-packed Toyota Tacoma?

Two things remain the same when you're packing for a trip to the great outdoors:

  1. You'll bring the same amount of stuff for one-night weekend getaways under the stars and epic three-week, multi-state adventures; and it will always fill up your storage space to overflowing.
  2. You need more diapers and wipes but fewer kid toys than you think.

We're trying to teach three-year-old Chloe a little about owning and packing stuff. Once, I left a toy bag open in her room between camping weekends and asked her to re-load it with toys and books for next time. She haphazardly threw into it a random variety of useless but comical junk- a drawing from school, a baby toy from the bottom of her closet floor, a stethoscope (see left). True, she was given unlimited choice and WAY too much power for her young age, so of course her selections weren't the most sensible. What did I think would happen? My point still stands: it doesn't really matter what toys you bring along.

When it comes to packing for a self-sufficient family adventure, making methodical choices rather than haphazard toddler-esque decisions can make a big difference in how smooth (even successful) your trip turns out to be. We've been on adventures with and without children, so there are a few things we've learned along the way. Not that we get it right every time, but here are some packing principles we adventure-seeking parents try to live by.

Puzzled Parents, Prepare to Pack

Everything you need.  And maybe definitely way more.

1. Keep gear loaded and ready to go in bins or drawers

This virtually eliminates frantic chaos the night before leaving. We have designated bins to store different categories of cooking, eating, cleaning and first aid equipment. When they're not in use on a trip, these "essentials" bins basically stay loaded with supplies and stacked in the garage. Packing the truck is a cinch. I've found that it's better to wash items and re-stock these bins right after a trip rather than going through it all the night before leaving. Also, it's definitely worth it to purchase dedicated flatware, mugs, pots, and bowls that stay packed and ready to go. There's nothing worse then watching your friends drink a warm camp mocha because you left your travel mug at home in your kitchen.

Similarly disastrous, if you ran out of batteries, paper towels, or band-aids on the last outdoor trip, you are likely to forget before the next go around. Sure, you can buy most of these things at a gas station or Wal-mart in any small town you go through, but c'mon isn't the fun of being self-sufficient, well, self-sufficiency? And, as Mark can tell you, I HATE going to the store for just one thing. It's like admitting defeat in the entire planning and packing department. Keep the ready-to-go bins as "ready to go" between adventures as you can and save your brain from a hectic night before of packing the essentials.

2. Re-package food and organize meals in advance.

We've discussed this previously on the blog about snacks for toddlers, but it's a keeper.

From infant formula, to snack foods, even to fresh fruits and veggies for meals, in general the food you buy and bring from the store isn't packaged efficiently. I spend a lot of our packing time before an adventure in the kitchen, and as house-wifey as it may sound, I really enjoy that part of trip organization. Rather than bringing a whole canister of hot chocolate or an entire box of Kix cereal, portion out what you'll use and bring it in a plastic baggie (double bag if it's powder!). Wash and cut up vegetables such as tomato slices, celery sticks, or diced bell pepper and bring in a stacking plastic container or a waterproof baggie. The more you simplify the packaging, the more trash you can recycle or dispose of before you're out in the wilderness and the quicker you'll be able to find the food you want when it's time to chow down.

Fellow adventurer mom Marni Woods (CA) even goes one more level of efficient by placing food components in the ice chest chronologically, according to the order of when that item will be used in a meal. This is planning and packaging at it's best when it comes to easy meal-times on a camping trip. Great idea, Marni!

3. What goes in the carry-on bags? Don't overfill your vehicle's backseat.

There's nothing worse than opening the kids' door at a rest stop and having ten loose items come crashing out. Yes, that's melodramatic. But still.

Chloe gets to bring one backpack filled with a couple of car toys (finger puppets and the sticker book are still my favorites), a juice box, and her jacket or vest in case it's cold (or after dark) right when we get out to set up camp. We try to minimize our junk in the backseat to just my purse, a headlamp, the maps bag, and some snack food and paper towels in a market bag in the backseat - hey, I didn't say empty, just minimize. Maybe one duffel bag of clothes and blankets can go below Chloe's leg area (since she's up pretty high from the car seat), but for the most part we try to keep the passenger area free for, well, passengers. You'll be less frustrated about finding what you need while your partner drives, and your kids will appreciate the breathing room.

Bonus secret:

I know, I know, the real puzzle is how to fit all of that sleeping gear, cooking gear, clothes, food, diapers, tools, bikes, pack-n-plays...I didn't even go there. See, the answer to that depends so heavily on your travel set-up and your child's age that it's almost useless to discuss in general terms.

The only thing I know is that once you go overnight a few times as a family, you'll get better at paring down to the basic necessities for your camping, eating, and adventuring style. You'll also find little creature comforts that help you all survive more comfortably- like a travel-size bottle of real shampoo (no camp suds for my hair; can't stand the feeling) or Mark's treasured espresso maker for our morning camp mocha- these things are simple yet very satisfying. The main point is, you can be self-sufficient in your adventure traveling even with kids - think about people "overlanding" in covered wagons on the Oregon trail 150 years ago. Although I bet their belongings filled up the storage space to overflowing, too. And they had a hard time figuring out where to pack the kitchen sink...

Give us your input:

Do you have a secret to packing your truck or off-road vehicle? How did your amount of stuff change when you added a child (or children) to the backseat? Prefer towing a trailer where everything is already packed for you? We would love to see pictures and comments below.

For our next modification in packing and organization, I'd love to upgrade our camping essentials stack-able bins to something more durable and rugged, but with a good variety of sizes. Any suggestions?


+5 / 0
# Mark 2011-01-17 09:17

Let's give a little nod to Nathan Woods' packing prowess, too. :-)
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Stephanie Parry
+2 / 0
# Stephanie Parry 2011-01-24 23:25
We purchased a large Stanley tool box on wheels (with a handle!) to use as a camp box. The tool tray on top is perfect for spices, utensils, etc, and the bottom bin holds all the pots and pans, stove, lanterns, fuel, dishes, etc.
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+4 / 0
# Mark 2011-01-25 08:10
Nice one, Stephanie. Rugged box on wheels. Like this?
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+1 / 0
# Pseudonym 2011-01-28 12:06
My wife and I use two, large waterproof LL Bean duffle bags for bedding and clothing. These duffle bags are stowed on our roof rack which frees up a lot of room inside our vehicle for the chow box, tent box, and cooler (not to mention our daughter).
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+4 / 0
# Heather 2011-03-01 12:19
We camp with two kids in a Civic! And we squeeze in a few ten day trips each season. We use compression sacks for our clothes, sleeping bags, etc. We bring match box cars for toys and a pile of books for the back seat. We also have a small stash of treats for when the going gets tough on the ten hour drives! Of course we plan all our food in advance and shamefully use paper plates. We found we can stash cans in with the spare tire. But honestly there is nothing more satisfying than getting 500 miles to tank of gas and having it all squeeze in!
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Joe McGowan
+2 / 0
# Joe McGowan 2011-06-17 23:16
We keep four shelf storage rack on the back porch with all the camping stuff ready to go, then depending on the trip we grab what we need and go.

PS- Any chance your Uncle will give us a review of his Maggiolina RTT?
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Mark Stephens
+1 / 0
# Mark Stephens 2011-07-11 14:09
Mayyyyyyybe -
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Sara Lin
+1 / 0
# Sara Lin 2011-07-13 20:38
This is SO cute and really helpful! Even a family with dog children ;)
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Pamela Walker
0 / 0
# Pamela Walker 2011-08-20 00:50
Great mark to introduce this with us.
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