Family packing tips: road trip and vacation rental

Do we like family packing tips and road trips? Let’s put it this way: One time, at 2:30 in the morning, we gently put the sleeping toddler in his car seat, then drove for 16 hours.

Long drives are part of the game when you live in a large state like Oregon. That 16-hour road trip was from Eugene to Bozeman, Montana. The first 5 hours—nearly one-third of the trip—was just getting out of Oregon.

Fortunately, we’d done all our packing in advance, and over the years we’ve really worked to raise our packing game. After all, packing for a family vacation can be a scary, scary undertaking. Sometimes figuring out what to pack can seem so daunting, that it can make it harder for people to hit the road at all.

Family packing tips from us to you

We’ve traveled a wee bit over the years, domestically and internationally, pre-kids and kids-along-for-the-ride. So, from amputee needs to camera gear, kid clothes to food, we thought we’d share some of how we pack, what we pack, and the spirit in which we try to approach any road trip.

NOTE: Just as everyone’s family is different, every family’s packing is different. This post is a snapshot of family packing tips we use road tripping and packing for a family of four, including a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old. Please take what is useful and go from there to figure out the right things to pack for your family adventures.

Pack flexibility

Whether long hauls or short trips, our family of four now has its road trip rhythm pretty well defined. We also know that how we pack will change. After all, what we packed when road tripping while we had an infant and a toddler—diapers! wipes! baby blankets!—has now changed, and once we have pre-teens and teenagers, how we pack will change again.

The number-one thing we pack is flexibility. Different trips need different things… and sometimes, forgetting to bring something can turn out to be a good chance to pack some extra imagination.

Everyone packs

Another thing that helps us pack? We all work together. It’s not just Mom and Dad getting the packing done. The kids have jobs to help with too, and together we all get the packing done way faster than if it were just the adults.

Screens or no screens?

Oh, that is the tough question, isn’t it? We wrestle with it too sometimes.

Grownups bring phones. Anthony writes every day, so he always brings either a tablet with an external keyboard, or a laptop. Jodie often brings a laptop, since she is pulling photos and videos off all our cameras at the end of the day.

Anthony and Jodie also bring Kindles for reading.

As for the kids, often their tablets stay home. (As you can guess, they aren’t always thrilled about this.) Security-wise, there’s less tech to worry about. We also don’t have to listen to badgering about when screen time can start… because there ain’t gonna be any.

Before we leave, sometimes there is grumbling about having no screens… but it fades quickly. When we’re on the trip, we hardly ever hear screens brought up. After all, the kids know their devices will be waiting for them when they get home. Plus, they’re so busy checking out a waterfall, looking for seashells, or scootering around with the cool kids they met at a nearby campsite, that the last thing on their minds is what app they could be playing right now.

How our daughter and son pack

As the kids have gotten older, they’ve taken on more responsibility for their packing. Each child has their own backpack. For trips up to a few days, they are responsible for that backpack fitting their clothes, books, and any small toys. (We also bring a separate activity bag that contains more books, car-friendly games, and other activities.)

Jodie writes each kid a packing list. Once each kid has assembled the stuff on their list, Jodie checks it over to make sure that everything is accounted for. Then she helps the kids get everything into their backpacks.

The list will vary, of course: What we packed for Hawaii (swimsuits!) is obviously far different from what we packed for a few days up at a snowy Mt. Hood in February (snowsuits!). Here’s what was on a recent packing list for Aster, when we went down to Roseburg, Oregon, for 3 days of short waterfall hikes:

  • 1 set jammies
  • 2 pairs of pants
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 2 long-sleeve shirts/dresses
  • 1 short sleeve shirt/dress
  • Undies, 3 pairs
  • Socks, 3 pairs
  • 3 cozy friends
  • Books
  • Rain jacket/sweater/sweatshirts
  • Spending money
  • Book light

Connor’s list is pretty similar. The kids also practice violin every day, so they also pack up their violins and bows. If needed, Anthony also scans the sheet music for their current piece onto his iPad for reference.

How the adults in our family pack

We are both fairly minimal when it comes to packing. We like to think that family travel helps us appreciate the little things in life: There’s much to be said for how you can improve your outlook on a difficult morning merely by putting on a fresh pair of underwear.

Depending on the trip, we might take both hiking boots and a regular pair of street shoes. Anthony sometimes packs his kitchen knives, and he always makes sure he’s carrying his Swiss Army Knife. (He bought it as his very first pocket knife… when he was 12. This probably tells you a lot about Anthony.)

Amputee packing

Jodie’s needs include a few more specifics, such as a bit of makeup and jewelry, and usually some paints, a sketch book, and a small knitting project. As an amputee, Jodie also makes sure she has supplies to help her with her prosthetic leg and overall mobility, such as:

  • Charging cord for her prosthetic leg’s battery
  • The nylon “sock” she uses to put on her prosthesis
  • A valve key for adjusting the air release valve on her leg’s socket
  • Crutches (for when she’s not wearing her leg, such as bedtime or when we are going paddling)

Camera gear

While this is by no means some massive Hollywood production we need to mobilize, we still make sure we have good gear that’s ready to go. Here’s what camera gear will typically be coming with us:

  • Charge batteries
  • Canon M50 mirrorless digital camera
  • GoPro Session & accessories (Anthony usually wears the GoPro, mounted on an alligator clip he attaches to the front of his Eagle Creek backpack)
  • 2 micro USB cables
  • 2 spare batteries for the Canon
  • Dual battery charger
  • Tripod (with mounts for both the Canon and our iPhones)
  • Gorilla pod (for phones)
  • Extra memory cards
  • Card reader & connecting cable
  • Deity microphone (we don’t use this “in the field.” It’s more for when we’re recording our chatting over coffee, sitting at the table parts of a video)

This might seem like a lot of gear, but it’s actually not as much as you might think. Other than the tripod and the mic (which have their own storage cases), all this gear packs into a camera bag about the size of a purse.

Food

Our food needs vary a little trip to trip. We generally prefer cooking in to eating out, though on most trips we plan to do takeout for a meal or two. When we aren’t camping, we typically stay in an AirBnb or similar vacation rental, so we know there will be a kitchen and some overall supplies available for cooking and serving.

We might hit a grocery story for a couple of things (such as eggs), but usually we prefer to pack food from home, so we can spend more time doing things and less time shopping. A typical food-related packing list might look something like this:

  • Pack a small cooler with blue ices and any frozen meats (such as sausages or ground pork; we leave the meats frozen so they can work like ice), plus any items that need to be refrigerated
  • Coffee
  • Stick of butter
  • Bottle of olive oil
  • Apples and oranges
  • Half and half
  • Dried fruit (such as craisins) and/or fruit leather
  • Jam
  • Pickles
  • Loaf of bread
  • Box of crackers
  • Block or two of cheese
  • Pancake mix (either our own DIY mix or a store-bought)
  • Various snackable veggies (snap peas, bell peppers, etc.)
  • Hot sauce

Breakfasts range from pancakes and jam, to eggs and sautéed veggies. Lunch is often a picnic-style smorgasboard: fruit, veggies, bread, cheese, crackers, pickles, maybe a deli meat. Sometimes we get dinner out, or sometimes we put together a simple meal of pasta or salad.

Family packing tips for before you leave

Leaving for a trip always comes with its share of prep, of course. Having a set list that we can add to as needed helps us make sure we take care of what needs taking care of before we go. We also don’t have to spend a lot of brain space figuring out what we need to do before we go: Most of it is ready for us to take care of and check off.

  • Have the post office hold our mail (easy to do via the USPS app)
  • Return items to our library, and pick up or cancel any holds on requested materials
  • Check/lock all doors and windows
  • Skip trash/recycling
  • Print out our pet instructions (and a vet care release form) for whoever is keeping an eye on the pets
  • Take out the trash, compost, and recycling
  • Freshen up Jasmine’s food, water, and cat litter
  • Freeze blue ices
  • Wash dishes
  • Make road coffees
  • Set ductless to 65ºF/78ºF
  • Gas up the Outback
  • Check reservations
  • Any final shopping trips for groceries, toiletries, etc.?
  • Get and/or make ice
  • Put small trash bags in glove box
  • Pack a car snack bag (including some sort of snack cake that Jodie or Anthony loved from childhood, such as oatmeal pies or swiss rolls)

Miscellaneous family packing tips

We love that the kids are at an age where they love playing board games and card games. (Seriously. As of this writing, Aster is playing at least 10 games of solitaire a day.) We only take a few games, along with a couple of decks cards, and any of these might accompany us on a trip:

  • Settlers of Catan
  • Settlers of Catan, Jr.
  • Dragonwood
  • Sleeping Queens
  • One Night Ultimate Werewolf
  • Chess
  • Checkers
  • Yahtzee

We usually pack up a day or two in advance, so on the day we have minimal stuff to actually pack up. Instead, we can load up the car and hit the road—and then the adventure really begins!

How you pack for a trip can take so many forms, but it’s less daunting than you might think. As you do more trips, you’ll also get better at your packing groove. We figured out how to do this, and we know you can too! Now get on it: Plan that trip, put these family packing tips to work, pack that gear, and hit the road!

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

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