AMAZING Cross Country Road Trip Tips (with a Toddler!)

Read on for the tips, tricks, and must haves!

We were on the road for 46 days, from NJ to California and then back across to NJ – with a 2yo in tow. The main stops were Lead, SD, Eureka, MT, Silverton OR, Brookings, OR, Glen Ellen, CA, San Francisco, CA, San Diego, CA, Williams, AZ, Teasdale, UT, and Breckingridge, CO.

Now, we’ve done long car rides before 6 hours to Vermont and back in the fall but nothing would quite prepare us for 200+ hours in the car with a toddler over 6 weeks.

I’ll start by saying Q was great, seriously overall great, and it was way more intimidating imagining it versus actually living it. Being prepared and having everything we need was key.

The Road Trip Was Booked Some What on a Whim

We realized the timing was ideal with both us us working remotely full time, we’d never been in a position to take off 6 consecutive weeks, so the timing was just right!

It came to me while doing laundry – does any one else get lost in their thoughts while folding laundry? Driving across the country has been a bucket list trip since college, I studied photographers who captured the USA and dreamt of what it all looked like.

It’s always felt funny to live in a country and not have seen so much of it. We’ve gone to a lot of places, but I felt we never really have seen it. So the idea was planted, I laid it out to my husband Ken (with a don’t think I’m crazy warning) and he was immediately onboard.

The Plan in Motion

The first step was to plan, to mark off the places we wanted to see the most, see how they lined up to plan the route, then plan by way of airbnb’s located near sites we wanted to see. Top of our list was the Badlands, Montana, driving down the CA coast, and Arizona. Everywhere else fell into place. As we drove we would reminisce on things we’ve liked the most and places that surprised us. I’ll go into a full post on our route!

Wrapping My Head Around 10,000 + miles in the car with a toddler

So the route was planned, airbnb’s were booked, and now to tackle wrapping my head around this amount of car time with a young toddler. It’s easy to go to Pinterest , type in car ride activities and try a bunch. However I know Q’s interests and wanted to tailor activities and toys specifically to him.

Our first few days on the road trip were the ones I was most prepared for, activity wise.

We had two 10 hour rides and one 7 hour ride, so 27 hours in 3 days in the car. I wanted to be the most prepared for these as I knew it would be a bit of a shock to Q in general.

In preparation I spent the 3 weeks prior talking to Q about the road trip we’ll take, the time we’ll spend in the car, the places we’ll see which helped when the day arrived.

I had an assortment of activities that can all be found here. What I learned quickly was he was most interested in something new each ride.

I read a lot of blogs about road trips with kids.

However the ones I had read were tailored to singular 10+ hour rides, not 200+ hours over a short period of time – hah – and trust me there is a difference.

The first few days I was also very mentally prepared for it- I knew exactly what we’d do to keep busy but as the trip went on my mindset changed- and so did his. I should also mention we’ve done the entire trip completely screen free. We’ve been screen free for 9 months, for no reason other than we got busy over 3 days last December and he forgot it existed – seriously – never asked to watch it again, so here we are. Screen free!

Car ride one was full of activities and Pinterest hacks

They were all activities that I’ll absolutely go back to for singular long car rides to come- but the activities didn’t withstand the entire road trip.

What worked best along the entire trip were books and small new items that he picked out himself or that I surprised him with, and honestly starting off the rides with nothing he’d typically sit for an hour or two just relaxing.

These are the Road Trip Activities and What Worked the Best:

Lunchbox Hack

Seen here– this was GREAT for 10 hour day 1 and day 2, but more so for day 1. After day 2 he completely lost interest in it. Again, great for a singular long trip or two, but not for cross country.

Lunch Box Link here

I made the matching magnets by scanning in the book, selecting around the trucks, adding to a white sheet, printing out the sheet and glueing to wooden disks and then glueing magnets to the backs.

The duplo sheet I cut to size with a box cutter and sanded the edges.

Baking Sheet Activities

This was also amazing for day 1 – he was really interested in it and I made a few activities with it – but he lost interest after 10 hour car ride #2.

I made this activity by saving a box some CAT toys came in, cut them out and hot glued magnets to the back- easy!

Mess Free Coloring Hack

This was one I broke out most often, really saved us on a 10 hour drive from Montana to Oregon – I’d say successful for a cross country trip, but even more so for singular trips.

I simply glued magnets to the back of clear folders from Target and would slip in coloring sheet pages, have him color with this paint brush markers, then wipe it clean with a baby wipe. This way I could reused the coloring sheets over and over again and Q felt like he was painting.

I stored the markers in these magnetic cases.


In particular sound books- I found sound books to be BY FAR the most successful cross country road trip item ever. Seriously. I packed about 10 books thinking this was insane to pack so many and day three on the 7 hour ride we were at a Barnes and Noble buying more. I thought the sounds would drive us insane but we barely notice them and he absolutely loves them. I ordered a few more to one of the houses we stayed at halfway through. We have about 25 in the car now I keep right behind the middle counsel and hand to him when he asks for one. Seriously all. The. Books.

I’ve linked all his favorites to my Amazon storefront!

Something New

Now, these can be little toys from dollar tree, or big, anything that they love. All the new toys were car themed as that’s Q’s favorite thing in the WORLD. We’d also pick things up along the way and from gift shops. I knew we’d spend between $1 and $20 at each big stop on something either he picked out or I would to hide for another ride.

He also found souvenirs interesting!


Snacks killed hours of time, new snacks, old snacks, all the snacks.

Here’s a tip – before we left I bought a lot of 12 pack ones and he really preferred new snacks so picking up snacks from gas stations along the way made a lot more sense and we’d end up leaving snacks he was no longer interested in to the homes along the way.

Car Ride Essentials

A Great Car Seat – this is ours, is safe to keep rear facing until 50lbs which is exactly why we chose it!

Baby Powder – All I can say is no more sandy toes

Baby Wipes – Wipes in the front seat, the back seat, the trunk, in my purse, in our hiking back pack, in our suitcase.

Hand Sanitizer – large ones in the car, small ones in our backpacks.

Extra Sunglasses – I can’t tell you how many times I lost my sunglasses in the car, the stroller, the houses. I did always find them but in a crunch having a cheap pair (even from dollar tree) was a life saver in the car.

Laundry Bags – I picked up 2 large mesh ones from dollar tree and two of these from amazon. I honestly could have used 2 more. I ended up using the amazon ones to pack his pillow, blanket, sheets and the mesh ones for our laundry as we went! They were just perfect.

More Car Ride Essentials

Empty Reusable Bags – I can’t tell you how much I love these reusable bags. I brought 3 with us and could have used more. One store my husband’s computer screen for work – just an odd item to pack, one held sensory play items, and another was my beach bag/ random item bag / shopping bag. I can’t tell you how important it is to have great reusable bags on hand on cross country trips!

Garbage Bag Hack – This was my favorite hack, turn a cereal container into a mini trash can ( and then it has a lid!)

Arm Grabber – I can’t tell you how many times something dropped off the side of his car seat and I used this to save the day.

Water – More water then you’d expect – trust me!

Eating On The Road Essentials

Small cooler – This was a must have. It was used every single day, we often would pack meals for the 10 hour car days, bring milk/ butter / cheese with us, and having some cold water is nice along the way.

Mini Cooler – Another must have, I often didn’t want to throw. the big one in my hiking back pack or stoller so a mini size was perfect.

Ice Packs- don’t forget these for your coolers!

Reusable Water Bottle – This autoseal bottle was our favorite, we had two and could have used two more ( trust me)

Kids Reusable Water bottle – We brought two kinds, this and this one. I found the stainless steel one to be better as Q likes his water very cold and it stays colder much longer.

Road Trip Toddler Packing Essentials

Portable Crib – Q is almost 3 and still sleeps great in his pack and play.

Portable Crib Mattress – This makes it even more comfortable for sleeping 46 nights on!

Duffle Bags – I found this to be the best way to pack, my husband got one, I got one, and Q got one.

Packing Cubes – This is the best way to organize within the duffle bags. Then I could easily grab out a swim suit or socks, without digging through the entire bag!

Baby Monitor – i love our baby monitor, and it’s come all over the world with us with ease. Best part is when we ordered it it came with a rebate to receive an additional camera for free! No sure if they still have this promo though.

Sound Machine – This has also traveled the world with us!

Potty – I have to tell you how many people would get a laugh when they’d see our potty in the trunk – this was a must have thought for a newly potty trained toddler. Also just made life easier at rest stops to have him go right there versus bringing him inside. I also brought a foldable version which I’ll list below as I used them both and was SO thankful to have them. This also leads to my ALL TIME FAVORITE hack – place a diaper into the potty before your toddler uses it for SUPER easy clean up – seriously the best.

Portable High Chair- I love this thing – we’ve used it since Q could sit up on his own and it just folds up so small.

All of these packing essentials helped us keep to our nightly routine as much as possible. Crib, Mattress, his blanket and pillow from home, sheets with a mattress cover and 1 extra sheet, monitor, sound machine, his favorite books.

Cross Country Adventuring Must Haves

Hiking Backpack for Mom – I carried all the water and toddler goodies on hikes, so it was important to have a backpack with great support!

Hiking Carrier for Dad – Ken loved this backpack carrier for Q!

Packable Microfiber Towel – We loved this towel, perfect to toss in my hiking backpack we used it at splash parks and after swimming in waterfalls and it dries so quick!

Sunhat – We brought 2 baseball hats and 1 sunhat – sun protection was essential

Reusable Bibs – We brought 3 of these, one to keep. inthe car, one in my backpack, and one to bring into the houses. They wipe clean and catch food! Brilliant!

Disposable Bibs- I was so glad to have these for super messy ice cream moments

Portable Potty – I was so grateful to have this in my backpack as Disneyland when Q had to go and had to go QUICK. He’s still figuring out the big potty and i’m so glad this fits so easily in my backpack

Wet / Dry Bags – I use one of these to store the portable potty in, along with baby wipes, sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer, and extra garbage bags. The other is perfect to store wet clothes and swimsuits in

Mesh Bags – These are perfect for storing toys and especially beach toys and then just shake them out!

Fun Must Haves

Polaroid Camera – I adore my Polaroid camera, it was so fun to have some pictures instantly printed out too!

Polaroid Film

Film Camera

Digital Camera

Journal – jotting down favorite memories

Tripod – For some fun family photos

Items I’m so Glad We Had

Sponge – I packed 3 and used all of them. Hotels don’t often have sponges and I was glad we had these on hand to wash off bibs and dishes

Laundry Detergent – While most homes had washers and dryers, most did not have laundry detergent so I was thankful I snagged some mini sized ones at Target!

Stamps – because, post cards!

Garbage Bags- Both large and small, every day at the end of the day I’d clean out the car from trash and get ready for the next day.

Ziplock Bags- Both large and small – perfect for snacks and storing odds and ends

Foil & Tape – So this may sound odd but this was my other favorite hack. Q sleeps so much better when the room is blacked out and this is the easiest way to do it. Each house we’d stop at I’d first blackout the windows in his room by using some foil and painters tape – so easy! . I’d recommend bringing two rolls of foil and two rolls of tape ( one as a backup) as a dark room was essential to us.

Rubber Gloves- I snagged these from dollar tree before we left, I knew I might need them and then we’re in The Redwoods Forest and Q steps in dog poop and I was SO thankful to have the gloves in the car to help clean it off. Also keep a spare pair of shoes in the car hah

Oven Mit- I loved this hack for putting warm hair items into to pack up, we were often going going and if I used my curling iron I was able to pack it right away.

Random Odds and Ends – Screw Driver, Batteries, shower caps. (for storing dirty shoes), baby proofing items ( you never know)

Lysol Wipes – lots of these!

Extra Masks – Our favorite masks are these, my husband has the XL, I wear the L, and Q wears the small. They fit great. I’d recommend having two each -they fall or get misplaced easily along the way for so many days!

So There is a Whole Lot of Cross Country Road Trip Information to Digest!

There’s plenty more to come too on the blog, the route we took, the places we stopped, our favorite toddler friendly hikes along the way, wine tasting ( screen free) with a toddler, restaurant hacks with toddlers, oh and my favorite sensory play across the USA and hotel boredom busters. Drop in the comments what else you’d like to see!

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