This summer we drove to Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands in a 10 day epic trip that we’d been planning for a year to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. A relaxing, romantic trip filled with good food, late nights watching the open skies, trips to castles, searching for the Loch Ness Monster… oh yeah, and toddler tantrums. We had three options. Don’t go on the trip, go on the trip with our son, or leave our son at home. I’m a big believer in not letting children stop you doing the things you want to do and there’s no way I could leave him for 10 days at the moment (as we have no one able to care for him overnight), so it was decided, he was coming with us!
We drove from South Wales though, so that’s a 7 hour drive to Edinburgh, and a 10 hour drive back from the Highlands. The trip back we decided to break into two, as 10 hours of driving felt a wee bit too much for any of us, but going up there, we aimed to do the lot in one go! On the whole, we drove on average 4+ hours a day, and we had one breakdown which involved us spending 6 hours by the side of a Loch in the middle of the Scottish Highlands. Picturesque… but certainly not ideal! I feel like I’ve gone through trial by fire when it comes to toddlers in the car and family car trips though.
There are some essential preparations you can make to help a road trip with a toddler go smoother.
The 10 Things you NEED for a road trip with a toddler
Food for a road trip with a toddler
Sounds obvious right? But you’d be amazed at the amount of food you need for a road trip. Snacks will keep energy levels up and little hands and mouths occupied. Healthy, easy to eat snacks and food are an absolute must. Don’t rely on there being service stations because you never know what’s going to happen. You might break down, get stuck in traffic, or find that the McDonalds you planned to stop at is closed for refurbishment. Packing non-perishable, healthy, nutritious snacks that won’t create too much mess are absolutely essential.
You can also pack a cooler which will keep food fresh during the journey, and some suggestions would include sandwiches, fruit, vegetable sticks and dips, crackers and cheese, cereal bars and granola bars, hard boiled eggs, string cheese or cheese dippers, protein snacks.
You want to try to avoid empty carbs which will mean your toddler gets hungry again quickly, or high sugar loads as you definitely don’t want to be dealing with a sugar rush on the motorway!
Drinks on a road trip with a toddler
Most toddlers have a drinking problem. They have their favourite drinks and bottles or cups to drink from, and if that flavour isn’t available, a meltdown may be on the cards. As with food, pack plenty. Buy spare bottles or cups, because you never know when one might get broken or lost. Fruit squash is low calorie, sugar free, full of flavour and easy to mix with water so makes a good travel drink, but pre-packaged juice boxes or drinks such as Fruit Shoots can come in very handy in an emergency. It’s really important to encourage your child to keep drinking through the journey, even if they’re not that thirsty, as road trips can be quite dehydrating.
Do not rely on stops along the way, because as I found out, if you break down, you may not be within easy reach of somewhere to buy food or drinks. Therefore if you know you’re going to be on a long car journey in an area that may have long distances between stops, pack way more than you need.
iPad / Tablet / Phone or Car Games on a family road trip
You need something to keep them passively entertained. That means entertainment you don’t necessarily need to be directly involved in. A tablet attached to the seat playing favourite nursery rhymes, music, a movie or similar is a fantastic passive entertainment that might give you the hour of breathing space you need. Now a lot of parents are understandably worried about the use of tech in their children’s lives – but you have to make a personal decision about how difficult this trip might be and what tools you can use to make it as easy as possible. I don’t personally believe media usage is inherently bad, but it does need to be used appropriately and in moderation, so pre-loading a tablet with the content you approve of is essential, as well as setting boundaries such as “We’re going to listen to 30 minutes of this,” or “Watch one episode of your favourite series”.
You can also use it as a gated treat towards to end of the journey to make the final leg go quicker!
Toys and games that are suitable for a road trip
Not every toy is going to be suitable for the car, but you definitely want to pack a few things that are. On a road trip with children you’ll want something that’s easy to play with even when the car is moving, without any small parts that can disappear under the seats and cause mayhem or tantrums. Interactive toys will hold attention, whilst getting something new could also offer a bit of added excitement. My toddler is currently obsessed with magnets, so when I found out you could get a magnetic board that fit on the back of a car seat it was a no brainer, along with a colouring pad that could fit securely on a tray and large easy to hold crayons.
Safety Kit that you should always have in the car
Whether you’re going on a long road trip or not, having a first aid kit and safety equipment in the car is a really good idea. For me this would include:
- A small roadside first aid kit, which can be bought on Amazon
- High visibility jackets suitable for everyone in the family should you have to get out on the roadside
- A high powered torch and spare batteries for it
- Powerbank to charge mobile phone in case of emergency and batteries dying
- If you’re traveling across different countries you should also make sure that you have headlight kits for the country you’re traveling to, to allow use of your car headlights in the dark without causing a danger to other drivers
Changing Kit and Clothes
If you’re going on holiday you’ve no doubt already packed a suitcase, but a change of clothes should be easily accessible. And not just for the toddler – for everyone! You need a full changing kit as well, including nappies, wipes, any cream or products you use and then a full outfit change. For my toddler with a 10 hour drive up to the Scottish Highlands, we changed him into his bedtime gear at the usual time. This helped him fall asleep in the car and to keep some routine to the journey. If you are journeying overnight I would highly recommend trying to keep to a schedule you have at home, so stopping for food, followed by changing into bed time gear and perhaps familiar bed time songs. You will want to account for the temperature in the car, so more layers might be needed so that you have a warm, safe, sleepy toddler.
Familiar Items for comfort
If your child has favourite cuddly toys or a blanket that’s familiar to them then you definitely want these in the back seat for the trip. Anything that helps them get comfort will help them relax and sleep. My son has a favourite stuffed toy from a video game that he won’t sleep with, and loves to hold onto tags and ribbons for comfort.
Classical music is extremely soothing for long car journeys, but you may have a favourite type of music or specific songs that help you. It’s worth getting a few playlists – one for getting the blood pumping in the morning, something relaxing for the middle of the day and then lullabies to fall asleep to. Don’t forget you’re going to be stuck in the car and driving too, so you want to be alert and not being driven crazy by 10 hours of nursery rhymes. Loading up a bunch of music onto your phone will save a lot of fiddling with the radio and skipping tracks that aren’t suitable – and will also be great when there isn’t a strong radio signal nearby.
A plan with frequent stops
You’ll need a plan with frequent stops to allow for buying food, drinks and for stretching legs. Some roadside service stations even have soft plays now, so it’s definitely worth researching if you’re passing anywhere that could provide an extended stop to burn off all the excess energy. Depending on the time of year you travel, some will have lots of space outdoors for a picnic. If you have a rough route, you can google service stops on google maps and there is some great information there.
Roadside Assistance & A Backup Plan
These two fall into the same category – a plan for if something goes wrong. Cars can break down, and if you’re driving long distances in a foreign country, or in a part of the country that’s not easily accessible, as I was when we broke down in the Scottish Highlands, then you want to have a plan. With children on board, just winging it is no longer an option. Roadside assistance is absolutely essential in my opinion, and I’d never be without it again having experienced how much time, money and panic it saved this summer. A backup plan can include knowing where good places to stop are, where you can get a hotel overnight if you need to, what’s available in the area and where everything is in the car that you might need. I’ll admit, I’m a planner, but I think if you’re on a long journey with children then you’ve already got plenty to worry about and stress. When the kids are crying or upset, bored or angry, hungry, and you’re feeling tired and pushed to your limit after five hours on the road – you don’t need the extra stress of not having a plan on top.
Therefore whilst it’s my last piece of advice for a road trip with a toddler or children, it’s also the one that I think is the most important to me – always have a plan!
Plans are great and when plans go the way you want them to then it’s perfect, but the fact is, you need a backup plan.
The short list of the 10 things you need on a road trip with a toddler
- iPad or other entertainment
- Car suitable toys / games
- Safety / first aid kit
- Familiar blanket and favourite soft toy
- Changing kit and spare clothes
- Music for every occasion
- A well researched plan with frequent stops
- Roadside Assistance & a backup plan