By Lauren Matison
Jun 9, 2022
ON AN EPIC ROAD trip from California to Connecticut with our two kids last August, my husband and I found ourselves totally winging it after a mudslide in Colorado wiped out our plans to go mountain biking. It wasn’t the first snag we encountered in the past year, during which we made three major road trips in our Ford Transit camper van. But, knowing we had tons of reliable gear on board, my husband and I didn’t need to fret over the unplanned detour. Packing for a road trip is one this, but figuring out exactly what to buy to keep the whole family happy on the go is a true art form.
We have a five-year-old son and 21-month-old daughter, and this is our essential packing list to cater for the everyday and the unexpected on any family road trip.
All prices in US dollars for ease of comparison.
GET ORGANIZED—LIKE, REALLY ORGANIZED
Everything needs to have a place, be it a laundry bag for dirty clothes, a Luno shoe storage bag (lunolife.com; $50) for muddy hiking boots, or a Thule Pulse rooftop cargo box (thule.com; from $500) for bulky items like sports gear. Luno also makes a great seatback organizer (lunolife.com; $45) to keep frequently used items accessible.
For the road trip (or any trip) each family member gets a set of color-coded, name-tagged packing accessories like Paravel’s personalized packing cubes (tourparavel.com; from $45). On the occasions when we take a break from #vanlife to unwind at a family-friendly hotel like the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows (fairmont.com; doubles from $475), in Santa Monica, California, we can quickly consolidate all the clothing we need into one overnight duffel to take inside.
If a toy or book sparks joy, it goes in the kids’ backpacks, along with PuroQuiets wireless headphones (purosound.com; $120) for our son, volume-limiting BuddyPhones (buddyphones.com; from $20) for our daughter, a printout of the Junior Ranger activity book (nps.gov/kids; free), and an iPad (apple.com; from $329) with a hands-free OtterBox tablet case (otterbox.com; from $50). Kids’ podcasts like “But Why” (vpr.org; free) keep creative juices flowing.
I also bring a giant Kule tote (kule.com; from $168) that my Roald Dahl–loving son calls the “BFG” or “Bag Full of Goodies.” It holds all the random stuff: extra layers, wipes, water, quick-drying towels, a Sonos Roam speaker (sonos.com; $179), Mad Libs, postcards, a Fujifilm Instax camera (instaxus.com; from $70), and surprise snacks galore.
KEEP CALM AND ULTRA-COZY
Still, simple pleasures go a long way. We always keep a soft wool Rumpl blanket (rumpl.com; from $59), Coyuchi sateen eye masks (coyuchi.com; $18), and compressible Therm-a-Rest pillows (thermarest.com; from $25) on hand, along with Glerups wool booties (glerups.com; $125) for the grown-ups and Bombas grippers (bombas.com; from $16) for the kids. An occasional spritz of an essential oil like Desert Cedar from Juniper Ridge (juniperridge.com; $12) ensures the van smells fresh.
PREP FOR MEALTIME
Avoid fast-food joints by packing your own options. For us, it’s often no-fuss sandwiches with Fishwife’s smoked albacore tuna (eatfishwife.com; from $27 for three) or a bowl of Patagonia Provisions’ soup (patagoniaprovisions.com; $7). Perishables go in our van’s Dometic fridge (dometic.com; from $915)—but a soft Hydro Flask cooler tote (hydroflask.com; from $150) is a good, no-power fallback. When off the grid, we heat things up with Solo Stove’s Campfire (solostove.com; $150), which contains the flames and ignites quickly with kindling.
BRING YOUR OUTDOOR A-GAME
We’re fortunate to have a large “gear garage” in our van, which can accommodate an inflatable Alpacka packraft (alpackaraft.com; from $600), for impromptu paddles, and our three bikes. Even if your vehicle has less cargo space, carve out a spot for Snow Peak’s foldable bamboo chairs (snowpeak.com; from $190), a MoonShade awning (moonfab.com; $325), Sea to Summit’s Cinder Down Quilt (seatosummit.com; from $199), and an REI Co-op Camp Roll Table (rei.com; $75), all of which enable you to set up a comfortable picnic spot pretty much anywhere. T+L Tip: In the States, for access to some of the nation’s best parks, preserves, and other federal lands, we use an America the Beautiful pass (nps.gov; $80).
Make sure you are packing enough gear for if the family road trip needs to go into survivor mode. Our Goal Zero Yeti 500x power station (goalzero.com; $700) holds enough juice to run our mini-fridge, plus a laptop and mobile devices. A Weego 44s power pack (myweego.com; $93) can jump-start a battery, while the Weboost Drive X (weboost.com; $400) helps improve connections to cellular signals—a godsend in remote areas. We also keep our Adventure Medical Kit (adventuremedicalkits.com; from $8) stocked and carry a Grayl GeoPress purifying water bottle (grayl.com; $100), which removes waterborne pathogens and filters out chemicals and even microplastics.
DITCH THE PLASTIC
Avoiding single-use plastic on the road is less challenging when you have reusable essentials at the ready. We like Hydro Flask’s leakproof coffee tumblers (from $30), Yeti water bottles (yeti.com; from $25), Porter utensil sets (wandpdesign.com; $15), and Tickle Trunk metal storage containers (thetickletrunk.com; from $11). Helping pick up trash while hiking, biking, and exploring is another way to raise eco-conscious road-trippers. Some of our favorite cross-country memories are the moments my son would proudly carry his trash bag and gloves from Parks Project (parksproject.com; kits from $10) and call himself “Ranger Remy.”
Product photos courtesy of the brands.