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Family travel is such a privilege and gift, and still, the process can be harrowing. As we packed for our current road trip, I realized there are a few habits I have developed over the years that help planning and packing for the road feel smoother and more approachable. I jotted down three impactful tips below for you to borrow and make your own.

1. Delegate Packing with Lists / Getting everyone properly packed and ready to go can be stressful! Regardless of age, children are often eager for travel, so several years ago, I began channeling that energy into letting them pack their own bags, even if it was just for the weekend. I would then check and edit what they packed and they were done! Now everyone packs their own bag, but to ensure we don’t leave out any of the essentials, I create a list ahead of time for all of us. It saves so much energy and tugs-of-war about what is essential. These lists are extremely helpful for me, too, as there are so many details to keep in mind. Here’s my process:

  • Create a Reproducible List | Make a family packing list in GoogleDocs (or some other program), titled with the season, location, and time period, i.e. “Two-Week Summer Road Trip / UT, WY, MT.” This will be helpful to reference and copy/paste for future travel.
  • Label Lists Clearly | Make the list easy for everyone to use. Make specific lists for each child if they are too nuanced, or label one general list for all to follow. I find numbering items of clothing is helpful, too!
  • Print + Distribute to Each Child | Print a list for each child (maybe with images for non-readers) and clip it to a clipboard. Hand each one a clipboard and have them check off as they create their piles to pack.
  • Check + Edit Piles | When they announce they are finished, use the checklist and double-check their piles. Make any necessary edits, and have them load their bag and set it aside.

2. Pack Individual Food Bags / For longer travel trips, when food stops are imperative, we tend to pack our own food and drinks to save money and make wiser food choices. This idea works whether you are flying or driving. Sometimes distributing all the food during the trip becomes a part-time job, so we make food bags for each person to enjoy during the day, including a variety of dried fruits, meats, and nuts, little treats, fresh fruit, and bars. The idea is for each of us to choose what we eat and when during the day, but also to fill our bellies with foods that won’t make us feel bad or damage our digestion while we sit for hours in one space. For this trip, I purchased everything ahead of time on Amazon or at Trader Joe’s. Although I typically avoid pre-packaged snacks, for this purpose, it’s worth it for me. The same concept could be created from bulk. Also, for day-long drives, we pack lunch in a cooler to stop at a park along the way, to play, stretch our legs, and enjoy time in the fresh air. Here’s what is in our food bags this trip:

  • New Primal Beef Thins / These are crispier than most beef jerky and made without any of the preservatives. We love them! And this package came with them pre-packaged––perfect for individual use.
  • Justin’s Cinnamon Almond Butter packets with fresh apples and banana / These nut butters are delightful, and the individual packets help us to avoid needing utensils. There are a variety of flavors to choose, too! I also like having fresh fruit available for them to eat. It’s best if the banana is eaten early on since it tends to brown
  • Rx Bars or Clif ZBars / I love Rx Bars for their whole ingredients and substance, but not everyone in my family agrees. Wink. So I also ordered a box of Clif ZBars for the kids.
  • trail mix packets / You can find these on Amazon, too, but they are less expensive at TJ’s. I choose the mix without chocolate to prevent a melty mess.
  • a cranberry-orange scone / I picked up a packet of these at TJ’s so everyone would have a breakfast treat in the car to enjoy.
  • personal water bottle / Many places in airports and travel stops have refill stations for water bottles.

3. Create a Personal SOS Bag / SOS is a little dramatic, but we all relate with needing a few things on hand for TLC when we travel. Everyone brings something to read or draw/write on in the car, but I also have a little SOS bag for random needs along the way, even if it’s just for me. Wink. Here’s what I packed this trip:

  • Dr. Bronner’s Lavender Organic hand sanitizer / This is helpful to have on hand for all obvious reasons. I even use it to spray surfaces in a pinch. It’s made with lavender oils and without any of the toxic chemicals or preservatives. Plus, it smells so good.
  • Beautycounter Face Cloths / These are wonderful for travel! I use them to refresh, first with my face and then at times my pits and feet. They’re made with safe ingredients, are oil and fragrance-free, and are compostable, too!
  • Beautycounter Melting Body Balm / My skin tends to dry out when we travel, and this luxurious body balm feels so good on my hands, feet, and elbows. For the kids’ dry patches, I prefer this unscented option. It is also wonderful for mild eczema.
  • Ningxia Nitro / A friend gifted these to me for our trip, and I love them for the afternoon slump when I tend to crave an energy boost. These are less expensive through wholesale, so if you don’t know anyone who sells YL, I can connect you!
  • Essential Oil Roller / There are SO many resources with EOs for travel to cover here, but I love having 1 or 2 on hand while we travel. Sometimes I carry my own blend or one premade. My favorite blends are Peace+Calming, Stress Away, and Valor from YL.
  • Hydrating Facial Mist / Can you tell hydration is key for us? Lol. Sometimes I don’t need to wash or clean my skin, I just need a little moisture. This facial mist is fantastic! It releases a gentle mist with just the right amount of hydration. Two sprays is often plenty, so it often lasts forever. The peony ingredient smells so lovely, and it’s safe for the whole family, too.
  • Lip Moisture / I always keep lip balm, lip conditioner, and a Twig Sheer Lipstick (if I want some light color) on hand for family moisture. Spending time in the car AC or traveling to drier climates always dries out our lips. I reach for one of these often during travel.

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Deciding what is essential to pack for each family trip can feel like simplifying a complex math equation, one that includes a limited travel budget, growing children, and shifting weather. Roughly nine years ago, when I had three babies under four and all the baby things to transport [and all of the eye rolls from Mark while packing them], I began honing my packing lists––really considering what we need to travel as a family. About five years ago, I began keeping an online file of my packing lists, titled with the date and location of our travels. I’m realizing, as I type these words, this might be a little neurotic, but having a record has helped me pack well for new trips and even share the lists with others at times. They also function as a journal of sorts, revealing odd family quirks and things like diapers and blankies as they disappear from the list altogether.  

Although having a list doesn’t mean everything occurs as planned or that I never forget something, it does save money in our budget and space in the car. Travel is a beautiful gift and an additional expense to our typical budget, so when it comes to preparing for it, I want to purchase only what is necessary and use the rest of our budget on good food and special experiences together. Below are some tips for how I efficiently shop and plan vacation essentials for our longer family trips away from home.

make a list two weeks before travel /  When it’s time to plan for packing––typically a week or two before travel–– I open a new document on my computer, titled with the location and date, for example, “Colorado, June 2016.” To save time and thinking power, I often copy/paste from a previous travel list and then revise the details using these minimal packing tips. I categorize each list so it’s easy to see what the kids or I might be missing. On a side note, printing a list for everyone in the family to hold, make notes on, and cross off might be very helpful. Consider dictating a list (or printing one) for older children to pack themselves, too. My children enjoy the independence of having their own part to manage.

borrow or shop secondhand  / With growing children, it seems there are always holes in the wardrobe to fill: outgrown, stained, or seasonal clothing and shoes. I note the things we need on the same packing list in a category “THINGS TO PURCHASE OR BORROW.” This list helps me stick to what we need and not be distracted by everything else. When possible, I borrow items from friends that my kids might not use again after our trip, especially seasonal items that might not be sold right now. I also often shop secondhand to stretch our budget, although in the last year or two I’ve had less time to run out and browse our local shops for what my kids need and more often shop online, looking for the best sales. I recently learned about thredUP, an online store that sells like-new items secondhand, and was able to find almost everything we needed there for our trip and summer closet. High. Five. I found a like-new REI fleece and pair of shorts for the boys, a couple of Crewcuts sundresses for the girls (one even still had the tags on it), and a light-weight denim J.Crew top for myself. The best part? I paid a fraction of the original cost, saving $362 which was enough to purchase groceries for the week, plus send the boys down the zipline and the girls bungee jumping at the Durango Mountain Resort. My children each had a missing piece or two of their wardrobe filled, and Mark and I still had enough money set aside for the experiences we really care about.

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set a bag limit for each family member / When anyone travels by plane, the airline sets a bag limit (and size) both for fuel efficiency and the capacity of the plane. Somehow that doesn’t always transfer to car travel, and early on in our family years, I lived by the unspoken mantra, “when in doubt, throw it in the car.” But this is cumbersome and exhausting for everyone involved. It impeded travel space and sometimes also safety, when it blocked our mirrors. Our family now has an inferred bag limit for travel. Each member gets one duffel or backpack for clothing/toiletries and one small book bag to keep at their seat. This naturally forces us to pack efficiently and positively turns our attention to the experience itself, instead of feeling as though we’re preparing for a family move. Here’s some quick ways we keep packing light:

pack clothing within a similar palette / In general, I prefer to purchase clothing in similar palettes for myself and my children. That way, we can more easily mix and match pieces again and again to recreate what we wear. I stand by the same philosophy when packing for a trip. And I loved that thredUP not only allowed me to limit searches by size but also by color. I quickly browsed sundresses in the blues and purples and found one for each of my girls that worked, and also a black fleece for Burke (the color he requested).

choose clothing for more than one purpose / Packing minimally requires each piece to work harder. My rule is every piece must be able to work for more than one purpose. Pack a sundress that is loose enough for playing and hiking, but nice enough to wear to a museum or to dinner. Pack shoes or sandals you can wear anywhere, and also get wet in a river or by a pool (Saltwater sandals and Keens are family favorites, and here’s a pair on thredUP!)

be realistic about the activity bag / I notoriously overpack on books, often because I’m wanting to make too much of the time. I’m learning to really consider how I’ll spend the time away, and now encourage my children to do the same. This trip, they each packed a couple of books, a sketch pad, colored pencils, pencil, and headphones for audiobooks and music.


This post is sponsored by thredUP. Cloistered Away readers can save 40%OFF on your first order by using the code CLO40 before July 31. Thank you for supporting businesses that keep this space alive.