For us, it makes sense to go on a family holiday by car due to travel costs and the volume of luggage we have to take with us. I have family in Mildura (550 kilometres north-west of Melbourne) so we’ve driven the Calder Highway to Mildura countless times. Each time, we find some way of refining or improving our preparation for the trip. With breaks along the way to let the children run around, this trip can take us anywhere from six to eight hours. This is a long time for kids to be in a car, so preparation is the key to ensuring that the trip is a fun experience for everyone.

Preparing for a car trip

Before I pack for a long car trip, I write a master checklist of what to take:

children’s clothing

food packs


important extras


activity packs.

This list is broken into a number of smaller checklists. 

Children’s clothing

We involve the kids in the packing process and ask them to help choose the clothes they should take. Once they’ve decided, I draw up a checklist for them to use when packing (see table 1). As not all the kids can read yet, the checklist has both words and pictures.

When we go on short trips, I ensure we take enough clothes so I don’t have to do laundry while we’re away. However, when we stay with family I do try to wash so I don’t have to take too many dirty clothes home with us.

Table 1: children’s checklist

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Food packs

If we’re travelling for more than one and a half hours, we definitely have to take food for the kids. They’ve made it clear to us that they may starve unless they’re fed bi-hourly! We have a people mover, so for logistical reasons — and also to encourage independence in the kids — we make individual food packs. Each child has a backpack in which to store all their items for the trip. We make it clear that the food has to last the entire journey, so they need to pace themselves.

Since we started this a number of years ago, long car trips have been much more peaceful. There are no complaints of ‘I’m hungry’, ‘What’s to eat?’ or ‘I need a drink’. Each child can access their pack and eat whatever they like, when they like. The exception, of course, is our toddler. He hates being left out so we pack him his own backpack as well and the non-driving parent passes his food and drinks to him as he demands them!

As I suffer from motion sickness, it also helps me, as I’m not constantly turning around passing food to the kids, which can often kick off my nausea. If the kids eat junk food while travelling, their behaviour worsens, so I try to keep the food as healthy as possible. I also try to include foods that are low on mess, are filling and are easy for the younger children to manage independently.

The additional positives to packing our own food are that it’s cheaper than buying food along the way and it gives us greater flexibility with regard to stopping for breaks during the trip. If they’re sleeping, our little ones tend to wake up if the car stops so we’re happy not to have to stop. This way our breaks are not dependent on finding a place to buy food — only somewhere with toilet facilities and space for the kids to stretch their legs. Table 2 lists a typical food pack.

Table 2: food pack for six-hour road trip

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The kids aren’t the only ones who need refreshments on a long drive. As far as food goes, my husband and I prepare very similar packs for ourselves as we do for the kids (only much less). We take water, but I like to pack some cold drinks as well. We make our own ice packs by placing ice-cream containers of water in the freezer for a few days beforehand to use during the trip for keeping the drinks cold. Whenever we’ve travelled with a baby we also used these ice packs to keep their food fresh.


When we travel we often stay with family. As there are a few of us, we usually have to bring along sleeping paraphernalia such as pillows, sleeping bags, camping stretcher and a port-a-cot. A couple of the kids also have comforters (blankets) of some description, so it’s important for my sanity that they’re packed too.

Important extras

If we’re going away for a particular celebration such as Christmas or Easter, I prepare a list of everything we need to take for the occasion (Christmas presents, Easter eggs and so on). If we’re going camping I list all the gear we’ll need, such as a tent, camping stretchers, torches, cooking implements and an esky.


Although we could survive without the items listed in table 3, they do ensure that our time away is as stress-free and fun as possible.

Table 3: Miscellaneous items

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Activity packs

Individual activity packs (see table 4, overleaf), help children to pass the time on long journeys. Our kids can access them whenever they want to. They each choose what goes into their pack so we’re quite sure they contain plenty of things that will entertain them.

Table 4: children’s activity packs

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Tip: Surviving the car trip

Once we’ve organised everything at home, made our checklists and ticked everything off, it’s finally time to head off. With five kids confined to the space of a car for upwards of six hours, we need to have a few strategies up our sleeves to ensure the family car trip doesn’t turn into a nightmare.

Car ventilation

Even when travelling in cold weather, I’ve found that to keep everyone feeling as fresh as possible, you need to have adequate ventilation and fresh air coming into the car throughout the trip. We found that out the hard way!

We’ve had a people mover for several years, having bought the new vehicle a couple of days before we headed to Mildura for Christmas one year. We went through our usual packing process and were on the road by mid morning. It was a very warm summer’s day and we’d only travelled for a bit more than 30 minutes when our eldest child, who was sitting in the back, threw up (not the ideal start to a family holiday). After cleaning him up and then cleaning the car, we asked him how he was feeling and whether he had any idea why he was sick. ‘I was hot and stuffy’, was his response. It turned out there was a separate switch for turning on the air vents in the back of the car that we didn’t know about. We hadn’t turned them on and it was very stuffy for the kids at the back, which caused him to feel nauseous. This is now one of the first things I check when we embark on a long journey!

Sun protection

We don’t have tinted windows or fancy shades for the car to block out the sun. As with ventilation, it can make the journey quite unpleasant for the children if they have the sun beating in

on them. We use the old method of placing a light sheet across the window to block out any direct sunlight on the kids.

It’s possible to get sunburnt inside cars, and we’re particularly mindful of this because our kids are all fair-skinned. Having the kids apply sunscreen in hot weather is essential.

Setting expectations

We tell the kids how long the drive will be and how often we’re likely to stop to pre-empt the many questions we would otherwise hear throughout the trip. This also helps them pace themselves regarding what they eat and when. For the older children I print out a map of the route so they can see where we are and which towns are coming up. This gives them a reference point for their location, and helps build their map-reading skills.

Audio books

We have a rotation system in the car for long trips whereby everyone has a turn at choosing a CD. We all love music, but usually, a couple of hours into the trip, someone will request an audio book. When we play one of the older boys’ favourite audio books there can be two benefits: they’re entertained, and the hypnotic sound of the reader’s voice tends to send the little ones off to sleep!

Adequate breaks

It can be tempting to drive without stopping to reach the end destination as quickly as possible. However, we’ve learned that a long trip is more pleasant and memorable if we stop and have rest breaks for the driver and give the kids run-around time.

As we take our own food, we tend to take our breaks at parks, which are more interesting and fun for kids than a roadhouse. We take along a football for the kids to kick, and they use the play equipment and toilet facilities. After a break such as this we all get back into the car feeling invigorated and refreshed.


Listening to audio books and working on their activity packs are great ways for kids to pass the time, but the family car trip is a group experience so interaction is a must too. It can be simple things such as discussing landmarks that we pass, or counting the animals we see. Or we play car games such as:

car cricket. You can make up your own rules, but ours go something like this: a red car = 1 run; a truck = 4 runs; a motorbike = 6 runs. The batsman is out if we see an emergency vehicle, are passed by another car or cross train tracks.

‘I Spy’. This is popular because it’s easy even for our young children to join in.

‘20 Questions’. This is a traditional game where one player thinks of something and keeps it to themselves.

Everyone else in the car takes turns asking a question that can be answered with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If someone guesses the correct answer, it’s their turn to think of something. If 20 questions have been asked and no-one has been able to guess correctly, the answer is revealed and that player has another turn.

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