If road tripping with kids and a clean (or even clean-ish) car sounds like an impossibility, here are some things that might help you out.
There are probably lots of things that stress you out about a road trip with kids. If one of those things is how to get from point A to point B without your kids completely trashing your car, we have solutions. Here’s how to road trip with kids without your car getting totally gross.
1. Start with a Clean Car
This works! Do a wash and vacuum and clear the car of all trash and unnecessary clutter before your road trip. Yes, the car is going to get dirty both inside and out but there’s something to the “Look how nice this is, let’s keep it this way” mentality that makes you more aware of your car’s cleanliness from the start of your trip.
And, this tip is for you, parents, not the kids. Your kids likely won’t be invested in keeping the rear seat clean because you invested time or money to vacuum their crumbs and pick up their trash but parents will want to get that return on their investment and resolve to keep the car shipshape a little bit longer than they would had they started out with a messy or dirty car.
2. Set Expectations…Including Yours
“Kids, we are not going to trash this car.”
If your kids are old enough to understand basic expectations, communicate yours to them before the onset of the trip. Whether that’s cleaning up every day or at every rest stop or not eating a certain type of snack in the car, let them know the rules going in.
And, set your expectations relatively low. Don’t expect pristine, I-just-got-my-car-detailed level clean when you’re on a road trip with kids. Not having important items get lost because there’s so much debris on the floor of the backseat or never having to ask “What’s that I’m smelling?” because someone left a chunk of a McDonald’s cheeseburger in their seatback pocket might have to be good enough.
I don’t want a gross car but I also don’t want to completely eclipse “road trip chill mom” with a drill sergeant that flips out over a few fruit snack on the floormats.
3. Establish Food Rules
I am a pretty lax parent when it comes to travel. My main goals are to get where we’re going safely and to keep the peace. I enjoy driving but my kids, despite having movies and seventeen different games on their devices, plus a list of mom-curated podcasts they claimed to be super interested in prior to our trip, get bored in the back seat. My kids are 11 and 12 and when they are bored, they whine and pick on each other. That’s stressful and distracting for me.
I’m happy to relax my usual (fairly strict) rules about snacks and allow them to eat Swedish Fish or Pringles on a road trip if it keeps everyone happy and quiet. That might not work for everyone but it works for us. I don’t allow anything that will melt, like chocolate, or anything I can’t vacuum up. I’m okay with vacuuming crumbs or sunflower seeds but I don’t want to scrub yogurt or jelly off my car’s upholstery on a trip or really any time ever. I’m not crazy about foods with a lot of dye in them, like Takis or Flaming Hot Cheetos, not because I’m overly concerned about red dye 40 but because my kids will wipe their little orange fingers on the interior of my car.
4. Make a Car Cleanup Kit
This doesn’t have to be fancy but a small tub or tote with disinfectant wipes (baby wipes work for most car messes, too), small trash bags, and paper towels will give you the basics for cleaning up spills and messes as they happen. A lint roller is handy for cleaning up bits of crushed food, like cereal or cracker crumbs. If you really want to go all out, pack a small cordless vacuum.
I personally prefer baby wipes over Lysol or Clorox wipes on a road trip with kids. It won’t provide the same level of disinfectant but I find baby wipes get the job done for most cleanups. Plus, they’re safe to use on hands and faces.
If your kids are prone to motion sickness you might want to consider some extra trash bags or some more heavy duty cleansers.
5. Invest in an Organizer
If clutter gets the best of your passengers in the backseat, find something that works to organize everything your kids play with. Some parents like the organizers that slip over the back of the front seats. Small compartments hold various items, such as crayons, small toys, and snacks. This one even has a space for a tablet or iPad and hole for the earbuds. If you don’t need the space for electronics, a hanging makeup organizer is cheaper and works just about as well, although you’ll have to use zip ties or a cord to keep the organizer in place.
A shoebox sized plastic tote might also work and it fits neatly between two kids (or two child seats) in the rear seat. These are great for holding crayons, markers, sticker books and things like that.
I use canvas totes to keep things organized in the rear of the car. I’ll use one for swim-related things, one for snacks, one for hiking items. When we stop to do an activity, it’s easy for me to pull what we need out of those totes versus digging through everyone’s backpacks or suitcases.
6. Do a Mini Cleanup Each Day
I give my kids a small plastic bag each day of travel. The idea is for them to put their trash in the bag but that doesn’t always happen. Every time we stop, I have them gather their trash and toss it in the garbage can. If the trash isn’t overly messy, we’ll reuse the bag. When we stop at the end of the day, we’ll remove all trash and reorganize our cargo configuration, if needed.
On longer road trips, I’ll often stop at a car wash. After 1,000 miles or so, the exterior usually needs it. Even the most basic wash and vacuum helps provide a reset. “Look how nice this car is! Let’s keep that that way,” 2.0. Whatever works.
And remember, having a messy car while you’re traveling with kids isn’t the end of the world. If you can’t pull it off, there are probably better things to feel guilty about.