Is the Family Car a Disaster? Try These Tips Before Your Next Road Trip.

published May 26, 2021
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Family sitting by car, ready to go on road trip
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About five years ago, I was interviewing a woman for a magazine story when we veered off-topic to her family’s new-to-them Westfalia. She mentioned how life-changing the shift to the camper van had been. Basically, it allowed the family of five to stash their camping gear and necessities inside the van, so they could easily escape town on a whim. Ever since that conversation, I’ve wondered how I could capture a bit of that laid-back Westfalia magic — sans the actual camper van. 

But then I had a lightbulb moment: Maybe anyone can bring some love and magic into the family car. If we reconsider our vehicles as another space, treating it more like we do our homes, maybe we can have an easier go at everything from daily errands to road trips.

If we reconsider our vehicles as another space, treating it more like we do our homes, maybe we can have an easier go at everything from daily errands to road trips.

Here are some tips for making your vehicle comfortable and functional for car rides, long and short. And hopefully, you’ll make some memories along the way too.

Credit: Chantal Lamers

Set a 20-minute Clock and Clean session.

The first time one of my friends had a baby, her car was one of the first spaces to change. There were Cheerios wedged into every seat crack and I wondered how one small being could cause such a mess. Now, as a parent, I definitely get it, but a messy car can really impact a road trip, especially when you’re spending hours upon hours in such a small space.

Mike Stoops, Senior Global Product and Training Specialist at Meguiar’s, offered tips on at-home cleaning practices. His advice: Start at the top, specifically the headliner (or the ceiling of the car). It’s a tricky area because it tends to accumulate dirty fingerprints and it’s super delicate. To tackle it, spray an upholstery cleaner onto a microfiber towel wrapped around a 2-by-6-inch carpet brush, then agitate lightly. 

As you work your way down, use an old but clean makeup brush or mini bottle brush to free dust and dirt the vents. For those seats? Use the brush attachment on your vacuum (I love the mini soft attachment on my Dyson handheld for this!) to loosen accumulated dirt and crumbs. 

We keep a bin handy in our garage with our car washing supplies, including The Shamwow, old cloth diapers, microfiber cloths and this all-purpose quick interior detailer

Don’t forget to enlist your children’s help. They are the perfect height for cleaning the tires! You can even make it a game by timing them. 

Use this one simple item to declutter the car — and keep it clean.

That scary junk drawer in your kitchen? How much does it resemble your glove compartment or center console? Decluttering the car can set the tone for any car ride, no matter how far you’re going. 

Try editing your storage space to these essential items: 

  • Cell phone charger
  • Extra mask
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Small pack of wipes
  • Mints
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Tire pressure gauge
  • Band-Aids
  • Flashlight
  • Small amount of cash 
  • Bags for carsick kids. (You can roll-up plastic bags, and lined coffee bags work well, too.) 

Cutting the clutter can also improve your fuel efficiency, so it’s even more important to keep things streamlined where you can.

But truly, the best thing to keep in mind when decluttering? A designated car trash bag. Get kids (and adults) used to throwing trash away in this handy little bin and empty it at gas stations or when you get to your destination. This inexpensive catch-all can make the drive all the more pleasant for everyone.

Use small bags to keep items accessible.

We also keep a few go-to items tucked away in the backseat of the car, like sunglasses, window shades, masks, car-sick bags, and a set of Auto Bingo cards. By stocking your car for emergencies, you’ll avoid unwanted pit stops and focus more on the fun stops you’ll want to make.

If we are driving anywhere that takes more than 30 minutes, I always pack snacks for the car ride. Now that my kids are older, I pack a Baby Baggu and toss it in the back seat so that they can help themselves. You can use these little bags for crayons, stickers, and small toys too.

For road trips, I put a pair of small, folded blankets between my kid’s car seats. (Their old baby blankets work great for this, even just to just keep their laps cozy.) They also love Casper’s super comfy Nap Pillow, which comes with a travel cover. 

To minimize the number of items in the backseat, dress your children in layers. This way they can add or remove layers, especially if you’re arriving somewhere with a change of temperature, or if they’ll be napping or sleeping in the car past bedtime. This will also help avoid the kind of scenario where you’re forced to unpack the car at a gas station in search of a sweatshirt or pair of pajamas. 

Every part of your car can be storage — even the sides of your seats.

Car storage can have its limits, especially for those of us who don’t have camper vans. 

When my kids were small, I packed their clothes in my suitcase. Now, they each want their own. All those bags take up valuable real estate in our trunk, so we try to pack really light. In most cases, the place we are visiting has a washing machine. 

Still, sometimes even my minimalist packing doesn’t entirely work. With a tent and sleeping bags, boogie boards, wetsuits, and more, we have had to resort to using a rooftop cargo box. We bought the racks for our car, but we borrow a pod from our neighbor. And now, they are easy to rent.

Be sure to make the most of trunk space too! We like a fold-up organizer where we can keep pillows and blankets, a change of clothes, and any other essentials we want to access easily. The side of a car seat is also an unexpected way to gain a bit of extra storage. This narrow space is great for some books or sketching supplies for quiet time.

You can also hang things like sweaters, purses, and umbrellas using an inexpensive stroller clip, keeping floors clear for leg room. Speaking of leg room: don’t forget that squat containers can fit under the car seats too. Those can be great places to store things you want to keep out of the way (extra batteries, spare napkins, chapstick, sticks of sunscreen).

Create some designated boxes for on-the-fly adventures. 

One of the things that sounds so appealing about the Westfalia is the ease to take a spontaneous trip. So I’ve designated some grab and go spaces, bags, and boxes to make access simpler. All of our beach items, for example, are stored in one corner of our shed. It’s easy to pack a box of things in minutes, versus hunting around the house for all the toys and beach towels.

We especially love beach trips, but nothing seems to destroy our family car faster than those sandy shores. To help keep the car clean after a day by the water, try stashing your sand toys in a mesh drawstring laundry bag. (It’s easy to shake off all that sand!) Fill up a water bottle for each child and leave it in a sunny part of the car while you’re gone. After the trip, use the warm water to rinse the sand off your kids before they hop in the car. I also stash a Big Baggu in the car for their wetsuits, which are unforgiving sand magnets. 

This YETI Backflip Cooler has been a game changer for day trips, in terms of storage and convenience. It’s tall and slim, making it space efficient, so we pack cold drinks on the bottom and snacks up top. (No soggy snacks!) Plus, it’s much easier to carry a cooler on my back. 

Turn your car into a portable entertainment center.

I have a few playlists saved on my phone for the kids. Each kid has their favorites, but there are also some designated for a destination or a mood: excited, tired, or even grumpy. 

For longer trips, I load a pair of tablets with my kid’s favorite television shows and movies. Since we don’t have a built-in entertainment system, I hung tablet holders on the back of the headrest to help keep them from looking down and to ward off car sickness. 

But screen time isn’t the only option. I’ve heard lore of parents playing nothing but audio books or podcasts on long road trips, without a single complaint. Some favorites include Harry Potter audiobooks, narrated with wonderfully vivid voices, and podcasts like  Story Pirates, Smash Boom Best, and Earth Rangers. (But don’t wait until you’re on the road to test them out. Kids will be more invested if they’re already fans.)

When in doubt, have the pros give your car one last look-over.

While I’ve nailed the efficient car packing, my weak spot is ensuring that the car is in tip-top shape. So, I asked Sergio Avila, Public Relations Specialist for AAA Northern California, Nevada, and Utah, for his road trip checklist. 

Here’s his five-step checklist:

  1. Check your battery. Avila suggests taking your vehicle to an auto shop, where most mechanics will gauge battery health for free. 
  2. If you’re hearing the slightest grinding when you slow the car, have the brakes inspected immediately. 
  3. Make sure you’re up to date on oil changes as well as fluids such as coolants and even wiper fluid. 
  4. Check your tire pressure (including your spare) and do a visual inspection of all four tires, looking for cuts and gouges. 
  5. Finally, take a good look at your windshield wiper blades. If you’re looking at rainy weather on your drive, the last thing you want is reduced visibility,  Avila tells us. 

Don’t forget to check your emergency supply kit. Avila’s includes a flashlight and extra batteries, a back-up cell phone charger, booster cables, emergency flares, a rain poncho, gloves, rope, paper towels, and a small basic hand tool kit with wrenches and screwdrivers. 

If you have space, include water and snacks for everyone you travel with, including pets. If you have kids who are prone to car sickness, you can add a package of sanitizing wipes. And a pair of extra socks, underwear, or diapers for each child can’t hurt either. 

Now, go forth, and enjoy your cleaned and efficient space. The open road awaits!