how I survived a 20 hour road trip with 3 year old

My 20 Hour Road Trip with a 3 year old (no tech!)

For the Christmas holiday we took a 20-hour road trip with my 3 year old. (That’s 20 hours each way!) And, by some kind of miracle it wasn’t terrible. We managed the whole trip without any movies or digital games, which was a shock even to me.

Today I’m sharing how I prepared for our road trip including what I packed, how I kept my 3 year old busy and how we planned our days. I hope it helps you in your road trip planning!

Save to Pinterest!

how i survived a twenty hour road trip with a three year old

I have also flown several times with my son from the time he was 6 months – 2.5 years old. You can find all of my flight travel tips here and here.

20 Hour Road Trip with a 3 Year Old

As a military family we are very used to traveling for holidays and big family events. Our current duty station in Eastern North Carolina is a 20 hour drive from the small town in Iowa where both my husband and I grew up and we’ve made the drive several times over the last few years.

Each time we make this long drive it’s a little different. Before having my son we used to drive straight through the night, making the trip in one shot. Then, after my son was born we started breaking it into 2 days. Each year as my son gets older it’s a new challenge to keep him content and entertained for long hours sitting in the car.

This year, my newly turned 3 year old did amazing on our road trip! Our great experience was the result of planning ahead activities for my son to do, my little guy’s naturally happy demeanor (I just love that smiley boy) and, I’m sure, a bit of luck.

We even managed to make the whole 20 hour trip with any movies or electronic games!

No Tech?

My plan for this super long road trip with our 3 year old was just to survive. I had no intention of making it tech-free, but, to my surprise, that’s what happened.

Before the trip, I had downloaded a few movies onto my tablet for him to watch during the drive. But, he never asked so I never offered and we made it the whole 20 hours (each way) without any movies or electronic games. Total shock to me!

I think the big reason that we were able to make the whole trip without any tech is that my son just didn’t realize it was an option. If he had been used to watching movies or playing games in the car then he definitely would have expected to do so on this trip. But since this isn’t something we regularly do, it didn’t even cross his mind to ask.

I have nothing against movies and games in the car. It’s just something we choose not to do. And, honestly, if my son had asked for a movie I would have said yes. Twenty hours in the car is a LONG time! I’ll do anything to survive.

Planning the Drive

The drive from our house in North Carolina to my husband and my hometown in Iowa is 20 hours each way. Before having a child my husband and I would power through and make the trip straight through, but with a kiddo we choose to make the trip a 2 day event with several potty breaks along the way.

Best time to Drive

Road trips with our child go so much smoother when we start driving early in the morning. We like to start each day around 6:00 AM or earlier.

We’re a family of morning people so it makes sense that we choose to leave early, but there are a lot of benefits beyond the fact that I love the mornings. I’ve found that if we leave before the sun comes up my son will usually chat away in his seat for a little while and then doze off for an hour or so. This extra nap just makes it feel like the road trip goes faster.

We also beat morning traffic by leaving early and get to our destination with time to settle in and eat dinner before putting my son down for bed. It gives him time to run around and play before bedtime. And he gets to keep his regular bedtime routine even though we aren’t at home.

How far to drive each day

I’ve done a few road trips with my son and found that any more than 10-12 hours in the car per day is just too much for him. For our 20 hour road trip, we break it up into two 10-hour days.

Potty Breaks

This was our first road trip with a potty-trained kiddo and he did so good! I was fully prepared for an accident in the car, but we made the whole 20 hours each way without any problems.

We stopped about every 3 hours for a potty break and to fill up on gas. Sometimes we only made it 2 hours and at least once we made it 4 hours before stopping. At every stop, whether my son protested or not, he had to try to go potty.

In case of an accident I had packed extra clothes, some towels, paper towels, baby wipes and plastic grocery bags to hold dirty clothes. I also had bottled water on hand to clean up, although I’m sure we could have picked up water and cleaning supplies from a gas station.

What to do on a Road Trip with a 3 year old


If you have a small child you already know that the best way to keep them happy and entertained is food. At least that’s usually the case for my little guy.

While driving we tried to keep normal meal times and let my son snack as much as he wanted in between. I packed a cooler so full that we actually didn’t have to buy any food for the entire 2 day trip. This definitely saved us quite a bit of money.

I packed food that my son was used to eating and that I knew he liked. I also brought along a small plastic bowl for him to eat out of and his water bottle. We also packed a case of water so the only thing we needed to buy at gas stations other than gas was some hot coffee to keep me and my husband going.

Here are the foods I packed that my son ate during our road trip.

Road Trip Food for a 3 year old

  • granola bars
  • cheese – string cheese and cubed pieces cut from a block
  • Goldfish
  • crackers
  • ham cut into cubes
  • salami
  • bananas
  • strawberries
  • blueberries
  • cucumbers
  • hard boiled eggs – I just gave him the egg white. The yolk is more mess than I wanted to clean up in the car.
  • olives


Before leaving for our trip, I put a few items that I knew my son would like playing with in the car into a box. During our drive, I put the box right beside his seat so he could reach in and get out toys and books himself. This kind of worked. He couldn’t reach very well so I ended up spending much of the drive turned around switching out toys for him.

He had a combination of new and familiar toys to play with. Since we took this trip right before Christmas, I put together a Christmas present for him full of stuff he could play with on the road trip. I let him open it right before we left. He thought that was very exciting.

Here are the things that kept my 3 year old busy on our 20 hour road trip.

Road Trip Activities for a 3 year old

Books with lots of pictures

  • Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go
    • This book kept my son busy for HOURS! Literally hours! It is 70+ pages of silly vehicles and animals and my son absolutely loved it.
  • My First Things that Go
    • There are many variations of this book with different topics. We have several and my son loves looking at them! They are large board books with tabbed pages that are very easy for toddlers and young kids to turn. Each page has lots of pictures and they keep my son very entertained.

Books he’s familiar with

  • I packed some of his favorite books that he likes to “read” on his own. These kept his attention for quite a while. He loves looking at books at home so I wasn’t surprised that he often chose books over toys on our road trip.

Coloring Stuff

  • Travel coloring packs
    • I found some of these coloring packs in the dollar section of Target. He doesn’t love coloring so they only kept his attention for a short period of time, but they do include stickers which kept him busy.
  • Magic Ink Coloring Books (this kind and this kind)
    • These coloring books kept his attention a bit longer because they came with special markers and he is very interested in markers. The books with refillable markers like this one can be colored over and over again.
  • Pen & paper
    • I brought a small notebook and pen for him to doodle with and he spend a lot of time doing this. He doesn’t get to use pens a lot so he thought this was pretty cool. He filled nearly every page of the small notebook with “grocery lists”.
  • Stickers
    • I picked up a few packs of stickers from the Dollar Tree for him to play with in the car. My son enjoyed decorating himself with the stickers and putting them on the pages of his notebook.

Small Toys

  • Toy cars
    • I packed a few small diecast cars for my son to play with because he enjoys playing with them at home. I think he would have liked playing with them more if I had brought along a small container that he could put them in. We have a plastic one like this that we use for snacks at preschool and he likes opening and closing it. I think he would have enjoyed something to do with the cars other than just driving them on his lap.
  • Finger puppets
    • These didn’t keep him too busy, but he did have fun putting them on all of his fingers and making the puppets talk to each other. He’s just starting to venture into imagination play so maybe in the future finger puppets will be more fun for him.
  • Squishy balls
    • I picked up some squishy stress balls from the Dollar Tree and he spent a long time squished them down and watching them grow back to size.


  • We don’t do a lot of kid music over here, but we did play some of my son’s favorites when he needed a little mood boost. This mostly included Christmas music and a few silly songs that he loves. We sang in silly voices and danced which he thought was hilarious.


The best thing to do with a 3 year old on a road trip is to get them to nap.

Luckily we’ve kept a pretty consistent nap schedule at home and my kiddo doesn’t usually fight naps so it was fairly easy to convince him when it was naptime in the car and get him to close his eyes for a bit.

Right before his usual nap time we stopped for a potty break to prevent any accidents while he was sleeping. In the car we brought one of his blankets from his bed and his stuffed animals that he sleeps with every night. He did a pretty good job of snuggling up with his blankets and animals and snoozing off.

We also learned that playing Post Malone loudly really puts our little guy to sleep. Each time we blasted some Post Malone my son would doze off. It made me laugh that of all things this made him sleep. From now on this will be my approach to nap strikes. (haha)

Save to Pinterest!

Road Trip with a 3 year old

All kids are so different and while all of the things I’ve shared helped us have a surprisingly great road trip with our 3 year old, they may not be right for your kiddo. My best advice is to expected a few meltdowns, anticipate some delays and don’t forget to pack the Tylenol.

Our most recent road trip went really smoothly, but they haven’t all been this way. Just remember, your road trip is only a day or only a couple days and you can totally handle a couple days of chaos if that’s what it turns into.

And, if all else fails, just turn on a movie.

I want to hear from you!

Were these travel tips helpful to you? Do you have anything to add? Leave me a comment below!