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Essential Packing Tips and Advice for Socially Distanced COVID Travel

A young girl hugs her mom as they sit amoung the rocks at Arches National Park.

Making an essential packing list for COVID travel is the first step to taking a safe vacation with kids. Like many other families, we had a long and difficult spring holed up in our New York City apartment. With one of us working from home and the other handling the fallout of closing a business, we slogged through remote school and dreamed of our next adventure. Our plans to fly to the Canary Islands in August had predictably crumbled, canceled by the airlines. Though the world felt dangerous and unstable, when summer break arrived, we were ready for a real vacation! That’s why we decided to take a COVID-friendly trip to North Carolina, where we later traveled even further. Before leaving for our cross-country getaway, however, I had lots of planning to do. Here is my family-friendly packing tips for COVID travel to help you plan a similar trip!

A Plan is Born: Vacation!

A van is parked in front of a sign for Trail Ridge Store, near the Alpine Visitor Center.

After testing for COVID-19, we left New York for North Carolina. Here, we spent three weeks of much-needed time with family. But I still felt unsatisfied with the brief respite. We weren’t ready to return to a city left shuttered and police-ridden following widespread protests. It felt like the perfect time to head to the wide-open West! Nevertheless, we wanted to ensure we stayed socially distanced at a moment when numbers were rising across the country, including in the regions where we were headed. My husband suggested renting an RV; however, one glance at the free mileage limits and we realized that would not be affordable for the cross-country trip we envisioned. Then, we found an Instagram-inspired solution in a post by a family who constructed home inside their van and drove from California to Argentina. From there, our idea for a socially isolated vacation was born! 

RELATED ARTICLE: Rent an RV for a Socially Distant Vacation with Kids

Sleeping In A Van

A mom and her daughter lie on a mattress within a van, while surrounded by sweeping natural views. Practical sleeping quarters are essential on our list of packing tips for COVID travel.

With our rough plan in mind, we set out to prepare all the essentials we would need for our COVID-friendly family vacation. Though we reserved a minivan through a local rental agency for two weeks, we still brought some essential items with us. For example, a 6-gallon water jug to use for washing everything – from ourselves to our dishes. To avoid using public restrooms, we also packed biodegradable trash bags and a 5-gallon bucket fitted with a plastic toilet seat. Sleeping in a van is more comfortable with an inflatable twin size camping mattress, complete with an air pump to inflate it. We packed a thin camping mattress too. Since we planned to travel to multiple warm climates, we also brought along a battery-operated fan for keeping cool at night. Finally, sleeping bags are great for keeping warm at night in cooler desert climates, even in the summer.

RELATED ARTICLE: Your Go-To Guide for Family RVing For Beginners

Cooking On The Road

A young girl lays within a van while camping at the Blue River Campsite, nearby is their camping grill, , essential on our list of packing tips for COVID travel.

Coordinating meals while on the road is essential to keeping the whole family full and content. Since we were unsure what we’d face while traveling cross-country, we made sure to think of any possibility. For eating when no picnic tables were available, a card table with removable legs did the trick. A small camping stove with propane canisters for cooking was also particularly useful to us throughout our journey. For easier cleanup, we included a mess kit with a set of pots and pans and cooking utensils (sharp knife, spatula, tongs). We also had a set of reusable plastic dishes and cutlery. To stay hydrated and satisfied while driving between locations, we also brought a large cooler. We refilled it daily with ice purchased at stores along the route. Inside, we packed it with drinks, eggs, cheese, chocolate, and more. A few folding chairs came in handy too! 

COVID-Friendly Packing Basics

A mom and daughter sit on a paddle boat in the Ozarks wearing proper swimware and life-jackets, essential on our list of packing tips for COVID travel.

In addition to these less common essentials, we also brought along basics to guarantee a successful adventure. Based on our travels, here are my basic packing tips for COVID travel. Firstly, I’d advise bringing toilet paper, towels, and bathroom supplies: soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorants, etc. Of course, in 2020, disinfectant spray/wipes and napkins are absolutely necessary. To stay comfortable throughout the trip, we also packed a range of clothes for hot and cool weather, comfortable footwear, and pajamas. Plus, plenty of underwear so we didn’t have to worry about laundry! Bathing suits, water bottles, and sunscreens ensured we’d stay hydrated and protected throughout peak sun times. Once night rolled around, however, we were thankful we brought along some bug spray! Our nighttime essentials included sheets, pillows, and of course, pillowcases. Pack a general first-aid kit just to be safe. Finally, don’t forget road trip travel games to keep everyone sane!

Print Our Ultimate Road Trip Activity Packet.

Preparing Our Home on Wheels

A white van is parked in front of a tipi.

Preparing our home on wheels was the next step to taking our COVID-friendly cross-country adventure! After gathering all the necessary supplies for our trip, my husband ultimately prepared the van for our departure. First, he built a platform out of wood that served to hold up the mattress at night. We stored our luggage underneath it. My daughter and I slept together on the air mattress during our trip, while my husband cleared space below the platform to sleep on a thinner camping mattress. This is a great storage-saving tip for families traveling with tight space on the road. During the day, we kept the air mattress folded up and stored blankets and pillows on top of the platform.  

Lessons Learned

A man sits along a cliff in the Grand Canyon.

We learned several valuable lessons during our trip. When using a van as your camper, organization is critical. Otherwise, you’ll spend too much time searching for something you didn’t realize you needed. To fit everything, you’ll have to take advantage of every inch! This included storing blankets in the compartment under my daughter’s feet during the day, and even using the drink holders to store smaller items. A mosquito net is also recommended if you plan on arriving at night. We had to leave the light on in the van to set up our beds, which attracted tons of moths. Make a plan for cooling and heating at night, especially in desert climates where the temperatures vary greatly. We ended up buying battery-operated fans and sleeping bags. Our most important lesson, however, was that you need way less to live well and be happy than you might expect!

I hope you found our packing tips for COVID travel helpful as you consider your own socially distanced family travel!

Written by Families Love Travel Contributor, Rebecca Giguere.

All images included in this article, unless otherwise noted, were taken by and belong to Rebecca Giguere.

*This post may contain affiliate links that may earn us a small commission, at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links in no way inform the hotels, sights, products, or other recommendations included in our articles. All opinions and recommendations expressed here are compiled from submissions submitted by the generous members of our Families Who Love To Travel community.

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Rebecca Giguere

Rebecca Giguere has been traveling the world since she participated in the American Field Service Exchange Program as a teenager. Her travels have ranged from exchange programs in South America, to a year in Mexico teaching ESL, to an independent backpacking trip through Spain and Italy during which she met her husband, an Argentine with a similar passion for travel. Now, they continue traveling the world with their daughter thanks to both her job as a public health researcher and making travel a family priority. As a family, they've traveled to every world continent and love to exchange stories and tips with other families.
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