Overland Travel With Kids

I get a lot of questions about how we’ve traveled with kids as far and widely as we have. Traveling with my babies came naturally. I was raised in a traveling family. I don’t remember a time when my world didn’t include at least three countries and three languages. I do remember what it feels like to be a small person on the road, far from home, out of my language zone, and bridging the culture gap with balls, piles of sticks, and shells found on the beach. Perhaps that’s why I’ve worried so little, as my own children have grown through our adventures; I know the gift that mine were to me.

“If you’re one of us, one of the mamas with more courage than complacency and more kids than sense, let me encourage that you can go, and you can take your kids”

But, not everyone is born to travel. Some of us (like my husband) learn it, later in life. Some of us have, as the sum total of our experience, direct flights, comfy hotels, and two weeks of resort style holidays. When that’s what you know, the prospect of packing a baby through the jungles of Central America on a quest to unearth as many Mayan rock piles as possible seems daunting.

Trundling the languorous landscape of backwater Southeast Asia by bus, boat and bike with nothing more than a backpack might feel past the edge of one’s comfort zone. Cycling and living in a tent across two continents, for a year, might seem downright crazy… and yet, somehow appealing. These are the parents who track me down and ask their million questions. The ones with souls of adventurers and a healthy respect for the gravity of their jobs as parents.

If you’re one of us, one of the mamas with more courage than complacency and more kids than sense, let me encourage that you can go, and you can take your kids. I do, however, have some road tested, learned the hard way, boots (and booties) on the ground strategies that might help you find more joy in the journey.

Why Overland Travel With Kids is Different

overland kids
Taking a one day drive to Grandma’s house, or a long day of flight travel between home and a holiday, is an entirely different kind of travel than long form overland travel with kids. “Getting there” with children is all about bending all of the rules, staging for success, making it a “fun” day and moving the family from A to B with minimal meltdowns (for parents too)! That kind of travel means lots of treats, getting a good night’s sleep before you go, packing a secret weapon, and suspending everything but your child’s comfort as much as possible. Travel days are hard on everyone, but they’re one day, right?

“When you transition from traveling to get where you’re living, to living while you’re traveling, it’s an entirely different skill set, especially when you throw kids into the mix.”

Not so with long form overland travel. What do I mean by, “long form?” Anything from a couple of weeks to years. When you transition from traveling to get where you’re living, to living while you’re traveling, it’s an entirely different skill set, especially when you throw kids into the mix.

You have to carry everything you need with you. Home is the atmosphere you create, not the place you’re getting to. Every day can’t be treat day, or you’ll soon have no money, and bodies that are cranky and sickly feeling. Routines need to be created and respected. It’s real life, not a holiday. If, to this point, you’ve done the holiday sort of travel with your kids and you’re planning something more, think carefully about that, and make plans for everyone’s comfort and happiness.

The Essentials of Overland Travel With Kids

backpack kids
Whether you have babies, or teens, or a mix in between, there are some overarching principles that apply to just about everyone.

Less is More

There is great temptation when planning a grand adventure to overplan and wear everyone out. Don’t do it. Over planning, filling every crack of time with education or adventure will quickly deplete morale and leave everyone frustrated. I made this mistake our first year out.

Accept the fact that you can’t do it all; with, or without, children. Be okay with that. What you see, you will have seen thoroughly; everything else can be left for another trip. Kids want to play in the park in Vienna, and you should let them. Vienna has a dozen fantastic parks. They want to sample every gelato joint in Venice, and they should absolutely be allowed to. A liberal application of gelato makes St. Mark’s much easier to swallow, trust me on that.

Plan Your Days

Long days of adventures, day after day is a terrible idea, no matter how great it looks on paper.

Know your kids and plan your outings when it makes sense for their energy levels (and yours). For our family, this always meant mornings for work and school time, quiet down time, and slow wake ups. Afternoons are for adventure. That’s when we get out and explore, play, and discover what’s around us. When they were very little, everything revolved around nap times. Not because I’m a nap nazi, but because they were happier, and by extension, so was everyone else, if they slept according to their natural patterns. Don’t be pressured into the idea that you “must” do family travel any certain way. Do it your way. Respect the individuals you’ve been gifted with, and organize the adventure around the enjoyment of everyone.

Pack Carefully

Remember that you’re going to be living out of your bags and lugging them everywhere. It’s not as simple as checking them and not seeing them until your destination, or having them delivered to your room. If your children are small, you’ll likely be lugging them too. Consider your destination, the terrain, the length of the journey, your family size, the age of your kids and what you’re willing to live without. Remember that you can buy just about everything you need anywhere you want to go; you may have to adjust your expectations, but your needs will be available anywhere there are people.

My basic packing list for a family

  • Three outfits each
  • One warm outfit each (extra if we’re going to be primarily warm places)
  • One jacket
  • One set of pajamas
  • One pair of shoes (on your feet)
  • One small backpack (carryon) for each child’s personal and fun items (THEY carry it)
  • Secret Weapon
  • Toiletry bag (bare minimum, buy it as you go)
  • Technology (we work and school on the road, if you don’t, then just bring your phone)
  • You don’t need more. You really don’t. If you want more, then bring it, but remember that you’ve got to schlep every last pound.

    Consider Modes of Transportation

    Overland travel with kids can be a lot of fun, or it can be stressful. Most of that depends on your attitude. Some of it depends on your planning. Think about where you’re going and how you plan to travel.

    Southeast Asia is going to mean motorbikes, tuk-tuks and river boats before it’s over. Small backpacks are handiest on those forms of transport. We added a collapsable waterproof bag that we can toss electronics and underwear in to guarantee that something is dry at the end of a monsoon afternoon, or a long wet week on the Mekong.

    “Think about where you’re going and how you plan to travel.”

    Chicken busses and pick-up trucks are likely in Central America. Backpacks or tough duffles are a smart option. Roller bags would be hellish on the uneven terrain.

    The idea of backpacking Europe is popular, but traditional backpacks actually kind of suck for travel in Europe. Consider more traditional carry on sized luggage, or a backpack built for city travel, like the ones Tortuga Backpacks makes. If you’re bicycling, my personal, road tested, family of six recommendation is Ortlieb paniers. One word: Waterproof. With kids, two things matter at the end of the day: warm, and dry. Make that happen.

    Backpacks for Kids

    If you’re taking off on a long haul, overland journey with school aged kids then it’s likely that you’re looking for proper traveling backpacks for them. It’s also likely that you’re frustrated with what you’re finding. We were.

    Our younger boys were 8 and 10 when we decided to take off for a couple of years on the other side of the planet without our bicycles, necessitating backpacks. There’s a lot of junk on the market for kids. There’s not a lot that’s good quality. And quality is key with bags you’re living out of, especially for kids, who are notoriously not careful with seams and zippers. The best we could do at the time was the REI jr. packs. I have to say, after four years of very hard use, they held up great, and we just recently passed them on to another traveling family, so they’re still going!

    “More important than the bag you choose for your child, is what they carry in it.”

    For our teens, who were 12 and 14 at the time of departure, we invested in two Deuter women’s packs with adjustable torso lengths. These were the perfect choie. They grew with the kids. When my son finally passed me up in height (in Thailand two years later) I traded him for the bigger men’s pack (also adjustable length torso) and he kept on growing while I settled into a pack that fit me better.

    More important than the bag you choose for your child, is what they carry in it. It’s one thing if your kid is only packing weight now and then, on a day hike. It’s entirely another if they are living in their pack for months, sometimes walking miles, and truly wearing the weight.

    Too much weight is damaging to a growing child. It’s very important that your kid’s bag falls within a weight range that is safe for her to carry. A good rule of thumb is, not more than 10% of her body weight. Review the AMC guidelines for children as you pack. It’s going to feel like that isn’t very much stuff, because it isn’t! Pare down, carry less, and invest in good, lightweight gear. It’s also a good idea to have your backpacks properly fitted by a professional. REI will provide this service for free.

    Secret Weapon

    Never, ever, travel overland with kids without one. What is it? A little “bag of tricks” containing treats and entertainment that your child hasn’t seen yet.

    iPads weren’t a thing when I had little kids, and we had a pretty unplugged approach anyway. Instead, I always, always, carry a treasure trove of analog fun that can be busted out when boredom strikes. What’s in it? It varies widely: balloons, crayons, stickers, wikki stix, a book, cards, marbles, glo-sticks, tiny rubber balls, high protein snacks, you get the idea. Cheap stuff. Simple stuff. Fun stuff. With a secret weapon on board, your kids won’t dread waiting, and they’ll become pretty great at it.

    Pro Tips

    train kids
    Finally, here are my sage bits of wisdom, earned at the less glamorous moments. Perhaps they’ll save you some stress on the road:

    On Boats

    On the small local ones, bargain hard and then pay extra, it’s just good manners and most small boats are family run; plus, it will endear your family to the driver. When traveling with kids, good relationships with locals can make all the difference.

    On the big boats, and ships, pay extra for the room with sleeping bunks. Do not cut corners and think that pullman seats are going to be okay for an overnight crossing of the Med between Italy and Africa. There will be a storm. The entire boat will be vomiting, including your kids, and your husband. You want a room. And a bathroom. Trust me. I’ve done it both ways.

    On Trains

    Book second class, not first, with kids. You’ll find your carriage mates more tolerant. Let them play in the aisles if they want. If they’re under five, and if you’re on a Czech train, do not, under any circumstances, let them go to the toilets alone. They open directly onto the track. Little boys have altogether too much creativity to be unsupervised in a closet with a direct line to the moving track below.


    There are two kinds of buses: the kind you can pre-book, and have a legit ticket counter, and those that you cannot, and which do not. The former have pretty comfy seats, you might even get one per family member. Pack earplugs. The karaoke they’ll be playing full blast is annoying at hour eight. These are good buses for very long overland sections. If you want to be comfortable opt for these.

    The other kind, the dodgy ones with the destinations painted on the front, if you’re lucky, are a great adventure with kids. Take them. Do not, however, eat the fried grasshoppers that are passed around on skewers. There will be intestinal distress in your youngest child. It will not be pleasant. Pack snacks. Pack your sense of humor. Pack your secret weapon.

    On Bicycles

    Take your time. Stop a lot at playgrounds. If you’re out for a happy holiday, may I suggest the Euro Velo paths of Europe? If you’re out for death defying adventure, Hanoi traffic at rush hour will provide that.

    If you’re out for the longer haul, even bigger kids might appreciate a tandem or an attached bike instead of the responsibility and struggle of pedaling their own bikes over the longer distance. Get a good night’s sleep before cycling into Prague, it felt to me like Mexico City with more cobblestones. Not my favourite morning.

    Road Tripping

    This is, by far, the easiest way to travel overland with kids: in your own vehicle. You have control of most of the variables. It’s a good way to start.

    My best piece of advice, if you have six people in your family: drive a Suburban, not a Clio. And yes, I’ve done both. Of course the kids were smaller, and we were in Tunisia, where capacity in vehicles takes into account, sheep, chickens and occasionally a small camel, so no one was shocked to see “just” four kids jammed into the back of a Clio for a week. Other advice: pack a bigger secret weapon, never drive more than six hours in a day, Bonine is the best anti-nausea med if you have a puker, and an inflate-a-potty is a piece of genius. Just sayin’.


    Walking is a brave way to travel with kids. My first suggestion: work up to it. It’s hard to sell teens on walking 20 km or more a day for fun if you haven’t partied down on the 5 km walks with your little people.

    Make sure most of the weight in their very light packs is made up of fun stuff and food they like. My children would like to add that Pirate Scott is right: “Coke is good for morale,” and cold Cokes should be had on long afternoon walks.

    Secret Weapon

    One final Pro-tip regarding the Secret Weapon: tuck one balloon inside another. Fill the inner one with a small amount of water, tie it off. Blow up the other balloon around it. Toss it to your kid. All kinds of silly fun will ensue, and soon they’ll have a tribe of local playmates looking to get in on the fun.

    Read more about traveling with kids:

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