DIY Family Adventure Kit: Essentials to Keep in Your Car

Why assemble a DIY family adventure kit for the car? Because no one should pass up a last-minute opportunity to hike. Because sunscreen is easy to forget. Because kids love to get muddy and wet. Because cars break down and the unexpected happens. Because, as a (perhaps) naturally forgetful person, some of us can forget the skis on a ski trip. (Checklists help!)

A pre-packed car adventure kit simplifies preparation and allows us to embrace spontaneity. It’s a summer-fun enabler and sanity saver.

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How to Store Your Adventure Car Kit

If you choose to make a family adventure kit, you’ll need to decide how to store your items. Those living in hotter climates might want to use a bag that can be carried into the car before every trip. If it doesn’t get too hot, you can store right in the trunk of your car. Think about the space you have.

Taking the bag to and from the car ensures that your water doesn’t taste like baked plastic and food doesn’t become goo. This strategy also works well if some of your items can’t be stored at extreme temperatures, such as bug sprays and sunscreens, or even crayons. One downside is that it’s easier to forget the bag you carefully packed.

If you live in a cooler climate (like many of us do) and tend to be forgetful (it’s me, hi), the best solution may be to store as much as you can in the car.

girl reading next to the river

Container Options

Now it’s time to select a container for your family adventure kit! This can be a simple as a cardboard box or as elegant as a woven basket. Here are few suggestions.

The Frugal Cardboard Box

A repurposed cardboard box is a frugal and environmentally friendly option. The open lid allows you and your kids quick access for grabbing and stowing items. However, these boxes are not easy to carry and degrade rapidly.

The Backpack

I use this for my hiking supplies. It’s easy to bring with me and always ready to go, but I don’t want to carry all the items in my car kit up a mountain. For non-hiking items, I use a large tote.

Check out our Best Daypacks for Women for some suggestions.

A Large Tote or Duffle Bag

These spacious bags are more portable than a box and usually are large enough to hold everything. Some totes also have compartments for storing smaller items.

Check out all Outdoor Gear Bags and Bins that we love!

A Car Organizer

Specifically designed for cars, a car organizer is a classy way to store your family adventure kit. In particular, I appreciate how these organizers often fit well in the trunk and have lots of sections to organize your gear. There are also organizer that can go between seats or behind seats for items you want to be more accessible.

Family adventure kit car bag

The Ten Hiking Essentials

REI recommends that hikers carry these ten essentials for any trip, even short ones. I store these in a small backpack, so I can quickly grab the bag before I head out. They are a must in a family adventure kit because they can help you navigate any situation.

Navigation

Typically, a cell phone is my primary means of navigation. While I usually recommend hikers bring a map and compass, it is probably not necessary for shorter, spontaneous hikes. Instead, make sure the phone is fully charged – charge it while you drive!

Headlamps or Flashlights and Extra Batteries

More than once we have underestimated the time it takes to hike and have been thankful for working headlamps. We now consider these essential, even on a very short walk in the afternoon.

Headlamps can also be useful in car-related emergencies. They can illuminate what’s under your car’s hood if you are trying to jump your car after dark or if you need to check the oil.

family adventure kit essentials

First Aid Kit

Kids have a way of getting injured even when an activity seems safe. It’s wise to be prepared for injuries both severe and minor.

You can make your own first aid kit or supplement the one you have!

Sun Protection Like Hats, Sunscreen, and Sunglasses

I usually purchase multiple bottles of sunscreen to stash in random spots, one in the bathroom, one in the beach bag, one in the backpack, and one in the car. Look for a variety that is at least SPF 30 and blocks both UVA and UVB rays. If you are not into lathering up, check out our favorite Sun Protection Clothing for Kids.

As another layer of defense against skin damage, we keep extra baseball caps and sun hats in the car in all sizes.(Need some good sunhats? Here are our recommendations.)

My kids rarely know where their sunglasses are, and they frequently damage the ones they do have. I try to find the least expensive sunglasses available and keep extras in the car.

sun protection for a family adventure kit

Knife

A knife is ideal for everything from slicing cheese to making quick repairs. While some pocket knives include everything from a nail file to a bottle opener, my favorite knife is a simple Gerber blade. It’s sharp, effective, and easy to use.

Check out our favorite Pocket Knives for Kids.

Fire Tools

The chance of getting lost while hiking is slim, but if it happens, you are more likely to survive if you can build a fire. A fire provides life-sustaining warmth and can create smoke, making it easier for rescuers to spot you. I usually keep a basic BIC lighter on hand, but a more reliable option would be a windproof lighter.

Shelter

A lightweight and inexpensive bivy sack or space blanket can keep you warm if you are injured, lost, or surprised by a change in the weather. A bivy sack or space blanket will prevent you from losing heat and protect you from the elements.

Additionally, the bivy sack’s reflective surface makes a lost or stranded hiker more visible, increasing their chances of being rescued.

During the winter, a bivy sack, space blanket, or any blanket can keep you warm and safe if you experience any car troubles.

Food

Snacks! Make sure your snacks will not melt or perish in the summer heat. Skip the chocolate and seek healthy non-perishable foods. Some of our favorites include Larabars, trail mix, and jerky. Our area also recommends stashing a jar of calorie-dense peanut butter in winter months just in case you get stuck in inclement weather.

Water

Every time we walk out the door, I quickly refill our water bottles and carry them to the car. My kids probably don’t drink enough water during the day, so a quiet car trip is a perfect time for them to quench their thirst. We also keep our big tank of water in the back to refill. We had one bad experience of not having quite enough water – never again!

You can also carry a compressible water filter to refill empty water bottles. Using a filter prevents water-borne illness and makes the water drinkable. Similarly, some hikers prefer to carry iodine tablets for emergencies. These are very lightweight and convenient.

Extra Clothes

A change of socks and a few sweatshirts can keep hikers comfortable and have earned a place in my family adventure kit. In the spring and fall, I add a warm hat and pair of gloves for every family member.

In my larger tote, I packed a change of clothes for my family. My kids will have something dry to wear if they slip during a stream crossing or decide to play in a mud puddle. And bring an extra bag to pop the wet stuff in!

girl surrounded by rocks

The 10 Parent Essentials

Now that we have packed what we need for a spontaneous hike in the family adventure kit, we should prepare for everything else life might throw at us this summer.

Bug Repellent and Bug Nets

Pesky mosquitos can quickly spoil any event, and ticks should never be invited to the party. Bug repellent can prevent bites and help you and your child enjoy their time outside longer.

Look for bug repellents that contain DEET, Picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, Para-methane-diol, or 2-undecanone. The CDC claims that these active ingredients are safe for most and have been shown to effectively deter insects.

If you have an infant, choose your insect repellent with care. The CDC does not recommend using Oil of Eucalyptus or Para-methane-diol on children under three years old, or DEET on children under two months of age.

In the northeast, we experience two weeks of intense black flies swarms, so for those weeks, bug nets, long sleeves, and pants are essential to our outdoor adventures.

Towels

Old towels are a great addition to a well-stocked family adventure kit. They are perfect for wiping down a muddy dog and drying kids when a hike along a stream becomes a swim. Towels can also double as seat covers for your car if your kids or dog is particularly messy or wet.

In a pinch, you can use them as individual picnic blankets. This option can especially helpful if your kids need well-defined personal spaces.

boys playing in water and mud

Facial Tissues and Baby Wipes

Although my kids are all school-age, I am still purchasing baby wipes for my kit. They are perfect for cleaning hands before a picnic because, unlike hand sanitizer, they remove both the dirt and the germs. And I use them after the meal to wipe my kids’ peanut butter and jelly coated cheeks.

Facial tissues are great for wiping running noses and in a pinch can be used instead of toilet paper. Speaking of toilet paper, don’t forget …

The Poop Kit

Nature calls, often at inconvenient times. Our family packs a trowel, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer even for short hikes. (Why the trowel? Check out our post on how to poop in the woods!)

If you have infants and toddlers, toss an extra diaper or two into your car adventure kit.

For older children, one of our team members packs an OXO 2-in1 Travel Potty. This toilet or any training potty can be lined with plastic grocery bags to create an on-the-go potty. After the child is finished using the potty, tie up the bag and take it to the closest trash can.

You can also check out Cuddy Composting Toilet if you want a portable toilet.

Picnic Blanket

A comfy picnic blanket can be used while watching kids at the playground, attending outdoor concerts, and cheering during soccer games. Most of my picnic blankets are repurposed blankets or sheets.

If I were to upgrade, I’d buy something like this L.L. Bean picnic blanket, which looks both adorable and comfortable. If you want something tiny and portable, this foldable blanket seems ideal.

Hair Ties and a Brush or Comb

In my family adventure kit, I always carry a few hair ties and a comb. These simple accessories keep my hair in check and help me appear presentable after a challenging climb.

Carsick Bag and Ginger Candy

With a carsick-prone kid, we have found that chewy ginger candy like Gin-Gins from the Ginger People usually settle his stomach. The bag is there for when they don’t.   

Eyewash

If your summer plans include the beach or sandboxes, you need eyewash! When kids get sand in their eyes, their first instinct is to rub, irritating the eye further. Eyewash is the safest, fastest way to remove the grit.

Feminine toiletries, lip balm, deodorant

You probably keep these basics in your purse, but I like to have a few extra in my car kit and my hiking backpack. Native’s travel-size deodorant is a natural deodorant that easily fits into a small purse or the pocket of my car kit.

Fun Items!

Many of us like to include a few beach toys, Frisbees, and soccer balls for outside fun. My 10-year-old loves to pack his pogo stick and a scooter.

We also keep some quiet activities in our car adventure kit. A few books, some MadLibs, a set of crayons, and drawing pads can keep everyone entertained during a long baseball practice or at doctor’s visits.

Check out our Best Outdoor Toys for Kids and Fun Toys for Camping for ideas.

collection of books and activities

Using the Family Adventure Kit

As summer progresses, my family adventure kit evolves. Some items are removed and not replaced, and other things find a home in our car. Despite the changes, I have never regretted planning ahead.

Hopefully, with a little preparation, we’ll have a fun and safe summer!

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DIY Family Adventure Kit: Essentials to Keep in your Car

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Authors

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  • Whitney, originally from northern Virginia, is currently living in Flagstaff, Arizona, (with solid stints in Paris, France and Los Angeles in between). Whitney, her husband and two kids can often be found outside, taking advantage of what mountain life has to offer. Most weekends, they embark on adventures big and small - hiking, biking, camping, and snowboarding happen often. Outside of that, you can typically find her in the kitchen baking goodies or working for her brand strategy clients.

  • Although she grew up in the suburbs, Becky Trudeau enjoyed frequent hikes and camping trips as a child. These outings taught her to love the wilderness. In college, Becky studied journalism and biology, pursuing both her interest in the natural world and her love of writing. She has since worked in Communications and as a science teacher. These days, Becky is teaching, writing, and learning as she home educates her three boys. Since moving to the foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains in 2017, Becky's family has dedicated more of their time to outdoor pursuits. They love skiing, hiking, biking, and camping.

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