When my family road trips, we go all out. Bumming it on the beach or lazing around the Airbnb just isn’t our speed. Don’t get me wrong, I love a solid beach day, but maximizing our exploration is our top priority. To put it simply, the more miles we cover, the better.
A common fear is that kids spell the end of carefree travel. And in fairness, we’ve certainly changed some things. But patience, a willingness to try new things, and the right gear have kept us on the move!
This year, constant snow and bitter temps in Minnesota had us looking south. The jungles and coastlines of Costa Rica felt like the perfect spot for a new adventure, and we were excited for our toddler to join.
But from a gear perspective, road-tripping with a toddler felt a bit like a backpacking excursion. You want to have all the essential amenities but also cut your weight (and items!) as much as possible. The best pieces of gear will serve multiple purposes.
During our 10 days in Costa Rica, we explored five towns, traveled 300+ miles, and stopped at every beach possible. We brought a lot of gear with us. But the gear below proved absolutely essential to our trip. It helped us see as much of the country as our 4×4 rental (and kid!) could handle.
Essential Gear: Adventure Vacation With a Toddler
Backpack Child Carrier
If we could have only brought one piece of gear, it would be a backpack child carrier. Let’s face it — one of the most daunting realities about traveling with toddlers is that they are both very mobile and also want to be carried at the same time. Oh yeah, and they weigh about the same as a 20-pound kettlebell.
Using a backpack child carrier allows you to carry and contain your kiddo with ease. It also allows a great bird’s-eye view for them! For us, the best part about a backpack carrier is that it became a mobile crib. Our little guy would doze off and rest while we continued to explore.
We used The Osprey Poco during airport layover naps, jungle night walks, busing through cities, a coffee and chocolate tour, hiking to waterfalls, and much more.
The Poco carrier comes in a couple of different models, but we found the standard Poco worked best. Functions we appreciated included the built-in sunshade and the storage section within the base. The two grab handles at the top and the easy-to-access kickstand made picking up and setting down the carrier easy.
Don’t skip out on the extra accessories if you can manage it. For us, that meant the Poco Carrying Case. The Poco itself is a bit clunky when not in use, and this case allows you to carry the Poco more easily and check it on your flight!
Our family took a 10-day road trip in California a couple of months prior to our Costa Rica trip. While the trip was a delight, we went through a pretty dramatic sleep regression. We don’t normally co-sleep, so it was really challenging for all three of us to be in the same room.
We even tried putting the travel crib in the bathroom and small closets, but our little guy wasn’t here for it. For this larger trip, we wanted to set us all up for success, so we brought a tent for the travel crib.
The Slumber Pod is a blackout tent that goes over your travel crib. Or, if you have older kids, they can use it just like a tent. The tent takes about 3 to 5 minutes to set up and is super flexible. Wherever the crib fits, you can put the tent over the crib. There is a main zipper where you have access into the tent, and two small pockets up top.
We had a fan in one pocket and a sound machine in the other pocket. We used the fan that came with the slumber pod but it requires to be plugged in, so I suggest buying a fan that is chargeable or is battery-operated.
Every night, we’d turn off the room lights, sing a short lullaby, and put our little man in his tent. About 30 seconds later, we’d turn the room lights back on, bust out the playing cards and crack a beer. It truly was a game-changer.
After several road trips and flights I’ve learned my lesson on food containers: Bring them!
We wasted way too many leftovers because the to-go box didn’t fit in the cooler or was dropped and spilled all over the floor. And a fed baby is a happy baby, am I right?
Having to-go containers allowed us to always have meals and snacks with us. This was essential when a hike or a drive took longer than expected.
The Kleen Kanteen Food Box set came in handy on day one, in the first hour of our trip. We had a 6 a.m. flight, so we grabbed some egg bites and pastries for the three of us right before we boarded. We thought that we’d eat right away once we got settled on the flight, but his nap schedule had other plans.
The egg bites and pastries fit nicely in the food boxes until we were ready for them a couple of hours later. And when it was time to dig in, they weren’t smooshed! Better yet, the food boxes are made of stainless steel so they were still a little warm!
Every single time we went out to eat, we had leftovers. It was awesome to have these durable (and leakproof!) containers with us to keep every last bite!
As a dyed-in-the-wool gear junkie, there is one thing I have a lot of — water bottles. And it is no different for my toddler. For our trip, we actually brought two.
This might seem excessive but it was nice to have a bottle for milk and one for water. That way, we always had access to whichever beverage he wanted (fewer tantrums?).
There are a million different water bottle types, so how do you choose?! For us, we switched to a CamelBak Eddy+ for kids right after we weaned our kiddo off of nursing and bottles. With its well-known “Flip-Bite-Sip” function, it seemed like a natural option. We also received the recommendation from several other parents. We use this bottle for both milk and water, and it’s been great.
Truly, what I love about this is its 14-ounce size — super easy for our toddler to handle. And when those hands are tired, you can easily carabiner it onto a backpack. Also, it is dishwasher-safe, and it all comes apart, which makes cleaning a breeze.
Leaving Minnesota’s -20 winter for 90 degrees can be a bit of a shock. As Midwesterners, when we fly south during the winter, we are always extra cautious about the sun those first couple of days. So of course, it was important to us that we both have ample amounts of sunscreen (we love BabyBum Mineral Sunscreen) and a sun shirt. When you are out all day, it’s easy to forget to reapply sunscreen.
But as a new parent, I didn’t want to take any chances.
Patagonia’s Baby Capilene Silkweight UPF Hoodie kept our little guy covered up when the rays were high. The hoodie checks all of my boxes for a sun shirt: lightweight, dries quickly, and is UPF 40. When he refused to wear his hat, we were able to put his hood up, keeping his head protected for more time exploring.
At the beach, in the jungle, at dinner — your kiddo gets wet, sandy, dirty, and messy. Having a pair of quick-drying and easy-to-clean pair of shorts allows you to bring fewer clothes overall.
Baby baggies — did you know there was such a thing? I didn’t until now. Now, we are a full-on baggie family. Between the three of us, we had 10 (yes, 10!) pairs of baggie shorts with us on the trip.
They are lightweight, dry quickly, have pockets, and the list goes on. If you pair it with the right shirt, you can easily go from exploring to dinner in these bad boys. I could truly write a love letter to these iconic shorts.
Bonus baggies: The Baby Baggie Pants might have been the real star of the trip. Like the shorts, they are super light and dry quickly. When we were out in the sun for long periods of time and we couldn’t keep the sunscreen on, we’d put him in these, keeping those little legs protected.
I went back and forth about what type of shoes would work best, but once I decided that we needed a pair of close-toed shoes everything else became easy.
I never thought I’d be a Croc mom but I am here for it. And, surprise — we have a matching pair!
I love them because they are lightweight, easy to clean, keep his little toes covered, have great traction, and stay on their feet! High in the mountains of Monteverde, the temps dropped at night, and there were days where we even rocked the socks n’ crocks look.
Zippies and Blanket
Our child has been wearing merino wool since the day he arrived earthside! Merino Wool has temperature-regulating properties that help keep you warm when it’s cool and cool when it’s warm.
The iksplor Adventure Zippie became his official airport outfit (don’t lie, we all have one). We love that the Adventure Zippie has a two-way zipper — making those airplane diaper changes a lot easier. It’s also UPF 50 and moisture-wicking.
We also brought the Adventure Blanket! This merino wool blanket came in clutch. We used the blanket over the car seat while we were in the car for sun protection. We also used it in his crib, at the beach, and in the jungle when temps dropped.
The best part about iksplor Merino Wool? It’s machine washable.
Why bring a baby chair? This may seem over-the-top, but we actually found it useful in many situations. For one, high chairs can be really hit-and-miss wherever you go — I’d argue even here in the States.
I have found that when Leo is sitting independently on his own, he focuses on eating a lot more (and so can I!). We used his chair at restaurants, hotel rooms, and picnics; we even used it at the beach.
How are these chairs not in REI yet? They are incredible. The Summer Pop ‘n Sit chair is a glorified baby camp chair. It’s a chair that comes with a cute little bag, a tray, and four straps to secure the chair when needed.
There is also a buckle on the chair to buckle your little one in to keep him from climbing out.
As parents, we know that snacks are king. And, while this isn’t specifically for babies, it makes the perfect “snackle-box.”
What is a “snackle-box,” you ask? It is typically a plastic fishing lure box filled with snacks for kids (peak Midwest!), but I couldn’t find a fishing lure box small enough for the trip, so we ended up using the largest Cotopaxi packing cubes.
It was perfect to fit dozens of snacks, foldable cups (we used Sea-to-Summit’s X Cups), a couple of sporks, and shelf-stable milk. The handle on the side is great for pulling it out from a cooler or a bag with ease.
On the flight or while we were waiting for dinner, the zipper would also keep busy little hands entertained.
Now that you have all of your clothes, accessories, snacks, and shoes (and the list goes on) all laid out, you need to figure out what kind of bag you want to bring. For me, I need my bags to check a couple of boxes: roller or backpack, durable enough for me to throw or drag, and brightly colored so I can always spot it.
I’ve been traveling with Patagonia’s black hole bags for almost a decade and I’ve never looked back. Again, another item I could write a love letter to. I had no idea how crucial they would be when it came to traveling with kids.
Out of the Black Hole family, we brought the 120L Duffel (note, this size was discontinued in 2018, but if you can find one on Worn Wear, snatch it up!), 100L roller bag, Waist Pack 5L, and a daypack. I suggest the Ultralight Black Hole Tote Pack 27L. Yes, we’re a Patagonia family, but REI, The North Face, Black Diamond, and Big Agnes all make extra-large (and small-size) duffels.
It says it in the name but it’s truly a black hole. We were able to fit the Slumber Pod, Chair, Travel Crib, beach toys, and other miscellaneous gear all in the 120L bag while all of our clothes and shoes fit in the 100L.
It is also my theory that because the Black Hole bags stand out with such bright colors, it’s why we’ve never lost a bag (knock on wood!).
I was really nervous about becoming a parent and what that might mean for my passion for travel. Many people choose to leave their little ones behind, and while there is a time and place for that, I’ve found real meaning in traveling together.
Armed with the right gear and a willing spirit, I now have a new reason to travel, to show my boy this great big world.
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