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Backpacking with Kids - Toys for the Road

Updated: Aug 13, 2022

How successful your trip is can at times rely on how happy everyone is and that ultimately depends on how well you plan and prepare. As excited as everyone is for a family adventure it is inevitable that long haul flights (any flights!), waiting around in airports and stations, bus journeys, boat trips, connections, long car rides and a host of other monotonous things will fill in the gaps between the insta-worthy moments. On top of these, you might also get rained in, or trapped in your hostel/hostel/guesthouse if someone is ill or onward travel is cancelled.


All these moments can be challenging for children (and anyone with them!!). We may dream that they will just chill and perhaps have a very long nap to pass the time but just in case that doesn’t happen, it’s best to consider some entertainment on the road.

In an ideal world we are looking for something(s) that can provide enjoyment, variety, stimulation, education and relaxation. Alongside longevity, it’s important to consider noise, connectivity (be offline), mess made (and ease to clean), weight and size, particularly for a long-term adventure trip.


So let me share with you the entertainment tips I have for backpacking with kids. The general to-do/tick list of entertainment encompasses the following:

  • Toys and games (things to pack)

  • e-books

  • Audio Books

  • Apps and Games

  • Music

  • Downloads

The first in this series is about TOYS.


We have adventure backpacked with the 0-6 month age group, older babies around 12-18 months, toddlers of 2-4 and on our most recent trip, our 7 year old. When you spend a much time travelling as we have you get to learn what is a hit for keeping the little ones tantrum free and at the same time not over do it on weight and space!


0-9 Months - Little Baby


They don’t need much at this age, but we always bring a few bits along, and had to think hard about what to select for our 4-month adventure in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam when our second child Quinn was 8 weeks - 6 months old. These are the results:


A DIY Ribbon Ring:

She loved to chew on the ring but we also had a lot of fun clipping it on the hood of our stroller and having the fan blow it in her face – she was entertained for ages trying to grab the floating ribbons! We just got a circular teething ring and tied ribbons to it, no problem.



A Small Book:


A pram book to clip on to the carrier or stroller straps. Its important to us that the small ones are still exposed to physical books but it’s not practical to devote the weight and space to them. This was a compromise and Dear Zoo is always a hit! The same could be said of any small board book or soft book, but if this takes your fancy its available here.


A Teether:

Always good to plan ahead on the teething front and we certainly managed to put these in a fridge every now and then (even a freezer once or twice at homestays!) to give baby some relief from cutting new teeth. These key style ones are perfect to lash to any carrier or stroller and easy to clean.


A Mirror:


Babys love faces right? We took the small flat and light clip-on mirror from one of our baby-gym/play mats. There are similar things on Amazon, but ours was really small and a great little thing to keep the baby entertained from about 3-4 months.





Hanging toy:


You know the sort – but be mindful to keep it light, easy to clean when its dropped on the floor and not too loud (read: too annoying) if you plan on pulling it out on a bus or plane! These can turn anything into an exciting play gym *see photo here of our 2 month old under some airport chairs!* We lost our beloved butterfly pictured here on the way back from Vietnam in 2019 :( it was perfect as it folded up super small, but the Lamaze ones are always vibrant and interesting.





The Humble Plastic Bottle:


You might feel like something out of Oliver Twist with this, but the fun shape, cold contents and crinkly noise make half empty plastic bottles a big hit with this age group! We managed to fill one with small rocks, rice and sand at times. Embrace it. Other "found objects" that are often big hits include napkins and spoons!









Car Seat Toys:


Any kind of car seat spiral toy that you might use at home would certainly come in handy on a long road trip if you plan on taking or hiring a car seat. We invested in a Toe Time car seat toy for our first road-based adventure with our first born, Canada 2015 when he was 6 months old. It was light and folded up small and flat. Take the batteries out if you can’t stand the noise, but he loved it!


9-18 Months - Big Baby


This is what I would deem to be the most difficult age to travel with. They want to get up, move around, don't nap as often and aren't as satisfied with the basics anymore. We took our 10-12 month on a 9 week backpack across Central America in 2022 and packed a number of the following.


Suction Table Toys:


These are a little bulky but if space isn’t an issue, these are fabulous for on planes, any highchairs, stuck to a tiled floor – any surface really! Could do for the smaller baby too but we felt there were better alternatives at that age.


Balls:


Improving hand-eye coordination at this age can be a lot of fun and there are a great many varieties of sphere to choose from! We like the light up spikey balls we were given at one of our regular baby classes, engaging but no noise! Something like a squishy stress ball/water ball or stretchy Koosh ball is also really interesting but care would need to be paid to ensure it wasn’t being eaten!

Stacking Cups:


These are an absolute must every time we go away – they are versatile in that not only do they stack into each other, and on to each other, we also use them to build sand castles, and play in the pool/bath to fill with water. This particular brand can also link together to form a nice caterpillar!


Poppers:


These are usually looked at as “fidget toys” for older kids, but our 9-12 month old loved this toy we got from nanny on our Central American backpacking trip. She liked using her index finger to pop the bright silicone bubbles; great for fine motor skill development, and she enjoyed chewing the edges too! Ours also rotates on its centre which our older children enjoying spinning for the baby. Check them out here.






Puppets:


Fingers puppets are great, not only for small babies but older siblings really enjoy them too! They’re a really small, lightweight, easily compressible thing to bring along to stimulate imagination. We got this set second hand a few years back.


Comforter:


For this age group and older, don’t forget their favourite familiar item(s) from home. Our first had a small cuddly owl that has now visited over 20 countries with him. Our second it was just a muslin which was great as it could be easily replaced! Our third has some silky cloth with tassels and ribbons – these are essential for calming, sleeping and relaxing! CAUTION: DO NOT LOSE. My BEST TIP would be to get a small carabiner clip and firmly secure it to the stroller/you belt/the carrier. We lost our irreplaceable essential silky cloth one day in Mexico and unbelievably we retraced our steps and found it a few hours later. Our Central American trip could have been wrecked without it!


18 month – 3 years - Toddlers


Once your child has grown out of the eat-everything stage the world of toys really opens up!


“Quiet Bags”:

When our son turned 2 years old we started producing DIY quiet bags. These have always been small zip lock bags containing:

  • Pom poms

  • Foam stickers (letters, numbers, animals etc)

  • Felt pieces

  • Magnets

  • Lollypop sticks

  • Paper clips

  • Post-it notes

  • Velcro squares

  • Small squares of bubble wrap

  • Pipe cleaners

  • Clothes pins

  • Shoe laces

  • Cotton thread

  • Beads

Its almost unlimited the things you can get up to with a small bag of bits. I cannot believe what a hit post-it notes are, our seven year old still loves a stack of them when we go away! We usually take some of the tiny ones you might use for signposting signatures on legal documents (or changes to my thesis!) and they get stuck all over the tray table, windows and walls (sorry airplane staff!!).


Pound Shop Newbies:


For the older pre-school end of this age group we have gone procured (usually second hand) 3-5 small toys and wrapped them as gifts. During a long trip these can be dished out one every few weeks, or if you’re particularly worried about a 10-12 hour flight, a new one every few hours! This has included die-cast metal trains, small dinosaurs and jungle animals, cars, a transformer, a slinky, a small squishy chicken – whatever you can find, if its new to them, it’ll keep them quiet!


Busy Books:


There are so many different varieties on this theme out there now. We have one with buckles and ties and all sorts to help baby along with cognitive, problem solving, motor and coordination development. Here is an example on Amazon.


Duplo:


We often put just a few duplo pieces in a drawstring bag – something with wheels, and a few of different sizes to stick onto them. This fulfils the love of anything that goes, with anything that comes apart.


Magnet/foam play books:


We have a number of story books with magnetic or foam pieces in them. The books encourage some imaginative play as well as problem solving for placing them in the “correct” places. I will say that regardless of how much the kids love them, I am always worried about these particular things getting ruined by the pieces


Play-Doh:


Play-doh is great for all ages, I still love it! It’s great on its own but you can of course bring a few molds, tools and cutters if you fancy it. This can make a mess and I would feel bad about getting it out in a carpeted area like a plane, train or car. But it is great for airport floors during connections and rainy days in hostels. We’ve never had a problem taking it into an airplane cabin in terms of security though.


These photos above are the exact things we took away for our Central America 2022 trip with a 7 year old, 3 year old and 10 month old. The only other things not in these photos were the mp3 player, the ipad, the cuddly toys, bucket and spade and the activity books.

Play Food:


Our 9 month old really loved some of our plastic play food from home to chew and bang together. The older kids also love to play pretend shops whenever they get the chance, so we put a few hot dogs or pea pods or sweetcorn etc in with the rest.


No Mess Colouring:


There are so many different options for mess-free artwork on the market now. Our staple is always the water doodle type pads which use water in the pen to activate bright colours in the sheets. They erase when dry so can be used over and over again. Our middle child has loved these for years and we often have one in our bag or car in daily home life as well as on the road. Crayola have their own which we’ve never used but I’ve heard good things about.


Reusable Stickers:


These are fab for on the plane in the same way the post-it notes always amuse them for hours. A classic sticker activity book is always a must for us as well, as you can read about here.


Squirt Water Toys:


We always bring a few of these away with us. They’re great for in the pool, on the beach or in the bath. We make sure we have at least one each – the baby chews them and the older two shoot each other, great fun all round. Check out this set on Amazon.


Bucket and Spade:


Older children in this age group might be best to move away from the simpler stacking cups variety and enjoy a classic bucket and spade. We used to debate taken them as they are cumbersome and take up a lot of space, however they ALWAYS get used. Our middle child makes “cement” on the beach, while our eldest using them to collect stones and shells etc and me and my husband make sandcastles. They are a staple of any beach destination.


4-8 Years - Children


By this point, children of this age group are usually calling their own shots on what to take away with them. However we’ve always tried to steer in a certain direction.


Little Globe Packs:

We discovered these amazing packs during Covid lockdown home school. Purchased as one-offs or on a monthly subscription, each box contains a passport with flag stickers, recipes for the countries traditional dishes, an activity related to the culture a crib sheet with a few words in the language and a map.


These are great to prepare little minds in advance for what they are getting into, as well as can be taken on a plane or during the trip itself.


Card games:


A pack of playing cards is essential for any trip and its good to start them young with something like rummycub. So many card games are great for building maths skills. We also love junior UNO, Dobble and Top Trumps.







MP3 player:


Our 4 year old took a "Wiwoo" MP3 player away with him for a 4 month trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. We loaded it with copied of all our favourite audio books (discussed here) as well as nursery rhymes and some of the rock we were getting him into at the time! It has a few basic games on it too which he loved as he got older (around 6-7 years).



Bey Blades:


While I can’t stand the anime show they’re based on, these toys are silent, lightweight and very durable. They are NOT "blades" - they're spinning tops. We bring two so our children can "battle each other" with whoses spins the longest, fastest and without bursting (they pop apart on purpose). They entertain them for a surprisingly long time and their pocket size is hard to complain about.

Dice:


Being big table-top gamers ourselves, we know how much imaginary play there is to be had with a dice! We usually pack a normal 6 sided dice, a colour dice (the sort you would get in an Orchard toy box), and perhaps some of our funky 4-sided or 12-sided die as well. With dice, anything can become a game on a rainy day. Be sure to keep them away from tiny mouths!



50 Things to do on a Plane:


These amazing card activities and wipe clean pen are perfect! My 3 year old will happily do some of the easier ones and my 7 year old is still captured by them. They're light, around 50% bigger than playing cards and make less clutter than an activity book (which might require different colours of pen and pencil etc). We whip this out on any plane or train journey as well as in airports or bus waiting areas. You won't regret these.


Pens and Paper/Books:


We always buy a new 24-pack of Crayola pens to bring with us, as well as a few extra black fineliners, pencils, rubbers, sharpeners and glue sticks. We encourage the kids to write a daily diary – even if its just a sentence or two, but our eldest will spend hours drawing and writing every day if we let him. This is the main thing that is brought in the day bag out for every meal and every journey. These blank exercises books are great and cheap.


Activity Books:


Obviously cheap and cheerful colouring books are fab, but if you’re looking for something more then for the younger 3-4 year old I would highly recommend the Usborne Travel Activity Book. We buy one for every trip.

This is a really fun and engaging activity book with lots of travel themed puzzles to keep little hands busy at a restaurant or in a bus stop.


For the older children, my highest recommendation goes to Big Buster Activity books. They have several variations with different themes. Our most recent trip saw us with the Big Animal Activity Book – over 100 puzzles with bright pages full of facts, our 7 year old was doing times tables without even knowing it.



These were our hints and tips for toys on the road for various age groups. To check out more of our recommendations for keeping your children happy during your adventures, please check out our guide to digital entertainment here. If you have a favourite toy for your travels that wasn’t mentioned please do let us know in the comments or via the contact page.


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