7 Tried and True Secrets for Combating Car Messes on Family Road Trips — from a Mom of Five!

published Jun 28, 2022
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It’s summertime, and you know what that means: road trip season! With flights being so expensive and unpredictable, you may find yourself on more road trips — and longer ones — than you expected this year. 

The really funny thing about long car rides — especially with the whole family — is how quickly the car can turn into an absolute disaster. It seems that that first pit stop already has us climbing through piles of bags in various stages of openness and searching for shoes on car floors littered with snack detritus. Our family of seven (not counting our two dogs, who travel with us whenever possible) has taken our fair share of road trips. While we haven’t conquered a cross-country trip yet (it’s coming), we have spent hours on the road and learned a few things about containing the clutter along the way. Here are my tried and true tips for combatting car mess on a family road trip: 

Include a garbage can in each row of the car.

After trying a few that didn’t quite make the cut, I’ve finally found a car trash can that can stand up to our family’s heavy usage. I like that it opens and closes easily and that it doesn’t need a liner; you can put wet items in it because you can rinse it out at the sink. We have one in the second and the third rows. (Front row passengers can easily use the second row one.) 

Have extra bags for garbage.

When you’re going on a road trip, arm yourself with extra garbage bags. I prefer plastic grocery bags because then you can toss small amounts of trash at each stop. 

Collect trash periodically.

No matter how many times you instruct everyone to put their garbage in the garbage cans or trash bags, you’ll still end up with trash all over the car. Accept this and collect it every time you stop. Toss it when you get gas or stop to get food and get another bag ready. 

Have wet wipes handy and pass them out liberally.

Spills are going to happen. Do your best to have them wiped up when they’re fresh to save yourself the headache of as many caked-on messes as possible. Have a pack or two of wet wipes on hand and pass them out whenever anyone eats. They’re also great for quickly picking up crumbs and wiping away dirt on center consoles. (Here’s another great list of road trip packing essentials.)

Empty out the car immediately when you arrive back at home.

This one is hard, but it goes such a long way in keeping your car clean after road trips. Getting suitcases, backpacks, pillows, and blankets out of the car right when you return from your trip makes it so much easier to actually clean the car, both because you eliminate the mental hurdle of having to unpack the car before you clean and because you can then swing by the car wash next time you’re near it. 

Use your cordless vacuum to stay on top of dirt.

Make it a habit to regularly whip out your cordless vacuum for cleaning your car, especially right after road trips. Staying on top of messes keeps the car from becoming a complete pig sty. Some people swear by a small vacuum cleaner specifically designed for automotive use. It even charges in the car!

Consider a car wash membership.

Honestly, this is our biggest secret to keeping our car decent, particularly after road trips. My husband and kids stop at the car wash together, while our other kids are at soccer practice or something, and they get the task done. The vacuums are powerful, they have machines for cleaning mats, and the exterior of the car can get washed too. With a membership, we can go as often as we need to without racking up extra charges.