Trunk or treat events have grown in popularity in recent years, as families seek fun and safe alternatives to trick-or-treating door-to-door. This article covers the basics of holding a trunk or treat event. For tips on making a trunk or treat event socially distanced for Halloween 2020, as well as other activities your parent group could hold this fall, see 8 Reimagined Fall Events.
What Is Trunk or Treat?
At trunk or treats, costumed children walk through a parking lot, stopping at cars that have decorated trunks and receiving candy.
If your PTO is thinking about holding a trunk or treat event, here are the details you’ll need to consider.
Many parent groups choose to have their trunk or treat events shortly before Halloween, but not on Oct. 31, when families may want to trick-or-treat in their neighborhoods or attend other community events. It's common for schools to hold trunk or treat events on the Friday or Saturday before Halloween. Another option is to hold the event in mid-October and choose a harvest or fall theme.
If your school is closed because of COVID-19, check with your principal to see if you can use the school parking lot or will need to look for another location for your event.
When choosing a time, consider if the parking lot is lit after dark. If not, hold the event during daylight hours or plan to set up floodlights.
Ask parents planning to decorate their cars to register in advance. This will give you an idea of how much space you need to reserve for vehicles and allow you to provide instructions or guidelines to them in advance.
Ask vehicle participants to decorate their cars according to a theme and suggest that they wear a costume that goes with it. They might go with a Halloween theme and fill their trunk with mummies or pumpkins. Other popular choices include decorating with children’s TV or movie characters or setting a scene, like the old west or a campsite.
If your event will last several hours, be sure to find out if you can have access to the school restrooms. Coordinate with the appropriate staff person to make sure the doors are unlocked and locked at the proper times.
Promote your event at school and in communications sent to parents. A fun, eye-catching poster like this one can spread the word at school. The full details of the event can be saved for a flyer or email sent to parents.
Guidelines for Decorated Trunks
In signup forms for cars participating in trunk or treat, include these details:
Registration fee (if applicable)
Decorating contest categories and prizes (if applicable)
When setup will start and stop
If candy will be provided
If access to electricity will be provided
Any guidelines for how scary decorations can or can't be
Inclement Weather Plan
When planning your event, decide ahead of time what you'll do if the weather doesn't cooperate on your chosen day: cancel, have a rain date, or move the festivities inside. Holding a trunk-or-treat in the school is a good option if you have adequate space. Tables or shade canopies can be used in the place of decorated car trunks, giving space for people to set up their decorations and games. Another option is to have a teacher or volunteer at each classroom to hand out candy from the classroom door.
Allow an hour for cars to set up before the festivities begin. Have someone on-site to direct cars to parking spaces or assign each registered car a number and draw numbers on the parking lot in chalk ahead of time. If possible, leave an empty parking spot between vehicles to help space out the trick-or-treating crowd.
Many trunk or treat planners allow children to move freely between vehicles. Others have a system so that kids stop at each car just once, reducing the chance of running out of candy or prizes early. If you expect a large turnout, it might be worth giving each child one ticket for each trunk-or-treat station and having them turn in a ticket when they stop at each vehicle. Or you might print up cards with blank boxes and ask the adult at each station to stamp or sign an empty box. When every box is full, the child is done trick-or-treating. The tickets or cards can be used to track attendance and estimate how much candy to buy next year.
Any time lots of children are near a large amount of candy, things can get chaotic. If you need to maintain social distancing, draw chalk lines on the pavement and ask kids to stay behind them. People giving out candy can toss it to kids or use a Halloween candy chute.
If you're concerned that the crowd at your trunk or treat might grow too big, try one of these strategies:
Set up a games area separate from the cars on display.
Keep concessions and food vendors in a separate area.
Limit entry and exit points and count in a certain number of people at a time.
Assign times for families to enter based on the first letter of their last name.
Assign entry times by grade level.
Station a volunteer at the entrance to take photos of families (with their own cell phones) if desired. Having a volunteer on photo duty will help the line move more quickly than if families take their own photos.
Hand out a set number of tickets to kids that can be used to get candy at the cars.
Estimate how many trick-or-treaters will attend and how much candy will be needed. Many parent groups collect donated candy from school families in advance of their trunk or treat. A creative "candy monster" donation station set up in the school can also help build excitement for the event. You can ask each grade level to bring a certain type of candy to ensure a variety of options, or hold a contest among students where the class with the most donated candy receives a pizza party or other prize.
Some groups ask people with decorated trunks to bring candy for 100, for example, and then restock them when they run out, while other PTOs choose to purchase all the candy to be handed out.
Another option is to ask grocery stores or community groups to donate candy to keep the cost down for the PTO and school parents.
Fun and Games
At many trunk or treat events, people who decorate their cars are asked to set up small, carnival-type games for kids to play, such as a ring toss, bowling, or shooting a foam basketball. The games should be short and easy enough for young children to play. You can add an educational element with estimation games—for example, guessing how many pieces of candy corn are in a jar or how much a pumpkin weighs. Children who win the game can be given small prizes or extra candy; however, all children should receive candy at each station, regardless of how they did on the game.
At some events, awards are given for the top decorated trunks. Others come up with their own award categories, like creepiest trunk or a people’s choice award.
Costume contests are also popular. You can gather trick-or-treaters together and have the crowd applaud for their favorite costumes. An alternative to a costume contest is to gather together all the children wearing a similar costume. Take photos of the groups of princesses, pirates, or superheroes and share the photos with families on the school bulletin board, on Facebook, or in your newsletter.
Another option is to have a pumpkin decorating contest. Select a panel to judge the entries or allow people attending your event to vote by placing raffle tickets into a jar or bag for each entrant.
A trunk or treat can be a standalone event or part of a larger PTO or PTA event. Many groups play music and have space for kids to dance in costume or schedule a costume parade during the event. Add some fun by reaching out to other schools in your community. Consider inviting the high school band, cheerleaders, and mascot to perform. Have a drawing for tickets to upcoming school plays or musicals. Invite the drama club to raise money by face painting or ask the art teacher to show kids an easy Halloween-theme craft. Set up a backdrop for a photo booth and encourage people to pose with these Halloween photo booth props.
If your trunk or treat event is in the middle of the afternoon, there’s no need to provide food. If your event will be around a meal time, you may want to have volunteers grill hot dogs or hamburgers for hungry trick-or-treaters and their parents or book food trucks.
Whether you serve food or not, it’s a good idea to provide cups or bottles of water. All that candy will make people thirsty!
Provide trash cans in several locations for attendees to place empty candy wrappers or used water cups. Require those who decorate their cars to clean up their own space.
Trunk or Treat Theme Ideas
- Blast from the past ('50s, '60s, etc.)
- Christmas in October
- Dia de los Muertos
- Hawaiian luau
- Under the sea
- On a farm
- Pumpkin patch
- Bubble gum machine
- Mummy car
- Spiderweb car
- I Spy books
- Football (or other sports)
- Specific professional or college sports teams
- Animals (dogs and frogs are popular choices)
- Dr. Seuss
- Children's books, like Harry Potter
- Cartoon characters, like Minions or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
- Video games, like Pac-Man or Minecraft
- Popular movies, like Cars, Frozen, Star Wars, or Coco
- Halloween movies, like the Nightmare Before Christmas or Hocus Pocus
Originally posted in 2015 and updated regularly