Last Updated on January 5, 2023
I’ve been learning the ins and outs of road trip essentials and perfecting my packing list since I was old enough to get behind the wheel. The open road had me hooked at a very young age and will continue to draw me in for the rest of my days.
As an eager teenager, I took my first adventure to Las Vegas with a carful of giddy friends. The complete freedom to explore as I pleased was exhilarating.
Since then, I’ve explored thousands of miles of my captivating home state of Colorado, driven the stunning California coastline, navigated the magical Hawaiian islands, and traversed the barren plains of Texas.
I’ve voyaged the sweeping Irish countryside, bumped up and down countless miles of rural Mexican roads, and soaked in the fascinating culture of North Vietnam on a motorbike.
These years of experience have taught me that packing for a long journey on the open road isn’t easy, so I’ve put together a list of my favorite road trip essentials to help you. I’ve also included an interactive checklist list, my top ten road-tripping hacks, and a list of all the lodging, navigation, and travel resources I use when I’m on the road.
Ready? Let’s get into it.
ROAD TRIP ESSENTIALS + PACKING LIST:
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- What Exactly Should You Bring?
- Safety & Repair Accessories
- Tech Gadgets
- Food & Drink Must-Haves
- Music, Entertainment & Relaxation
- Clothing & Comfort Items
- Camping & Outdoors Gear
- Family Essentials
- Organization & Storage Systems
- Road Trip Packing List + Checklist
- 10 Tips & Hacks
- More Road Trip Resources
- Final Thoughts
This is a tough question to answer, I’ll admit. Everyone has specific needs for their road trip, and my setup will look quite different than yours. We’re all likely headed towards separate destinations when we jump in the car for an adventure, so what I throw in the trunk may not work for you.
Keep this all in mind as you look over my road trip essentials, and prepare for your trip as you see fit. Take some of my advice, get your hands on a few pieces of gear you think will help, and leave the rest behind.
If you want to skip past my recommended products and jump straight to my complete packing list, click here. The checklist is interactive, meaning you can click the boxes as you get ready for your adventure and stay organized throughout the packing process.
Alarm System & Remote Start
If you’re taking a proper road trip, you’re likely to pack a lot of valuables in your vehicle that are essential to protect. So, arm your car, truck, or camper van with a proper — LOUD! — alarm system that can also auto-start your rig remotely.
Car Jack Kit
Big Red Scissor Lift
Nobody ever plans on getting a flat tire, but they happen regardless. A proper car jack kit will allow you to remove and replace your tire safely without expensive emergency roadside services. Make sure you have a spare tire and a lug wrench as well.
Power Bank Jumper Kit
Hulkman Alpha85 Jump Starter
Dead batteries are a morale killer, plain and simple. This high-capacity power bank allows you to bring your car back to life by yourself and has a handy flashlight, compass, and USB charging inputs to boot.
12-Volt Air Compressor
Fortem Digital Tire Inflator
Whether you want to fill a tire with a slow leak, need to adjust tire pressure for off-roading, or simply want to avoid paying for air at gas stations, this 12-volt air compressor will get the job done quickly, safely, and efficiently.
One Gallon Gas Container
Garage Boss Press ‘N’ Pour
Running out of gas in the middle of nowhere is a drag, so get a portable gas container, keep it full, and hit the road with peace of mind. This $14 investment could be the difference between hitchhiking to a gas station and arriving safely by yourself.
Versatile Tool Set
DEKOPRO 196-Piece Kit
Breakdowns and equipment failures are a very unglamorous reality of the road-tripping lifestyle. Keeping a versatile set of tools on hand will allow you to handle minor repairs when they arise and get you back on your way safely.
Windshield Chip Repair Kit
RainX DIY Kit
Windshield chips are a pesky reality of road tripping and can get expensive and dangerous if ignored. This affordable repair kit will fill chips and cracks with a fast-drying resin and prevent them from spreading and ruining your windshield.
Duck Tape Brand – 45 Yards
If all else fails, use duct tape. (That’s what I tell myself at least.) Whether you’re sealing a leaky hose, patching a tear in your tent, or fixing a broken pair of sunglasses, a roll of duct tape is a must-have on your upcoming road trip.
Whether you’re confronted with a minor scrape or an injury far more severe, a fully-stocked first-aid kit will be your ally. Packed with everything from band-aids to a CPR mask, this portable setup will be there when you need it most.
United States Atlas
National Geographic Adventure Edition
Digital maps are handy, but a physical road atlas offers an in-depth look at your surroundings without the need for technology. Use this detailed, adventure-focused atlas to plan your US, Mexico, or Canada trip as you go. Traveling Europe? There’s an atlas for that too.
High-Capacity Power Bank
Anker PowerCore 26800mAh
For better or worse, a dead phone can leave us feeling powerless when traveling. Ensure that your devices are always ready for action when you’re away from an outlet with this hefty power bank that will fully recharge an iPhone 8 up to seven times.
Magnetic Phone Mount
If you’re road-tripping without a phone mount, you’re doing it wrong. I love this particular setup because it’s minimalist and reliable. Simply adhere a thin metal disc to the back of your phone case and a powerful magnet within the mount will hold it without fail.
4-Port Car Charger
Amazon Basics 9.6A/48W
A car charger with four ports is probably overkill on a road trip with a couple of people, but it’s essential for groups of three or more. Four ports means a carful of people can keep their precious devices charged at all times. Don’t forget extra long micro USB or USB-C cables.
Waterproof Bluetooth Speaker
JBL Charge 4
Whether you’re blasting tunes at a campsite or setting the mood in your hotel room, you’ll need a solid Bluetooth speaker to get the job done. The waterproof Charge 4 has mega battery life, powerful sound, and even has a USB output to charge devices when their batteries get low.
Olympus OM-D E-M10
Cell phone photos probably won’t do your trip justice, so get a quality digital camera if you want to capture your adventure properly. My current travel camera is the budget-friendly OM-D E-M10, which is compact, easy to use, and takes great high-res photos.
Powerful Travel Stove
Camp Chef Ranger II
Those who want the option to cook meals on the road can do so with this incredibly powerful 34,000 BTU dual burner stove. The Ranger II can be attached to a standard 5-gallon propane tank or can run off of smaller one-pound camping canisters with an adapter.
Backpack Picnic Kit
Sunflora 4-Person Set
If you’re going to cook in style on your road trip, you’d better eat in style as well. This luxurious picnic set not only has full tableware for up to four people, but also includes a blanket, cutting board, corkscrew, insulated food and drink compartment, and salt and pepper shakers.
Alpicool 16 Quart
Keeping your food fresh and your drinks cold is vital during long stretches in the car, and this 12-volt fridge/freezer combo will do just that. It plugs into your cigarette lighter, draws power while the car is running, cools its contents quickly, and is incredibly efficient.
Portable Espresso Maker
Of all the road trip gadgets on this list, this is one of my absolute favorites. With this handheld device, you can create restaurant-quality espresso on demand. All you need is boiling water, a Nespresso capsule (or coffee grounds), and your own two hands.
Rapid Water Boiling Stove
If you need to boil water in an instant, the Jetboil Flash is exactly what you’re looking for. This lightweight camping stove takes water from room temperature to boiling in less than two minutes, allowing you to make tea, coffee, instant meals, and more.
Hydro Flask 32 oz
Whether your beverage is boiling hot or ice cold, the uber-efficient Hydro Flask thermos will retain its temperature for a very long time. My incredible 32 oz vessel has kept ice for over three days before it finally melted, which is a dream on longer trips.
Folding Table & Chairs
REDCAMP 3/4/6 Foot
If you’ll be cooking during your road trip, or simply want somewhere comfortable to play cards or eat takeout, a compact folding table will serve you well. This lightweight aluminum set comes with two chairs and weighs in at only two-and-a-half pounds.
Audio Book Subscription
Nothing passes the hours on the road like a good audiobook. An Audible subscription — click here for a free 30-day trial — gives users one free audiobook per month (to keep forever), selected free titles, guided exercises, and newspaper subscriptions from all over the world.
Streaming Music Subscription
Amazon Music | Spotify
If you plan on listening to CDs or MP3s on your upcoming adventure, you’re stuck about a decade behind. Get with the modern times and sign up for a streaming music subscription which will allow you to listen to pretty much any song whenever you want. Amazon Music | Spotify
Inflatable 2-Person Kayak
Intex Explorer K2
This durable and portable kayak will give you the freedom to explore lakes, gentle rivers, and other bodies of water as you please. Fully inflatable in just a few minutes, this cushy setup can put you out on the water at a moment’s notice. (Don’t forget to grab some life jackets!)
Innova Big Kahuna
Frisbees provide endless entertainment and will forever be a staple of my road trip packing list. Whether I’m camping, strolling the beach, or relaxing at a park, my Innova disc is a great excuse for me and my girlfriend to run around outdoors and breathe some fresh air.
Leaving my hammock behind would be a huge hit to my relaxation capabilities on my trip, and is thus unacceptable. Thankfully, I’ve never forgotten my DoubleNest, so Keri and I can sway in the breeze at will (so long as there are two trees and a nice view).
Waterproof Playing Cards
Kovot 54-Card Deck
I play cards frequently when I travel — gin rummy is my game of choice — and usually wear out a normal deck within a couple of weeks. Thankfully, I’ve invested in a set of waterproof cards, which stand up to humid environments (and spilled drinks) quite well.
Cornhole Toss Game Set
GoSports Portable PVC Set
If frisbees, rafts, hammocks, and playing cards aren’t your thing, then maybe you can find a little entertainment playing cornhole. This lightweight setup — made of PVC and high-quality fabric — includes eight bean bags and packs away conveniently into a carrying case.
Affordable Polarized Sunglasses
Knockaround Fast Lanes
I tend to break or lose my sunglasses all the time, which is why I don’t let myself spend much on a pair. Knockaround’s polarized shades have the feel, quality, and style of high-end sunglasses, but only cost $25 a pair. They come with a carrying case, pouch, and cleaning cloth to boot.
Casper Nap Pillow
Napping is an essential part of the road trip lifestyle and a comfortable pillow will take your sleep game to the next level. My small Casper Nap Pillow is compact, cozy, and stays cool as I watch the miles go by and fade away into dreamland.
Packable Travel Blanket
While we’re on the subject of car naps, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend a comfortable and portable blanket to help you get some sleep on the road. This microfleece blanket packs down to the perfect size for cars, and is great for airplanes, camping, and at-home use as well.
Noise-Deadening Ear Plugs
Howard Leight by Honeywell
When spending hours in a cramped car, sometimes you need to tune out the background noise. Ear plugs will help you do so, and give you some respite from your fellow passengers. I’ve tried multiple brands of earplugs, and these are by far the most comfortable.
Montbell Aqua Gripper
Any road trip wardrobe is incomplete without a good set of sandals, and the Montbell Aqua Grippers are my top choice. They’re lightweight, portable, and versatile enough for hiking, watersports, or any other outdoor activity you might come across during your adventure.
Portable Clothes Washing Kit
Scrubba Wash Bag
If you’re frugal and impatient like me, you’ve got no time for laundromats during your travels. The portable hand-washing bag allows you to clean your clothes in a matter of minutes. All you need is some warm water, laundry detergent, and your own two hands.
Lightweight 2-Person Tent
REI Half Dome SL 2+
If you do it right, your voyage will lead you to some beautiful camping destinations. Once it does, you’ll want a quality tent to get comfortable in and catch some rest. I recommend the REI Half Dome 2 Plus for couples, or the Half Dome 4 if you’re camping with three or more people.
Packable Sleeping Bags
Hyke and Byke Eulos
Though I’m a bit of an ultralight gear snob and sleep in a $500 quilt, I’ve tested out a friend’s Hyke and Byke Eulos and was very impressed. It’s warm, lightweight, and uses water-resistant 800-fill down. The best thing about it? It costs about one-third of what I spent.
Lightweight Sleeping Pads
To catch some solid sleep in your tent, you’ll need a comfortable sleeping pad to cushion you from the ground below. This particular model has blown me away. It’s comfortable, packs down to the size of a Nalgene, and inflates and deflates as quickly as you could ever ask for.
Portable Pressure Camp Shower
Life spent bouncing from campsite to campsite isn’t the cleanest existence, which is why a portable shower is a must-have on your next road trip. This foot pump pressure-powered system allows you to get a strong and refreshing stream of water on demand.
Packable Day Packs
Whether you’re setting off on a day hike or venturing into the city for an afternoon, a packable travel backpack will serve you well. This 24-liter waterproof pack will carry your gear, snacks, and other essentials with ease, and compresses down to the size of a soda can.
Moon Lence Ultralight
Car camping without a comfortable chair is against the unwritten rules of road tripping, so get your hands on one of these if you haven’t already. They weigh only two pounds apiece, fold down into an ultra-compact carrying case, and are as comfortable as they are convenient.
LifeStraw Flex with Gravity Bag
Purifying natural water when you’re camping will save you money, time, and resources. I recommend using the LifeStraw Flex filter system to treat lake and river water safely and conveniently. Simply fill the bag, hang it up, and let gravity do the rest.
Collapsible Water Bottles
Clunky metal and polycarbonate water bottles are a thing of the past when it comes to exploring the great outdoors. So, instead of bringing along your Nalgene or HydroFlask, opt for a far more lightweight option like the SoftBottle to store your backcountry beverage.
Keeping your outdoor gear in working order is easy with the right multitool, which is why I recommend packing a Leatherman on your next expedition. Whether you’re prepping fishing line or tightening the screws on your ski bindings, the Wingman has the right tools to get the job done.
Portable Trash Bins
A family packed tightly into a car on a long road trip is a recipe for a mess, but it doesn’t have to be. This handy waterproof trash bin will attach to just about anywhere inside your car and can hold up to two gallons of trash without so much as a leak.
Unscented Wet Wipes
Amazon Elements 720-Count
If you’re a parent to young children, you know quite well that literal sticky situations will arise on your next adventure. Be prepared for anything with this mammoth supply of baby wipes that’ll help keep your car and your children clean until the next backseat disaster.
Kindle Fire HD 8
When all of the games, singalongs, and coloring books get old, the kids are going to get bored. That’s when you dazzle them with a tablet loaded full of fun games, apps, movies, and kid’s shows. Boredom will turn to delight, and all in the world will be right again.
JBL Headphones for Kids
At $25 a pop, these just-for-kids headphones are a no-brainer for road-tripping families. These headphones max out at 85 decibels, which is designed to protect its listener’s hearing. They’ll pair up well with a fully loaded tablet to make for the perfect distraction when you need it most.
Family-Friendly Card Game
Kids Against Maturity
If you were to play Cards Against Humanity with your young children, you might just be a bad parent. Instead, play Kids Against Maturity, which is a family-friendly spin-off. It’s entertaining for both children and parents and is a great way for families to goof off on long rides in the car.
Sun-Blocking Window Shades
Enovoe 4 Pack
Children don’t enjoy having the sun shining in their eyes; nobody does actually. So, help them out by shielding the sun’s annoying (and sometimes harmful) rays with window shades. This transparent set won’t block the view out the window or create any blindspots, either.
Rooftop Cargo Storage
Sometimes, there’s just not enough room inside the car for all of your wonderful gear. Don’t worry, though, you can create more space. Slap a Skybox or two on the roof of your car and, just like that, you don’t have to leave any of your precious gear behind.
Trunk Organizer Tote
In the heat of car travel, trunks can turn into a disaster zone in a hurry. Prevent the mayhem by setting up a few helpful organizer totes to keep all of your gear, gadgets, and accessories in order. Or don’t, and prepare yourself for a lawless and chaotic trunk of oblivion.
World Map Laundry Bag
Stinky, dirty clothes have no business mingling with clean road trip supplies, so stash them in a laundry bag like a civilized human being. This world-map bag packs down into the palm of your hand, and can stash a decent amount of clothing when thrust into action.
Here’s the exact packing list and interactive checklist I use to get ready for my road trips. Click the ‘+’ sign to expand the category, and use the checkboxes to stay organized as you pack for your trip.
Roadside Emergency Kit
Car Jack Kit
Windshield Chip Repair
Long Sleeve Shirts
Reusable Grocery Bags
I’ve been on many road trips in my day, and I’ve learned plenty of valuable lessons. Here are the ten best tips I can offer from my years of experience.
Get Your Vehicle a Tune-Up Before You Leave
If you’re road-tripping with your vehicle (and not renting), make sure it’s in tip-top shape before you hit the road. Drop it off at a trusted mechanic or inspect it yourself to see if there any issues that could turn into more significant problems down the road. The goal here is to prevent breakdowns at all costs.
Pack the Right Repair Accessories
Even if you have roadside emergency service, don’t forget to bring the necessary tools that’ll get you back on the road if your vehicle breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Don’t remember which accessories to bring? Click here to jump up the page to all of my safety and repair recommendations.
Bring Your Camping Gear
Staying in hotels every night is tedious and can get pricy, so pack your camping gear to add excitement, flexibility, and savings to your trip. Being prepared to set up camp will allow you to be more spontaneous with lodging, and sleep under the stars at a moment’s notice.
Download Google’s Offline Maps
Driving around in unfamiliar lands can bring upon spotty cell service and render your phone’s navigation useless (unless you were savvy enough to download offline maps ahead of time). Having access to these maps means you can navigate anywhere, even when you enter the dreaded ‘No Service’ zone.
To create an offline Google Map on your phone, click your initials in the top right corner of the app, press ‘Offline maps,’ and select your custom map to download.
Use AllStays to Plan Your Trip on the Go
Allstays has a swath of useful road trip information that will help you find campgrounds, hotel rooms, truck stops, rest areas, and even Wal-Mart parking lots that allow overnight parking.
Pro users have unlimited access to incredibly detailed maps, land status information (is it public or private?), trail maps, upcoming road hazards, and much much more. The up-to-date information on Allstays goes into more detail than any other resource I’ve ever seen.
Be Willing to Ditch Your Itinerary
Seasoned road trippers know that even the best-planned itineraries can transform drastically from start to finish (and that’s okay). Because exciting opportunities will arise on your trip, and it’d be foolish to say no because of some inflexible list of obligations you created beforehand.
Allow yourself and your fellow travelers to be free and spontaneous because that’s what this is all about.
Use a Phone Mount
Even though we might not like to admit it, cell phones are the most crucial tool in terms of navigation, entertainment, and logistics on a given road trip. Do yourself a favor and mount your phone onto your dashboard for easy access. Not only will this make your travels more convenient, but it’s a much safer way to access your maps, music, and podcasts as well.
I use this super-affordable minimalist phone mount, and it has served me well on many a journey.
Don’t Drive at Night
Driving during the daytime is far safer than at night, so do your best to get where you’re going while it’s still light outside. There are fewer drivers at night; however, they’re statistically more likely to be tired or intoxicated after the sun goes down. Lower visibility is also a significant contributor to nighttime accidents as well.
Don’t Drive When You’re Tired
Driving while drowsy is known to be as dangerous (and, in some cases, more dangerous) as driving while intoxicated. If you start to feel sleepy behind the wheel, pull over somewhere safe and mull over your options going forward. Consider doing one of the following:
- Finding a nearby hotel or campsite to get some rest
- Drinking caffeine for a quick energy boost
- Taking a short car nap in a safe place
- Switching drivers to someone who is more awake and alert
Leave Some Adventures for Next Time
I hate to break it to you, but you’re probably going to skip a few must-see destinations on your next road trip. It’s okay, though, because what’s most important is that you enjoy your journey as it happens and don’t dwell on the experiences you missed. They’ll be there waiting for you next time, after all.
If it’s meant to be, you can always return to check off the rest of the boxes the next time you’re passing through.
RoadTrippers – Incredibly detailed trip planner to build your dream itinerary
Hipcamp – Connects users with private landowners who offer camping on their property
Booking.com – My go-to website for booking affordable hotels, hostels & homestays
Couchsurfing – Budget-friendly lodging option where hosts offer up a free place to stay
Turo – Rent private cars at fair prices to avoid going with big-box companies
RentalCars – Puts users in touch with car rental agencies all over the world
GasBuddy – Helps users find the most affordable gas prices within a certain radius
WorldNomads – Widely-trusted travel insurance popular in the backpacking community
Well, I’ve divulged about as much info as either of us can handle when it comes to road trip essentials and packing lists. I hope you found some useful gear, hacks, and resources to help you plan your next journey on the great open road.
While you do that, I’ll be busy plotting my next adventure: a 3,000-mile adventure to the Pacific Northwest region of the US. I’ll be booking campsites, gathering a long list of can’t-miss destinations, and piecing together the most scenic route possible. I’m going to get as prepared as I possibly can.
But, if my wild and unpredictable history of car voyages is any indication, few things will go according to plan. At least I’ll have my road trip essentials and packing lists to cling to when life on the go gets dicey.
Stay safe out there, and may the open road lead you to fascinating new places.
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What are some of your favorite road trip essentials? Which items on your packing list didn’t make mine? Where are you headed on your next adventure? Leave me some feedback with a comment below!