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.
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: Viper 5906v
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
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 Digital Compressor: Fortem
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
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 196-Piece Tool Set: DEKOPRO
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.
DIY Windshield Chip Repair Kit: RainX
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.
Duct Tape: Duck Tape Brand
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.
First-Aid Kit: Surviveware
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
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
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: Neckteck
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
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.
Digital Camera: 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
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.
12-Volt Fridge/Freezer: Alpicool
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: WACACO Nanospresso
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: Jetboil Flash
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.
Insulated Thermos: Hydro Flask
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
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: Audible.com
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!)
Frisbee: 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.
Hammock: ENO DoubleNest
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
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 Set: GoSports Portable PVC
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.
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.
Travel Pillow: Casper
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: BlueHills
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.
Earplugs: 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.
Sandals: 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
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.
Sleeping Bag: 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 Pad: Sleepingo
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.
Pressure Camp Shower: Nemo Helio
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 Pack: 4Monster
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.
Camping Chairs: Moon Lence
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.
Water Filter: 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: Platypus
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.
Multitool: Leatherman Wingman
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: EPAuto
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.
Wet Wipes: Amazon Elements
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.
Tablet: Kindle Fire HD 10
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.
Volume-Controlled Headphones: JBL 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
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: Yakima Skybox
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: JACO CargoPro
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: Kikkerland
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.
Now that you have your essentials and packing list squared away, it’s for some tools to crush your next road trip. Here are a few helpful resources that’ll help your next adventure go smoothly:
- 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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Last Updated on August 28, 2023