Is it almost time for your next road trip? Are you wondering whether you’re covering all your bases when it comes to preparing for the trip? We’re here to help!
Road trips are great because of the flexibility and control you have of the itinerary and the journey. You also get to pack whatever you want and however much you want! Still, now is not the time to get crazy with the packing. You’ll still have limited space in the car, but you do have more flexibility (like full-size toothpaste, bottles of contact solution, and lotions).
Over the course of my countless road trip travels, from the Pacific Northwest to Arizona, Utah to all over California, I’ve gotten to perfect my road trip packing list. With all of my previous expertise (some gained from making so many mistakes in the beginning) and lessons learned, I’d like to share my tried and true list of road trip essentials with you today.
If you’re just starting to understand what it takes to have a successful road trip or you’re just double-checking if you’ve got everything covered, this road trip essentials guide will help you out. My road trip packing list will help you minimize stops, save time, keep you entertained, and even save you money along the way.
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PLANNING ON RENTING A CAR FOR YOUR ROAD TRIP?
If you don’t have a car or don’t have a reliable car you trust to get you out of your starting city and back in one piece, I suggest you pick up a rental car for your road trip.
We like to rent from Hertz. Why? Well with their Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program (completely free to join), you’ll get counter-free pickup at select locations, and even mobile alerts with your exact rental car and its location before you arrive. Book your rental car with them here.
If you are more the type to compare prices between rental car companies, use Priceline’s rental car search. Not only does the tool allow you to compare rental car prices, but most of the time you can book with no prepayment and no cancellation fees.
Regardless of which rental car company you decide to go with, make sure you have the appropriate car rental coverage. Our credit card benefits typically cover car rental insurance, so we usually stick with that as our primary insurance.
Lastly, we highly recommend a AAA membership. Though membership does not cover car rental insurance, there are some awesome, exclusive car rental perks.
- You get to take advantage of savings at Hertz, up to 20% off the base rate, when you include your designated AAA Discount code (CDP#) in your reservation.
- Perks include 24/7 roadside assistance including towing, fuel delivery, and lockout service,
- Other rental car benefits include free child safety seat, no additional driver fee, no young driver fee,
- You’ll also get great discounts on flights, hotels, and cruises
We absolutely love our AAA Auto Club membership. Not only is it a lifesaver when we actually do encounter car troubles, but it’s great to have (for peace of mind) even if we don’t.Save 50% off additional Members with Automatic Renewal @ AAA in 7 states!
45 ROAD TRIP ESSENTIALS: THE ROAD TRIP PACKING LIST
Make sure to bring a good mix of healthier foods like fruits, nuts, beef jerky, and crackers. You never know what you’ll be in the mood for, so bring a mix of sweet and salty options.
Don’t forget to pack some junk food as well. I’m talking about chips, candy, and juice drinks! And even a McDonald’s breakfast run (if you’re into that like we are). After all, isn’t that one of the simple pleasures of road tripping, getting to eat whatever you want?
Bringing your own water bottle not only decreases your plastic usage but also helps you save money. If you’re traveling in the summer or traveling to hotter destinations, a Hydroflask is great because you can throw ice in it to keep your water cold and refreshing for hours.
If you’re planning on hiking a lot and find that a metal bottle is too bulky, I recommend a collapsible water bottle. They pack down into almost nothing when empty.
Looking to bring a lot of water with you for your road trip? Try this 5-gallon foldable water cube. This is a great way to cut down on plastic use as your need to buy extra bottles of water at the gas station/supermarket decreases dramatically.
Plan to mostly eat out in your destinations and just need snacks for the ride? Then, a high-performance soft cooler bag will be the way to go. It’s lighter, easy to carry, and packs away nicely when not in use.
Need more storage for meals, drinks, camping? Or perhaps you’re traveling with a larger group or taking a more budget-friendly road trip? In this case, consider a larger cooler that you can refill with food and ice from local grocery stores.
PRINTED DIRECTIONS, DOWNLOADED MAPS & SCREENSHOTS
When road tripping, it’s all too common to lose cell service when you’re on the road and need it the most. Smartphone apps like Google Maps and Waze are great, but when you lose service in remote places, the ability to show you step-by-step directions disappears, too.
Before we take off for any journey, one of the most important road trip essentials is downloading a navigation app, especially one with offline features. For hiking instructions, sometimes I find it easier just to take screenshots of the walking directions.
Unless you have satellite radio, you can almost bet you’ll lose radio signal at least once during your drive. Be sure to curate your road trip playlist a few days before you actually depart! We like to download our Spotify playlists so we can listen to them offline.
We also recommend audiobooks (Audible) so you can ‘read’ while you drive. And if you’re more the podcast type, download enough podcasts to keep you entertained for the duration of the road trip.
Lately, we’ve been listing to podcast trivia, which in reality is someone who’s reading out random questions, giving you a moment to think about them and answer, then revealing the answers at the end. It’s a ton of fun, stimulates the mind (especially good for those sleepy driving moments) and it’s educational too!
Don’t want to bore the whole car with whatever you’re listening to? Bring headphones and an audio splitter to share your music, podcast, or audiobook with only those who want to hear it. These things are like magic.
Chances are, you’ll be using your phone during the car ride, either to GPS, play music, or research things to do along your route. The car probably comes with a few charging ports, but it’s usually limited to 1-2 items at a time.
To make sure everyone’s batteries are charged, bring a power inverter car adapter to use in the car. Not only does it have convenient USB ports, but it also has regular plugs for larger electronics like laptops and cameras!
HANDS-FREE PHONE MOUNT
One of my major pet peeves is needing to GPS in an older car where there is no built-in navigation screen. I know this struggle very well, I have a 2009 Honda Civic. Not only is it inconvenient to have to keep glancing down or sideways at your phone, but it’s also not the safest thing to do when you should be paying attention to the road. That’s why I recommend bringing along a hands-free phone mount.
My iOttie car mount is my partner in crime on any road trip. It’s got an amazing grip and popping your phone in and out of the mount could not be easier. If you’re renting a rental car and you’re not sure if it has a navigation screen, bring a phone mount with you. The iOttie attaches by suction, so it’s easy to transport from car to car.
PORTABLE POWER BANK
Sure, newer cars might have USB ports built-in, but a portable power bank will still come in handy when there are more devices in the car than charging ports, or you’re on the move outside of the car, snapping away at landmarks, food, and architecture.
A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
Most of the time on the road, you’ll be driving in the daytime. Without sunglasses, you’ll be staring and squinting at the brightness for hours on end. Save your eyeballs and protect yourself with these road trip must-haves!
HAT OR BASEBALL CAP
You’ll need this less when you’re in the car, but definitely a must-have for those moments when you hop out to explore. Make sure you have something to cover your eyes and protect your skin on an extra sunny day.
Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat or with a simple sports cap.
If you’re traveling in the wintertime, be sure to bring a beanie to keep your head warm!
Sandals for the car are one of my must-haves. I find shoes to be stuffy and constricting, so I like to take off my shoes to get comfortable on long road trips. I usually go with my Nike slides or my Birkenstock Mayari’s.
A pair of slip-on sandals is great for gas station stops or quick bathroom pit stops. You can easily throw them on without having to take the time to tie your laces or strap the shoe back on your feet.
Bring a travel/camping pillow for use during the times when it’s not your turn to drive. This pillow is also useful if you plan on doing some car camping later down the road. We love investing in items that serve multiple purposes!
Whether it’s cold on your way to your destination or the air conditioning is blasting because your travel partner runs hotter than you, a blanket is a road trip essential, especially on those longer drives.
And if you’re with people who love taking pictures of others sleeping, you can also use it as a privacy screen and hide from everyone else. This one is packable so it won’t take up very much in your car.
You may or may not want to store your clothes and personal items in a traditional suitcase. Duffel Bags and travel backpacks hold as much as a suitcase but can easily be squished into smaller corners in the car.
If you’re planning on taking a 2-4 day road trip, chances are all your needs will fit in a duffel bag. I love my North Face Base Camp Duffel–it’s my newly upgraded road trip (and carry-on) bag!
Though it doesn’t have a whole lot of built-in compartments, it fits a whole lot of stuff, especially when pair with packing cubes. More on that below.
If you need help compressing all your belongings, bring some packing cubes with you. Packing cubes can be used to organize and compress clothes so you can fit more in your luggage!
Another perk is if you pack strategically, such as one day’s outfit per bag, you won’t ever need to unpack your entire bag to get what you need. Simply grab the cubes you need from the car and be on your way!
They truly eliminate the need to transport and lug around your entire travel bag whenever you need something.
CLOTHING AND SHOES
In terms of clothing, I always try to think through what activities I’ll be engaging in, rather than how many days I’m traveling for. If I know I’ll be taking jogs in the morning or going on sunrise hikes, I’ll pack 2 outfits for that day.
Common articles of clothing for a road trip include a workout top, a few pairs of leggings, shorts, light dresses, and regular tops.
One of my road trip must-haves is a solid pair of adventure pants! I love the Kuhl Weekendr Tight–it’s a pair of leggings literally meant for the outdoors. They are built for the wild (UPF 50, sturdy fabric) yet still super breathable, lightweight, and stretchy. My favorite feature–the pockets–I don’t know why more tights don’t have pockets!
Remember, you’re not limited to a carry-on or luggage like you are when you fly, so you do have a bit more flexibility with packing clothes.
Always bring more underwear/socks than you think you’ll need (it never hurts to have more but is extremely useful when you actually need them).
Regarding shoes–because of how blocky they are, refrain from bringing more than 3 pairs of shoes per person. Depending on the season and travel itinerary, this for me usually means hiking boots, running/walking shoes, and a comfortable sandal or casual shoe.
My go-to travel shoes are:
- Hiking Boots – Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots
- Running/Walking Shoes – Adidas Cloudfoam Pure Running Shoes
- Adventure Sandals – Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose outdoor sandals.
JACKET OR FLEECE
I run cold, so I never go anywhere without an extra layer. Whether it’s to the airport, supermarket, or even out to dinner, there’s always a light jacket in the car waiting for me if I need it. They’re perfect for hiking, temperature changes, and when someone blasts the AC.
If you’re traveling during any season other than summer, I recommend bringing a packable down jacket. Down jackets, when packed, take up virtually no space and are ideal for fall and spring temperatures. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
PACKABLE RAIN JACKET
If you’re traveling to a destination where rain is prevalent, bring a packable windbreaker/rain jacket. During the spring, fall, and winter seasons, we never travel without a rain jacket because we consider it an essential road trip item.
Again, get one that’s light and packable so you don’t have to worry about lugging around too many bulky items. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
Summer and outdoor activities = lots of sweaty, smelly, dirty, and worn clothes. Don’t soil your entire travel bag by mixing worn clothes with your unworn clothes! Definitely bring a laundry bag to separate your clean clothes from your dirty clothes to maintain the utmost freshness.
You never know when you’re going to need a travel towel on your adventures, but chances are, you will at some point. Think sudden rainstorm, spontaneous swim in the ocean, or a hike with stream crossings!
We always keep a few of these in the trunk of our car. It’s always good to have more if you’re traveling with additional friends/family.
DAYPACK OR DAY BAG
We use our daypack for just about every road trip we go on. They are one of our most important road trip essentials! From just exploring a city to hiking or packing a picnic, travel day bag is never a bad thing to have.
Oftentimes, I’ll carry my own mini backpack that houses my phone, wallet, keys, etc. On top of that, we’ll have an extra daypack stowed away in the trunk, to be used on hikes or urban exploration where we need to carry around larger items like jackets, cameras, or bottles of water. Our go-to right now is North Face’s Flyweight Packable Backpack because of its extreme packability (it actually packs up into itself)!
We always carry portable speakers with us on road trips. They’re useful for picnics and even when we’re just getting ready in the hotel room. We have the JBL FLIP 5 Portable Speaker–not only is the sound quality great, but it’s also waterproof!
We love leaving a picnic blanket in the trunk of our cars. They’re so handy as not only a picnic blanket but also as a beach mat if you’re looking to just relax or catch a sunset on the beach. This outdoor picnic blanket is amazing because of its water-resistant bottom lining. And it’s super packable!
REUSABLE SHOPPING BAGS
Personally, we’re always encountering reasons where reusable tote bags come in handy. Whether it’s doing a grocery run right before we head to a campsite or packing up smaller things from the car to transport into the hotel, they’re lifesavers to have with you.
Some other ideas/uses for them: Pack a tote full of food and have a roadside picnic or bring it with you to a local farmer’s market to pick up fruits and veggies!
Napkins are a must, you never know what can happen. From spills to Hot Cheeto fingers, bathrooms with no toilet paper to runny noses. They’re just good to have in general.
EXTRA GARBAGE BAGS
If you’re traveling with kids and encounter windy roads, there is a likelihood of them throwing up (I know this all too well from experience. I can still remember those 10-hour drives from Northern California to Las Vegas, having thrown up in the back seat with a few more hours to go–not fun!).
Be prepared for anything with garbage bags. They can also be used for trash that collects over time in the car.
FLASHLIGHT OR HEADLAMP
Being able to find your way through the wilderness or walk around a dark campground is essential, so you should always carry a light source with you, even if you don’t plan on staying out past sunset.
A flashlight is great, but a headlamp is even better because you get to see while keeping your hands free for other things. An LED headlamp also allows you to hike hands-free and is my preferred source of light.
FYI, the flashlight on your smartphone is not an adequate substitute–the light is not bright enough, plus it’ll drain your battery life, which may be critical in an emergency. Always bring extra batteries for it!
FIRST AID KIT
It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
Bring a variety just to cover your bases.
LICENSE & REGISTRATION
This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
EXTRA CAR KEY
If you happen to lock yourself out of your car, having that extra car key stowed away could just save your trip. Just be sure to not carry them on the same keyring!
Jumper cables are one of those things on your road trip list you hope to never use, but are so useful when you do need to call on them! They can save you from having to call a tow truck, and you can always help someone else out who is stuck.
Jumper cables are cheap to purchase and can get you out of a bind should your battery die. These are good to have in your car not just for a road trip, but also for day-to-day driving. Check out this guide to learn all about how to use them.
If you’re looking to invest in something exponentially more powerful/convenient than simple jumper cables, get the NOCO Boost HD Car Battery Jump Starter Box. This tool was sent from heaven and serves as a car jump starter, portable power bank, LED flashlight, and 12-volt portable power–all in one!
If you’re really not one to do it yourself when you run into car problems, then you need a AAA Membership. Perks of the annual membership include:
- 24/7 roadside assistance including battery replacement, gas delivery, towing, and lockout service
- Rental car discounts
- Rental car benefits including a free child safety seat, no additional driver fee, no young driver fee
- Additional discounts on flights, hotels, and cruises (that are actually good and will save you some real money)
If you don’t have AAA, then prepare some phone numbers for roadside assistance, just in case.
ROADSIDE EMERGENCY KIT
Many road-trippers have incident-free adventures. But, take it from me, that’s not always the case. Last year and this year combined, we’ve had three road trips where either the clutch, brakes, or engine caused us problems and derailed our day.
Maybe we can attribute it to our old cars, but even if this doesn’t sound like you, it still pays to be prepared. Don’t leave home without a roadside emergency kit. Not only are these super convenient to have when you’re in a pickle, but it’s also compactly packed to save you a lot of space.
This kit contains 42 roadside emergency components, including jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight and batteries, 2-in-1 screwdriver, duct tape, poncho, cable ties, bandages, towelettes, and zipper-lock bags.
Fluids are not necessary for every car, but if you have an older vehicle, it’s helpful to have extra fluids like motor oil, coolant, or wiper fluid.
If you’re driving in the winter months, always carry excess wiper fluid in the car. And as part of your road trip checklist, it never hurts to top off fluids before a trip.
With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
Always good to pack extra bug spray, especially if you’re road tripping in the summer season.
Sunscreen is absolutely necessary for any amount of time outside. Even if it’s overcast or cloudy, the UV index can be very high, so be sure to apply it whenever you’re outdoors. No matter where we go, we like a coral reef-safe brand, as traditional sunscreens contain chemicals that damage our environment. For the face, we are absolutely obsessed with Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen.
Toothbrush, toothpaste, contact solution, glasses, retainers, hair ties, etc. These are usually hard to forget, no explanation needed.
EMERGEN-C / HYDRATION SUPPLEMENT
Emergen-C packets or Liquid I.V. Hydration Packets can be a great way to support your immune system and overall health on a long road trip. We always include these items on our road trip packing list because they light, take up no space, and are easy to pack.
Hand sanitizer gel or sanitizing wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your car or hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
I don’t know what it is about traveling, but my hands love to get dry when I’m on the road. If you’re the same way, don’t forget to pack some hand/body lotion to alleviate the dryness.
BODY WIPES OR FEMININE WIPES
Feeling a bit dirty/sweaty after a hike but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Or maybe you just don’t want to get back in the car with bug spray and sunscreen all over your arms and legs. Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher.
Feminine wipes are also great. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
If ever we plan to be swimming or doing any intense hiking during a road trip, wipes are automatically on my road trip packing list!
Sitting in the car for long periods of time can take a toll, especially on windier roads. Acetaminophen (Advil) can be a great addition to any packing list because this over-the-counter product not only can relieve headaches but reduce fevers too. And if you’re prone to motion sickness, don’t forget the Dramamine for motion sickness.
CAR GAMES & ENTERTAINMENT
If you have guests in the backseat or you’re at a full-stop waiting for one-way traffic jam to clear, it’s always nice to have something else to do other than stare right in front of you. This is when classic card games or road trip games come in handy!
Here are a few games/activity pads you can consider bringing along:
- Auto and Interstate Travel Bingo Set
- Loaded Questions On The Go
- Knock Knock On-The-Go Game Pad
- Scavenger Hunt Card Game For Kids
- Mad Libs On-The-Road
Have kids? Download these free printable games and puzzles to keep them busy!
If you’re into travel photography, then you’ll probably be bringing some of your customary photography gear. If you’re into action sports and adventures, consider bringing along a GoPro action camera.
And if you’re traveling with kids, why not include them in documenting the road trip memories? Kids and teens love instant cameras, and the Instax Mini is hands down my recommended choice here (the set comes with everything you’ll need to get started).
WINTER ROAD TRIP ACCESSORIES
If you plan on traveling in snowy conditions in the winter season, you’ll want to consider bringing an ice scraper, shovel, and tire chains.
ROAD TRIP HACKS AND TIPS TO MAKE TRAVELING EASIER
- If you have more passengers in need of device-charging than actual outlets available, consider bringing along a foldable portable solar charger.
- If your children are prone to getting car sick, prep a “car-sick bag” filled with towels, wet wipes, vomit bags, Dramamine, saltines, etc.
- Use an inexpensive shower caddy to hold fast food. Instead of digging your hand into a deep, dark paper bag, transfer everything into a shower caddy for easy access to food in plain view.
- If traveling with small children who require a car seat, bring a cookie sheet or baking tray to use as a desk. The raised edges keep pens and crayons from rolling off and the hard surface is perfect for arts and crafts time!
- Before any road trip, be sure to get your car checked for fluid levels, brakes, tires, and anything else that could cause problems on the road.
- Don’t forget to get plenty of sleep before the drive. You should get at least seven hours of sleep for two consecutive nights before any long-distance road trip.
And that’s all we’ve got for our road trip essentials packing list. Are there any items that you find useful on road trips that aren’t listed here? Because we’re constantly going on road trip adventures, we’d love to know how we can be smarter and more efficient at road trip packing!
Thanks for reading and we wish you safe and happy travels!