Essentials for a Road Trip Packing List
What are the absolute essentials for a road trip packing list? We all know to bring money, credit cards, and appropriate clothing for any vacation. But packing for a road trip takes a little more thought and effort. Whether you’re driving to the national parks, or checking off your U.S. food bucket list, these are the road trip essentials you’ll need.
I know packing for a road trip can be overwhelming, especially if it’s a long trip. Luckily, I know a bit about road trip packing. I have driven across the United States 8 times, have driven from San Francisco to San Diego and back more times than I can count, and I just got back from a fabulous car trip to the best Oregon foodie destinations. And that doesn’t even touch on the internationals or shorties!
Needless to say, I have developed a well-tested list of road trip must-haves. I don’t distinguish between a short and long road trip check list—I have one ultimate road trip packing list and I’m sharing it with you.
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Road Trip Car Essentials
I live in California and am used to being prepared for natural disasters like wildfires and earthquakes (both of which I’ve experienced multiple times). So, I take preparedness seriously. And although it may be hard if you’re in a rental car, there are important things to have in your vehicle—always.
These items should stay in your car for emergency purposes. You hope not to have to use them. Check on them periodically, replenish as needed, and recheck before a road trip.
For long drives on the open road, or just a quick trip to the grocery store, here’s what you need in your car.
One of the most important road trip necessities. You can make your own, or purchase one that has all the bandages, ointments, and survival equipment. If you purchase a kit, add some emergency food with far-in-the-future expiration dates.
This emergency kit is for your car. Have the basic tools, things that will help you stay safe if you need to pull off the road, and jumper cables! It’s one of the most import road trip essentials that I hope you’ll never use.
Even if you don’t know how to change a tire, you should always carry a spare, and make sure it’s in good shape before you leave. After all, roadside assistance can only switch out your flat tire for a spare if you actually have a working spare available.
I started keeping toilet paper in the car during early COVID when I was making frequent road trips from San Diego to LA and everything was closed. All I’m saying is, it is now a permanent addition to my road trip packing list. You never know.
We actually always keep 2 phone chargers in our car’s middle console. Using a map app seems to drain batteries especially quickly, so I always have my phone plugged in when I’m in the car.
Your car manual should always be in your glove compartment. If you’re like me, you hate reading instructions and may be tempted to chuck the manual so you can fit more napkins in there. Don’t succumb to the urge! We actually had to refer to manuals a few times in the last year.
Road Trip Foods
Yup, I’m always about the food, but besides being a foodie and a chef, I have another good reason. My blood sugar tends to dip when I don’t eat for long periods. Besides becoming light-headed, I tend to get “hangry.” (My husband calls such episodes visits from “the demon.”). So, always having snacks available helps everyone in my car enjoy the trip a little more.
Food and water are not just long road trip essentials. But the quantity of road trip food you bring will depend on the length of the trip, the access to food along the way, who is traveling, etc. Here are some of my favorite car snacks.
Want to bring protein-packed snacks? Beef jerky is a great option. And Prevail is hands-down the best beef jerky I have ever had! It’s 100% grass-fed beef in original, lemongrass, umami, and spicy flavors.
These are one of the best road trip foods to bring for a quick nutritious snack. Actually, they’re more than a protein-packed snack, these are mini meals made with wild tuna or salmon. Make a full meal by adding some lettuce for an easy salad, or using some bread to make a tasty sandwich.
If your tummy is rumbling, a little nuts, seeds, and honey will tide you over until the next rest stop. Choose from apple pie, original, berry bomb, and chocolate mixes.
When only a salty chip will do, try this healthier alternative: certified organic plantain chips cooked in coconut oil. They contain no trans fats and are made from sustainably upcycled bananas so you can feel good about eating chips. Warning: They can still be addictive.
If you’re the kind of person who looks at the calories on the nutrition label to see how bad it would be if you ate the whole bag, you will be pleasantly surprised with these meringue bites: less than 100 calories per bag! Perfect when you need a low-sugar sweet treat.
We all need to stay hydrated, so a good supply of water should always be on your road trip essentials list. I usually wind up with a combination of filtered tap water in reusable water bottles, and bottled water. And because a few in my family suffer from acid reflux, we bring Jovē Alkaline pH Water when possible.
Packing Essentials for a Road Trip
Since I’m a big road tripper, I like to pack things the same way for each trip. Developing a routine, and storing items in the same cubes or compartments, helps the packing process and makes it easier to find things when I need them. The following items are the things I find help me most.
When traveling by car, it’s a great idea to keep a day pack inside the car with you for easy access. I keep my day bag full of everyday necessities including my hat (and my husband’s), a Swiss army knife , my Laptop, lip balm, sunscreen, portable charger, my purse, and at least one reusable water bottle.
Keep your dirties separate from the cleans with this Isolate Laundry Bag. It folds into a tiny little bag for easy packing, but I usually lay it flat on top of my suitcase so it takes up even less room.
If you need to wash clothes along the way, you need the Scrubba Portable Wash Bag with a built-in washboard. Fill with clothes and water; it’s the best way to wash while traveling. When not in use, it folds up to be pocket-sized and doesn’t take up much space at all. Added bonus: It can double as a dry bag.
A set of 2 Eagle Creek Shoe Sacs is a great way to protect your clothing from the dirt and smell of your shoes. And since it’s a self-contained bag, you can even choose to keep it out of your suitcase completely.
My compact Carhartt cooler bag stays in the car, while my larger cooler stays in the trunk. I keep my food for the day and a few cold drinks and I’m all set.
One of my top cross country road trip essentials! I find the medium Lifewit Soft cooler bag to be the perfect size for the food I need on a long road trip or for a stay in a vacation rental. Add a few cold packs and you’re set. If you notice, most of my road trip food recommendations actually don’t need to be kept cold, but I pack them in the cooler to save room. I love the upper compartment of this bag, and the front pocket fits EQUO eco-friendly utensils (I always need knives) and plastic-free straws.
Personal Item Road Trip Essentials
Many of the things to pack for a road trip are things you’d need for any vacation. I’m not going to tell you to bring your meds, cell phone, or your underwear and socks. I’m going to share some of the things you may not think of, and some of my all-time favorites personal items that I think everyone would appreciate.
I have had Basal Cell skin cancer on my face three times, so, if I’m outside, you’ll see me in a hat. Comhats makes a wide variety of sun hats with UV50 protection. They are stylish and easy to pack—they just roll up. By far the absolute best travel hat I’ve ever had!
I rarely use bandanas at home, but I was so thankful I had them on my last cross country road trip, especially in Savannah. I wrapped one around my head under my hat and used another to wipe my face as it slowly melted from the heat of the summer sun. A must for any summer road trip!
From New Braunfels, Texas, to the beautiful beaches of the Outer Banks, North Carolina, it doesn’t seem to cool off at night. But it does in California, and I bring a scarf all summer long. This long one can double as a shawl or a blanket if whoever is in charge of the air conditioning likes it as much as my husband.
VIM&VIGR makes the cutest, most comfortable compression socks ever! Because of a nasty foot and ankle injury a while back, I have worn many kinds of compression socks over the last 3 years. These are the best! Sure, everyone knows they’re good for flights to minimize the risk of blood clots, but some drives have you sitting even more stationary for longer periods. Every time I’ve left them at home, I’ve regretted it, so now they are always on my list of things to take on a road trip.
Fun Road Trip Essentials
It’s a good idea to have some fun things along for a long car ride or even for the hotel room. Personally, I think the best road trips are when the scenery is so beautiful you don’t need any additional stimulation. But that’s never 100% of the time. So, bring a few items to ensure you have a good time.
This is one of the road trip essentials for kids 8 and over and for the fidgeter in your car. Hand them this shape-shifting box of magnets, and watch them become mesmerized as they twist and turn it for hours.
I’m always ready for a gorgeous vista or a wildlife sighting because I keep a pair of binoculars in my car. These high-definition binoculars have an adapter that enables you to hook up your phone to take incredible close-up photos of the far distant! You’ll find they’re a great addition to your glove box or backpack.
When COVID squashed my weekly library habit, I jumped on the Kindle bandwagon and never looked back. I even splurged for Kindle Unlimited because I cannot go a night without reading. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever bought for myself, and a definite for my personal road trip checklist.
I think this compact backgammon set is one of the best road trip essentials for couples and families. Mike and I have been playing this game since we first met at UCLA, and we still enjoy it! Moreover, when rolled up, this set takes up only about the same amount of room as a pair of Mike’s socks.
Practical Things To Bring on a Road Trip
Think of the things you use daily at home. While you certainly should not bring everything, I always have a little bag with tape, scissors, superglue, and safety pins.
Even on the road, when we eat out, I always save my leftovers. Sometimes my leftovers include an open bottle of wine—you know I’m not leaving that behind—so I always bring a bottle stopper!
For the leftover food, I pack Ziploc bags in gallon and quart sizes. They always come in handy!
Road Trip Tips
Where’s your next road trip? Wherever your travels take you, in warm or cold weather, I have a few road trip tips I hope will help you!
Carry a paper map. Yes, Google Maps and Apple Maps can give you the fastest route and information on traffic, etc., but believe it or not, there are places where they are unavailable—even in 2022. Just recently, when we were driving from wine tasting in Anderson Valley to the coast to stay at an inn in Mendocino, we lost service.
On any long drive and especially in remote areas, it’s a good idea to know where the rest stops and gas stations are. Planning out your gas stops and driver swaps can keep you and your car from running out of gas.
On any stop, don’t leave the car with any bags or anything of value in plain view. This might seem obvious, but I still hear about broken windows. And the last time we spent a weekend in San Francisco, I noticed snatch-and-grab warning signs at some of the Golden Gate view points.
Even though you may have plenty of room, try not to overpack. I am a minimalist at heart and hate lugging stuff in and out of hotel rooms.
If you’re taking a winter road trip, check if the area requires chains for your tires. It will be well worth the extra cost to get some.
If you’re planning on staying in hotels, reserve rooms ahead of time. You don’t want to waste time trying to find a hotel room or risk being shutout. If you don’t reserve, consider bringing a sleeping bag.
Everyone’s road trip check list will be different. I don’t drink coffee everyday, so I don’t bring a travel mug. But the average Joe needs their Joe! I’d love to hear what’s on your road trip check list!
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