Road Trip Essentials: What To Pack

Road Trip Essentials

Going on a road trip is one of the best ways to travel around. I still remember our first long term road trip when the choices seemed so endless with the open road in front of us.

Since then we’ve taken lots of road trips in various cars, from our Honda Element SUV to our custom build campervan. And we’ve gotten a lot more efficient at packing and knowing what to bring along.

The best thing about traveling in a car is that it requires very little planning or set up. You can just pack a few essentials and head out on the road!

Whether you’re going on a road trip for fun or moving across the country, this road trip essentials list will help you prepare and know what to pack.

Packed and ready to go!

The Basics

License

Whether you plan to do a local road trip within the United States or drive abroad, having a current license is a must. We also recommend storing a copy of your license on a cloud online in case your wallet gets lost or stolen.

Registration

Along with a valid license you will need to have your car’s registration easily accessible. Note that if you plan to cross any borders (we crossed about 15 during our Pan-American road trip), your car will need to be registered under your name instead of your parents or your spouse’s.

Insurance

Before you set out on a long term road trip make sure your insurance is up to date. If you plan to travel abroad, check if any local insurance is required. During our first Mexico road trip, we had no idea that we needed local car insurance. Once we realized it, we scrambled to get one last-minute online which is never fun.

Yosemite is one of our favorite places for road trips

Roadside Assistance

Roadside assistance is one of those things that you don’t actively think about until your car breaks down. On one road trip, our SUV just stopped working 5 hours from home without any warning. AAA is one of the most popular options but some car insurances also offer basic roadside assistance.

Cash

It’s important to have some cash on you in case there are no ATM’s around.

Car Charger

Having a USB car charger is a must for charging your phone during long road trips.

Dual USB Car Charger

Extra Phone Cable

Having an extra phone cable can come in handy in case you lose one or it stops working.

Early mornings in the mountains

Sleeping Set Up

Sleeping in a car can be quite comfortable, if you have the right set up. Over the years we’ve slept in our car’s front seats, in the back of our SUV and even traveled in a van.

If you plan to sleep in your car during a road trip, here are some essential items that you will need. These items are similar to what you would bring on a camping or backpacking trip (but more comfortable).

I recommend setting up your sleeping area before nightfall because setting up in the dark is much harder than during the day.

Sleeping Bag

A sleeping bag will keep you warm if you plan to sleep in your car. If you don’t have a sleeping bag, you can also use a regular blanket.

I love the REI Co-op Magma 15 down sleeping bag that is made for colder temperatures and is great for road trips to the mountains. The Magma 15 sleeping bag is mummy shaped so it traps the heat inside and keeps you warm all night long, even at temperatures as low as 17 degrees F.

sleeping-bag

Check out Magma 15 sleeping bag on REI

Sleeping Pad

A blow up sleeping pad can make the biggest difference in getting a good night’s sleep, especially when sleeping on hard surfaces like the back of your car.

We usually place our sleeping pads below the sleeping bags

An air mattress ads extra cushion between you and the ground so you don’t wake up with numb body parts halfway through the night.

We have a couple blow up sleeping pads that are easy to set up and store away in small pouches when not being used.

Ultralight sleeping pad

Pillows

The best part about road trips is that you can bring along a couple of pillows for sleeping at night or taking quick naps.

Windshield Cover

Having a front windshield cover is a must for privacy. If you have the option, getting your windows tinted also helps to prevent people from seeing you sleep inside your car. 

Filtering fresh water for dinner

Cooking & Eating

Having a few cooking essentials can help you eat healthy during road trips, stay away from fast food, and even save money.

Water

For water you’ll want to get a couple of large water jugs so you don’t run out. We also bring a water filter so we can refill on fresh water when we stop by lakes or rivers.

Sawyer water filter

Cooler

Lifetime is our go-to cooler for road trips in our car. Lifetime coolers are rotomolded, have a nice latch system that’s easy to open and close, and come with a bottle opener.

We have the 28 quart cooler that fits perfectly in the back of our SUV

When filled up with ice, Lifetime coolers can keep food chilled up to a week. And they are bear proofed which is especially important if you plan to spend a lot of time outdoors.

Lifetime cooler

Lifetime coolers are comparable to the popular YETI coolers but at a fraction of the cost.

Tupperware

If you plan to use a cooler, storing food in Tupperware containers will prevent it from getting wet and soggy while keeping your food chilled.

Camping Stove

For cooking our meals we usually bring along a small camping stove that can make basic meals (boil water, rice, heat food, etc). A small camping stove is super easy to set up and can be used anywhere. You can also eat directly out of the pots eliminating the need for extra plates.

camping stove for backpacking

Camping Stove on Amazon

For longer road trips, we recommend going with a portable grill that you can use for grilling veggies and meats. A grill requires more space and set up time but is a great option if you plan to stay near campgrounds with access to picnic tables.

Coleman portable grill

Gas Canister

Most portable cooking stoves require you to purchase a gas canister separately which you can get on Amazon or at any major store that carries outdoor equipment like Walmart, Big 5, REI, etc.

Eating Utensils

For eating, I recommend going with a spork that doubles up as a spoon and fork saving space and the need to bring multiple utensils. A titanium spork is much more durable than a plastic version yet it is still very lightweight.

campervan-kitchen-spork

Titanium spork

Travel Mug

A travel mug like this Hydroflask is very versatile and can be used for various drinks such as water, coffee, tea, and juice. Hydroflask keeps hot drinks hot for a very long time and cold drinks cold. Plus, it doesn’t leave the taste of the previous drink, unlike other travel cups.

Hydroflask travel mug

Knife

I recommend getting a foldable knife that you can easily put away for safety and storage. This Smith & Wesson folding knife comes at a great price and can be used for road trips, camping, backpacking, fishing, and other activities.

Smith-Wesson-Extreme-Ops

Folding knife

Can Opener

Can foods can last for a long time without needing to be refrigerated or going bad which is great for traveling. Don’t forget to pack a can opener so you can add canned foods to your meals.

Other Kitchen Essentials

Food

For food try to get items that don’t need to be refrigerated or can last a while in a cooler:

  • Snacks like protein bars, chips, jerky and dry fruit
  • Fresh fruit and veggies like apples, pears, carrots
  • PB&J sandwiches
  • Deli meats & cheeses
  • Tuna and crackers
  • Oatmeal, cereal & bagels
  • Instant coffee
  • When all else fails, get a few dry meals from REI
Tip: use your cooler for stabilizing the cooking stove

Personal Care

Toilet Paper

Packing extra toilet paper is a must. Even if you plan to use bathrooms at public places like coffee shops, rest stops, or gas stations, there is no guarantee that they will be stocked with toilet paper.

Tissue to-go

Hand Sanitizer

Many bathrooms don’t come with running water. Always bring a small hand sanitizer with you just in case.

Small hand sanitizer

Wet Wipes

Wet wipes will help you stay fresh when showering on the road is not an option. When sleeping in a car I use wipes to clean off sweat and dirt at the end of the day before going to sleep.

Female Pee Funnel

I didn’t know that feminine products like pee funnels existed until I started to spend more time traveling in our car. Ever since I got one it’s been a lifesaver. It basically lets you pee standing up (like a guy) so you can go to the restroom more discreetly.

Sunany funnel

Solar Shower

On our longer road trips we bring along a solar shower to wash off every couple of days. If you plan to stay in hotels, you won’t need a solar shower. But if you plan to travel on low budget (like us) and sleep in your car, having one helps you stay clean on the road.

A solar shower is very easy to use. You just need to fill it up with water, leave it in the sun and it will be ready for use within an hour.

NEMO Helio solar shower

For times when you travel in colder places, you can also heat the water on a camping stove and pour it in the bag before showering.

Staying clean during our road trips

Shower Essentials

Whether you plan to shower at a hotel, gym or by using a solar shower, don’t forget to pack these shower essentials:

Other Toiletries

Dry Shampoo

If a shower is out of the question, dry shampoo will eliminate any hair oils and odors that might build up after a few days of not washing it.

Not Your Mother’s dry shampoo

Wearing a hat is great for those days when you don’t feel like doing your hair

Driving & Activities

Small Backpack

A small backpack is useful for storing things like a wallet, car keys, phone, water, snacks, toilet paper, and other items that you want to keep handy.

Things To Pack For Driving

  • Sunglasses. Sunglasses can help battle harsh sun especially when driving or heading outdoors. I like to use polarized sunglasses that protect your eyes from sun glare.
  • Sunscreen. Have you ever driven in a car and felt sunburned after? While front windshields are usually treated to protect you from the sun, your car’s side and back windows are often not. Make sure to put on sunscreen to protect your skin even if you plan to spend all day in the car.
  • Lip Balm. Sitting in the front of your car’s air-conditioner can make your lips feel very dry. Bring a lip balm to keep your lips moisturized.  

Things To Pack For Activities

  • Flashlight. This is an essential item to have for evening walks to stretch your legs or getting your bearings at night especially if you plan to sleep in your car.
  • Insect repellent. Bugs can get very active in the summer but an insect repellent can help keep the mosquitoes away. 
  • Summer hat. I always bring a fun hat on our road trips. A hat can add a cute fashion statement to your outfit and can cover your hair from looking messy.  

Small Camera

My favorite cameras for road trips are the mirrorless Sony series, especially Sony a5100 and Sony a6000. Both of these cameras are very small, light and can be tucked away easily in a purse or a pocket.

Sony a5100 camera is very small and easy to carry around

Sony mirrorless cameras produce high quality images yet are cheap enough that we’re not too worried if they break or get dropped into water (which we have done multiple times – and they still somehow miraculously work).

Maps.me

Maps.me is our go-to app for hiking and road trips. With Maps.me app you can download offline maps for large regions ahead of time which comes in handy when heading off the grid especially in the mountains.

We used this app for traveling and hiking all throughout South America and it was very accurate and saved us multiple times.  

With Maps.me we never get lost, even in the most remote places

Clothing

When it comes to clothing, we usually bring the bare necessities needed that can fit into one duffel bag. We try not to overpack because having more bags just makes it harder to access things.  

What To Pack For Tops

  • Simple Shirts. I usually bring a few basic shirts that feel cozy for long drives and that I can re-wear if needed. Even if I pack a couple of cute outfits for photos or going out to eat, I rarely end up wearing them.
  • Thermal Shirts. For colder places and nighttime, I like to pack one or two thermal shirts that I can throw over my t-shirt. As soon as the night temperatures start dropping, you’ll be looking for something to keep you warm.
  • Rainjacket. In case it gets chilly at night or the weather turns for worse.

What To Pack For Bottoms

  • Shorts. For the daytime, I bring along a couple of active shorts and a pair of jean shorts. We like to do a lot of hiking and quick-dry shorts are perfect for outdoor activities.
  • Leggings. Along with hiking shorts, I usually pack a few leggings. My favorite brand for leggings is Nike because their leggings last a lot longer than other brands and don’t stretch out in weird places. I love the mid-rise Nike One Luxe legging that comes in a simple style, is made of 50% recycled materials, and fits the body shape well.
  • Extra Underwear. Because it’s the one thing that you don’t want to run out of.

What To Bring For Walking

  • Hiking Sneakers. Merrell Mix Master 3 are my favorite sneakers that are very versatile and can be used for walking, hiking, or hanging out. I love these sneakers because they don’t look very bulky and can be worn with anything. Merrell Mix Master 3 hiking shoes are very light and have a slip-resistant sole which is great for heading outdoors and doing day hikes.
  • Socks. I personally love Merino wool socks because they keep your feet from getting sweaty and provide a comfortable cushion for all-day wear.
  • Sandals. A pair of sandals are the perfect road trip shoes because you can put them on or take them off within seconds.

Pajamas

You can call me fancy, but on road trips, I do bring along a set of pajamas to change into at night. The ritual of changing into pajamas helps me feel more ready for a good night’s sleep.

Cozy mornings in our Promaster campervan

Emergencies

During a road trip, you’ll be miles away from home so it’s best to prepare for any emergencies that might happen.

Roadside Tool Kit

We always keep an emergency roadside tool kit in our car which comes in handy if our car breaks down far away from home and we can’t reach roadside assistance to town us back. This has happened to us a couple of times and in each case having a roadside tool kit has been a lifesaver.

Emergency car tool kit

First Aid Kit

A first aid kit is essential for any trip whether you’re going on a two-week-long road trip or a two-day trip to the mountains. This emergency kit from REI is very small and light so you can store it easily in a backpack or a duffel bag.

Adventure-Medical-Kits-Ultralight

Ultralight medical kit

Ibuprofen

Most emergency kits come with basic anti-inflammatory drugs to help with soreness and aches. If not, pack Advil just in case.

Portable Charger

For our long term trips I always pack a portable charger and make sure it’s fully charged the night before. If you phone starts running low on battery and you can’t charge it in the car, a portable charger works just as great.

Portable-Phone-Charger

Anker portable charger on Amazon

Lighter

In case you need to make an emergency fire.

Off the grid in Yosemite National Park

Entertainment

While going on a road trip is a cheap and flexible way to travel, it does limit your entertainment options especially if you plan to sleep in your car at night. We usually bring a few simple entertainment options that don’t draw too much attention.  

Netflix

Watching a movie or a show is a great way to unwind at the end of the day and with Netflix, you can download shows ahead of time on your phone, tablet, or laptop to watch them later without needing WiFi.

Headphones

Don’t forget to bring a pair of headphones for listening to music or watching Netflix.

Kindle

I love reading books during road trips. A good book can draw me into the story and keep me entertained for hours. With Kindle you can get instant download which is especially helpful if you’re like me and put off getting a new book until the last minute.

Here are some of my favorite books that I’ve read recently:

Games

For entertainment you can also bring along fun games that you can easily play in small spaces like Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza.

We love to bring our dog on road trips with us

Pets

While many people travel with their dogs, we have brought both our dog AND our cat with us on numerous trips. You can read more about traveling with a cat in our detailed post here.

In this section, we’ll cover some road trip essentials if you plan to bring your pet.

Food

Before heading out on a trip make sure that you have enough of your pet’s favorite food. Your pet’s stomach might get upset from being in the car for long periods of time so it’s best to keep them on the same diet that they’re used to.

Collapsible Bowl

I use this collapsible bowl for my dog every day whether that is going on a road trip, heading on a hike, to the park, or a restaurant. This bowl collapses into a smaller size that’s easy to keep in a bag and bring along everywhere.

Collapsible dog bowl

Walking Harness

Your pup will be exposed to many new things on a road trip and that can make them feel very excited. Having a walking harness can help keep your dog close to you and improve walking outdoors.

We use the 2 Hounds No Pull dog harness that comes with two connection points for a leash. With this harness it’s easy to train your dog to walk right next to you and not pull.

Dog Treats

Bring a few dog treats or bones to keep your pup entertained while driving or hanging out in the car at night.

Poop Bags

Make sure to pack extra poop bags when heading out on a longer trip. These baggies by Doggie Do Good are biodegradable and Earth Friendly. Unlike other plastic bags they are made of materials that break down in just 90 days.

Biodegradable doggie bags


We hope this post has helped you prepare for your upcoming road trip! Here are a few other articles that you may like:

Interested in how I capture photos on my trips? Here is my suggested camera gear that I use to create my images:

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