I’ll cut to the chase about road trip essentials – I spend 100+ days each year on the beautiful open road for my “work”, shooting films on our beloved national parks, forests, and public lands.
I’ve traveled on nearly every interstate in the country, and have done nearly every road trip combination you can imagine. Along the way I’ve tried to perfect the road trip essentials including a great list of what to pack for a road trip.
In this article I’ll detail all of my favorite road trip essentials that you should consider for your next adventure on the open road.
Why Trust Us When It Comes to Road Trip Essentials (Packing List)?
I (along with my brother, Jim) have spent practically my entire adult life out in the national parks and on public lands. That includes an incredible amount of time on the road trying to hone down road trip essentials.
I’ve traveled on nearly every interstate in the country and have been to 47 states (& counting). Over the years I’ve become an expert on road trip planning and efficiency.
Road Trip Essentials – Packing List
1. Car Chargers
Link: USB Car Adapter
A dead phone equals a dead road trip these days which is why packing a car charger (or 6) is a top road trip essential to pack.
If you’ve got a fancy newer model car or a rental car then you’ll likely have a USB or even USB-C outlet built-in. Otherwise you’ll need a USB car adapter for your car like this one.
When it comes to the essentials you can forget flat tires or car troubles, if there’s one thing above all else you want to avoid on a road trip – it’s hanger.
I’m lucky enough to live near a Trader Joe’s where I do nearly all my road trip snack shopping but the basics can be found at most grocery stores. Personally I tend toward the healthier side but with some guilty pleasures.
10 Essential Road Trip Snacks
- Mixed Nuts
- Dried Fruits
- Fresh Fruit (Apples, bananas, avocados, oranges)
- *Fresh Veggies (carrots, radishes)
- Potato Chips
- *Cheese (individually packaged is best)
- Jerky (I recommend this one)
- Mochi Nuggets
- Sour Gummy Worms (I know…)
* requires cooler
- Link: Chapstick
I don’t know what about road trips causes this phenomenon but it happens every time, the dreaded crusty, dried lips. Don’t be like me every single time I head out on the open road for a nice long trip.
Pack some chapstick! I’m not too picky but if you want to go for something earth-friendly then this is a great choice.
4. Physical Map
Call me old-school, but one of my all time favorite road trip essentials is an actual map that you can hold in your hands and write on with a sharpy.
Just about every single time I go on a road trip I bring a physical map, whether it’s just a quicky I printed myself or a fancy weatherproof one like the NatGeo series etc.
You never know when your phone might act up etc and there’s just something about holding a genuine map that completes the road trip aesthetic.
5. Cozy Blanket
A cozy blanket is a must-have for any real road trip. Whether it’s folks in the back or the co-pilot getting some shut-eye, a blanket is a nice touch that brings your home into the car.
If you’re looking to really class-up your travels and go the extra mile to make it more enjoyable (and healthier), I highly recommend a cooler as a road essential.
All of a sudden cold drinks, cut-fruits, cheese, veggies, sandwich meats, spreads like hummus, and more are on the table.
For myself, I like a soft cooler because I can more easily wedge it into a convenient nook and squish it down when not using it. If you’ve got a big enough road trip vehicle with extra space then a hard cooler is even better as it keeps items more secure and colder longer.
7. A/C Inverter
I always find myself needing to plug in a laptop, charge camera batteries, or something that requires (or is best) with a regular A/C power outlet while on a road trip.
Perhaps my methods are a bit dated here but I keep one of these in the back of my car at all times just in case.
8. Jumper Cables
A good set of jumper cables are one of those road trip essentials you hope to never have to use but don’t want to be without.
You can find them a bunch of places these days whether it be a local car parts store or online. Be sure to watch a video or read instructions prior to trying for your first time.
Getting it wrong can be a real jolt to the system!
9. Tire Inflator (for Flat Tires)
- Link: Tire Inflator
This is something that I wish I’d included in my own road trip essentials list many, many years before I did. It is now a really handy tool in my arsenal which I’ve had to use more than once and really saved me in a pinch.
Flat tire inflators are a lifesaver whether you’re out in the middle of nowhere with no options or on the side of the interstate. They’re inexpensive these days, easy to use, and run off of your car’s battery.
It’s also a good idea to know how to change a tire – I’ve had to change my fair share out on the road.
10. Car Battery Jump Starter
- Link: Car Battery Jump Starter
A car battery jump starter is an innovation that has saved many a road trip from certain disaster. Just be sure it’s charged before leaving on your trip and your all set.
Nothing is worse than getting down the trail from a long hike only to realize you left your lights on and now have a dead car batter. Jump starter’s take all the worry out of the equation and make for a handy road trip essential.
11. Offline Google Maps
I do a lot of traveling in places that have very limited cell service as part of my job. To avoid not having navigation capabilities I download offline google maps prior to any road trip so that I can navigate even if I lose service.
Offline maps is a free feature by google and should be done over wifi (so it doesn’t take all day). If you’re going to a specific area then you can download that area’s map or if you’re going through several low-service areas you can download each one.
12. First Aid
- Link: Road Trip First Aid Kit
Packing some bandages and antibiotic ointment is always a good idea when heading out on a road trip. There’s plenty of great kits available online or you can inventory your at-home first aid and take the essentials.
Road Trip First Aid Essentials
- Bandages / Gauze
- Antibiotic Ointment (cuts & scrapes)
- Tourniquet (serious injuries)
- Ibuprofen (inflamation)
- Acetemetophin (headaches)
- Moleskin (blisters)
- Alcohol Wipes
13. Headlamp / Flashlight
Whether or not you’re planning to be out after dark on your road trip, I always like to have a flashlight and headlamp in the car somewhere. You never know where the road might take you!
Headlamps are particularly handy for hiking and setting up camp sites etc late at night or early in the morning. Flashlights are always great and typically more powerful and directional than headlamps.
14. Water Bottle
As an avid hiker I have gotten into the habit of carrying a lightweight water bottle on me. I find that it makes for a great road trip essential as well as a space (and planet) saver.
These days there are plenty of great and inexpensive water bottle brands to choose from both online and in stores.
15. Water / Drinks
Water and or some form of a hydration is an absolute road trip essential (but don’t drink too much!). Whether you’re planning on doing some hiking, cooking at a campsite, or just driving, you’ll need to stay hydrated.
Typically I pack some big jugs of water and use them to fill up my water bottle and for cooking etc.
Even in this day and age there are still places in America that are cash only – I think it’s kind of cool and adds to the adventure of the road trip.
Outdoor recreation sites such as campgrounds are often are cash-only so best to have some on hand. I recommend at least $100 and half of it in smaller, easy to change bills.
If you’re planning on being out for a week or longer then I’d double that amount at least.
17. Comfy Pillows
A key road trip essential that I almost always forget to pack is a comfy pillow. Pillows can be make or break when it comes to getting some decent shut-eye on the road (or just about anywhere).
Depending on how much space you have you can opt for a full-size bed pillow or something more travel sized.
If you’re traveling with more than two people then packing headphones is a really good idea for a road trip. You might love the DJ’s playlist, or you might not.
It’s always good to have options on the road.
19. Road Trip Playlist
If you’ve got the time then creating and downloading your favorite songs for offline use is a great idea for a road trip.
My favorite road trip XM radio channel is “The Bridge” which features 70s soft rock & classics and has been made into a Spotify playlist as well.
20. Podcasts / Audio Books
I’m a big audio book guy but tend to prefer podcasts while on the road. Perhaps it’s the more episodic nature of the podcast where you can tune in to more bite-size pieces of information.
My favorite road trip podcast is “Stuff You Should Know” which has a massive amount of great content, perfect for conversation starters.
21. Shoes / Hiking Boots
Despite being a more obvious road trip packing list item, I have forgotten proper footwear on multiple occasions which can really throw a wrench into plans.
I recall one specific instance arriving at Mount Rainier in the winter and realizing that I was wearing flip flops and had no hiking shoes packed.
Don’t be me – pack the right shoes whether it be sandals for the beach, snow boots for the mountains, or anything in between.
22. Portable USB Battery
- Link: Portable USB Battery
Packing a portable USB battery on a road trip is a game-changer allowing you to take extra phone charges anywhere you want to go. These batteries have become incredibly inexpensive for what they are over the years.
I bring these things every time I hit the road and frequently bring them on trails, into restaurants, and anywhere that I find myself low on battery. They can also charge all sorts of other USB related items as well.
It goes without saying why you need sunglasses on a road trip but it seems no amount of reminding is enough for these.
When you’re on the road the sun has a tendency to always find your eyes in the most inconvenient and annoying ways, especially while driving.
24. Tissues, Napkins, & Wipes
Achoo! If you’re traveling with at least two people odds are that one of you are going to have a use for a tissue (within the first hour) during your road trip.
You can literally never have enough napkins especially if you have any salt snacks or sandwich fixings, etc.
Wipes are a great addition for keeping both the car and it’s occupants clean. Sanitizing wipes are the way to go here.
25. Hand Sanitizer
In these times hand sanitizer is our little omnipresent friend. It’s an absolute road trip essential that you’re sure to use early and often.
Use it for yourself and those around you.
We wrote an article on the 15 Best Road Trip Planning Tools & Apps and Waze was high on that list.
Not only does Waze have a great navigation system (powered by Google) but it also has useful features that allow you to notify others and be notified when there’s something in the road, traffic, police activity, and more.
One of those ones that goes without saying until you realize you forgot a jacket and are in the mountains. It happens to the best of us.
Make sure to check the weather in your destinations and pack accordingly!
- Link: Jetboil
My primary use of the jetboil these days is to get a decent cup of coffee where there are none to be had. I’ve become a bit of a (major) coffee snob over the years and don’t really like settling for that 3 day old cup of gas station brew.
As an alternative to gas station brews, I pack a jetboil. If I need coffee but don’t like the options, I pull over and take a 5 minute stop to brew myself a superior cup.
It’s also great for boiling water for camping uses. Consider it on your road trip packing list!
29. Dry Shampoo
- Link: Dry Shampoo
If you’re anything like me, you probably never leave the house without dry shampoo. As such, no list outlining road trip essentials would be complete without this handy companion.
If you’re new to dry shampoo, here’s the brand I’ve been using for the past 6+ years. It’s inexpensive and effective, which makes it a no-brainer on a road trip!
Yes, my feet are those dreaded ones that everyone immediately comes to the same horrible realization when they are no longer “with sock” in the car. What can I say!
As someone whose feet have been the ire of many road trip companions I highly recommend packing some extra socks, like a lot of them. And changing your socks outside the vehicle, or at least with a window down.
Personally I get car sick when reading books on a road trip but some folks consider these sources of knowledge and entertainment one of their road trip must haves.
If you’re one of those people then don’t forget a good book for the road!
32. Tote Bag
Tote bags are one of those things you never pack enough of on a road trip (at least for me). They are so handy whether it’s containing dirty boots, organizing trip snacks, doing some grocery shopping, using for blankets, etc.
Bring a few empty totes as part of your road trip kit and realize the joy when you find uses for them.
- Link: Reef-safe sunscreen
If you’re someone (like me) that burns easily then a high SPF sunscreen is your friend and one of the road trip must haves. I have become very good at remembering to pack sunscreen on road trips after becoming the dreaded lobster-back one time too many.
If you’re going anywhere near the ocean or a body of water, opt for an eco-friendly and reef-safe sunscreen. The planet thanks you.
34. Caffeine / Pick-me-ups
It’s late in the day (or night) and the eyes start to droop. Pull over! It’s not worth it!
Once you’ve pulled over, if you feel you’re up for continuing on it’s a good idea to indulge in a pick-me-up.
For me that’s where a cup of coffee (or coffee beverage, cold or otherwise) OR my favorite guilty pleasure on road trips comes into play – sour gummy worms.
Link: Sony A7RIII
For most of us out there, smart phones have far eclipsed the quality and ease of use that most other cameras can offer. If you consider yourself a photographer then a professional camera is a road trip must have!
We love the Sony A7RII, A7RIII, & Sony A7RIV.
If you’re traveling with your family or have friends who are up for it, road trip games can be a great social activity to pass the time on the road.
5 Great Road Trip Games
- I Spy
- 20 Questions
- License Plate Game
- Alphabet Game
- Road Trip Scavenger Hunt
Road Trip Packing List Summary (The Essentials)
- Car Chargers
- Physical Map
- Download Google Maps
- A/C Adapter
- Jumper Cables
- Flat Tire Pump
- Car Battery Jumper
- First Aid
- Headlamp / Flashlight
- Road Trip Playlist
- Water / Drinks
- Comfy Pillows
- Shoes / Hiking Boots
- USB Battery
- Tissues & Wipes
- Hand Sanitizer
- Dry Shampoo
- Podcasts / Audiobooks / Comedy Acts
- Tote Bag
- Caffeine / Pick-me-ups
Summary of Road Trip Essentials
That’s a wrap folks! If you enjoyed this article about what to pack for a road trip and road trip essentials then please leave us a comment.
If we left something out that you like then let us know – we’d love to improve our list!
What are your road trip must haves?
Road Trip Essentials Further Reading
- EXPERT GUIDE: 20 EPIC HIKING APPS (For ALL Skill Levels)
- 10+ EPIC National Park Road Trips (+ Stops You’ll Love)
- EXPERT GUIDE: Utah National Parks Road Trip
- 15 BEST Road Trip Planning Tools (+Apps)
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