Thinking about a road trip now or in the future?
I asked road trip veteran Carolyn B. Heller to compile the perfect road trip packing list. (If you’re new to road tripping, Carolyn’s Beginner’s Guide to Planning an Extraordinary Road Trip is a fantastic resource.)
What Kind of Road Trip Are You Planning?
Before you start packing for your road trip, think about where you’re headed, the kind of travel you’re planning, and when you’ll be going. Will you be stopping primarily in cities or small towns, going to the mountains, or driving along the coast? How about hiking, camping, swimming, or diving into other outdoor adventures? Will the weather be hot, cold, or in between?
Decide what kind of clothing and gear you need based on the activities you’ll be doing. It’s always smart to choose clothes that are comfortable and easy to wash and to add layers that let you adapt to varying weather conditions.
One advantage of road tripping is that you normally have a little more space than when you travel by air, so you can bring an extra jacket or a bathing suit, just in case.
Make a Personal Packing List
I keep a checklist for different types of travel, from international adventures to shorter trips close to home, so I can easily remember the gear I need for each type of trip. My lists are simple Word documents, but you can try a packing app like PackPoint or Packing List Checklist.
Parents: even young children can help with their own packing. I started making simple packing lists for my twin daughters from the time they were toddlers. My kids loved taking charge of their own gear, with less and less assistance as they grew older. Of course, I periodically added or substituted items, replacing ripped leggings or adding a warmer layer. They each had a small daypack where they could keep snacks, books, and their favorite stuffed animal as well.
Essentials For a Road Trip
Clothing and Shoes
Choose comfortable, washable clothing for whatever weather you expect to encounter, including layers to accommodate changing temperatures. Make sure your shoes are comfy, too.
While you’re driving, wear sneakers or other shoes that are secure on your feet. Flip flops, slippers, or any footwear without an attached heel could slip off and cause your foot to slide from the pedals.
Always pack a rain jacket, and if you’ll be outdoors in really wet weather, consider bringing rain pants and boots. I live in western Canada’s coastal rainforest climate, so even in our relatively dry summers, I always carry a lightweight jacket and often, a small collapsible umbrella.
If you’re traveling in winter or in a colder climate, pack sweaters or fleece, jackets, hats, gloves, and boots. Long underwear provides a lot of extra warmth for relatively little weight, as does a buff or neck gaiter. Remember that it can be much cooler in the mountains than at lower elevations, even in summer, so be prepared. (Need some cold-weather advice? Use this Winter Packing List and you’ll Never Be Cold Again.)
Bring sunglasses and a sun visor or cap to protect your head and face from the sun. Don’t forget to include and use sunscreen.
Food and Food-Related Supplies
Road Trip Snacks
Dried fruit, nuts, protein bars or other snack bars, hard cheeses, nut or seed butters, and crackers all make good road trip snacks. I often bring packets of instant hot cereal for a quick breakfast, along with tea or coffee-making supplies. Look for fresh fruit and vegetables like apples or carrots that don’t get crushed easily.
Water and Refillable Water Bottles
You never want to run out of drinking water on a road trip. Bring water bottles, and also put a jug or two of extra water in your car, particularly if you’re driving through a remote area. I carry at least a gallon of water in my car, in addition to what’s in every passenger’s water bottle.
A Cooler with Ice Packs
if you’re not planning to camp or cookout, you’ll still want a small cooler (Don’t forget the ice packs, they’re much easier than worrying about bags of ice throughout the trip.) Keep it within reach in the car to store snacks and anything you might want to eat during the day that needs to stay cool. Cheese? Fresh fruit? Juice boxes? Pop it in the cooler.
Paper Towels or Reusable Cloths
A roll of paper towels or a few reusable cloths to wipe up spills, clean the mud off your boots, and double as napkins.
Plates, Mugs, and Cutlery
You’ll want reusable cutlery and reusable or paper plates for on-the-road picnics. Sealable containers or small plastic bags are useful for storing snacks or leftovers. Bring a travel mug to avoid the waste of disposable cups.
Corkscrew and/or Bottle Opener
Matches or a Lighter
If you’re stopping anywhere where you’ll build a campfire, remember to bring matches or a lighter.
This essential gets its own category because you don’t want to be without it. Have it handy when you’re hiking or camping, and keep a roll in the car. How many roadside rest stops have I made where there was no toilet paper? A lot.
Slip your TP into a plastic bag or something that’s waterproof. How many times have I dropped my roll of toilet paper? A lot.
If you’re thinking about documenting your adventure, a laptop will be easier to wax poetic on than your phone.
Even if you have a light on your phone, a small flashlight will be invaluable. Also consider a headlamp or other hands-free light is ideal for road trips, especially when you’re camping or when you have to find or repair something in your car.
Keep your cell phone handy and make sure it’s charged.
Decide what type of electronics you might want to entertain the kids or your other passengers. Download audiobooks or assemble a road-trip playlist.
Put together a road trip first aid kit that includes:
- any prescription medication you take.
- hand sanitizer
- antibiotic ointment
- aspirin or other pain reliever
- insect repellent and something to soothe insect bites
- motion sickness medication and/or acupressure wrist bands, like “Sea Bands.”
For the Car
Your Car’s Instruction Manual
Make sure you have the instruction manual, so you can decode any warning light that might flash on. While you can often access manuals online, don’t count on it, since cars seem to break down when you’re out of cell phone range.
Car Repair Tools and Supplies
Bring jumper cables, a spare tire and jack, extra windshield washer fluid, and motor oil.
An Extra Car Key
Because you don’t want to lose your only key or lock it inside the car. Don’t carry the extra key in the same place where you keep the regular key.
Going camping or planning to swim at the ocean, lake, or pool en route? Toss beach towels in the car. They can double as picnic blankets. Even if you’re planning to stay in hotels or other indoor accommodations, a small camp towel can be handy for drying yourself or your gear.
Blankets or Sleeping Bags
I always bring blankets or sleeping bags on a road trip, even if we’re not camping. If you got stranded and had to sleep in your car, you’d want to be able to stay warm. The “blanket” can be a large beach towel, or you can repurpose a picnic blanket.
Do you need hiking boots, poles, and daypacks? Bathing suits, snorkeling gear, or sport sandals? Think about the activities you’ll do on your road trip, and incorporate the gear you’ll need.
If you’ll be hiking or camping in areas where you might encounter bears, research whether to carry bear spray – and learn how to use it. Also understand how to store any food, toiletries, or other items to protect them from bears and other creatures.
For campers, here’s a list of basic gear, beyond items I’ve suggested for all road trippers:
- sleeping bag
- sleeping pad
- pillow (optional but nice to have)
- folding camp chairs
- cooking equipment: pots and pans, cooking utensils, cutting board, knife, coffee/tea-making supplies
- biodegradable soap
Ready? Load up your car, and hit the road.
Carolyn B. Heller is a Vancouver (Canada)-based travel writer and author of the road trip guide, Moon Vancouver & Canadian Rockies Road Trip. She’s also written two other Canada travel guides and contributed to more than 50 other travel titles for Lonely Planet, Moon, Fodor’s, Forbes Travel Guide, and other publishers. She writes about road trips, food and drink, art and culture, and offbeat experiences.
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