Road trips are one of the best ways to explore new areas. Unlike when you fly, you can pull over whenever you see something interesting or if you need a break. You can also add much more to your packing list for a road trip than you can when you fly, which makes it a convenient way to travel.
From driving around the island of Hawaii to going on an Olympic Peninsula road trip in Washington, I’ve been on dozens of road trips over the years. I love this form of travel, which is why I continue to plan new road trips year after year.
I’ve learned what all the road trip must-haves are and compiled this post to share my experience. From what to know before you head out to knowing what essential things to pack on a road trip, this road trip packing list will help you prepare for your trip!
Helpful Tips for a Road Trip
Here are a few road trip tips to keep in mind while you’re planning your trip.
Plan Your Stops Ahead of Time
I’m all for winging it sometimes. But on long road trips, I want to know where I’ll be spending the night every night. I discovered Roadtrippers about a year ago and love this for planning. You can add in all the places you have in mind for stopping to see the distance between them.
I used this app constantly when I was planning my Yellowstone road trip from Seattle. I then switch to the app when I’m on the road. It even calculates how long the trip will take you in total and how much they estimate gas will be. This is one of my road trip necessities to help save money.
Need help planning out your road trip? I’ve been using Roadtrippers for years to see exactly how long it’ll take from one point to the next and also to find new places to add to my itinerary!
Get Your Car Ready
While you can’t prevent breakdowns during your trip, you can try to prevent them by making sure your car is ready first. This means filling up the wiper fluid, check your oil levels, filling your tires with air, and anything else that you might have been putting off.
You should also know how to change a spare tire and have an emergency road kit in your car. These are all essential to add to your packing list for a road trip.
On that note, if you have kids you’ll want to make sure everything is ready for them. Knowing how to travel with a car seat correctly is important to make sure they stay safe.
I’ve been using Spotify for years and love the wide variety of music and podcasts they have for a small fee each month. Before you leave, make a few different playlists and download them to your phone so you don’t have to worry about using up data or in places you don’t have service.
You can also get creative and make your own road trip playlist for your journey. That way you’ll be guaranteed to love every song that comes on. I consider this another road trip necessity, as there are likely parts you drive to that won’t have service to connect to the radio.
I’ve also recently gotten into podcasts, and they have almost every topic you can imagine on Spotify. What better time to educate yourself on a topic than when you’re stuck in the car? When I was on a road trip to see Yellowstone in a day, I loved having this available.
Know Where the Gas Stations Are
When you’re driving through big towns, you’ll have no problem finding gas stations. Once you get out on the wide-open road, gas options will be few and far between. When I did my Big Sur road trip, it was especially important to know where the gas stations were, as they were rare.
I love using Gas Buddy to not only see where the nearest gas stations are but also which ones are the cheapest. Make sure to download this app before you leave as part of your road trip packing list checklist.
Go With the Flow
Many times when you plan a road trip, the trip doesn’t go 100% according to schedule. For example, when doing a long drive like a Seattle to San Diego drive, you can’t expect to always stay on schedule each day.
There will be traffic or roads might be closed that you were going to take. Try not to get stressed and think of it as a way to explore an area you wouldn’t have seen before.
For example, I found out after the fact that one of the most important things to know when visiting Yellowstone is to go early. However, when I was stuck in the middle of a traffic jam once I was there, I couldn’t do anything but breathe and wait for it to clear.
Know Where Your Manual and Insurance Are
While we’re on the topic, you should also know where your car manual is whether you’re renting a car or using your own. That way you can quickly look up the issue you’re having. You should also know where your car insurance is in case of an accident. I go on many road trips from Seattle so always make sure these are ready to go just in case.
Have a Checklist
I use Evernote for everything – writing notes when I plan my trips, including helpful links, and even uploading pictures or screenshots. It syncs from the app on my phone to my computer so I can easily edit the documents back and forth.
Write down everything you need to do or pack on here. You can then check each task off as you get it done to help you plan a road trip. The road trip essentials list below will help you with just that!
Sample Packing List for a Road Trip
You can always pick up anything you forget on the road. But you’ll save time and stress to have these items in advance.
Here’s a quick road trip packing list checklist you can copy:
- emergency roadside kit
- water jug
- car phone charger
- paper map
- water bottle
- coffee mug
- hand sanitizer
- polarized sunglasses
- rain jacket
- small backpack
Emergency roadside kit
While you hopefully won’t ever have an emergency, one of the most helpful things to put on your packing list for a road trip is an emergency roadside kit. You never know when something might happen, so you’ll want to be prepared. This kit should include jumper cables and a flashlight in case your car dies at night.
Water jug for overheating
One item many people may not think about putting on their cross-country road trip packing list is a water jug. If you’re driving for a while or have an older vehicle, your car may overheat. There’s nothing easier than throwing a water jug in the back of your vehicle just in case you need it.
When there’s a delay in your trip, you’ll be glad you have a book to entertain you. For example, during my one day in Yellowstone, we got stuck for almost 45 minutes in traffic trying to exit the park at night. I wished that I had a book or some type of entertainment when I realized we would be at a standstill for a while.
While there’s nothing like the feel of an actual book in your hand, I don’t travel anywhere without my Kindle. I can download multiple books on here in advance so I can still read even if I don’t have service. It’s so small that you can easily tuck it in your day pack.
Road trips almost always have long stretches where you or the people in your car might start to get bored. That’s why it’s important to have travel games for kids if you have young ones in the car.
If you don’t have much space, you can also get some ideas online for games that don’t need much equipment. This is a lifesaver to put on your packing list for a road trip with kids.
Car phone charger
One of the most essential things to pack on a road trip in this day and age is a car phone charger. You want to have enough battery left on your phone for getting directions or taking pictures. I like this one because it’s small and has two USB ports so multiple people can charge their phones.
Technology is great, but you can’t always rely on it. Service will cut out in the middle of using your GPS, which is why you should have a paper map that won’t fail you. Mark your general route on there so you have an idea where you are if you get lost.
While it takes up a bit more room, you could also have an atlas with you if you want to see more detailed images and routes.
One of the other important things to bring on a road trip is a camera. Being able to take pictures whenever you want is part of the reason to drive. The Canon PowerShot is an affordable choice if you want a point-and-shoot camera. (Price compare on Amazon and B&H Photo Video.)
Reusable water bottle
One of my road trip must haves is a refillable water bottle, and I take my Hydro Flask with me everywhere I go. You can easily get dehydrated from traveling and eating salty snacks, so fill up your water bottle whenever you get a chance.
This also saves you money and saves the environment so you don’t have to buy plastic water bottles during your entire trip, so try to remember this as one of the things to take on a road trip.
Reusable coffee mug
A road trip essential I’m trying to remember to pack more for my travels is a reusable coffee mug. I need a cup of coffee every morning, but all those paper cups the coffee shops give you can really add up. I like the Contigo brand because they seal well and stay hot for a long time.
A cooler is an item I’ve put on my road trip packing list for years to keep drinks and food cold. When I drove across the country in the middle of summer (and pregnant!), nothing gave me more relief on some of those blistering summer days than to grab a cold drink. You can buy ice at the gas station each morning to replenish it if needed.
If you have room, I recommend bringing a larger cooler to store everything you might need. Otherwise, a smaller cooler will still do the trick. This is one of the best things to pack on a road trip that’s longer.
Road trip snacks are essential to put on your packing list for a road trip. You’ll save both money and time when you have snacks ready to go.
Here are some of my road trip essential snacks:
- Trail mix
- Protein bars
- KIND bars
- Fruit (cut up before you leave or at night in the hotel)
- Hard-boiled eggs (peel before you leave for a quick breakfast)
- Dark chocolate (for a healthy-ish treat)
A simple item to throw in your bag is a few garbage bags. These make it quick and easy to clean out the car at the end of the day so junk doesn’t start piling up. This is also helpful to have if you pull off for a picnic and the area doesn’t have a trash can nearby.
I always have hand sanitizer when I travel and especially on a road trip. You never know when that gas station you desperately need to stop to go to the bathroom is out of soap. Keep this in your glove box so it’s easily accessible.
I never thought to bring a headlamp until I was making my cross-country road trip packing list. We had some long days on the road and I realized this would make it much easier to find what we needed out of our bags when it got dark at night.
A towel is a great item to put on your packing list for a road trip. You might get wet or muddy unexpectedly, and you won’t have to worry about bringing that into your car. A quick-drying towel will clean you up and dry quickly. So you don’t have to deal with a soggy towel in the car.
You should always have a lightweight rain jacket on hand in case of a sudden rainstorm. Even the places that hardly get rain can suddenly dump, and you don’t want to be stuck in your car. A rain jacket lets you continue to explore the area.
Sunglasses seem like a simple item you’d always include. Yet I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t check if I had them and went on a very sunny drive without them. I recommend getting polarized sunglasses to best protect your eyes.
Extra change of clothes
Have a bag that’s easily accessible with an extra change of clothes and shoes. This makes it easier to do random exploration on your road trip. Such as checking out a hike or the beach. If you’re bringing kids on your trip, this is even more important so they can have fun without you worrying about them being dirty for the rest of the drive.
I love having a small backpack with me so I can randomly stop and get out of the car when I want. Whether I see a hike I want to go on or want to get out for lunch, I always keep this in the front with me. Some items I put in there are my wallet, camera, snacks, a water bottle, and hand sanitizer.
A blanket is multi-functional, so you should always put this on your road trip packing list. For example, you can take this out if it gets cold at night when you’re outside. The person who isn’t driving can also use this as a pillow so they can take a quick nap. Having an impromptu picnic is easier when you have a blanket to sit on.
You should now have plenty of ideas to put on your packing list for a road trip! You can always stop and buy most items if you forget them. But having a road trip packing list checklist in advance makes your trip that much easier.