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Road Trip Essentials For The Perfect Road Trip

Road Trip Essentials For The Perfect Road Trip

Having the right road trip essentials is the first step to having a good time when traveling.

I love a good road trip, and for each and everyone I take, I make sure to be prepared with all the road trip essentials.

Summer is the best time of year for a road trip. This is as much a part of summer as backyard BBQs and days spent at the beach, a tradition for many in the USA and Canada, and beyond.

While short road trips hardly require a road trip checklist, a long road trip needs more careful planning.

I know from experience that there is always something you may forget, but if you write down a road trip packing list, you can check it in order to make sure you have everything you need. I have created a cheat sheet for all the things you will need to take with you.

So, whether you have been planning for months or yours is a last-minute road trip, and no matter whether you are going for a day or a multi-day trip, before pulling out of the driveway, make sure to have all the must-haves you need for your road trip and double-check out my ultimate road trip packing list!

Road Trip Packing List Essentials

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A valid driver’s license

Sounds obvious, right? Well, it is not. This is one of the essentials you are more likely to forget on most trips. You just take it for granted that your license is valid, and then something happens to make you realize that it isn’t – right when it will be too late.

My sister has recently been to Vegas with her husband. She was meant to rent a car, except when she pulled out her license she realized it had expired more than a year ago. In fact, she had been driving her car around Vegas on an expired license for a long time! Good thing her husband could drive the car, but the minute she got home she had to go to renew her license.


All smartphones now come with built-in GPS systems, which makes traveling much easier. There are a lot of mobile apps which have made road trips much easier these days – for starters, Google Maps comes to mind. As a driver, however, few apps are more useful these days than Waze. This really is one of the best apps for a smooth trip!

There are a variety of features that will make your life easier– it alerts you to the presence of cheap gas, speed traps, traffic jams and accidents, and other obstacles that will slow the trip to a grinding halt. It is one of my go-to apps any time I plan a day out of a major city!

Another thing I love about Waze is that it alerts me when I am going above the speed limit – I admit to having a bit of a lead foot. Doing this will prevent you from falling victim to that laser trap you never see coming. Easy to see that this is one of the most basic road trip necessities.

A paper map

I know; I have just talked about all the wonderful apps that help you get around while on a road trip. But one of the most basic things you should be packing for a road trip is actually a paper map. You may be traveling to places where there is no phone signal and realize you don’t know the route. Trust me: having an actual map you can pull out to understand where you should go will help out a lot!

Rental car insurance

Number one on the list of road trip essentials would have to be a car, right? While most people who go on road trips own their own cars, there is a rising number of city dwellers who have given up on them to make a go at living an automobile-free life. They are able to get 99% of tasks done on foot, by bicycle, or by using public transportation – which is great for the environment.

I do own a car at home, but as I live on an island and I have to fly everywhere, I typically end up renting a car whenever I travel outside of Sardinia. Indeed, there is still that 1% of activities that requires a car – in this instance, it’s tough to go on a road trip without one.

To fill this gap in your life, if you don’t own a car, you will have to hit up a local rental car agency before your trip and hire a sedan or whatever vehicle meets your needs. However, many tragically choose to forego rental car insurance in a bid to save money. Wrong! If there is one item you can’t go without, that has to be rental car insurance.

All it takes is one fender bender to turn a fun holiday into a financial nightmare, so it is definitely better to pay this cost upfront to avoid shelling out a lot later. It is the most basic of road trip necessities, really.

Rather than go with the package offered by the rental car provider, I recommend going with a third-party company like Bonzah. These firms are often able to offer much better rates and provide great help in getting the best deal possible for those of us who have to work hard to earn money. So remember: rental car insurance is one of the most important essentials you need for a road trip.

Check your car before you hit the road

Don’t take it for granted that your car is ready to go. One of the most important road trip essentials is to make sure your car is ready for the trip. Things to check are:

  • Oil
  • Water level
  • Tires and pressure
  • Brakes 

You should be doing the same if you have a car rental. And in that case, you also want to double-check the car for small damages, scratches and whatnot. 

Road trip packing list
Nobody wants to find themselves in the middle of the desert with no cash

Spare cash

I admit I regularly forget to take cash out. I live in a city, and most of the time I pay with my bank card – it is just so easy. But there are occasions where cards are not accepted, where there are no ATMs available, and where simple old cash is needed for whatever reason. Make sure to take some spare cash on your road trip – if anything, you will use it at the gas station. Because you never know.

GOOD TO KNOW: Needless to say, you should make sure to take your credit card with you. You will need it as a deposit at any hotel you may visit, to rent a car and for any emergency.

A spare tire/jack

BANGphttphttphtt – this is a sound all drivers dread, as it means they now have a flat tire. It happened to me a few times when driving around on Route 66 and other places. Try as you might, there’s no way you can see a shard of glass or a nail on the surface of the road driving at full speed, so it’s important to be prepared to deal with an affected tire as soon as it is compromised. There are a few items that you should be packing, then.

Many motorists have a jack and a donut tire in the back of their car, as well as jumper cables, but the majority would have no idea how to exchange their flat for the one in their trunk if they were put in that position. One of the basic things you need to know before embarking on a road trip is how to change a flat tire, so make sure to learn how to do this before hitting the road.

If the time of your trip is approaching soon, it may be a good idea to sign up for roadside assistance through an organization like the American Automobile Association. I have realized before that attempting to learn by myself on the side of the road can put me at risk for serious injury.

TIP: You should also bring some car fluids – things such as oil and (if you are traveling during the winter) anti-freeze and a scraper.

road trip packing list
Don’t be left in the middle of nowhere with no gasoline – carry a tank!

And some spare gasoline

When it comes to Europe, cities are so close one to the other that it really is impossible to get out of gas (though it has happened to me!) when road-tripping. But places like North America or Southern Africa are not quite the same, and even though you may fill up right before leaving, it is not uncommon to get stuck on the side of the road on an empty tank. Make sure to carry a tank of gasoline, to be on the safe side.

A cooler filled with drinks and road trip snacks

Some road trips may be short in distance, but most involve at least one day spent exclusively on the highway before you get to your destination. On days where miles need to be made up, having a leak-proof, soft-sided cooler such as this one packed to the brim with drinks and your snack of choice is definitely a must, as it will help keep stops to a minimum and you can quickly eat on the go.

Besides, a cooler has to be on any road trip packing list as it will also keep a happy vibe going inside the car, as thirst and hunger pangs will be kept at bay by the supplies at hand whenever the distances between convenience stores are too long. Just be sure to buy plenty of ice beforehand and keep refreshing it as it melts.

Just make sure to stop at a good grocery store before heading out to fill up your favorite snack and anything else you may need for your road trip.

A first-aid kit

It’s not a pleasant subject to think about, but stuff can go wrong on the road. From minor incidents involving a scraped knee after an unfortunate tumble in the parking lot of a roadside restaurant to the times when you may witness a motor vehicle accident where life-threatening injuries occur as it happened to me when I was in Los Angeles, it is vitally important to have a first aid kit at the ready.

There are some good ready-made kits such as this. Alternatively, you can make your own. A good emergency kit should contain the following items:

Note this is a partial list. Typically, as you will put together your kit, you may find you’ll need other supplies and include them as well. Having a packing list helps you out in this sense.

Over-the-counter medications

One of my favorite road trip tips is to carry a small pharmacy with you. Your friends may make fun of you for doing this (mine certainly do) but they will quickly change their mind when, after many hours on the road, they get a headache, and you pull out your ibuprofen or paracetamol tablets. These medications are also good to fight a fever too. 

Other medications you may want to take with you are:

  • Antihistamine, like Benadryl or Claritin, just in case you get hay fever.
  • Imodium.
  • A mild laxative.
  • Melatonin, in case you need some help falling asleep.
  • Cold-relief.
  • Antibiotic cream to put on scratches and wounds.
  • Hydration tablets.
road trip essentials
A daypack has to be included in the list of things you take with you – add a charger and your favorite snack to it!

A day bag

Whenever you go on a road trip, whether short or long, make sure to carry a small day pack such as this with you and put in it what you think are some road trip essentials for the day – stuff such as lip balm, sunscreen, a sweater (it may get cold at night!), a snack in case you get hungry, a bottle of water and your sunglasses. You should also add a power bank – because the last thing you want is for your smartphone to die out in the middle of nowhere. 

TIP: Most day bags nowadays come with a rain cover. If yours doesn’t, make sure to also get a good waterproof bag cover. In case of rain, it will help keep your stuff dry. This is a good one.

Your favorite tunes

Music is one of the basic road trip necessities. Hitting the open road in search of uncharted territory is a big part of the allure of road trips, but let’s be real here – the further you may get from the big city, the faster music on local radio stations gets, well, interesting.

Try and drive on the Israeli highway on Shabbat, and the music is nothing short of horrible. The same goes for the popular music played in the Andes of Peru. It may be endearing in an odd way at first, but then you’ll get sick of it in a hurry if you don’t have some auxiliary tunes to resort to when passing through a musical desert. Make sure to bring a playlist of your favorite tunes.

I typically create a playlist suited to the trip on which I am going, upload it to my iPhone, and I’ll be ready to roll. I always make sure to have the right cables to plug into my car stereo (that is, if it doesn’t have Bluetooth connectivity), and I’ll have the perfect go-to when local radio starts to stink up the joint.

TIP: You may also want to bring along some music speakers because you won’t be listening to music only while in the car, are you? These are some good ones. 

A tablet filled with movies and games

I do not have children that I should keep entertained, but if you do and if they join your trips, this tip will come in handy. Sure enough, kids get bored quickly. This leads to restlessness which can make the trip a difficult one. One of the things to have, then, is a tablet that is loaded with movies and games. It helps to leave any concerns about the kids being bored during a car ride. Make sure to place one in your bags when packing and then have them within easy reach on the car seat.

With their favorite cartoons and mobile games available to keep them occupied at any time, if the scenery gets dull or the license plate game stops being an entertaining diversion, including a tablet in the road trip packing list will provide essential help for those long drives during a family road trip.

I also recommend taking a deck of cards with you, just in case you experience delays, roadblocks etc – this will keep the adults in the group entertained.

GOOD TO KNOW: A great alternative to tablets that you may want to include among your essentials is audiobooks. Just in case you want to have a more sophisticated experience!

road trip essentials
A tent is a must-have if you plan to only visit nature sites

Camping gear

To many, the ultimate road trip will involve camping. So you need to bring some essential items with you such as:

  • A tent – I recommend getting one that fits twice the amount of people that should sleep there. So, if you are alone, buy a tent that fits two so that you can put it inside your backpack. Get one that is water-resistant.
  • A sleeping bag – I prefer rectangular ones that open all the way so that if the weather is warm, you can use them as a blanket. Ideally, you should get one that fits all seasons. 
  • A sleeping mat – this not only will make you sleep more comfortably, but it will also insulate you from the ground, which is especially important in humid climates. 
  • A stove – I don’t expect you to do much cooking, but you will be warming up water to make coffee at some point!
  • A lighter and cookware, including the necessary cutlery.
  • Gas to light the stove.
  • A travel pillow – never was an item so underrated! I only know too well because I always forget it, and I end up having to roll up my jacket or sweater to work as a pillow, and it never is the same thing. A pillow is an essential item, especially if you are planning on camping. You can get an inflatable one, so you can fill it up as much as you need. This is an excellent one. 
  • A travel mug or a thermos – it’s just about the perfect item for those cold mornings. Here’s a tip on what you can do if you need instant warming when you wake up: prepare your hot drink of choice (coffee or tea) right before going to bed and pour it into your mug. It will be nice and ready when you wake up – it’s what I did when I was road-tripping in Namibia, and it saved me from freezing!

Garbage bags

Believe it or not, garbage bags are one of the most important items to add to your road trip packing list. Think about how many times you go to the beach, pack a sandwich and then realize there is no trash can around and that you have no bags to dispose of any leftovers. Sure enough, you should never abandon any trash around – but I don’t think I need to tell you this. In fact, if you have enough bags, you may want to use them to pick up any trash you may come across!

tour of Namibia
Your packing list must include all the necessary clothes

Battery charger 

A charger is one of the most important road trip items. You will need a portable charger for things such as your smartphone, your tablet and your e-reader, so make sure to take one with you. I recommend this one

Or a car charger

An in-car charger is another good and inexpensive idea to charge your laptop, smartphone and whatever else on the go and while the car is going. Make sure to get a multi-port one so you can charge multiple items in one go. I recommend buying this one

A reusable water bottle

You will want to have a water bottle handy as you drive next to your car seat. The best water bottle – a reusable one that is also way more eco-friendly than single-use bottles – is actually a flask such as this one – it will keep your water cold for hours. And – check this out – you can also use it to keep your coffee hot. That’s right – it will keep liquids at just the perfect temperature. 

Clothes and shoes

Your road trip packing list will be different depending on the season, your destination and how long you will be traveling for, but there are certain items that all road trippers should include in their luggage. Here are some of them:

  • Hiking boots or shoes – for some reason, I always associate road trips with hiking. I am pretty sure at some point you will be so tired of sitting in a car that you will want to climb that mountain, and in that case, you should be prepared! Depending on the hike you intend to do, you will need something more or less sturdy and with ankle support. Either way, get something that is waterproof. 
  • Hiking pants or Freeflex shorts
  • A few T-shirtsI generally prefer cotton ones as they seem to be cooler.
  • A good sweater. Opt for a fleece if traveling in colder climates. 
  • A pajama. I know it sounds funny, but you will really need something comfortable to change into at night! 

A rain jacket

This is an essential item to be included in any road trip checklist. Because you never know it may rain at some point. I recommend packing this Marmot one. It will also protect you from the wind.

countryside in Latvia
A road trip is an excellent way to appreciate countryside

A pair of flip-flops or slippers

No matter how light you plan to pack, carrying a pair of slippers and/or flip-flops among your road trip essentials should really be a no-brainer. You will need flip-flops if you are staying in places with communal bathrooms and showers – you certainly don’t want to walk there barefoot! Just as well slippers are the ultimate item to take. Wear them at night when you walk around the camp and stretch your legs. 

I love these Teva slippers. For flip-flops, you can consider these Reef ones.

A hat

Bringing a hat with you is an absolute must! Travel in the winter, and you will want something that keeps your head nice and warm such as this beanie. If you are scheduled to go in the summer, carry something that protects your head, eyes and face from the sun and heat such as this one.

A quick-drying towel

This is a real lifesaver! You will need it if you decide to jump in the lake/river/sea/pool; it will be useful if you are sleeping in campsites or even in hostels where towels are not provided to guests. This is a good one.

A toiletry bag

Make sure you get a toiletry bag like this, which has a hook so you can hang it wherever you are, including in the shower. 

Wet wipes

This is another item that really has to be included in your road trip packing list. Whether you run out of hand sanitizer or toilet paper or have no access to a shower but need to freshen up, they really come in handy. You can get them here.

A flashlight

This is especially useful if you are pitching your tent in the middle of nowhere. Now, the good news is that most phones come with a built-in torch, but you will want a headlamp for comfort – it means you will be able to go around hands-free if needed! This is a good one.

A book

Chances are you’ll fall asleep before you even lay down, but if you are anything like me, you will want the reassurance of having a book to read just in case you can’t. 

Miscellaneous items

Here is a list of other items you should consider taking with you:

  • Bug spray – depending on where you travel, you will need either mosquito repellent or something a bit more generic.
  • Duct tape – for some reason, it always comes in handy.
  • Batteries – in case your torch runs out of battery.
  • A roll or two of toilet paper – it is really handy in case you need to make a bush stop.
  • Hand sanitizer.
  • Chapstick – if you are out in the sun, wind, or cold, your lips will get terribly dry. I am a fan of Burt’s Bee.
  • Kleenex.
  • Sunscreen – make sure to get something with a high protection factor. 
Uyuni Salt Flats
Checking your car before a road trip is important!

Further Tips For Your Road Trip

How To Organize All Your Road Trip Essentials

As a general rule of thumb, I recommend taking two bags as luggage during your cross-country trip. 

One can be a larger backpack or suitcase for all your clothes and shows, which you can leave in the trunk as you are moving from one place to the other – the size will vary depending on how long you are traveling for. For a longer trip, I recommend the Osprey Ariel AG 65. For shorter getaways, take a carry-on size bag such as this Osprey Porter.

You will then need a smaller bag that you can keep in the car with you for easy access during the day, where you keep things such as your phone, camera, bottle, sunscreen etc.

The cooler should go in the car with you so that you can access food and drinks if needed. Any other gear such as the tent, stove, cooking sets etc should go in the trunk.

Book your accommodation in advance whenever possible

I know what you are thinking: making advanced accommodation bookings may kill the spontaneity of road trips. You don’t need to plan too far ahead, really. Just make sure to have bookings for your first night, and then plan on the go and check hotels or campsites for availability as you approach your destination for the day so that you don’t end up driving around looking for a place to stay. 

Further Readings

Are you planning a US road trip? You may want to read the following posts for inspiration on places to visit:

What are your favorite road trip essentials that you would add to this list and what are the items you will be bringing on your next road trip?

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