ROAD TRIP ESSENTIALS: THE ULTIMATE PACKING CHECKLIST
This blog post is sponsored by REI.
You don’t need much for a good road trip – just a car, a few road trip essentials, a stacked playlist, and a thirst for exploration. Yet, packing for a road trip can end up being one of the most stressful parts of your trip if you aren’t organized. To help you hit the road, I’ve put together a checklist of my favorite road trip essentials – simple and useful gear that will help you maximize your time on the road. With this checklist, there’s no need for a tricked out van or a daily game of Tetris, just the necessities for staying safe, saving money (on lodging and food), and having an incredible time. Not sure where you are going yet? Get some road trip destination ideas here!
Start loading up your car with this Road Trip Essentials Packing Checklist.
Don’t Leave Home without These Road Trip Necessities
- A paper map: Hopefully some of your itinerary will take you off the grid and out of cell phone service. For that reason, carry a paper map. A paper map is also better than phone apps for telling the difference between a well-graded a gravel road and a gnarly 4×4 road. My favorite paper maps are the Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlases which detail public lands, camping areas, National Parks and more.
- Headlamp: Whether you’re going to the bathroom in the middle of the night or rummaging around your car, you’ll want a headlamp nearby. The Petzl Tikka Headlamp is a go-to piece of nighttime gear that also gives you the option to use batteries or recharge it with a USB cable.
- Water Jug: In addition to saving money and avoiding plastic bottles, having a water jug with you makes for quick and easy clean up after meals or filling up your water bottle before heading out on a day hike. It’s also a smart thing to have in case you break down or run out of gas. The GSI Outdoors Folding Water Cube holds 20 liters of water and has a convenient tap handle that prevents spilling.
- Water Bottle: Consider an insulated Hydroflask your co-pilot and top road trip essential for keeping coffee and tea hot on sunrise drives, or making sure your water stays cold on hot days. I also like their straw lid which allows you to easily drink one-handed while you drive.
- First-Aid Kit: Stay safe and prepared in case of an emergency by having a car first aid kit that has been personalized to your own medical needs.
- Garmin InReach: I’d argue that the Garmin InReach is a road trip essential if you plan on exploring remote backroads where there is no cell phone service. If you break down somewhere, the Garmin InReach allows you to send custom text messages no matter where you are or to call for medical help if you are in an emergency situation. It also has a GPS and some helpful navigation tools for when the navigation apps on your phone won’t load. My boyfriend Ryan is a Type 1 Diabetic, so when we are in the van or hiking, the Garmin InReach gives me added peace of mind.
- Proof of Insurance and Registration
- Your car operation manual
- Cash: Many campgrounds require self-service registration where cash is the only type of money accepted.
- Spare Tire: And know how to change it!
- Portable Power Bank: I like to bring a portable battery pack, as well as a car charger, that I can use to charge my phone from the road.
- An energetic playlist and pre-downloaded podcasts
I’ve found some of my favorite campsites using a Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlas.
Road Trip Essentials if you’re Camping
- Camp Table: A good camp table can serve as a cooking platform, a dinner table, or a place to play cards. This small GCI Outdoor Camp Table 25 stores flat, so it doesn’t take up much room in your car, and is easy to fold up or assemble.
- Camp Chair: Whether you are enjoying a post-hike beverage or sitting around the campfire, a camp chair is an absolute must! The perfect camp chair is one that is lightweight and packable but still durable, so you can use it anywhere. The REI Camp X Chair takes 2 seconds to set up and costs less than $40.
- Tent: Packing a tent on a road trip is the easiest way to save money on lodging. This 6-person Caddis Rapid Tent sets up in a breeze and has room for you, a friend, and your dog with lots of room to spare. I brought a similar tent to Burning Man and loved that I could stand up inside.
- Sleeping Pad: A comfy sleeping pad is a road trip essential that is key to a good night’s sleep. Without it, you’ll be tempted to splurge on that hotel. The Therm-a-rest Luxury Map Sleeping Pad is self-inflating and offers three inches of loft at an affordable price compared to many other car camping pads.
- Sleeping Bag: If you’re only going to invest in one sleeping bag, I recommend something that is lightweight and warm enough for backpacking. However, backpacking sleeping bags are much more expensive. If you want to go this route, I recommend the REI Joule (women’s) / REI Magma (men’s), which have a great warmth to weight ratio and are good value for the price. If backpacking isn’t your thing or it’s not in your budget, go with something cheaper like the North Face Dolomite 20 Sleeping Bag.
- Camp Pillow: Of course you can bring your pillow from home. You can even shove extra clothes in your sleeping bag stuff sack. But if you want a pillow specific for camping, this Therm-a-rest compressible pillow is awesome for camping or napping in the passenger seat.
- A Poop Kit: A what? Yes, if you’re camping on public land where there is no restroom, you’ll need a poop kit, as well as the necessary knowledge regarding how to Leave No Trace when you go to the bathroom outside. Your poop kit should consist of a shovel to dig a hole, toilet paper, a ziplock baggie to pack our your used toilet paper (YOUR USED TP IS TRASH. DON’T BURY IT OR LEAVE IT BEHIND.), and hand sanitizer. Need a paint a clearer picture? Luckily we’ve got a whole blog post dedicated to the topic of pooping outside.
- Body wipes: No shower, no problem. These body wipes will get you by.
The REI Camp X Chairs are accordion style and come with a bag so you can easily carry them down to watch the sunset.
Road Trip Essentials for Cooking
To get your road trip cooking essentials organized, I recommend you start an outdoor cooking bin. This is where you’ll keep everything you need to cook with. Some things I like to keep in my cooking bin include cutting boards, knives, silverware, paper towels, Tupperware, tongs, a spatula, pots, pans, olive oil, salt, pepper, and basic seasonings. By keeping everything together in a bin, it will make it really easy when it’s time to hit the road. Just grab the bin and go! Here are are the other things to bring on a road trip if you want to save money by cooking.
- Cooler: A cooler will help you step your menu up a notch so you can eat fresh. Here you have a few options. Want a lightweight cooler you can slug down with you to the beach that doesn’t break the bank? Go for REI’s Cool Haul 24 Soft Cooler. Need something that will keep cocktail ice frozen and food cold for days for a large group of people? This XTreme Coleman Cooler is affordable, huge, and will keep your food cold for under $80. The final option I’ll suggest is for those of you who plan to road trip for a long period of time. Dometic makes portable refrigerators that run off your car battery or solar. They don’t need ice (in fact, they can make their own), and are convenient for those who want to stay off the grid for extended periods.
- Camp Stove: A decent camp stove is a game changer for making quality meals while road tripping. I use a similar 2-burner stove to the Coleman Triton 2-burner stove in my van. It’s fuel efficient and easy to fine tune the flame so you don’t scorch your dinner. It runs off small disposable propane canisters, but for those who want to score some environment points, you can get an adapter at Home Depot that will allow you to hook up this stove to a 10-gallon refillable propane tank.
- Cook Set: This complete cookset from GSI Outdoors can feed four hungry campers. It’s a sturdy, packable and fairly lightweight kit that’s also easy to clean as it inevitably gets dirty while traveling. Inside it contains four of each: plates, bowls, insulated mugs, one frying pan, a pot with a lid, and it’s own welded sink for camp cleaning. Plus, the dishware is plastic which means they won’t chip or break.
- Quick-Dry Towel: I have at least 5 quick-dry towels in my van. I use them for drying my body, but where they really come in handy is for drying dishes.
My Camp Chef Stove….and see those quick dry towels hanging in the van?
Road Trip Essentials for Adventuring
Road trips are all about the adventures, right? Right. Keep your day hiking essentials in your trunk so you’re always ready for a spur of the moment sunset hike or last-minute plans, should you need them. Check out our full list of day hiking essentials and read up on everything you need to keep with you for a day on the trail.
- Day-Hiking Backpack: A pack in the 30 liter range will be big enough to carry everything you need on your adventures, including extra layers and your camera. For men, check out the Osprey Talon 33 pack, and for women, the Deuter Trail 28 SL Pack.
- Hydration Reservoir: Many daypacks have space for a hydration reservoir which allows you to drink from an attached tube. Since it’s nestled in between you and the pack, it’s easy to carry and is a great option for staying hydrated on-the-go. Check before you buy because some backpacks come with them included.
- Trekking Poles: If hiking tends to be rough on your knees, these Black Diamond Trekking Poles will be a game changer. Not convinced? Check out this blog post with all of the reasons why you should consider using trekking poles when you hike.
- A camera: Capture the memories and check out my favorite camera gear here.
Glad I had these trekking poles with me when I road tripped through Tahoe last summer. They helped me reach the summit of Mount Tallac.
Road Trip Clothing Essentials
Packing for a road trip means filling your suitcase full of versatile, well-fitting and durable clothes that allow you to do a little bit of everything. For one, you’ll want to have clothing that won’t wrinkle, will retain its shape (think, a little bit of stretch!) and wicks away moisture so you feel clean. While crazy patterns can be fun, I prefer to pack solid prints that will go with everything. Here are some of my must-pack clothing staples for road tripping. For more ideas, check out this blog post: What to Wear Hiking.
- Hiking Boots: These Oboz Hiking Boots have been to Alaska, Canada, Patagonia, and all over the West, and they are the best hiking boots I’ve ever owned. I don’t leave on a road trip without them.
- Camp/Driving Shoes: You’ll want something supportive, yet comfortable, that will allow your feet to breathe and relax while you are driving and hanging out in the evenings. My go-to camp shoes are the Teva Hurricane XLT Sandals. There is nothing cooler or more practical than socks with Tevas :), plus they have great traction.
- Leggings: Leggings are comfy on those long drives and serve as functional athletic wear on the trail. You can even wear them to bed. These High Waisted Prana Leggings in black can be worn with anything and are thick enough to cover up unwanted underwear lines.
- Quick-dry Shirt: I’ve been wearing Nike’s Scoop Neck Legend T-shirts for years. They can be worn multiple times and don’t cling to you when you get sweaty on the trail.
- Down Puffy: For cold nights, you’ll want a warm jacket. Patagonia’s Hooded Down Sweater is my fav.
- Quick-dry Underwear: Moisture wicking undies are a must for road trips! These by Ex Officio are my favorite.
- A “Nicer” Outfit for Exploring Towns: If your road trip is going to take you through any cool towns, like Moab or McCall, and you want to hit up the town, bring something you feel comfortable wearing out to dinner. I love the REI Wallace Lake Collection. I pretty much wore it exclusively last fall in my van.
- Packing Cubes: If you’re like me, your suitcase can be a disaster. I tackle this problem by using packing cubes to keep all of my clothing organized while I’m road tripping. Underwear in one. Socks in another. Pants. Shirts. Each category of clothing gets its own cube.
Leggings and a down puffy are a must for road trip evenings.