The Ultimate Road Trip Packing List
Oh road trips. I love road trips when I look back on them (thought they can seem frustrating and overwhelming as they occur). I love watching the landscape change as your cross border lines, I love waking up with the sunrise, I love how you never know what the day is going to hold, and how time just seems to expand in such a way when you sleep in a different location every few nights.
Within my life I have now done 5 North America road trips. I am very proud to have actually just finished the northernmost major highway across the United States, meaning that I’ve now driven each major highway starting in Montreal and headed out west. Though 5 may sound like a lot to some people, each trip has taught me many new things, and made me realize how much more there is to learn!
This article is dedicated to what you can pack and what you can do to ensure that you have the most smooth trip possible. The first thing to know about road trips is that it can feel pretty uncomfortable at first! All of your regular amenities are gone, and your planning is at the whim of the environment around. The best thing that you can do is feel as prepared as possible, so that when things go awry, you keep your head on straight!
Why go on a road trip?
Road tripping really isn’t for everyone! People who have a very strict routine for themselves may struggle with letting go of that, people who are sensitive to small spaces, to sitting down for a long time, or just have trouble with not being able to plan everything. I have road tripped with several types of people, and it’s kind of funny seeing the different aspects that cause people frustration and stress.
If you’re the tip of person who is keen on adventure and getting out to see what the world has to offer, heck yes! Though taking planes and trains are a great way to head towards adventure, I personally find that automobiles enable the journey to part of the adventure as well.
There are so many unique and tiny things that you can see along the way if you just take your time a little bit. I once saw a gas station that also had a pen full of alpacas. There are such wonderful shops, rest stops, fields of sunflowers, mountain ranges, wildflowers, restaurants, and people! Oh gosh the people. Opening yourself up to the road also opens you up to connections, and I can’t even tall ya the amount of beautiful little encounters I cherish from all of my journeys.
Slow down a bit, you won’t regret it.
Consider this before you go…
There is a ton of preliminary planning to do in order for a road trip to go smoothly. Because once you’re on the road, the majority of those plans are going to fly out the window. There are great ways to be prepared for the unexpected and the unknown.
Who are you going with?
This is probably the biggest thing to consider before departing, especially if you’ve never travelled together before. This section may be a little bit charged because I recently went on a road trip with a person, and we did not do the proper question asking before we left, and the road trip wasn’t at all what the other expected or wanted.
Firstly, it’s a great idea to ask what type of road trip your travel partner wants to go on. Do they have a set date when they’d like to arrive at their destination, or is meandering for a few days or weeks preferred? How many hours would they like to drive each day? Are they the type of person who holds their pee or just wants to stop each time the urge arrives? Is this going to be a splurge type of trip or one where you’re penny pinching?
Asking your partner what they expect of the trip and then expressing what you’re expecting is the best way to soften those inevitable quarrels that happen when you share a vehicle with someone for many hours a day and many days in a row. The goal is to have fun, and the best way to have fun is to make sure each persons desires are stated, and compromises are made.
For example: I usually like to say that I’m the type of road tripper that likes to drive about 3 hours at a time, to an absolute maximum of 9 hours per day. I like to do at least 1 fun thing a day, but if I see a sign for something that looks cute, I don’t mind stopping more.
Is your vehicle up to the challenge?
Though this may seem obvious, it is superbly important that the vehicle you’re taking is capable of driving for many hours at a time. Though she may be a great commuter, driving at 80 mp/h for many hours a day in the hot sun can result in a not-so-happy vehicle. Do your due diligence. Get the car checked out before going on your trip.
It’s also important to consider what time of year you’re going. For example, if you have a car without any A/C, driving through the desert on a 100 degree Fahrenheit day is going to make you, your partner, and your dog extremely miserable. And yes, I am speaking from personal experience.
Also ensuring that the person you are driving with is covered under your car insurance is an important thing to remember and will make everyone more comfortable.
How far do you want to go?
Some people embark on road trips with a place in mind, whereas others are more in the mood for meandering. Whatever you decide, just remember that the farther you go, you’re going to have to go that far to get back home, too. It’s always important to leave a bit of cushion room on the end of a long road trip as well – especially when it comes to telling your employer when you’ll be back.
One thing you can always expect from going on road trips is that unexpected things are going to happen. Things usually take far longer than you budget for, so give yourself space for that. It’ll reduce stress and make sure there are no angry bosses on the other end.
Are you crossing a border?
If the recent pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that things can get really intense, really fast. Sometimes there are regulations in place that you didn’t anticipate, so make sure to check out what border crossing requirements there are. I recently drove across the US and coming back into Canada (as a Canadian citizen), I almost got dinged with a 5k fine because I didn’t complete a Covid form before entering. Yikes! That was a close one. And don’t forget your dang passport!
Where will you be sleeping?
The next step is to determine how and where you’ll be sleeping each night. Are you going to be tent camping, or will you arrange a set up in your vehicle room enough for everyone to sleep? Are you going to stop at motels? Hotels? What about couch surfing? The various answers will determine what you’re going to be packing in your vehicle.
Packing for your Big Special Amazing Fantastic Exciting Road Trip
Now that we’ve got all of that preliminary and messy stuff out of the way, it’s time to start making your list of things to bring! We’ve arrange it into several sections so that you can pick and choose which list applies to your dream road trip and all it requires.
If you’re planning on sleeping in hotels and motels along the way, you’re not going to need the majority of this stuff as the list is designed for a road trip with either tent camping or car camping. Just pick and choose which applies to your situation!
Camping Stove – they’ve got so many different camping stoves out there for sale. You can choose a tiny whisper light, where an attachment screws right on to a small propane tank, or you can go for the regular 2-burner stove if you’ve got some extra space to spare.
Propane Tank – you can’t really run a grill without some propane, as you already know. I always find it most helpful to leave the lighter directly inside the grill so that you never have to be searching around for it.
Water Jug – water! It’s actually amazing how much wide open space there is, and sometimes running water isn’t the most easy thing to find, yet it is the most important thing to survive. I like to keep a big water jug in the car as well as a big thermos to keep cold water. Cold water is especially helpful to keep you alert while you’re driving for long distances.
Cooler – I guess I should have mentioned this earlier, but there’s always the option to eat out along the way. Just be prepared to only have access to fast food restaurants for many days. If you’re keen on cooking your own food, a cooler is a great way to keep those fresh veggies and fruits fresh.
Rags, Scrubbers, Towels, Dish Bin – there’s nothing worse than having to cook eggs in a pan that’s covered in dried out pasta sauce from last nights camp meal. Packing up a miniature kitchen sink with all the fixings is going to help out a ton.
Soap – soap! I’ve got some feelings about soap. If you’re going to be washing dishes in the outdoors, it’s very important that you purchase a soap that is biodegradable and safe for the environment. This is especially important if you’re going to be washing dishes in a river. My personal favourite brand is Dr. Bronners. It smells great, it’s safe for wildlife, and it’s concentrated so you don’t need much.
Foldable Table – depending on the level of set up that you’re looking for, you could always pack a small folding table. Not every place you’re going to be making dinner along the way is going to have a picnic table, and though a big flat rock will suffice, it could start hurting your back after a few days!
Coffee Maker – if you’re anything like me, having a tasty cup of coffee in the morning will help start the day off right. I personally like using an Aeropress because it packs down super tiny and not to mention makes a great tasting coffee. But the adventure is yours, if you like pour over, choose pour over! Maybe just avoid packing the entire espresso machine from home.
Cutting Board – though a rock will usually do just fine, having a small cutting board will make food prep much easier.
Knives – when it comes to knives, I like to bring 1 paring knife and 1 chef’s knife. This way 2 people can prep at the same time and you have the 2 basic knives available. I also always make sure to sharpen my knives before leaving!
Plates, Bowls, Mugs, Cutlery – just bring as many for as many people are in the car! There isn’t usually a need for extras. Additionally, plastic, nesting dishware is a great way to conserve space and reduce chances of the stuff breaking. Everybody has a favorite travel mug don’t they?
Pot, Pan, Spatula, Tongs – tongs are essential if you’re planning on occasionally cooking over fire. I just like to bring the essentials and make the rest work.
Can Opener – so so so many times on my travels I have forgotten to pack a can opener and end up having to buy on on the way. It’s the worst when you get to a remote campsite and go to open your can of beans only to be without a can opener. Smashing it open just isn’t as graceful, you know what I mean?
Olive Oil, Salt & Pepper, Spices – not everyone is going to bring spices, but I really can’t tolerate food that isn’t properly salted. I also usually prefer to cook with butter, but olive oil is way more practical.
Containers – I’m the type of cook that tends to make way too much, and it’s always very helpful to have a container to pack the leftovers away rather than trying to fashion something out of an old cardboard box.
Plastic Bags – this is a very important one. The main rule of camping that I believe everyone needs to abide by is LEAVE NO TRACE. This means that whatever you pack in, you pack it out. Just like you would in a friend’s home, leave the place better than you left it. Having access to these outdoors place are a privilege, and they should be treated with respect.
Cozy Sleeping Bag – like I mentioned earlier, sleeping in a different place every night or every few nights can be an uncomfortable thought for some! Make it easier on yourself and find a super duper cozy sleeping bag.
There are so many different types of sleeping bags out there for all different budgets. The ones that are made from down feathers, are super warm, and pack down really small tend to be on the pricier side, and ones that are synthetic, less warm, and are a little bit bigger are super affordable.
High Quality Sleeping Pad – a sleeping mat is also another great way to ensure that you have a good sleep. Some of them are made of foam, some you can blow up and they roll down to be the size of a pop can, and some people just opt out to bring a small mattress or cot with them!
Pillows – pillows! I’ve seen some people use a rolled up pair of pants as a pillow, but I prefer to just bring my pillow from home. You could also purchase a blow up travel pillow that packs down super small.
Camping Chair – there are all sorts of different camping chairs out there, but the main goal is to find one that makes you feel nice and comfy, allowing you to sit around a campfire for hours. There’s the classic fold up chair, but there are fold up love seats out there or super minimal, easy to carry chairs as well.
Tarp – even if the weather says sunny, there is always a chance that it’s going to rain. Packing a tarp is never a bad idea especially since it it doesn’t take up very much space!
*Pro Tip: some folks think that putting a tarp underneath your tent will keep it dry if it happens to rain. The tarp will actually act as something that gathers water which then trickles towards the edges of the tent, leaking inside.
Lantern/Headlamps – these are super important items. Though living by the moonlight sounds romantic, setting up a tent in the dark will probably result in quite a bit of cussing and stubbed toes.
Line/Chord – a bit of chord never hurts. It can act as a makeshift clothesline, a way to repair something, and many other things.
Multitool – instead of bringing your entire toolkit, just bring a multitool! I never go anywhere without mine.
Hatchet/Handsaw – this only applies if you’re planning on foraging for your own firewood. Before considering building your own fire: is there a fire ban in effect? Is there a fire pit so that you can build a fire as safely as possible? Is there even enough dead wood around to build your fire?
Wipes – I just love wipes. It’s the perfect way to provide the illusion of cleanliness after you’ve been sweating in the car for an entire day. I like to bring two different types of wipes: face wipes and surface wipes.
Face wipes are great to clean your hands, face, and other sensitive areas, whereas surface wipes are great to clean, well, surfaces! This is a road trip necessity.
Toilet Paper – pretty self explanatory, just remember to pack it out!
Bug Spray, Sunscreen, Aftersun – bugs and sun are everywhere. Just be prepared for over exposure!
Toothbrush, Toothpaste – head to the travel area at your local pharmacy, they’ve got great little travel sized versions of these if you’re keen!
Lip Balm, Moisturizer – these are absolutely essential to me, but others may roll their eyes at the extra weight.
Extra Contacts – this obviously only applies to those who wear contact lenses. I have had terrible situations where either the contacts I’m wearing get scratched and I don’t have a spare, or they wash out in the water or what have you. Do yourself a favor and bring some extras.
Rain Layer – rain layers aren’t just road trip essentials, they’re just travelling essentials. They’re especially essential because you don’t always have the guarantee of shelter out on the open road.
Down Layer – I’ve recently been seeing lots of people travelling with packing cubes, and it’s a great way to pack all your clothing down. Especially to make enough room for your down layer!
Even if it’s summer time I will often pack a down layer, you just never know what the weather will hold! This is especially important if you’re planning on doing any alpine hikes where the temperature will be way cooler up top.
Fleece Layer – though this may be harder to fit in your packing cube, I always like to bring my favorite fleece with me. There’s nothing better than cozying up in a fuzzy fleece at the end of the night or on a early chill morning.
Proper Footwear – another essential item on your road trip checklist. What you bring will be up to you depending on what activities you’re doing. Water shoes, hiking boots, wellies, snow boots, or some sandals, it’s important to have comfy feet on the open road.
Socks & Underwear – these items are definitely something that you shouldn’t skimp on. It’s always nice to have warm feet and clean underwear.
Hats – hats! Sun hates, beanies, visers, what you choose depends on the time of year that you are travelling.
Swimsuit – though I’m all for skinny dipping, sometimes the best way to be respectful is to be clothed (haha).
Shirts, Pants, Shorts – I am notorious for packing more than I need, but I’m working on it.
Something Cute – not everyone is going to have “something cute” on their road trip checklist, but I do! I’m quite the foodie, and if we’re travelling through a city with a restaurant I’ve been curious about, you better believe we’re going and I’m going to look cute when we do!
First Aid Kit – it’s always a good idea to have a first aid kit, especially if you’re travelling with kids. They’ve got super streamline ones available at the local pharmacy.
Jumper Cable – most people already have a jumper cable in their car, but if you don’t, get one! You don’t want to be stuck in that pickle with no solution!
Hypothermia Blanket – though this may seem like overkill, you truly never know what’s going to happen out there!
Batteries – an obvious essential.
EpiPen – this is for those who have severe allergies, and I’m sure you always bring this around with you anyway. Just add it to the list, things can get missed when you’re packing so much!
Offline Maps/Compass/Paper Map – sometimes you won’t have enough service to access Google maps, so it’s always a good idea to be prepared for when that happens.
This can look like downloading offline maps, bringing a compass (better for hiking) or by using a paper map! Betcha’ not many people out there know how to use a paper map anymore!
Satellite Radio – this item is for those folks who are intent on doing some serious back country activities.
Solar Charger – if you want to take this time to disconnect, great. If not, a solar charger is a great way to use the power from the sun to charge your devices. Just remember to ask if the one you are purchasing charges through the windshield. I made that mistake once.
Extra Car Key – oh yes yes. An extra car key is a great thing to have, especially if you keep it in your fanny pack and not locked in the car that you just locked and lost the key.
Spare Tire – most cars usually come with a spare tire in the trunk, under the car, on the back, or somewhere hidden. Don’t sacrifice the spare tire for extra space.
Binoculars – even if you’re not a bird watcher, having a set of binoculars is always going to be fun, especially if you’re travelling with bored kids.
Games – bring games both for when you’ve stopped, and prepare some road trip games too! My favorite road trip game is going through the alphabet only using the signs you see on the road. It’s tricky once you get to those last letters! A great way to pass the time.
Sporting Gear – whatever outdoor activity you enjoy doing, its going to require some gear. Even if you need an extra Thule, packing those boogie boards, tennis rackets, climbing gear, or volleyball is going to be great for creating memories.
Books – books books books! It’s always nice to bring a hammock to read a book!
CD’s – sometime you’re not going to have enough service to use your phone apps for road trip listening. I love bringing along some old CD’s, the extra boost of nostalgia is enjoyable, and how often do you listen to an entire album all the way through?
Listening Entertainment – along with your classic road trip playlist, maybe download some audio books and podcasts too! With so much driving to be done, you’ll definitely end up wanting to switch up the listening content.
Extras for a Family Road Trip
Snacks – instead of stopping all the time for fast food (can you spell belly ache?) pack some tasty snacks! Granola bars, carrots, apples, nuts, what have you, packing snacks will also save time from stopping all the time!
Games – packing games is a great way to avoid bickering and making sure everyone is nice and distracted. I remember as a kid always asking “are we there yet?”, it must have driven my folks nuts!
Car Seat – you probably don’t need to be reminded to bring a car seat, that’s an every day essential if you have young ones!
Extra Everything – extra blankets, pillows, socks, stuffies, snacks, bug spray, sun screen. Something is going to happen, and you’re going to need an extra something to solve the issue.
Extras for Car Camping
If you’ve chosen the car camping route (my personal favourite), the biggest piece of advice that I can give you is to PREPARE. Don’t prep the car the day before you leave. The way to prevent the most headaches is by making sure your set up is as as streamline and un-cumbersome as possible. Divide the things that you’re going to use every day from the things you’ll use more seldom, that way you don’t have to be shuffling things around when they’re needed.
Pack anything extra that you’ll need to be comfy in a car for many hours. A neck pillow, a road trip playlist, a travel DVD player, a blanket sunglasses, your knitting needles, it’s up to you. Make the extra effort to have the most enjoyable time possible.
Extras for Tent Camping
If you’ve chosen the tent camping route, the best piece of advice that I can give you is to get yourself a tent that basically sets itself up. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to assemble a giant, cumbersome tent from 2002 in the dark. There are amazing tents out there that basically have 2 tent poles and take less than a minute to assemble. Get one.
What is good road trip food to bring?
Everyone’s road trip food list is going to look a little bit different. The best piece of advice I can give is to do as much food prep as you can before you leave. Plan the first few meals and pack those, then try to just buy fresh veggies along the way. Have a cooler, and a box of non perishables as well, and your road trip food list will be complete. And don’t forget yummy snacks!
What’s a good road trip game?
Road trip activities are a great way to help the time pass more quickly, especially if the scenery isn’t too engaging (yeah, I’m talking to you the great plains of North America). There are tons of great verbal games out there, and I love to pack a conversation deck. This is basically a deck of cards that has a cool question on each one, helping the conversation roll along.
Is it a good idea to get travel insurance?
Getting travel insurance is going to be very wise, especially if you’re planning on travelling through another country. World Nomads is an international travel insurance company that is affordable and has worldwide roadside assistance as well.
What are some obvious road trip essentials?
If you’re a person who experiences motion sickness, it may be a good idea to get some motion sickness pills. I like to travel with a phone mount for easy navigation and obviously don’t forget your drivers license or car insurance!
Where’s a good place to pee on a long road trip?
If you’re going on a long road trip, chances are that you’re going to be peeing in some unusual places. If you’re keen on saving time, a good travel tip is to try to hold it until you have to fill up at a gas station. Otherwise, a rest stop along the highway is great because you din’t have to veer to far from the high way.
Can you camp in a national park?
There are so many national parks across the United States, and many of them you are able to camp in. It all depends on the national park, so just google where you’d like to stay. Example: Can you camp in Yellowstone National Park?