A road trip is one of the best ways to escape and explore neighboring cities and states. Whether you leave for a couple of days or a couple weeks, it is important to pack well, (no matter how tempted you are to just throw a few things in the trunk and hit the road).
If you’re headed out on the road for a while and haven’t locked down an itinerary or set destinations, it can be really difficult to decide what items make it into your car.
For one, you’ll probably need to pack lightly. If you’re traveling with a full carload of friends or family, you’ll have an extremely limited amount of space in the trunk (unless you are traveling by RV or have a trailer attached to your vehicle). In other words: get ready for a fun game of real life luggage Tetris.
Another factor is weather. What time of year are you leaving? Will you be facing different climates? It can be hard to pack for both a beach day in San Diego and a snow day in Mammoth.
If you are planning to camp along the way, you’ll also need to bring along camping essentials like a tent, sleeping bags and other gear. Those of you headed on more of an “urban” road trip won't have to worry as much about these "survival" items because motels and hotels will have everything you need.
Below you will find one list of items you should always pack and a second list of optional items that you can bring if you have extra space.
Lots of water - Buy large water bottles/jugs and refill your smaller bottle from that. You’ll need to stay hydrated on the road and the extra fluids will come in handy if you end up hiking or if need water because of a car emergency.
A smaller portable water bottle
Emergency car kit – This should include everything from a spare tire (check the air pressure of your spare with your tire gauge before you leave on the trip), jumper cables, emergency blanket, traditional first aid kit, reflective warning triangles or cones, flashlight, batteries, duct tape, multi-purpose rags, rain poncho, wet wipes, rope and protein snack bars.
Portable cell phone charging bank
Spare keys – Keep these in a different bag just in case you loose your original set of keys.
Extra oil for your car
Paper goods - Paper towels and toilet paper. You never know when you might need 'em!
Garbage bags – Great for cleaning up trash in the car, separating dirty laundry and even using as a back-up rain poncho.
Extra phone cable
Maps/GPS – Always have hard copies of maps. What if you don’t have any service? What if you lose/break your phone?
Notebook and pens – Take notes. Where are you staying, eating, going? Document your trip so you always remember it.
Car documents - Including your registration, insurance and owner’s manual.
Cash and credit cards – You never know what places only accept cash, so it is great to have a bit handy.
Camera – If you have a camera that isn’t your cell phone, pack it. And make sure to bring necessary accessories like a charger, batteries and extra SD cards.
Reusable and compact shopping bags – Throw one of these in your bags in case you need to grab groceries or if you can’t zip up your luggage and you need another bag for the overflow.
Health/beauty essentials – This varies by person, but I recommend nail clippers/nail file, brush/comb, hair ties if you need them, deodorant (be kind to those sitting next to you), a razor, tweezers (you never know when you’ll get a splinter), moisturizer, lotion, soap, floss, makeup essentials, extra pair of contacts, glasses, contact lens solution and dry shampoo (I’ve tried a ton and this one is the best, I swear!)
Travel towel – This can double as a beach towel if needed.
Travel toiletries – Grab some travel-sized bottles and fill them with what you need, or pick up some up from a store when you run out. Don’t pack full size shampoos, conditioners or other bath products if you’re staying in hotels/motels along your way. If you plan to stop in hotels and motels, you'll find that most will have these basic essentials already in the room waiting for you.
Layers are so important to pack, because you never know what climate you’ll face. If you're concerned about how many clothes you're packing, think about specific outfits that you will actually wear and what matches with these "favorite" clothes. Sticking to a specific color palette can be helpful so you can mix and match outfits.
Also important: stay comfortable! If you're spending long days in the car, you're not going to want to wear that pair of jeans that are "a bit too snug."
Weather resistant jacket - The warmth of the jacket should be dependent on where you are traveling to.
Fleece sweater or sweatshirt
Long underwear or leggings
Long sleeved shirt
Dress shirt - In case you end up going to a nice dinner, show, etc.
Underwear/socks – Bring a pair of high quality wool or thick socks in cooler climates.
Dress (or skirt) or nicer pants – In case you go out somewhere nicer that doesn’t allow jeans or shorts.
Shoes – Flip flops, hiking/running shoes, and a pair that you can wear out somewhere if you need a nicer option. If you’re going somewhere in a cooler climate, bring a pair of boots too.
Optional items that you could possibly pack:
Trunk cover – If you drive a station wagon or a truck, you may want to invest in a trunk cover to keep your valuables safe or hidden from passersby.
Roof rack – Great for adding extra storage space on the roof of your car.
Selfie Stick – You never know what photo ops you may want to take. This is great for the solo traveler (you might even consider it an "essential item").
Camping accessories – If you plan to camp along the way you will need a tent, sleeping bags, cooking gear, a mess kit, lighter/matches, hammer, knife, axe, wine/can opener, plastic bags, canned goods, and camp grill.
Laptop and charger
Locks – For luggage, bike, etc.
Address book – To send postcards to your loved ones. Bring a hard copy or make sure to update your friends’ addresses in your phone.
Foldable camp chairs or pads
Waterproof bag – If you are planning to spend your time exploring the ocean and need a safe place to stash your valuables, get a waterproof bag that you can wear around your neck.
Hair dryer – You won't need one if you're spending all your nights in hotels where they are almost always provided. Otherwise, a hair dryer can be valuable to pack, especially if you're traveling in the winter.
The best part of road trip packing is that you can always drop by a store if you forget to pack something or if you run out of an essential item. This flexibility is a huge perk. You can always make room for souvenirs in the trunk of your car and don’t have to worry about squeezing everything back in your luggage at the end of your trip. As long as it fits somewhere in the car, you are good to go.
Don’t overpack. Coordinate with your road trip buddies to see what they are packing. No group needs more than one hair dryer. Don’t overdo it on clothing, you can always have clothing washed at your hotel or a laundromat (or just suck it up and wait until you return home to wash everything). Road trips are always more relaxed, so you can get in that go-with-the-flow mindset more easily.
More What to Pack Checklists
Have a wonderful trip! Let us know where you’re headed and what you’re bringing in the comments below.