7 Must-Pack Things for a Road Trip

Truth be told, I don’t care much for driving when I just have to get myself around town, but drop me in the driver’s seat for a road trip and I’m ready to buckle in for the long haul. I’ve been a sucker for long car rides ever since I was a kid, and, even now, knowing that I have hours to hunker down and bond with my trusty Ford Focus is undeniably comforting and exciting. The road to reach the destination is almost always as interesting and fun as the destination itself.

But I digress.

The point is, I like to road trip … but only if I have a few essential items with me. Regardless of where I go or how long I’ll be on the road, there are a handful of items that absolutely must be in my car. They are:

1. An up-to-date map. It’s not that I get lost. In fact, when I’m not driving, I always play navigator because I don’t get lost. But I am overly cautious when it comes to driving, and I’ll check and recheck a map a dozen times, even though I know I’m going in the right direction. A good map is especially important in the Southwest where the closest town (and therefore the closest place to turn around) is sometimes 50 miles away.

2. A full tank of gas. My dad always told me that people should eat when they can, sleep when they can and use the bathroom when they can because they never know when they’ll have the opportunity to do so again. I would also add that people on road trips would be wise to fill up their car’s gas tank when they can, especially when driving beyond city limits in the countryside or desert.

3. Something to listen to. I still don’t have an MP3 player to hook up in my car, but that’s no problem. My old school collection of CDs still does the job, though I have to make sure I keep them out of the heat. Road trips also give me a chance to catch up on my reading by listening to audio books.

4. Lots of water. I drink a ridiculous amount of water even when I don’t travel, but on a road trip, I might as well hook myself up to a running water fountain. Drinking water keeps my body hydrated and healthy when the stress of travel has the potential to wreak havoc on it. When I’m on a road trip, I drink water all the time, and I refill at every opportunity.

5. Snacks. I hate to nickel and dime my way through gas stations and their overpriced chips and candy. Instead, I try to stock up on non-perishable snacks before I leave home to save money and time. Throughout the years, I’ve also noticed that certain people lean toward particular snacks. My husband loves to chew on sunflower seeds when he drives while my dad goes through Cheetos like powdered cheese factories are closing their doors for good. As for me, I try to keep things healthy with trail mix and granola bars.

6. Sunglasses and sunscreen. It’s a bright world out there. Whether I’m crossing the desert or driving down a highway, I like to keep the sun out of my eyes, especially as it’s rising or setting. I also try to avoid the left-arm sunburn with a good slathering of sunscreen.

7. A camera. Even if I’m on a road I’ve driven a hundred times before, there’s bound to be something I want to capture on film if I do NOT have my camera with me. And to be quite honest, as I’ve gotten older and taken more road trips on my own, I’ve found that it’s those little things I didn’t notice before that pique my interest the most now. Sometimes it’s a weird rock or a fleeting sunset. Sometimes it’s a funky license plate or random earth art. Whatever it is, I’d rather have a camera in the car, just in case I want to take the moment with me.

Are you a road tripper? If so, what must-pack items do you take when you travel by car?

31 Responses to “7 Must-Pack Things for a Road Trip”

  1. Alouise

    Nice list. Map reading isn’t my forte, I usually bring a GPS now. And I’m paranoid about gas, I never let it get under half a tank, unless I’m around home and know where I’m going.

    Another thing to bring is some creative things to do. I learned from 10 hour trips across the flatlands of Alberta and Saskatchewan many creative things to keep yourself from being bored. I spy, license play bingo, 20 questions, etc… good for kids and adults. Sure you can play on your ipod cellphone (provided your not driving) but it’s nice to have some human interaction as well.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Good addition, Alouise. My husband and I often read to each other when we drive, though we have been known to play the ABC sign game. 🙂

      Reply
  2. jessiev

    something for the kids when they get bored!

    blanket/jacket for the people who get cold when everyone else is just fine

    cell phone w/gps

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Ahhh, yes. The obligatory sweatshirt. I always get so cold when it’s hot in the desert and then we go into air conditioned buildings. That’s a great addition to the list, @jessiev.

      Reply
  3. Trisha Miller

    Great list! I would only add (and maybe this goes without saying) that every road-trip should include some basic auto safety gear such as a spare tire, jack, and battery jumper cables – you’d be amazed how many people I’ve rescued from the side of the freeway between Phoenix and Tucson who didn’t have such things in their trunk, and if you take a lot of road-trips, a membership in AAA is worth the cost.

    I also had a good laugh at your last item – yes, a camera is a must but what made me laugh is that it’s funny how once you become a travel writer, you really start being more observant, and everything around you – even the scenery itself – you start to see as a potential travel photo. 🙂

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I absolutely agree that a road preparedness kit is definitely in order as well, Trisha. I guess I didn’t think to add it because I carry one of these all of time, even if I’m headed a few miles to the grocery store. It is surprising, though, how many people travel unprepared in their cars.

      Reply
  4. Gray

    Now that I have a GPS, I use that primarily, but bring a map as a backup. Your dad, btw, sounds like a wise man. Good advice.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      My husband and I were just talking today about how many people have gone to GPS, but I still trust a hard copy map and directions. With no service in the middle of nowhere, I can still use a map to find where I’m going. That’s not to say I won’t ever use a GPS, but if I do, I’ll always carry a map as a back-up plan.

      Reply
  5. Pauline

    Great post! I will taking a road trip in a few days, so the information you provided will come in handy. May I also suggest a flashlight with plenty of batteries? It definitely comes in handy if you find yourself driving at night and you have car troubles, especially in the middle of nowhere!

    Reply
  6. Sabina

    I haven’t been on a road trip in such a long time. I always like to bring a book, though. No matter how fascinating the scenery or conversation, it still feels good to read when you’re in the car.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Sometimes I take a book, but I also spend a lot of time catching up on all of my magazines!

      Reply
  7. Stacey Wittig

    I like your comment about always having that emergency stuff in your car all the time. Here’s a tip: when flying in somewhere and renting a car, take some of that stuff with you. I was up on the Rez in NM trying to find a tire gauge filling my “donut” spare that needed air — after a flat tire on the way into Chaco Canyon. My kingdom for a tire gauge!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Good tip, Stacey. I agree: Always check the rental car for any equipment you might need.

      Reply
  8. Gwen McCauley

    Hiya Joanna

    Good list. On both roadtrips and long flights I always make sure I have a damp facecloth in my handbag. Great for wiping up those gluey fingers from all those snacks. And after several hours in the car (I can usually boogie for 12 hrs before wearing out), wiping down my face & neck is amazingly refreshing, even if I’ve had the air on most of the day.

    And I also like to change shoes sometimes. Even though sitting, the change of angle on my ankle seems to make a difference to my overall comfort. Now I’m pretty short so tall folks might not notice this small thing.

    I can hardly wait until I get to drive from Ottawa, ON to Halifax, NS in September. It’s about 950 miles of pretty fabulous Canadian scenery at a time that the leaves should be turning red & gold. Yummy.

    Good topic.

    Gwen McCauley

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Wow! Your road trip across Canada sounds fantastic! I can’t wait to hear all about it ~ take lots of pictures!

      Reply
  9. Christy @ Technosyncratic

    We rely mainly on our iPhones (in fact, we’ve used our atlas three times since being on the road the last six months!), but a physical map is SO HELPFUL when there isn’t any reception. It’s the worst being stuck somewhere and having no idea where to go, particularly in a huge RV that’s nearly impossible to navigate. 🙂 So yeah, I agree that a back-up map is always handy, lol.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I’ve actually heard that it’s a bit of a problem when people rely too much on GPS systems. They wander off, assuming they can hook up to Google maps from anywhere, and before you know it, they’re lost. Granted, on the road that’s not as much of a problem, but having a map handy is a good safety net.

      Reply
  10. Abby

    I’m so the same way! I hate driving, but I looove road trips. Preferably solo ones — with a lot of snacks!

    Reply
  11. Sophie

    If I’m on my own, a road trip is a good excuse for a mini language course, like a Pimsleur Quick’n’Easy … The listening and repeating tactic is quite effective. I did that with Mandarin in 2002 and still remember everything.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I didn’t know Pimsleur made quick guides ~ good to know for my next trip!

      Reply
  12. Candice

    Full tank of gas = essential…especially when driving through northern Ontario.

    Reply
  13. Brooke vs. the World

    Looooove road trips – and I love snacks – dried fruit, nuts and some twizzlers go down nice. But, I can’t drink too much water as I would have to stop at every rest stop!

    Reply
  14. Gerard ~ GQ trippin

    There also some great travel podcasts you can listen too while on the road. Audiobooks are great, but put me to sleep sometimes, so I have to change it up with the music. 🙂

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I’ve definitely “read” a few books on the road via audio books, but they have to be the right ones, otherwise I tune out.

      Reply
  15. Cole @ FourJandals

    Great tips – we drove 18,000 km across Canada and USA and while we didn’t run out of gas we were pretty darn close. Kept thinking, I will just fill up at the next one then all of a sudden NONE for like 50 km when the light is on. Very stressful. Unwisely this happened a couple of times, clearly I dont learn haha. Music is also the key, listening to the same pop music be repeated every hour is a nightmare!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      In those wide open spaces, there are never gas stations where you think there should be! I find that to be the case in the Western U.S. as well.

      Reply
  16. Deb

    Great tips. An up to date map is a great point. We had a map for Mongolia that was 5 years old and with the way that the roads are rapidly developing in Asia, that is far too out of date. We could have used a map that was a little bit more up to date.Ours didn’t even have the same towns on the map as the newer ones. Yes, we were winging it through Mongolia but our compass help out a lot.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Make sure you know how to use that compass, though!

      Reply
  17. Marc

    Great. Make sure to have some meds with you as well. If you go with kids you need a lot of entertainment stuff too.

    Reply

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