At a time when the #vanlife culture is massively regaining in popularity on social media like Instagram and Pinterest, it’s only natural to feel the pressing need to go on an adventure, get out of our comfort zone for a while and just leave on a road trip with your friends and family. Once you choose a destination and date, it is important to take a minute to correctly plan your trip. Nothing is more unpleasant than realizing you forgot something really important when you’re too far to go back home.
To make sure you get the most out of your journey, here’s a list of the 30 absolute essentials to bring with you on your next road trip.
Scroll to the end of the article to get your free road trip essentials .pdf checklist!
Essentials to keep in the car at all time
1. Driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance
You could say that this one is pretty obvious but it’s one of the most important. It’s not rare to forget something as essential as a driver’s license in the chaos of the departure. Everybody has heard a story about someone forgetting his passport or plane ticket right before leaving for the airport.
Driving without a driver’s license will often cost you a lot of money. And being behind the wheel without the proper registration papers could even get your car impounded for up to a month, depending on where you get caught. If you rent a vehicle for the trip, make sure all the papers are in order. We recommend storing them in an envelope and putting them in the glove box or with your passport and ID.
2. Flat tire repair kit
Before leaving on your trip, inspect the spare tire and verify it’s inflated correctly. Additionally, you should find where the jack and the tire iron are located and make sure it’s in good working condition. Jacks frequently rust inside the trunk and won’t even budge if you try to raise it.
3. Your car’s repair manual
When facing car problems in the middle of a road trip, it’s OK to assume that most people would call AAA or a tow truck and have the car brought to the nearest repair shop. But what if you find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere?
Car repair manuals often have a dedicated section explaining how to perform common troubleshooting procedures to find out what’s wrong with your car Having your car’s repair manual with you can save you a lot of trouble and will help you get back on the road.
4. Replacement fluids
Low fluid levels are directly related to most common car breakdowns. Whether it’s the engine overheating because of a low coolant and oil level, or steering problems associated with the lack of power-steering fluid, packing a spare bottle or two of each could save you from a bothering trip to the repair shop in the middle of your vacation.
Additionally, consider bringing a gallon of windshield washer fluid too. Driving in the snow, mud, and sand often requires a lot of washer fluid in a short amount of time.
5. GPS and road map
Today’s GPS systems are more user-friendly than ever and will often warn you about construction work, traffic jams or detours on the road ahead. The main drawback with these devices is that they constantly need power and either a satellite or a wi-fi signal to locate you and load the different maps.
If you plan on driving away from big cities, make sure to bring a paper version of the map. You never know when a mountain will block the signal, or you may find yourself in the middle of the desert where the signal simply doesn’t reach anymore. Nothing is worse than getting lost on vacation. Why not play it safe and get yourself one of those large-scale road atlases just in case.
6. Petty cash for tolls
Depending on where you plan on spending your vacations, you may encounter highway and bridge tolls. Even though most recent toll stations accept payment methods like credit cards or Apple Pay, older toll stations found in more remote locations still work with petty cash only.
Not all countries have tollways but most big cities in North America do. The average cost is usually between $1 and $10 in most U.S. states. Some can turn out to be quite expensive like the Chesapeake Bay toll charging a maximum fee of $24.
7. Cell phone
Your phone often holds the most important bank of information ever. You can use it to listen to music, like a GPS, or to find a hotel to stay for the night. If you get lost or hurt in the wild, your cell phone could very well save your life by letting you call for help.
If you decide not to bring your cell phone with you, keep in mind that you’ll have to prepare accordingly because you won’t have another option if your standalone GPS dies while you are driving off-road. Your best bet here would be to purchase a personal GPS tracking device as a precaution.
Without a cell phone, planning where you’ll stop, eat and sleep during the trip will be mandatory before you leave from home. It can still be done but you’ll have to be motivated. Your best bet is probably to keep the idea of that unplugged vacation for your next weekend camping trip rather than for a road trip across the country.
8. Portable battery charger + USB cord
A cell phone is worth nothing if it’s dead, so make sure you bring a portable battery charger and a USB cord with you. Leave the charger plugged in the car at all time to make sure it’s fully charged whenever you need it. The USB cord will also be useful to connect your cell phone directly while listening to music instead of using the less energy-efficient Bluetooth solution.
Cheap portable battery chargers can be found in almost any electronics store but the best option is to buy one of those compact automotive booster packs instead. They usually fit in the palm of your hand so you can keep it in your backpack or waist bag. Most models have a USB port on the side somewhere and the charging capacity is often two or three times more than regular portable chargers. You can even use it to jump-start your car if your battery dies at some point during the trip.
9. Map apps
Make sure you have a map app on your cellphone. Be aware that not all map apps are created equal. Different apps come with different features and some work best than others depending on your specific needs.
For example, Waze is one of the best apps to duck traffic. The maps are updated in real-time based on the data collected by other users allowing you to select the best itinerary based on the traffic ahead and will even let you know if there are cops ahead. This one is probably the best app for road trips around bigger cities and when you plan to stay on paved roads.
Apps like CoPilot Gps, on the other hand, is especially great for its offline functions. The built-in maps allow you to use the app without having to rely on a Wi-Fi signal which is especially useful if you plan a road trip on another continent. If you rarely drive outside the grid though, another free map app may do the same job for a lower price.
If you’re looking for a map app designed specifically for road trips, check out inRoute Route Planner. inRoute has the ability to plan the whole trip including stops, overnight stays, gas stations, and groceries stores. You can even set and plan regular intervals to stop for food and rest areas. It’s more expensive than other apps, but it’s a game-changer for road trip enthusiasts.
10. Camping apps
Planning where to sleep and booking your campground in advance isn’t always easy. One of our favorites is the Recreation.Gov app, which allows you to reserve campsites on-the-go with only the tap of a button.
Another camping app we love, Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder App, lets you be more specific to your camping needs. Oh, Ranger! only inventories campgrounds located in National Parks. We also love the AllStays Camp and Tent App, which solely includes tent-only campgrounds.
On any road trip, you’ll probably be spending a great deal of time with your trip mates. Self-care and body cleanliness is a must. Since keeping yourself clean on the road isn’t always easy, bringing the following items with you will make everyone’s life much easier.
11. Bathroom Tissue
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Nobody likes to use a public restroom and especially not one without toilet paper. Not to mention the worst-case scenario: when you are driving on a desert road or an off-road trail, miles from the closest gas station and you simply can’t hold it. Carrying your own bathroom tissue will prevent you from having to rely on tree leaves and cactus flowers.
12. Toiletry bag
While on the road, the best place to stop and take a quick shower and clean yourself up a bit is a campsite with some sort of beach or underground pool. Most of these places will let you use the beach during the day without having to book a campground for the night in exchange for a reduced entry fee. The trick is to pay for the beach or pool entry, enjoy it for a while and leave early so you have enough time to take a shower before your time is up.
Another neat trick is to find a gym and pay the one-time access fee. Once inside, nothing requires you to workout. You can just jump straight in the shower, wash, shave, brush your teeth, dress up and leave right away.
Unfortunately, most camping sites and gyms will only provide you with cheap soap and shampoo. Carrying your toiletry kit containing travel-sized body wash and toothpaste is probably the best solution.
13. Bug spray
Whether you go on a drive in the forest or near a lake, it’s crucial to protect yourself from mosquitoes. Beyond the annoying scratching and pimples, mosquitoes are likely to transmit diseases like dengue, malaria, and Zika, just to name a few. Different bug sprays are designed for different weather condition as insects may differ from one place to another. Make sure to select one according to where you plan to spend your vacation and ask your pharmacist for advice if you’re not sure which one to buy.
14. Reusable water bottles
During a road trip, food and drinks will frequently take up a large part of your budget. To significantly reduce the number of stops and the overall cost of drinks, filling a couple of reusable water bottles every time you can is a great idea.
If you are lucky enough to sleep at a hotel or motel, fill the water bottles and leave them in the freezer overnight. You’ll have more than enough cold water for the next day and you can even use them as ice packs in your cooler.
15. Swiss army knife
A Swiss army knife is every road tripper’s best friend. Whether it’s used to open canned food or cut down tree branches to start the campfire, you’ll need a good knife, a pair of mini scissors or a screwdriver. Simply buy a quality one and it will last for many more road trips ahead.
16. Waist bag
Once considered the lamest of all bags, waist bags are now making a comeback. What better time than now to buy yourself a nice fanny pack to store your most valuable possession while on vacation. Not only are waist bags more convenient than backpacks, but they are also cheaper and fit a lot better with your beach attire. They’re perfect to keep your passport, car keys and wallet and they also prevent thievery.
Another important feature of waist bags is that they won’t leave you with weird tan lines like a backpack would after a whole day walking on the strip. All pros, no cons.
Traveling in winter
Winter road trips are certainly less frequent than summer ones but they are just as fun. Traveling to a snowy destination will allow you to enjoy activities like skiing, ice skating, snowshoeing and much more. Driving your car in deep powder is also an unforgettable adventure. But first and foremost, if you want to truly enjoy your winter trip, you’ll have to be correctly equipped.
One of the most important things to pack in the trunk of your car when planning to drive in a snowy location is a quality shovel. Find a foldable and sturdy one and you should be good to go.
18. Ice scraper
Ice storms are somewhat infrequent in the lower states but if you plan a trip to Canada, make sure you bring a good ice scraper with you. You can easily find a cheap one at any dollar store but if you want the luxurious option, look for a model with a mitten stuck to the handle. That’s definitely next-level stuff!
19. Emergency Blanket
Winter is beautiful, but it can also be dangerous and potentially deadly. It’s important to keep an emergency blanket under a seat or inside the trunk.
Emergency blankets, also called space blankets since they were first invented by NASA, consist of a thin film of polyethylene terephthalate. They are very effective in preventing hypothermia. Emergency blankets aren’t to be confused with heating blankets as they don’t produce any heat by themselves. They only retain the body’s heat by reflecting the body’s infrared radiations. And they are surprisingly effective.
Space blankets are quite inexpensive and can be found in most outdoor and sporting goods stores.
In case of rain
20. A couple of paperback books
Sadly, the sun can’t shine every day and, on a road trip, there’s not much else to do when it rains than to stay in the car. You should bring some good books to pass the time until the sun finally comes back.
If you plan on sleeping in the car
21. Inflatable car mattress that fits on the back seat
For years I’ve been renting a station wagon every time I left on a road trip so I could lay an inflatable mattress in the trunk. But did you know that an inflatable mattress that fits over the back seats of a sedan actually exists? Look it up, you can easily find one in any car accessory store and they are quite affordable. These things will change your life. You’ll now be able to leave for a road trip anytime you want and still have a good night’s sleep in your car.
22. Window shades
Nothing makes it harder to sleep in late on a road trip than the sun shining through the windows at 5:20 am. If you don’t plan on being back on the road that early, buying a set of window shades for your car might be a good idea. Window shades are pieces of fabric or leather you can clip around the windows, effectively blocking those annoying morning rays.
If you are on a tighter budget, you can always squeeze blankets and clothes in between the windows and the window frames but it’s a lot harder to block the windshield and back glass. The temperature inside the vehicle also tends to rise pretty quickly in the summer since the windows have to stay closed tight. Window shades, on the other hand, will allow the windows to stay halfway open if you’d like.
Eating on the road
23. Butane camp stove
As already mentioned above, one of the most expensive parts of the trip will be eating on the road. Since you won’t have access to a fridge, you’ll have to frequently eat at restaurants and that can quickly add up to the bill. To cut down on the food, think about bringing a butane stove with you. Food bought at the grocery store and cooked on your own is cheaper than restaurant food.
Furthermore, cooking with friends on the side of the road can only make the journey even more memorable. If you aren’t much of a cook, get yourself a camping cooking book. You’ll find tons of simple and affordable ideas to cook complete meals with nothing but a butane stove and a campfire.
Remember to bring all kinds of snacks in the car to satisfy those road trip cravings and especially those happening when you’re in the middle of nowhere. Sweets, chocolate bars, chips, nuts, cookies, dried fruits are all snacks that can be kept at room temperature for a long time.
25. Curate a great road trip playlist
A great road trip playlist will enhance the fabulous landscapes you’ll see by the window, help you through the worst moments of the journey and to stay awake when all the other passengers sleep. In short, listening to your favorite tracks will intensify all the wonderful moments you’ll experience behind the wheel and will make them stick in your memory forever.
Don’t forget to create and download all your playlists before you leave or you might end up with a hefty phone bill to pay. Spotify and Deezer are convenient but they also take a lot of data when you use them to listen to music 24hrs a day.
26. Create a bucket list
Whether it’s an important monument in a city you’re going to stop at, an epic bar you want to take a drink at or a specific landscape you’ve been dreaming about, make sure you create a bucket list before you leave. Once on the road, it’s super easy to be overwhelmed by all the new stuff you’ll see and, of course, everyone in the car may want to see something different. To avoid missing something you’d like to do on your trip, sit in front of your computer with a glass of wine, browse Google and get informed about the area to which you’ll travel.
There are also things you may want to do during a road trip that aren’t related to the destination. Sleeping under the stars, talking about the meaning of life with your friends, start an improvised campfire in the woods, go for a midnight swim in a lake. But these are just examples. Let your imagination run wild and see where it takes you.
Each passenger should do the same on his or her own and then compare all the bucket lists side by side. If you are lucky, more than one person will want to see the same attraction. In the end, the goal is to come up with a collective list so nobody misses whatever he or she wanted to see or do the most.
27. Choose the right vehicle
When planning a road trip, choosing the right vehicle for you is of the utmost importance. However, a road trip doesn’t absolutely have to be a car trip. Depending on the number of persons embarking on the journey, different vehicles could be considered.
It is, therefore, possible to leave on a road trip driving a car, but also on a bike, motorcycle, camper, van or even a full-sized RV. A motorcycle or bicycle trip will change your perception of travels forever. Two-wheelers are synonymous with freedom. But even though they are perfect for a road trip, one can imagine that the items you’ll need to pack will be significantly different.
Each transport mode has its advantages and disadvantages and this is why the vehicle choice is so crucial. Driving the right car at the right time can make or break the journey.
No matter whether you plan on leaving alone or with your friends, driving a motorcycle or a vintage Westfalia van, the key to a successful road trip is to be adequately prepared. Take some time to reflect on what you’d want to see and the memorable moments you’d like to experience and make sure you pack accordingly. Road trips are a great way to disconnect from your daily routine, make new friends and release some steam once in a while but if you really want to go on a trip and leave your problems behind, make sure you don’t bring more problems with you by rushing it when it’s time to leave for the road trip of your life.
Oh, and as promised, here’s your free copy of our road trip essentials .pdf checklist!