The absolute best way to see the United States is on a road trip. America is filled with scenic road trips that take you to national parks, stunning coastline, and isolated backcountry. But road trips take a lot of planning. You can’t just hop in your car and go (well I guess you could, but I wouldn’t recommend that…).
A solid itinerary and detailed road trip packing list can go a long way towards making your trip smooth and fun. This guide covers everything you’ll need on the road, from safety essentials to cozy must-haves. You’ll never forget a thing again when heading out on a road trip!
I’m a big fan of packing checklists, so I’ve made this post into a free, printable checklist! I use this exact checklist to pack for my own road trips, from Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks to the Pacific Coast Highway in California. Just click below to download the checklist for yourself!
The Best Road Trip Packing List
Are you planning a road trip? Check out some of my other road trip planning posts and my favorite itineraries!
- 12 Best Road Trip Planning Tools & Apps
- Ultimate Utah National Parks Road Trip
- 20 Best Stops on the Pacific Coast Highway
- The Best Lost Coast Road Trip Route
Ultimate Road Trip Packing List Essentials
Out of all the items on this list, these 10 items are essential for any road trip. It’s important to stay safe and be prepared, particularly if you’re road tripping in a more remote area. Before you hit the road, double-check that you’ve packed these items!
- Driver’s License
In the US, you’ll need a valid driver’s license to operate a vehicle, even a rental car. It’s also illegal to drive if you don’t have your license with you, so don’t forget it!
- Vehicle Registration
If you’re driving your own car, bring your vehicle registration. If you’re renting a car, the registration and rental documents should be in the car, but check before leaving!
- Car Manual
Breakdowns happen, especially if you’re driving long distances. To make sure you can handle any issue, keep the manual in the car. This is particularly important if you’re traveling to remote areas and can’t rely on Googling the answer. Most rental car companies will keep the manual in the car, but check before you drive off!
- Car Insurance
It is illegal to drive without car insurance in the United States, so always bring your insurance card. If you’re renting a car, you’re most likely covered under your personal insurance policy. If you need it, extra coverage is always available from rental companies.
- Travel Insurance
Travel insurance policies cover everything from trip cancellation to stolen property. If you’re taking expensive gear, like cameras and lenses, a travel insurance policy will cover you if it were to get stolen. I recommend World Nomads for travel insurance, as they can cover you both in the US and internationally.
- First Aid Kit
Injuries happen, especially if you’re accident-prone like me… A simple first aid kit can be a lifesaver. Since I do a lot of hiking on road trips, I bring my Adventure Medical Kit (made for hiking-related injuries).
- Emergency Roadside Assistance Kit
Roadside assistance kits can help you change a flat tire or jump-start your car in an emergency. I keep this roadside assistance kit from AAA in my car at all times.
- Spare Tire
If you do end up with a flat tire, you’ll want a good condition spare tire stowed away. Before leaving, check the condition of the spare tire in your trunk.
- Spare Cash
You can use credit cards nearly everywhere these days, it’s always a good idea to carry spare cash. You never know when machines may be down or you’ll need to pay for cash-only parking. I recommend keeping this in a separate bag in case you lose your wallet.
Headlamps are the sporty sibling to flashlights and so much more practical for road trips. Whether you’re changing a tire or repacking the trunk at night, headlamps keep your hands free. I have the Black Diamond Storm 400 and to say I’m obsessed is an understatement…
Road Trip Essentials for Your Car
To stay safe and comfy on the road, stock your car with these essentials. I recommend using a small storage bin to pack some of these items neatly in your trunk.
- AAA Subscription
AAA has saved me many times, from locking my keys in the car to getting a flat tire. They’ll even tow your vehicle if needed. Plus, a subscription to AAA gets you more than just roadside assistance. You can also use your AAA membership to get special rates on hotels and events!
- Extra Car Key
Remember when I said AAA has helped me after I locked my keys in my car? Well the easiest way to avoid the call to AAA is to pack an extra set of car keys. Just don’t keep them in the same bag as your main set of keys. Better yet, stow your extra keys with your trusty co-pilot!
- Duct Tape
Duct tape is a miracle worker. From ripped gear to repairs, duct tape can help in a pinch. Keep a roll of duct tape in your trunk just in case you need to make a quick fix.
- Tire Pressure Gauge
You should always check your tire pressure before a road trip. It’s also a great idea to bring a tire pressure gauge with you if your car doesn’t automatically track tire pressure. This will help you keep the right amount of pressure in your tires and avoid expensive wear and tear.
- Protective Floor Mats
The best way to protect your floors from muddy footprints, spills, and stains is with protective floor mats. I have WeatherTech mats for my entire Mazda CX-5. They make mats customized to the shape of every car model. While pricey, they are a game-changer, especially the trunk liner. It has a curved lip to capture any spilled liquids or leaks.
- Trash Can
Bags, wrappers, bottles – snacks are an important part of any road trip and you’ll need a way to dispose of all your trash. I recommend keeping an extra grocery bag in your car to collect trash and dump it out at gas stations.
Rain is inevitable, so it never hurts to be prepared. A compact umbrella can easily store in your trunk for surprise rainstorms.
- Reusable Water Bottle
Hydration is key for long car rides. To stay hydrated and be more eco-friendly, bring along a lightweight reusable water bottle, like a Nalgene. These water bottles are also great for short hikes!
- National Park Pass
Road tripping to a national park? Then you need a national park pass! For only $80 per year, the America the Beautiful pass gets you into all 62 national parks plus tons more national sites.
Planning a national park road trip? Check out this guide on the best things to do in every national park!
Winter Road Trip Essentials
Taking a road trip through wintry destinations comes with its own set of challenges. To combat the snow, be sure to pack these winter road trip essentials. If you aren’t planning to adventure in the snow, feel free to skip ahead!
- Tire Chains
Chains wrap around your tires to give you extra traction when driving on snow or ice. In the Winter, many snowy places, like Lake Tahoe, require visitors to have chains. This is often enforced with roadblock checks, so read up on your route ahead of time to see if chains are required.
- Snow Shovel
Snow can pile up quickly and you may have to shovel your car, parking spot, or driveway before you can hit the road. Keep a small snow shovel in your trunk for quick shoveling on the go.
- Ice scraper
Scraping the windshield is my least favorite part of traveling to a cold destination. Keep a durable ice scraper with a brush in the trunk of your car.
Pro tip: Run the defrosters for a few minutes before starting to scrape the ice off.
Best Navigation & Road Trip Apps
While you won’t have to physically pack these game-changing apps, you should make sure you have them downloaded before hitting the road! I use each of these apps to plan my road trip routes and find free places to stay along the way.
- Google Maps
I use Google Maps to plan my road trip route and determine the best places to stay overnight. I also use Google Maps to navigate along the way and avoid traffic. Just don’t forget to download the map offline in the mobile app before hitting the road!
GasBuddy helps you find gas stations along your route and compares prices. This is an essential app if you’re road tripping in a more remote location, like Utah, where gas stations can be 100 miles apart.
Freecampsites.net is the best tool to find free campsites in national forests and BLM lands. The website is crowd-sourced, giving you access to camping spots and reviews from other users.
Read More: 12 Best Road Trip Planning Tools & Apps
Technology Essentials for a Road Trip
If you’re like me, you travel with a phone, smartwatch, Bluetooth headphones, camera… the list goes on. All these things need to charge! Keep your gadgets charged and accessible for your road trip.
- Car Phone Mount
Many US states require hands-free phone use while driving. One of the best ways to use your phone for navigating is to get a car phone mount. These are cheap, lightweight, and easily packable.
- Car Power Adapter
Many newer cars have USB charging ports throughout the vehicle. If you’re not that lucky, buy a cheap car power adapter to turn the old-school cigarette lighter into a charger!
More handy electronics to keep your devices powered up on your road trip are:
- Power cords for each device you’re bringing along.
- A portable charger for power on the go like this one from Anker.
- Extra Batteries are always a good idea. Be sure to check what kind of batteries your headlamps and other electronics need!
Best Luggage for Packing for a Road Trip
Luggage is an ever-important part of packing for a road trip. To conserve space, you’ll want compact, organized bags. But you don’t want to sacrifice quality and durability! After all, luggage is a big investment and you want it to last.
I know a thing or two about picking quality, durable luggage after years of adventures.
Here are a few of my favorite bags for road trip travel:
- Lo & Sons Weekender Bag
- Samsonite Carry-On Size Suitcase
- Osprey Fairview Travel Backpack
- Osprey Aura Outdoor Backpacking Pack
After you’ve picked your perfect travel bag, make sure it’s organized. Packing cubes are the absolute best way to keep your luggage tidy on a road trip and store away dirty clothes.
Running short on space in the trunk? A rooftop cargo bin is a great investment for family or group road trips!
What to Wear on a Road Trip
Road trips mean driving. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to spend your hours in the car in comfort. That’s why all the items I recommend are cozy, breathable, and odor-resistant!
Don’t forget these wardrobe essentials on your road trip packing list:
- Breathable Shirts
Breathable, quick-drying shirts are key for longer road trips where you’ll want to re-wear shirts. I love the Patagonia Capilene tees for women.
- Comfortable Bottoms
Stretchy, comfy pants are perfect for long rides in the car. Since you’ll likely be active and exploring, I recommend something functional like Athleta’s Elation Leggings or Nike shorts.
- Rain Jacket
You never know when it will rain, so always keep a waterproof rain jacket handy. I always have my REI XeroDry rain jacket on road trips. Plus it’s a great pick for budget travelers!
- Fleece Pullover
No matter the time of year, you’ll want a jacket to keep you warm. The Patagonia Better Sweater is a great option for road trips because it’s so versatile. It’s great for hiking, lounging, and even out around town.
- Breathable Undergarments
If you’ll be washing clothes on the go, you’ll want quick-drying undergarments that are easy to hand wash. The underwear and bras from Excofficio are made from breathable, quick-dry material, perfect for long road trips.
A hat can protect you from the sun or keep you warm, depending on the season. In the summer, you’ll want something to protect your face like a baseball cap. In the winter, a beanie like this one from REI is a great budget option.
- Wool Socks
Good socks are a major key! Merino wool is warm, yet breathable and quick-drying (sensing a theme here?). REI makes some of the best affordable wool socks. These are perfect for under your hiking boots too!
- Slip-On Shoes or Flip Flops
For long driving days, you’ll want slip-on shoes or sandals. Easy to take off and easy to slip on for a quick run into the gas station.
- Hiking Boots
If you’re an adventurous road tripper, hiking boots are a must. I highly recommend the Columbia Newton Ridge boots for women (I’ve had mine for 3+ years)!
Don’t forget a bathing suit and towel if you’re traveling in the summer or visiting hot springs in the winter!
Sunglasses are a must for long days of driving. I always bring along my Rayban Aviators for the car but keep a cheap pair from Amazon in my hiking backpack.
Toiletries Packing List for a Road Trip
Hygiene on the road doesn’t have to be complicated. But you don’t have to skip it all together either!
Here’s the exact road trip packing list I use for toiletries:
- Shower essentials (shampoo, conditioner, body wash, etc.)
- Dental care (toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, mini mouthwash)
- Haircare (hairbrush, dry shampoo, hair ties, etc.)
- Makeup and skincare (moisturizer, chapstick, sunscreen)
- Tide to Go pen and a small amount of laundry detergent
- Nail clippers
- Medications, including a Vitamin C supplement like Emergen-C
- A quick-dry microfiber towel like the Pack Towel
- And now after 2020… hand sanitizer
I use a toiletry bag and reusable travel bottles to store all my toiletries when I travel. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to minimize your routine when traveling and bring fewer products.
If you’ll be traveling to remote places, don’t forget to pack a wilderness bathroom kit.
All you need are 3 things to go in the outdoors:
- A small shovel (called a trowel) to dig a small hole and bury your waste
- Toilet paper or baby wipes for after you go
- And a Ziploc bag to pack out the paper or wipes!
Road Trip Food and Cooking
One of the best ways to save money while traveling is by cooking your own meals. A road trip cooking set up is pretty similar to a camping setup.
Here are the basics you’ll need to cook on the road:
- Camp stove and a small propane tank
- Reusable dishes and eating utensils
- Camp sink and quick-drying dish towels to wash dishes
- Cooler to keep food cold for days
- 5-gallon water container for cooking and drinking
- Knife and cutting board
- Cooking utensils (Wooden Spoon, Spatula, Tongs)
- Cookset with pots and/or skillets
- Potholders or oven mitts
- Aluminum foil
- Paper towels
The best way to store your camping gear is in clear bins, like these from Sterilite. It will keep everything packed away, but you’ll be able to see what is in the bin without needing to unpack it!
Want to make your road trip kitchen set up a bit more eco friendly? Here are a few ideas!
- Reusable travel mug for coffee and tea
- Stainless steel straws
- Reusable shopping bags for groceries
- Chip clips to keep bagged food fresh
- Silicone bags to replace Ziploc bags and Tupperware
Entertainment Essentials for a Road Trip
The best way to pass time on the road? Pack the right things to keep you entertained the whole ride!
Whether it’s listening, reading, or sightseeing, this road trip packing list has you covered:
- Kindle or tablet for reading or browsing
- Headphones (for when you and the driver don’t share musical taste)
- Portable speaker for picnics and exploring
- Cards or board games for rainy days and evenings
- Your favorite playlist, books, audiobook, or podcast
- Camera or GoPro for capturing every epic moment
- A travel journal or national park passport to document your adventures
Comforting Things to Bring on a Road Trip
Taking comfort from home on the road is one of the best ways to have an enjoyable road trip.
Don’t forget these essentials for long drives:
- Neck pillow
- Snacks (my favorites are pretzel crisps, Chex mix, and gummy bears!)
And don’t forget to pack your sleep essentials:
- If you’re camping, bring a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad
- For those sleeping their car, bring a full-size air mattress and sleeping bag
- If you’re sleeping in a hotel, bring your favorite pillow from home
What Not to Take on a Road Trip
Now that you know what you should bring on a road trip, here are a few things to leave at home:
- Fancy meals with lots of prep
- Complex makeup, skincare, or hair products – keep it simple!
- Nice jewelry and other valuables
FAQs About Road Trip Packing
How long before a trip should you start packing?
Make your road trip packing list 2 weeks out. This will give you time to shop for last-minute necessities and toiletries. About 3-4 days before you leave, start organizing and packing your travel gear. Start packing clothing the night before you leave.
What should you not forget on a road trip?
While this list is full of things that you should bring on a road trip, you only truly need a few essentials. Don’t forget your license and registration, car insurance, roadside assistance kit, and wallet.
What should you carry in your car for a road trip?
Always carry the essentials for bad weather or breakdowns. For bad weather, bring a snow shovel, tire chains, and a windshield scraper. For breakdowns bring a spare tire, jumper cables, a basic toolkit, roadside assistance kit, car manual, and car insurance cards.
How do you pack clothes for a road trip?
Rolling your clothes instead of folding them takes up less space and prevents your clothes from wrinkling. After rolling your clothes, place them in packing cubes to keep your luggage organized.
How should I pack my car for a long road trip?
Load the biggest, study items first at the back of your trunk. Then stack smaller, compressible items on top. Keep your bag of essentials in the back seat instead of the trunk for easy access.
What are fun things to take on a road trip?
The most fun things to take on a road trip are those that keep you entertained and laughing the whole way! Bring along a tablet, card games, your favorite playlist, a GoPro, travel journal, and a portable wifi hotspot. And don’t forget yummy snacks!
How do you pass time in a car ride?
Podcasts and music are great ways to pass time on a road trip. Before you leave, download episodes and songs to your device so you can listen without cell service. My secret for long drives? Listening to stand up comedy! Both Spotify and SiriusXM have a great selection!
Final Thoughts on Your Road Trip Packing List
If you’re heading out for a road trip soon, there’s lot of items you need to pack. Hopefully this post helped you brainstorm what you’d need to take along. But at the end of the day, just don’t forget your phone, wallet, insurance, and keys!
Looking for more road trip inspiration? Check out these posts!