13 Essential Things to Pack for a Better Road Trip

Before you hit the road, pack these must-have items recommended by travel writers, lifestyle bloggers and other road warriors.

13 Essential Things to Pack for a Better Road Trip Photo by Soloviova Liudmyla / Shutterstock.com

Just think how many times you’ve been on a long car trip and thought you could enjoy it more — even during a rest stop — if only you had thought to pack a certain item. The problem, of course, is that in the rush to prepare all the basics for the road, it’s easy to overlook small items that make trips so much more pleasant.

We spoke to travel writers, lifestyle bloggers and all-around road warriors to create a checklist of these sometimes hard-to-remember items that add to the fun of the road trip:

1. A good book

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Of course you’re not going to read when you drive. But your travel companion can read aloud while you drive and then later you can switch off and take over reading duty, said Oregon-based travel writer Peter Korchnak, co-author of the food travel website Where Is Your Toothbrush?

“It passes the time like nothing else, especially on long boring stretches of freeway or Autobahn,” he said. “My wife and I read ‘The DaVinci Code’ this way on a trip to visit her parents in Northern California. It should be an easy, fast read like that [2003 novel by Dan Brown]. We had a lot of fun doing characters’ voices and reading action sequences with dramatic effect. It’s one of our favorite road trip memories. We prefer real books to audiobooks because with those both of us just listen, whereas with reading, we’re both more engaged and time goes by more quickly.”

2. Yoga mat

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If you’re into yoga or meditation, think about putting your mat in the car.

“I’m a yoga teacher and all-around fitness fanatic so I LOVE being able to pop into studios or take my practice anywhere,” said avid Houston-based traveler Lindsay McClellan who recommended MindBody to find the studios in different areas. “Most of the time I’ll just find a studio in a random place to take a class … but when we were in Florida, we took a break and I set my mat up in a park, and on a trip to Belize our hotel actually had a yoga deck. It was awesome!”

The mat also doubles for other activities such as a comfortable seat on the ground or even a surface for a picnic lunch, said TV personality and lifestyle blogger Jamie O’Donnell.

2. Headlamp

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The headlamp has a multitude of uses for camping and outdoor adventures — providing hands-free light when building a fire, setting up a tent or otherwise fumbling around in the dark. But it’s also a good tool even if you’re traveling from one luxury hotel to another — for reading in the car at night, spontaneously exploring an abandoned barn or cave, and for use in case (God forbid) you have car trouble on the road at night.

4. A small towel

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If you’re into yoga, you’ll want a towel to keep the perspiration out of your eyes, but a small packable towel can serve a lot of other functions on the road as well.

“I keep these rolled up in my trunk,” says O’Donnell. “They’re perfect in case you end up in the park or at the beach. It also works for a spontaneous swim or dip in the ocean.”

5. Sunscreen

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Before you say packing sunscreen is a no-brainer, think about how many times you forget it or had to dig it out from the depths of a tote bag — only to have it leak all over. MJ Carroll found the solution when she stopped in Sun Valley, Idaho, during a 2016 trip.

“Last summer, I put this bottle of Beyond Coastal sunscreen in the driver’s side lower cup holder. It fits perfect in any car cup holder and lasted all summer long,” she said. “I put it on before hitting the beach, river or before a run/hike/bike/adventure. It was super easy to share with family/friends who might be in need for some proper SPF protection during the heat of the summer. Easy to rub in, and doesn’t leave you greasy.”

6. Hot/Cold food storage bags

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I keep a couple of these folded up in my trunk,” said O’Donnell. “They work great if you decide to grab a few things at the farmers market and need to keep them hot or cold. Also works great if you decide on a spontaneous picnic or party in the park. You can grab a few items from the store, and you have a built in cooler.” Remember to take the bags out of your trunk and clean them, of course.

7. Swiss Army knife

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A Swiss Army knife or other multitool may seem like camping gear, but it is also a super compact way to ensure that you can have a spontaneous roadside picnic. It has all the tools you need to open canned food, pop a bottle cap, uncork a bottle of wine or cut up your cheese and bread.

8. A roll of quarters

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You never know when you’ll need some change for tolls, a parking meter or to fill up a tire at the gas station. And it’s no fun to detour to find change, which often means you have to buy something just to break a bill.

“I keep a roll of quarters – which you can request at the bank – in my glove compartment,” said O’Donnell. “I never have to stress about downtown or beach parking that has meters that only take coins!”

9. An extra phone charger (or two!)

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As someone whose charger died in Death Valley National Park, I agree with Providence, Rhode Island-based travel writer Eugenia Zinovieva who never leaves home without an extra charger or two. If you can take a variety of chargers with you, all the better, she said.

“Somehow, somebody’s battery is always running low,” she said. “I like to be the champion of the day and help revive it!”

10. Small spray bottle filled with rubbing alcohol

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Blogger Tangela Walker-Craft said the alcohol can be used for many different purposes including sanitizing hands, spraying and wiping down surfaces before eating, and even for cleaning off public toilets before using them.

11. Fitness straps

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You want to work out, but the fitness center at your hotel is closed. Or you’re camping and just don’t have access. Use fitness straps to fashion your own workout area. There’s a wide variety from which to choose. O’Donnell swears by TRX straps.

“These are awesome for trips because you can hang them anywhere (yes, even from a tree!) and get a workout without taking up a ton of space in the car,” she said.

12. Music

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Almost everyone who spoke for this article recommended you fully load up your iPod, Spotify playlist or whatever audio players you have to enjoy tunes on the road. (For mellower times, you may also want to load up podcasts or audio books.) And no, that doesn’t mean you have to invest in a new car audio system before you hit the road, said Zinovieva.

“My bluetooth in-car speaker lets anybody in my car connect their music playlists and jam out,” she said. “My car is old and doesn’t have an aux cord, so this is a lifesaver when the radio plays the same five songs over and over!” Anker SoundSync is recommended by The Wirecutter and others.

13. A deck of cards

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Downtime? You don’t need electricity or an internet connection if you have deck of cards. Adults can play a late-night game of poker or take on the kids in Go Fish. It would be hard to find a more versatile and compact source of entertainment than an old-fashioned deck of cards.

What do you consider a must-have item on a road trip? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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