Road trip essentials: How and what to pack for your road trip

There’s a delicate balance between preparing and overpacking for a road trip—here’s how to pack, what to bring, and what not to bring

You can’t plan for the most memorable moments of a road trip. But proper packing and preparation is what lays the foundation for detours, delicious discoveries, and places you never knew you were looking for. Whether you’re spending a month or a week or the road, here are a few road trip essentials you should always carry with you. 

Your road trip packing list 

It might seem like you have all the space you could possibly need when you’re driving rather than flying. But beware—that space will fill up fast. 

There’s a delicate balance between preparing and overpacking. You want to be ready to enjoy a variety of destinations and activities, but you don’t want to be unpacking, repacking, reorganizing, and losing things because you have too much stuff. 

Every packing list will be different depending on where you’re going, what you’re doing, and for how long. This basic road trip packing list will get you started. 

What to pack for your road trip 

  • Comfortable driving clothes 
  • Slip-on shoes: Camping slippers or hiking sandals are great for midnight bathroom runs or driving. 
  • Closed-toe, active shoes: Hiking boots, sneakers, or both, depending on your preferred activities.  
  • Medium-warmth coat: Functional layers are the key to comfort when roadtripping.  
  • Toiletries 
  • Camping supplies: Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, and lantern.
  • Pillow and extra blankets 
  • Sunglasses: Bring the cheap ones, you’re bound to lose a pair or two. 
  • Road atlas: A seasoned roadtripper always has a current one in the car.    
  • Notebook and pen: For recommendations, journaling, games, and more.
  • Headlamp: Even if you’re not camping, this will help you find things in your car at night. 
  • Cash: For highway tolls, campground fees, and unexpected “cash only” stops.  
  • A gallon or two of water: It’s always a good idea to have extra water on hand. 
  • First-aid kit: Bandages, aspirin, antiseptic, motion sickness medicine, and any other medications you might need. 
  • A towel: For the beach, showers, sitting in the grass, the dog, and more. 
  • At least two phone chargers: One should stay in your car so you always know where it is. 
  • Hands-free cell phone holder
  • Travel mug and reusable water bottles: You’ll save money and cut down on waste.
  • Duffle bags or packing cubes: Soft-sided carriers will make it easier to separate your things for different legs of your trip, and they’re easy to stack and smoosh together. 
  • Garbage bags: Keep all your waste in one place.

What to bring for your car 

This will vary depending on your vehicle, but everyone should carry these basic automotive items when taking a road trip. 

Some handy extras 

  • Baby powder: Before you get back in the car, sprinkle it on sandy skin at the beach to absorb moisture and the sand will fall right off.
  • Reusable cutlery: This will help cut down on waste when you grab food to-go. 
  • Reusable containers: For snacks you make in advance or leftovers along the way. 
  • Sunshade for your windshield: It will keep your car cooler when you’re parked in hot, sunny places.
  • Yoga mat: Stretching is important when you’re crammed into a car all day. A yoga mat will make it easier to stretch just about anywhere. It can also double as a sleeping pad. 
  • Wrinkle release spray: When you aren’t doing much laundry, a wrinkle release spray is an excellent option for making your clothes look fresh. 

What NOT to pack for your road trip 

It’s up to you, but we think these items are unnecessary. 

  • Outfits for specific occasions: Go for multi-functional outfits, like a comfortable black cotton dress that can be worn in the car or to a nicer restaurant. All your clothes should work for multiple activities, and if everything goes together, you can easily mix and match for variety. 
  • Hard-sided suitcases: Inflexible luggage will limit how you can arrange everything in your car. 
  • Games with small pieces: They’re bound to roll under the seats and be lost forever. 
  • Jewelry and valuables: It’s just not worth the risk. 
  • New travel gadgets you’ve never used: They might seem fun and innovative, but chances are, they’re also unnecessary. 

How to pack for your road trip  

An over-packed car can quickly turn into a disorganized mess, and you’re likely to forget about half the stuff you brought if it’s not easy to access. With that in mind, focus on accessibility and multi-functional items. 

A small overnight bag should be kept within easy reach and contain everything you need after a long day of driving, whether you’re spending the night in a motel, a campground, or even in the back of your vehicle. This can include sleepwear, your toothbrush and toothpaste, any toiletries you use to clean up, extra layers, a headlamp, phone charger, and a book or tablet. You can also keep an outfit for the next day here. Packing moisture-wicking, odor-resistant materials can allow you to use an outfit more than once and avoid laundry on the road. 

For extended trips, pack your car according to what you’ll need first. Will you be in cities to start, before heading to more remote destinations where you might be hiking and camping? Then your hiking boots and camping supplies should go on the bottom. Will you start your trip in a colder climate and keep going into warmer temperatures? Or will you be moving from colder destinations to warmer ones? Consider whatever transitions will happen along your route, and layer your packed items accordingly. 

Finally, it’s wise to do a test run before heading out on the road to make sure that everything fits in your vehicle. If it doesn’t, take stock of what you really need and consider leaving some things behind. Don’t forget to leave room for any souvenirs and mementos you may bring home from your trip.