Destinations Magazine

Trip Planning: The Essential Packing List for Road Trips

By Kenin Bassart @Constantramble

While planning for a road trip, there’s always that long list of items that we all want to pack. Over the years I’ve found a lot of things to be cumbersome and not very useful, while others are completely essential. Here a packing list I’ve compiled of a few items that I consider absolutely essential for a road trip!

Trip Planning: The Essential Packing List for Road Trips

Bags are packed and ready to go!


  • An Awesome Camera

For many of you, the first item on this list may seem pretty obvious, but with my background in Consumer Electronics sales, I can tell you a lot of people miss the boat on this one. I’ve seen more vacation photos ruined because they were taken with cell phone cameras or budget point and shoots than I care to imagine. I’m not saying that you need to pack a $1200 SLR that will take you a month to learn to use, but take something decent. If you’re not sure what kind of camera to get check out my Nikon Travel Camera Review, for some essential features.

  • Voltage Inverter

When I used to take road trips, I would either buy car chargers for my electronics, or try to measure my battery life in miles per minute! Nowadays, I don’t do either! No, I haven’t thrown all my electronics out the window, I just finally purchased a voltage inverter. They plug into your 12v plug-in your car and then allow you to plug standard plugs in on the other end. They run from about $25-40 which is easily what you’ll spend on one car charger. Another benefit is that it lets you charge things like your digital camera which don’t normally have car chargers available.

  • GPS or an Atlas

I know what your thinking here, “my cell phone has a great GPS” or I use “Google maps”. Cell phones are great until you find yourself in the middle of nowhere with no service while on your Road Trip. This usually happens at the intersection of BFE and No Mans Land, when you have to make a decision. If you have a dedicated GPS or a current Atlas (even a printed map will do) you wont find yourself scratching your head or getting lost. I frequently download PDF maps to my iPad which keeps me from having to carry map books. If you have a car with built-in navigation, it should work fine as long as it’s not dependent on your phone and you can zoom in and out with it easily.

  • Binoculars

Lauren is an avid wildlife spotter, and I can’t tell you how many times we both want to get a better look at something off in the distance. We ALWAYS bring the binoculars on our trips, except on the last one. I can’t tell you how many times we regretted not having them with us.

  • Emergency Kit

I’m not referring to a roadside kit with fix-a-flat and flares and such here (even though those are handy). I mean packing a kit for human emergencies. I normally pack it with bandages, and ace bandages, ibuprofen, hand sanitizer, a sewing kit, and other such items. Don’t go overboard, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hurt myself (or popped a button while hiking) and turned to my kit. A friend of mine calls it my “Dora Bag” because I always have what I need in it.

  • A Cooler

We save tons of money by bringing a cooler with us. We pack it with ice whenever we leave the hotel and stuff it with food, restaurant leftovers, soda, or whatever else we want to keep cold. It’s a whole lot cheaper than buying beverages and such at roadsides and gas stations.

  •  Folding Shovel

It’s surprising how many times a shovel can come in handy. You don’t need anything huge, just a small folding shovel will do. I’ve used mine to dig out the tires from unexpected snow or ice and fill in spots where I’ve been stuck in the mud. It also does well when “nature calls” while hiking or camping.

Trip Planning: The Essential Packing List for Road Trips

A shovel comes in handy if you wake up to this!

  • Towels

Even if we are not planning on going swimming I’ll always pack a couple of towels. They come in really handy when we get caught in unexpected rain. On top of that we find ourselves using them for picnics, or putting them on a dirty rest stop table when we stop for lunch.

  • TP or Napkins

We found most interstate rest areas are pretty well stocked, but once you find yourself on back country roads it’s usually every man and woman for themselves. A small pack of tissue, tp, or napkins is all you need to make sure your not caught in the wild with your pants down.

  • Rain Gear

Whether it’s a full on rain coat or just a water proof jacket, always have one in the car. On our last trip we got rained on in the desert! In addition to helping with the rain a good waterproof coat works well when you visit somewhere misty like the Smoky Mountians, or even the beach in the Pacific Northwest.

  • Sleeping Bag

We always bring a sleeping bag, even when we are not planning on overnighting outdoors. Many people will bring a comforter or blanket, but they always seem to get bunched up. Sleeping bags are usually light weight, and come with straps or ties so they can tuck away neatly in the car and don’t become cumbersome.

  • Journal

I must say that I used to think traveling with a journal was best left to hipsters and poets. On our last 35-day trip I made it a point to do two things. 1. Bring a journal and 2. Make myself write for 10 minutes each night. By doing this I ended up writing about a lot of little things that I would have forgotten about otherwise. I hear a lot of travelers say their camera is their journal, but the camera can’t catch-all the precious moments and thoughts that run through your mind.

  • Good Walking Shoes

I know this is a road trip gear list, but Once you get to your destination you usually end up doing quite a bit of walking. Nothing ruins a trip or a vacation more than sore feet. Also, if you like to wander off the beaten path, like we do, you’ll find yourself wandering into places where flimsy shoes or flip-flops just won’t do.

  • Emergency Credit Card or Funds

I’ve seen and heard of way too many travelers being stuck with an unexpected expense or worse having their wallet stolen and it ruining their trip. We normally take a separate credit card or funds and stash it in the car. That way if we have an issue, we have a back up with us.

Once you’ve made sure you have all your essentials make sure to use our Guide to Checking Your Car.

Am I forgetting anything? Add your list of essentials in comments below!


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