Road trips are more popular than ever and it’s not hard to see why. From offering an affordable means of having an epic vacation to lending the flexibility to explore where you please whenever you please, road trips are one of the absolute best ways to have an adventure in your extended backyard. And, unlike air or even train travel, you can pack pretty much whatever your heart desires in the back of your car.
But, given that freedom, it can be a little overwhelming and challenging to determine what things to pack that might make your road trip more comfortable and convenient and what might just wind up as useless clutter in an overflowing trunk.
My husband, Justin, and I have went on countless road trips in the course of our relationship, including three, week-long trips in the last four months, exploring the western half of the United States. Over the thousands of miles we’ve logged on the road and the many times we have packed our little Prius, Gracie, Tetris-style with boxes and bags, we’ve created the ultimate road trip packing checklist. So if you’re not sure about what’s worth chucking in the back of your trunk, I’m here to help you out, with a literal copy of my own packing checklist and some explanations behind what we bring along.
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Table of Contents
- What kind of road trips is this list geared towards?
- What to Pack for an Outdoorsy Road Trip
What kind of road trips is this list geared towards?
Justin and I usually have an eclectic itinerary on road trips, with a lot of our time spent exploring the great outdoors (we went to 12 U.S. National Parks this summer!), but seeking out the best breweries, doughnuts, and eccentric hidden gems we can find along the way. We also usually stay in a pretty mixed bag of accommodations- perhaps camping a few nights, maybe getting cozy in a remote cabin another night, and then filling in the gaps with a hodgepodge of Airbnbs and hotels.
While some of the items on this list will be helpful even if you’re driving to Disneyland or to lay by a rooftop pool in Vegas, this list is mostly geared towards a road trip focused on outdoor activities like hiking, driving through national parks, kayaking, camping, or other outdoors adventures.
What to Pack for an Outdoorsy Road Trip
Since the whole “how many socks, underwear, and sweaters should I pack?” thing is largely governed by where you’re going, for how long, and during what part of the year, I’m going to assume you’ve got that portion of it covered. Otherwise, here’s how I break down our packing list.
Eating on the Road
One of the best aspects of a road trip is the flexibility it provides with respect to packing your own food, which can really help cut costs on the road. We pack:
If there is one item that jumps to my mind when I think of a road trip, it’s SNACKS! We mostly pack snacks to take on our hikes- think Cool Mint Clif bars, trail mix, and dried fruits (chili mango FTW!). We definitely have been known, though, to buy a bag or two of Takis at gas stations along the way (I mean, what’s a road trip without a little junk food?!).
To cut down on our costs while we’re on the road, we buy groceries while we’re at home, pack them in a cooler (very similar to this one), and make our own breakfast and lunch pretty much every day of our trip. Beyond the significant budgetary benefits, packing your own meals allows you way more flexibility; for example, we usually eat our lunches once we reach the summit of our hikes rather than having to drive at least half an hour from the trailhead while hangry trying to find the closest restaurant. Plus, by only eating out once a day, it makes the times that you do go out feel a bit more special.
We make sure to cook a meal via campfire at least once per trip (both to save costs on eating out and let’s be honest, because they’re hygge af), by booking Airbnbs with firepits or at campgrounds we stay at. For our campfire ritual, we pack:
- telescoping metal skewers, like these ones, for roasting hot dogs and marshmallows (lessons I learned during our recent road trips: don’t roast hot dogs on those weakling wooden marshmallow roasting sticks unless you want them to fall off into the fire and become engulfed in flames #liveitlearnit);
- aluminum foil (we usually just wrap up some onions and mushrooms in foil and throw it right in the fire; THEY COME OUT LIKE FRICKIN’ CANDY!);
- firestarters; and
- a lighter– since we also use this when we go backcountry camping, we wind up using our lighter pretty frequently!
Before you have a campfire or do any kind of activities with pyrotechnics (I’m looking at you, folks who started a wildfire in California with your gender reveal fireworks), channel your inner Smokey the Bear and make sure they’re currently allowed under local regulations to prevent the spread of wildfires.
We wind up using a baking sheet to cook at campsites where the firepit comes with a grate or to serve as a wide, flat surface to prepare sandwiches or other meals in the back of our hatchback while we’re on the go. Once, we even wound up using it as a flat surface to leverage our jack on when we got a flat tire on some muddy ground. So multi-functional!
Odds and ends:
We bring along some other things to help us prepare, pack, and clean up our food, especially if we’re on the road. We bring Ziploc baggies to pack up our lunches or to save our leftovers (I want to transition to using reusable ones like these to create less plastic waste); paper plates to cut veggies or eat on the go; a roll of paper towels; and a mixture of some heavy duty trash bags (we usually place the ice in our cooler in a couple of them to prevent the melted ice from getting into our food) and some normal trash bags.
Our main activity during our road trips is usually hiking (and finding hot springs and breweries that happen to be along the way). One of my favorite things about hiking is that you pretty much only need hiking boots (like these for men and these for women)- there generally isn’t a need for a whole bunch of other gear.
You obviously need a backpack to carry your water, your snacks (obvs), and a jacket if you get cold on the trail. We both have pretty big backpacks for camping that we usually use for day hikes as well- I have a 65L one, like this and here is a 60L equivalent for men.
If you’re just going to go on day hikes, I’d recommend picking up a packable backpack (i.e., one that you can pack up into a tiny pouch and shove in a bigger suitcase or bag, but quickly unpacks to meet all your hiking needs) and this 18L one by Osprey seems like a great option. Justin and I bought a packable backpack for our honeymoon in Japan that our dogsitter sadly left leaning against our radiator and melted into a plastic puddle (RIP), but before its liquefaction, we used it on literally every trip and hike we went on!
So you know how I said that all you need for hiking is a pair of hiking boots? Let me amend that statement to- all you really need is hiking boots… and water. And LOTS of it- did you know the reason that most people who get rescued off hiking trails isn’t because of bears or falling down a mountain, but rather due to dehydration?
Some people swear by hydration packs (sometimes called bladders or Camelbaks)- I used to have one like this. While there are certainly some benefits to hydration packs, like being capable of carrying a large amount of liquid, packing down small, and squishing into weird or tight spaces in your backpack, I personally don’t prefer them as they’re usually cumbersome to clean and honestly, get gross pretty quickly.
On our hikes, I instead prefer to carry large Nalgene bottles, like this one, and bring along a couple smaller plastic bottles (that I reuse!) in my backpack to refill the Nalgene. Justin and I also keep a 2.5 gallon water dispenser in our car, like this one, to fill up our water bottles between hikes and then occasionally take it in at night to top off in our Airbnb. It majorly cuts down on the amount of plastic water bottles we buy- good for the planet and our wallets!
If you plan on camping, partaking in any sunrise or sunset hikes, or even stargazing, I’d recommend bringing along a headlamp. Justin and I have these rechargeable ones (who wants to fart around with replacing batteries?!) and I LOVE them!
Bear spray (if you’ll be hiking in bear country):
Justin and I go hiking pretty much every weekend in the Cascade Mountains near our home in Washington, which also happens to be the home of tens of thousands of black bears. The same rings true for a lot of the places that we road trip to (you can see a map of where bears live in North America here).
While bears are not usually aggressive towards people, they may act so if you startle them or if their young happens to be near. To mitigate this risk, we always leave a can of bear spray (which is used much like pepper spray to temporarily deter, but not permanently injure aggressive animals) in our car to take with us on our hikes. Although we thankfully have never had to use it, we have this one. It’s also best practice to make noise while you’re hiking in bear country- by chatting to your hiking partner, intermittently clapping, or clipping a bear bell onto your bag (I like this one, as it comes with a magnetic silencer for when you’re not trying to scare away bears).
Okay, so I know I wasn’t going to tell you exactly what to pack clothing-wise, but I would be remiss not to tell you to bring along a swimsuit. Even if you’re going someplace that you don’t necessarily associate with swimming, a lot of national or state parks have gorgeous lakes to go kayaking or splash around in and many even offer my beloved- hot springs!
On each of our road trips this summer (Idaho, Grand Teton National Park, and Montana; Utah; and Oregon- none of which generally seem like “beach-y” destinations), we jumped into glacial lakes or relaxed in a hot spring after a long hike and every single time, it was one of the highlights of the trip. So be sure to bring one along- I’ve got this swimsuit in white and red (much Baywatch). For the fellas, I like that you can rock these from the trails to a casual dinner.
If you’re going to go swimming/hot spring-ing, you’re also going to need a towel, which Justin and I notoriously forget to pack (if you’re moving from place to place, you won’t be able to borrow towels from your prior night’s accommodations). Luckily, travel towels are super light, packable even in the most crowded trunks, and quick drying. If you want to be classier than Justin and me (since we somehow ALWAYS forget to pack our towel, we keep buying car drying ones from Walmart to save money, since they’re made from the same material), these ones have solid reviews.
For how much time Justin and I spend outside AND for how pasty we both are, it’s fairly astounding how often we forget to bring along two simple items: Chapstick and sunscreen. If you’re hiking in the mountains or the desert, the air is likely going to be way drier than you’re used to (so hello, sad and cracked chapped lips). And since nothing can ruin a vacation quicker than a nasty sunburn, always remember to slather on some sunscreen before hitting up the trails.
America the Beautiful Pass:
If you plan on visiting any U.S. National Parks on your road trip, a weeklong pass to each park usually costs between $30-$35 per car. However, if you have plans to stop by a couple of U.S. National Parks within a year span, these fees are included if you pick up an America the Beautiful Pass, an annual pass that costs just $80 and gets you into more than 2,000 U.S. national parks, forests, shorelines (and on and on). It’s a hell of a deal- for example, on our Utah road trip, we went to 5 national parks in a week, meaning we would have spent at least $150 in admission fees alone without our pass.
Besides being an almost sinfully good deal, the proceeds support the National Park Service. So if you plan to go to at least three national parks per year, picking up one of these bad boys is a total no brainer. You can either pick one up here, at your local REI, or at most staffed entrance stations at U.S. National Parks.
Since backpacking is kind of in its own separate realm, I wrote a whole separate post about what to pack if you plan on backcountry camping during your road trip.
I mean, you obviously need to capture those epic moments right? Justin and I are both photography enthusiasts and while we are frugal in almost every aspect of our lives, this is definitely an area where we splurge!
Justin carries a Sony a7III camera (psst… we wrote an entire review about the Sony a7iii here, coupled with a Sony 16-35mm Vario-Tessar lens, and I have a Sony a6400 (I got it with the kit lens, which isn’t great, so I’d recommend just buying the body and picking up a zoom lens for a cropped sensor camera, like the Sony E 16-55mm F2.8 G lens). It’s kind of amazing how much a good camera and lens can elevate your travel picture game from the standard awkward selfie to a banger image you’ll want to immediately change your Instagram profile pic to.
Also if you don’t have an ABSURD amount of money to blow on camera gear (seriously, why is camera stuff so expensive?!), no worries- most cell phone cameras these days take really great pictures!
Okay, when I said that good cameras will change your photography game, I should have really been clear that a tripod is kind of integral in getting those dreamy images, especially if you’re a solo traveler or if you want photos together as a couple. I bought a tripod years ago, but given the bulkiness, I rarely packed it for trips or hikes.
After using a variety of inanimate objects to function like a tripod (I’m talking benches, trees, rocks, backpacks…), we finally picked up the Peak Design Travel Tripod (it packs down to the diameter of a water bottle!), so we could stop relying on strangers in other countries to take our photos together (I have some kind of really lame superpower of always asking the very worst photographers in the world to take our pictures).
This tripod totally transformed our photography, simply because it’s small and compact enough to carry with us everywhere.
2023 Update: We love this tripod so much that we ended up purchasing a second Peak Design travel Tripod in carbon fiber. It's not cheap, but shaved more than a pound off of our total pack weight, making it that much more packable!
This one is definitely a bit extra, but drones are the freaking coolest and can be a totally unique way to capture out-of-this-world landscapes. DJI Spark is a great, (reasonably) affordable way to dip your toes in the exciting world of aerial photography.
I will note, though, that drones can definitely be a pain- from a complicated set-up process, to rigorous regulations, limited places you can actually fly (for example, you can be punished with up to six months in prison for flying in a U.S. National Park!), and causing annoyance and disdain from the general population. BUT some of my favorite pictures on our trips have been taken via drone, so if you’re patient, in the market for a fun, and/or SUPER committed to the ‘gram, it can be worth it!
I love bringing along a tablet, in case you need to do some more hardcore Internet browsing (like getting into the nitty gritty details of your road trip), on-the-go photo editing, or just to watch some Netflix. We have a Microsoft Surface tablet, which I definitely don’t love and plan on buying an Apple iPad Pro come Black Friday!
Portable power bank:
Given that we have rechargeable phones, drones, cameras, tablets, even headlamps when we travel, we take our power bank with us literally everywhere (even when we go backcountry camping!). We bought our Charmast power bank for our honeymoon in November 2017, have traveled with it all over the world for the past three years, and it’s still going strong. Highly, highly recommend!
Between Justin’s and my various gadgets, we have about six different charging cables we need to bring along on our road trips. Because of having so many different cords to keep track of, I have a nasty habit of accidentally leaving iPhone charging cables and USB bricks in my wake as we travel around the country. I’m considering picking up an electronics organizer to help me keep track of it all
Google Maps offline apps:
No matter where you’re going in the world, you’re bound to enter some area with little to no cell phone service. So why take the risk- download all of the areas you plan on driving to as an offline map during your trip (check out here for instructions), so you’ll be able to navigate even if you lose coverage. While you’re at it, download some extra podcasts to listen- nothing is sadder than when the latest episode of This American Life cuts out in the middle of an Ira Glass soliloquy during your drive, because you hit an area of crappy reception.
Items We Always Leave in the Car (that’ll come in handy!)
There are a couple of items that we leave in the car literally all the time that aren’t “road trip”-specific per se, but might definitely provide an assist while you’re on the road.
Justin and I always leave at least two camp chairs in our car for picnics, going to outdoor movies, watching the sunset, or wherever else our little Prius and the wind may take us. During our road trips this year, we used them countless times to sit down and enjoy meals that we made for ourselves or to have a beer around a campfire. We honestly just buy crappy $10 ones from Home Depot but for how much use we get out of them (and how uncomfortable the cheap ones can be), I’ve been thinking about buying two of these guys.
Car emergency kit and Fix-a-Flat:
We got two flat tires in fairly remote places this summer (… we may or may not have had to desperately get our tires changed). The cheapskate in me freaks out whenever something like this happens- tow trucks can be SO expensive. Luckily, though, we were prepared to handle the situation as we always keep two cans of Fix-A-Flat and the necessary parts to put on a spare in our car. We were able to drive ourselves to the nearest auto store to get our flats replaced, without having to call for outside help (or rack up a huge tow truck bill).
Your car should come with a spare and a jack (please double check before you leave on your trip!), but I’d recommend also bringing along a portable air compressor so that you can actually put air into the spare (we have one from my old car, but this car emergency kit seems to have lots of helpful items, including an air compressor, with great reviews).
Battery jump starter:
Our car battery dies every now and again and finding someone to help jumpstart your car isn’t always simple (especially if you’re out exploring a more remote location). Recently, a neighbor lent us one of these awesome car battery jump starter kit, which are essentially like a giant lithium battery power bank for your car- just throw one that’s charged up in the back of your car and if you ever need a jump, all you need to do is simply connect the box to your battery! Game. Changer.
Whether we use it as a beach or picnic blanket, to throw over our camera bag while we’re parked in a city, or just to get cozy around a campfire, a blanket is an absolute must.
There you have it- my handy dandy road trip packing checklist that we’ve used on three and counting adventures around the United States. Did I forget anything? Let me know in the comments below!