Road Trip Essentials: 25 Things You Must Have
Updated: Apr 16
Updated August 16, 2022
Need a road trip packing list? I've got you covered...
Growing up, my family always took road trips in our family truckster, a light green, 1979 Pontiac Le Mans station wagon. My dad was in the Air Force and we lived far away from any family, so school breaks were often dedicated to visiting grandparents or cousins.
The trips were always in excess of ten hours and because I had a sister nearly nine years my senior, and no one followed seat belt laws, I was relegated to the back seat floor. For further relaxation, we often traveled with our two cats and their litter box. The hump that divided up the floor space in the back row served as my border to their bathroom.
Sheer dedication or thrift (likely the latter) on my dad's part meant that at best we stayed at a walk-up motel en route. Not only were these less expensive, but the outside doors enabled us to sneak our cats easily into the room (my sincere apologies to allergy sufferers that came after us). And that - as I mentioned - was the best case. Other times, we would pull over to a McDonald's parking lot where my dad would take a snooze so we could later continue on our way.
I also had a small cup with a lid that I could use to pee in if we were on a long stretch without a rest stop. True story. I remember it had a monkey on the side. My family has no recollection of this and swears that I made that up. They are wrong.
Despite how bad it may sound, I love, love, love road trips. I love to drive. I long for quiet stretches with the open road in front of me. I also like the freedom to do a 180 and blare music that I can sing to as loud as I want.
Driving down the highway is filled with unexpected delights: like a train that seems to go on to infinity, a roadside stand that sells the juiciest tomatoes and the sweetest strawberries or a 1950s Americana photo-op with a giant concrete blue whale. Recently, my friend and I unexpectedly found one of Billy the Kid's supposed burial spots near the border of Texas and New Mexico.
Books and podcasts that are queued up on my virtual bookshelf get marked off of my list. And the quiet enables me to focus on sorting out my life and figuring out my next steps.
Our kids do great in the car. I attribute this to a couple of things: (1) we have regularly done road trips since they were born and they are used to it and (2) we pose few rules when traveling. We take periodic breaks from devices but the kids largely are allowed to watch movies, play games, and read on their devices.
Table of Contents:
Cargo / Luggage Gear
Food & Beverage Gear
Miscellaneous, But Important Gear
Here are my road trip packing essentials:
Cargo / Luggage
Rooftop Carrier / Cargo Tow
Keep as much space in the car as you can. If you have 2 kids and 3 rows, let one kid have each row so that they can spread out. If you have multiple stops before you get to your destination, try and keep one or two bags down that contain the clothes for overnight but keep the rest of the stuff in your cargo carrier.
Headphones and an iPad for the Kids
People fall into two camps: those that let their kids use devices on road trips and those that don’t let their kids use devices and then think that they cannot take long trips because their kids get too antsy. Give your kid the device. You can make them take breaks and you can also point out the cool stuff along the way so that they don’t miss it. But after hours of driving through the plains of West Texas or the corn fields of Iowa, they will be perfectly happy to be quiet and watch Teen Titans, I promise you.
Speaking of losing your mind, this will happen if you forget headphones and have someone else in your car that has a device. I also have a splitter jack for my kids' headphones that we use if one of their devices fails so that they can both watch the same movie.
We also have headphones that help control the volume so they don’t blast out their eardrums.
I'm not sure what I did before AirPods.Granted, I can only find them half the time. But when I do know where they are, it's glorious. I can charge my phone AND listen to a podcast. And all hands-free! Brilliant!
Download podcasts, audiobooks or books on Kindle
I love to listen to a variety of podcasts: true crime, business, and productivity and I also subscribe to some kid's podcasts though admittedly, my kids are not that interested.
Kindle Unlimited is a great option for road trips because you can change out the books if you don’t like what you got and it’s usually easy to connect to wi-fi from somewhere on the road. I also use Libby and Overdrive from our local library so that I can download books and magazines for free.
A great playlist and/or Sirius XM
Do you remember in As Good As It Gets when Jack Nicholson had a playlist for whatever mood he wanted to invoke? Do that. I have fun playlists, travel songs, songs of resistance, blues, and the list goes on.
When I tire of that, I listen to Sirius XM. My default is the 80s channel but I love to flip through the decade channels, Willie's Roadhouse, the Elvis channel, and the comedy channels (if and only if the kids are wearing headphones).
Oh Lord, don’t forget these. I recommend getting an extra long cord for road trips because I guarantee a kid isn’t going to pay attention to their device battery until it shuts off and then there’s hell for all to pay. If you use the factory cord, you will often end up with a cord that doesn’t reach the kid OR it does reach the kid and is broken at one end by the end of the trip. Trust me, you want a long cord.
Travel pillows and blankets
Small pillows are good for sleeping and back comfort. Blankets can be used for warmth and as extra pillows. Turkish towels are small and can also be used as a bath or beach towel.
Lap desk and entertainment for the kids
Kids need a surface to write or draw on. If you have space for a cup, you can use it to hold markers and crayons or for its intended purpose. This lap desk for kids is great - it hooks to the seat, and has space for cups, snacks, an iPad, and drawing materials.
If you are looking for things that lay flat, don't take up much space, and can entertain the kids, check out my article on "46 Entertainment Ideas for Kids on Plane or Road Trips."
Snacks and Drinks
This includes water and other Drink(s) of choice like flavored seltzer water and Gatorade. For snacks, I like to bring salami, cheese, olives, and nuts. Staples like Goldfish and pretzels always make the cut too. We usually bring a small cooler but an insulated backpack cooler makes a great addition if you anticipate wanting to hike or do day trips and a picnic.
You should eat healthy food, but I can assure you there is nothing more exciting than pulling out Doritos or Cheetos seven hours into a road trip when you are hungry and bored and about to lose your mind. If those aren't your jam, bring whatever is exciting to you.
It's completely ridiculous, but every person in our family has a Yeti tumbler. Sadly, I was the last one to get one. My husband and son are militant about having icy water. I always preferred room temperature but my husband kept giving me ice until I relented and decided that I preferred it.
Miscellaneous - But Important!
Sunglasses and Eyeglasses
Nothing can make a road trip go south faster than forgetting sunglasses or your regular glasses. My night vision is terrible and I do much better when I wear my glasses.
Yep, we all have phones and navigation devices in our cars. But you still can’t beat a good ole Rand McNally Road Atlas on a road trip. Not only will it help you if you have service issues, but the kids can help navigate and learn a bit of geography.
Paper towels, napkins, and reusable straws
My mom always kept a Ziploc bag with this stuff in our car console and I thought it was a bit much. That is until we inevitably needed it.
Wet wipes and Hand Sanitizer
There are a million uses for wet wipes starting with messy hands and faces. They also help to clean off picnic tables along the way. I also guarantee your kids will touch something icky enough (rest area trash can anyone) to necessitate hand sanitizer.
Trash bags, Leather Interior, and Glass Cleaner Wipes
I think my kids have a contest to see who can trash the car the fastest. There’s nothing nastier than lifting up a booster seat after a road trip. Trust me. We don’t succeed, but we do try and have everyone throw their trash into the bag whenever we get gas, stop at a rest area or get to the stop at the end of the day.
The Leather Interior and Glass Cleaner wipes are handy to keep in the car year-round (or non-summer months for those of us in the south) to keep your car looking nice.
But most importantly…
Take the time to look out the window and enjoy the drive. We live in a beautiful country where every state varies in its landscape. Make good time if you need to but don't rush past opportunities to experience great local restaurants or visit a small town antique store if you can spare a couple of hours. Hidden treasures await!
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