Our first road trip as a family took place about a decade ago in a KIA Sorento.
Lord, have mercy, we put that little cross-over through its paces.
Knowing what I know now, I would have planned better. Heather and I were just kids who, as it turns out, had a kid, and our wanderlust drove us to abandon the every-day in search of … well, whatever was out there.
I learned a lot on that 5,000-mile journey: the importance of rest stops on a long drive (as opposed to being in a hurry to get there); the fact that state and national parks are better places to stay than the finest hotels and resorts, and that the open road is just as exciting as the destination.
The important things come to light with experience. Like, the things you need on a family road trip that make it less of a trek and more of an enjoyable adventure.
After all, this isn’t survival school; it’s a vacation!
So, can I share with you what I’ve learned over 40,000 miles of road-tripping with my family?
- The Essentials You Can’t Leave Out of Your Road Trip Packing List
- Personal Carry Items
- Emergency and First Aid
- Road Trip Car Essentials
- Inclement Weather and Environmental Gear
- Comfort and Convenience
- Personal Hygiene and Cosmetics
- Tech Essentials
- Food Storage, Prep, and Clean-Up
- Food and Water
- Variety of Clothing
- Storage and Organization
- Wrapping up the Road Trip Essentials
The Essentials You Can’t Leave Out of Your Road Trip Packing List
While planning your route and creating a realistic budget are critical for a successful road trip, so is ensuring that your vehicle is stocked with items, gear, and supplies to be prepared for any number of scenarios, foreseen and unforeseen.
This road trip checklist is your ultimate guide to a successful road trip. Follow along and start packing!
Personal Carry Items
1. License and Registration
“License and registration, please” – the first words you’ll hear in a routine pull-over.
Consider these to be the most essential of road trip necessities. Nothing will ruin an otherwise fun-filled time on the highway faster than being caught without it.
In an emergency, having a dependable supply of cash on hand can be a lifesaver. You may need it if the establishments you head into do not accept credit cards, are experiencing internet service issues, or if you lose your credit card.
Helpful Tip: Don’t keep all of your cash in one place. In case your wallet or purse goes missing, be sure to have a cash stash somewhere else in the car or on your person, safe from prying eyes.
3. Credit/Debit Cards and Wallet
Obvious, yes; however, when your mind is preoccupied with packing everything else, sometimes the obvious gets left out!
These plastics are the go-to method of payment, so don’t leave the house without them. It’s also nice to have a secure place to store them, and in most cases, it comes in the form of a wallet, purse, or concealed money belt.
4. Pocket Knife
A pocket knife or a multitool such as a Swiss Army knife can come in handy more than you would think.
Our Best Camping Knife post features some foldable knives that would make great travel companions!
A daypack is a commonly forgotten item on most beginner’s road trip packing lists. They focus so much on what they need for their day-to-day, they forget to include a daypack for their adventures away from their luggage.
We suggest keeping a separate smaller bag or pack equipped with cash, water, a small flashlight, a small first aid kit, a self-defense item, and other preferred personal items.
Emergency and First Aid
6. Proof of Car Insurance (Auto, Rental, and Travel)
You will need copies of your auto, rental car documents (if you’re using one), and travel insurance (or whichever is appropriate). Your driver’s license and this go hand-in-hand.
Accidents can happen on the road, so we should always be prepared for the unexpected. Having a copy of your insurance is essential if you get pulled over.
All rental car companies should provide you with all legal documentation; so, when renting, double check your rental paperwork and the rental car’s glove box to ensure they have followed through.
7. Car Manual
In case you have to do some road-side troubleshooting ensure your car’s manual (or the rental’s) is stowed in the glove box.
8. Alternative Forms of I.D.
If the only form of I.D. you take with you is your driver’s license, you’ll be in a pickle if it becomes lost or stolen. Take a passport, CHL, or other form of state or federal issued I.D. and store it somewhere apart from your license.
9. Large First Aid Kit
A family-sized first aid kit stocked with basic meds such as painkillers, gauze, scissors, bandages, and antiseptic is a priority road trip essential.
Familiarize yourself with the contents and restock previously-used items. You could be miles away from the nearest town when you need medical aid, so it’s a good idea to have a first aid kit to rely on during your road trip.
10. Bug Spray
Depending on where you’re headed, a supply of bug spray could be an emergency or comfort item.
Road trips and itchy red welts just don’t mix.
Even if you don’t plan on a lot of outdoor time on your trip, sunscreen is among those items you’ll be glad to have if you need it.
For example, a broken-down vehicle in a hot climate can turn into an oven quickly. You and your family will need to wait outside for help to arrive (or, if you’re handy and well equipped) until you get the car up and running again.
12. Duct Tape and [Super] Glue
When things break and you’re miles away from a repair shop, some handy duct tape and glue (or super glue) can hold it together until you get there.
13. Emergency Radio and Power Bank
A well-equipped emergency radio can get you the latest NOAA weather updates, evacuation notices, provide a light source, and store power for your devices.
14. Satellite Phone or Communicator
With a satellite phone or communicator, you’re not limited to areas with cell reception, just as long as you’re covered by a satellite. In the face of natural disasters or when traveling through no-service zones, it’s a handy device to have on your road trip packing list.
15. Emergency Roadside Kit
An emergency roadside kit should have all the small things your car needs such as an ice scraper, folding shovel, and a tire puncture seal just in case you need to do some quick repairs yourself while on your road trip.
Road Trip Car Essentials
The following items should always be stored in your car whether you are planning a road trip or not.
16. Spare Tire
Sometimes a puncture seal just won’t cut it. In this case, you’ll need a whole new tire; so, make sure your spare is in good condition … and that you know how to change it!
Being equipped and able to change your own tire will potentially save hours of waiting on a roadside rescue, save hundreds of dollars in service fees, and prevent a mere inconvenience from escalating into a situation that threatens your family’s safety.
17. Car Jack
You can’t change a tire without the jack. make sure it’s stowed and locked down.
You can normally find this next to your spare tire in the trunk, under the car, or under your seats depending on which vehicle you have.
Refer to your owner’s manual if you have trouble locating it.
18. Jumper Cables or Jump Starter Box
A dead battery is just as likely as a flat tire. Don’t depend on the average passer-by to have jumper cables on hand.
Or, if you don’t want to wait on a good samaritan to stop to help, equip your car with a jump starter box.
You can keep a flashlight in your emergency roadside kit, but we suggest keeping a big one handy in the glove compartment or under your seat so you won’t have to rummage around in the dark to find it.
These days, global positioning system apps are standard on our phones; however, if you’re traveling through no-service zones, you may consider one that is satellite-linked.
21. Road Atlas
GPS systems and Google Maps have and will crash from time to time.
A road atlas will not! Have a backup road atlas ready in case your electronics fail while road tripping.
22. Road Trip Games
Not essential to your survival but definitely a must for your sanity, don’t forget fun games on the road to combat boredom.
Depending on where your travels take you, you may or may not be able to depend on streaming internet radio such as Pandora or Spotify.
If music enhances your family’s road tripping experience, purchase a list of your favorite songs and download them to your device.
Then, you can keep rocking when the internet can’t hang.
24. Books [or E-books]
Time flies by when you’re engrossed in a good story. Whether taking turns reading out loud from a book or streaming an audiobook, make the trip a little smoother with a good page-turner.
Inclement Weather and Environmental Gear
When it rains, it pours. Don’t forget to pack some travel umbrellas to keep your family dry.
26. Tire Chains
Winter road trips to the north are likely to see snowy weather, and tire chains give your tires more traction on slippery surfaces.
Comfort and Convenience
27. Sleeping Bag, Blanket, and Pillow
Who knows where hotel blankets and pillows have been, or maybe you want to be comfortable in the backseat with your own blanket and pillow.
You can’t go without a sleeping bag when you’re camping, so don’t forget to bring all of the one, two, or all of the above!
It may not be essential for everyone, but earplugs have their benefits. You can block out the sound of the outside world (or the family snore champion) no matter where you are.
29. Compact Foldable Chairs
Compact foldable chairs can be considered essential if you want to be able to pull over anywhere, anytime outside of city limits for a respite from the car.
You’re bound to come across some scenic overlooks or historical sites, so pull over, pass around some snacks, sit back, and enjoy the view!
Personal Hygiene and Cosmetics
30. Hand Sanitizer
Washing with soap and water is best, but not always possible. After a stop at any public facility or after a spontaneous hike through the woods, have some sanitizer on hand for the interim.
31. Wet Wipes
From spilled coffee to runny noses, wet wipes will be your best friend through countless mishaps whether you have young children or not.
32. Personal Toiletries
Personal hygiene is important no matter where you are. In your road trip toiletry kit, you should include a brush, toothpaste, toothbrush, hair ties, a small mirror, floss, bodywash, and anything else you need to clean up after a long day.
33. Towel [and Washcloth]
Who knows how sanitary hotel towels are, so it’s always a good idea to bring your own travel towels.
If camping or swimming is on your itinerary, be sure to have something to sit on when you jump back in the car.
34. Car Charger with [Back-Up] Battery
Your phone is necessary for emergencies, so don’t let it run out of juice.
Be sure to include car chargers for your devices.
35. Power Inverter
Having a power inverter turns your car’s 12-volt DC outlet into a 110-volt AC adapter, making it easier to share the power supply among multiple devices.
36. Wireless Earbuds [or Headphones]
Sometimes, you just need some me-time and on a family road trip, a good set of headphones can provide just that.
Or if you’re granting the kids some backseat screen time, they can enjoy the entertainment without the whole family having to hear it.
You can use your phone, but special camera lenses can produce high-resolution and authentic pictures that a phone just can’t do.
38. Tablet or Laptop
You may just need to get some work done on the road or want a bigger screen than your phone, which is why a tablet and laptop are handy to have.
Food Storage, Prep, and Clean-Up
39. Cooler with Ice
You need food and snacks on this trip, especially if camping is involved. It’s nice to have a cool drink in hand while relaxing by the lake, so keep a good soft-sided car cooler stocked full of ice to keep your favorite beverages and treats cool.
40. Portable Camp Stove [with Fuel]
It’s nice to have cold food and drinks, but sometimes it’s nice to warm your belly with hot soup and cook your own meals – this is where a portable camp stove comes in. Don’t forget to bring some fuel!
41. Cooking and Eating Utensils
You don’t want to end up two hours outside of town only to realize you have nothing to eat or cook with. Aside from the portable camp stove, pack a well-equipped mess kit so that eating on the road is as enjoyable as possible.
42. Dish Soap and Sponge
That mess kit will need to be cleaned up before hitting the road again. Take along a small bottle of dish soap and quick-dry silicone sponges to make things quick and easy.
43. Paper Towels
Paper towels are useful to keep around to soak up any spills, dry your dishes and cups, and wipe stuff down after eating.
Food and Water
44. Water and Snacks
You can buy everything while you’re on the road, but why not come prepared so you can enjoy more time on the road? Have some bottled water for long drives, and some snacks to curb your hunger if you want to avoid stops early in the trip.
45. Road Trip-Friendly Foods
By road trip-friendly foods we mean ones that can last on the road, are relatively healthy, and are easy to eat without making a mess. Here are some examples that you can keep in the cooler, in the car, or cook on the camp stove:
- Your favorite beverages
- Beef jerky
- Protein bars
- Trail mix
- Travel-friendly fruit and veggies (grapes, apples, carrots, celery, etc.)
- Popcorn (pre-fab)
- Canned beans (careful … you might want to crack a window …)
- Corned beef hash
- Canned corn
- Sweet potato stew and more canned food options to reheat over the stove
- Fruits such as grapes and orange and apple slices for the cooler
- Veggies such as carrots and celery for the cooler
- Hard-boiled eggs for the cooler
46. Shelf-Stable and Travel-Friendly Ingredients
Here is a quick list of travel-friendly ingredients that can elevate your self-cooked meals
- Butter (kept in the cooler filled with ice)
- Packets of salad dressing if kept in the cooler
- Salt and pepper
- Dried herbs such as thyme, oregano, and basil
- Hot sauce
- Packets of mustard and ketchup
Variety of Clothing
47. Shirts, Pants, and Shorts
You can’t forget to bring a change of clothes because you may not always have access to a laundromat or laundry service. You certainly cannot wear the same clothes for an entire trip.
Or, maybe you can … and that’s gross.
48. Socks and Shoes
Your socks need changing even more often than clothes, especially on a road trip, so toss a couple of pairs into your luggage. You can rely on a trusted pair of sneakers, but just in case they wear out on a hike, we suggest packing one more.
49. Weather-Appropriate Accessories
Mother Nature is spontaneous, and even if the weather forecast claims to be sunny skies for the week, the dark clouds could still rain on your parade. We suggest being overly prepared with all the weather-appropriate accessories you can think of such as a rain jacket and rain boots.
50. Disposable Underwear
Not that I’ve tried these … I didn’t even know they existed. But, apparently, it’s a thing.
I’ll stick to my usual skivvies and my family is adept at relieving ourselves in the woods or a conveniently-placed shrub.
Still, if you want to go-on-the-go … and sit in it (!?!) …
… I can’t. I just can’t.
51. Packable, Lightweight Jacket
Even if you’re not in the midst of winter, it’s still a good idea to bring a packable down jacket. Even in the desert, temperatures can plummet from blazing hot to freezing overnight.
Better to have it and not need it …
Storage and Organization
52. Plastic Bags [and/or Tubs]
Bringing along plastic bags and plastic tubs of multiple sizes can keep you organized.
Aside from your luggage for clothing, you need a way to keep food, and gear, games and other items neat and easy to access and find while on the road.
Not only will it be easier to find what you’re looking for, but it also makes cleanup and packing much easier.
53. Packing Cubes
Packing Cubes help keep smaller personal items from getting mixed together in your luggage. These make packing and unpacking along your various stops efficient and quick.
54. Reusable Shopping Bag or Tote
Avoiding grocery-store plastic bags is always a good idea. Plus, having are usable bag or tote is handy if your family stops at a location popular for small boutique shopping.
Lastly, we suggest keeping a few hangers among your belongings. These can come in handy if you’re faced with heavy rain or a thunderstorm. You can hang them on a tree or even in your car using the handles above the windows.
Wrapping up the Road Trip Essentials
There you have it! We know it was a good long read but now you’re fully prepared for your next road trip!
Not all of these items may be essential for you. Personalize our road trip essentials list to fit your family’s needs and what’s appropriate for where your trip will take you.
Safe travels! Now, get out there!