A road trip is a classic vacation – whether you’re taking a family vacation, a romantic adventure as a couple or a solo trip, it’s a great way to see the parks, small towns and wide-open spaces of this amazing country.
However, it does take some organization. If you are like most people and wondering “What do I need for a road trip?”, this packing for road trip checklist is here to help you.
Whether you aren’t sure what to pack for a road trip for the weekend, what to bring on a long road trip, or what to include on a road trip with kids packing list, I have compiled a complete packing list for road trip vacations so you can make sure that you take everything you need.
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This packing list focuses on the road trip aspect of your vacation, but if your trip includes something else, you should check out my other packing lists:
- Packing List for Winter Vacations
- Day Hike Essentials
- What you Need to Take on Winter Hikes
- What to Take Tent Camping
- What to take on a Beach Camping trip
- Packing List for Cabin Trips
- National Park Vacation Essentials
If you have friends or family members going on their own road trip, many of these items are also found on my Road Trip Gift Guide.
Road Trip Pack List: The Essentials
There are some essential road trip items that are road trip ‘must haves’ no matter where you go or for how long. Make sure you include all of these things you need for a road trip.
1. License and Registration
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s worth double checking before you set out that each person who’ll be driving has their license and that you have the car registration with you.
2. Insurance and the insurance paperwork
You should have both car insurance and travel insurance before you set out on your road trip.
If you’ll be driving your own car, your existing car insurance should cover anything that might happen to your car, but always double check with them about out-of-state coverage before setting out.
If you’re going to be driving a rental car, either get the extra insurance that you can add when you rent the car, or check that your travel insurance (or even your credit card) provides adequate coverage.
If you’re going to be renting a car, first up read my Tips for Getting a Cheap Car Rental and then search for a car on Discover Cars here. All the main car rental agencies are listed, so this is the best way to find the best rental vehicle for your road trip.
Apart from car insurance or car rental insurance, you should also have travel insurance. This covers medical (which may not be covered on your regular health insurance), theft or damage of your property, cancellation, medical repatriation, etc.
Hopefully nothing will happen, but if you need it, having insurance will save you hundreds, if not thousands – or even tens of thousands – of dollars.
A great insurance option is Travelex. It has coverage for all you’ll need. You can swap this link for either compare Travel Insurance plans here or get a quote right now:
3. Roadside assistance contact information
It is absolutely worth signing up for road side assistance. If you’re renting a car, make sure you have this arranged. If you’re traveling in your own car, sign up for AAA. That way, if anything does happen and you break down or are in an accident, you’ll have someone who can come out and help you.
Make sure you have all the paperwork or card with you, including contact numbers to call if you need assistance.
4. Car rental contract
If you’re renting, check to make sure you have the rental contract with you in case you need it.
5. Car keys
Of course, all road trip packing lists must include your car keys, but many people often forget to take a spare or two. Make sure you pack them somewhere that you can still access them if you accidentally lock your main set in the car or lose it somehow.
Road Trip Checklist: For your car
When deciding what to pack on a road trip, there are some small – but important – items that you need for the car itself.
6. Cell phone mount
You will need to take your cell phone with you, so your road trip check list should include a mount for your cell phone. This isn’t strictly necessary, but will make life easier and more comfortable, especially if you’re using your cell phone as a GPS.
7. Phone charger/ Converter
Unless you are planning to completely disconnect (not necessarily a bad idea, but difficult to do these days) and you don’t use your phone for photos or navigation, make sure your cross-country road trip essentials list includes some way to charge your phone.
In fact, no matter what, you should have a charged phone so you can call for help in an emergency.
If you have a laptop or other electrical device that you want to charge while driving, then you’ll need a convertor. This runs from the cigarette lighter in your car, but converts the voltage to a level that can be used by regular electronic devices. It also has a plug converter built in, so you can plug in your laptop directly to it.
8. Extra USB charging cable
If you’re traveling with your laptop as I usually do these days, it’s worth having making sure that an extra USB-phone cable is on your checklist for road trip vacations so that you can also charge your phone when using your laptop.
9. Navigation apps/ GPS
When deciding what to take on road trip vacations in areas of the country you aren’t familiar with, make sure you have a good GPS or other navigation app. It is possible to use your phone, but this really uses a lot of data, so unless you have an unlimited data plan, I don’t recommend this.
10. Paper maps/ Atlas
I personally feel that the advent of GPS and not having to use paper maps all the time helped save my marriage. Some of our biggest fights were in those super stressful moments when the navigator (usually me) couldn’t find the turn off quickly enough, or we ended up taking a wrong turn and I couldn’t find an alternate route quickly enough. Now the GPS just redirects us and we happily move on.
However, although this is perfect for cities, there are times when GPS doesn’t work because you’re out of range or your device breaks down. So, I still always have paper maps with me, just in case. And if we are on a wide-open stretch of road, I will often turn the GPS off and just rely on a simple map in order to save data.
It’s totally worth buying a copy of the Rand McNally 2021 Large Scale Road Atlas
11. Small change/ Cash
Whether it’s tolls, feeding a parking meter, or just picking up a snack, you’ll be glad you have some small change readily available if you do, and wish you did if you don’t.
Road Trip Items To Keep the Car Organized and Clean
It is amazing how quickly your spick-and-span car can turn into a total mess on a road trip! However, this doesn’t have to be the case. Some of the things needed for a long road trip are designed to help keep your car organized, tidy and clean.
12. Trash can and trash bag
No family road trip packing list should be without a trash bag.
Even better than having a random plastic bag floating around the back seat of your car is to have a trash bin that is specifically designed for your car.
13. Backseat car organizer
A trash bin helps keep your car clean, but a back seat organizer helps keep the inside of your car tidy. They hang over the back of the front seat and have compartments to store all of the random things like electronics, food, personal items, games, etc. that the family needs.
This is an especially important item for a road trip packing list with kids, but actually helps a lot even if you’re traveling solo or as a couple.
14. Trunk organizer
Being organized really does make life easier, so I strongly recommend also having a trunk organizer on your road trip checklist for car organization.
Having separated sections for different items means everything has a place and you will know where everything is.
15. Packing cubes
Another of the important things to take on a long road trip and another way to help keep all of your gear organized is a set of packing cubes.
These typically come in a set of three or more different sizes and help keep your clothing and other personal items organized and compact, making it easier to pack your bags and find your stuff when you need it.
16. Laundry bag
When making a list of what to bring on a road trip, don’t forget your dirty laundry. If you have a laundry bag, you can keep your clean clothing separate from used clothing – and it makes a trip to the laundromat easy if you’re on a longer road trip.
Road Trip Essentials: To Stay Entertained
Long road trips can have stretches that aren’t that exciting – and if you have kids, they can be downright boring for them. So, some of the best things to bring on a road trip are ways to keep everyone entertained.
You can’t rely on the radio for much of your road trip, so make sure you have an awesome playlist of your favorite road tunes.
18. Noise-cancelling headphones
Unless everyone in the car is happy to listen to the same music, headphones are essential things to bring on a long road trip. Noise canceling headphones are best.
19. Travel games
20. A good book or kindle
I used to always take a pile of books with me when I traveled, but now I have a Kindle, I can carry a whole library and take up almost no space. I still like reading real books, but a road trip is when a Kindle really comes into its own. Just be sure to have a charger (and power converter), so it can be recharged during your vacation.
Road Trip Supplies: To Stay Fed and Watered
There are some basic road trip supplies you should take so no one is hungry or thirsty.
21. Reusable water bottle/ Hydroflask
One of the handy things to pack for a road trip is a reusable water bottle. This will save you money buying expensive drinks at gas stations and is also better for the environment.
22. Travel mug / Thermos
If you drink coffee and/ or tea, then you will also want to have a travel mug or thermos so you can get your daily dose of caffeine on the road.
Snacks are one of first things that might come to mind when you’re thinking about what to bring. Road trip experts recommend taking snacks with you to help reduce the costs of buying them in expensive gas stations along the way.
You can buy a Care Pack here. It’s full of all sorts of snacks so you have them on hand.
24. Portable cooler
Add a portable cooler to your road trip packing checklist so you can keep drinks cold and take snacks like chocolates or sandwich materials for a cheap roadside picnic. It’s worth investing a good one so everything will stay cool the whole trip.
This one is one of my top picks for Best Yeti Cooler.
25. Travel picnic set
Picnics at rest stops are a great way to save money and give a little variety from boring – and not very healthy – roadside diner meals.
Having a portable picnic set with you in the car means that picnics are easy and convenient to have. I like this picnic set in a backpack, because you can take it on short hikes too.
26. Multi-purpose knife
This is a basic item that you will be glad you have! From slicing a block of cheese or cutting a piece of fruit, or more heavy-duty things like helping repair something, a multi-purpose knife is something you will be glad you have on hand.
Road Trip Necessities: For You
Not all road trip necessities are about food and entertainment. There are also things you should take to make being in the car more comfortable.
27. Hand sanitizer /disinfectant wipes
One of the practical things to take on a road trip is hand sanitizer and/ or disinfectant wipes. You often won’t have access to soap and water, but will want clean hands to handle food or clean up after something.
You will want to have a good pair of polarized sunglasses to cut down the glare from the road as you drive.
29. Travel pillow
Let’s face it, being in a car for hours on end can get kind of uncomfortable. Which is why there should be a travel pillow on your packing for a road trip checklist for each person in the car (other than the driver, of course).
Get a small travel pillow here if you need one (or more)
Another thing to have in the car that will make long trips more comfortable – especially if they go into the night – is a small travel blanket.
31. Sunscreen and Bug spray
Other things needed for a road trip include sunscreen and bug spray, especially if you plan to picnic or spend any time outdoors. You can easily get sunburnt inside the car, though, so you should wear this no matter what.
32. Day pack
33. Slip on shoes
You should also have slip on shoes or sandals on your road trip list.
Chances are you will want to take your shoes off while you are in the car, but you will need them whenever you get out to get more gas, go to the restroom, etc. Putting on lace-up shoes is a pain. Which is why you will LOVE having sandals or shoes that you can slip on easily – and take off easily when you get back in the car.
I have a whole guide for buying the best walking sandals, with FAQs, reviews and recommendations.
34. Rain gear
35. Toiletry bag
The easiest way to keep all of your toiletries, cosmetics and/ or medications together when you travel is a toiletry bag.
36. Tissues / Paper towels/ Napkins
Definitely have a packet of tissues or paper towel or some napkins in the car for spills, dirty hands and who knows what else!
This may seem odd – until you’ve arrived at a rest stop desperate to go, and then find out they have run out of toilet paper. I ALWAYS have toilet paper in the car AND in my day pack whenever I travel – and have been very glad on more than one occasion that I did!
38. Toothpaste and toothbrush and other toiletries
39. Basic medication
Make sure you have enough medication for your whole trip.
Road Trip Essentials: To Capture the Memories
There are road trip essentials for couples, families or solo travelers that we all need to capture the memories of our vacation.
You definitely want to have a camera with you. This may be as simple as the camera in your phone or as fancy as a multi-lens SLR camera.
Something in between, and perfect for a road trip, is the GoPro HERO 12. It is designed for travel. It’s water resistant and durable and takes photos, video and even does streaming.
41. 3-Axis Gimbal Stabilizer
You will often find yourself wanting to take videos from the car as you go. The downside of this is that videos can end up bumpy and blurry. This is where a gimbal stabilizer comes in. You attach your camera to and it helps stabilize the video camera, so it films more smoothly.
It’s not essential, but if you think you might film video from the car and are wondering what to take on a road trip, add a gimbal to your list.
42. Extra memory cards
One of the things to bring for a road trip is an extra set (or more) of memory cards for your camera.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll take a million photos and go through memory cards faster than you think. If you have your laptop with you, you may be able to download some photos directly on to your laptop, but it’s best to have some spare memory cards anyway, just in case.
This is not an essential item, but a journal is a nice way to keep your memories of your road trip.
What To Pack For a Road Trip: For Emergencies
Of course, you hope you won’t break down, or have an accident or any other kind of emergency. But, unfortunately things can happen. It’s better to be prepared, so you can deal with an emergency easily if it occurs.
Here are some important things for a road trip that you hope you won’t ever need, but will be glad you have if you do.
44. Car manual
Road trip checklists often overlook this important item. Double check you have the car manual in the glove compartment. If you get some strange symbol suddenly appear on your dashboard, you will need the manual to decipher its meaning. And if you need to do anything to fix the car, having the manual will help.
45. Spare tire
Check you have one AND that it is in good condition. IF you get a flat tire and use the spare tire to replace it, be sure to get a new spare tire straight away, so that you ALWAYS have a functioning spare with you.
46. First aid kit
I’m no mechanic and I rely on road side assistance to help me (see above), but there are times when I still need to have an emergency kit.
This should contain thing a like jumper cables so you can kick start a flat battery (with the help of a helpful stranger), a warning triangle to alert other drivers if you have broken down, etc. You really should have an emergency breakdown kit in the trunk.
48. Flashlight and batteries
Another basic essential, always have a flashlight and spare batteries and know exactly where it is so you can find it in the dark if necessary.
Get a set of four flashlights so you can have them stowed around the car.
49. Oil and antifreeze
You can pick these up at many gas stations, but it’s better to have some with you in case you need them when there is no gas station nearby.
50. Ice scraper (in winter)
Another thing you should make sure you have with you if you are traveling in cold weather is an ice scraper. If you are renting a car, it probably won’t have one, so be especially careful not to leave this off your checklist.
Enjoy your road trip!
Do you have any other essential items you’d add to a cross country road trip packing list? Join my private Facebook group National Parks Collectors and let me know.
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Other Packing Lists
- Winter Vacations
- Day Hikes
- Winter Hikes
- Tent Camping
- Cabin Trips
- National Parks Essentials
- Beach Camping
James Ian is a national park, camping and hiking expert.
He has dedicated his life to travel, visiting more than 80 countries, all 7 continents and all of the main national parks in the United States. With over 35 years experience in the travel industry, James has worked on cruise ships, at resorts and hotels, and as a travel planner who’s helped hundreds of people plan successful trips to US national parks.
Based on his experience visiting our national parks multiple times, in-depth research and expertise as a travel planner, James has published detailed itineraries for most of the major national parks in the US. These itineraries, as well as in-depth park guides, comprehensive camping and hiking gear reviews and buying guides, and helpful packing lists and gift guides will help you have your own incredible trip to US national parks without stress and hassle.
As a national park expert, James has contributed to many publications, including Time Business News, Savoteur, Best Trip, and Wired.
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