I am a sucker for a good road trip, whether it’s cruising down the ring road in Iceland or exploring the South Island of New Zealand. Although many of the things you pack for a road trip will be the same as what you’d pack for a regular vacation, there are a few road trip essentials you need to include.
It may be tempting to just throw a bunch of gear in the back of your van and hit the road #vanlife-style. In reality, there’s a bit of preparation that goes into planning a road trip. To ensure you don’t forget anything, here is The Ultimate Road Trip Packing List.
The Road Trip Essentials
Note: You can download and print all this in a handy, one-page road trip checklist. >>Click here to download.
This should be obvious, but I’ve come close to forgetting it a few times. Remember to bring some form of identification. If you’re traveling out of country, you’ll have your Passport on you. Even if you’re traveling within your country and aren’t the driver, still carry some for of ID.
Insurance, Ownership and Owner’s Manual
I know it’s all been hibernating in your glove compartment for who-knows-how-long, but make sure you check you have all the necessary paperwork in case things go amuck. Regardless of where and how long your trip is, always have insurance, registration and your driver’s licence with you.
And make sure you have the owner’s manual handy in case a fuse blows or a tire flattens and you don’t know what do to about it. If you’re driving a rented car, this will be included (but double check before you leave the parking lot).
Though not an item to pack, I think this deserves a shoutout. Before setting out ensure that your vehicle is in the best shape. Things like air pressure, coolant, engine oil and brakes should be in good order. If your trip is to a remote or inaccessible destination (i.e. Iceland highlands), it is a good idea to carry extra fluid with you.
Also, maybe check what the state of your spare tire is. Remember that time I blew a tire on a mountain road without cell service in the middle of the night? Would have been nice to know where the spare tire was located (and how to change one).
Pro Tip: Get Road Side Assistance Insurance – you never know when you might need it!
Anyone else remember driving with their parents when they were a kid, Dad behind the wheel and Mom holding a PAPER map of all the roads. How did anyone know what exit to take with all those highway lines? Thank goodness those days are done (the paper maps, not the road tripping with parents).
You’re likely already planning on navigating with GPS and Google Maps, but before you set off, download your maps so they’re available offline. I haven’t always done this and there were a few places where we lost cell service and our maps wouldn’t load.
In addition, I like bringing a guide book with a built in paper map. You know, just in case!
This goes without saying, but ensure you bring your phone on the road trip (with charger!). You’d be surprised how many times I’ve pulled out of the driveway only to have one of my friends (or myself) suddenly realize they left their phone on the kitchen counter. Ironic because I usually have the packing list for the road trip on my phone.
Credit cards, health card, Starbucks card – whatever important plastic you keep on you day to day, include it on your road trip packing list.
Although much of what we buy is done with our phones or Tap, it’s still a good idea to carry a couple hundred dollars in cash just in case something happens. Don’t keep it all together in your wallet; distribute it between different bags so you don’t lose it all.
Dashboard Phone Holder + Charger
This is an essential tool for a road trip! You want a phone holder that mount to the dashboard so you don’t have to look down to check Maps. You’ll also want a phone charger because navigation systems drain your phone battery super quickly. Most new vehicles have a USB port, but older cars don’t have one and you’ll need an adapter.
For some people, this will be your iPhone. For others (like me), this includes quite a few items. Here are all the camera gear items you could take, though not all may apply to you:
- Camera + Battery + Charge
- Memory Card
- GoPro / Action Cam + Charger
- Drone + Charger
- Camera Case
- Tripod (this is the best one I’ve used for traveling light)
Your phone flashlight will kill your battery and is super inconvenient to use for prolonged periods of time. Instead, take a headlamp. This will be helpful for finding things in the car / van / tent at night. It’s also useful if something goes wrong with the car at night.
As soon as you start a road trip, your mobile battery goes in reverse gear. That is why power banks are life savers on the road as you will be away from wall sockets most of the time. >>This is the one I use. It holds about 4-5 full iPhone charges and is a fast charger.
Although your car will have speakers, you want access to good music even when you’re not driving. I’ve found speakers to be especially handy after we’ve parked and set up camp when we want to chill and cook dinner. It’s also great around a camp fire.
>>I bring this one. It’s kind of bulky and there are definitely smaller ones, but I love the sound quality and how loud it gets.
I like to bring a pair of little headphones (the ones that come with the iPhone) in addition to noise canceling headphones. The noise canceling headphones are a little bulky, and not recommended if you’re trying to pack light, but I like them for airplanes or if I can’t sleep at night.
Definitely an option item, but if you like reading and don’t want to lug around big books, a Kindle is an excellent choice.
WiFi Hot Spot
A Wifi Hot Spot is great if you need to stay connected, but don’t want blow through all your data (or get crazy roaming charges). I don’t personally include it on my road trip packing lists, since Wifi isn’t a huge priority for me. But if you’re a digital nomad or need to work during vacation, a Wifi Hot Spot could be a saviour.
I’ve really grown fond of audio splitters over the last few trips. When you and your road trip buddy are waiting somewhere and you can’t play sound out loud, an audio splitter works wonders.
Clothing, Footwear & Accessories
Even if you won’t be spending a lot of time outside, a rain coat is an absolute must. Nothing ruins a day trip like getting soaked. If you’ll be doing some hiking or traveling somewhere rainy (i.e. Milford Sound, New Zealand or the Pacific Northwest), go with a good quality rain jacket. >>This is the one I use.
Sweater or Puffy Jacket
Ensure you bring lots of comfortable clothing. You’ll want something that is comfortable to drive in and to wear while at stops. I personally like leggings and a soft, cotton T-shirt.
You never know when you might spontaneous stumble upon a hot spring or beach! Bring a bathing suit (or two).
Pro Tip: Bring a carabiner and hook it to your damp bathing suit after your swim. Then hang the carabiner from one of the hooks on the ceiling of your car (there’s usually at least one beside the backseat door on the passenger’s side). Your bathing suit will dry as you drive.
Unless you will be avoiding all hikes and outdoor activities, bring a pair of hiking boots on your road trip. These will provide way more support and stability than a pair of running shoes. If you don’t have a pair already, read this post on buying beginner hiking boots.
And don’t forget wool socks as well! >>These are the best ones I’ve used.
Similar to the above, you’ll be much more comfortable if you have at least one pair of hiking clothes. A hiking top and hiking pants are best. Otherwise, a quick dry T-shirt and pants work well.
I bring the items in the picture below: one pair of hiking pants, one pair of hiking shorts, a quick-dry long sleeve shirt and a quick-dry T-shirt. If I’ll be doing lots of hiking, I bring multiple shirts and a second pair of hiking pants.
Flip Flips / Slippers / Sandals
Bring at least one pair of shoes that are easy to slide on and off. This will make bathroom breaks speedy and give you something comfortable to put on at the end of a long day. I like to bring sandals personally, because you can also wear them to the beach or around town.
I find sunglasses critical for driving, especially in the morning or late afternoon when then sun is shiny directly into the car.
Toiletries + Personal Care
First Aid Kit
Purchase a ready-made or make your own first aid kit (here’s what’s in mine). Your road trip first aid kit should include basics like:
- Hand sanitizer and disposable gloves
- Band aids, gauze pads, and adhesive tape
- Pain medication, like Tylenol and/or Advil
- Cold and sinus medication, like DayQuill
- Stomach medication, like Gravol and Imodium
- Toothbrush, toothpaste and floss
- Hair brush
- Lip balm / chapstick
- Soap, shampoo and conditioner
In addition to your usual toiletries, there’s a few additional items you’ll want to pack for a road trip.
- Baby wipes: For keeping you clean when you can’t access a shower.
- Hand sanitizer: Not all road trip bathroom stops will have soap / hand sanitizer. It’s also good to use it before eating.
- Toilet paper: Sometimes the facilities at trailheads don’t have toilet paper, so I recommend keeping a roll on you.
Bug Spray and Sunscreen
Ever since that time I got mauled by black flies, I always carry bug spray on me. >>This is the best bug spray I’ve ever used. If you’ll be somewhere that get’s lots of mosquitoes, I also recommend having a bug hat. You don’t want to be relaxing at the end of a long day and getting swarmed by bugs. >>Here is a cheap bug net that works wonders.
You’ll also want to bring sunscreen. I like bringing a generic sunscreen for my body and a high SPF, non-greasy (but expensive) bottle for my face. A sunhat will also be helpful if you’re prone to sunburns.
I rarely go anywhere without a reusable water bottle anymore. Not only will a reusable water bottle save you from buying water from the store, it’s also good for the planet.
If you’ll be cooking your own meals on this road trip, there are some cooking items to bring. If you’re renting a campervan, there’s often an option to rent cookware along with it.
- Camp stove + fuel
- Camp table
- Small pot, frying pan, cutting board
- Spatula, tongs, large spoon,
- Sponge and dish soap
- Garbage bags
Multi-Tool / Swiss Army Knife
This is seriously one of the most underrated things to bring on a road trip! In addition to a decent knife, multi-tools have a ton of other useful tools. Need scissors? You got ’em. What about tweezers? Yessir. Anyone got a cork screw? You do. >>I use this one.
A thermos is a must have item for me. We’ll make coffee before we start driving and I’ll put some in the thermos. It stays warm for the entire morning and keeps me alert on the road. >>This is my all-time favourite thermos.
Whether you bring camping equipment will depend on what your accommodation will be. If you will be staying in hotels / hostels, you won’t need this stuff. If you will be sleeping in a campervan, you probably don’t need it either (they usually provide bedding or you can rent it). But if you will be camping each night, here are some things to bring:
- Tent (read this for my list of best lightweight tents)
- Sleeping Bag
- Sleeping Pad
- Camping Pillow (this one is my favourite)
This is my set up below: MSR Hubba Hubba 2-person tent, Pro-Lite Therm-a-rest Sleeping Pad, MEC Delphinus Sleeping Bag in a Outdoor Research Compression Sack, and a Compressible Pillow by Therm-a-rest.
A compact folding chair doesn’t take up much space in the car, but will come in handy at a roadside viewpoint or on a picnic. If you’re camping, a folding chair is super helpful for eating meals and hanging out at night. >>Here is the one I have.
If you plan on cooking your own meals, a cooler is helpful for keeping your produce cool. It also helps to have a cool beverage at the end of a long day.
I love including a blanket on road trip packing lists because they’re so versatile. Use it to keep you warm on a chilly night outside, or spread it on the grass or beach. I sometimes sit with a blanket when I’m napping in the passenger seat.
Quick Dry Towel
A quick dry towel is necessary if you’ll be showing at campsites or swimming in lakes / rivers / ocean. >>I think this one because it dries super quickly.
I find it helpful to have a few spare gallons of water in the truck. I usually pick these up at the first gas station.
An optional item, a windscreen cover keeps your car from heating up while you’re out. I personally don’t travel with one, but other people swear by them.
If you’re not confined for space, bring a little umbrella. This will be handy for going around town or while filling up gas in the rain. I wouldn’t bring an umbrella on a hike though, so still bring a rain jacket.
Road trips, especially long ones can become mundane sometimes, as such having a source of entertainment is important to keep the spirits up. Download your choice of songs from Spotify so you can hear them offline during the lengthy stints in the car.
Bags, Luggage and Containers
Now that you know all the things to pack for a road trip, what are you going to pack it all in? That will depend if you are flying to a destination to start a road trip, or if you are leaving from home.
If you won’t be flying, I think a duffel bag is a really handy way of packing all your stuff. They open widely so you can easily find everything. My approach is typically to take our clothes and personal gear in a duffel bag and our kitchen gear in a big plastic container.
Regardless of how you get to your road trip starting point, you’ll definitely want a day backpack. Anything from 18 – 28 L will work fine.
This will help you cut down on space and keep everything organized.
Pro Tip: For super bulky items, like fleece sweaters, down jackets and sleeping bags, use a compression sack instead of a packing cube. Compression sacks have adjustable straps to make them pack smaller. This will save space in your bag.