If you’re planning to hit the road this year, whether for an epic multi-month adventure road trip or you plan to spend a shorter (but equally adventure-filled) period of time traveling, having a complete checklist of road trip essentials ready to tick off will save tons of time when you’re thinking about what to pack for the journey.
Knowing what you’re going to be taking with you on your road trip is especially true if you’re planning to spend a lot of time in the outdoors adventuring – everything from the beach, mountain lakes and desert hot springs, as well as time for some good old sightseeing while you’re there, because you’ll need some extra outdoor adventure road trip gear in order to be able to make the most of your time traveling around these awesome places.
If you’re still in the road trip planning phase, bookmark this post so it’s easy to find again when you’re ready to work out what to pack for a road trip, and use it as a checklist to help gather all the essentials for your vacation. Click here to jump straight into our full adventure road trip packing list, or read on for more advice to help you work out what is important to bring with you vs. nice to have, as well as how to save money on your road trip both in terms of the gear you may need to take with you as well as when you’re on the road.
We’ve put together this post in partnership with REI, which is our go-to store for quality outdoor adventure gear – and that includes road trip essentials! Many of the links in this post go to REI’s main or used gear website (more on that later) to help you find cost-effective and sustainable gear options for your trip if you find you need to buy anything before you hit the road.
Adventure Road Trip Essentials – Table of Contents
- Using a packing list to avoid road trip mistakes
- Working out what to pack for your style of road trip
- 3 simple ways to save money on your road trip
- Full adventure road trip packing checklist
Using a Packing Checklist to Avoid Road Trip Packing Mistakes – The First Time!
We know a thing or two about packing for road trips traveled all over the UK and Europe, across the USA from West to East and back again, plus many other road trips around the US – and in particularly California, where we have lived now for several years and spend much of our time on the road in our Sprinter camper van exploring new places or revisiting old favorites.
It’s very easy to get overwhelmed when wondering what to pack for a road trip, especially if you are new to road tripping or are going for a long time, as there is more to remember to take – and sometimes even the most seemingly obvious road trip essentials can get forgotten about without a good list to work through and tick off as you pack each item.
We’ve made our fair share of mistakes in terms of packing the wrong things or not packing the right things, whether it’s running out of water, toilet paper or bug spray at a bad time, or forgetting your swimwear or towels when you’re passing a very tempting hot spring, so I hope that by sharing our master list of road trip packing essentials developed over years of honing the art of road trip packing, I can save you from making those mistakes yourself!
Working Out What To Pack For a Road Trip
On the flip side, you don’t want to pack too much: working out what’s really important to pack for your trip is a useful process to go through because unless you’re traveling in a big camper van then space is always at a premium when you start to pack up your car to hit the road, and you don’t want to be packing and driving around the country or continent with a load of stuff you’re unlikely to us, it will just get in the way and be more ‘stuff’ to keep track of or move out of the way to find what you were looking for.
Believe me – even if you will, in fact, be road tripping in a campervan they’re still not that spacious if you’re heading on a long term adventure and have kids or pets in tow (we travel in our Sprinter camper van with a dog and two cats, and it’s a squeeze when we have to also consider what stuff to bring for our pets on a road trip!).
So, it helps to take a step back and think about what you plan to be doing while you are traveling, so you can get a clearer idea of what to pack for a road trip, YOUR WAY – because there’s limited value in following a road trip packing list that someone’s shared online if it doesn’t check off all the things that you and your partner / family / travel companions may need for your planned vacation.
For example, if your idea of an awesome road trip involves dirt, hot springs, and sleeping in a tent in open spaces with nobody else around, then you probably don’t need to bring city guide books, high heels or a load of hair styling products, whereas you probably do want a bikini (or swim shorts), some quick-drying towels, an Instagram-worthy hat and a good amount of sunscreen on your road trip packing list.
If the latter sounds like you then you’ve landed in the right place – this road trip essentials list is all about ADVENTURE road trips and what you need to bring with you to make the most of the opportunity to spend plenty of time in nature.
3 Simple Ways To Save Money On Your Road Trip
If this is your first road trip or you’re going somewhere new then the chances are you may look at the road trip packing checklist below and think, wow I never realized I needed to pack all this stuff – now I need to go out and buy it and that’s all going to add up to a lot of money. Yep, we’ve been there. Here are some tips to save money on your road trip and do it in a more sustainable way, at the same time.
1. Buy used outdoor gear at significant discounts
Not only is buying used outdoor gear going to save you a lot of money compared to full price items, but it may also allow you to buy better quality items than you would have bought otherwise – and it’s more sustainable as you’re not ‘consuming’ new gear, you’re using something that already exists. This is a particularly great way to buy more expensive items you may need on your adventure road trip such as sleeping bags, down jackets, tents, and hiking boots, for example.
You may be able to find used outdoor gear locally, but if you’d prefer a bigger choice and the ability to browse and buy it online, REI’s Used Gear website is a goldmine! You don’t have to live near an REI store as you can buy the gear and have it shipped to you. I suggest bookmarking their website and checking each gear category for discounted deals before looking elsewhere as the chances are they’ll have what you need and you’ll save money.
Read this post to learn more about the REI Used Gear website and how it works, as well as some examples of the premium outdoor gear you can buy through there. We’ve also included some links for the more expensive road trip gear below that you can find on their site, so it’s easy to check for good deals while you’re working through what to pack and what you may need to buy.
It’s also worth considering whether you can borrow more expensive items from friends and family as this is also a sustainable, not to mention FREE way to gear up for your trip.
2. Buy a Parks Pass to save on entry fees
If you are road tripping in the US and plan to visit more than a couple of national parks or national recreation sites during your road trip, such as in places like California and Utah where you can visit multiple parks in the space of a week or two, then you will save a lot of money over paying individual park entry by spending $80 on an America The Beautiful Pass.
This pass then gives you FREE entry to all 2,000 US federal recreation sites across the country, including all the national parks – for a whole year! Considering that entrance to just one National Park typically costs between $20 and $30, you start saving money once you’ve visited three or four parks in a year.
If you’re not traveling in the US it’s worth checking out whether there are similar passes you can buy in your destination country or region that will give you similar savings.
3. Bring your own food and drink
The third biggest way to save money on a road trip is by being prepared and having your own food and drink with you. Don’t get me wrong – we love eating out, and if we find a nice local coffee shop, bar or restaurant we will absolutely go and eat there – it’s part of the travel experience! But that said, if you’re on a budget, or simply you want to eat healthily, when you want and not when you happen across a place that sells food, it pays for both your wallet, your health and out of convenience to have your own food and drink with you on your road trip.
If you eat a plant-based diet as we do, or have another particular diet, then it’s particularly important to have healthy, minimally processed plant-based food with you so you’re not reliant on finding somewhere that sells suitable food! This is true in the US as well as in other countries where vegetarianism, for example, is not well understood or catered to. I’ve been served many vegetarian salads in Europe that have bacon bits sprinkled on top, for example!
We generally find that while you can usually find somewhere to grab a quick meal on a road trip, breakfasts and lunches are worth having with you in your vehicle, so you can eat what you want and not have to worry about finding somewhere en-route when you’re driving. This is especially helpful if you’re on a road trip somewhere with lots of open spaces and not many towns where you’re likely to find good food – because it’s rare that gas station food is going to give you a nourishing meal.
To make it easy to bring your own food on your road trip, unless you have a camper van with a refrigerator, it’s worth investing in a good quality cooler that will keep fresh food and drinks cool for several days at a time, and stocking up at your local store before you hit the road. Depending on your trip you can then plan to resupply at larger towns and supermarkets to be sure you have what you need with you when you get to mealtimes or need a snack.
A cooler may seem like a large expense up-front, but for the quality of food, convenience and savings you’ll make on avoiding gas station and expensive tourist food on your trips, it will more than pay for itself very quickly! Read our guide for more about how to choose the right cooler for your needs and budget, or see REI’s range of coolers for some good options.
Adventure Road Trip Essentials – Full Packing Checklist
Here’s the complete list of what essentials to pack for a road trip adventure. I’ve also recommended some specific products that we’ve found invaluable for our time traveling in our car and also our camper van – the links and images will either take you to the products or to a specific list or review we have written of the products, for more details on why we recommend them for road trips and camping.
Car essentials to take on a road trip
These road trip essentials are actually all things you need in your car, whether you’re going on a road trip or just driving to visit friends and family. They can make the difference between a long time being sat on the side of the road when you’re supposed to be traveling, and being sorted within a short space of time and back on your road trip quickly in the case of an issue such as a flat tire or battery.
- Spare tire.
- Lug wrench tool (buy a decent one if the one that comes with your car is not very big or user-friendly, it will make a huge difference in terms of how easily you can remove a wheel’s lug nuts compared to a smaller wrench, especially if you’re not particularly strong).
- Reflective vest (we take our reflective running vests in the car).
- Jump leads.
- Diesel exhaust fluid*.
*If your vehicle is a newer diesel, like our Sprinter van, consider taking some DEF!!! DEF, or diesel exhaust fluid, needs to be kept topped up in vehicles that use it, otherwise bad things happen.
It can be hard to come by so if you have space in your car, a tub or a smaller container with some DEF decanted into it is a useful thing to keep in your car in case you get low on DEF and you’re far from a town where you can reliably buy some more.
In some parts of the world you also need to have other equipment stored in your car when driving, for example a full set of spare bulbs or a red reflective warning triangle, so it’s worth researching that ahead of time, too.
All the basic road trip essentials
These basic road trip essentials are all car travel necessities to pack for a road trip, irrespective of where you are traveling, and are things that we keep in our car and camper van all the time, for comfort, convenience and emergencies such as break downs or an accident. Or, in the case of the healthy snacks, they’re great to have in the vehicle on long driving days and days where you have very limited options when it comes to finding healthy food.
- Paper map – to see the bigger picture of your road trip, especially when you don’t have good phone signal or you go off-course, a paper map is definitely a road trip necessity.
- First aid kit – including painkillers, bandages, plasters and antihistamines.
- Headlamp – a headlamp is so much better than a flashlight when it comes to keeping your hands free while doing stuff in the dark – see our recommended list of the best headlamps here.
- Multi-tool, such as a Leatherman – everyone should have one of these in their car, the best have loads of tools including scissors, a knife, bottle opener, screwdriver, tweezers and more.
- USB phone charging cable – and cigarette lighter adapter, if needed.
- Phone holder – if you’re going to use your phone for navigation.
- Roll of toilet paper – or box of tissues.
- Hand sanitizer – everyone needs this in their car these days even more than we used to.
- Coins and small note cash – for inflating tires and making small purchases when you can’t find an ATM or use card.
- Notepad and pen or pencil – for making notes or in case of an accident.
- Sunscreen – I would hope you plan to get some sun during your road trip. Zealios is the perfect sunscreen for watersports and adventure activities including running and hiking – it doesn’t run into our eyes, stays active a long time and is non-greasy.
- Bug spray – bug spray is definitely a must-have for traveling in certain parts of the world and at certain times of year. Great for repelling midges, no-see-ums, mosquitos and sandflies.
- Umbrella – It’s not just because we’re British – an umbrella can be very useful in a downpour especially if you’ve broken down.
- Sunglasses – preferably with polarized lenses to reduce glare and eye strain while you’re driving. If you’re in the mood to treat yourself and buy a very cool pair of classic road trip sunglasses, get yourself a pair of Randolph Aviators!
- Reusable water bottle – Hydroflask and Stanley make great options, and it’s much better for the environment to cut down on buying plastic bottles.
- Snacks – healthy plant-based snacks so you’re not relying on finding decent roadside food or snacks from gas stations.
- Comfortable clothes and shoes for driving – I basically live in leggings from PrAna and Lululemon when we’re on our road trips.
- Warm puffy jacket – great for early morning starts, driving over mountain passes at altitude, and because even in summer the evenings in some places get cold quickly, these lightweight jackets are warm and packable. [While they’re super useful they can be expensive, so definitely check out these used options if you don’t have one]
Road trip essentials to level-up your driving environment
If you’re not doing a really cheap or basic trip and you plan to spend some serious amounts of time driving then it can really pay to be prepared and buy a few additional car accessories to bring on your road trip and use on future travels.
These items are now must-haves for our road trips to keep our camper van clean and organized, and us well entertained during those long driving days.
- A car trash can – even if it’s organic (such as banana skins and paper wrappers) we generate a surprising amount of trash and it’s much nicer and easier to keep the car tidy with a dedicated bin to put it all in and empty when we stop. Otherwise, re-using old plastic bags is a cheaper option
- Car organizer – If your car isn’t well set up to hold all the things you need to bring on a road trip and have easy access to from the driver’s seat, such as your paper map, a water bottle, coffee, phone, handbag, sunglasses, snacks etc, then it may be worth investing a few $$ in getting it set up so all your stuff is easy to get hold of when you need it
- Music playlists / Audible subscription – unless you and any travel companions can keep up the BEST chat and banter for many hours and you don’t need third party entertainment while you’re driving!
If you haven’t heard of Audible before, it’s a subscription service offered by Amazon where you can download audiobooks from a huge selection across different genres and authors. Audiobooks are a great way to ‘read’ books if you enjoy them but find yourself limited on time to actually pick up and read a paper (or e-reader) version.
If you have hours ahead of you on the road, audiobooks can make a refreshing change from listening to the radio or music playlists. [For a totally free trial of Audible (which may be long enough to cover your road trip!), click here.]
Winter road trip essentials for your vehicle
If you are going on a road trip in winter then there are some extra essentials you should pack in your vehicle.
I suggest doing some additional research on the area you are visiting or driving through, in case there are other items that may be required for safety to carry in your car, such as the snow chains we mention here, which can be required for you to carry in your vehicle on certain roads where we live in California, when you drive them in winter, and a spare set of bulbs is required in certain European countries.
- Ice scraper – does what it says!
- Anti-freeze windscreen wash – there’s nothing worse than running out of windscreen wash just at the wrong time and you can’t see well out of your windshield.
- Demister pad – to remove that condensation from the inside of your car’s windows.
- Snow chains – carrying these is a necessity in some places during winter.
- Spare headlamp bulbs – even if not a necessity, it’s useful to ensure you have the right shape and size for your car in case a bulb blows in the middle of nowhere.
If you don’t already have a lot of these road trip essentials for your car then a trip to your local auto supplies store will help you stock up. It may also be worth considering whether you should change over your vehicle’s tires to winter tires if you are doing some serious winter driving on your road trip.
For winter trips also make sure you have this outdoor gear for yourself as well as anyone traveling with you:
- Winter boots (such as hiking boots) – the inside of your car may be cold but stepping out to fill up with gas is much nicer when your feet aren’t freezing.
- Winter clothes – including warm socks, pants, jackets, hats, etc.
- Warm ski gloves – because nobody likes scraping ice off their windshield without having warm gloves on.
Winter gear can get expensive, especially if you don’t expect to wear it often but need it ‘just in case’ for your trip, so these warm clothes and boots are more great candidates for buying used.
Other road trip essentials to consider packing
Depending on when and where you are going, and what you like to do on your vacations, this section of our road trip checklist includes everything that we consider packing when we are deciding what to bring on a road trip ourselves.
- Small Action camera – For example a Go Pro or even better a Insta360 action camera – we love making videos on the road
- Digital SLR camera – as photographers, a good quality digital camera is a must-have. Our top choice is the Sony A7iii, it’s small, lightweight and mightily powerful.
- Laptops – we run our business from the road so need these with us; we also use our laptops for watching TV shows at night.
- Binoculars – Binoculars are great for basic stargazing and spotting wildlife in the distance.
- Guide book – To identify local plants and wildlife.
- Travel coffee mugs – and ramblers for water.
- Cooler – either a hard cooler or a soft backpack cooler (if you don’t have much space in your car) are great for storing food and drinks on the road.
- Hiking boots – hiking boots are always in our car or van during our road trips, especially great for journeys in National Parks and around places like the California coast, where you may need to jump out of your car frequently to do short hikes and see sights. If you’re not too experienced with hiking, we have hiking for beginners tips and information on gear in this post.
- Sun hat – or a cap. We often wear our running hats on short hikes during road trip adventures because they’re so lightweight, breathable, and pack down small.
- Trail running shoes – trail running shoes can be a great, more minimal and lightweight alternative to hiking boots. To check out the best trail running shoes, see our full list in our ultimate trail running shoes buyer’s guide and check out used trail shoes here.
- Trail running clothes – our trail running clothes come everywhere with us!
- Inflatable stand-up paddleboard or kayak
- Mountain bikes
- Recovery boards – if you plan to drive your vehicle off-road, for example driving on the beach (where allowed) or even at certain campgrounds, recovery boards can be very useful if you get stuck.
- Portable power station – these are especially useful for charging laptops and camera batteries on the go, and can be charged itself from our van when the engine is running.
- Scrubba washing bag and earth-friendly detergent – for quick washes of shirts and underwear while we’re on the road.
- Travel games e.g. a pack of playing cards, a frisbee (not least, because our dog Kepler demands it!).
- Puffy blanket – our Rumpl puffy blanket is super warm, lightweight and packs down to nothing.
- Extra drinking water – a large (say 4 or 5 gallon) water jug may be important if you’re driving to or through remote places with questionable access to good quality water sources – it’s best to take your own with you.
- Chirp wheel – we take the small Chirp wheel everywhere we go. It doesn’t take up much space as you can pack stuff inside it, and it’s great for stretching out your back after a long day driving (for more on the Chirp wheel, read this post).
- Wireless headphones – wireless earbuds are definitely the way to go. We’re loving the KLH Fusion for their high quality sound and features [read our KLH Fusion review].
- Fast-drying towels
- Reusable shopping bag
- Day pack – for those quick hikes and photo opportunities [read our guide to choosing a hiking daypack if you need one]
- Duffel bags – to pack everything else in. We love our REI duffels for road trip packing.
- Packing cubes – packing cubes are a must-have to stay organized during a road trip. When you’re living out of a duffel bag, everything needs its place if you’re to avoid having a big duffel bag that’s a complete mess and impossible to find anything in! Packing cubes are like little compartments where you can store smaller items together in their own collections such as entertainment, clothes, underwear, toiletries.
- Clothes – including underwear, socks, flip flops, swimsuit.
- Toiletry bag – including toothbrush, hairbrush and any personal medications.
Camping road trip essentials
If you will be camping on your travels rather than staying with friends or in hotels then there are of course more road trip essentials you’ll need to pack. I’ve listed the essentials we pack for camping, although you may want to customize this section depending on your personal camping style and preferences. Some of the other items I’ve listed above, such as the cooler and headlamp, will also be helpful for camping.
- Tent or car tent – if you don’t already have a tent, a roof top car tent is a great way to ‘elevate your camping experience’ into more of a ‘glamping’ experience, as you camp off the ground away from bugs and dirt and have a quick and easy setup and take-down time while moving from place-to-place every few days. For a better value option, check out these tents and you may also want to consider hammock tents, especially if you’re road tripping solo.
- Sleeping bag and pad – if you’re traveling as a couple, or even if you’re solo and want some added luxury to your sleeping experience during your road trip, check out our list of the best double sleeping bags and pads – definitely the way to go if you want to be able to sleep more comfortably like you would in your own bed (because who really likes sleeping in a mummy-style bag, alone, anyway?)
- Porta-potty – this may or may not be a road trip essential for you to take camping but worth mentioning.
- Grill – one of the luxuries of car camping is that you can bring along a nice quality grill to cook some great campsite meals.
- Camp kitchen – including utensils and pots. Two companies that make great camp kitchen gear are BioLite and Sea To Summit.
- Travel pillow.
- Camp chairs – we love these folding lightweight chairs for their portability and small storage space.
- Water purification tablets and/or bottle – LarQ bottles are a high-tech way to get non-stinking, purified water when camping or road tripping.
What to take for a dog on a road trip
If you have a dog (or several dogs) traveling with you on your road trip then you’ll be surprised at how much stuff you find you need to pack for them. If you’d like to learn more about our crazy adventures in our camper van with our dog and two cats, follow our Instagram account.
The exact items can vary depending on your dog’s needs and your personal preference, however here are the ‘essentials’ we take for our dog Kepler, when we are traveling:
- Travel crate – such as this crash-tested Gunner Kennel or Kepler’s Impact crate.
- Toys – Kepler needs his frisbee wherever we go.
- Harness – for hikes and on-leash frisbee games.
- Leash. Here’s a run down of our favorite leashes, and harnesses for dogs.
- Fi GPS tracking collar to ensure you dog never gets lost [read more on the Fi collar here].
- Food and food bowl.
- Water bowl – although it’s large, Kepler’s YETI bowl is what we bring with us on road trips because it is difficult to knock over and he likes drinking from it.
- Dog first aid kit – in case they cut a paw or something when you’re stopped at a rest area or in a campsite.
- Furminator – to keep the amount of loose hair in your car down to a minimum.
- Towel – because a wet dog can create a lot of mess (and smell) in a car or van.
- Clothes – cooling vest, warm jacket, bandanas.
- Vaccination record – plus any medications.
- Poo bags and a bin to store the full ones in between finding somewhere to safely dispose of them.
What to pack for cats on a road trip
Our cats come with us on longer road trips in our van! They are lower-maintenance than Kepler in some ways but do need some things to keep them happy, healthy and safe.
- Cat travel crate – we use a soft folding crate that we can dismantle when we are parked and if they’re loose in a hotel room.
- Scratching post.
- Litter box and scoop.
- Bags to throw soiled litter away in.
- Food bowls.
- Water bowl.
- Vaccination record.
So now you’re through the full list of road trip essentials you’ll have a good idea of what to bring on a road trip when you’re in the packing stage of your own. I hope this has been helpful in helping you plan your next adventure – if it was, share it with a friend who could also benefit from this road trip essentials packing checklist.