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20 Best Road Trip Essentials: How to Plan for a Smooth Trip

Miles and miles of road stretched out ahead, tunes blasting, you start singing along. You spot a sign that says Rainbow Springs 5 miles. Should you make a detour? It’s a hot day. Your curiosity gets the better of you. You decide to veer off your scheduled path, not knowing exactly what lies ahead, but interested to find out. You feel safe in your adventure because you have packed all of the road trip essentials. You can easily reach into your trunk to grab some towels and your bathing suit for a spur of the moment swim.

Does this appeal to you? Then you are most likely a road tripper. My husband and I love road trips. We love the planning and choosing off beat destinations, instead of popular tourist areas. We love being able to bring our gear with us. And we especially love taking detours when something new inspires us.

Road trips are fun for the young and old

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 89% of people travel by personal vehicle for long distance trips each year. That’s a lot of road trips!

When our children were young we used to take family road trips to the Disney Parks. Now that they are older, my husband and I make interstate trips or just find unique destinations within our home state of Florida. We usually return and our friends say “Wow! You did that right here without leaving the state?”

Over the years we have honed our travel skills and come up with several necessities that make trips more enjoyable. I want to share these tips with you to help you avoid any of our mistakes. This article is for those who have already planned their trip and are trying to figure out what gear they need. However, if you need help planning your road trip, I can help you there too. Plus, take advantage of these road trip trivia questions to add fun to the car ride.

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Useful Road Trip Apps

Gone are the days of sending away for information from the tourist bureaus. Now there is a whole world of apps that are useful when planning a road trip. While this list is by no means inclusive, these are my favorites.

Travel Tip: Make sure to screen shot important info and maps for areas with spoty wifi.

  • Trip Advisor – I mostly use this app to plan my trip. It lists places to stay, places to eat, and sights and activities. You can create trip files to save all your favorites under the heading of a specific trip. However, this is also a really useful app while on a trip. If plans fall through due to weather, you can look up activities near you for spur of the moment changes. You can also use it to locate restaurants nearby when you are starving after going snorkeling all morning. Popular areas also have city guides that you can download and have access to offline.
  • Airbnb – This is another app I use for planning. We like creating unique trips like glamping on an alpaca farm or sleeping in a sailboat. Often you can find unique lodging that is cheaper than a stay in a hotel. Some places even have access to activities on site. Another way to use this app is to plan excursions. You can book local activities such as boat rides, jet skis, etc.

Life is better with apps

  • Google Maps – Whether you use Google maps or another map app, don’t go on a trip without one. You can use the app in planning distances from one location to another to plot out how often you want to stop. But it can also be useful redirecting you when there is slow traffic, an accident, or construction. You will also be able to find the nearest restrooms and fuel stations. Just make sure to set it so you can still have access to the map offline. The last thing you want is to get lost in the middle of nowhere because there is no Internet connection.
  • Roadtrippers – I downloaded this app right before the pandemic when I was planning a big interstate trip. However, I never did get to use it much. This app is useful in planning and listing your itinerary.

Prepping Your Car for Emergencies

shows a lone stretch of road as a reminder to pack an emergency kit as a road trip essential so you don'y get stranded

While you can’t plan for everything, you can do your best to be prepared. Make sure at least a week ahead of time you make sure your car is in top condition. I usually take my car to my mechanic for a premium oil change. This way they change the oil, top off the fluids, check the breaks, and inspect the tires. If anything is wrong, I have time to fix it before the big trip.

I learned this the hard way. Years ago, I got my oil changed on a Friday evening, right before I left for a trip. At the time I has a ’93 Hundai Excel. Apparently the oil pan looked like the transmission pan. In their hurry to close up shop Friday night, they accidentally drained my transmission fluid instead of the oil. Luckily my transmission waited to seize up until I got to the entrance to my parents’ complex 3 hours away.

No matter how well you are prepared, sometimes the unexpected happens. Here are some road trip necessities:

Roadside emergency kit

If you are in an unfamiliar area, especially in the country, you never know how long it will take for help to arrive. Having a roadside emergency kit will ease some of your stress. Most come with safety flares, jumper cables, a tow rope, heavy duty gloves, rain ponchos, and first aid kit. This is especially important in remote areas. Remember you might not have cell service or Internet. You may have to rely on the kindness of strangers. At least you will be prepared. I tried to include a wide price range of kits to fit every budget, all with a minimum of a 4 star customer rating.

First aid kit

If you don’t already have a first aid kit, you will need to get one. Who you are traveling with and where you are going will help you determine which one you need. If you are making short trips to more populated areas, there is likely to be many available emergency facilities. In that case, a small kit that fits in your glove box is fine.

If you are traveling with kids, going on a longer trip, traveling through remote areas, or doing nature activities, you are more likely to need first aid. Get a larger kit with emergency blankets, glow sticks, fire starter, knife, paracord, and more.

If you are embarking on some risk taking outdoor adventures, opt for a comprehensive kit with a first aid book, wound dressings, and other survival gear. This one even has a small removable kit to fit in your backpack or glove box for times you don’t need as much gear.

Spare tire

Many cars now don’t come with a spare tire. They have those donuts instead. Those are fine to get you to the nearest service station or around town for a bit, but you will not make it far on a road trip with one. Before your trip, make sure to stick a backup tire in your trunk. I know it takes up a lot of space, but you don’t want to be without it.

Roadside assistance

We have emergency roadside assistance through our car insurance, which includes free towing up to a certain amount of miles. Check with your insurance company to see if they offer this or subscribe to another roadside service such as AAA.

Portable charger

We use a portable charger all the time. Even if your phone is fully charged when you leave the house, GPS, music, photos, and videos will drain it in no time. Then, of course, everyone wants to use the car charger at the same time. If you spend a lot of time outdoors or go camping a lot, you may want to invest in a solar charger. These cost a bit more, but they can charge themselves using sunlight. This way you can leave this to fuel up in the sun, and then use it to charge your phones when their batteries are low. Just remember, these won’t charge at night and take much longer on cloudy days so if you have electricity charge your phone the old fashioned way.

Road Trip Essentials Amazon

Ok, so we dealt with being prepared for emergencies. But how about making your trip more comfortable. After all, you will be living out of your car whether you have a long drive to your destination or are stopping at several spots closer to home. These road trip must haves are not necessities, but you will be glad you made the choice to get them.

Trunk organizer

So you think you are packing light? While you might only be packing a few duffel bags with clothing and toiletries, you will be bringing much more. That is one of the benefits of road tripping. When you take a plane, you are limited to what you can take with you. You have to waste money eating take out for every meal. You need to rent equipment. But by traveling in your car you can bring those extra shoes for hiking, plus flip flops, snorkeling gear, etc.

A trunk organizer can help you find items easily at stops. Throw the extra shoes in one section, paper plates and other picnic supplies in another, and your beach gear in another. Depending on how much you want to spend, you can even get one with a cooler section to store extra food.

Car garbage

When on our favorite road trip to New Orleans, we had long stretches in between stops. We often drank yogurt shakes, ate cereal bars, or savored deli sandwiches while driving. Needless to say, we created a lot of garbage. Car garbage cans come in various sizes depending on your needs. You can get one that hangs from the gear shift for the front seat. Some can hang from the seat or the center console to be used by extra passengers in back. Others are larger and even have compartments for tissues and other things.

Car refrigerators

My son came up with this idea as a little kid when we would drive to Orlando every month to visit my parents. I’m glad someone actually created some. These mini fridges are great for keeping food cold while on trips. Depending on how far you have to go and how many people you have with you, there are several options to choose from.

Coolers

One of the most important road trip essentials is your cooler. The beauty of a road trip is that you don’t have to waste precious vacation time trying to find places to eat, wasting money, or eating a lot of junk that will leave you sluggish. Since you are traveling in your own vehicle, you can load up a cooler with food. I recommend getting a large cooler with wheels. The wheels will make it easy to bring it from your vehicle to your lodging for the night. Trust me, a full cooler gets mighty heavy.

However, if you are only going on a day trip or will be heading to the beach for a few hours, a smaller insulated cooler will be easy to carry. You can pack a few sandwiches, drinks, and some fruit without having to lug your big cooler around.

If you will be doing hiking or visiting theme parks where you want your hands free, an insulated backpack is great. When I had my last child, I got an insulated backpack diaper bag. I wanted it to look more like a purse. It was one of the best investments I made. Long after the diapers were gone, we used that backpack to bring cold drinks and snacks to all of the Orlando theme parks. Now, 15 years later, my husband and I use it for our beach bag.

Road trip packing list

Ok, so you’ve chosen some gear. Now what? What else should you bring? Don’t worry. I have broken this down for you.

Things to pack for a trip in your cooler

This is a general list. Feel free to adjust to what fits your family. I often pack items in sealable Ziploc bags to make transport easier. Also, if you have any uncooked foods make sure they are well sealed and placed in separate bags on the bottom of the cooler. It helps if these are frozen until you get to your destination. It will prevent juices from seeping out, plus they will act as ice blocks. You can also freeze some of your deli meat for later on your trip. We did this on our 11 day trip to New Orleans.

  • breakfast items- yogurts, string cheese, fruits
  • lunch items- sandwich meats, mayo, mustard, tomato, lettuce, premade salads, sliced cheese, jelly (pbj), raw veggies and dip.
  • grilling foods- burgers, hotdogs, relish, ketchup
  • several cold beverages- you can also freeze water bottles to use as ice packs.

You can restock your cooler with beverages from your trunk as needed. When you get to your lodging for the night refrigerate or freeze what is left in your cooler and repack the cooler again the next day before heading out.

Road trip items to pack in your trunk organizer

How long you will be gone and what you will be doing will determine how you pack your trunk organizer. We like to prepare our own food part of the time, so I usually have a bunch of paper goods.

  • paper goods- plates, utensils, napkins, paper towels, Ziploc bags, garbage bags, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, Clorox wipes
  • cleaning goods- laundry detergent, dish soap, Lysol spray, sponges
  • non-perishable food items- bread, peanut butter, individual cereal boxes, breakfast bars, nuts, trail mix, snacks
  • extra shoes- flip flops, sneakers, dress shoes, sandals

I usually pack a car bag with enough non perishable food until our next stop. Depending on how warm of a climate you are traveling through, you may want to put some of your non perishable food in your cooler or at least bring it into your lodging for the night.

Things to bring on a road trip for specific activities

Think about what you are planning to do on your trip and how much space you have. No matter what you are doing, you will need to pack back up beverages in your trunk. Especially water, you never know what the quality of the water is like, plus you will need to take some with you for day trips. These are some extras you may need:

  • snorkeling gear
  • beach towels, umbrella, blanket, chairs
  • tent and camping equipment
  • roller blades
  • kayak, canoe, bikes
  • ski equipment

For larger items you will need to plan ahead to secure a roof rack or a bike rack for the back of your vehicle.

Road trip essentials for adults

You might not consider alcohol as road trip essentials. However, when you get to your destination, and you are watching the sunset, enjoying the scenery, you will realize something is missing. Better bring fixings for drinks and not use them than to get to a remote destination and find your perfect evening lacking. My husband and I like to bring at least one bottle of wine with us for a romantic dinner. That being said, we have also brought a portable bar with us with some pre mixed tropical drinks for a beach vacation. You can get one that just has the tools, or get one that fits bottles of liquor. Then of course you may want a bar backpack to bring on a picnic.

Road trip essentials for kids

We used to go on family vacations to Lake George, NY when I was a kid. My mom always had us pack one bag of clothes and another bag of things to keep us busy during the down time. I remember my cousin Colleen and I sitting on the front porch of our cabin playing the card game spit for hours every summer. You also want to pack some extra road trip essentials when traveling with little ones. Here are some road trip items you might want to bring:

  • small toys
  • card games
  • books
  • puzzle books
  • drawing supplies/coloring books
  • wet wipes/ toilet paper/ old towel (for spills or other fluids)/ plastic bags
  • motion sickness medicine, Tylenol, Tums, tissues,

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Fun road trip essentials: games for the ride

No road trip is complete without some games to play on the road. Nobody likes to hear, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”, over and over again until you want to rip your hair out. These bingo games are fun and made for the car. I played them when I was a kid. Instead of worrying about bingo markers falling all over the car, these have windows that slide open on each square. You can also get a family bonding game to make use of this time together. When everyone needs some down time, give the kids a lap desk with pockets for art supplies or other activities.

In addition to these games there are many more on the market. You can also do the old fashioned family fun like the license plate game, finding things that begin with each letter of the alphabet, or seeing how many of certain color cars there are.

I would love to hear from you as to any additional road trip essentials you find useful. I am always looking to improve my posts to benefit my readers.

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Donna Emperador is a travel and food blogger and copywriter. Donna believes in learning about different cultures while sharing good food and cocktails. She has lived in South Florida for over 20 years and enjoys spending time exploring the road to find unique places to share with readers. She can be found on FacebookInstagram, and Pinterest.

3 thoughts on “20 Best Road Trip Essentials: How to Plan for a Smooth Trip

  1. We do love to head out on road trips. We did a lot of them during the pandemic so we outfitted the car pretty well for most road trips. Although we probably need to beef up our roadside emergency kit. A good point that internet cannot always be assumed to be available. A plug in refrigerator is something we should consider for longer trips. Good tips for people getting ready for coming road trips.

  2. It’s funny – although I’m not driving, I love road trips. Fortunately, there are others that do the driving like for instance bus drivers or conductors which enables me to go on road trips just the same. After having read your list, I must say that going on a railroad trip or bus road trip seems to require less organization and fewer gadgets. However, I’m not as free’n’flexible as you motorized road trippers…

  3. So many helpful hints for road trips. Thanks, I will share these with a few friends who like to go on road trips.

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