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The Ultimate Road Trip Packing Checklist & Best Tips [Printable]

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Amar Hussain
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Amar Hussain

Senior Content Contributor

789 Published Articles

Countries Visited: 63U.S. States Visited: 9

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications incl...
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Jessica Merritt

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A long-time points and miles student, Jessica is the former Personal Finance Managing Editor at U.S. News and World Report and is passionate about helping consumers fund their travels for as little ca...
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Table of Contents

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There are few things as exciting as taking a road trip. Whether you’re going somewhere completely new or visiting an old favorite spot, it’s bound to be an adventure. However, one of the defining characteristics of road trips is that they can be unpredictable, especially if you’re not prepared. Weather changes, road conditions, or underestimating your ability to handle long car rides can come up.

Always ensure you have emergency and safety gear packed in your luggage, and bring plenty of water, music, and maybe a book or 2 to pass the time for a successful trip.

📋 Click To View Our Printable Road Trip Packing List >> 📋

Road Trip Packing Tips and Advice

Don’t get overwhelmed by the idea of planning your next big road trip. This guide will help you pack like a pro so you’re ready to hit the road, whether you’re driving a few towns over or across the country. However, being prepared isn’t just about what you pack. Here are a few things to consider before embarking on your car adventure.

Check the Weather

While you’ll probably spend a lot of time in the car on your road trip, knowing what weather to expect is still an essential part of the planning process. For example, rainy weather might affect your visibility, so you must adjust to cover less ground in a day.

It’s also important to check the weather if you’re crossing multiple climate regions. It might be summer at home, but if you’re driving into the mountains, you’ll want to pack layers and a jacket because the temperature could drop drastically. 

Plan Your Route

Most of the time, a road trip has an end destination. Once you know your final stop, you can plan your trip accordingly.

Planning your trip route will not only help you get an idea of your driving times and what traffic and road conditions to expect, but it can also add extra fun to your trip. Take note of any side trips you could take or attractions you’d like to see while on your journey, and plan a few fun stops to help break up the miles in the car.

How Long Is Your Trip?

Most road trips are between 7 and 10 days in length but can vary greatly. Packing and preparing for a weekend-long getaway will be a lot different than for a 6-month-long adventure.

Some things will be on your packing list no matter how long you will be away from home. You’ll always want rechargeable batteries, a reusable water bottle, and a patch kit or spare tire.

Hot Tip:

Pack enough socks, underwear, and entertainment to last your whole trip, or at least until you can get to a laundry service or replenish anything you’ve used up.

Your Vehicle or a Rental?

You’ll want to decide if your road trip will be better in your vehicle or if you should rent one for the road. There are pros and cons to both.

Your Vehicle

The biggest upside to using your car is its familiarity. It’s an extension of your home, and you probably know how to change the settings to suit your preferences. However, consider its size. For example, if you’re going on a long road trip with 4 or 5 people, a sedan won’t be too comfortable.

Rental Cars

Rentals have the exact opposite pros and cons of using your own car. The advantages of renting come if your personal vehicle is small, isn’t equipped for electronics, or if it just isn’t road ready. You can find a temporary option to make your trip more comfortable and potentially more secure.

On the other hand, if you’re driving a rental, you have to be more careful about keeping it tidy. That could mean no eating while on the road or being meticulous about mud to avoid paying hefty cleaning fees or losing a deposit.

Road Trip Car
Image Credit: Nick Brugioni via Unsplash

Plan Your Sleeping Arrangements

There are many ways to road trip, and any one of them has the potential for fun. However, they all require different types of planning, especially when it comes to your sleeping arrangements.

Here are a few of the most popular sleeping options for road trips:

  • Hotels and Motels: This is the most comfortable option, but it requires the most planning, especially during popular vacation times, like during the summer or over a holiday weekend. To ensure you find a room that suits your needs, it’s a good idea to plan where you’ll be staying and make reservations.
  • RV and Tent Campgrounds: Similar to hotels and motels, staying at these campgrounds offers some comforts, but they’re a little more rustic. If you’re road-tripping in an RV, you’ll often have access to electricity and water. Campsites set aside for tents usually have restrooms and access to cooking areas. Even in this case, you must make reservations to guarantee your spot.
  • Car Sleeping: This is the least luxurious sleeping arrangement, but it’s popular for some types of travel. It’s most often preferred to pull over at a rest area for a few hours when driving long distances in a short time, but there are understandably no amenities.

Make a Packing List Early

Packing for a road trip takes a little more planning than you might be used to if you typically opt for other vacations. To ensure you have everything you need for hours on the road and whatever climates you’ll find yourself in, avoid waiting until the last minute to get your bags ready.

Start making a packing list as soon as you finalize your plans. Doing so gives you time to ensure you have the right clothes, toiletries, gear, and entertainment for the journey. It also gives you time to shop around if you need to, meaning you’ll have the best chance of finding exactly what you need.

Choose the Right Gear

You don’t need a luxury vehicle or top-of-the-line RV for a successful road trip. However, you’ll still want to ensure you have the right gear.

Some equipment might vary depending on the length and location of your trip, but there are a few things you should have no matter what sort of drive you’re taking on. Here are a few things you should remember to pack:

  • Car battery jumper cables
  • First-aid kit
  • A spare tire, wrench, and car jack
  • A tire patch kit
  • A tire gauge and a small air compressor
  • A warning triangle and reflective vest (preferably 1 per passenger)

Depending on your car, you might also want to invest in a luggage rack or roof box to save space inside your vehicle.

Hot Tip:

If you’re traveling with a pet, a crate or dog seat cover is also recommended, and if you have small children in the car, an appropriate car seat is necessary.

Purchase Travel-sized Items

Even though traveling by car means you don’t have to worry about any restrictions on what personal-care items you can bring, you still want to pack efficiently. Using full-sized versions of your favorite hairspray or lotion can take up a lot of valuable space in your luggage.

Consider opting for travel or trial-size items unless you plan a particularly long trip. If your preferred brands don’t carry these products, you can make your own with reusable travel containers.

Depending on your sleeping arrangements, you’ll also want to pack soap and shampoo. This is particularly true if you plan on staying at campgrounds where toiletries aren’t provided.

Remember, spills are still possible even if you pack items in brand-new packages. To protect your other belongings from leaks, pack your personal care items separately in an easy-to-clean nylon or plastic toiletry bag

What Electronics Should I Take?

While it’s true that being in the car means you won’t be able to bring tons of electronics with you on your trip, you’ll still want to have a few tech items with you. Of course, you’ll bring your smartphone, which will likely grant you access to most of the apps and online resources you need.

You’ll also want to make sure you have a charger you can plug into your car with you as well. It’s a good idea to have an outlet and USB charger if you encounter a place to plug in when you’re not in your vehicle.

It’s a good idea to bring a tablet or e-reader, too. The larger screen is more convenient for watching videos or reading, which saves you from having to take up space by packing separate books or DVDs. You might also want to consider packing a camera to document your trip. A small digital or disposable camera will let you save your phone battery while still capturing photos and videos.

Travel Insurance

In most cases, your regular car and health insurance will cover your road trip. However, you might want to take out other travel insurance coverage in some instances.

If you’ve made any non-refundable reservations, travel insurance can help guarantee you get your money back if your plans change. You might also want to update or take out insurance on any valuable belongings you’ll be taking with you, like electronics or meaningful jewelry like engagement rings or wedding bands.

Consider taking the opportunity to become a member of AAA so you have some peace of mind if you need roadside assistance. These memberships also occasionally grant discounts at motels, attractions, and restaurants.

Travel Admin

Road trips might be a more low-tech way to vacation without complicated boarding passes and luggage tags, but there’s still some paperwork and administrative things to take care of.

Make sure you don’t forget these important documents:

  • Your ID, including a driver’s license for anyone who might get behind the wheel; also, bring a passport if your trip might take you out of the country
  • Car and health insurance information
  • The addresses and booking information of any places you’ve made reservations at
  • Multiple forms of payment, including money, credit or debit cards, and checks

If you want to go the extra mile, plan ahead in case you lose or damage anything while on the road by bringing extras of:

  • Any health information to be aware of, including medical conditions, dietary requirements, allergies, and a list of medications taken
  • Your contact details and those of your next of kin or emergency contacts

Keep Your Travel Documents Safe and Handy

Keep multiple copies of all the necessary documents for your trip. If you have email confirmation for reservations or car rentals, save that email, take a screenshot on your phone, and bring a hard copy. Keep all necessary paperwork, including your ID, somewhere safe that you can easily access.

Cash and Credit Cards

Most places today take credit and debit card payments and even mobile payment options, but don’t count on that being the case everywhere. Bring some cash with you in case of emergencies to ensure you’re not stuck and unable to pay.

At the same time, If you’re renting a car or booking a hotel room, you might be asked to leave a deposit ahead of time which should be returned to you at the end of your trip. In those cases, using your credit or debit card is the most secure option. 

Keep Your Personal Details Close for Emergencies

With modern technology, it seems crazy that we used to memorize phone numbers or keep a written address book of contacts.

However, when planning your road trip, it’s best not to rely on your phone. Your battery could die, or a locked cell could keep someone from contacting your loved ones in an emergency. To avoid that, keep a physical list of contact information for yourself and your loved ones in a safe place.

Packing Your Car

The packing process is one of the most exciting parts of road trip planning. However, if you get too carried away, you might end up with a disorganized mess or even forget something important. Follow these tips to ensure you pack like a pro.

Lay It All Out

Before putting anything in your luggage, lay out everything you plan to bring. Here’s where making a packing list will come in handy. Seeing everything in front of you will help you notice gaps you might not have thought of.

Consider Your Itinerary

Everyone knows to use the weather forecast as a packing guide, but make sure you also consider your itinerary.

If you think you may have a beach day, bring a towel and a bathing suit, for example. That’s why it’s a good idea to devise a plan of what you might do and see while you’re on the road so that you can pack appropriately.

Take Out Anything Unnecessary

Remember, there’s a difference between being prepared and being over-prepared. Only pack for the activities you are reasonably sure you’ll be able to do while on your trip. If you’re taking a road trip around Florida, you likely won’t need a snowsuit.

When it comes to packing clothes, personal care items, or entertainment, if you don’t use something at home, you likely won’t need it while on the road. For example, if you never wear a robe around the house or at the pool, don’t bring one with you.

Roof Box, Suitcase — What Should Go Where?

Figuring out how to pack your car can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. There are 2 main options when it comes to packing up a car for a road trip:

Suitcases and Car Trunk

This is the easiest and most cost-effective way to pack, as most people already have a duffel bag or luggage set. However, if you’re traveling with a large group or have a smaller vehicle, the car’s trunk may not be large enough.

Roof Box and Luggage Rack

This packing option is more of an investment, but it can be more efficient for road travel as they both save space inside your vehicle. However, roof boxes offer more protection from the elements as they’re made of durable material suitable for most environmental conditions.

If you plan on going the roof box or luggage rack route, make sure to pack your important or valuable items in a separate bag that will stay inside the car.

Hot Tip:

You might also want to have a small bag with a change of clothes and your essential toiletries in the vehicle as well, so they’re easy to access if you’re overnighting at a hotel. 

Take a Laundry Bag

You’ll likely have very limited access to a washing machine or dryer while on the road. Between washes, bring a spare bag to put your dirty laundry in to keep from mixing anything up with your clean clothing.

That could mean using something as simple as a trash bag, but you can also go the extra mile and opt for a waterproof bag you can use for swimming suits or other wet clothing items. 

Get Your Car Road-ready

Person pouring oil into engine
Image Credit: Tim Mossholder via Unsplash

Making sure your car is reliable and ready to handle long hours on the road is perhaps the most important part of the planning process. If you’re renting a vehicle, you likely won’t have to worry about doing much, as the car you get from the rental agency will probably have been inspected shortly before you get the keys.

However, if you’re taking your own car, there are a few things you’ll want to make sure you do before heading out.

  • Check Your Oil: Make sure you have enough oil and that you aren’t due for a change to make sure your engine runs safely and efficiently.
  • Get a Tune-up and Inspection: Take your car to your trusted mechanic for a look-over to have the brakes and engine checked.
  • Check Your Tires: It’s a good idea to rotate your tires if it’s been a while since you’ve last done so. Make sure they’re aligned, balanced, and aren’t worn down as well. Depending on where you’ll be driving, consider changing to all-weather or off-road tires.
  • Change Your Filters: Since you’ll be in your car for extended periods, changing your filters will help keep your vehicle free of air pollutants.
  • Check the Lights: Test your turn signals, headlights, fog lights, and high beams to make sure they work properly.
  • Check the Battery: Make sure your car battery doesn’t need to be changed. A mechanic can do this, but you can also do it at home with a multimeter.
  • Fill the Tank: Of course, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to go an entire road trip without stopping for gas (or a charge if you’re using an electric vehicle), but it’s best to start your journey on the right foot with a full tank. 

Driving Considerations

To help things go smoothly, take the time to address a few things that can affect the drive.

Make the Car Comfortable

Car seats are padded, but they aren’t usually designed for long journeys. Bring a lumbar or seat cushion for the driver to avoid back aches from hours on the road. For passengers, consider bringing blankets or pillows.

Of course, remember to have food and water in the vehicle so no one gets hungry or thirsty. It’s also important to wear soft, comfortable clothing and shoes. For example, you might want to opt for sweats instead of jeans.

How Many Drivers?

One of the biggest factors that can affect your trip is how many drivers are hitting the road with you. That can mean the difference between covering 500 miles and 1,000 miles in a day, for example. If multiple drivers are going on the trip, you can plan your shifts behind the wheel according to your preferences.

Plan Your Driving Time

Generally, it’s considered safe to drive for up to 8 hours with a break every 2 hours for at least 15 minutes to stretch your legs and rest. However, for some people, that’s still a long time to be behind the wheel, especially for multiple days in a row.

Even if you’re okay in the car for that long, other passengers might struggle with it. Don’t overestimate your abilities or the tolerance of your travel companions, and plan realistic driving times between stops.

Note Rest Stops

Long periods in the car can be grueling and uncomfortable. While you probably planned some stops while figuring out your route, note other rest areas you might encounter while on the road and make sure to keep an eye out for signs of upcoming places to stop.

Be Flexible

You might make detailed plans and have your road trip prepared down to the mile, but things happen. One day, you might find yourself burning out after just a few hours on the road, someone could get car sick, or unexpected traffic might pop up.

Be as flexible as you can, and come up with alternatives in case your Plan A doesn’t work out. This can also be a good thing! After all, being too rigid in your itinerary won’t leave much room for any other little adventures that could make your journey even more fun. Be open to stopping at a roadside attraction or checking out a town you drive by.

Road Trip With Kids Considerations

Road Trip With Kids
Image Credit: Anton Luzhkovsky via Unsplash

Road trips can be a great opportunity for family bonding and can give kids a lifetime’s worth of memories. However, taking on this sort of travel with children brings along a different set of considerations.

Pack Car Activities

The number 1 thing that will help ensure your child is happy and entertained while in the car is to provide plenty of car activities. Here are a few options that will work in the confined space of a vehicle:

  • Shows and Movies: This is the easiest option. You can download videos on a tablet or bring a portable DVD player.
  • Coloring Books: It’s not recommended you bring markers that can stain, but colored pencils and a coloring book or drawing paper can work wonders.
  • Travel-sized Games: If you have multiple kids or passengers, consider getting travel versions of board games like checkers or Monopoly or a deck of cards to play with. You can even find car-specific games like car bingo.

Travel Safely

In most places, there’s an age and weight requirement for children to be in appropriate car seats.

In the U.S., most state laws for car seats require that children under 8 and/or under 65 pounds need a car seat, and children under 12 have to sit in the back seat of a vehicle. However, each state has further requirements, so double-check the laws where you’ll be traveling.

Make the Trip an Adventure

You can have all the games and toys your kid loves in the car, but they’ll still get bored after hours of driving. To help, make the trip an adventure. Point out interesting signs, stop at attractions, and give them a “job,” like looking for signs for your destination. All of that will help the ride be more exciting and tolerable.

Bring Comfort Items

Being away from home and their routine can be tough on kids, even if they’re excited about your vacation. Bring comfort items like their favorite blanket or stuffed animal so they have something familiar to make travel and homesickness easier to handle.

Know Their Limits

It’s hard enough for adults to take on a lengthy drive, let alone kids, and there’s no real way to practice building up that tolerance. Know your kids’ limits. Pull over for a while if they start getting agitated or uncomfortable, even if it means changing your plans and timeline projections.

Apps for Road Trips

Technology has made road-tripping so much easier thanks to software that can help you plan and drive. Here are a few handy apps (all for Android or iOS unless noted) to consider downloading before hitting the road:

Roadtrippers

This app is a lifesaver when you’re still planning a trip. Its map database can help you decide on a route and shows attractions, gas stations, hotels, and more for each option. It even provides travel time estimates and gas costs.

GasBuddy

GasBuddy has access to fuel prices at over 140,000 stations in North America. If you need to fill up while on the road, it can help you decide which nearby station is most convenient.

Maps.me

You can’t use most map apps if you lose reception while driving. Maps.me is essential because it lets you download maps that can be accessed offline.

Roadside America

There are hundreds of landmarks and attractions most people have never heard of. This app, only available for iOS, compiles them all in 1 easy place, so you can see which ones you can stop at for extra fun.

Waze

Waze is useful for every drive, especially while on a road trip. The app gives you updates on traffic and road conditions while also providing alternative routes when they’re available.

How To Prepare Your House Before You Leave

  • Get Rid of Perishables: Avoid buying perishables in large quantities the days before your trip and use up anything that might expire or go bad while you’re gone.
  • Clean Up: On a typical day, you can put off taking out the trash or doing the dishes, but that’s not what you want to come home to. You don’t have to deep-clean your home, but tidying up will make your return more relaxing.
  • Take Care of Your Mail: If you are out of town for over a few days, you’ll want to ensure your mail doesn’t pile up in your mailbox. You can ask a trusted friend or neighbor to pick up your mail or even ask the post office to pause service to your house for the extent of your trip.
  • Make It Seem Like You Never Left: If leaving your house empty for multiple days worries you, make it seem like there’s someone home. In addition to the above tip for handling your mail, invest in a light or television timer.
  • Get a Housesitter: It’s not always necessary to have a housesitter stay over. You can just ask someone you trust to come by and check on your home, water any houseplants, and feed your pets if they didn’t come on your trip with you.
  • Turn Off Appliances: Power surges can come out of nowhere, especially if there are storms or construction work in your area. Avoid returning home to damaged tech by unplugging non-essential appliances and purchasing surge-protector strips you can shut off at the socket.
  • Let People Know: Make sure you have a few close family and friends who know your itinerary and have copies of all your plans and documents, including a photocopy of your ID. You’ll also want to call your bank, credit card providers, and insurance company to let them know you’ll be traveling to avoid being flagged for suspicious activity.

Final Thoughts

Road trips are a great way to see the country, but they involve some planning to avoid mid-trip stress and headaches. Plan your route, make sure your car is road ready, and bring plenty of activities for yourself and any other passengers you have with you so hours in the car can fly by in a flash.

Remember to use our helpful packing list to ensure you don’t forget any essentials or overpack for the occasion, and download a few handy apps to make your trip run smoothly.

If you’re searching for inspiration, check out our guide to the best road trips in the U.S., including routes and highlights.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long should a road trip be?

Most road trips vary between a week and 10 days because they usually involve driving thousands of miles away from home. However, you can also plan trips that are shorter or longer as long as you’re comfortable in the car.

What not to do on a road trip?

There are a few rules for what not to do on a road trip. The most important rule is not to drive past your limit. If you feel like you’re getting tired, stop for the night or switch drivers for everyone’s safety.

How should I pack for a long road trip?

Consider how long you’ll be gone for and make sure you pack enough to last that long, plus have a few days’ worth of spares just in case. Also, make sure your car entertainment essentials and important items are easily reachable.

What should I not forget to pack for a road trip?

Batteries and chargers for all your tech are essential for keeping yourself and your travel companions entertained while on the road. Also, make sure you have all your travel and driving documents and plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Amar Hussain's image

About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.

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