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What to Pack for a Road Trip

AFAR logo AFAR 8/18/2020 Amy Jurries and Lyndsey Matthews

a canyon with a mountain in the background: What to Pack for a Road Trip © Photo by Shutterstock What to Pack for a Road Trip

Because of the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions on international travel, Americans canceled nearly 150 million trips planned for this summer, according to forecasts from AAA. Even though travel bans mean last-minute flights to Europe are out of the question, Americans will have still taken an estimated 683 million road trips this summer, accounting for 97 percent of domestic vacations at the moment. 

We’ve all been there on a bad road trip—eating meals that consist of only gas station food, getting lost on some bumpy back road, second-guessing car rental insurance decisions, or digging through a hopelessly overstuffed and disorganized car in the dark. It doesn’t have to be that way. With the right road trip essentials, you can stay well-fed, on track, and neatly organized, making your next trip the best one yet. 

These are the 30 essentials to pack for your next road trip:

For your safety and sanity:

  • Phone chargers/power banks
  • Cell phone car mount
  • GPS
  • Car safety kit
  • First aid kit
  • Headlamp
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Face masks
  • Sunscreen

For your comfort: 

  • Outdoor blanket
  • Cooler
  • Healthy snacks
  • Reusable water bottle
  • Reusable coffee cup
  • Portable coffee maker
  • Sunglasses
  • Comfy driving shoes
  • Sneaker boots
  • Merino wool T-shirts
  • Comfy pants
  • Travel pillow

For keeping things organized:

  • Rooftop cargo box
  • Duffel bag
  • Packing cubes
  • Foldable backpack
  • Car trash can
  • Trunk organizer

For staying entertained:

  • Instant camera
  • Playlists, podcasts, and audiobooks
  • Road trip games
Keeping your phone charged is the key to any successful road trip. © Courtesy of Otterbox Keeping your phone charged is the key to any successful road trip.

1. Car chargers and power banks

AFAR’s Pick: Otterbox USB-C and USB-A Fast Charge Dual Port Car Charger, $30, otterbox.com; Otterbox Fast Charge Power Bank, $35, otterbox.com

Whether you’re relying on your phone to navigate or keep kids entertained watching YouTube in the backseat, you’ll need to keep your device charged. Otterbox’s Fast Charge line powers phones and tablets up to 3.6 times faster than standard chargers and includes a car charger with both USB-C and USB-A outputs, and a power bank that provides up to 30 hours of battery-life for when you’re not near an outlet or electricity. 

2. Cell phone car mount

AFAR’s Pick: iOttie iTap Magnetic 2 Dashboard Car Mount, $25, amazon.com

The Google Maps app is one of the most popular ways to navigate on road trips these days, but you’ll need a safe place to mount your cell phone so you can keep your eyes on the road at the same time. The iOttie iTap Magnetic 2 dashboard mount uses magnets to strongly secure your phone in place while you’re driving, but it also allows you to pop it off quickly when you’re ready to park and get out of the car for a bit.

3. GPS

AFAR’s Pick: Garmin DriveAssist 51 LMT-S, $300, garmin.com

For shorter trips, phones with Google Maps work great for navigation, and paper maps are a fun throwback. But on long road trips—especially those that take you into no-service zones—a GPS for your car is the best bet. The voice-activated Garmin Drive Assist 51 LMT-S will not only plan the best route to your chosen destination but also help you outsmart traffic along the way. A built-in dash cam keeps you driving safely with warning alerts when you get too close to the car in front of you or start drifting off the road. When it’s time to ditch your vehicle for a quick bite or head out for a little sightseeing, the device gives you real-time parking information, including pricing and availability. 

4. Car safety kit

AFAR’s Pick: AAA Traveler Road Kit, $30, amazon.com

One of those hopefully-you-never-need-it but just-in-case-items, the AAA Traveler Road Kit should be in the trunk of everyone’s car. The 63-item ready-to-go kit includes first aid supplies, basic fix-it hardware (duct tape!), heavy-duty jumper cables, a flashlight with batteries, a screwdriver, and more. A newbie to the open road? Don’t worry. The kit also includes a guide to walk you through the most common scenarios and roadside emergencies. 

There’s no such thing as too many bandages. © Courtesy of Welly There’s no such thing as too many bandages.

5. First aid kit

AFAR’s Pick: Welly Excursion Kit, $35, amazon.com

Whether you’re car camping or have accident-prone kids, it’s never a bad idea to have more bandages than you think you’ll need. This 200-piece first aid kit includes 150 bandages in various sizes and patterns, antibiotic packets, hydrocortisone packets, and a vial of Ibuprofen for any headaches along the way.

6. Headlamp

AFAR’s Pick: BioLite HeadLamp, $60, bioliteenergy.com

Unsuccessfully digging around in the car after dark is a chore, so throw a headlamp in your bag or console for those late-night organization sessions. The BioLite HeadLamp integrates all the electronic components directly into the fabric, creating a super-thin front light that sits flush to your forehead and won’t bounce around. The USB-rechargeable power source rests on the back of your head, delivering a balanced, weightless feel and also negating the classic slippage problem of other headlamps. With 330 lumens of light, the lightweight headlamp features four different modes—dimmable white spot, dimmable white flood, red night vision, and strobe—and will last about 3.5 hours on max power or up to 40 hours on minimum brightness.

7. Hand sanitizer

AFAR’s Pick: EO Organic French Lavender Hand Sanitizer Spray, $33 for six bottles, amazon.com

In addition to social distancing, keeping your hands clean is one of the most important ways to stay healthy on the road. When soap and water aren’t readily available, it’s best to keep plenty of hand sanitizer handy. This pick is made with 62 percent ethanol, meeting the CDC’s recommendation for hand sanitizing, and it is lightly scented with essential oils to keep things fresh on long drives. Sold in six-packs, there’s enough for each family member to keep a two-ounce bottle in their own bag, plus a few extras to store in the glove compartment.

8. Face masks

AFAR’s Pick: Evolvetogether Face Masks, $9 for seven masks, evolvetogether.com

When you have easy access to laundry, wearing reusable face masks is the eco-friendly option. But when you’re going in and out of rest stop bathrooms multiple times a day on a road trip, disposable face masks are more practical. Evolvetogether’s disposable face masks are made with three-ply type IIR medical-grade construction (water-resistant outer layer, a melt blown center, and a water absorbent inner layer) and come with a pocket-sized mask keeper for your bag so you’re never without a mask when you need one. For each mask purchased, Evolvetogether donates one mask to the ACLU and Covenant House New York to help protect Black Lives Matter protesters and homeless youth. For reusable options, see more of AFAR’s face mask picks.

9. Sunscreen

AFAR’s Pick: Unsun Emollient Rich Hand Cream SPF 15, $24, dermstore.com

You may be used to wearing sunscreen on your face daily, but your hands are also exposed to skin-aging UVA rays that can pass through glass on long drives. Unsun’s SPF 15 hand cream is formulated with aloe vera and shea butter to keep your hands from drying out due to all the hand washing and sanitizing you’ll be doing on the road.

Stay warm in the car and dry during picnic lunch breaks. © Courtesy of Rumpl Stay warm in the car and dry during picnic lunch breaks.

10. Outdoor blanket

AFAR’s Pick: Rumpl Stash Mat Ground Cover, $79, rumpl.com

The versatile Stash Mat Ground Cover from Rumpl is the ultimate outdoor blanket. Use the soft, insulated side to keep cozy while riding shotgun, then throw it waterproof-side down for an impromptu picnic, afternoon at the beach, outdoor concert, or a movie night at the park. 

11. Cooler

AFAR’s Pick: Yeti Hopper Flip 18, $300, yeti.com

Any good road trip requires mountains of drinks and snacks to keep you going. The Yeti Hopper Flip 18 soft-sided cooler uses a closed-cell rubber foam insulation to keep your LaCroix cold for days—not hours. Waterproof and leakproof, the cooler’s 18-quart size holds up to 20 cans of your favorite beverage. The wide hinged opening lets you easily get at all the contents, and hitch points along the front enable you to attach nearly anything, including a bottle opener or waterproof pocket. The cooler weighs just over five pounds, so you can tote it almost anywhere. 

12. Healthy snacks

AFAR’s Pick: Oatmega Vanilla Almond Bars, $18 for 12, amazon.com

A diet of potato chips and candy may sound fun for the first few days of a road trip, but eventually, you’ll want snacks that won’t leave you hungry or with a sugar rush by the next exit. Protein bars are the easiest to pack, but for a comprehensive list, check out AFAR’s full guide to healthy road trip snacks.

13. Reusable water bottle

AFAR’s Pick: Larq Bottle, $95, livelarq.com

Cluttering your backseat with plastic water bottles is not only bad for the environment but also a pain to clean up at the end of the day. But if you’re unsure about drinking gas station tap water or have limited access to proper dishwashing supplies on the road, the Larq Bottle’s cap comes with a built-in ultraviolet light that kills waterborne microorganisms, as well as any germs that may have been introduced from your mouth. 

14. Reusable coffee cup

AFAR’s Pick: Hydro Flask Coffee Container, from $30, hydroflask.com

Skip the wasteful paper cups from roadside coffee stops and bring a reusable drinking vessel instead. With double-wall vacuum insulation, this wide-mouth bottle will keep your chai latte hot (for up to 12 hours) or your nitro coffee icy cold (for up to 24 hours). The caffeine-friendly bottles come in a variety of fun colors, and the powder coating doubles as a scratch- and slip-resistant barrier. The coffee flasks are available in three sizes—12 ounce ($30), 16 ounce ($33), and 20 ounce ($35)—to match the drink sizes at most beloved coffee shops.

Just say no to gas station coffee. © Courtesy of Pakt Just say no to gas station coffee.

15. Portable coffee maker

AFAR’s Pick: Pakt Coffee Kit, $160, paktbags.com

Stale gas station coffee is typically the worst part of a road trip—barring traffic jams and flat tires, of course. This new all-in-one coffee making kit from Pakt Bags includes everything you need to make your own pour-over coffee at your hotel or Airbnb, except the beans. Thanks to its innovative nesting design, it fits a travel mug, bean canister, cone-shaped filter, and even an electric kettle all into one compact carrying case. At 12 x 5 inches and just 3.76 pounds, it’s the equivalent of packing an extra pair of shoes.

16. Sunglasses

AFAR’s Pick: Vuarnet Cap 1813, $350, us.vuarnet.com

Long days of driving can put a strain on your eyes, so protect them while looking cool in the Vuarnet Cap 1813 sunglasses. A modern take on the classic aviator style, these sunglasses feature a unique, tiny metal visor that helps cut down on glare. While the Cap Pilot is available in five different lens/frame combinations, the Nightlynx lenses give you sharper vision as it gets dark, in the rain, or when driving through fog.

a close up of a hat: Glerups feel like slippers but have rubber soles so you can wear them outside. © Courtesy of Glerup Glerups feel like slippers but have rubber soles so you can wear them outside.

17. Comfy driving shoes

AFAR’s Pick: Glerups Shoes With Rubber Sole, $135, huckberry.com

Treat your feet to some Glerups during those long days behind the wheel. These 100 percent felt wool uppers are as comfortable as your favorite house slippers and don’t require a shoe change when you stop for gas or food or arrive at your campsite or hotel. The unisex Glerups mold to your feet over time, creating the perfect fit, and the rubber outsoles ensure you keep a good grip on the pedals when driving.

18. Sneaker boots

AFAR’s Pick: Forsake Halden Sneaker Boots, $150, forsake.com

The ultimate in versatile footwear, these rugged and reliable sneakers are stylish enough for the city streets yet burly enough for the occasional off-road session. The combination suede, leather, and mesh upper is treated to repel water and dirt, with a breathable waterproof membrane to help keep your feet dry in wet weather. A versatile outsole provides grip on both loose terrain and city pavement. The Forsake Patch is a similar style for women. 

19. Merino wool T-shirts

AFAR’s Pick: Icebreaker Tech Lite Crewe, $75, backcountry.com

Lightweight and versatile, the Tech Lite Crewe from Icebreaker is soft against the skin and quickly wicks away any sweat to eliminate that damp, clammy feel. Made from merino wool fibers spun around a nylon core for greater longevity and abrasion-resistance, the Tech Lite fabric stands up to the rigors of travel. And merino wool is highly odor-resistant, so you won’t offend your road trip buddy if you wear the same shirt for a few days. Available for both men and women, the crew is made from a 150-gram-weight fabric for a light shirt you can wear alone or layer depending on the weather. Grab a crew or two so you can wash less and pack less on your next road trip.

20. Comfy pants

AFAR’s Pick: Outdoor Voices CloudKnit Sweatpants, $88, outdoorvoices.com

When you’re sitting in the car for five or more hours a day, being comfortable is crucial. These Outdoor Voices sweatpants are made with the activewear brand’s lightweight, super-soft CloudKnit fabric that is ultra-comfy without looking sloppy. They also come in men’s sizes, too. For more options, see AFAR’s full list of comfortable travel pants

Travel pillows are as useful on road trips as they are on long flights. © Courtesy of Trtl Travel pillows are as useful on road trips as they are on long flights.

21. Travel pillow

AFAR’s Pick: Trtl Travel Pillow, $30, trtltravel.com

Just because the driver needs to stay alert doesn’t mean passengers can’t get in some shut-eye on a long drive. To save yourself from neck aches, be sure to bring along a travel pillow. AFAR’s social media editor Rosalie Tinelli is a fan of her Trtl Travel Pillow, which is more of a soft fleece scarf with a slim neck support frame inside, instead of a pillow per se. 

22. Rooftop cargo box

AFAR’s Pick: Thule Force XT Sport, $530, llbean.com

Open up space inside your vehicle to bring along Fido or another friend by storing some gear in the Force XT Sport rooftop cargo box from Thule. It gives you an additional 11 cubic feet of storage space (enough room for four duffels and a couple pairs of skis) and is quick and easy to attach to most vehicles. The cargo box opens from both sides and locks shut so that it remains secure while you are driving or away from your car. 

23. Duffel bag

AFAR’s Pick: Eagle Creek Migrate Duffel 40L, $55, eaglecreek.com

A hard-shell spinner may be ideal for gliding through airport security quickly. But for road trips, a duffel bag provides easy access to your gear if you decide to stop at a swimming hole or need to fish out your sunscreen for an impromptu hike. Eagle Creek’s water-repellent Migrate Duffel comes with convertible handles so it can be carried like a duffel, a backpack, or even a tote. Its 40-liter capacity provides enough space for a two- to three-day trip, making it ideal for a weekend getaway

24. Packing cubes

AFAR’s Pick: Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter, $31 for three medium-size cubes, eaglecreek.com

Once you start using packing cubes, you’ll never go back. The Pack-It Specter series from Eagle Creek—the self-proclaimed “organization nerds”—use a durable and water-repellent ultralight material that you can simply throw in the wash with the rest of your clothes. The cubes come in various colors and sizes, allowing for uber organization of your stuff; dedicated cubes for clothes, shoes, and toiletries enable you to nab only what you need when you need it. 

Tuck this packable backpack into the glove compartment when you don’t need it. © Courtesy of Matador Tuck this packable backpack into the glove compartment when you don’t need it.

25. Packable backpack

AFAR’s Pick: Matador On-Grid Packable Backpack, $60, matadorup.com

For those impromptu hikes or spontaneous trips to the local farmers’ market, keep the Matador On-Grid packable backpack tucked in the driver’s side door pocket. Made from a durable and waterproof Robic nylon fabric, the 16-liter backpack squishes down to the size of a soda can and weighs only 7.5 ounces, or the equivalent of a few Snickers bars. 

26. Car trash can

AFAR’s Pick: KMMotors Jopps Foldable Car Garbage Can, $10, amazon.com

Sick of gathering all the trash from seatback pockets and the floor after each day’s drive? This 1.85 gallon garbage can for your car—with more than 4,000 five-star reviews on Amazon—comes with adjustable straps to attach it to the back of a headrest or the center console for easy access for everyone in the car.

27. Trunk organizer

AFAR’s Pick: Cozyswan Collapsible Car Trunk Organizer, $19, amazon.com

Those who like compartmentalizing things in their suitcase with packing cubes will love this trunk organizer. It comes with two insulated compartments on each end that keep food cool or warm, as well as two regular compartments in the middle for keeping emergency supplies and outdoor gear organized (or dirty shoes separate from the rest of your stuff).

a close up of a camera: Need a digital detox? Go analog with this camera that uses instant film. © Courtesy of Fujifilm Need a digital detox? Go analog with this camera that uses instant film.

28. Instant camera

AFAR’s Pick: Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic Instant Camera, $120, bhphotovideo.com 

Digital cameras are great for getting the shot just right and sharing it online quickly. But if you’re looking to go analog, add some nostalgic joy to your road trip and pack an instant camera. The Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 sports a retro design and includes new features, including a macro mode, high-performance flash, as well as double exposure and bulb settings for those looking to get creative with light sources.

29. Playlists, podcasts, and audiobooks

AFAR’s Pick: “Travel Tales by AFAR” podcast, podcasts.apple.com; podcasts.google.com; spotify.com; stitcher.com 

No matter how beautiful the scenery, a long drive without music or a story to listen to via podcast or audiobook can bore anyone to tears. Thankfully, AFAR editors have put together extensive guides to the best road trip songs of all time, our 15 favorite audiobooks, and the 37 best podcasts to listen to right now, which, yes, does include a shameless plug for AFAR’s new podcast, Travel Tales by AFAR. New episodes are released every Thursday with a different storyteller who took a trip and learned something monumental from it. 

30. Road trip games

AFAR’s Pick: Psych! Outwit Your Friends, apps.apple.com; play.google.com

Sure, you can pack board games for the cabin, but you’ll need something a little more portable for the car. It’s free to download Psych, a Balderdash-like game where each person takes turns creating fake answers to various trivia questions. If you guess the correct answer among the wrong ones, you earn points. Bear in mind that this game involves screen time—so the driver can’t play—but you can include them by reading the questions and answers out loud.

This story originally appeared in November 2018, and was updated on August 18, 2020, to include current information. Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. AFAR may earn a commission if you buy through our links, which helps support our independent publication.

>> Next: 6 Things to Know About Taking Road Trips During Coronavirus

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