How to Start Packing for a Road Trip

Planning a road trip and not sure where to start? We’re so glad you stumbled across this post, because that’s our specialty and we’d love to help! We’ve both been road tripping pretty much all our lives so we have this packing thing down, although we’ve definitely forgotten things before too! Fortunately, most of the little things can be picked up along the way, but that also depends where you’re headed.

Keep in mind that we are still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, so we encourage you to seek out destinations within driving distance. We were very nervous about traveling while COVID-19 was still a national emergency, but when a couple of our friends booked a river retreat cabin in the middle of nowhere outside the Redwoods, we decided to take the leap; six months of no travel was making us crazy! It was comforting to find that the majority of people and businesses were taking the pandemic seriously – wearing masks, social distancing, encouraging hand-washing and limiting occupancy. Now that was our experience where we traveled, and I can’t promise that’s the case everywhere, but you can play your part and be a responsible and safe pandemic traveler.

Now before we get to the packing list, there’s a few points I want to mention and questions I want you to ask yourself to help with the preparation, primarily based on our own experiences, and often learning the hard way!

Ask yourself these questions to get started:

  • Where am I going?
    You probably know where you’re going, but you need to create some sort of plan. I’m one of the most impulsive people ever, but I’ve learned the importance of planning – and not planning – first hand. We’ve blindly departed on trips doing little to no research, and then come to find out something was closed, or that we couldn’t get there without a 4×4 vehicle, or later learned about something else cool in the area we could have seen or done but had no idea it existed. If you’re traveling to a few places, search how long it takes to get from one to the next. If there are places to visit along your route be sure to factor that extra time into your trip. Don’t plan too much, because everything inevitably takes longer than you anticipate, and it’s also fun to throw some random unplanned surprises in along the way!
  • What’s the weather like at my destination and along the route?
    Pack for day and night, for all the places you’re headed, and for all weather types.
  • Will the elevation change? (I.e., are you heading into the mountains?)
    Keep in mind that it will get colder if you’re increasing elevation, and if you’re camping the temperature will drop overnight. Plan accordingly!
  • How long will I be gone?
    Make sure you have enough money to cover the gas, food, supplies and lodging you’ll need for the trip, and some extra in case of emergencies. Pack enough snacks, clothes and supplies for the time you’ll be away. Gas up your car, check the air in your tires, and make sure the oil has been changed recently before heading out. Also be sure to tell someone where you are traveling and for how long you’ll be away, and how to reach you in case of an emergency. Not trying to be a Debbie-downer, it’s smart and responsible travel!
  • Does my vehicle have enough space for all the people and supplies needed for this trip?
    You may want to consider renting a vehicle or using a car-top carrier or trailer. Although it’s an added expense (consider your budget), I really like rental cars for a few reasons: I don’t have to put wear and tear on my car; in the event of an accident or breakdown I can swap it out for another car; I get to leave the mess in someone else’s car (road trip crumbs and dirt!); and because I drive a 2010 Honda Civic, all rentals are newer with the fancy bells and whistles that make for a more comfortable road trip. Also take in consideration where you’re traveling and if your vehicle is adequate for the terrain; we enjoy off-roading and remote locations, and sometimes our car doesn’t make the grade. You don’t want to be the dorks who get stuck on the beach…like us!
  • For overnight trips, where will I stay?
    Whether you’re camping or staying in hotels and vacation rentals will determine what you need to pack and how much space you’ll have in the vehicle. If camping, you’ll likely need to pack a tent, bedding, warmer clothes, more food, etc., which is going to take up more precious real estate in your ride. (Keep checking our website for the soon-to-be published post on packing for a camping trip!) Now the smart advice to provide is to create a plan for where you’ll stay each night of your trip and make reservations in advance. This is particularly important if you’re heading to a popular tourist destination, because it would really suck to show up and have nowhere to go! We like to live life on the edge and prefer loosey-goosey plans that we’re not totally locked in to; you never know when you might want to spend more time somewhere, or visit a place off the itinerary! We’ve always been fortunate enough to find a room or a campsite when we didn’t have a plan, but don’t count on it. We also have low standards for lodging, and dispersed camping doesn’t scare us! Have a lodging plan, and a backup plan; it’s comforting to have that peace of mind!
  • What amenities exist at my destination and along the route?
    If there are no stores you’ll need to pack plenty of food, water, ice and supplies for the length of your trip. Most of the remote areas we’ve been to typically have small general stores with the necessities, but I mean the bare necessities, and the prices are often jacked up and the selection is limited.
  • Is there cell service?
    Search the Internet to find out any information. I always recommend bringing good old paper maps, and most often you can find free or cheap maps locally where you’re traveling. Make sure to check out the gas stations, travel and rest stops and general stores. If you don’t have any maps, get some! We live in the U.S. where pretty much every gas station sells a map of each state – invest the money and throw it in your glove box. Research directions and points of interest beforehand and write them down or take screenshots, because you may not get any service at all!

Some final notes before you begin packing for your epic road trip:

  • Make sure to get a sitter for your dogs and/or cats! Taking them with you? Make sure you can take your furry friends where you are heading, on the trails, at the campground or hotel, etc. And don’t forget the leash, food, water bowl, poo bags, litter boxes, treats, toys, etc.!
  • Water your plants before the road trip! Nothing worse than coming home to a dead garden you slaved over all season.
  • Research the route you’re taking – are there road closures or hazards, like wildfires, bad weather, accidents or road work? Seriously, we just traveled to southeast Oregon and our routes were near several large wildfires. A few years ago we nearly got stuck in a Montana mountain pass during a freak blizzard. DO THE RESEARCH.
  • Confirm that the places you’re traveling to are open to the public. This is always an important road trip planning practice, but it’s especially important now during the coronavirus pandemic, as many places are closed and visitor services limited.
  • If you’re tired or don’t feel safe, STOP driving! It’s okay NOT to power through when your gut is telling you to stop. Be safe, not sorry!
  • Tips for packing clothes: We make a loose plan for what to wear each day, choosing versatile and comfy clothes appropriate for the weather. It’s always smart to take clothes for easy layering. We’re speaking from experience here, don’t overpack and don’t take stuff you won’t wear! We’ve learned that we keep wearing our favorite and most comfortable clothes throughout the trip, and probably 50% of the clothes we take don’t get worn. But the more you do anything, the more you learn, and with each trip we fine-tune our Tetris packing skills a little bit more.

Okay, now let’s get packing! We recommend laying everything out so you can see it, before packing it into the car. It’s also helpful to use a checklist like the one below; lay out your gear and mark it off the list one by one, it’s so satisfying!

The Road Trip Packing List:

  • COVID-19 safety supplies: masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, hand soap, disinfecting spray, paper towels, gloves
  • Sunglasses
  • Travel pillow and blanket
  • First aid kit
  • Chapstick
  • Money! Credit cards and cash; cash is especially handy because not all places and parks accept cards.
  • Cell phone chargers (charging blocks, cords, and portable charger for the car) and portable power banks
  • Refillable water bottles, travel mugs, etc.
  • Cooler
  • Snacks!
  • Plates and utensils (Have you ever made sandwiches with your fingers?)
  • Drivers Licenses, proof of car insurance
  • AAA and AARP cards, and hotel membership rewards programs information
  • Health insurance cards
  • Medications
  • Maps – paper maps, screenshots and/or downloadable maps
  • Written directions in case there’s no cell service
  • Park passes (national parks, state parks, etc.)
  • Phone numbers, addresses and reservation information for the places you’re heading
  • Make reservations in advance so you know you have a place to stay!
  • If it’s possible, stay at a hotel with breakfast included – it’s one less thing to worry about the next day.
  • Tire chains (obviously this depends where you’re traveling)
  • Jumper cables
  • Flashlight for the glove box
  • Check tire pressure, windshield wiper fluid, oil, and fill the gas tank
  • Download a music playlist, podcasts, etc. in the event you don’t have service (unless you enjoy long, quiet car rides)
  • Flip flops for overnight trips (especially for showers at campgrounds)
  • Toiletries, towels, toothbrush and tooth paste
  • Toilet paper
  • Tissues
  • Hair ties!!! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten an extra one.
  • Hats are great, especially if you’re camping and recreating.
  • Use duffel bags to pack your clothes, they’re squishier and you can fit them into more places than hard suitcases.
  • A day bag – if tripping for a few days, we recommend using a smaller bag for all the stuff you’ll need throughout the day, so you don’t need to keep pulling your larger bag out of the trunk.
  • Car top carriers come in clutch for saving space in the car. 
  • Trash bags so you can pack out all your garbage. Leave no trace!
  • Ziploc bags, they come in handy for all sorts of stuff, like food you open that needs to go back in the cooler (nothing worse than water-logged turkey and cheese!)
  • Reminder to check the weather for your destination so you can pack accordingly.
  • Don’t over pack. I know this is easier said than done, but a cramped car isn’t very comfy, and you may start getting cranky. Also keep in mind those jerk car thieves – unfortunately we’ve had our vehicle broken into before, so don’t leave any valuables in plain sight. If you plan to stash them in the trunk make sure to do so before reaching your destination; car thieves like to lie in wait and watch for people throwing goodies in their trunks. The less you pack, the less you need to leave at a hotel, in a tent, and stash in the trunk.

Our main goal is to inspire local and domestic travel, show how accessible it is, and provide relevant tips and information to help our readers. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or need recommendations. We’re so excited for your upcoming trip, you’ll love the freedom of the open road! Happy road tripping, travelers!

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