As full-time road trippers, we’ve racked up thousands of miles and too many hours to count driving across the country. Each month, we play a game of Tetris to pack all of our belongings into our car and make the trek to our next destination. We don’t have a van, RV, or trailer – just 4 wheels on our Subaru and a trusty car top carrier. We both work full time and our cat, Fitzgerald, travels with us, which means that we’ve become experts in how to pack strategically for a road trip – everything that we need, but nothing that we don’t! In this article, we’ll give you our complete packing list for road trips, including a downloadable road trip checklist to help you prepare for your journey. This carefully curated packing list includes everything that we pack into our car every time we hit the road.
Our life on the road
In March of 2021, we got rid of most of our belongings, packed up what was left, subleased our apartment in Virginia and hit the road: California bound! We drove from Virginia to St. Louis in one day, then to Denver the next.
After spending one week in Denver to break up the road trip, we continued to southern California, then to southern Utah, Arizona, northern California, Idaho, South Dakota, Minnesota… eventually we decided we loved life on the road too much to ever give it up and we made this nomadic lifestyle permanent.
We both secured jobs that would allow us to work remotely full-time during the week. We settle into a new “home base” each month with space for us both to work, typically in small towns strategically located near beautiful places with abundant opportunities for outdoor adventuring on the weekends.
Overview | Packing List for Road Trips
Our lifestyle demands lots of road tripping, and over the many miles and hours in the car, packing and unpacking, we’ve crafted the perfect packing list for road trips that we’re excited to share with you!
We’ve learned a ton about what you really need (and don’t need!) on a road trip, and we hope our experiences will save you a little time and frustration.
Every single item that we pack into our mid-sized Subaru Forester for our life on the road is included in this list. As I was writing the list, it was hard to believe all this fits in one car, but believe us, with some strategic packing (plus a car top carrier), it really does!
We want to point out that we do not have children, so our road trip packing list is best for couples, solo travelers, or group road trips.
Be confident you have everything you need with our free road trip checklist!
Our interactive excel road trip checklist is complete with all the essentials you need to pack for your next road trip adventure!
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Packing List for Road Trip Essentials
First on our packing list are key road trip essentials, including tips on keeping your vehicle organized during a road trip, vehicle safety gear, important personal items, and miscellaneous items to keep in the car.
If you’re going to be spending a significant amount of time on the road, organization is essential. Here are few items we use to keep ourselves organized on the road:
- Plastic drawers | We leave these in our car to hold cooking supplies, camping essentials and hiking gear for easy access on adventures.
- Document organizer |This may seem silly, but when you’re on the road it can be really hard to keep track of important documents (think passports, insurance cards, travel tickets, etc). This organizer is perfect for keeping all our most important documents in one place.
Car top Carrier
Picture this: you’re about to set off on a 12 hour road trip. The car is packed full, car top carrier included. It starts torrentially down-pouring. Everything on top of the car is soaked. Sound like a nightmare? We’ve been there, and trust us, it is.
All that to say, a good quality hardshell rooftop carrier is 100% worth the investment.
Hard shell| Thule Pulse Hardshell, Medium
Before switching to our Thule Pulse, we had a cheap softshell carrier and had all sorts of problems with it, from fighting to install it to wind torn straps to wet stuff. Our Thule has been a game changer – lightweight and aerodynamic (better for gas mileage), easy to install, pack and use, built in lock and key, and reliably waterproof.
Roof rack assembly gear| Thule Squarebar Raised Bars & Thule Evo Raised Rail Foot Pack
Unfortunately installing a car top carrier isn’t as simple as purchasing the hardshell. Assuming your car already has a basic roof rack (bars that run parallel to the car), you will also need to purchase a set of crossbars (these go perpendicular to the roof rack) and rail feet, to which the carrier will be attached.
Vehicle safety supplies
Perhaps the most important set of items to pack before setting off on a road trip is vehicle safety supplies. You can hope you’ll never need these, but odds are if you are putting a lot of miles under your wheels, at some point they will come in handy:
- Jumper cables | It’s all too easy to accidentally leave a light on in the car overnight, and suddenly the battery is dead. These are always good to have just in case.
- Fix-a-flat | Although just a temporary solution, fix a flat is great to have to avoid having to change a spare tire. However, beware that you can only drive up to 100 miles on it.
- Spare tire | And its always a good idea to brush up on how to change one.
- Tire inflator | A great tool if you are car camping, driving on sandy or dirt roads, or just to avoid scrounging for quarters and waiting in line at a gas station to inflate your tires.
- First-aid-kit | It’s always good to have basic first aid gear in case of an emergency, especially if you are traveling in remote areas.
- Flashlight or headlamps | Again, good to have in case of emergency (also essential for camping while on the road!)
- AAA or roadside assistance card | I’ve had a AAA membership for years and it always pays for itself, especially if you spend a lot of time on the road.
Electronics and navigation
- Cell phone and chargers
- Cell phone car charger | Most of us rely on our phones for navigation these days so it’s important to have a car charger. If you are driving somewhere that you could lose service, it’s also a good idea to start the navigation (GoogleMaps or AppleMaps) before you go.
- Aux cords | To keep yourself entertained with music or podcasts if your vehicle doesn’t have Bluetooth.
- Map | Let’s be real, if you are sticking to major roads and highways in the United States, you probably won’t need to a hardcopy map. But if you are venturing off the grid, driving through national parks, etc you may want a real map for when you inevitably lose service.
- Phone holder | This makes navigating with your phone’s GPS a million times easier. This one is expandable to fit any phone and can be attached to the window, dashboard or vent.
- GPS Device | We primarily use our Garmin InReach Mini for hiking and backpacking, but it’s also great to have in the car on road trips, particularly when traveling in remote areas. It allows you to send texts or an emergency message in areas without cell service.
- Portable chargers | For hikes or excursions along the road, or in case of emergency in the car, we always bring several portable phone chargers – just make sure to charge them before you hit the road!
Below are the most important personal items/documents you don’t want to hit the road without!
- Insurance cards
- COVID vaccination records
- Driver’s License
Misc items to bring/keep in the car
The following set of items on our packing list for road trips includes things that we keep in the car at all times to make our lives easier and keep the car tidy (or rather, keep the car from becoming absolutely filthy):
- Vehicle registration | In case you happen to get pulled over. (Tip: pay attention when you cross over state lines – speed limits often change here. Yes, we’ve been burned by an 80mph highway that suddenly drops down to 70mph…)
- Easy pass (or quarters for tolls) | There’s nothing worse than scrambling for cash when you come upon a toll.
- Napkins/Paper towels | Always good to have for the unexpected spill.
- Hand sanitizer | Looking at you, Covid.
- Grocery bags | To reuse for storing trash in the car.
- Pillow and blanket | To keep you comfortable on a long car ride.
- Sunshade | Great for keeping your car cool on a hot day sitting in the sun.
- Spare key
I (Sarah) hate to sit still and long road trips make me very antsy. Packing a variety of ways to keep myself entertained is very important, for the sake of my sanity, as well as Matt’s! Here are our favorite ways to stay busy in the car:
Number one source of road trip entertainment: podcasts! Listening to hours upon hours of music can get boring, and as soon as that happens we switch on a podcast to give us something else to think about. Here are a few our personal favorites – let us know if you have others that you love, we are always looking for new podcasts!
- National Park After Dark | If you love true crime and the outdoors, you will enjoy this podcast. It covers missing person cases, murders, tragic accidents and mysteries that take place in national parks across the country.
- My Favorite Murder | I’m a true crime junkie and this podcast is the perfect mixture of humor and great storytelling.
- Freakonomics | Alright, I may be a bit of a nerd, but Freakonomics puts a relatable twist on economics. It’s a great podcast to get your brain engaged in the car.
- This is Actually Happening | Fair warning, this one can get dark. Personal stories told from the point of view of survivors of tragic experiences of life circumstances, this podcast is intense and totally captivating.
E-books | Kindle
Books are too heavy and bulky to pack in the car, so a Kindle makes the perfect replacement. I always thought I would hate reading on an e-book, but my kindle is lightweight and has a soft light that is easy on the eyes.
Books on tape (eh.. phone) | Amazon Audible
“Books on tape” may be a thing of the past, but Audiobooks (like Audible), are perfect for road trips, especially if you are the one driving.
We use Spotify to listen to music and create our own road trip playlists, and make sure to download them in advance for driving through areas without service. Here are a few of our favorite artists for road tripping:
P.S. If you’re looking for more music inspiration, be sure to check out this list of our favorite songs about adventure and travel and download the Spotify playlist before setting off on your road trip!
Other sources of entertainment
- Computer | If you have an unlimited data phone plan, you can use your phone as a personal hotspot in the car, as long as you have service. We do this a lot to work on planning trips or writing while we travel. We both have 13 inch Macbook Airs and love that they are compact, portable, and have long-lasting battery life.
- Camera/photography gear | One of my favorite things to do in the car is look at photos from the trip and work on editing them in Lightroom.
- Questions card game | If you are road tripping with someone you spend a ton of time with already, you may be looking for some new things to talk about. We love card games, like Thinking and Drinking (without the drinking in this case…) that give you a random topic to prompt new and fun conversations.
- Journaling | When we’re traveling, we love to write about our experiences while they are fresh in our minds and keeping a journal is the perfect way to do so while passing time in the car.
- Portable speakers | Obviously not necessary in the car, but portable speakers are great to have for your final destination or stops along the way. (P.S. we lost our Oontz speakers for over a month and found them outside drenched from many rainstorms – they still work to this day… I’d call that durable!)
Camping while on the road helps save money on accommodations and allows you to stay as close as possible to the places you want to explore.
If you plan to camp along your road trip, you’ll need a whole other set of gear. We’ve compiled a complete list of all our road trip camping essentials to help you pack your car for camping:
In this article, we’ll tell you all our road trip camping essentials, including an excel checklist to help you prepare for your camping trip on the road.
Here’s where the packing list for road trips starts to get tricky. Packing enough clothes that you aren’t doing laundry all the time, but light enough that it fits in the car! Here’s what we pack:
- Socks | Balega for running and Darn Tough for hiking.
- Underwear | My go-to comfy underwear for exercise and hiking are Sweaty Betty’s.
- T-shirts | Something comfy and versatile (also for running).
- Pants/leggings | Mountain Hardwear leggings are great because they are comfortable for lounging around but also great for hiking!
- Sweatpants | We haven’t found a pair more comfortable than Vuori joggers.
- Pajamas | I live in my Lake Pajamas.
The bulk of the clothes on our packing list falls into this category, as most of our road trips are heavily focused on hiking and outdoor adventures:
- Hiking pants | These Athleta Headlands pants are my absolute favorite! Plus all the pockets make them more stylish, so they can double as normal pants. Matt’s go-to hiking pants are his PrAna Stretch Zion Pants.
- Quarter Zips | I have two Smartwool Merino 1/4 Zips and I absolutely love them! Warm, comfortable and stylish, they are the perfect base layer for colder hikes. Matt also has the men’s version of the Smartwool Merino 1/4 Zip.
- Fleece Pullover | The Cotopaxi Abrazo Half-Zip Fleece is so cozy and keeps me warm, from lounging around the house to chilly mornings out camping. Matt loves this pullover from Patagonia!
- Long sleeve base layers | Again, I love my Smartwool long sleeve base layers. They’re a bit pricey but the quality is worth it – they’ll last forever!
- Tanks | I’m obsessed with the Athleta Conscious Crop – a sports bra and tank all in one, and so comfortable for hiking!
- Ballcaps | Perfect for throwing on when your hair starts to look like you’ve been in the car for a few hours (or days…).
- Down Jacket | My Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody Women’s Down Hoodie is lightweight and incredibly warm with 850 fill down. If you hate being cold (like me) this is the jacket for you! The quality is top notch and totally worth the extra warmth. Matt loves his Cotopaxi Fuego Down Jacket.
- Rain Jacket | I pack 2 rain jackets – an ultralight Asics packable jacket (great for running and hiking in warm weather), and my Patagonia Torrentshell 3L with a bit more warmth that makes a great shell over my down jacket. Matt swears by his Outdoor Research Microgravity shell.
- Vest | This WoolX vest is sleek, stylish, and keeps me extra warm!
- Hats | I love this Patagonia hat that matches my down jacket!
- Gloves | Have I mentioned I love Smartwool? My favorite gloves are Smartwool Merino 150, warm but not too bulky. Matt prefers something with a little more warmth and raves about these Black Diamond gloves.
- Hiking Boots | From long distance backpacking trips to quick day hikes, my Danner Women’s Mountain 600 Waterproof Hiking Boots have never let me down. Matt prefers the Salomon X Ultra 4 Mid GTX hiking shoe for their low weight and high durability.
- Running shoes | Hoka One One Bondi – these may not be the most stylish running shoes, but I swear they feel like running on clouds. I’ve trained for 2 marathons with these and I will never buy another running shoe again. For trail running, Matt uses the New Balance Hierro.
- Water shoes | If you plan to be near any body of water, Chacos are essential. I use them all the time for car camping and pack them on hikes that require wading through water to avoid getting wet boots.
- Casual wear | Toms Flats are great for road tripping because they’re small and easy to slip on and off. Matt always packs these super versatile Seavees. They can be worn with jeans for a night out, with shorts around town, or slipped on with sweatpants for a quick run to the grocery store.
- Sandals | I don’t pack a ton of “nice” clothes that aren’t for hiking or running on the road, but these Toms Sicily Sandal are so comfortable and versatile that they’re worth bringing.
The following list includes everything we use to pack and organize our clothes and toiletry items.
- Packing cubes | We pack all our clothes in packing cubes! They help you pack more clothes in a smaller space and keep things organized.
- Toiletry organizer | We both use Sea to Summit’s Hanging Toiletry Bag for our toiletries – it’s great for road tripping because it’s compact but big enough to fit the essentials, and also lightweight enough to take backpacking.
- Laundry bag | We always travel with a mesh laundry bag to keep dirty clothes separate from our clean ones when we don’t have time to do laundry.
- Backpacks | Since we do a lot of outdoor backpacking, Matt & I both pack all our clothes in our two backpacks (HERS: lightweight 40L Osprey Tempest and midweight 65L Osprey Ariel, HIS: 55L REI Co-op Flash)
- Day backpack | Matt uses the CamelBak Rim Runner 22 with Hydration Pack and I use the CamelBak Women’s Helena 20 with Hydration Pack. They’re both great day hiking packs and double for miscellaneous storage when packing the car.
- Suitcase | In addition to our backpacking packs, we also pack one hardshell Away Suitcase (shared between the 2 of us) that we use for work travel and packing nicer clothes that shouldn’t be shoved into packing cubes.
Food + & Kitchen Supplies
Next we’ll cover the most important road-tripping essential: food! We try to pack as much of our food for road trips as possible to save money on eating out. When packing for road trips, we always make sure to pick food that will last over a multi-day trip and not take up too much space.
We’ve found that there are few kitchen items that are important enough to bring on the road, and also make life easier in the car. Note that we also pack camping kitchen gear that can also be useful in the car and at Airbnbs/hotels along the road – you can read more about our packing list for camping on road trips here.
- Cooler | Before we get into food specifics, it’s absolutely essential to get a good cooler that can keep your food cold for the entire day (or multiple days). We could not road trip without our Yeti Tundra 35. Its the perfect size – large enough to fit essential food for a few days, but doesn’t take up too much space in the car.
- Coffee mugs | One of the easiest ways to save money on the road is making your own coffee in a mug, at home or from your hotel room or Airbnb, before you set off. A $20 mug pays for itself in just a few days on the road.
- Water bottle | Again, save money on plastic water bottles and invest in a reusable one.
- Extra water | We originally purchased these 2-liter Platypus bottles to carry extra water backpacking in the desert. But, it turns out they serve another perfect function: packing extra water for road tripping. Fill 2 of these up before you hit the road and never buy a $3 water bottle from a gas station again!
- Utensils | A few reusable spoons, forks and knifes (or sporks) make life so much easier.
- Reusable sandwich bags | Help the environment and save money on plastic bags = win, win!
- Bottle opener | For cracking a cold beer or popping a bottle of wine when you arrive at your destination.
- Cast iron-pan | Kind of a pain to travel with, but since we cook over the campfire so much it’s worth the space it takes up.
- Paper towels
Yogurts may be a luxury if you have limited cooler space but it’s our go-to breakfast so we try to make room, or at least pack one on the first day of the trip. If you want to conserve cooler space, try a Clif bar (cool mint is our favorite) or Stroopwafel.
For lunch, you’ll want to pack something that’s easy to put together in the car and that you can have for multiple meals (if you are road tripping for several days). Here are a few ideas:
- PB&J (on an english muffin) | A classic, simple and easy. Just refrigerate the jelly. To spice it up a bit, use an English muffin instead of 2 slices of bread.
- Turkey & Cheese (with ranch or avocado) | Also easy because all you need to keep cold is turkey meat and cheese, and you can make several sandwiches with one pack. Add ranch or fresh slices of avocado to spice it up!
While road tripping, we usually leave dinner as our one meal to eat out. That’s because packing food for dinner is tough, takes up more space in the cooler, often requires re-heating etc. By the end of the day, we typically don’t want to have to think too much about preparing dinner.
Tasty snacks just make a long road trip that much better. Here’s what we don’t hit the road without:
- Cheese-itz| Cheesy. Crunchy. Crispy. The best.
- Hummus and pretzels | For something a little healthier and full of protein to keep you satisfied on the road.
- Peanut M&M’s | Great for road trips because they don’t melt like other chocolate candies do!
- Bottle of red wine | For winding down after a long day of road tripping. Red wine is perfect because you don’t have to keep it cold. Just open and enjoy!
If you’re road tripping with a cat or dog, your packing list just got a little longer. We don’t have a dog, but we do travel with our cat, Fitzgerald. Below are the essentials to pack if you are traveling with a pet:
Pet road trip packing list
- Food + water bowl
- Extra food
- Carrier/crate | We usually let Fitzgerald roam free in the car, but safety always comes first. If your pet is distracting while driving, you will want to have a way to contain them.
- Toys| Essential for keeping your pet happy and entertained while on the road.
- Collar and leash with name tag | For moving your cat/dog to and from the car, and just in case your they gets loose.
- Treats | But only for after you arrive at your final destination (Fitzgerald’s all time favorites are Temptations Shrimpy Shrimps)
- Anxiety medication | If your pet is particularly anxious in the car, talk to your vet.
- Comfortable bed or blanket | If you are traveling with a fully loaded down car, make sure you have a comfortable spot for your cat or dog to relax.
Here are a few extra supplies to pack if you are traveling with a cat:
- Litter house (with a door) | So your cat can use the bathroom while in the car if necessary, without spilling litter everywhere.
- Scratching post | At home Fitzgerald loves his scratching post with hammock. Even though it’s a bit bulky, we always bring it with us on road trips because it means he won’t scratch up the furniture at our Airbnb/hotel/short-term rental. 100% worth the space it takes up!
For more tips on road tripping with your feline, check out this post:
Road Trip Tips
In March of 2021, we set off on a cross-country road trip from Virginia to California, taking our beloved cat, Fitzgerald, along with us!
Remote Work Essentials
Our last bucket of packing items for road trips is obviously optional depending on the nature of your trip. Since we are on the road full-time, we also have to bring with us the essentials for working remotely, which unfortunately means a lot of space in the car. Here are the items we can’t work without:
- Portable monitor | When we first started living nomadically, we hauled our massive monitors around the country with us… not exactly space efficient. Now we’ve both invested in a Foowin 15.6 inch portable monitor. It’s lightweight, and compact, plugs right into your laptop, and makes life on the road so much easier!
- Wireless keyboard | No cord means easy setup each time we move and less hassle packing and unpacking.
- Wireless mouse | Again, easy setup and transport makes a world of difference when you’re always on the move.
- Mouse pad | Since we move around a lot, our work surfaces aren’t consistent. Bringing a mouse pad means we don’t have to worry about whether our mouses will work well on rough surfaces.
- Laptop sleeve | I skip the bulky laptop bag and pack my Mac in a compact sleeve. It provides enough protect from scratches in the car, and also double as a raised workspace.
- Folding card table | Okay, again, this is a huge pain the a**! However, it’s often tricky to find Airbnb’s that have two work spaces, so it’s easier to just bring our own. The legs fold down so it slides easily in the car.
Other useful resources
Planning a road trip in the U.S.? We think you may find the following resources helpful in planning your trip:
- Road Trip Tips | 11 Proven Tips for Road Tripping with a Cat
- Road Trip Tips | Our Complete Road Trip Camping Essentials plus Checklist
- Travel Inspiration | 59 Best Songs About Travel & Adventure
- Zion & Bryce | How to Spend 3 Days in Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks
- Arizona | Adventurous One Week Road Trip in Arizona & Southern Utah
- Grand Teton | The Perfect 2-Day Grand Teton Itinerary
What gear would you add to our packing list for road trips? Let us know in the comments section below!