Photograph by Lalocracio, Getty Images
Photograph by Lalocracio, Getty Images

Road Trip Essentials

These top tips will ensure you are thoroughly prepared for your road trip adventure!

Summer is the perfect time to discover a new place from behind a steering wheel. But organizing a road trip can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to figuring out what to take with you (and what to leave at home). With some strategic packing and a little bit of planning, you can help make your epic road trip go as smoothly as possible.

A (Rough) Plan

You don’t have to plan every hour of every day, but it’s helpful to have some direction. Start your planning with Roadtrippers, a website that estimates distances and gas costs and highlights some of the can’t-miss attractions on your route. While on the road, use Waze to avoid high-traffic roads, speed traps, and other unforeseen factors that could slow you down. In addition to your apps and GPS, it never hurts to print out backups: Keep a folder of hard copies of hotel reservations, addresses, and state maps to help you in times of limited service or technical difficulties.


Keep cash on hand and stashed in a few spots in your car, like in your emergency kit and glove compartment. You don’t want to be stranded with a stolen wallet or a malfunctioning ATM card. Besides, some of the best roadside finds, like produce stands and flea markets, are cash-only.

3 Pairs of Shoes (No More, No Less)

Any summer road trip requires exactly three pairs of shoes: tennis shoes, sandals, and activity shoes. Any more take up too much space! Tennis shoes are perfect for the day-to-day, while sandals are a nice change for a dinner out. Activity shoes, like hiking shoes or Tevas, ensure you never miss an opportunity for an off-road adventure. Resist the urge to throw in that extra pair of wedges you think you might wear—that car space is probably better spent on snacks, anyway.

An Emergency Kit

What do you do when you have a flat tire, in the dark, with no cell reception, and no buildings in sight? (True story: This happened to me.) Prepare yourself for Murphy’s Law: Stock your car with your AAA card, extra oil, jumper cables, flares, Fix-a-Flat, a spare tire, a flashlight, extra batteries, and a tire gauge. Planning ahead for car mishaps could mean the difference between a 30-minute pause or a four-hour wait for a tow truck.

A Mobile Medicine Cabinet

Taking a detour to deal with bumps and bruises can throw off your schedule—don’t assume you’ll have easy access to a pharmacy while on the road. Best to keep things like Band-Aids, aspirin, and antacids with you so small health issues won’t derail your trip. Don’t forget essentials like sunscreen, baby wipes, and hand sanitizer, too.

A Reasonable Amount of Clothes

On road trips, comfort is king. Keep in mind that you’ll be sitting in a car for hours at a time, so stick to light, breathable layers that you can mix and match. Elastic waistbands are your friend! Remember, “reasonable” is typically less than you think. The best rule of thumb for packing is to take half the clothes and twice the money.

An Organizational System

Throwing everything in the car haphazardly will only cause headaches. Save yourself time and stick to a system: Everything you need during the ride goes within arm’s reach of a passenger, and everything needed for overnight goes in the trunk. To maximize trunk space, use duffels and other soft bags rather than rigid suitcases. And don’t forget to keep a plastic shopping bag on hand for trash—finding crumbs on your seat gets old, fast.

Spare Keys

This is not a joke: Bring extra keys. Nothing ruins your day faster than staring at your keys from outside a locked car.


You’ll need something to pass the time on those long driving days. Try listening to a new podcast or begin a series of books on tape. (My go-to is Game of Thrones; it’s so long that it’ll last you for every road trip you take for the rest of your life.) Audible has lots of choices, including language audiobooks and other educational options. When you’re tired of those, pull out mix CDs from your high school days and relive your musical youth.

Did I miss any must-have road trip items? Share them in the comments!

Erin Spencer is a marine ecologist and National Geographic Explorer. Her research on grassroots invasive species management has taken her from Florida to Fiji and many places in between. Her next adventure is a multiweek, cross-country road trip looking at unique ways people around the United States are fighting back against invasive species. Follow along on her website or on Twitter and Instagram at @etspencer.