The Ultimate Road Trip Checklist: 46 Essentials Items

Forget baseball, the ultimate American past-time is road tripping. They make us feel a certain way. This is the birthplace of Route 66, affordable cars, and lots of infrastructure to support such a pastime. The perfect road trip is part Oregon trail, part Jack Kerouac, and all adventure.

The open road makes us believe in possibilities and get ready for the unexpected around every turn. But an adventurous heart can only get you so far on the interstate. For genuine freedom and open road liberty, there’s nothing better than a lot of preparation before that key ever turns in the ignition. Lucky for you, this is the ultimate compendium of everything you need for a road trip. Here are the 46 essentials to pack for your next road trip. 

Getting Your Car Ready for a Road Trip

The last thing you want while out on the road is for something to go wrong with your vehicle. Some things you can take care of yourself, without the help of a professional:

  • Gas tank: Keep your gas tank at least half-full. By not letting your tank get close to empty, you’re prepared for the unexpected on the road. In the winter, condensation can form in the fuel line of an emptier tank a risk for freezing the line. 
  • Windshield: Use glass cleaner on both the inside and outside of the windshield. If there are cracks in the glass, consider replacing it. Replace old and worn down windshield wipers. Last, top up the windshield wiper fluid. 
  • Spare tire: Make sure you have an inflated spare tire and the tools necessary for changing a flat in your car. Even with roadside assistance, a flat could strand you some place without cell service. 

Next, take your car into a mechanic for basic maintenance. Let them know you’re going on a road trip and the mileage for the trip. They can give the whole car a once-over and check for potential problem areas.

  • Oil change: Oil doesn’t ‘go bad’, but if you will be due for an oil change while you’re on the road, just get it done early to be on the safe side. 
  • Check fluids: Have your mechanic check the brake fluid, transmission, power-steering, and coolant. Most mechanics will do this as part of an oil change, but double-check just in case. 
  • Battery: Ask to get your battery checked to make sure it’s holding a charge and won’t die while you’re on the road.   
  • Lights: All the turn signals, taillights and headlights should function, with bright illumination. If you have an older vehicle, consider bringing spare fuses and familiarizing yourself with their replacement.  

If your mechanic doesn’t recommend your car can make a long-distance trip, you can save the expense of maintenance and just rent a car instead. Make sure you have unlimited mileage with your rental and enjoy the upgrade for your trip. Be sure to get the extra insurance coverage and GPS when you rent.

Best Roadside Assistance for Road Trips

Thanks to technological improvements over the last hundred years, road tripping isn’t as treacherous as it once was. You won’t lose the sense of adventure if you make sure you’re protected while on the road. Roadside assistance should include towing services, fuel delivery, tire changing, lockout service, and jump starts. Some roadside assistance companies can even score you discounts at hotels and more while you’re on the road. 

  • Credit cards: Your credit card may already provide roadside assistance, call and check to see what they offer. If you’re in the market for a new card, shop around and see if you can score one that offers it.  
  • Extended warranty: New cars or certified pre-owned vehicles less than three years old with fewer than 36,000 miles offer coverage for five or ten years. If this sounds like your vehicle, check with your automaker for the details. 
  • Insurance companies: Big name insurance companies offer roadside assistance as an add-on or included with your insurance package. Check with your current insurance to see if you’re covered.  
  • Full service roadside plans: Companies like AAA and National General Motor Club specialize in roadside assistance. If you’re not covered by the previous three bullet points, shop around to find a plan that fits your needs and budget. 

How to be Comfortable on a Road Trip

While comfort isn’t everything, it’s worth paying attention to when you’re driving for hours on end. If you’re traveling with kids, it’s important to make the journey fun and comfortable for everyone. For drivers, taking time to stay comfortable keeps your attention on the road, not your aching back.  

  • Good posture: Before starting the trip, adjust everyone’s seat so they’re comfortable. Driver gets priority in adjusting their seat and then passengers can optimize personal space and comfort. Invest in ergonomic support if driving an older model car or if you have other existing back problems. 
  • Travel pillows: If you’re switching drivers and for passengers, bring travel pillows so everyone can rest while not behind the wheel. Car specific versions are out there, that wrap around seat belts for extra comfort. 
  • Stretch: Take time during stops to stretch out areas that tense up while seated for long periods. Problem areas are the hips, calves, shoulders, back, and feet. A few extra minutes of stretching can save you lots of pain down the road (good advice for life, too).
  • Hydrate: Refill water bottles at every stop and load up on packets of electrolyte powder to replenish your system. If you’re forgetful, set an alarm as a reminder to hydrate every hour on the road. Dehydration can cause drowsiness and inattention. 
  • Dress for success: Wear layers of comfortable clothes that won’t irritate you after a few hours. Compression socks can help prevent feet and ankles from swelling.
  • Tennis ball: While not advanced technology, a tennis ball between your shoulder blade while driving can improve posture and provide a Lo-Fi back massage. 
  • Peppermint oil: Essential oil in an atomizer provides two benefits. First, it’s invigorating and will wake your brain up during long drives. Second, after a day or two, a road-trip car might develop a certain aroma of its own that essential oil will eliminate.
  • Sunglasses and eye drops: It’s tough to stay alert with your eyes on the road for days at a time. Sunglasses are imperative for at least half the day, and eye drops can replenish exhausted dry eyes. 

Ultimate Road Trip Snacks

While getting to indulge in fast food and gas station snacks is part of the appeal of the road trip, also consider packing foods high in nutritional value. Snacking is a great way to stay alert behind the wheel, keep your energy up, and stay engaged during a long day of travel. Junk food, while great at the moment, can leave you feeling sluggish and tired. The goal is a perfect balance of treats with good stuff. 

  • Trail mix: A perfect mix of treat and healthy in a single snack. There are limitless options, just make sure the blend has dried fruit and nuts besides chocolate. 
  • Popcorn: Pre-popped popcorn is high in fiber, low-calorie, fun to eat and low-allergen for everyone to enjoy. Take advantage of the many available flavors out there. 
  • Nut butter pouches: High in fat, protein, and vitamin E, nut butters are a great way to fuel up. Instead of carrying a jar with you, get some single-serving pouches with easy-open tabs. 
  • Jerky: Depending on the brand, this can be a high-protein snack or a treat. It’s ideal because you always have it in the car and just grab a few bites whenever you feel yourself losing energy.  the car and just grab a few bites whenever you feel yourself losing energy. 
  • Dried fruit: great for when you’re craving sweets, but they’re backed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants so they’re not empty calories. 
  • Flavored nuts: they’re high in calories and fat and come in both sweet and savory flavors for whatever you’re craving. 

These snacks are ideal because they don’t need refrigeration, will stay fresh as long as you’re on the road, and will leave you feeling great while you’re snacking. But still indulge in the occasional roadside cheeseburger if that’s your thing. 

What to Pack for a Road Trip

Think of those brave settlers heading out on the Oregon Trail 200 years ago. They had to bring everything they’d and their livestock would need for up to six months. Things are a little different these days; there’s no chance you’ll lose your car in rushing water while crossing the Mississippi, but you should still be ready in case you’re hit with the unexpected. 

Even though you have roadside assistance, your car can still break down some place remote and without cell service, it may be faster and cheaper to address problems yourself by packing a few key tools. For your car:

  • Empty gallon container: For fuel in case you run out. Never travel with gas in the cabin of a car. 
  • Jumper cables: For jumping your battery or helping someone else in need. 
  • Road flares: Breaking down at night puts you in a vulnerable position. Road flares can help protect you. 
  • Fire extinguisher: A small model can pack in the trunk of your car. 

The worst-case scenario is a blizzard trapping you in your car, snowbound, for a few days. Getting a flat in the desert put you in a similar position. Plan for the worst when you pack and you’ll be ready for anything. 

  • Extra water: Depending on the number of people in the car, have a spare gallon or two of water. 
  • First aid kit: Manufacturers make a version just for cars. Store it under a seat so you always know where it is. 
  • Blankets: Keep emergency mylar thermal blankets stashed in the car and a few heavier blankets to layer in the winter.
  • Hand and toe warmers: These are available in multi-packs on Amazon. A must-have if you’re road tripping in the winter with inclement weather. 
  • Flashlight with batteries: The bigger the flashlight the more useful, but pack whatever makes sense in the space available. Before every trip, check the batteries and replace them if needed.
  • Protein bars: Store high calorie snack bars with the extra water. 
  • Toilet paper: This may seem excessive, but think about being stranded in the snow or desert for two days. 
  • Toothbrush & toothpaste: Store these with the emergency toilet paper, clean teeth are a necessary luxury when stranded.
  • Cash: Have some cash on hand for tolls and emergencies. 
  • Medical cards: Make sure everyone has their insurance cards and medical alert information.

Not everything that’s essential for a road trip is for emergencies. Plenty of the essentials are just to make your trip more fun.

  • Audiobooks: With hours of time to kill, catch up on your reading, lots of titles take hours to get through, filling multiple days of your road trip. 
  • Podcasts: There are no limits to the topics you can cover with podcasts. Find new interests, learn more about old hobbies, and instill a car-wide competition to find the weirdest. 
  • Movie Soundtracks: When energy is low, play a Disney or musical soundtrack and you’ll get everyone singing in no time. 
  • Phone holder: Keeping your phone at eye level on the dash keeps you safe, lets you check on directions and stay hands free while choosing music or calling friends and family back home. 
  • Car games: Everyone has their childhood favorites, but License Plate Bingo, Would You Rather, and Never Have I Ever are some crowd-favorites.

On the Road Checklist

There’s a running checklist that you’ll develop when you settle into your own road trip vibe. There are things that you have to do at a rest stop (refill water bottles) and things you like to check while at the gas station (tire pressure). These are some basics to get you started and add your own as your odometer increases. 

  • Tidy up: You’re living in your car for the duration of your road trip. No matter how spacious your vehicle things can get a little ... cluttered, between coffee cups, water bottles, snacks, and more. Every time you stop, clear out all the garbage and reorganize your set up and spritz some peppermint oil. It’ll feel great when you get back on the road. 
  • Plan your next stop: Experts recommend stopping every 2-3 hours on long drives. Make sure you know where you’re headed and when your next break will be. 
  • Clean the windshield: Gas stations offer the windshield squeegees. Make sure all the windows and mirrors in the car are clean and visible. Also clean off the head and tail lights so they’re visible to other drivers. 
  • Use the facilities: Whether or not everyone ‘feels like it’, make sure everyone uses the restroom. In the Midwest, Texas, and Southwest sometimes rest stops come few and far between, so everyone should take advantage during a stop. 
  • Check the weather: You may head into a massive storm in the next hundred miles. While you’re planning your next stop, check the weather. 

How to Prepare for a Road Trip

Much like Santa, you have your list and you’re checking it twice. Add your own essentials to this ultimate guide. Road trips are a balance of preparation and safety with comfort and fun. Staying alert while on the road is essential, even more so if you’re travelling by yourself. Never hesitate to stop and rest when you feel your eyelids drooping. Driving tired is as dangerous as drunk driving.

Make your personal list early and check off each item as you pack it. Begin a stretching regimen a few weeks before you go to loosen any problematic muscles in your body. It may seem excessive, but you’ll appreciate the preparation when you’re pain free after 2,000 miles on the road. Last, do a dry-run packing the car before you’re ready to leave to make sure everything will it, with plenty of room for passengers. 

Now that you have the ultimate road trip checklist, you’re ready for anything, especially adventure!