Road Trip Gear Essentials

Here’s how to provision and outfit your next adventure-travel foray on the open road.

Maybe you’ve flown to far-off states, foreign countries and separate continents to visit standout beaches, rugged mountain ranges, or other cultures that have simply perfected, say, certain baked delicacies. Sure, those experiences stand out, but sometimes you can stack up equally memorable moments piled into a friend’s car for a road-trip just a few hours from home.

Hitting the open road for unknown adventures yields the impromptu overlook for a magnificent sunset, a passing trailhead recommendation, or an emergency pitstop off the highway at the perfect burger joint. 

When you need to get out fast with less of an itinerary and more of an appetite for the unexpected, a road trip is the best answer. Whatever the ultimate destination—the campsite, the ski hill, the ocean swell, the concert festival or the smallmouth bass—a few select gear items can help you make the most of the journey. Pack light and pack smart to stay warm, fed, dry (and within your budget). It’ll help keep the tank full and the opportunities open for new adventures down the road.

Raise the Roof

One of your top priorities should be your car’s top. Get roof storage situated. There is no bigger road-trip buzzkill than having wet, dirty gear or simply too much clutter inside the vehicle. Roof racks provide the foundation for taking along most additional adventure goods. They keep icy skis or snowboards out of the dry car. And by opening interior space, they allow you to recline seats to make a bed (without a fishing reel wedged into your back), and help you immediately organize. 

Of course, you can go big with a rooftop tent, but those are more for committed overlanding trips. They also occupy the premium storage space on your roof (where a rooftop box can do wonders by instantly boosting your gear-hauling abilities). For more simple road trips, find out what crossbar works with the factory roof- or siderails on your vehicle. If you’re traveling with surf- or paddleboards (even snowboards/skis) look into a set of roof rack pads to protect them. And if you have odd-sized gear, look into a cargo net. A lock isn’t a bad idea either.

Contained Kit 

On every trip, there’s one person whose stuff is strewn about the car. There are granola bar wrappers on the floor. They lost one flip flop. Their clothes are everywhere and the zipper on their bag is broken, with contents spilling out everywhere.

Don’t be that person. Stay organized with a good bag. This doesn’t have to be a complicated backpacking rig. Just get yourself a quality duffel or backpack. It should be fitted and comfortable if you wind up with it on your back all day. Your bag should have multiple compartments to keep your sweaty shirt or wet bathing suit separated from your clean clothes. A water bottle sleeve is great. There should be pockets where smaller items live permanently like headphones, snacks, sunglasses, pens, a multi-tool, sunblock and travel-sized toothpaste.

Sleep Options

One of the best ways to save money on long drives is to crash in the car, so long as it’s warm enough. One person drives late into the night, then you pull over at a rest stop or public land that allows dispersed camping, crash a few hours and make good time in the morning, saving the $99 you would have spent on a last-minute roach motel. It’s always a good idea to bring at least a sleeping bag, if not more from your on-the-go sleep gear.

Perhaps you found the perfect beach and you just want to stay until sunrise. Or maybe everyone had a few too many after the brewery tour and you’re just playing it safe.

If you have everything on the roof, most station wagons and SUVs have enough room with the seats reclined for two people to get some decent shut-eye. Having a sleeping pad can make that a little more comfortable—plus most are inflatable, so they don’t take up much room in a pack or car. And sometimes it’s a matter of setting up a little bed for one person (kids love this) to sleep while you’re driving. A camp pillow adds that little extra, necessary bit of comfort too. 

Keep It Clean

The pandemic made hand soaps and sanitizers a lot more common, but it’s always been a good idea to stow a little bottle in the door of the car—especially if you plan on doing any fishing. Regardless, you’ll find times it’s needed, even if you’re stopping at that awesome donut spot located somewhere in every American city. It’s nice to be able to clean off the grease before you get back in the car. The antibacterial properties make a lot of sense as well. Keeping a 4-ounce bottle of Bronner’s Castile Soap on you at all times (wash your hands or hair, dishes, laundry in a pinch) just makes sense.

Fat and Happy

It’s always a good idea to bring food on trips. At the very least, snacks keep the crew from getting cranky. On the road, it’s essential that everyone has his or her own water bottle/canteen. That should be part of your everyday work/school/travel kit anyway. You might also consider some camp silverware to keep in your bag for any meals on the go. (Remember to remove any knives from your travel bag before your next flight.)

For most road trips, there’s less need to have an entire camp kitchen. First off, it takes up a lot of room. Second, you’re not going to want to be washing stoves and plate-ware. But most importantly, you’re going to want to eat dinners out. 

Food is one of the most important aspects of travel: eating among the locals at the pub, researching the seafood that the town is famous for, or seeking out the fun Thai restaurant is half the fun of being on the road. It’s how you get the full experience of a place, which includes the occasional breakfast and lunch as well—though cutting down the number of meals purchased results in significant savings. Having some sandwiches, cereal, hummus, trail mix and cold bevvies on hand will save you a lot for breakfast and lunch. And when you’re done with a day of mountain biking or art museums, why not have a few cold ones waiting for you?

Unfortunately, large coolers tend to take up a lot of space. So, consider a soft-sided or smaller hard-sided option, around that 20- to 40-quart range. There are some really nice wheeled coolers for beaches, swimming holes and picnic spots as well. If you’re going to bring any cook gear, a nice backpacking stove packs easily so you can make coffee in the morning, no matter how far you are from the next town.

Stay Dry

Another piece of gear you should always have with you is a rain shell or windbreaker. Get one that packs into its own pocket and it doubles as a pillow in your travels. Patagonia’s Ithmus Anorak and Torrent Shell are timeless pieces you’ll have for years. Versatile outer layers help you adapt to unexpected rain, spray off the bow of a boat, or just a little extra warmth if the sun goes in and the wind picks up.

Well Tooled

Remove a hook from a fish, open beverages, change a battery or cut a big hoagie in half. A multi-tool is an essential for any road trip, and always good to have. You can get crazy and spend up to $150 or still get a solid, handy tool for under $60.

Noggin Note

Finally, a beanie literally takes up no room in your car. Why wouldn’t you have one for most times of the year? By the campfire, on a chilly hike, or perhaps after sleeping in the car and waking up to messy hair, a hat is a simple addition to top off your packing prep.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.