We all have our opinions as to the true must-haves on a road trip. Some of us might require a subscription to satellite radio, others a radar detector. Here are the Thank-God-I-packed items that my family and I have found by far most essential on countless road trips.
- USB car charger
It’s likely that everyone in your car will have a phone or other electronic device—and that one of you forgot to charge it at the hotel the night before. If your car doesn’t have a USB port, get a charger that works in your cigarette lighter. Get one with at least two ports, so you can charge multiple devices simultaneously, and consider getting one with a voltage inverter (see #14 below).
- Smartphone mount
Tossing your phone into a car cupholder is not a solution when you’ll be using that phone for everything from navigational help to streaming music. It’s easier—and much safer—to keep your phone in a dashboard-mounted holder or magnet.
- GPS unit
Depending on your route, you might be able to get all the navigational help you need via your smartphone. But when you’re out of your cell phone coverage area, a dedicated GPS unit comes in handy. Be sure to install GPS updates before hitting the road.
- Road atlas
The paper kind. It provides a bigger-picture sense of where you are—as well as where you’ve been and where you’re going—and serves not only as inspiration but, when all marked up, as a memento too. Besides, if and when your electronic devices fail you, a road atlas can be a lifesaver
Yes, your smartphone has a camera. But when you’re using your phone as a map, radio, restaurant guide, etc.—and it’s in a mount—it’s not so easy to grab it and snap a picture of something you’re passing by at 55 mph. Better to have a camera you can quickly grab and manipulate with one hand. Get one with great zoom, since that’s what your smartphone camera lacks.
You never know where you’ll end up and when you’ll want to get a better look at something far off in the distance. Sure, you could simply use the zoom on your camera, but if you’re in a national park with wildlife, you’ll want binoculars. Like your camera, keep them handy.
The best sunglasses for driving will be polarized, which reduces glare, and will have curved lenses and thin temples, for optimal peripheral vision. They will also have extreme clarity and a hue that makes the road ahead look sharp and inviting.
If you like to ride with your window open, you’ll need to protect at least your exposed arm and neck with sunscreen. You’ll need it also when you’ve stopped the car to stretch your legs and take exploratory hikes.
- Windshield sun protector
When you park the car for one of those hikes, a sun blocker will keep the interior cooler, saving you from having to blast the air conditioner upon returning to your car, or from burning your hand on the steering wheel or seatbelt clasp.
- Window shades
Side windows usually don’t protect you from UV-A rays. If you’ve got kids in the back seat, you may want a shade to shield skin and eyes.
You can save a lot of money—and time, and calories—by packing water, drinks, and healthy snacks rather than relying on all that roadside fast food. You can fill your cooler with ice each morning at your hotel, or you can get an electric cooler that plugs into your cigarette lighter and is basically a mini-refrigerator. On hot summer road trips, this makes picnics easier, which brings us to…
- Picnic blanket
When you stumble upon that perfect picnic spot, you’ll be prepared. Get one that’s waterproof on the bottom. (A picnic blanket is also handy if you need to lie on the ground to check something beneath your car.)
- Portable Wi-Fi hotspot
Maybe you need to keep up with the office and you’re bringing a laptop. If so, you’ll want Wi-Fi. If you can’t set up your smartphone as a hotspot, you’ll need a stand-alone one. Remember that it won’t work in areas with no cell coverage.
- Voltage inverter
A power inverter enables you to charge your laptop and anything else requiring A/C power. Some voltage inverters are smartphone chargers too. They plug into your car’s cigarette lighter and give you both a 3-prong A/C outlet and multiple USB ports.
- Lumbar support pillow
When you’re sitting for hours every day, this can help prevent back pain by supporting the natural inward curve of the lower back. A rolled-up towel placed between your lower back and seat back can do the trick too.
- T Spheres
After sitting or slumping for much of the day, these rubber-compound massage balls are just the right size and density to roll against tension points in your legs and back. They reduce muscle cramping, improve circulation, and massage the kinks right out.
- Instant stain-remover wipes
At some point you will end up driving and eating at the same time. And when ketchup or blue raspberry Slurpee spills onto your shirt, you’ll be glad you stashed stain-removing wipes, or at least a stick, in the glove compartment.
- Travel first aid kit
The beauty of a road trip is its spontaneous adventures—exploring backroads, getting lost—but that also means you never know how far you’ll be from the nearest hospital. Likely the worst that will happen is blisters from an impromptu hike, but better safe than sorry.
- Emergency roadside kit
Jumper cables, duct tape, motor oil, aerosol tire inflator, reflecting triangle, flashlight, and instruction manual are some of the items you may want. You can buy a kit ready-to-go or build one yourself. Nowadays, you can get a compact portable battery booster that serves as jump starter, power bank (with USB ports), and emergency flashlight.
- Roadside assistance plan
Make sure you have an auto-club program—such as AAA, Good Sam, or Allstate—or a plan through your auto insurance company. Some cell phone plans now even offer roadside assistance.
Don’t miss the first article in our Road Trip series:
Check out our epic U.S. road trip itineraries, already mapped out for you:
Route 66: Illinois to California
Pacific Coast Highway—Route 1: California
Blue Ridge Parkway: Virginia to North Carolina
The Overseas Highway: Florida
Great River Road: Minnesota to Louisiana
Coastal Highway US 1: Massachusetts to Maine
Alamo to The Big Easy: Texas to Louisiana
And here are more road trips you can do in a long weekend or less:
Fruits of the Earth: Oregon
Best BBQ Joints: Georgia to Kansas City
Heart of America: Minnesota to Wisconsin
Literary Treasures: Massachusetts
Mesas and Markets: New Mexico
Breathtaking Desert: Southern California
Stay tuned for Wendy Perrin’s advice on the best apps for road trips; how to keep kids engaged; and how to save money while upgrading your trip from ordinary to extraordinary.