14 Summer Road Trip Essentials

May 11, 2023

A summer road trip can work wonders to clear your mind and restore your sense of spontaneity and fun.

You might plan a trip that lasts a couple of weeks or a couple of hours — in either case, a little preparation goes a long way to ensure you have what you need for an enjoyable, stress-free time on the open road. But what to take? Bring too much “stuff,” and you risk losing some of the joy. Bring too little, and you might find yourself uncomfortable or unprepared.

The key to packing for a fantastic summer road trip is to include the right balance of safety and comfort goods. So pack your vehicle with these summer road trip essentials, then get cruising!

Wondering What To Take on a Road Trip? Start With These 14 Things

1. Itinerary

If you’re a real free spirit, even a loose idea of where you plan to go is necessary on a road trip. Not to mention, you’ll probably want to avoid hotels and restaurants that are “temporarily closed” or roads that are under significant construction. An itinerary — no matter how vague — is a must-have item. Jot down the general (or specific) bullet points regarding your destinations and route, and include on that list any phone numbers you can reference should wifi be down or unavailable. Get it down on paper or even map it out (including navigation) on Google Maps.

2. First Aid Kit

Bring hygiene and first aid items that will keep you feeling fresh, comfortable, and prepared. A simple first aid kit includes lip balm, headache medicine, band-aids, an antacid, hydrocortisone cream, and anti-nausea medication. Sunscreen’s a must-have on any summer excursion, as the skin on the face and arms are even taking in UV rays through car windows. And don’t forget any must-have medications for chronic conditions, severe allergies, etc.

Finally, stow some Kleenex away should a runny nose strike. Vitamin C tablets are another excellent travel item, as they help keep the immune system strong and ward off colds. Keep it all handy inside a small, well-appointed container.

A young couple navigates a road trip using a paper map.

3. A Navigation Plan

Have a plan for how you will get from Point A to Point B. GPS and navigation apps are super helpful in that they can help you avoid traffic jams and road closures, warn of speed traps, and help you find a restaurant that’s not too far off course.

Even so, consider having a traditional paper map and/or road atlas of the area tucked away in the vehicle for backup (or to navigate old-school style). Not to mention, it’s fun for kids and passengers to track the route as you drive.

Many road trippers say that even with a cell phone for navigation, they still rely on a paper road atlas as it can help them see all the roads and route options on a larger scale. In addition, you can purchase road atlases with a thorough listing of national parks and other points of interest — the perfect navigation aid for a road trip!

Dollar bills and a few coins sit on top of a restaurant receipt.

4. Cash

Honestly, it’s pretty easy to get around and get what you need in everyday life without pulling out cash. But you might be surprised on the road. Many places like small shops, cafes, and roadside stands are cash-only, not to mention toll booths, rest stops, and car parks. So avoid an awkward situation and open yourself up to opportunities (like yard and estate sales) by having some cash on hand.

A group of friends on a road trip snack on chips.

5. The Garbage Bag

The coffee cups, Kleenexes, books, toys, and burger bags accumulate quickly when you’re cruising from one place to the next. And it’s a real mental downer to roll home at the end of a fantastic road trip in a vehicle full of random garbage. So stay on top of the inevitable mess throughout the trip by designating two plastic bags or specific bins as catch-alls: one for garbage and one for “miscellaneous items.”

Be sure to do quick sweeps from time to time at the gas station, restaurant, or returning from a stroll. You’ll be happy traveling in a clean, airy space and even happier to have less cleanup later.

Close up a woman in a white dress charging her mobile phone with car charger cable.

6. Car Chargers

We live in a digital world. Bring a couple of car chargers and adapters with USB ports in case you get a dud (it happens). It will be a breeze to keep cell phones, tablets, or laptops powered up and ready for navigation, entertainment, and work (though, hopefully, no one is working during the summer road trip).

Mom giving her kids a snack in the car.

7. Bottled Water and Snacks

Snacks are a must for any legitimate road trip. If you are a “no food in the car” person, you might want to rethink that stance, as a suitable snack can be part-nourishment, party entertainment, and a cost-effective treat.

Even if you’ve planned your restaurants and picnic stops to a T, a good snack does the job if you’re feeling a bit peckish between stops. Whip up a batch of homemade and healthy trail mix that you can tailor to your liking. Low-mess and protein-packed items like string cheese and beef jerky are some other popular road trip snacks. If you want to make things a bit more filling (and have a mini-meal at the ready), go for some pre-made peanut butter and jelly or hummus and celery sticks. Snack on what makes you happy.

And remember the water. Staying hydrated is always essential, and the cost of buying water bottles at gas stations adds up quickly. You can now choose water bottles that are stainless steel or silicone-wrapped glass in addition to plastic. Find something that holds a good amount of water, is not difficult to maneuver around, and is easy to keep clean. Check to see if it fits in the vehicle’s cup holder. Your water bottle will probably become your number-one travel companion over time!

Sleeping boy using a pillow in back seat of a car on a road trip.

8. Pillow (for Passengers) and Blanket

If you are or plan to have passengers on your trip, encourage them to bring a small, comfy pillow if it’s a more extensive excursion. Nowadays, there are a ton of travel pillows to choose from in all shapes and sizes. They can easily go from car to airplane, to camping trip, etc. Check out the variety and find one that works for you. Feeling refreshed after a cat nap in the car can be possible!

A small blanket is also essential for comfort and even safety if you’re heading somewhere remote. Think about it this way: the more people ride, the less chance everyone agrees on the temperature inside the vehicle. So someone’s going to want a blanket.

Gray slippers against a light blue wall.

9. Slippers

Hear me out … How many of us kick our shoes off on a lengthy trip to air out “the dogs” or cool down or whatever? This is similar to the pillow situation above. Particularly if you’ll be traveling for hours and hours — especially as a passenger either part- for full-time — you won’t regret packing some comfort items.

Say you spent a good hour sightseeing around a town or hiking up a mountain. Now it’s time to head back to the vehicle and keep on trucking. Kicking off those shoes (or hiking boots) while sparing your travel companions any undesirable odor is a gift for all involved. Look for footwear that is easy to get on and off and that you don’t necessarily need to change out of when making a quick stop.

Closeup of woman

10. Spare tire, jack, etc.

You just never know when you’ll roll over a nail, and nothing dampens a road trip more than sitting for hours waiting for roadside assistance  — especially if the issue is something you can fix yourself. (Oh yeah, also do a pre-trip call to your insurance company to inquire whether you have roadside assistance and what that entails!)

Make sure you’ve got a spare and jack in your car in the event you’ll need to change out a tire. Maybe even review how the process goes beforehand. It’s also a good idea to have things like jumper cables, a flashlight, and a reflective triangle in your emergency car kit. Finally, don’t forget to keep a copy of your car insurance policy and rental details (if you’re renting) in the glove box, just in case.

Friends stop for a photo on the side of a road during a road trip.

11. Sunglasses

Sunglasses might seem like a small and innocuous item, but boy, oh boy, can they make a difference when you’re behind the wheel. No one wants to squint into the sun for an hour or more, and the car’s visor doesn’t always cut it.

Consider treating yourself to a new pair of shades with UV protection to shield your peepers from harmful rays. It’s always a good idea to wear sunglasses with “100 percent UVA/UVB protection or 100 percent UV 400” as ultraviolet light exposure can contribute to cataracts, macular degeneration, growths on the surface of the eye, cancers on and in the eye, as well as fine wrinkles in the eye area. They come in a range of styles and prices; choose a pair or two that works for you.

Woman packs the back of a car for a road trip.

12. Clothes and Shoes

Hopefully, you’ve packed a day bag or suitcase with enough outfits to last the duration of your trip. In the summertime, you’ll want to bring a swimsuit (or two) per person — and towels — for any beach or pool stops. Pack comfortable walking shoes for planned and impromptu treks around town, nature hikes, museum stops, and activities. Tennis shoes that have a streamlined look will be great in many scenarios — hiking and an up-scale lunch spot.

Again, try to keep it minimal and consult the weather forecast right before you leave. Throw in an extra sweater or rain jacket. You can get away with packing less if you put together a small capsule wardrobe of clothes that mix and match.

Woman stands near her car frustrated on a road trip.

13. Car Sickness Kit

A carsickness kit is great to have if you’re traveling with kids … or anyone, really! While some people are more prone to car sickness than others, queasiness can strike for many reasons, including motion sickness, a stomach bug, or a bad oyster. So take some of the terror out of that potential scenario by having a go-bag (or bowl) and cleanup items at the ready.

Perhaps not the sexiest purchase, but you can buy disposable vomit bags like these that are compact and designed to hold in the (terrible) smells.

A car sickness kit geared toward kids might look slightly different than a kit for adults. You’ll want to include plenty of grocery bags, some type of disposable vomit bag, old towels, some kind of anti-nausea/motion sickness medicine (prescription or otherwise) for kids, paper towels, a clean shirt, and baby wipes.

If you have someone who naturally gets a bit carsick, avoid spicy or heavy foods before travel. Car sickness is one area where preparation is the best defense.

Young woman with headphones in the backseat of the car.

14. Headphones and Music

What is a road trip without music?

First, headphones. Yes, they are a great way to take in music on a road trip, but they’re also a great way to retreat into your own little world and get a bit of private time. Think of it as a way to recharge! Some brands of noise-canceling headphones can get a bit pricey but can be worth it in their ability to block out ambient sounds. Wireless headphones can add an extra element of convenience (just be careful not to lose them).

There are also lots of headphones on the market that are comfortable and safe for kids, too. If you’re traveling with little ones, giving them privacy to listen to their own podcast, music, or even to enjoy a quiet nap, can be a peaceful win for all.

Leslie K Hughes

Leslie, a.k.a. Copy Girl, is a copywriter who gets butterflies from telling stories through words.

Her voice comes from a place filled with passion, dreams, and lots of sugar. “Cake over steak” is her go-to motto.

With over 10 years of experience in crafting words, and years of embarking on travels that have taken this Montana girl to some incredible places, Leslie love the adventures of both body and mind her writing takes her on.

Everywhere she goes, she takes this advice with her:

“Hold on to your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown.” – Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

To see what Leslie’s up to in the writing world, visit her website here.


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