How to Beat Stress with Our Fearless Road Trip Packing List

road trip packing list featuring holy terror coffee in south dakota

Look: We never even thought we’d need a road trip packing list of any kind whatsoever.

But given how travel has changed everywhere, we’ve started to get a lot more interested in road tripping.

(For our take on first steps to re-evaluating our travel goals and ambitions with an eye to responsible tourism, see this post—which includes a free worksheet to help you on your own journey.)

OK: Our road trip packing list is a little different than most.

For one thing, all the driving stuff is covered by other folks—and covered well.

You know, things like bring your license, insurance documents, car safety stuff.

We particularly like this list from Well Planned Journey, and we’re using it ourselves for our upcoming road trip.

So we’re not going to talk about those type of essentials.

Instead, we want to cover the things that are less driving related.

They’re more about keeping your sanity. Creating home away from home.

The kind of things we’ve learned from road tripping over the years.

The stuff where, far from home—and often far from things we take for granted—you yell, DAMMIT. Why didn’t we pack that?

Against a background of a battered brown suitcase covered with travel stickers from Wyoming, New Mexico, and bars and hotels in the American West, we see previews of the checklist and worksheet available from Head Roam to determine your road trip packing list essentials.Pin
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Psst: Sign up for our newsletter, and you’ll have access to our downloadable worksheet and customizable checklist to help work out your personal strategy of road trip essentials.

Here, at a glance, are the road trip packing list essential items, and our tips for beating road trip stress :

Ready? Let’s go!

Road Trip Packing List Component #1: A Clean Car (at least on the inside)

You’re no fool.

You’ve had your car serviced, checked the tires, made sure you have license, insurance, and other documentation. You’ve signed up for the roadside assistance plan of your choice; ours is AAA.

But wait! Do you have the following?

  • Wipes: Absolute essentials for a road trip, wipes take care of more than your butt in the event that you need toilet paper when there isn’t any. Sometimes, for whatever reason, you, another car occupant, or something in the car gets messy. We try not to overuse paper products, and only use wipes when we need them, so one package is plenty. But man, does it come in handy. We keep it in our middle compartment, or in the door.
  • A cloth to clean glasses and navigation screens. We keep one in the middle compartment.
  • Hand sanitizer and some extra masks. It’s 2021, gang. This is life now. Middle compartment.
  • Some type of trash container for inside the car: For used wipes, tissues, banana peels, and just the general flotsam and jetsam that accumulate on a trip. We generally stash this under a seat when we have passengers, in the back when we don’t.
  • A squeegee and some window cleaner in case you go through heavy duty bug territory and you’re still a ways from a gas station. Keep in the trunk.
  • Coins in one easy to access container, along with some $1 bills, and a $5 or two. You never know when you’re going to stop someplace—particularly when driving through small-town USA—where you need change for a parking meter. Ditto hitting a turnpike. Man, it can really suck to not have turnpike money handy.
  • Sticky notes and a pen. These will come in handy in many ways (see our health and beauty on the road tip in particular). You might think of something while you’re on the road and not want to forget. The non-driving person has the sticky note. Yeah, you can make a note on your phone. But I have so much on my mind on a road trip, I love that little pop of color to remind me.

Your car is not going to stay clean on the outside. But having it clean and relatively organized on the inside is essential for your mental health.

As part of our road trip packing list, we recommend items to keep your car clean: a garbage bag, wipes, a sponge and squeegee for the windshield, a screen cleaner, and an extra mask or two just in case.Pin

Clutter is chaos, and chaos is not fun in a car. Particularly one in which you’ll be spending HOURS.

What’d we miss? Let us know in the comments, please!

Road Trip Packing List Component #2: Hydration

Travel is dehydrating.

Water up.

Not other liquid. Pure clean water.

We love the reusable water bottle trend, especially those ones that roll up into nothing.

And we love that so many places in the country have excellent water right out of the tap. San Francisco, we’re looking at you!

We also love water filling stations at many national parks, museums, and other sites.

What we don’t love? When we really need water, and we have to buy it someplace.

And at some point on your road trip, you’re going to be someplace where you need some decent water.

So start your journey with a big old gallon container of your favorite spring water.

Most earth-friendly option: Your own reusable container filled with whatever you drink at home.

Have your reusable bottles handy, one per passenger, filled with water from home when you start out.

When you’ve got great water for free—from a tap or filling station—replenish your containers, both the big one and your portables.

This way, you only have to buy, at most, one big ass jug of water.

Road Trip Packing List Component #3: Your Morning and Evening Essentials

Yes, you’re on vacation. And for you, that may entail taking a break, even from your regular routine.

But we’ve found that, the longer the trip, the more we need those things that wake us up and put us to bed.

Maybe our favorite thing about road trip preparation: You don’t have to be quite so efficient with your packing.

Look, maybe don’t go nuts and bring the espresso machine.

But do take a moment to jot down your morning and evening routine.

(If you’ve signed up for our newsletter—which will keep you informed of all the fun stuff we’re up to over our upcoming road trip—you’ll get a handy worksheet to do just that, and more.)

As part of of your road trip packing list, we recommend things you need to keep you sane, like your own coffee and/or tea mug, the coffee and tea you need to keep them full, and a candle and lighter for meditation sessions on the road.Pin
I love coffee, Steve loves tea….so we make sure we have them, plus a meditation candle and lighter, handy to keep us from getting grouchy on the road.

Mine’s easy. Morning: Meditation, a walk, coffee, coffee, coffee, and a smoothie.

Evening: Put robe on about an hour before bed. Wash face, brush teeth, read in bed, have Advil handy in case my one ACL does this annoying thing….and you know what? We’re getting a little TMI here.

The point is, think this stuff through.

For instance, while we have room, I don’t NEED my meditation cushion.

I can sit on a rolled up blanket (recommended in pretty much every car emergency guide) or a couple of pillows.

Contrariwise, I really like having a candle.

Candle/lighter doesn’t take up much space and also makes me feel like I’m home.

So I’ll skip the cushion, but pack the candle. Just having it will help me remember to meditate and not be as likely to blow it off.

As for coffee: Steve and I rather foolishly thought we’d be able to get coffee anywhere. Then we went to the UP, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

We love the UP, but decent coffee is decidedly NOT everywhere.

So we bought a kettle, and vowed to bring the aeropress and some coffee on our next trip, which is now.

And he’ll bring tea, because he’s both a coffee and tea guy. And we’ll indulge in a favorite coffee container for each of us.

Because we will inevitably end up buying a coffee somewhere. But this way we can skip the coffee go cup and create a little less waste.

Now, when it comes to smoothies; we’ve brought the blender before and a cooler. But it’s too hard to keep the fresh stuff that we put in smoothies from getting gross.

I’m sure with the right cooler and the right buying, we’d come up with a smoothie solution. But in the interests of being able to pack more but not wanting to bring the entire kitchen, we’ll do our kettle, aeropress, and maybe a favorite mug, but ditch the blender.

We can easily find smoothies or just get fresh fruit.

For night, I will bring my favorite robe. It’s just too nice to have one. I would never pack one to take on a plane trip; too bulky. But on the road. Yes.

Steve loves his pillow.

Look at the things that keep your life on track normally, and decide on a couple that you can bring and that won’t take up too much space.

Your day will be bookended with a lovely touch of home.

If you have kids, you know how important this is for them.

Baby yourself a little.

What are your morning routine essentials? Leave a comment or join our Facebook group and tell us there.

Road Trip Packing List Component #4: Packing Essentials

Any trip, as any seasoned packer knows, begins with two lists:

  1. Weather for where you’re going
  2. Activities you’re going to do. Sitting A LOT needs to be on here.

To this we add: Laundry. If you’re gone 2 weeks, will you find a laundry facility (or be in a rental with one) once? More? Not at all?

Steve and I have a two week trip, and we figure we can squeeze in one laundry load halfway through.

Between checking the weather and listing out activities, we’re going with what we typically do for a week, with a little extra: 4 bottoms, 10 tops, one color scheme. One nice-ish outfit in case we decide on something fancy—but not too fancy. We’re not going anywhere where we need to pretend we’re on Dynasty or something.

an open suitcase is filled with neatly packed mesh packing cubes, which easily fit into the space. The contents adhere to a simple color scheme of blue, gray, white, and beige. Our road trip packing list essentials.Pin
Color coordinated, super easy wear rolled and stuffed into packing cubes, fits easily into a rollerboard suitcase.

My one indulgence: I’ll bring extra shoes.

With the luxury of added space, our road trip packing list includes more shoes than we'd take on the plane: Boots for walking around town, hiking, and tall dressy boots to wear out on the town, as well as cute leopard print flats and workout sneakers. Pin
Boots for walking around town, hiking, and being sexy, as well as cute flats and workout sneakers. Not pictured: sturdy walking sandals.

When traveling by plane, I keep to, at the outside, three pairs of shoes: something dressy, sneakers or hiking boots, and maybe a pair of shoes to walk around town in, generally something with a pretty thick sole like Tevas, because we walk like crazy.

For this trip, I’m taking sneakers, cute flats, sturdy boots, some killer sexy boots if I want to feel killer and sexy, and sturdy sandals. I mean, I NEVER do this.

But we have room, and I’ll still be conservative with my clothes.

(By the way, we love the Packing Pro app, which has pre-made lists that you can customize, and which remind you to pack essentials for any type of trip.)

It’s all about being intentional with your indulgences.

Road Trip Packing List Component #5: Speaking of Laundry….

We’ll take a little of our detergent in a reusable container.

I take an empty packing cube for laundry.

Boom.

We’re set.

Road Trip Packing List Component #6: Health and Beauty on the Road

My routine is minimal anyway.

Thing is, for a road trip, I don’t worry about travel size bottles.

I just pack the regular stuff: Good shampoo (I hate cheap shampoo). Conditioner. Moisturizer with sunscreen, sunscreen for non-face, tinted moisturizer (which I put on top of my other moisturizer as foundation), mascara, a little lip color. Plenty of lip balm.

I mean, it’s super minimal.

The main thing is: I just put the regular sizes in a waterproof bag.

The bag can stay in the trunk and come out at night.

our road trip packing list essentials include personal care items like Safe Reset shampoo, belif cleanser, Farmacy Green Clean makeup meltaway, and Supergoop! Superscreen.Pin

Now, when it comes to either meds or things that are self-care related:

I have talked to more people, and done it myself, who have left some valuable thing behind in a hotel room, or at an Air BnB or at a friend’s.

This is a drag.

So I advise you, and this may seem weird, but: If you’re not doing a camper or RV and you’re staying a different place every night: Bring sticky notes.

Write down those things you don’t want to forget—your bite splint (that’s me), your pills, your vibrator that you’ve hidden away in the nightstand (asking for a friend), your whatever—on the sticky note. Put it on the mirror or the door at night.

You might want to add chargers as well, as they’re one of the top things that people forget and leave behind. And those suckers are Expensive.

That way, when you’re stupid in the morning because you’ve gotten up at 5 to see a sunrise?

You’ve just stupid-proofed yourself.

You’ll be REALLY glad you did this.

Road Trip Packing List Component #7: Diversions

I start off all excited because we have satellite radio. No commercials. Yay!

About 2 hours in, which is, like No Time At All, I want to kill the satellite radio. If they play “Daniel” by Elton John one more time….That damn song is on every freaking channel. I swear.

Podcasts, too, can be divisive. I can listen to Melvyn Bragg natter on about all sorts of arcana with plummy-accented professors from Trinity College and Oxford. Steve’s ceiling on that stuff is decidedly lower.

Actually, he just kind of has another ceiling altogether, I think.

So a few days before we leave, Steve and I figure out a few audio books we can listen to. We loved Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, his book about psychedelic drugs. We’ve figured out we’re both happy listening to science books together.

And whereas listening to an audio book while I’m walking means I’ll need a couple of weeks to complete it, long hours in the car are perfect.

An alternate of this is, if a non-driver doesn’t get carsick from reading while riding, they can read aloud from something pertinent to the trip. We took turns driving and reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire a couple years back en route to the National Parks in Utah, and it was a blast.

So talk with your driving companion, and download stuff from whatever service you use—we’re a Scribd family—because you never know when your signal might quit.

And my friend, you will need some serious help when that happens in that stretch where they filmed Children of the Corn.

Audio books are great for families, by the way, given how many wonderful titles there are for kids.

As for road trip games, Great Wolf has an excellent list here. While it’s geared toward families with kids, don’t underestimate how unsophisticated you will be by your 25th hour in the car.

That thing where you come up with a different food for every letter of the alphabet? That gets pretty funny when you hit the inevitable punch-drunk mile.

landmarks include Salem Sue, a gigantic concrete Holstein cow sculpture in North Dakota, and a silo painted by artist Guido van Helten in Fort Dodge, IA, tempt readers along with an offer of a free worksheet and checklist to tailor your road trip packing list essentialsPin

Road Trip Packing List Component #8: Nutrition and Exercise Hacks

You don’t have to emerge from your road trip with extra zits—and doesn’t it suck to have both wrinkles and zits?—and a case of constipation after being on the road.

But it’s really, really easy to emerge in exactly that way.

So make a vow with your road trip buddy, or self:

As your car is your witness, promise to do the following every day of this road trip:

  • Eat 2 pieces of fresh fruit and 2 fresh vegetables every single day. Somehow.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Limit junky meals to one every other day at most.
  • Take a minimum 10-minute break every 2 hours where, at the very least, you just get up and jog around a rest stop.
  • Eat local as much as possible—in other words, avoid chains and fast food unless it really is an emergency. You can justify a fresh milk shake or ice cream cone from an old-timey soda fountain, but the frosty from Wendy’s….not so much.
  • Yes, you’re on vacation. Yes, you get to indulge, and particularly to try local specialties that are hard to get elsewhere—like the huckleberry beignets we had in Montana, pictured below. So REALLY enjoy the indulgences. Eat mindfully, slowly, try to describe what you’re eating to your travel buddy. Best of all, take notes however you take notes. Imagine the blast you’ll have going back and rereading, and thus re-experiencing, those descriptions.
huckleberry beignets from the Belton Chalet in MontanaPin
Huckleberry beignets from the Belton Chalet in West Glacier, MT: an indulgence to remember.

Road Trip Packing List Component #9: Intentional Break Planning

The final essential to beating stress and having a road trip for the ages: a wee bit of research.

Sure, you can get your breaks in at rest stops, or just depend that there’ll be someplace nice to pull over.

This seat-of-the-pants thing is perfect for a lot of travelers.

But for us, an intentional break stopping someplace we read about and are anticipating?

That’s a soul-feeder. A moment of Zen. A memory in the making.

And a massive stress buster.

So noodle this with your companions. What gets them going?

For me, it’s art. Many favorite stops are in out of the way places.

For Steve, it’s nature. There are so many beautiful spots you can explore in an hour or less if you’ve planned ahead.

I used the wonderful guide Road Trip USA, which has a dandy website, including a terrific blog.

Effectively, the entire Road Trip book is online, but I like having the print version.

It’s proved vital in planning our trip, and I’ve found places galore to keep both of us happy.

I also love the old WPA state guides, completely online at this link, for greater history and context. Written in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration act, they’re fascinating for history and science nerds out there.

Other great sources: Lonely Planet and Culture Trip, where you can book places to stay and experiences. And of course, AirBnB may be your friend. Don’t forget, they have experiences in addition to places to lay your weary head.

Once discovered, we make a note in the TripIt app—we love this thing—which gives us both reminders and directions.

And even if you’re one of those hell-for-leather drivers who just wants to get there as fast as you can, ask yourself this:

Will you be a teeny bit bummed if you find out that Thing You Love—a beautiful garden, haunted house, the dinosaur from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure—was within reach and you drove right past?

Maybe you won’t be bummed. That’s cool.

But we’d be sad. Because, I mean, just Look at Salem Sue!!

a massive concrete sculpture of a black and white Holstein cow, Salem Sue, stands atop a hill covered with dried prarie grass in Salem, North DakotaPin
Located in between Dickinson and Bismarck, ND, Salem Sue is as grand and lavish as the Dakotas.

In the end, you of course must Do You.

Do You with intention. That’s all we ask.

Thanks for reading!

And please give us feedback: Leave a comment, or get in touch with us on Facebook, Insta, or Twitter. We’d love to know your own best road trip packing list advice.

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    About Me

    Welcome to Head Roam! I’m Nan Bauer. Join me in rethinking travel in the world we live in now. Learn more about how I got here.

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