My husband and I spent most of last year traveling around the US in a converted van. We drove from Florida to Alaska and back during our quest to visit every National Park, and while on the road we experienced a little bit of everything (including our doors freezing shut).
The beauty of a road trip is its flexibility. Yes, we wanted to pack as much as we could into our van so we wouldn’t have to stop as often to pick up something we forgot or to resupply, but the longer you’re on the road, the more you realize that simplicity is key.
Most of the time, less is more, and this adage still rings true while on a road trip. We also tend to think that specialty items aren’t always as valuable as they’re marketed to be. That’s why I’ve put together our top picks for road trip essentials. Below you’ll find the things you shouldn’t leave home without, and, perhaps more importantly, what you can do without.
Here are some road trip essentials from a road trip pro.
Note: It’s important to note that anytime we leave the house now, we pack our masks and hand sanitizer, which definitely come in handy for gas station pit stops. Carefully consider when and where you’ll be traveling, as well as your personal risk tolerance, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Use Paper Maps as a Backup to Digital Navigation
Even with the advances in technology, sometimes our gadgets fail us. That’s why one of our road trip essentials is a paper map of the area we’re traveling in.
Most of the time, we just use Google Maps on our phones to navigate. If you know you’re headed somewhere remote, make sure you download an offline version of your route to access whenever you lose signal. I always wait until I’m on WiFi to do any big downloads to save on data as well.
It’s also important to note that unless you pay for an international plan, you won’t have data or cell service if you cross into Canada or Mexico during your road trip.
Lots of modern vehicles, our van included, have built-in navigation systems that don’t rely on the internet at all, but those don’t get as frequent or recent updates as Google Maps. We’ve actually stopped downloading the updates for our eight-year-old van’s maps because the manufacturer charges a fee to do so.
We popped up into Canada a few times during our trip last year, mostly as we made our way to the eight National Parks in Alaska. We love driving through Alaska so much we’ve done it twice! But the journey is pretty remote, and on more than one occasion, paper maps definitely helped us stay the course.
Long story short, even if you don’t think you’ll need it you should have a paper map of the area you’ll be driving in just in case. Having a paper map is also essential in other countries where you may have spotty access to WiFi while on the road.
A Power Inverter Helps You Charge On The Go
The other challenge with technology is that you have to be able to charge your devices on the go, making the ability to charge everything one of our road trip essentials.
Our favorite accessory for our van was the power inverter we were gifted last Christmas. It’s a total game changer, and we use it regularly. A power inverter gives you a standard 100 V AC outlet from your car’s 12 V DC cigarette lighter outlet.
The inverter we use costs about $35 on Amazon, but it comes with both AC outlets and USB ports to charge our phones, laptops, camera batteries, or anything else while driving. It’s kept up with all our charging needs pretty well, and we’ve put it through a lot.
Almost every day, we used it to charge something. The biggest thing it handled was our laptops, which was a huge win for us since we didn’t have regular access to power on some stretches of road.
Backseat Organizers Help You Do Just That
I wouldn’t say you necessarily need back-of-the-seat organizers, but it helped keep our van tidy and tidiness is essential on a long road trip. The backseat organizers in our van helped us stash all the things we needed to access quickly, such as napkins, the aux cord, wipes, and snacks. They also kept our phones and keys handy when we were sleeping in the back.
What’s most important here is that you find a system for organizing the stuff (and people) in your vehicle during your road trip. If you don’t, it’ll start to feel like an extended chaos nightmare. And if you’re like me, that’s not a state I operate well in.
Sun Shades For When You Put It In Park
Depending on where and when you road trip, staying out of the sun will be key to keeping your vehicle comfortable. We’re from Florida, so we know a thing or two about seeking out shade. Luckily, a collapsible or foldable sunshade for the windshield will help block out the sun even if there are no trees around.
If you double up — putting up a sun shade and parking in the shadows — you’ll keep your vehicle from heating up whether you’re hanging out inside, going on a morning hike, or hitting the beach in the afternoon.
For us, the sun shade was also important to helping us camp in the van at places like Walmart. We’ve used Dollar Store sun shades as well as fancy novelty sun shades, and they all work the same so save yourself some money and go for the cheapies.
Make Sure You Have a Meal Time Plan
Eating is important, but it can also ruin your plans if you’re not prepared. You will have to make a stop if you get hungry. That’s why we try to time meals around driving hours or activities to help make the most of our schedule.
Make sure you stash filling snacks, like nuts and granola, in your vehicle to help get you from point A to point B without stopping. It’s especially helpful for grazers like me, who nibble every couple of hours (my husband can somehow eat just one big meal a day). Keeping snacks handy helps us stick to our plan without extra stops.
Same goes for hydration — make sure you have plenty of water handy to drink.
However, when we do make stops, we try to keep things cheap. One way is to keep costs low when eating out (we use a couple different menu hacks to save money), the other is to carry a compact camp stove and a few dishes from home for mealtime on the go. We like to keep things flexible and do a little of both when we’re on the road.
If It’s Special Made, You Probably Don’t Need It
This may shock you, but a lot of road trip essentials aren’t really essential.
A lot of adventure brands share inspirational images on social media that make you fall in love with the “idea” of their products. I’m here to tell you that the special backpack shown in the spectacular image of Yosemite National Park isn’t what made the scene spectacular.
If you see somewhere that you absolutely must buy a specific brand for a particular trip or type of vacation, stay skeptical.
And if I’m being honest, sometimes you really don’t need to “invest” in quality items either. We got just as much warmth from our $20 Walmart sleeping bags as the similarly cold-weather rated $200 name-brand sleep sacks could have provided. We were able to hike in Zion in our regular sneakers just as easily as the other folks on the trails in expensive hiking shoes.
If you think you need one of those top-of-car storage pods, think again. Most people who use them put the stuff they need least up there since it’s more difficult to access. That means most of the time you never end up opening it — precisely because all that stuff was below the threshold of true importance or necessity in the first place.
And Don’t Buy It Just Because I Said So
Last but not least, don’t just buy it because I said so.
Just because it’s on this list and I said it helped us visit every National Park doesn’t mean you need to buy it either. A good vacation doesn’t have to be expensive, and if you come home having spent less than you even budgeted for, that just means you have more money left over to put to work in the stock market or stash in a savings account!
You could even use that savings to start planning for your next trip!
Plus, if you take advantage of travel hacking you could save even more on your road trip.
At the end of the day, keep it simple when you’re planning a road trip. We’ve traveled all over the country, and our list of road trip essentials isn’t really that long.
We’d definitely recommend having paper maps, a power inverter, sun shades, backseat organizers, and a meal plan, but otherwise, take what YOU need to have a good time.
Let’s hit the road!
Tawnya is an elementary special education teacher by day and co-blogger at Money Saved is Money Earned by night.
She holds an Honors BS in Psychology from Oregon State University and an MS in Special Education from Portland State University. She has had a pretty successful writing career, first as a writing tutor at the Oregon State University Writing Center, and in recent years, as a freelance writer.
Tawnya and co-blogger Sebastian have a wealth of knowledge and information about personal finance, retirement, student loans, credit cards, and many other financial topics. They teach people how to save money, make money, and understand money.