How to Pack Your Car For a Road Trip

Packing Your Car for a Road Trip

How to pack a car for a road trip
Packing a car for a road trip. Photo / Hilfiger

Road trips are one of the most enjoyable forms of travel, and part of their fun is their spontaneity. But go on too spontaneous of a road trip and trouble, or more likely just discomfort, could ensue. Taking a little time to organize your car (use the Travel Planning Checklist) so that everything you need is at hand as you traverse the highways and backroads will greatly improve your road trip experience.

Note: This article is not about the kind of road trip that includes tent camping or venturing too far off-road. Those require another level of equipment, and you shouldn’t undertake them with the same provisions you need to drive on mostly paved roads and sleep in relative civilization each night.


As a lover of road trips, I’ve learned you can’t have too many maps. Stock up on atlases, state maps from AAA, print-outs of local maps and directions, or better, all of the above. I love my iPhone as much as anyone, but if you’re going anywhere new or even remotely, well, remote, you should not rely on your phone. Batteries die, phones get broken or lost, and you don’t have to be out in the boonies to lose your cell signal: the other day I drove an hour from one of the most densely populated areas in the United States and promptly lost service entirely (and nearly ran over a gang of turkeys.)


Some say road trips call for a steady diet of junk food, and I’m jealous of those people, but if beef jerky and drive-through burgers won’t keep you alert for ten hours behind the wheel, pack healthy foods that will last a long time. Apples are nearly indestructible, and other fruits like plums and grapes can stay good for several days too.

I always keep some fruit leathers around in case I’m starving and no other food is in sight. They’re wrapped in plastic and will survive unrefrigerated for years. Chocolate is good for an energy boost, and not as bad for you as other types of candy. Small pretzels and crackers are easy to eat, but if you (like me) fall asleep at the mention of carbs, probably not what you want while driving.

And don’t forget water. You’re in a car, so you might as well bring more than you think you’ll ever need.

Emergency Supplies

Some basics include a spare tire and jumper cables, some blankets or sleeping bags in case you have to stay with your car overnight, and a snow shovel and scraper. (If it’s August, you probably won’t need them, but as a New England resident, I’d say keep them in the car anyway, because you never know.) It also never hurts to bring tools or a pre-assembled car safety kit.

Info and Documents

Make sure you have the manual for the car you’re driving, in case any strange lights come on. Bring the addresses of any place you’re planning on staying (here's how to create an itinerary with all the necessary information). If you haven’t arrangements in advance, look up potential locations and write down their contact information before you leave, so when it’s dark and you’re tired and you enter an unfamiliar city, you’ll have options.

Again, these are the sorts of things many people now depend on smartphones for, but having hard copies can really save you time. Also make sure you have insurance information for you and your vehicle, and any phone numbers for anyone at home or along your route that you might need.


For me this is music, and lots of it. You might prefer podcasts or audiobooks. If you're road-tripping party includes kids or people who don’t know how to be happy staring at the scenery, you might also need games, portable movie-playing devices, and so on.


These are all the things you don’t think you’ll need until you need them, so really take some time to brainstorm before you go. Some examples are chargers for any electronics, umbrellas, eye drops (nothing like hours of driving to make you bleary-eyed) lip gloss or Chapstick, sunscreen (yes you can get tanned or burned in a car), napkins or tissues, hand wipes or disinfectant, garbage bags, and note paper and pens.

Travel Tips

Tips to help you be organized for traveling, including packing tips, itinerary tips, organizing, and how to return from travel and be organized.