Seven years ago, I turned my Jack Kerouac-fueled dreams into reality. I sold all my stuff, bought a sturdy secondhand SUV, and turned my life into a permanent road trip. I repeatedly crossed the country from top to bottom and coast to coast, searching for great stories while trying to live one myself. Looking back, I can truly say that it was the best of times, with a little bit of the worst of times thrown in for good measure. Despite what Instagram may tell you, life on the road is not a perpetual golden-hour haze of picturesque parking spots and misty two-lane highways with no other vehicles in sight. There are plenty such moments, of course, and that’s why we road trip. But in between those idyllic moments of pure freedom are potholes, shitty motel lobby coffee, traffic jams, bad local radio stations, midnight highway jousting matches with cranked-up semi drivers, and that cramped, numb feeling that comes over your butt after too many miles of vibrating over worn asphalt.
OK, I’m laying it on thick. The truth is that even those nuisances are part of the glamour of taking a road trip. The discomforts are part of what gives the road tripper his thousand-yard stare and mental grit. They are the trials you have to endure in order to earn the spiritual rewards that come with traversing the open road. Because as we all know, the journey matters more than the destination.
Still, there’s no rule that says the journey can’t be enhanced. In travel as in life, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference. If you want more than just getting from Point A to Point B — if it’s a real trip you’re after — you’re going to need more than a tank of gas and a Spotify playlist. Our list of road trip essentials will keep you safe, comfortable and on track with your travel budget, leaving you free to savor all the inspiration the open road has to offer.
It happens to the best of us: You wake up early to get a head start on the day’s mileage, only to find that your vehicle won’t start. Whether you left the headlights on or a door ajar, a dead battery is like clipped wings for the freedom-loving road tripper. A set of jumper cables will save you the expense and hassle of calling a tow truck. It also offers an occasion to depend on the kindness of strangers, an essential skill for any highway nomad.
Unless your road trip only takes you through the foggy Pacific Northwest, you need a windshield shade to protect your vehicle from the wear and tear of the sun. Ever seen a rearview mirror melt right off a windshield? Or been unable to turn on your phone after it’s spent a couple of hours on a hot dashboard? Or scalded your skin on sun-baked leather upholstery? If you haven’t, keep it that way, and invest in a windshield protector. Even one of those cheap folding cardboard numbers is better than turning your vehicle into a sauna.
Camping Stove and Coffee Percolator
If you’re a coffee drinker, road trips present a conundrum: overspend your travel budget (and, in many cases, venture far out of your way) on quality coffee from high-tone local cafes, or subsist on the stale, scorched brew provided by the motel lobby. Alternatively, you can discover the joy of self-reliance by concocting your own coffee, preferably at a scenic overlook or highway monument. Bonus points if you offer a cup to a fellow road tripper.
There comes a point where the hours of driving, the miles of highway, and the litany of big rigs slowing you down start to get to you. (For me, that point was usually three-quarters of the way across Interstate 70 through Kansas on the way to Colorado.)
When the road starts to make you crazy, your thoughts begin to spiral to a dark place full of “what ifs.” It always helps in those moments to remember my emergency kit stashed in the trunk, right next to the wheel jack. My kit included a blanket, a headlamp and an industrial-size flashlight (both with extra batteries), a can of pepper spray, two spare quarts of oil, emergency flares, a gas can, an extra bag of snacks, and a spare pair of tennis shoes. (Those last three items proved very helpful the time I had to walk six miles to the nearest gas station, and then walk six miles back.) Even now that I’m no longer a full-time nomad, I still keep this emergency kit in my vehicle — I’ve even filled it out with a solar-powered phone charger, a tube of sunscreen, and a couple of those single-use air-activated hand warmer packs. (Here are some more kit suggestions.)
Admittedly, it’s rare that you’ll have the type of emergency that requires this kit. For the less rare type of emergency — i.e., getting pulled over for speeding, a broken taillight, or just being not from these parts — it’s a good idea to have all your registration and insurance information paper-clipped together and easily accessible. We all know by now that when a cop is glaring into your driver’s side window, the worst thing you can do is fumble around.
Along with the vehicle’s street-legal information, I recommend keeping a list of information about your vehicle’s “health requirements.”
Along with the vehicle’s street-legal information, I recommend keeping a list of information about your vehicle’s “health requirements.” Write down the size and model of tires you use, the type of motor oil your engine takes, and any maintenance your car routinely needs–for example, the rear differential on my ’93 Jeep Cherokee that springs a leak every 100 miles or so. If you should need an emergency repair, having this information handy will help you guard against the wiles of unfamiliar mechanics who would love nothing better to “fix” your car in all sorts of creative (read: unnecessary) ways.
Even if you’re only traveling across the state line, you never know what surprises the road might bring you. Some of those surprises might be good, like a rendezvous with a beautiful stranger; others might be less desirable, like getting your pant leg torn and your leg carved up by an unfriendly cactus. Both have happened to me, and that’s why I keep my center console packed with breath freshener, hand sanitizer, BandAids, a mini sewing kit (like the kind they give you in finer hotels), and a book of matches. You’d be surprised what kind of opportunities can arise by simply being able to offer someone a light when they need it.
It’s easy to believe you don’t smell until the morning after couch-crashing at your friend’s well-appointed apartment, when you swing your butt back into the sweat-stained front seat of your ride and inhale the scent you’ve left behind. But even more important than clearing your car of human odor is the mental lift provided by a good spritz of citrus- or eucalyptus-scented air freshener. Better yet, get one of those essential oil diffusers that plugs into the air vent of your car. Take it from a veteran road tripper: that fresh, clean smell could be what saves you from highway fever.
No matter how much you stretch before and after your day on the road (and stretch you most definitely should), there will be times where your neck, back, butt, and legs are crying out for mercy.
A folded-up blanket or towel placed behind the small of your back can work miracles, but if you really want to get fancy, you can get one of those doughnut-shaped cushions people use for, well, back and butt problems. Making your position more ergonomic and posture-friendly will even ease tension in your neck, shoulders, sciatic nerve, and lumbar region.
Whether you’re spending the night in your car or just taking a 20-minute rest stop, we know you’re too smart to pull over in a dark, unpopulated area. That’s a rookie move that can end really, really badly for a road tripper. Since you’ll definitely be taking your rest breaks in a well-lit area with plenty of adjacent foot traffic, an eye mask is key in helping you get the shut-eye you need.
If you’ve had one too many drive-through sandwiches fall out of their wrapper and into your lap, you know the perils of eating behind the wheel. The solution: a small wooden or bamboo cutting board that you can easily stash under or behind your seat. When you’re ready to eat, whip it out and place it over your lap — voila! A tray to keep you tidy as you snack and drive. Better still, you’re no longer limited to finger food. The flat surface balances plates, bowls, and beverage containers when you’re keeping both hands at 10 and two.