This past May, after a brutal Boston winter and some big life changes that left our options wide open, my husband, Aaron, and I chose to rent out our condo, pare down and move all of our belongings to storage, and leave safe but stagnant for adventure and possibility. With our tiny car, single suitcase, and two dogs in tow, we hit the road for an epic one-year road trip around the continental U.S. We’re a couple of months in and to say we’ve learned a lot would be an understatement. Thinking of hitting the road? Here are our top 19 essentials, some obvious and others less so, that can make or break your road trip.
1. Car Tune-Up and Oil Change
This is a must-do before you leave. Make sure your brakes are good, check all the fluids, and if anything is on the cusp of needing to be replaced (battery, spark plugs, starter, etc), do it now. There are few things more frustrating than having your car break down or need work when you’re in the middle of nowhere and the closest tow truck is hours away. Pro tip: don’t leave your electronics plugged into your car when you’re not driving it. We learned this the hard way when we forgot to unplug our GPS overnight and it drained the battery. Thankfully, our jumper cables and a kind neighbor with a truck saved the day.
2. Basic GPS
The idea of using old-school paper maps is charming, but that charm will wear off quickly when you have to keep pulling over to read them. Relying on your phone seems like a solid idea, until you realize you’ve used 90% of your data in the first three days of the month, or worse, you don’t have service and your phone becomes little more than a pocket camera. A decent GPS will set you back about $100 and it’s worth every penny. They come pre-loaded with maps and in our experience, they work even in very remote locations (hello, Yellowstone).
3. Refillable BPA-Free Water Bottle
You could spend a nice chunk of change on buying bottled water (and create a lot of plastic waste in the process). A better, more affordable, and eco-friendly option is to keep a reusable bottle with you to take advantage of the free water-filling stations at rest stops and parks along the way.
If you’re like us, you may be accustomed to great-tasting tap water where you live. This is definitely not the case everywhere, but there’s a super easy good-for-you fix: add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. You can mix it up with sliced cucumber and mint leaves too, but we like lemon best because you can find them just about everywhere. Bonus: if you overdo it on the s’mores or need to “get things moving”, lemon is excellent for that too.
5. Beans, Grains and Greens
Eating out on road trips can get old fast. It’s expensive and almost never as energizing or nutritious as the food you can make on your own. If you eat a plant-based diet, it can be even trickier to find ready-made food options. As a work-around, we keep a small container with a handful of spices that’s always stocked with a quick-cooking grain (quinoa is our pick for the extra protein) and a couple of cans of beans or a bag of dried lentils. From there it’s easy to procure greens—even Walmart has jumped on the organic kale bandwagon! Change up the seasonings, add some fresh herbs, and you have infinite, affordable, and satisfying meal possibilities to fuel your adventures.
6. Protein Powders and Bars
There will be times when you won’t have a means to cook at all. Other times, you won’t have a fridge. If you’re like us, you’ll also find yourself hiking ten miles to the top of a mountain. This is where high quality protein powders and bars are life-savers. We make it a point to rotate flavors to avoid burn-out and currently, we’re loving the Vega Sport lineup. Our favorites are the Vega Sport Energy Bars in Chocolate Coconut Almond, Vega Sport Performance Proteins in Mocha, and Vega Sport Protein Bars in Chocolate Mint. That last one reminds us of a Girl Scout cookie!
7. Small Carton of Non-Dairy Milk
Sure, you can mix your protein powder with water, but we think just about every protein powder tastes better with non-dairy milk. Keep a carton with you for shakes, as well as for hotel and campground continental breakfasts for cereals and coffee.
8. Cooler and Ice Packs
This is key for life on the road and avoiding fast-food temptation. After a long hike in the blazing sun, there’s also nothing quite like returning to your car to find ice cold water to rehydrate. It’s a million times better than drinking hot water after you’ve worked up a sweat.
9. Pack More Underwear and Socks Than You Think You’ll Need
It’s one thing to wear the same shirt for a couple of days in a row; it’s quite another to wear the same underwear. Doing laundry requires more effort and planning on the road than it does at home and there will likely be times when you won’t be able to wash your clothes as often as you’d like. A fresh pair of underwear and socks will go a very long way in keeping you (and your travel companions) happy.
10. $20 in Cash, $5 in Quarters
If part of your road trip involves exploring the great outdoors, expect ATMs to be sparse and charge fees. To avoid paying a $3 fee every time you need a few dollars, we recommend getting cash back at grocery stores and gas stations. Having a small amount of cash will allow you to pay any unexpected road tolls. Keeping quarters on hand will reduce the need to run an extra errand when you need to pay to do that much-needed load of laundry.
11. Back-up Place to Sleep
Sometimes even the best laid and most researched plans fall through. We’ve had our share of hotel and AirBnB busts and those can really derail your day. Since our trip is so long, we keep a master spreadsheet with our planned itinerary and try to add a back-up accommodation or two for each location. Traveling with dogs makes having pet-friendly options a necessity for us.
12. Sunscreen and Bug Spray
If your road trip is based around cities, you may only need sunscreen. If you plan to visit the country, you will definitely want to have bug spray. EWG has an excellent database of non-toxic options for both. That said, we haven’t found an awesome, chemical-free bug repellant and even though I was all “no Deet for me!” before we left Boston, as soon as the mosquitoes started biting, I was very thankful we packed some.
13. A Lightweight Waterproof Jacket (with a hood)
The weather is wacky these days and especially if you’re gaining elevation, it can quickly change from warm and sunny, to thunderstorms and lightening, to snowing at the top of a mountain. A jacket that’s lightweight and doesn’t take up a lot of space, but is effective against wind and rain (and bugs!) can be the difference between enjoying where you are regardless of the weather or being completely uncomfortable. You don’t need to spend a lot of money; it’s going to get dirty and beat up after all. Places like Goodwill can be a treasure-trove for lightly worn, Gore-Tex jackets that cost $6. If you can find one with big pockets for carrying hiking gear, even better.
14. Sun Reflector for Your Windshield
We like to say that our sun shade is the best $3 we’ve spent on our trip. There’s been a seemingly never-ending heat-wave across the Northwestern part of the country and it’s crazy how much of a difference this makes in terms of the temperature of our car when we return to it. You can get one at any big box retailer and a lot of gas stations sell them too.
There are vast stretches of radio dead zones in the middle of the country and after days of bonding with the person sitting next to you, it’s possible you’ll want to hear someone else’s voice. Take advantage of wi-fi when it’s available and load up on podcasts. Our current top picks include: StartUp, Mortified, TED Radio Hour, This American Life, Fresh Air, RadioLab, and Freakonomics.
17. A Good Book
Waiting is par for the course on road trips. Waiting for a ferry boat, waiting for your laundry, waiting to check into your crash pad for the night. And while you could be checking email or posting Instagram pics, it’s good for the soul to disconnect and finish that book you’ve been neglecting for months. We love our iPad as much as the next person, but there’s something more immersive about the experience of reading an actual book. The smell of the pages, the texture of the paper, the lack of a scroll bar.
18. Eye Mask and Earplugs
You’re not in your own bed anymore. Maybe you luck out and there’s no light or noise pollution where you’re staying, or maybe (and more likely), there aren’t curtains for the window next to your bed, there’s a woodpecker getting an early start, or the campers next to you are singing kumbaya way out of tune. Getting some good shut-eye might require you to temporarily block out the sights and sounds.
19. The Ability to Roll with It
Road trips are not resort vacations and rarely do your plans work out exactly as you thought they would. This can be a giant source of frustration, or you can choose to roll with it and find inspiration in the detours. It’s all about your attitude and whether you fight the unforeseen or embrace it and adapt to it. Road trips provide the scenery; it’s up to you to bring the fun. This is a skill we’re learning to master more and more every day and one we know we’ll take home with us.