Refresh and Recharge on a Road Trip: Packing 101

So often when we drive to go on a trip, we are focused on getting to the destination in a timely manner that we forget to enjoy the journey. It sounds cliché, but when you slow down and allow for stops along the way when needed or interested in visiting somewhere, driving can be so relaxing and refreshing.

My family recently went on a road trip, and it was a wonderful way to see new places, experience other cultures, appreciate the beauty of our country, and recharge our spirits. Does any of this appeal to you? Or do you simply need a change of scenery? If you answered yes, I recommend packing up your car and going for a road trip!

Largest Pistachio
My Favorite Roadside Attraction: World’s Largest Pistachio

You may think “road trip” and imagine being in a heavily congested area, stuck in traffic jams or in a construction zone, and think that relaxing is not the best way to describe it. But you will be surprised that if you are not in a hurry to get to your destination, slowing down and taking in your surroundings can still be truly enjoyable.

Below are some tips for what to pack to be prepared for anything so you can focus on your next adventure and not whether you have the gear you need.

What To Pack

My road trip crew consisted of my husband, our four-and-a-half-year-old son, our 14-month-old daughter, and myself. So, needless to say, I wanted to make sure we were prepared for anything.

Facemasks! And Hand Sanitizer

McDonald's in Arizona
Even this T-Rex was wearing a mask at a McDonald’s in Arizona

The COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing. Even if you are fully vaccinated, it is wise to travel with some facemasks in case they are required in any places you visit. Personally, I think it’s nice that they curb my exposure to other communicable illnesses even if just a common cold.

Keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer handy in the front seat so that everyone can clean their hands as needed, especially whoever pumped the gas!

Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns National Park with Mask Notice


An Atlas

We purchased a big paper atlas of the entire United States, and it was wonderful to have with us in the car. The copilot could survey our potential routes for which roads were marked scenic and take the road with the best views (within reason of course – taking every unpaved road will add a lot of extra time between your destinations!).

We also tried to locate parks and recreation areas for our breaks when possible. Everyone was a lot happier getting back in the car when our stops allowed for space to move around and be in nature.

Prepping Lunch at State Park
Prepping lunch at this State Park in Alabama we found using our atlas

Food and Drink Gear

Food is often top of mind for me, so I put a lot of thought into our meals and snacks before we hit the road – I’m glad I did!

A Cooler with Fresh, Nutritious Foods

This was a biggie – being on vacation and eating restaurant meal after restaurant meal can leave anyone feeling weighed down after too long. And when you’re sitting in the car for potentially three hours at a time, feeling like you have a grease brick in your stomach is not ideal.

We selected a cooler that could fit in our trunk and could be easily accessed and opened. We chose a variety of simple to eat foods with filling protein and fiber that could function as a snack or a meal. For example, sliced bell peppers, hummus, guacamole, cheese slices, hard-boiled eggs, and yogurts. We also included a few premade items that were meals on their own – some people refer to these as “deli salads” (e.g., pasta salad; quinoa, black bean, and corn salad; chicken salad). You can make them on your own or buy them from a grocery store. And with two little kids, we always had a gallon of milk in the cooler too.

Hot (cold?) tip: put all food containers, even if they are already sealed, inside of another sealed container. When your cooler ice melts, water will slowly seep into your food and potentially ruin it. We lost some guacamole and hard-boiled eggs to this waterlogged fate.

A Bin for Dry Food Goods

We corralled all other non-perishable food items into an open-top bin. Staples for our family included a loaf of bread, peanut butter, peanut butter filled pretzels, tortilla chips, and apples.

A Container with Whatever You Need to Eat With (e.g., Utensils, Plates, Paper Towels)

In addition, we had a small, lidded container that contained everything else we might need to make a meal on the go – utensils, plates, cups, paper towels, and dish soap (you need to clean said reusable items!). Depending on what you want to eat as meals and snacks, you may want to toss in a can opener, a small bowl for mixing, a cutting board, and/or a sharp knife.

Backup Water

Scenic overlook platform at national recreation area
Bathroom break turned into scenic overlook walk

Everyone in our family had their own reusable water bottle that we filled up whenever we had access to fresh drinking water. But we also filled up a large jug that we kept in the car in case we got stranded. If you don’t want to dedicate space for a jug, you could always throw in several extra water bottles into the cooler or under your seats.

 A Bin of Potential Necessities

We chose one clear bin with a lid that we stocked with any items we may need. Having a lid made it possible to stack things on top of it, but we could still easily pull the entire bin out. We used every single item listed below except disposable masks because we each had our own stash of reusable masks in our seatback pockets.

  • First Aid Kit – you can make your own or buy a pre-assembled kit (frankly, this is wise to have in your car at all times!)
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug Spray
  • Flashlight(s) – you never know!
  • Matches – in case your flashlight is out of battery power, or if you decide to use a picnic grill or have a campsite fire
  • Disinfecting Wipes – they may come in handy when you decide to picnic at a less-than-clean-table or need to clean any other surface
  • Hand sanitizer – we kept some in the front seat to use as needed as well as a spare bottle in our bin
  • Disposable Masks – we would not have thought of this pre-COVID
  • Trash and Recycling Bag(s)
  • Battery-operated Fan – this was for our kids juuuust in case, but it very well may not be necessary depending on your life situation and how hot it is where you’re headed

“Loose” Potential Necessities

Not everything made sense for us to have in our bin due to space constraints, so these we kept loose in the car.

  • Blanket – it can be used for a picnic, or depending on the time of year and how cold it gets where you travel, it may come in handy should you get stranded
  • Towel – a towel is nice to have if you are caught in any form of water
  • Umbrella – we always keep an umbrella on the floor of the backseat for easy access in case of rain

For the Car

Many people already have these items in their car for everyday emergencies, but it’s great to remember to be prepared. Thankfully, our crew didn’t need any of these.

  • Tire Pressure Gauge
  • Spare Tire
  • Jumper Cables
Hiking Arches National Park
Hiking Arches National Park

Clothing, Appropriate Shoes, & Toiletries!

This one is pretty obvious for any trip, but if you’re going to be gone overnight, don’t forget your toothbrush, a change of clothes, and whatever else you need. You should consider the sorts of activities you like to do and pack any special gear needed. In our case, we love to hike, so we all packed hiking boots and kept them within easy access should we decide to stop at an unplanned recreation area to stretch our legs.

Optional: Car Activities

If you have kids traveling with you, I highly recommend packing activities for them in an easy-to-reach container along with some snacks. We placed a bin between their two carseats that we could reach from the front seat, and my son then could also pull out whatever he needed.

I also packed a few magazines and a book I’d been wanting to read for myself. I looked through one magazine for maybe 15 minutes total during the entirety of our driving – there was too much to look at out the windows!

Mountainous Views
Pack layers!

To entertain my husband and me both, I purchased this game that has question prompts to spark unique and interesting conversations. I love the idea, but I guess a combination of the scenery and planning our next moves on-the-fly using our handy atlas kept us from ever opening it.

Optional: Camping Gear

Depending on your route, camping gear may come in handy if you decide to visit a campsite. There are a lot of state and national parks, forests, recreation areas, and other places scattered about with tent campsites – some require advance reservations but others allow you to walk-in. Note that many do have a fee, but often it’s much less than the cost of staying in a hotel. And, it really is nice to see the stars without any streetlights polluting the night sky.

Where to Go

I can’t answer this for you – go wherever your heart desires and your car can handle! If my partner and I did it with two young kids, anyone can do it. Please don’t forget to slow down and enjoy the journey!

Drive safe!

White Sands
White Sands Nationals Park on Mother’s Day
Driving on the Pacific Coast Highway
Driving on the Pacific Coast Highway

Arin Yost

Arin is a Program Analyst at the Atlanta Regional Commission, where his work focuses on health disparities and equity across the Atlanta region.