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The Best Way to Pack for a Road Trip

By Sarah Baird


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12 essentials for every road trip.

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Due to the laws of gravity and physics, the road trip scale works like this: the less you pack, the lighter your load, the better gas mileage, and the more money you’ll save. However, skimping on the front end when it comes to essentials will only spell trouble down the road in case of disaster or debilitating boredom. In short? There are some items that you positively cannot leave home without (don’t say I didn’t warn you). Here’s how to pack for a road trip.

1. Snacks The greatest secret to road trip success is having enough snacks to avoid hunger-based temper tantrums and overly salted beef jerky from the gas station. If your trip will last longer than 48 hours, it’s necessary to invest in a hard-shell cooler for provisions. Under two days? You can probably get away with a smaller (space saving) soft cooler. Single-serving plastic baggies of nuts, sliced vegetables, trail mix, crackers, pretzels, homemade power bars, pumpkin seeds, granola, dried fruit and other assembly-free foods are prime for munching on the road. Also consider nibbles that won’t cause massive spikes (and crashes) in blood sugar, like string cheese. Packing individually wrapped sandwiches tends to work out well for shorter trips, but for longer hauls save square footage for snackier items that are less perishable (unless you’re fine with 8 days of peanut butter and jelly).

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2. Water An extra gallon of water for filling up reusable bottles will quickly become the trip’s lifeblood. Pace yourself on the munching. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

3. Emergency Kit Sorry, everyone: the prepackaged emergency kit sold at a neighborhood store near you is probably overpriced and ineffective. Instead, build your own emergency kit and drive easy knowing you’re covered if bad luck does come calling. Any well-assembled (and, probably, Ron Swanson approved) kit should include a fully functional spare tire, flashlight with extra batteries, small pocket knife, emergency flairs, jumper cables, vice grips, wrench, screwdriver(s), pliers, triangle reflectors, work gloves, car jack, blanket and tire inflator. Pack a roll of duct tape, too, and thank me later.

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4. First Aid Kit Just as important as the emergency kit is a well-stocked first aid kit, containing not only the necessary amounts of prescription medication, but the proper remedies in case illness or injury strike. An emergency kit should include allergy medicine (plus an Epi-Pen), copies of all prescriptions, cotton balls, gauze, a backup pair of glasses, aspirin, tweezers, cold compress, adhesive bandages, digital thermometer, hand sanitizer, plastic gloves, saline solution, antiseptic cream, adhesive cloth tape, hydrocortisone cream and scissors. Using a tackle box is a great and compact way to keep the build-your-own kit organized.

5. Suitcases Space is always a concern on road trips. Soft—not hard shell—suitcases are infinitely more malleable for packing, stacking and storing, along with backpacks and duffle bags.

6. Weather Protection Sure, forecasts change, but it’s always good to be prepared for whatever version of Mother Nature might be coming down the pike before you head out on the road. A small “weather preparedness” kit with ponchos, an umbrella, sunscreen and (depending on the season) an ice scraper, tow chain and extra gallon of antifreeze will come in handy.

7. Electronics If your car doesn’t come equipped with a USB charger, grabbing one of the double variety will ensure everyone keeps their technology completely juiced up. If working from a laptop or other heavy duty electronic is deemed necessary, investing in a pocket inverter is a smart bet, too.

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8. Maps and Atlases I’m firmly devoted to my GPS and the soothing voice of Siri, but it’s imperative to pack an analog, tried-and-true atlas in case technology fails. If road tripping in the United States, pick up a fresh state map (as well as any one-off odd ball maps) at a welcome center each time you cross the state line. You’ll instantly feel better informed about your new territory.

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9. The Right Clothes You may have grand visions of flowing scarves in a convertible breeze or a rugged Bruce Springsteen “Drive All Night” style leather jacket as the perfect road trip fashion, but unless you’re truly devoted to impressing fellow gas station patrons, comfort should win out (mostly) over style. It’s all about layers for road trips—and packing pieces that and look halfway decent a little wrinkled. The easiest way to go about this is by coordinating a handful of items that can easily mix and match, including lightweight sweaters, t-shirts, leggings (if that’s your thing) and cardigans for warmer months. A (singular) heavy coat should squeeze its way in if on the road in the winter alongside gloves, hat, and a scarf. While I can’t get on board with wearing dresses on a road trip, a caftan—for moments of comfort, packing ease and elegance—is always a good idea.

Even if you’re headed to a beachfront locale, driving in flip flops is usually not a good idea from both a physical exhaustion and safety standpoint. I can’t recommend the simple stylings of French tennis shoe company Bensimon enough for their versatility, comfort and generally affable look. In any case, let’s keep it closed toe out there on the open road. For some reason, people generally tend to think jeans are a rock solid sartorial choice for a road trip, but don’t make this mistake. Jeans are heavy, stiff and take an astronomical amount of time to dry—which becomes a real pain if you’re traveling for days on end and washing clothes along the way. A lightweight, roomy khaki or chino is a far superior textile choice or (if traveling during summertime) linen is a surefire bet for both gentlemen and ladies.

10. Playlists and Podcasts I made this playlist for you. You’re welcome. Also, a few strong podcasts (beyond Serial) include WTF with Marc Maron, Here Be Monsters, Dial-A-Stranger, Love + Radio, and Southern Foodways Alliance’s Gravy.

11. Cleanup Gear When I was a kid, my dad always kept a roll of paper towels in his truck. I thought this was both embarrassing and silly. Turns out—like with most things parents do—it’s actually both practical and ingenious. For road trips, replace paper towels with eco-friendly wet wipes and a couple of kitchen towels. Also, investing in a small trash bag for the car is firmly worth the money once your floorboards become littered with detritus you didn’t even realize you packed. Alternately, retrofit a plastic cereal container with a plastic bag.

12. Road Trip Games Sure, you could stick to some tried and true shticks, but I would recommend picking up a copy of The Book of Questions. It’s guaranteed to get (stimulating) conversation flowing with queries like, “If you could use a voodoo doll that would actually work, would you do it?”

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Sarah Baird is a writer and editor based in New Orleans. Her second book, a Short Stack Edition about summer squash, will be released this month. 

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