Whether you’re renting a car or driving your own, whether you go abroad or stay home, it’s important you have all the useful stuff at hand: documents, travel essentials, entertainment, clothing and accessories. Here come a few road trip tips, and what we consider the essential packing list for a successful road trip.
No need for minimalism here: as long as there’s space in the trunk, take everything and a bit more. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to leave something behind in a hotel room or on a bathroom window sill anyway. So you might as well pack it before you set off.
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(International) Driving Permit
It’s a no-brainer that you need a driving license in order to go on a road trip. But if you’re going to drive abroad, you might also need an International Driving Permit, which is an official translation of your license.
There are 3 types of IDP. Whether you need an IDP and which type you need depends on what country you’re visiting. Check with the embassy of your destination country, or with the car rental company if you’re renting a car.
Car insurance policy and registration – as for all legal documents, we advise to also keep a hard copy and a photo on your phone.
Car manual – If there’s one time when you don’t want your car to break down, it’s on a road trip. If you’re renting a car, check whether the manual’s there, especially if you’re going long distances.
Electronic Toll Pass – if applicable where you’re driving.
Spare tire – plus whichever tools you might need to use it. Whether you’re renting or driving your own car, check that the spare tire is in good condition before you start off. Also check your tire pressure every few days.
Sunshades – make sure you don’t forget to put those on whenever you park in the sun.
Pen and paper – you might need to leave a quick note on the dashboard, or jot down an address or directions.
Our favourite road trip itinerary: Argentina’s Lake District
Road trip essentials
Trust us: these are essential. Leave them behind at your own risk. It’s also important to think about when you’ll need them, and pack them at the right place. Nobody wants to quickly park on the roadside, then spend time unpacking the whole trunk for a bit of toilet paper.
Phone chargers / USB cord
Toilet roll – some prefer wet wipes.
First aid kit – even a small pack like MyFAK will get you covered for almost any botheration.
Day pack – a smaller bag you’ll use on day trips away from the car (city visits or hikes in national parks). Easily converts into a ‘Night pack’, to carry all the essentials you’ll need for a hotel stay.
Flashlight or Headlamp – in case you’re in search of something in the dark.
Plastic bags – several, for garbage and dirty clothes.
Spare change – for parking meters, tolls, toilets, small shops, gas station, etc. Nowadays, spare change remains necessary in many situations. By the way, you’re not forgetting your credit card(s), are you?
Road trip food and drinks
Snacks – to keep your energy high, avoid the greasy chips and rather go for protein bars, nut mixes, hard-boiled eggs, fruit and veggies. We have a list of tips to eat healthy while travelling.
Large water bottles – large means less expensive and less plastic. Then you can always refill your own reusable water bottle.
Reusable shopping bag
Reusable cup / travel mug – for your coffee or tea-to-go. Or even a thermos for heavy drinkers.
Zip bags / Tupperware – who knows, you might be able to cook at your accommodation and bring your meal with you. Or take the leftovers from the restaurant. Who scorns the joy of eating a homemade pasta salad in the car?
Road trip entertainment
Because your travel buddy might sometimes be asleep. Or boring.
Games – Car games easily turn a monotonous ride into a fun moment. You don’t have to spend money on physical games; that way, you also get the driver involved. Here’s a list of easy and fun car games for everyone; my personal favourite is the word association.
Ultimate road trip playlist – “Ooooooh! we’re half way there, Ooo-ooh! livin’ on a prayer!” Or your own personal favourites. And why not add in some audiobooks or podcasts for a bit of culture and variety?
A good book – We all have our moments when we need some quiet, and those should be respected. Leave the driver in their thoughts and dive into one of those great South American novels. Or get them involved by reading out loud.
The great thing about a road trip is that we can pack whatever and however much we want in the car, without concern for bag fees, oversized toiletries or sore backs. On the other hand, the more stuff you carry around, the harder it gets to find what you’re looking for.
It makes sense that you’ll pack clothes that fit your destination and the activities you plan. But indulge in the odd item that’ll match other eventualities too: night out, unplanned hike, unforeseen snow storm, etc.
Also think about what you’ll wear during those long hours in the car. You’ll want to keep comfortable and have different layers you can easily remove or add on according to the temperature.
Have a look at our long term packing list items for a good starting point.
Scarf or headband – useful in any weather, to protect your head from the wind, the sun or the light rain.
Hat and sunglasses
Travel towel – not all accommodations provide some.
Toiletry bag – (dry) shampoo, shower gel, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb / brush, deodorant, etc.
The not-so essentials
Because not everything in life has to be optimal. Plus, there’s still some space under the passenger’s seat right there…
Blanket and travel pillow
Multitool knife – with a corkscrew and a bottle opener because, well, you don’t always have to drive.
Tweezers – do NOT underestimate the power of a good pair of tweezers. Plus they take up virtually no space.
Sunscreen and bug repellent – depending on your destination.
Tire chains – there again, depending on your destination.
After so much planning the physical world, it’s easy to forget about your virtual companion. But the right digital tools can take you a long way (pun intended).
maps.me – for us the best app there is to find where you have to go. Free, works offline (you need to download the area map beforehand) and is incredibly precise. We recommend it particularly for paths and nature trails.
Waze – many drivers’ favourite app for directions and traffic info.
Google Maps – mainly for inspiration on what to see, checking photos beforehand or finding a restaurant. Remember to search the towns you’re going to when you have WiFi so it automatically downloads to use offline.
Booking / Air bnb / Couchsurfing / Hostelworld – we don’t recommend booking beforehand, as accommodation is often cheaper on the spot. But these apps can at least give you a list of options with addresses. Among them, Booking.com is probably the most encompassing. Because we’re big supporters of hospitality networks, the Couchsurfing app saved us more than once.
Read about our latest road trip: Carretera Austral in Chile
If you’re planning a long, wild ride in the outback, you might want to upgrade from ‘likely’ to ‘essential’. In no particular order:
Car battery jump starter
Bushcraft 101 – well, you never know…
Is there anything you would add or remove from this essential road trip packing list?
Tell us in the comments below!