9 essentials you should never road trip without

When it comes to going on a road trip, it may be tempting to just hop in the car and drive…anywhere. But as an experienced road tripper who’s found herself in some challenging situations, I realized it’s best to listen to Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

In other words, when it comes to what to bring on a road trip, there are certain things you must have. After all, you never know what can — and will — happen on the road, especially if you’ll be going solo. From getting caught in a sudden snowstorm in West Virginia with a flat tire and a bad spare to having no phone reception (or WiFi hotspot) while driving through South Dakota, I’ve experienced a range of situations I could have been much better prepared for.

According to a recent AAA Travel Survey of 1,007 adults living in the continental U.S., AAA found that four in 10 respondents are planning to take a family vacation in 2019. Among those surveyed, about half, 53 percent, of traveling families will road trip this year. And many of these trips will be during the spring and summer.

Of course, before packing up your vehicle, you should get it checked out by a mechanic. Then, make sure you bring these items along when you hit the road.

Paper maps or a road atlas

As much as you may love your phone’s Maps app, you won’t always have reception, so having a physical map or road atlas is critical. Last fall, I Iearned that the hard way when I had no phone reception while driving across South Dakota and couldn’t find my atlas, let alone a place to buy a new one, for hours. When I finally did, I tracked my route with different-colored highlighters.

“Bring along destination information and track your road trip progress on a map,” Julie Hall, an AAA spokesperson, said in an email. “Always carry a map or atlas as a backup in case you lose GPS or cell signal.” You can also map out your route(s) in advance using a tool like AAA’s TripTik Travel Planner.

Source: Soloviova Liudmyla/Shutterstock

Healthy snacks and extra water

To maintain your energy, healthy snacks and lots of water are other must-haves. When you hit long expanses of open highway or winding back roads, there won’t always be places to stop and restock, so having protein-heavy snacks and spare water is essential. “Pack healthy and non-perishable items, like granola bars or nuts, for when you can’t stop for a full meal while traveling,” said Hall. And, although you may bring along your own water bottle, you may not always get the opportunity to refill it, or the water you find during your route may not be the best quality, so make sure you have some bottled water with you, too.

A flashlight (and extra batteries)

A flashlight can come in handy for many reasons, especially once the sun sets. “You can use it to look under the hood or vehicle,” said Hall. “It’s also useful if you’re stranded at night.” In an Uber once, I noticed that my driver had a long steel flashlight by his feet and he said he carries it not just for emergency situations when he needs extra light, but also to potentially use in self-defense, if necessary. In addition to keeping a full-size flashlight in my car, I also have a pocket-sized one with me at all times, just in case.

Pepper spray and a Swiss Army Knife

For many road-trippers, carrying pepper spray is not only a safety precaution, but can help them feel better psychologically, too. (Just make sure it’s legal in all the states you’ll be road-tripping through.) Since many brands come on keychains, you’ll literally have it on hand at all times. I also carry this self-defense cat keychain to help me feel safe.

As for a Swiss Army Knife, you never know when you’ll need a multi-use implement, from cutting up food to using it as a survival tool.

A personalized first-aid kit

Having a first-aid kit with you will not only help with unexpected injuries, but you can also use the contents for other things, such as Band-Aids as tape. Though you can buy one ready to go, I recommend personalizing the first-aid kit, too, and adding items like hand sanitizer and a Tide pen.

Extra car chargers, power banks and a portable hotspot

Not only will having extra power banks come in handy, but so will a portable hotspot, such as Skyroam Solis, if you find yourself really needing to get online. Again, I learned this the hard way while driving through South Dakota; I had no reception as deer continually jumped into the road at sunset and I really needed to find a place to sleep.

Especially on winter road trips, I always have a camera with me as well, in addition to my phone, because the colder it got the more my phone loved to freeze or die altogether.

The author driving on the Needles Scenic Byway in South Dakota.
Source: Natalia Lusinski

Entertainment

Forms of entertainment — from playing cards and games to podcasts and music (that you downloaded in advance) — can not only make the car ride more fun, but also help keep you busy at rest stops or off the road. And don’t forget to bring along a good old-fashioned notebook and pen, too, to journal about your trip. (Your future self will thank you.)

A sleeping bag & pillow

Even if you stay in Airbnbs or with friends, everyone sets their thermostats differently, so it’s best to have a sleeping bag with you. It will also come in handy for car naps, along with your favorite travel pillow.

The author taking in the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina.
Source: Natalia Lusinski

An emergency kit

An emergency kit is a road trip essential, too. Hall said to always have this kit on hand, and include jumper cables or a jump pack; a basic toolkit with screwdrivers, pliers, an adjustable wrench, duct tape and plastic zip ties; a tarp, raincoat and gloves; and rags, paper towels or pre-moistened wipes. “These items are good for spilled food, beverages or other accidents, and also come in handy when working under the hood (i.e., when loosening caps),” said Hall.

She also recommends having warning devices, such as reflective triangles or LED beacons. “These make your vehicle more visible, especially at night, and signal other drivers that the vehicle is disabled and should be avoided to help prevent collisions,” she said.

Additionally, pack for the weather: not only when it comes to clothing, but also when it comes to weather-specific items, from sunscreen to shovels. For instance, in winter months, Hall suggests bringing along items like ice scrapers, snow chains and non-clumping cat litter. “Bring extra windshield washer solvent, too, which can freeze in certain temperatures,” she said.

All in all, you’ve got plenty to pack before heading off on your road trip, and you can likely add even more based on personal preference (not to mention all the clothes, toiletries and other items you’d pack for any trip). But a little preparation goes a long way to help ensure that you have the best trip possible.