What should I pack for a road trip in the USA?

When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money.
Then take half the clothes and twice the money.

Susan Heller

In our sixth post in our series of the “Top Road Trip Tips” mentioned in Trip Advisor’s travel forums we will look into the things that you should pack for your Road Trip along Route 66.

Our website has a page with tips that includes what you should pack for your trip. But in today’s post we will dig a bit deeper into this subject.

a packed suitcase
Ready for an adventure. Molly.Low

The list below is basically a common sense list and one that I use on all my trips. When it is not a road trip I leave out the car-specific items but pack all the others.

What should you pack for your Road Trip?

Getting Started with your list

Being prepared for contingencies is important, so you must jot down a “things to bring” list to avoid surprises once you start your Road Trip.

You can always buy forgotten items at the local supermarket or drugstore, but some things can be complicated to purchase (reading glasses, prescription medicine, etc.).

Make a list and cover all bases.

The Things to Pack

These are the broad categories of items:

Navigation Materials

Map or GPS? Both; neither are foolproof but they complement each other. The GPS and the map in your smartphone are fine… if you have signal.

A good and current paper map is always handy to plot your course and plan ahead. It will allow you to see the full picture, calculate distances and locate sights and attractions ahead of you. I usually mark my itinerary with a fluorescent felt tipped marker.

Highlighted Route 66 map
My highlighted Road Map. A. Whittall

My choice of road map is the Rand McNally Road Atlas pictured above, with my highlighted trip across Arizona.

A GPS is fundamental: Driving to an unknown destination is much easier with a GPS prompting us along. Make sure you have the address of your destinations jotted down or in your smartphone so you can enter them into your GPS (or Waze App). I don’t rent my cars with GPS (though the Volkswagen Golf I rented in Germany had an original equipment GPS which was wonderful), I bring my old reliable Garmin. It is cheaper to buy a GPS than rent one -if you intend to use it on several trips.

Car Essentials

If you are using your own car, then make sure that your spare tire is ok. Pack a set of spare keys, write down the phone numbers of your roadside assistance (AAA or similar). And have it serviced before hitting the road. A rented car will be in perfect conditions. And do ask for a second driver, it is free and comes with a second key.

Documents

Bring with you the legal documentation necessary for driving: car registration, insurance proof, your driving license.

International visitors, will need their passports with an appropriate visa to enter the U.S. and an IDP (International Driver Permit) if applicable.

If you have rented a car, all you will need is the phone numbers of their emergency assistance. Keep it handy just in case.

Make Photocopies of Important Documents like passport and credit cards, if you lose them or they are stolen, the information will be very useful. Pack them separately from the originals.

Medicine and First Aid.

You never need them until you need them! And then you realize how important a good first aid kit is.

first aid kit
First Aid Kit
  • First Aid kit. It should include Band-Aids, bandages, antiseptic, medicine for pain or fever (such as acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen). Cough drops, lubricating eye drops, tweezers and scissors.
    Motion sickness medicine. Antifungal, antibacterial, hemorrhoidal ointments or creams.
  • Prescription Medicine. Don’t forget your regular medication (bring enough of it to cover your whole trip).
  • Other items. Hand sanitizer is useful, lip-balm, bug repellent and very important: sunscreen (it is sunny in the Southwest) and a sunburn-relief gel.
    If you are allergic, do not forget your allergy  medications.

Read our Tips for Healthy and Safe Travel below.

Miscellaneous Items

  • Small size laundry soap it comes in handy to wash underwear or socks during your night stopovers, it is not easy to hang the laundry in a hotel room so a portable elastic clothesline comes in handy (this one is quite cool too!).
  • Plastic trash bags for collecting the trash and disposing of it at service stations (recycle any bags that come your way or pack a small roll of bags).
  • Paper napkins or a roll of toilet paper for some unexpected stop along the way.
  • Zip-loc bags to keep important items dry.
  • Wet wipes.
  • Keep your coins handy -I carry a small purse. They come in handy at the laundry and toll roads.
  • Food. Some healthy and easy to carry food: granola bars, nuts, peanuts, dried fruit, raisins, fresh fruit and water are a must. Sometimes the next stop is far away.
  • Summer travel is easier with a cooler, we use a very simple insulated thermal bag that is very light, occupies no space when empty. We carry fruit, cheese or sandwiches. And keep things cool with ice from the ice-machine at the hotels you stop at. There are more sophisticated soft coolers, that fold or can be used as an in-flight carry on.
  • Portable electric water heater; although 99% of the hotels and motels in the US and Canada have an electric coffe maker in your room, I always pack my immersion water heater just in case (for instance, the five star Sofitel in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil did not have an in-room coffee maker during a recent stay there). I also pack a jar of Nescafe instant coffee, a Coffee-Mate and instant soup.
  • Masking tape. A roll of tape is handy to seal off the lids of the cosmetics (sun tan lotion, hair conditioner, and the cap of the Coffee-mate, to avoid spills during flights. I also put them inside a plastic bag just in case.

My two pouches

Tools. I carry a small pack with a set of tools: a repair kit for glasses (screws, tiny screwdriver), my Victorinox penknife, a small screwdriver and a multi-purpose triangular pocket tool plus a Stanley multi-tool which I use as a pliers, these items go in my checked-in luggage when I fly. All of this fits into a Lufthansa business class amenity kit pouch, a memento from one of my trips (I have quite a few of them too). It is pictured below:

small tool kit for traveling
My tool kit for travel. A. Whittall

Amenity Kit

Separately I carry another small pouch which is my //b “in-flight amenity kit” I always carry it with me in my backpack and it comes with me when I travel.

I use an old Air France business class pouch which is compact. In my amenity kit I pack the following items:

a home made amenity kit
My home made in-flight amenity kit. A. Whittall
  • A small led flashlight that works on an AAA battery
  • Mint flavored chewing gum
  • Mini Ballpoint Pen (for filling in customs or immigration forms)
  • Small tooth brush and tooth paste and dental floss
  • Aspirin (a blister strip)
  • Small plastic bag
  • Foldable plastic spoon & fork
  • reusable ear plugs with a cord
  • Lifesaving Braided Rope Tactical Wrist Band with whistle (I love it!)
  • Stainless Steel Telescopic Collapsible Cup (75 ml) (souvenir from a trip to Switzerland)
  • tiny padlock
  • Adhesive bandages (Band-Aid)
  • eye shade
  • Whistle
  • Wipes (from previous flights) and an alcohol swab
  • Candies
  • Tea bag and Non-dairy creamer pack
  • hand cream and lip balm
  • Some packets of salt
  • Magnifying glass
  • Tiny packed bar of soap
  • Toothpick
  • Adapter (to American electricity outlets)

The in-flight kit is completed with three other items:

  • Water bottle (I either carry an empty one and fill it up at a fountain in the airport after security clearance or buy one after the security check).
  • Wide headband (which I wear as a neck warmer)
  • Socks (comfy and soft)

Clothes

Think weather: will it be hot or cold, rainy or sunny? Winter or Summer. Prepare for the weather you may encounter along the road. Dress comfortably for the road trip.

I pack two pairs of Columbia’s convertible pants, they are comfy, light-weight, hardy and let me unzip the legs to turn them into a pair of mid length shorts. They are easy to wash, they dry in a jiffy and don’t need to be ironed.
They have pockets for my glasses, smartphone, car keys and wallet.

Pack a windjammer or a sweater. Cap or hat to fend off the sun. An umbrella just in case it rains. Don’t forget a swimsuit.

Pack the basics, in colors that can combine easily. If you spend more than a week on the road you will need to wash your clothes, I carry a trash (garbage) bag and stow my dirty laundry in it, separate from my clean clothes.

Book lodging at a hotel that has laundry facilities or ask for a Laundromat when you reach your destination. Lightweight quick-drying clothes are also handy should you choose to wash your clothes in your hotel room.

Gear

  • Hiking poles (are you into trekking? Then don’t forget your hiking boots.)
  • Sunglasses
  • Chargers, for your smartphone, your camera, your notebook, tablet and GPS. A USB cable, power cords, socket adapter (for foreign visitors), spare battery for cameras and smartphones.

Tips for Healthy and Safe Travel

To Do Before you travel

  • Health conditions. If you have a health condition (heart, diabetes, asthma, etc.), check with your doctor before you travel. He may have advice on what you should or should not do.
  • Medical History. Prepare a brief medical history and carry it with you: your doctor’s contact information, your allergies, blood type, prescription medications, etc.
  • Your shots. For the US you don’t require special vaccines (like Yellow Fever -South Africa or India) but I always have my flu shot in fall.
  • Medical Insurance. Get travel insurance that has medical coverage hat covers emergency evacuation for medical care. Carry the contact details of your insurance with you.
  • Prescriptions. Ask your doctor to issue prescriptions for the medications that you may need during your whole trip, if you are an international visitor you may not be able to buy them in the U.S.
    Carry the essential medications in your carry-on luggage. Keep your medicine in its original packaging, you may need a letter from your MD explaining the need for certain medicines.
  • Glasses. If you wear glasses, pack an extra pair of glasses.

During your flights

  • Avoid alcoholic drinks and coffee. Keep hydrated; drink plenty of water. Eat sparingly. Try to sleep and readjust to the local time when you arrive to avoid jet lag.
  • Read our post on the toll that flying takes on your body.
  • Follow the on board exercise programs to keep blood clotting in your legs to a minimum. Walk about, stretch: Deep Vein Thrombosis or DVT affects 1 out of every 6000 people who fly and can cause pain, serious trouble and even death.  Air travel compression socks may help prevent them. I also take an aspirin before flying (though it is not proven that its blood-thinning effect may help to prevent DVT).
    The most serious complication of DVT is a pulmonary embolus, that is, a blood clot breaking away and heading to your lungs where it can cause death.
    Also note that persistent calf symptoms may occur after a DVT.

During your Road trip

  • Don’t touch wild animals. Squirrels bite and have plague or rabies.
  • Use sunscreen and insect repellant (ticks transmit Lyme’s disease).
  • Read our post on keeping safe in the outdoors in the US (snakes, bears and so on)

Wash your hands frequently (I carry hand sanitizing wipes which I also use at the hotels to clean the TV’s remote control, the air conditioner control and the room’s phone). According to a scientific paper published in 2012, remote controls are one of the most contaminated objects in hotel rooms together with the bedside lamp switch.

Keep healthy habits: eat fruit, whole grains, lean meats and vegetables. Sleep well. Do not skip breakfast.
Stop along the way to relax and unwind. Walk whenever you can.

So enjoy your trip and pack smart and travel light. Write down that thing that you should have brought with you and forgot! So that you bring it with you the next time.

Bon Voyage!

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