The Road Trip Packing List for Traveling Light

By Nick Hilden
Woman wearing backpack next to yellow car

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Road trips have been popular since the advent of the automobile. When the pandemic slammed the brakes on international air travel, Americans pressed the accelerator on domestic road trips. Whether we’re talking weekend jaunts by car, family RV vacations, or people converting vans and SUVs to embrace boondocking, road trips took off in a big way. Accordingly, the need for a proper road trip packing list grew.

I tricked out my rig for a life on the road before following GPS up and down the west coast, deep into the midwest and southwest, and even all the way down to Mexico City. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to hone my road trip packing list to perfection.

Whittling down your packing list is essential if you’re going to make your road trip as easy and affordable as possible.

Traveling light makes your road trip easier because there’s less to pack, dig through, and find. You’ve only got so much space when you’re on the road, even if you have a large van or RV. Every square inch should be used wisely.

What’s more, traveling as light as possible is essential in a time when gas prices are high. The less you carry, the lighter your vehicle, the better your gas mileage, and therefore the more money you have to enjoy your trip.

Woman removing bag from car trunk

Road Trip Packing List: Vehicle Essentials

If you don’t road trip often, your vehicle might not be ready. The following list is essential for road trips but useful for any car owner: 

  • Driver’s license
  • Vehicle registration
  • Vehicle owner’s manual
  • Proof of insurance
  • Spare tire
  • Roadside emergency kit

Car Bibles recommends the Lifeline Emergency Kit which was created with the help of the AAA. You can also build your own kit since you probably have most of the pieces already.

I recommend two more items for your emergency kit.

  • Head lamp: A wearable, hands-free flashlight that’s also useful for camping.
  • Roll of toilet paper: The toilet paper isn’t for your car, but you’ll be grateful if it’s in your car when you need it.

Road Trip Checklist: Bag, Clothes, and Toiletries

Packing for a road trip is highly dependent on the season and what you’ll be doing. Most of my road trips were during the summer and primarily consisted of hiking, swimming, and paddleboarding. My bag was full of shorts, swimsuits, and t-shirts.

If you’re traveling during the winter, you’ll need more, and heavier, layers.

To accommodate the range of potential packing lists, let’s start with a few basics. First up, a good bag for keeping all your things organized so they don’t end up sprawled all over your vehicle.

Road Trip Backpack

In a recent survey that we conducted, over 65% of road-tripping respondents said that they pack in a backpack rather than a duffle or other bag.

Why? Duffles are convenient to carry but lack the necessary organization for an extended trip. There’s a reason duffles are sometimes called “weekenders.”

The ideal road trip backpack is roughly carry-on-sized, organized, comfortable (in case you need to wear it), and durable enough to handle being tossed around.

Outbreaker Backpack

For Staying Organized

The Outbreaker Backpack will keep everything from socks to electronics organized and in its proper place. If you’re braving the elements, the waterproof sailcloth exterior will keep your stuff dry.

Outbreaker Daypack

For Your Computer (and a Tablet)

If you already have luggage for your clothes but need a place to store your tablet or laptop, the Outbreaker Daypack can handle your electronics despite only weighing a pound.

Travel Clothes

Once you’ve chosen to pack light, you can base your road trip checklist on a carry on packing list and then adapt it for your specific trip and activities.

A travel packing list or travel checklist will cover the basics of a capsule-like wardrobe for your trip with the versatility to go from swimming in waterfalls to eating at a restaurant. In other words, your packing list helps you to be prepared for whatever your trip throws at you without overpacking and making your vehicle a chaotic mess.

Toiletries

A basic toiletry packing list is a good place to get started, but one major benefit to road tripping is that you can take a lot more of your bathroom necessities in your car than on a plane. Forget about adhering to 3.4 ounce liquid limitations. Bring all the shampoo.

I keep extra, travel-sized toiletries in my bag at all times so that I’m always ready to go. You might appreciate the convenience of packing the normal, full-sized toiletries from your bathroom without having to buy extras or settle for brands you don’t like that just happen to come in a travel-sized bottle.

If you’re open to new brands or trying to downsize, we rounded up our favorite travel-sized toiletries.

Road Trip Packing List: Two Nice-to-Haves

At this point, you have plenty of extra space thanks to everything being packed in your aforementioned travel backpack.

So what can you put in all that extra room that will offer maximum utility? What will you use every day?

  • Cooler: Use your cooler to keep your lunch, snacks, and drinks cold during a day of adventure. I also use my cooler bag for carrying groceries from home or between stops. I use a free cooler bag from Uniqlo, but Yeti makes the best coolers.
  • Plastic Bins: Many of our customers use plastic bins as trunk organizers that they can lift up and carry into their Airbnb. Smart. Costco and Amazon both have good, low-cost options. An organizer for your trunk or front seat can also be useful.

Road Trip Packing List: Depends on the Trip

At this point, the remainder of your road trip packing list will be determined by the purpose of your trip.

If you’ll be car camping, you’ll need your tent, mattress pad, sleeping bags, headlamp (see above), camp stove, gear for activities, a knife, and potentially an ax. And don’t forget something to start your campfire. I recommend bringing both a lighter and matches, just in case.

Dog owners will want to pack along a collapsible bowl or two, extra food and water, and activity-specific gear for their dog.

Rather than try to cover every scenario, we’ll leave the rest to you.

One final suggestion: if you’ll be driving through potentially dangerous conditions like heavy snow or near wildfires, pack an emergency bag filled with water, a medical kit, some survival snacks, a portable battery, a phone charger, and anything else you can think of that will come in handy in a pinch. A travel backpack is the perfect size for all of it and allows you to grab and go if you need to move in a hurry. 

Bring everything you need without checking a bag.

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