Are you ready to hit the road? After a year or more of staying home, we are itching to head out on a road trip! Whether it’s with your besties or a car full of kids, these road trip essentials ensure you’ll have everything you need to have a safe, fun road trip. From supplies to tech, entertainment to snacks, having a fantastic road trip just takes a little planning.
Check out our Epic Cross-Country Road Trip Itinerary: 8 Weeks Coast to Coast, or our other Family Road Trip Itineraries.
At the end of this post, you can download a free Checklist of Road Trip Essentials!
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Planning Ahead- What to Do Before you Leave on a Road Trip
There are some crucial steps to take before you leave to make sure your road trip goes smoothly so you can have the ultimate road trip. A little preplanning goes a long way- keep in mind conditions and closures are changing constantly.
Traveling with kids? Don’t Miss A Road Trip with Kids and Toddlers: 20+ Tips to Survive and Thrive.
Check Travel Restrictions
Planning ahead is essential, especially in the post-2020 era. Make sure you have your route planned and have double-checked whether the places you are planning to stop are open and whether you need to register in advance.
In the US, states have a changing patchwork of quarantine requirements, make sure you are allowed to cross state borders and check your legal requirements before you leave. The CDC Travel Planner is a good place to start.
For example, In August of 2019, our county in Connecticut was cleared for travel to Vermont without quarantine. We had to self-certify at our hotel in Burlington that this was the case. As the caseload around us rose a few weeks later, that status changed to red: Required 14-day Quarantine.
Plan for National Parks
If you will be visiting three or more National Parks, make sure to get an annual National Parks Pass. These passes are good for one year from purchase.
For 2021, all 4th and 5th Graders and their families are eligible for free access to National Parks through August 31, 2021. Check the Every Kid Outdoors website for details and to get your voucher.
Check your Documents
Check your car glovebox for a copy of your car registration, and a current insurance card. Make sure your driver’s license and registration are current and won’t need to be renewed while you are on the road.
Get your Car Tuned Up
Before you hit the road, take your car in for a tune-up. Make sure there are no safety issues like worn-out tires, failing wipers, or dirty filters. Change your oil, check your tire pressure, and top off your wiper fluid so you’re ready to go and won’t have any surprises along the way.
Check and Clean Car Seats
Are kids joining you on this adventure? This is a great time to check your car seats. Dump out the crumbs, clean out all the dried raisins, and goldfish crackers stuck down in the crevices. Wipe it down and make sure that it’s installed correctly, and that it is adjusted to fit your child correctly.
Clean your Car
I like to start a long road trip with a clean car. Pull out the floor mats and spray them down. Vacuum out the interior and wipe down the dashboard. Sure, some sand is going to find its way in, and you’ll end up with a few stray french fries in the backseat.
But for now, it will feel good to start with a clean car instead of staring at that dusty dashboard you’re always planning to get around to wiping. Bonus points for going through a car wash and getting the outside sparkling clean as well.
Download any Offline Maps you may Need
If you plan to be driving in areas with lousy cell service, you may want to download some maps ahead of time from Google Maps. This includes National Parks and more remote areas.
The National Park Service app is a great way to easily download park information, including maps, for use offline.
Check out our section all about National Parks.
Necessities for Staying Safe on a Road Trip
Carjack & Spare Tire
Don’t discover you are missing these right when you need them! These usually come with your car, but double-check before you leave.
When your kid doesn’t shut the door properly and you return to a dead battery, you’ll be glad to have a good set of jumper cables.
We like these jumper cables because they are heavy-duty and come in a sturdy bag that keeps them neat. I’ve had to use these more than I’d like to admit.
Extra Car Key
Keep an extra car key in a purse or day bag that you won’t leave in the car when you stop. This backup plan can save you a lot of headaches (and arguments).
Make sure you have a flashlight with good batteries in the main compartment of your car. While it will come in handy for unpacking in the dark, you’ll be really glad to have it if you end up changing a tire at night.
First Aid Kit
We keep this First Aid Kit in the back of our car, by the carjack and spare tire. It has 85 pieces stuffed into a small hard foam shell case that zips closed. We have never had to use it, but if we did, I’m sure it has everything we would need for minor accidents.
Single Use Cold Packs
In addition to our first aid kit, we like to keep a disposable cold pack in the side door pocket. These come in handy in the case of falls, knee scrapes, or general bonks that may need an ice pack. You squeeze them to activate the cold, then throw them away when they are no longer cold.
Car Sickness Remedies
Being car sick can be miserable. We bought these Sea Bands and they seem to do the trick. They run small, so get the adult size- these fit my four-year-old! These also come in a handy clear carry case to keep them clean.
Ginger gum or ginger-flavored hard candies can also help with motion sickness.
Sun Lotion & Bug Spray
Don’t forget these road trip essentials! A high SPF sun lotion and some natural bug spray are essential. We like Off Botanicals– it’s DEET free so I don’t worry about it being in contact with the kids’ skin. You may also want to consider some aloe lotion in case of minor sunburns.
Cash and Coins
Depending on where you are heading, ATMs may be hard to find. There’s usually one or two at each National Park, but you may need to go out of your way to find them. Have some cash on hand so you don’t have to worry if a restaurant or ice cream parlor is “cash only”.
Coins come in handy for tolls, parking meters, and vending machines. Have you ever been stuck at a toll with no coins?
I have been “that car” on the NJ Turnpike desperately checking under the seat mats for spare quarters. Also, if you plan to do laundry on the road, you will go through a lot of quarters.
What Supplies Do I Need for a Long Car Ride?
Having these supplies on hand will help minimize those inevitable long car trip messes and keep you all clean, safe, and happy.
Masks, Hand Sanitizer & Antibacterial Wipes
The ultimate supplies of the Post-2020 era, these are essentials everywhere we go. Make sure you have enough masks to cover everybody until you reach your destination or can do laundry.
I would put a large pump bottle of hand sanitizer in the front console that everyone can reach, and then carry a small bottle in my day bag for use while out and about.
Antibacterial wipes are essential for wiping down hotel room door handles, restaurant tables, anything your family is about to touch.
Napkins, Tissues, & Wet Wipes
Standard items in my car! Napkins always come in handy (keep a stack in the glove box), some drive-thrus don’t include napkins unless you ask.
Tissues I keep in the center console and a small pack in my purse. These replace the toilet paper in the odd Port-a-Potty or gross bathroom that’s lacking supplies. Wet wipes are great for cleaning sticky fingers, minor messes, and as a quick refresh if you’re sweaty.
You won’t miss it until you really need it! When lunch ends up on your shirt, this stain stick will keep the stain from setting until you can get it washed. We love these Tide Stain Sticks.
Laundry Detergent Sheets
If you are going to be doing laundry on the road you need laundry detergent sheets. These look a bit like a dryer sheet but are dehydrated detergent. They are lightweight, no mess, and no spilling in the car. You can use them in any machine (HE or regular), or tear off what you need to do laundry in the motel sink. These laundry sheets are a game changer!
Disposable Grocery Bags
Just in case someone is feeling car sick, pack a few disposable grocery bags. Keep them where you can grab them with little notice. Just in case.
The last time I threw up in a car was on a business trip to China. I unloaded my breakfast into a grocery bag in the back seat while our hosts kept up friendly banter from the front seat and politely ignored my distress. Not my finest moment, but I was really glad to have that grocery bag!
Throw a roll in the back of the car. When that seltzer bottle explodes or a water bottle leaks, you’ll be glad you’re not stuck cleaning up with your stash of napkins! Paper towels can also double as napkins if you run out.
Car Trash Bag
There will be trash. Lunch you ate in the car, apple cores, and used tissues… make sure you have somewhere to put it all! A simple grocery bag works but can spill and get kicked around.
We recommend a hangable trash bag that stays put on the back of the seat or sits on the floor in the middle.
This trashcan is waterproof and has mesh pockets for extra storage. Empty it at rest stops and keep your car (reasonably) clean and trash-free.
What Comfort Items Should I Bring on a Long Road Trip?
A few comfort items will go a long way toward keeping everyone rested and happy on a long car ride. Here are our suggested road trip essentials, but adjust according to your preferences and how much room you have.
Sunblocking Window Shades
The glaring sun can put anyone in a lousy mood. Remember being a kid in the family sedan, sitting in traffic while stuck on the sunny side of the car? I do, and it wasn’t fun. I’m sure I whined a lot.
A good sunshade blocks out the heat and glare without reducing the driver’s visibility much. We’ve tried the suction cup versions, and the pull-down versions- they never seem to stick for long and then they break.
These static cling sunshades are the best. They fold up flat (once you master the figure-8 fold), and hold tight when put on the window. When we don’t need them, we fold them up and store them in the door side pocket.
A small blanket keeps you cozy, warms you up if it’s chilly, and can be balled up into a pillow if needed. We try to keep at least one per kid in the car.
We’ve generally used old fuzzy baby blankets in the car, but I’m tempted by this travel blanket. It has rave reviews, comes with a pouch, and would also be super handy on an airplane.
I love my inflatable neck pillow. It’s saved me on many car trips and airplane rides. I always debate about whether it’s worth the packing space, and then am really glad to have it!
I have an Eagle Creek neck pillow that I’ve had for years. This is the closest inflatable neck pillow that they make now, but I haven’t tried it. It looks like it packs up super small.
Eye Mask & Earplugs
An eye mask that blocks out the light and adds a bit of weight always helps me sleep. I have the Bucky Blockout Shade, and I love it. It’s got a velcro back so you can adjust it and it holds a set of earplugs as well.
Earplugs in my opinion are less essential, but can definitely come in handy.
Kid’s Comfort Item and Night Light
Many small kids have some sort of comfort item they may need to bring with them. Don’t forget these!
We also bring a night light when we can. We have one similar to this nightlight from IKEA that works for several days on battery life alone. It pushes on and off and cycles through the colors of the rainbow, so you can stop it on a brighter or darker color to have more or less light. Because of the distinctive color, it helps the kids feel at home in a hotel room.
What Gear Will I Need for the Ultimate Road Trip?
Having the right gear and tech is necessary for a road trip that is pleasant and drama-free. Here is are the essentials to keep you charged, connected, and on your way.
Consider whether you need additional secured storage on top of your car. We decided it would be helpful to have additional storage for things we don’t use every day (boxes I’m hauling out to my sister in LA, extra clothes, toys, etc).
We also wanted to be able to see out the back (fingers crossed on that one), and not worry about looking overly “packed” when we stop somewhere for a day.
Make sure you measure your car- the larger cargo boxes would not have fit on mine. We opted for the Thule 614 Pulse Medium- we chose to buy it from L.L. Bean because they had the best deal on shipping. Be sure to order early- delivery time might be 4-6 weeks or longer.
A navigation app is essential! My car has built-in GPS, but it hasn’t been updated (I haven’t wanted to spring for the update CD), so I almost always rely on my cell phone apps. I prefer Google Maps, but there are many Waze fans out there!
Car Charger Adapter
Since I’m relying on my cell phone for navigation, I need to keep it charged. While the middle console of my car has USB ports, I found they weren’t strong enough to keep my phone charged when traveling through low-service areas.
An adapter in my cigarette lighter port provides a much better charge. We use this car charger adapter to keep two phones plugged in at the same time.
Charging Cords & Power Banks
Make sure you have enough charging cords, wall adapters, and power banks to keep all your technology up and running. I carry this portable charging bank in my purse or day bag so I never have to worry about my cell phone running out of juice.
You may also want a multi-port charger that can handle all your devices at the end of each day. This one also comes with a set of international adapters. After a long drive, you don’t want to be competing over the few outlets in the hotel room!
Windshield Mount Phone Holder
I used to recommend a magnetic car mount that clips onto the air vent-we’ve recently upgraded to a windshield (or dashboard) car mount phone holder, and it’s a much more robust solution. We installed this holder in the middle, under the rearview mirror. It’s a much more secure hold, the arm is adjustable in multiple directions, and it puts the phone in a better sightline for driving. We can both see the phone at the same time, and it no longer blocks the a/c vent. Perfect for using Google Maps while driving.
Camera & Accessories
Most of the time I use my cell phone as my camera, but when I really want to get the best shots I bring along my Canon Rebel.
It gives me a lot more control over my photos, and always helps us capture the best family photos. Make sure you have extra memory cards, a battery charger, and any other accessories you may need.
iPad or Tablet for Entertainment
Whether you have kids who need to tune out for a while in the back seat or are just looking to entertain yourself in the evenings, an iPad or tablet lets you stay entertained, in touch, and able to make any travel arrangements you need to while on the road. Our kids use iPads for school- they have lots of educational apps on them.
Since we have expensive technology in little hands, a good iPad case is essential. We were using these brightly colored, ultra-sturdy cases to protect them, but it’s a bit bulky for carrying around and doesn’t protect the face of the iPad. We’ve switched to these cases, that cover the front as well as protect the body of the iPad.
We all need a little quiet- when my kids are on their tablets, headphones are essential. They can each listen to their own program, without bothering each other. And we can have an actual conversation in the front seat! With the advent of remote schooling, we’ve tried several pairs of kid’s headphones.
For older kids that can handle Bluetooth and wireless, we like these super cute Lil Gadgets headphones. For our younger child, we stick with this simpler plug-in pair of JLab JBuddies. Both have microphones and have held up well with extended use.
Check out The Best Kids Headphones in 2021
How to Stay Entertained on a Long Car Trip
Make a Playlist (or three)
Having some go-to playlists helps keep the fun times rolling. Try creating themes- upbeat playlists for getting going in the morning, playlists for singing along, and instrumental playlists for quiet times, or calming down in the evening.
Audio Books or Podcasts
We have some stories on audio albums that the kids love to listen to- Sesame Street Fairytales is a favorite. On a long car ride, you’re going to want more than a few stories in rotation. Check your local library for audio sources you can “check out”, or start a 30 day trial on Audible.com. Maybe the whole family is ready to listen to the Harry Potter series? We also want to check out the Molly of Denali podcast.
Updated: The podcast Grandpa’s Globe by Purple Rocket is a hit with our kids, we are also trying Stories Podcast, Earth Ranger, and Live from Mount Olympus. Eat Your Spanish and What Will She Do Next are new favorites!
A standard deck of cards can provide hours of entertainment. We also have fun with UNO, and Spot It!, both games are great for families because they are accessible for all ages. I also hear great things about SushiGo, we are thinking of trying it out.
*Update- we looove SushiGo! It’s a new type of card game for us, so it took a round of play for us to “get” how it works. It’s great because my 4-year-old can play, but my 6-year-old really likes it (and if I make her keep score she’s practicing her math skills!)
Download Movies or Shows
We all need a little downtime sometimes! Download some favorite movies and shows to a tablet before you leave. The kids can have a little screen time in the car, even without WiFi, and you can binge a show in the hotel when there’s nothing on tv.
Coloring Book and Crayons
Coloring books can keep our kids entertained for quite a while. Crayons are great because they don’t dry out, and won’t mark up my seats if misused. However, be forewarned that crayons left in a hot car become a useless block of melted mess.
Grab some activity books at the dollar store before you leave. Mad Libs are fun for the whole car. Tic tac toe, maze books, and word searches are also fun. Crossword puzzles can be read out loud so the whole car can participate.
Songs to Sing
Make a list of songs that you can sing together (and perhaps a cheat sheet of lyrics!). A little preparation will save you from endless verses of 99 bottles of beer on the wall!
Play Classic Road Trip Games
These games are classic for a reason- they work! I Spy can be played anywhere, and is a favorite in our family.
You can play the License Plate Game- either count how many different state plates each person spots, or check off each state on a list until you find them all!
There are also two versions of the alphabet game- one where you recite “I’m going on a trip and I’m taking an Anteater” (or anything that starts with A), then the next person repeats the list, adding the next letter.
The second version is where you try to spot each letter of the alphabet (at the beginning of a word), in order, looking out the window.
Vinyl Stickers or Gel window stickers
Vinyl stickers are re-stickable, so they can be stuck to windows and car seats without damaging the car. You can also find gel window stickers, usually themed around holidays. These can be great entertainment both in cars and on planes.
Binoculars turn everything into an adventure! We got our kids these binoculars because they love to play camping (and I was worried mine would get broken).
They adore them and use them all the time- even when there’s really nothing to look at.
Frisbee or Ball
A frisbee or ball to kick around helps everyone stretch their legs and get the wiggles out at rest stops.
Guitar or Ukelele
If you can play it, bring it! An instrument is a great way to get everyone singing along and lighten the mood when you are stuck in traffic.
Eating on the Road: the Best Snacks and Supplies
Load up on water! Whether it’s bottled or in a thermos, make sure you have enough to drink in case taps are unavailable (or smelly) on your trip.
Refillable Water Bottles
Snacks are definitely a road trip essential! We like to pack a variety of healthy snacks and some treats to keep the mood up on a long drive. The goal is to minimize possible mess in the back seat as well. Though the odd crushed goldfish is inevitable. Apple sauce pouches, crackers, pretzels, trail mix, and those cups of little mini cookies make our list.
Don’t Miss 40+ Easy Road Trip Snacks for Kids & Toddlers for a full list of snack, breakfast, and lunch ideas for kids!
A no-mess picnic blanket is a great way to take a rest stop anywhere. Plus picnics are fun! We keep our zip-close, easy-to-carry picnic blanket in the back of the car all the time. We have this blanket, it has lasted us years!
Coolers with Ice Packs
You’ll need a small soft cooler bag with ice packs to keep perishables cold and accessible. You may also want a larger cooler for the trunk- it’s great for cold drinks, but essential for milk, yogurt, and any other breakfast supplies you decide to bring along. These super-slim ice packs save space in your coolers.
You’ll need containers to hold all those delicious road trip snacks. We’ve tried a lot of versions over the years, we like these Rubbermaid snack containers.
Cutlery Set & Bottle Opener
Ohhh the hours I have spent trying to open a bottle of wine without a bottle opener! Many youtube videos later (with a shoe? really?) I just barely managed. But I learned it’s always better to be prepared!
A cutlery set means you can grab some coleslaw or potato salad for a picnic and not worry about how you are going to eat it. It also means cutting that delicious donut into equal pieces to share.
*Updated, we got two sets of travel utensil sets from Shell & Turtle– they are absolutely beautiful. At 9 oz per set, they are not as lightweight as I would like, but I think they will hold up well.
We also picked up a bamboo set in one of the national park stores that won’t set off metal detectors.
A good breakfast helps everyone start the day in a good mood! We like to pack breakfast supplies so when the kids are up early they have something they can eat before we are have showered, dressed, and are ready to head out.
Instant oatmeal cups are a great choice- you just add hot water from the room’s coffee maker and you’ve got a healthy, hot breakfast. We also sometimes opt for cereal with milk, or fruit and yogurt.
What to Have in the Car With You
There are some items that you’ll want to have within fairly easy reach. That may mean in the trunk of the car, but not buried deep at the back.
This may be the same as a purse or it may be a backpack ready for a day’s outing. This should include a mini set of first-aid items, such as band-aids, ibuprofen, and hand sanitizer.
Check out our full packing list for day packs.
An Extra Set of Clothes
An easy-to-reach set of clothes is essential if traveling with kids. Whether they don’t make it to the potty in time or manage to squirt an entire applesauce pouch all over themselves, the faster you can reach a towel and a dry set of clothes, the better.
It doesn’t hurt to be prepared in case that pee/sauce/ketchup ends up all over your clothes as well. It happens.
Backseat Travel Organizer
My kids manage to drop things into the farthest corners of the backseat. I end up stretching my “Octo-Mom arms” to try and reach it all. A good travel organizer should minimize this.
A middle organizer works best for us with two kids in the back seat who often share things (books, coloring supplies).
You can buckle this into the middle space so it doesn’t go sliding around. The front net pockets are perfect for holding their masks when not in use.
Car Seat Tray or Lap Desk
I haven’t used an organizer tray that attaches to the car seat like this one, but some people swear by them. I can see this being more useful for a single child. The advantage is it is both an organizer and a desk all in one.
We got the kids these awesome lap desks from LapGear instead of a full-on attached tray- they love them. They are great for using on the couch as well as in the car and give them a flat surface to use when drawing, writing, or using an iPad.
They are reasonably lightweight, easy to carry, and come in a variety of cute animal characters.
We got the “Lil’Kids” version, which holds an 11.6″ laptop, you can also get the “Kids” version which is larger and holds up to a 15″ laptop.
These go right over the arms of their car seats- they work on both the forward-facing toddler seat and the high back booster seat.
Swimsuits, Towels and Wet Bag
It’s always good to be able to grab swim things if the opportunity to use them arises. The wet bag also comes in handy for spilled on, stained, or wet clothing.
Road Trip Essentials for an Infant or Toddler
Diaper Changing Pad
Chances are you will be changing diapers in the back of the car, on the grass, and in some pretty sketchy bathrooms. A good, easy-to-wipe changing pad makes this all ok. We love our Skip Hop Changing Station– it’s easy to grab when you don’t need the whole diaper bag. It’s lasted us through two kids with no problems.
Extra Diapers & Formula
You will go through more than you think, and these are the last things you want to run out of! If you are heading towards a destination, you can have some sent ahead. When we visit my in-laws, we have Amazon deliver a pack of diapers and wipes before we arrive, then we only have to pack enough for the car ride over.
For the smallest travelers, this travel bassinet from trusted brand Munchkin folds up easily and gives you a place to safely put your infant down either during a picnic, at the beach, or in a hotel room while you unpack. At less than 3 pounds, with mesh sides, you’ll know you always have a clean, safe space for your littlest one to nap.
These snack catchers are perfect for little hands. They hold goldfish, dry cereal, raisins, or other snacks. The clear middle lets you see what’s left inside, but nothing spills when they drop it or wave it around.
Toddler Bowls and Spoons
Don’t forget unbreakable bowls and spoons for your toddler! You’ll need them for breakfasts and lunches. We love these spoons that alert you if something is too hot.
A good sippy cup keeps little travelers hydrated, and your back seat dry. This Munchkin Sippy Cup with handle has worked well for both of our kids. These have survived many car trips and many hours of daycare!
One of our daughters got really attached to her Wubbanub Pacifier- which meant every time she dropped it she’d scream, and I’d be reaching back around to get it for her. Thankfully, we wised up and got a pacifier clip!
This Pacifier Clip has the added bonus of teething beads! BPA-free, food-grade silicone of course.
Don’t Forget your Personal Items!
Before you head out the door, double-check for your most important personal items. These road trip essentials are the things we leave behind at the last minute, and then have to come back for!
Wallet or Purse
Take out anything you won’t need on your trip- library cards, etc. That way if you lose it, you will have fewer items to replace. It’s a good idea to keep a backup copy of credit card numbers and the 800 number to call if the card is lost. This can sometimes be done through the bank app if you have it on your phone.
I’d be lost without my phone- it’s my camera, my contact book, my map, and even my bank. We’d be turning around if I left it on the counter!
Sunglasses are such a pain to replace on the road! They are available in tons of places, but I can never find a pair I like in a pinch. I just got a new pair of Knockaround Sport sunglasses- in this exciting Icy Blue/Moonshine!
They are really lightweight and have a soft grip on the nose. W got the Rubberized Navy which is quite dark and has a softer texture to it. We both like them so far!
There you have it!
All the road trip essentials to make sure you have an amazing road trip! Did we miss anything? We love hearing your suggestions.
Don’t miss our full section of Family Road Trip posts.