When it comes to travel, it’s often less about the destination itself and more about the journey to arriving there, and this is especially true with road trips. And one way to maximize the comfort, entrainment, organization, and overall enjoyment of your time out on the open road is to be equipped with the right gear. With this grand American tradition existing since the creation of the U.S. Interstate Highway System after World War II, manufacturers have had decades to develop equipment catering to the unique wants and needs of those traveling by motor vehicle, which you can now benefit from if you’re planning on hitting the road.
While this has resulted in some great gear over the years, it’s also given way to an incredibly oversaturated market, rife with outdated offerings and inferior imitation products. So, to ensure you gear-up with the right equipment and get your travel firing on all cylinders, we’ve rounded up today’s best purpose-built gear for road trips and touring, as well as a few other quality pieces of kit that just happen to lend themselves particularly well to on the road travel to bring you this guide to the 20 best road trip essentials.
Rand McNally 2021 Large Scale Road Atlas
With the rise of smartphones and GPS, cartography and traditional printed maps are increasingly going the way of the dodo. And while this makes sense, we’d still argue that it’s well worth the investment to arm yourself with a proper printed map if you plan on doing any extended touring. Should your phone break, die, or simply not have service, this 264-page road atlas is the most up-to-date iteration, and includes an enormous array of easy-to-read maps, including that of 350 cities and US National Parks, as well as detailed maps of each individual US state and a robust highway network map. This spiral-bound road-guide also boasts an unabridged index and contact information for construction information and weather conditions.
Scepter 5-Gallon Military Style Water Container
It’s always advised to travel with extra water, should you get stuck roadside for a prolonged period on a scorching summer day (or should you need to top off a radiator or clean a cut). This particular military-inspired, jerry can-style vessel stores five gallons and, in addition to being clearly labeled for potable water, is adorned in a light blue finish for the purpose of being easier to distinguish from traditional red gasoline fuel cells. Weighing only 3.6lbs when empty, this item’s high-density polyethylene construction (and spill-proof spout) make it ideal for strapping to an external rack or jerry can holder, though with a compact 13.3″ x 7.3″ x 18.3″ footprint, it can also easily be stashed away in the trunk or behind a seat.
Stanley Adventure Quencher Travel Tumbler
Stopping off for refreshments has always been a part of the American road trip tradition, and this 30oz mug from Stanley is designed to enhance that experience. Also offered in white or black colors, the mug features a three-position screw-down lid with a built-in reusable straw, supplemented by a regular pour spout. Dishwasher safe, the mug boasts stainless steel, double-walled, vacuum-insulated construction, enabling it to keep your hot drinks hot or cold drinks cold for hundreds of miles in-between fill-ups. The bottom third of the mug’s diameter is also reduced, enabling it to fit in most cupholders.
Matador Pocket Blanket 2.0
When you’ve been driving through the night, or have just had a long day out on the road and need to catch a few Z’s, it’s inevitable that you’ll probably wind up catching some shuteye at a rest-stop. And few items will help you recharge your batteries better — or more importantly, more comfortably — than a blanket, and this highly compact item from Matador is the perfect throw for car travel. Fitting into an included pouch that you can fit in the palm of your hand and expanding to 63” L x 44” W when opened, this puncture-resistant camp-style blanket is made Matador’s own proprietary, rugged yet soft Hyperlyte nylon. Weighing under 3.5oz, it’s also water-repellant, and features weighted corners and integrated corner stakes, should you get the urge to pull over for a roadside picnic.
AeroPress Go Travel Coffee Press
Traditionally, spending time exploring the country’s highway network has meant being at the mercy of whatever gas station coffee happens to be available on hand, though the AeroPress changes that, enabling its user to brew up 1-3 fresh cups off hot coffee in around a minute’s time (or cold brew coffee is approximately two minutes). The entire setup breaks down and neatly fits inside the system’s coffee mug, including the travel filter case, which can hold 20 of the 350 free paper micro-filters that come free with the kit. Incredibly compact and lightweight, this on-the-go coffee system also lends itself incredibly well to backpacking or camping.
Sea to Summit DeltaLight Camp Set 2.2
Whether you’re exploring the backwoods or the backroads, a proper camp mess set is an essential piece of gear to possess on any adventure, road trips included. This two-person dinnerware set includes a pair of cups, bowls, and two cutlery sets. Microwave and dishwasher safe and BPA free, the set is made from lightweight glass-reinforced polypropylene, neoprene, and EU food-grade silicone. And, like the AeroPress, this entire set is of the nestling variety, conveniently breaking down and fitting inside itself before slipping into an included nylon storage pouch. Furthermore, the whole thing is designed to fit inside Sea to Summit’s 2.7L Alpha and Sigma camp pots, should you also be in need of camp kitchenware, too.
The New Primal Beef Jerky 8-Pack
While part of the fun of a road trip comes from stopping off at gas stations and truck stops in random flyover towns to stock up on snacks, it’s never a bad idea to bringing along a few basic sustenance staples like trail mix or beef jerky. Available here in packs of eight, this particular jerky takes a more natural approach when compared to that of the gas station or grocery-store-bought varieties. Rather than attempting to mask the use of subpar-quality meats with smoked hickory or teriyaki flavor, this jerky utilizes a straight forward sea salt and pepper seasoning, allowing the taste of the 100% grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic-free beef to shine through. And on top of being damn tasty, the stuff really isn’t that bad for you either, with 11 grams of protein and only 70 calories per serving. We do recommend ordering at least two or three boxes though, as you’d be surprised how quickly you’ll go through this stuff.
Adventure Medical Smart Traveler Medical Kit
The very nature of road trips often means spending time on remote and desolate roadways, and anytime that you’re a considerable distance from trained medical intervention, it’s best to bring along a solid first aid kit. Designed to treat a diverse area of potential injuries often sustained while traveling, this kit from leading FAK brand, Adventure Medical Kits contains a plethora of medications and basic medical supplies — all neatly organized in a zippered, trifold nylon case. Just as important is this kit’s included “Comprehensive Guide to Wilderness & Travel Medicine” booklet, teaching how to perform impromptu procedures and treatments while in the field.
Smittybilt GEAR Front Seat Cover
Without the right organizational gear, your road trip storage setup will likely consist of haphazardly stuffing your belongings in the glove compartment or center console, or simply tossing stuff in the back seat. For those seeking a bit more order in their organizing, Smittybilt’s seat cover is a fantastic option, transforming the bare surface behind your seat with well-over a square foot (14” H x 11” W) of MOLLE webbing. Also available in stealth black or coyote, this military-inspired item is constructed from hardwearing 600D polyester and features a polyvinyl chloride liner, and includes several buckle and/or zipper-secured, MOLLE-compatible pouches and Velcro sections to accommodate patches.
Stanley J5C09 JUMPiT
Equipped with a battery that boasts 1,000 peak amps and 500 instant starting amps, this standalone device is able to jumpstart a vehicle’s dead battery via its powder-coated clamps, or it can juice up mobile devices or whatever other electronics through its 12V outlet and USB port. Backed by a one year manufacturer’s warranty, this Stanley offering also packs a 120PSI air compressor for inflating flat tires (or sleeping pads, rafts, etc). There’re also LED battery level indicator lights, a reverse polarity alarm, and a 270-degree pivoting LED spotlight for guiding your way through tasks in the dark.
Prana Hybridizer Jogger
Finding clothing that’s conducive to road trip applications primarily comes down to comfort, and while you could opt for a loungewear-based getup, there’s something less-than-dignified about rolling up midday in sweatpants. Enter: Prana’s Hybridizer jogger, a pair of relaxed-fitting, draw-string pants that offer pajama-comparable comfort levels in a more presentable (yet still decidedly casual) package. Made of a moisture-wicking, quick-drying, stretchy, breathable, and lightweight performance fabric, these pants also lend themselves particularly well to outdoor recreational activities in between stints behind the wheel, with a zippered pocket for keeping crucial items secure while on the trail, and elastic leg openings that can be rolled up to beat the heat or water crossings.
Petzl Swift RL Headlamp
Whether setting up camp, preparing food, or just rifling through a bag for gear, when the sun goes down, being armed with a quality light source is absolutely essential, and one of our favorite late-model offerings in this space is Petzl’s Swift RL LED headlamp. Boasting multiple light modes, the Swift RL is extremely potent, putting out an impressive 900 lumens. The headlight’s Lithium-ion battery is recharged via micro-USB, affords up to six hours of burn time, and has its remaining life displayed through a five-level LED light meter. The elastic adjustable headband wraps around the back of its wearer’s skull, separating into a two-piece loop that cradles the head and provides a secure yet comfortable fit.
Yakima EasyTop Car Rack
Offering the utility and protection of a regular rooftop cargo rack without any of the hassle, commitment, or modifications involved with utilizing, Yakima’s aptly-named EasyTop is a universal system that transforms the top of your car or SUV into a soft rack that’s capable of supporting up to 80lbs of goods and gear, be that bags, kayaks, canoes, snowboards, skis, surfboards, or whatever else you’ve got. Able to be installed in a matter of minutes, the EasyTop also comes with a pair of heavy-duty straps and tie-down ropes.
Cobra HHRT50 Road Trip CB Radio
While smartphone technology has rapidly evolved over the last decade, those who spend more time on the US highway system than anyone else: truckers, tend to still rely on the use of a traditional citizen band (or CB) radio. Powered via a car’s cigarette lighter, this modern take on the CB packs an omnidirectional microphone and a high-efficiency weatherproof antenna that affords the Cobra offering a range of up to four miles. And, in addition to 10 NOAA weather channels, this CB also boasts a 40 channel range, as well as the ability to simultaneously monitor two channels at once.
Rightline Gear Sport 3 Car Top Carrier
Traveling long distances in a car tightly packed with luggage and supplies is extremely uncomfortable, which is why we’d recommend opting for a supplementary rooftop cargo vessel, especially if you plan on traveling with several friends or family members. This item from Sightline boasts nearly 600-liters of storage space and was designed to sit on the roof of a van or SUV, with or without a roof rack. Largely impervious to the elements, this top carrier is made from a rugged blend of waterproof, UV-protected PVC semi-coated mesh XT and Hydrotuff fabric, and has a urethane-coated zipper with an overhanging protective flap, as well as welded seams. This product has also been designed with aerodynamics in mind, and as such won’t catch the wind and reduce fuel efficiency, and it can be folded up and stowed away when not being used.
Leatherman Surge Multitool
The open road can be wildly unpredictable, which is why it’s so imported to always be as prepared as possible, with the right gear on hand to get you out of a jam if needed. And one highly-versatile and extremely travel-friendly item that offers loads of utility is a multitool, like this Leatherman Surge. Constructed from hardwearing 420HC stainless steel, the Surge is armed with 21 built-in tools, including regular and needle nose pliers, wire cutters, stripper, and crimper, regular and serrated knives, scissors, bit driver, diamond-coated file, and a bottle opener, just to name a few. Sold in a nylon sheath and backed by a generous quarter-century warranty, this particular version of this Leatherman Multitool comes is a limited edition model with black tools and silver housing.
Persol 0PO3225S Sunglasses
A quality pair of driving sunglasses is another absolute must-have staple for any road trip. These beautiful, Italian Persol glasses offer a solid mix of utility and style, with acetate frames — offered in black or light or dark brown — housing a pair of wide 0.56mm lens — available in green, brown, or light blue. This classic design is complemented by a decorative silver hinge arrangement, with metal accent “arrows” wrapping around to the front of the glasses. And, with a two-year international warranty, you can rest easy knowing Persol will replace them should something happen. Regardless as to what model or color you opt for, this is one purchase that your eyes will thank you.
Garmin DriveSmart 65 & Traffic
With the benefit of satellites overhead and a quality GPS unit in your vehicle, you’ll never have to worry about getting lost on unfamiliar roads or routes. Garmin’s DriveSmart 65 features a 6.95” color screen that offers 3D maps, turn-by-turn navigation, and real-time traffic and weather reports. The device also accommodates hands-free voice control, is backup camera compatible, and comes loaded with thousands of hotels, motels, restaurants, and attractions from the expansive TripAdvisor database, as well as the HISTORY network of notable sites in North America and a National Parks Directory. Built-in WiFi also lets this HGPS unit automatically update itself.
YETI Hopper M30 Soft Cooler
Coolers are another crucial element to possess during road trips, affording the ability to keep perishable foods, stop off for a picnic, or to simply crack a cold drink without having to pull over. And while there’s no shortage of soft-sided coolers out there, we’ve become extremely fond of YETI’s Hopper range, more specifically the brand’s M30 model. Offering a generous 30-liters of fully-leakproof storage space, the Hopper M30 features a DryHide shell made from puncture, UV, and mildew-resistant high-density fabric, Coldcell closed-cell insulation, radio-frequency-welded liner, and YETI’s HydroShield magnetic closure system. The exterior of this soft cooler also has a number of buckles and loops to accommodate various attachments or mounting options.
HERO8 Black Bundle
If you want to record your journey to share with friends and family, it really is hard to do better than the latest GoPro model: the HERO8 Black, which offers stellar video quality and resolution in a highly compact and ridiculously durable package. This offering is GoPro’s HERO8 Black Bundle, which, in addition to the action camera itself, also includes a number of GoPro accessories 32GB SD card, head strap, shorty grip, and a spare battery — an incredible value considering it’s only $50 over the camera’s MSRP. So, whether you’re looking to create a massive time-lapse of your journey or just document some fun stops along the way, this is almost certainly the camera you want to be using.
The 25 Best Car Camping Essentials
Plan on living out of your vehicle during your travels? Then be sure to supplement your must-have road trip gear with additional items from our guide to the best car camping essentials to ensure you’re making the most of your time out on the open road.