#vanlife is so hot right now, but the average person is still just trying to cram a bunch of stuff in their regular ol’ car when heading out for a road trip. When you first fold down those back seats, it feels like you have infinite room for all of your stuff. But it fills up quickly, and space is valuable, so here’s how to pack like a pro when you’re just starting out.
Download the entire list here and keeping scrolling for some beginner insight. This packing list doesn’t involve food, since that’s a whole other beast. I also have a guide for where to fit everything in your car so you can stay organized.
Show-stoppers are the basic things you won’t make it far without – wallet, keys, cell phone, etc – and that you also can’t replace quickly (like an ID or your glasses).
If you don’t already carry your health insurance card(s) in your wallet, pop them in there before you leave. Don’t leave home without your ID (obviously) and multiple forms of payment – for example, if your main credit card is American Express, make sure you bring a VISA or Mastercard as well since a lot of small business don’t take American Express.
A lot of small businesses also just don’t take credit cards and you can’t always count on ATM being immediately available. When we were in Alaska, the entire town of Talkeetna’s ATMs were out and many places only took cash. Fortunately, the pot shop had the one working ATM! Anyways, get cash out ahead of time, including some rolls of quarters for laundry along the way.
Another note on being out in the middle of nowhere – you may not have phone service to pull up that reservation information! Print all of your reservations (including campgrounds) out ahead of time and keep somewhere like the center console or glove box.
Google Maps allows you to download maps ahead of time for when you won’t have service. I highly recommend doing this before you leave so you don’t find yourself stranded in some random corner of the country. We’ve done this for our trips to Greece, Alaska, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and around Colorado and it’s saved our butts multiple times!
You should always have these things when you’re driving, but just to double check – make sure you have a proof of car insurance (typically can be found/accessed in your insurance company’s app on your phone), up-to-date registration, your owner’s manual, and emergency supplies like jumper cables and a blanket. Bring both sets of car keys, too!
First-aid and medical supplies
It also goes without saying that all of these should be easily accessible – while it’s unlikely that you’ll have an emergency, you will need sunblock and bug spray regularly, so keep these things within arm’s reach!
Skip commercial first aid kits and build your own with supplies on Amazon or at the grocery store – you’ll spend the same for practically a lifetime supply of items versus a kit with one or two of each.
I stock our basic kit with:
- Antiseptic wipes (the linked ones don’t sting!)
- Antibiotic ointment (get the generic at the grocery store for your cheapest option)
- Band-Aids of varying sizes (the one thing I don’t go generic on since cheap ones always fall off)
- Gauze squares and medical tape
- Ibuprofen (optional but have saved me when cramps hit while hiking – buy a big bottle and then dump 20 pills in your kit)
- Tums (optional, but make sure to put them in their own bag so they don’t get powder all over everything)
- Generic Benadryl (even if you don’t think you have allergies)
- Tweezers (for splinter removal)
I also never leave home without:
- Sunblock (and aloe)
- Bug spray (and anti-itch cream)
- Chapstick with SPF
- Hand sanitizer
- Prescription medications (bring at least three days’ worth of extra)
Light and power
For everything you’re bringing with you that’s battery-powered, make sure you have a charger or extra batteries for it. This includes a digital camera, your phone (pack multiple so you aren’t fighting with your road trip companions for a charger), and definitely your air mattress pump (if applicable).
Test out things like your air mattress pump ahead of time to make sure it’s in working order and has fresh batteries.
I also like to bring a headlamp or other battery-operated lantern for rummaging around in the car at night. Headlamps are handy since they allow you to be hands-free, but you can also just the flashlight on your phone.
If you’re camping, make sure you’re also bringing multiple methods of lighting a fire – even if you get waterproof matches, you can’t always depend on them. If you have a lighter, make sure the fluid is full. And don’t be shy about getting artificial fire starters to help you out!
I’m not hardcore enough to go an entire week without doing laundry. Plus, you can pack less if you’re only going three to four days between access to a washing machine. Calculate how much clothing based on when you’ll have access to laundry and what activities you’re doing.
Always throw in a extra underwear, socks, and other undergarments if you’ll be getting sweaty a lot. A fresh pair of underwear will go a much longer way then fresh shorts with gross underwear, after all!
Obviously, if it’s summer time and you’re planning on doing a lot of outdoorsy things, you’ll be going through more clothing, so pack accordingly. If you’ll also be experiencing cooler weather, aim to pack versatile layers that you can re-wear. Inevitably, it will be rainy or windy at some point during your trip, so bringing a raincoat is a must.
In an effort to save space, you may be tempted to bring only one pair of sneakers. I would suggest having at least two pairs of shoes so that you can change into something else after getting sweaty in your main hiking/running/activity shoes. This can also be accomplished with lots of extra socks, but in my opinion, heaven is putting on a pair of flip flops after changing out of sweaty sneakers.
In general, making sure all of your clothes go with each other and that your outfits are interchangeable will help you save space. Packing cubes help you stay organized and let you fit more in your bags, too.
A toiletries bag, no matter how basic, helps you keep everything in one spot that’s also easy to yank out of the car for when (if?) you do take a shower. I tend to keep my toiletries really basic for road trips, but if you want more beauty products, get after it!
These travel-size bottles have come in extremely clutch for bringing along my normal toiletries without taking up a ton of space. I fill them with:
- Body wash
- Face wash
- Face sunscreen
- Body lotion (particularly handy for Colorado!)
Since you won’t always have access to running water, I also always pack face wipes (can be re-purposed as body wipes or you can buy body wipes too). Don’t forget the basics like a toothbrush and toothpaste, nail clippers, and deodorant.
Depending on where you shower, you may not have a towel accessible (ie if you’re showering at a campground) so pack that too.
Sidenote: whenever you’re camping, make sure to keep toiletries in the car so you don’t attract bears.
No matter what, make sure you bring a water bottle or have a reservoir in your backpack to make sure you’ve always got plenty of drinking water handy. Keeping a gallon in the car is always a nice back-up!
If you’ll be in bear country, don’t forget your bear spray. There’s a 99.9999% chance you won’t need it, but if you do need it, you want to have it with you.
If you have a camera separate from your phone, make sure you have plenty of room on the memory card (or bring an extra one). Cold weather also kills your battery, so bring the charger with you, too, and charge that bad boy up all the way before leaving.
If you’ll be visiting a lot of state or national parks, do the math ahead of time and see if an annual pass makes sense for you. You can purchase the annual pass at the park entrance, or if you already have one, make sure you bring it with you and keep it somewhere handy like the center console.
Road trips are a great time for long conversations, but sometimes you’re tired of talking and want something else to pass the time. If you prefer music, download your playlists ahead of time so you can still listen when you don’t have service. Same goes for podcasts or audiobooks. If you have a Kindle, that will help you save space, but don’t let that keep you from bringing actual books to read too (just make sure you have a reading light too).
In the unlikely event something does go wrong, make sure you’ve sent your itinerary to friends or family so they know when you’re expected back.
The bottom line
Finding a balance between extra everything and saving space can be tricky, but prioritize bringing extras of things that would be a REALLY big pain in the butt to be without in the middle of nowhere. These are things like your phone and a way to make or buy food.
Once you’re trying to jam everything into the car, consult my guide for packing it all in and staying organized. If I forgot something, let me know in the comments!