Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Updated: Taking a Budget Road Trip, Part 4: Pack List

On June 24, 2011, I published Taking a Budget Road Trip, Part 4: Pack List. This was from my Take a Road Trip series.

Below is the updated version:

Road to Monument Valley. October 2007.

There are 6 categories for road-trip packing:

1.    Personal
2.    Picnic
3.    Road-trip comfort
4.    Emergency
5.    Camping, if applicable
6.    Tourist gear

Clothes drying on a tree branch. Rustavi, Georgia (Caucasus). September 2011.

Personal gear

Clothes - How much should I pack?

There should be an algorithm to calculate the answer to this question, considering:

Duration of trip + number of days you're willing to wear each clothing item before washing it + (un)willingness to wash clothes in sink or laundromat + diversity of temperatures on route + diversity of road trip activities, e.g. athletic, casual, or dressy.

Here's what works for me:
  1. If my road trip is for a week or less, I don't want to launder clothes on the road, so I'll bring enough to last the duration. 
  2. If my road trip is for longer than a week, I'll assume a trip to a laundromat and pack accordingly. Note: Most motels have coin-operated washing machine and dryers.
  3. I wear trousers for three days and a shirt for two days.
  4. I pack specialty items (e.g. a dressy outfit) in a separate bag and leave that in the car until I need it.
  5. If temperature variations are in play, then I think layers, and I also pack a coat or jacket. I usually keep temperature-specific items in the car til/if needed, rather than pack them in my main luggage.

If you over-pack, the main consequence is that it will be more of a hassle for you to find stuff, carry stuff, and fit it in with other stuff. Let your frustration threshold be your guide as to how much you want to avoid these consequences. Otherwise, road trips are forgiving to chronic over-packers.


For God's sake, bring a comfortable pair of shoes! Uncomfortable shoes will keep you from doing or enjoying activities that you would otherwise love to do.

Something warm

No matter how warm the destination, there will always (ALWAYS) be a place that will freeze you out. A motel room. A restaurant. A museum. A nightclub. A cave.

Bring a sweater, sweatshirt, shawl, jacket - something - that will keep you warm when that happens.
If you fail to do this, do not whine about how cold you are. At your next opportunity, stop at a second-hand store and buy something.

Toiletry bag

My perfect bag:
  1. Has a little hanger or velcro loop design so I can let it hang from a towel rod or door hook. It won't get damp from a wet counter surface. It won't take up limited counter space.
  2. Has compartments that let me segregate cosmetics, dental care items, cleansers/lotions, and all the rest: deodorant, small scissors, mirror, comb/brush, tweezers, clippers. Three compartments needed at minimum, but no more than four.
  3. Fold/rolls into smaller mass for packing

eBags Weekender


I love my lightweight, durable eBag Weekender bag for road trips. The outside and inside compartments maximize organization. Adding the three large eBag packing cubes maintains order, and if I pack the cubes so each has all that I need for one or two days, then I can just take the cube and my toiletry bag into the motel and leave the larger bag in the trunk.

If you looked at the price of this bag and blanched a bit – no worries. I invested big money in this bag because of my long-term needs. For a budget road trip, if you don’t already have luggage you like, then check out your local thrift stores such as Goodwill, Salvation Army, etc. and buy something that looks like it will work for you. Or borrow a bag.

Dirty laundry

Option 1 - I collect my dirty laundry in one of my packing cubes and keep it in my "weekender”

Option 2 - I toss it into a plastic or cloth bag and keep it in the trunk.

Either way, it's easy to lug it to a washing machine on the road or back at home.

Picnic gear

For now, let's assume camping is not involved. The purpose of the picnic gear is to let you enjoy good food and drink without having to go to a restaurant. It also lets you manage your time and itinerary - you can eat when you want, where you want.

Lunch on Jemez scenic road, New Mexico. August 2013.


My perfect road-trip cooler is my old Igloo Playmate cooler (in photo above):
  1. Has a top handle for one-handed carrying
  2. Is large enough to hold one small bag of ice (i.e. 7 pounds) + 4-6 cans soda + food items for a couple of days (e.g. hard-boiled eggs, roast chicken or beef, cheese, some fruit, and carrots/celery)
  3. Is small enough to fit on the floor behind a front seat - and small enough that I feel comfortable replenishing the ice from a motel ice machine
  4. The lid slides open with the push of a button
  5. Because of the tent-like peak, I can over-load it a bit.

The exterior dimensions are about 14"x10"x13." That 13" is the height, which is misleading as it measures the peaked lid. The Playmate "Boss" seems to be the closest to my older model.

Unless I'm going to camp, this size cooler is fine for a road trip. There are grocery stores everywhere - no need to carry more than a couple of days' vittles at a time.

My camp box.

Camp box (or "chuck box")

I have a cool jeweler's sample box, made of fiber board, I think, bought at a flea market, that I re-purposed into a camp box. Important features include: 
  • It has a handle on top for one-handed carrying
  • The lid closes securely with two draw bolt latches
  • It has two shelves that are are deep/tall enough for me to place smaller, clear-plastic containers on them for organization 
  • It is sturdy
  • It's big enough to do the job, but small enough not to take up too much vehicle space

You can make a great one on your own using a clear plastic storage bin and smaller transparent storage containers within. Watch the dimensions; you don't want to go too big.

My camp box is always stocked with:
  • Salt and pepper
  • Plates (plastic washable/reusable or paper)
  • Utensils
  • Corkscrew
  • Can opener
  • Sharp knives
  • Table cloth
  • Cloth towel
  • Aluminum foil
  • Fire starter
  • Matches
  • Rope and clothes pins
  • Candles
  • Cups
  • Sanitizer
  • Recycled plastic grocery bags that I can use to collect and dispose of trash - these are tucked into an empty, cardboard paper-towel tube to conserve space 
  • Ziploc-style bags - quart size
  • Small bottle of dish washing liquid

Bag for consumable goods

In this bag, I throw dry items that I'll consume along the way, such as:
  • Bread
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Ground coffee
  • Paper towels
  • Three 1.5-2 cup, round, microwave-safe plastic containers with lids  - for oatmeal and other picnic-style menu items that require bowls

By using a bag instead of a bin or basket, I can collapse the bag after the items have been consumed, which opens up space in my car.

Bag for durable goods

This bag is for small appliances that I might never need during the trip. Depends on what's in the hotel rooms I end up in.
  • Small coffee maker and, depending on type, any accessories (e.g. filters)
  • Hot plate
  • Small pot with lid to heat things up in
  • Maybe you're a tea drinker and dislike the after-coffee taste of running water through the motel coffee maker. On a road trip, you can bring your own tea kettle or brew pot.

A sibling traveler, making himself comfortable.

Road trip comfort

If a road trip is intrinsically good (and it is), bringing familiar comfort items from home make it even better.

Some ideas:

Books: real, virtual, or audio. If you're a regular reader, this is a no-brainer. You know you'll bring reading material. If you're an occasional reader, consider a book that relates somehow to the places along your road trip path. Or a book about road trips. Here are a couple of road-trip reading lists, both from A Traveler's Library.

54 Road Trip Books and Movies (by state)
Top 5 American Road Trip Books and The List

And here's a literary perk of road trips (or any trips) --> This is the perfect venue for reading trashy, brain-candy crap that you secretly crave, but can't bring yourself to possess in your "real" life. Go ahead - buy that National Enquirer!

Favorite pillow - for car napping (especially when traveling with someone else) or for augmenting inadequate motel pillows

Blanket - not only does this fall into an emergency pack list, but if you're traveling with someone, it's nice to nap when you're not driving. Even in the summer, a blanket is comforting when the car a/c is on.

Good music - If, like me, you've got an older model car, invest in a cigarette lighter FM transmitter device to access your music player.

Emergency preparation
  1. Before you leave on a road trip, take your vehicle to an auto service shop and ask that they do a trip   check. Change your oil.
  2. Join AAA or a similar roadside assistance provider. Batteries drain. Starters die. You lock the keys in your car. You get a flat.
  3. Have a blanket in the car.
  4. Pack a flashlight in addition to the flashlight app you may already have in your smart phone.
  5. If you're traveling with others, bring your spare car key so that two of you have a key.
  6. Leave a rough itinerary with someone back home.
  7. Keep a jug of water in the car.

Grand Canyon campsite. September 2007.


If you're already a camper, you know what to bring, and you've probably already got the equipment.

If you're not a camper, don't be intimidated. Here are some easy-button basics for you to bring:

Tent. Unless you plan to do a lot of camping after your road trip, just get a cheap tent. Know that when the label says it's a two-man tent, that's a lie. Get a 3-man tent if there are two of you, and a 4-man tent if there are three of you. Get a dome tent. It will be easier to put up and you can pick it up and move it at will, until you stake it down. Do buy a tarp to go under the tent. These are also inexpensive and you can use them for other things in the future. Get a tarp that is a little smaller than the tent.

Sleeping bags. You can also get sleeping bags cheaply. Or borrow them. Or make bedrolls from blankets and a comforter.

Pillows. Do bring pillows from home - you'll be much more comfortable.

Socks and knit hat. Clean socks and a knit hat will help keep you snug in your sleeping bag and tent. Remember that cotton will not keep you warm.

Cook stove. Yes, you could build a fire and cook on that. ... BUT: It's not uncommon for a park to have a no-fire order. Buy or borrow a cook stove. (If you borrow it, return it clean.) Alternatively, you could skip the cooking altogether. Instead, pick up picnic foods that don't require cooking.

Cooler. If you plan to do a lot of multi-night camping on the trip, then consider getting a larger cooler to avoid spending too much time replenishing food and ice supplies. Weigh this carefully against the vehicle space it will consume for the entire trip. Another option is to just take an additional small cooler.

Light. At minimum, you'll want a flashlight for each person in your party. This is in addition to any flashlight app you have in your smart phone.

Check above for the list of things I stock in my camp box. All of these will come in handy if you camp.

If this article were about going on a camping trip, there would be a lot more detail. But this is about a road trip.

Tourist gear
  1. Camera (with extra memory card and an extra battery)
  2. Binoculars
  3. Spiral notebook or journal
  4. Pens
  5. Addresses of people to whom you want to send postcards
  6. Postcard stamps that you buy in advance
  7. Maps. Before I leave on a road trip, I pick up a U.S. atlas for less than $10 at a local Walmart. Then I pick up free state maps at each state's welcome center, which is usually the first rest area after you cross the state line. I recommend these even if you’ve got a smart phone with map and GPS features. Paper maps give you - literally - the big picture of where you're going, alternate routes, and where you might want to go. Also, phones fail. Satellite and tower connections fade in and out. The paper map is right there. 

See more details about gear in Part 6: Road Trip Technology.

To see all chapters of the Take a Road Trip, click on the tab of the same name at the top of the blog. Or click here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Enjoying your road trip blogs. Nice travel tips also!