Road Trip Survival Guide – Packing Your Bags

This entry is a part of a series. Check out the rest of the Road Trip Survival Guide for more valuable information.

What You Leave Behind

You’ve decided to take a trip and now it’s time to pack your bags. What do you need to bring with you? What can you do without? In this entry, we’ll discuss some things you might want to pack, and we’ll discuss useless junk that you should leave at home. But before we continue, please review the scopes and perspectives that I’ll be addressing each of the questions presented in the Road Trip Survival Guide.

Minimalism Packing Tips

A novice traveler will come home and unpack several items that they didn’t use even once during the trip. The difference between a novice traveler and an expert traveler in this regard is that the expert will learn to better anticipate his needs and pack only what is absolutely necessary.

Packing

No. No. Please. Just stop. It doesn’t have to be this way.

  • Pack only the things that you are certain (or virtually certain) you will use.
  • Avoid the temptation to bring things “just in case” you need them. 95% of the time, these items will never be used, except to take up valuable cargo space. It’s a difficult habit to break, but one that you can get used to with experience and practice.
  • Most “just in case” items – in the unlikely event you actually need them – can be purchased on the road for just a few dollars.
  • Packing

    Oh, the humanity!

    Although it may seem more cost-effective to bring “just in case” items that you already own, the disadvantages of carrying extra crap will outweigh the cost savings.

  • You cannot possibly pack for every single contingency. So why bother trying? Just because you own a thing that might be useful on the road doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile to pack it.
  • Packing “just in case” items should be reserved only for things that are critical to health and safety and/or would be extremely expensive to have to re-purchase on the road.
  • The more you pack, the more you have to un-pack. And re-pack. And re-un-pack. Save yourself the hassle and pack less.
  • The more you pack, the less free space you’ll have to move around. Your vehicle will also be laden with excess cargo, and that decreases fuel efficiency.
  • The more you pack, the more you have to keep track of. Your stuff could be lost, stolen, damaged, or destroyed. The more you bring with you, the more losses you’re likely to suffer.
Entertainment, Umbrellas, & First Aid Kits

I’d like to illustrate my minimalist philosophy to travel by applying these principles to a few examples of my least-favorite packing items.

When I was young, my packing lists always included a category for “entertainment”. I always figured I would get bored and need some way to amuse myself. My packing list would often contain portable video games, toys, puzzles, and books. I suppose when you’re a kid, you’re more likely to want or need these distractions, since you’re not the one driving. But as a grown adult, I never play games or read books when I travel, even if I pack them. And I always regret packing them when I do.

If you’re bored while you’re traveling, you’re doing something wrong. When I’m driving, I’m taking in the scenery and experience. When I pull over for a pit stop, I am resting and relaxing. At my destination or waypoints, there are more sociable ways to amuse myself that don’t involve burying my nose in a book or video game. And if I’ve exhausted all of these options and I am still bored – then it’s time to move on or go home.

Umbrellas are another big no-no in my book. Almost everyone owns one. It makes sense to pack one because if you travel long enough, it will rain eventually during your trip. But I refuse to pack them because they are entirely unnecessary. What’s the worst that will happen if I’m caught out in the rain without an umbrella? I get wet. So what? I’m not at work. I don’t have to look presentable or professional. There are no bosses, coworkers, customers, or clients that I need to impress. If you can’t bear the thought of getting a little water on you, then perhaps this form of travel isn’t for you.

Packing

You won’t fall apart if you’re apart from the things you own. Resist the urge to pack the kitchen sink.

I’m sure to catch some shit for this next one. But in all my years, I’ve never found cause to use a first aid kit. And it’s not for a lack of injury, either! The way I see it, any injury serious enough to warrant a call to 911 will overwhelm the first aid kit’s capabilities. And any injury that the first aid kit can mend probably doesn’t need to be mended. Most of our bodies are quite capable in healing minor injuries. I can see wanting to cleanse a wound to prevent infection and to bind a large wound to stop bleeding. But as you’ll see below, I’m already carrying supplies (sanitizers and bandannas) that can do that job. I don’t need an extra kit for that.

Obviously, there are times when a first aid kit is worth packing. People with serious health conditions should consider packing first aid kits, medications, and other devices as needed for their condition. People spending extended periods of time in the wilderness – away from cities and highways – might find a first aid kit more worthwhile. But most travelers can get by just fine without one.

Go Bag

If you want to get into the spirit of spontaneous travel, I recommend having a pre-packed “Go Bag”. This is a light duffel bag, backpack, stuff sack, or rucksack that carries the bare minimum gear you need for a weekend trip. This way you can decide to leave on a whim, grab your Go Bag, and be out the door in mere minutes. As we proceed through the rest of this article, I will highlight in red text those items that I believe are most crucial for a Go Bag.

Clothing

For a trip lasting more than one day, pack an extra pair of underwear and socks. The longer your trip, the more pairs you should pack, but I would stop at 3 or 4 pairs of each. If you go through them all, you can wash the dirty laundry.

Beyond undergarments, whatever clothes I’m wearing when I depart is often the only clothing I bring with me on a trip, especially if I’m going on a short trip in mild climate. I may pack extra shorts, pants, t-shirts, and/or sweatshirts, as needed, if I travel for a longer duration or to destinations with substantially warmer or colder climates. Outer layers do not have to be changed or laundered as frequently as undergarments do, so pack fewer of them.

When preparing for cold or wet weather, dressing in multiple thin layers is smarter than packing one large, bulky item (like a coat). Thick and bulky items leave you with a binary choice: too hot or too cold. Dressing in multiple thin layers does a better job insulating you from the elements and makes it easier to regulate your body temperature by putting on or removing layers as needed.

Don’t worry about your clothes getting dirty. There is no one on the road that you have to impress, and no need to change your clothes the moment they’re no longer clothesline fresh. In the unlikely event that something drastic happens to your clothing (like a large tear) such that you absolutely cannot continue to wear it and you don’t have a replacement packed, then – worst case scenario – you can buy a cheap replacement. Over-packing clothes for these contingencies is a colossal waste of space.

Packing a swimsuit is optional. I would encourage it if you were planning on swimming in a chlorinated pool. But since I don’t stay at hotels, I’m typically going into lakes and streams when I go swimming. My regular clothing works just fine for that, so long as I have a dry set of clothes to change into.

I’ve seen some people pack ridiculous numbers of shoes, which sucks because they’re usually heavier and bulkier than other articles of clothing. I prefer to be barefoot whenever possible. For most trips, I can get away with a simple pair of shower slides for whenever I have to go into a store that requires footwear.

Personal Grooming & Cleaning Supplies

Sorry, ladies. I know your hygiene requirements differ from those of men. But I can’t speak intelligently on those differences. Kindly adjust this list accordingly. You know what you need better than I ever will. Though I will say again – in the spirit of not having anyone to impress on the road – leave the makeup kits at home. You’ll look just fine without them.

For a trip lasting longer than a day, I always pack deodorant, mouthwash, and a comb (the latter, only because I have long, headbanger hair). For trips lasting longer than a weekend, I will additionally bring an electric razor, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. If my destination and the season call for it, sunscreen and insect repellent may also wind up in my bag. I pack hand sanitizer if I expect to spend time in the wilderness and away from indoor plumbing.

I usually pack garbage bags, paper towel, and disinfecting wipes if I’m traveling for more than a day and/or out in the wilderness. On longer trips, I also bring Dawn dish soap as an all-purpose cleanser for dishes, laundry, and other uses.

I do not bother with soap or shampoo. A good rinse in water is usually sufficient to get myself clean. If not, then one of the disinfecting wipes that I’m already packing for general use can be used to clean gamier body parts. Also, if I choose to bathe or shower at a truck stop, motel, highway rest area, or Planet Fitness, free soap is almost always available. There’s no need to waste space by packing my own. I do, however, pack a special travel towel (a thin, quick-drying, microfiber sheet).

I usually don’t bother with aspirin, lip balm, eye drops, cough drops, antihistamines, or anything else of that nature, either. These are things that I (a) don’t use every day, (b) am less likely to need being out in the fresh air, and (c) can replace for little expense in the event I do need them.

Food & Drink

A cooler with ice is a good idea for almost any road trip. Maintain a healthy supply of fresh water (at least 2 gallons per person per day, unless you plan to refill your jugs periodically). Pack a water bottle to carry with you throughout the day.

Having fun with snacks is a road trip tradition. But I recommend keeping a supply of non-perishable foods, such as granola, trail mix, nuts, dried fruit, and canned food. All of this stuff can be stored without refrigeration and eaten without being cooked.

If you pack canned food, you also need a can opener (or only buy cans with pull-tabs). Camp plates, bowls, cups, and utensils can be useful, but (depending on the food you’re packing) might not be necessary. Similarly, a travel stove and campfire pots are also useful, but you can survive without them.

Travel Documents

Protect your travel documents in a firm folder, hard case, or other similar container. These documents should be readily-accessible and not crushed under the rest of your cargo. Pack things like your passport, printed maps and directions, emergency and contact information, reservations, tickets, and a notepad and pen.

Electronics

In this day and age, there’s near universal agreement that cell phones are indispensable tools while travelling. Pack anything else you want or need, such as GPS devices, cameras, iPods, and laptops. Try to avoid packing redundant electronics, and try to avoid packing devices whose sole function is to provide amusement. Remember to pack device chargers, a power converter for your vehicle’s electrical system, and any appropriate adapters.

Spare Gas, Parts, Fluids, and Tools

If you’re heading away from populated areas, it’s a good idea to bring a spare can of gas. Gas stations are spread out and far apart out in rural areas, and it’s easy to find yourself stranded on an empty tank.

I prefer to travel without any major tools, parts, or fluids. Before embarking on a long trip, I inspect my vehicle and subject it to routine maintenance. On a very long trip, I consider bringing useful and versatile tools, such as a spare quart of motor oil, gloves, an oil rag, jumper cables, a tire iron, a socket wrench, multimeter, or a bottle jack. If you’re not good at doing your own repairs, you can replace all of that with a AAA membership.

Pet Stuff

Pack dishes for food and water, as well as plenty of food, treats, and water (an extra gallon per day per animal). Bring any medication that will come due during your trip. Pack a leash and also consider a good-length tie-out. Also consider a good length tie-out if you need to let them roam unsupervised. Toys are optional since they’ll probably sleep while on the road and amuse themselves with sticks and other junk during pit stops. But bedding or an extra blanket is a good idea so they have somewhere cozy to sleep.

Tents, Bedding, and Other Camping Gear

Since I like using my truck as shelter, I don’t bother with tents anymore, even if I’m camping in the wilderness. If you do pitch a tent, you may want an air mattress and air pump to cushion the ground. Or, to save space, consider a self-inflating air mat.

Regardless of whether you sleep in a tent or your car, pack pillows, sleeping bags, and blankets as needed. As with clothing, favor multiple layers of thinner blankets over a single thick, bulky comforter. A wool blanket (made of real wool) can double as a serape. Sleep under it at night and wear it like a cloak during the day.

If planning a campfire but you don’t know how to start one by rubbing two sticks together, then bring matches or a lighter and some lighter fluid. An alternative fire starter is to roll a couple of cotton balls in petroleum jelly.

If you’ll be camping in the wilderness, a folding chair might be a good idea. If your trip will largely be confined to highways and cities, a folding chair is a waste of space.

Miscellaneous

The rest of this list consists of items that I find extremely useful. I pack these items for almost every trip, even if I’m not sure how (or even if) I will use them. They are so versatile that there is a very good chance that I will find a use for them at some point along the way.

  • carabiners
  • bandannas
  • rope
  • knives
  • flashlights
  • bungee cords
  • a waterproof stuff-sack
Other Ideas?

Have I missed anything? What do you pack and bring with you on a road trip? What do you leave behind at home? Do you have questions? Do none of these solutions work for you because of specific circumstances that I haven’t considered? Whatever you’re thinking – I would love your feedback! Help me make this Road Trip Survival Guide the best it can be.

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