After years of romantically imagining the great American road trip, my family packed up the car and set off to explore all the nooks and crannies of the country we had previously only seen out of an airplane window. For our cross-country road trip experience, I tried to plan ahead as much as possible, making a trip folder full of all the little spots where we would stop, eat, stay, and visit. But, this is not the only resource we relied on. I know conversations with people who live in a place can garner the best insider tips. So, we talked to the trucker at the gas station in Arkansas who told us about the BBQ trailer off the highway with the best ribs. We chatted with the valet at our hotel in New Orleans who pointed us to the best Moscow Mule in town. And, we never would have found the one-way street filled with outdoor art in Santa Fe if we had not struck up a conversation with our server in Austin, Texas.
Besides doing your research and keeping your ears open, one of the most important factors for a successful cross-country road trip is what you pack. Check the list below for the top ten most-used items on my journey.
I cannot go on a trip without a stack of books. Whatever type of reader you are, audiobooks, e-reader, or old-fashioned print, make sure you have a selection to keep you entertained over those miles where everyone else might be sleeping or the scenery is not as fabulous. Being a passenger across endless miles of Texas was a lot better with my nose stuck in Paul Beatty’s biting satire, The Sellout.
I like to send postcards when I am away. As you travel across the United States, you will stop in many memorable spots. If you have stamps, people you love back home can get handwritten notes from the road. In Santa Fe, New Mexico I bought some handcrafted postcards from an indigenous artist. My friends who received these got to experience a little bit of the beauty of Santa Fe from their homes in Virginia.
I know cash is dead, but hear me out. This is not for the toll roads that mostly take credit cards now, but it is for the coin-operated laundry you will need to use at some point on the trip. It is for tips to people who park your car in places like New Orleans where there is no self-park option. It is also for those little businesses that only take cash or local checks, like the roadside tamale stand where we ordered handmade pumpkin and black bean filled pockets of deliciousness.
As the person who packed her Merrells, flip flops, and sneakers in addition to her Chacos, I am here to tell you Chacos are the only ones you really need to pack. I wore them at Bandelier National Monument as we climbed in and out of caves full of petroglyphs. I wore them hiking the Bright Angel Trail in The Grand Canyon. I wore them while kayaking the Colorado River in Las Vegas. I even wore them to dinner in La Jolla. They were the single-most important piece of clothing I packed.
Water Bottle and Refills
Your body needs hydration, even if you’re just sitting in a car all day. I brought my Hydro Flask water bottle and a few gallons of water so we could refill without stopping. I also brought the water bottle with me whenever we hiked, explored a new environment, or stopped at a hotel.
Small caveat here. I brought my super nice Canon DSLR camera with a lens for every occasion in my heavy-duty Lowepro bag. I took it out of the car once. Yes, once. The rest of the trip we used my daughter’s Hero Black GoPro and it was fantastic—lightweight, easy to use in any situation from hiking to kayaking to walking around town, incredibly high resolution photos. I will never travel without one again.
Tire Repair Kit
You never know when you are going to blow a tire unexpectedly like we did on the highway coming into San Diego. It was nighttime and we were maybe 45 minutes from our scheduled stop when the bumping started. My husband eased over to the shoulder and sure enough we had picked up a screw. The three things you need in this situation are a jack, a lug wrench and a spare tire. Oh, and someone who knows how to change a tire when you are away from home and nothing is open.
I was skeptical when my husband bought us each a Flash 22 backpack from REI, but I was wrong. It served so many functions. We packed suitcases for three weeks away from home, but dragging those in and out of hotels was cumbersome. After New Orleans, our first overnight stop, we started packing only a change of clothes, sleepwear and toiletry bags to carry in and out. We used our Flashs. Every time we went out adventuring in a state park or around town, we packed wallets, water bottles, snacks, the GoPro and guides in our backpacks. The Flash became the workhorse of our trip. On the note of useful bags, don’t forget a laundry bag. You will need it, I promise.
Old Ipod or Phone
Playlists on Spotify, Pandora or other streaming services are popular. But, streaming implies you will always have service. Many scenic roads we took were dead zones. Luckily, we loaded up our old iPhone with a ton of music ahead of time. This can be a fun activity if you are bringing the whole family. Let everybody pick some music they love and switch out DJs on the road. Yes, you will have to listen to some stuff you are not excited about, but it gets everyone involved and interacting rather than retreating into their own worlds. I packed headphones, but never used them. I also packed an atlas and road maps for those dead zones, but never used them either. We knew our basic route and if we got off track a little, we embraced the adventure. That may not be comfortable for everyone so make sure you plan ahead for those spots with no service, whether for music or navigation.
We charged our phones and devices in hotel rooms, but we also used our portable chargers in the car, and while we were out on trails if something was running low. Don’t forget to bring backup batteries for an emergency flashlight or anything else that takes batteries.
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