Road Trip Essentials

Wanderlust is upon you and the road beckons, but before you take off, give this article a quick read. This guide will make sure that you don't forget anything and you'll pick up a handy tip or two.

the open road

Finding Your Way

You love gadgets so you've purchased a GPS for the trip or your a traditional kind of person so your going with an old-fashioned foldable map or atlas. Conventional wisdom says bring both.


A paper map covering your drive route is old school - so old school that the first trip maps can be traced back to the Roman Empire. Good ideas tend to stick around, and having a handy map to consult is one of the best ideas going.

Think about it. Unlike your GPS, a map isn't dependent on a battery, it can't go on the fritz leaving you frantically searching for a recharge - paper maps are "always on". Plus they're tough, you can sit on them and a coffee spill can stain them but they're still useable; just try sitting on or spilling coffee on your GPS unit.


The GPS or Global Positioning Unit is definitely a modern day success story. A lot of people are already heavily dependent on their GPS. This gadget is definitely not a fad, the GPS is here to stay. The technology behind this wondrous device is mind-boggling - your GPS depends on a network of at least 24 satellites in geosynchronous orbit; all this for a reasonable cash outlay. You should definitely take advantage of this technology boon.

Unlike an old-fashioned map, a GPS automatically updates its internal map. That new bridge they finished last month? You got it covered. That new switchback road shortcut? Its covered in the latest update, no problem.


Your map can't go all "gadgety" and break down on you while your GPS can't "go the way of all paper" and become obsolete. So bring both. Having these two resources will eliminate the hassle of needing to stop and ask for directions.

Little Things That Make A Big Difference

This section is about stuff that you won't really miss if you forget to bring them along. The downside of not having these stuff isn't very steep; on the one hand. On the other hand, having these stuff along could really give you a better vacation. No downside, huge upside - little things that make a big difference. Let's get to it . . .

Something To Wipe With

Having something as simple as a tissue, paper towel, wipes or a simple rag is such a minor thing until you get that bout of hay fever or that Starbucks gets spilled accidentally - then the whole trip hinges on having something to wipe with.

Over-The-Counter Medication

Be ready to deal with headaches , upset stomach , fever , colds , coughs , and allergies . Just think of the convenience of simply popping a pill if you've somehow eaten the wrong food in a roadside diner or the light rain last night gave you the sniffles. Have these medicines in a small bag in your glove compartment and you're good to go.

Hand Sanitizer

The alternative to having a convenient bottle or tube of hand sanitizer is to get out of the car, find a rest room and wash your hands. Nothing takes the place of washing your hands but more often than not, it is not the most convenient option. Aside from the convenience, having a hand sanitizer on hand keeps you healthy.


Be ready for sun and rain by keeping these small items with you.

For the harsh sun, keep the glare off while you're driving by bringing along a pair of sunglasses. If your already wearing glasses consider sunglasses that fit over your regular glasses . Now that you've protected your eyes do the same thing for your skin by bringing along sunscreen.

Have an umbrella or two to deal with rainy days. Light rains can be handled by baseball caps, a raincoat can deal with heavier downpours.

Comfort Gear

Having some throw pillows in the car can do wonders for trip comfort. Reclining the driver or passenger seat and putting a small pillow under your head is very conducive for a quick, refreshing nap. For colder climes, add in some blankets. Having these items, especially for long trips, just makes your car a better place to be.

Bring A Toilet

You wish.

Here's the best alternative: the Travel John . This is a bag were you can, um, "do your business". Any waste products you put inside encounters chemicals that convert them into a gel that cancels out smells and the overall yuck factor - you can then dispose of the bag later. This definitely beats "running off into the bushes".

Plastic Bags

The humble plastic bag, preferably a zip top , has a thousand and one uses. This will be the rubber band of your road trip. Keeping things organized and keeping wet stuff contained. For more storage, bring along a garbage bag.

Spare Key

Given the right circumstance, your most missed item could very well be an extra key to your vehicle. It's a classic image isn't it? Car owner staring m into the driver's side window, door locked and car keys still in the ignition. Ouch. Have them spares.

Petty Cash

That huge billfold with the benjamins is going to be useless to you on the road. Get a purse and stuff it with singles and coins for toll booths and convenience stores.

For Emergencies

Nothing is going to go wrong on your trip. But if something does, be ready. The two things you have to watch out for? The people in the vehicle and the vehicle itself.

First Aid Kit

People first. Maybe it's you, someone with you or a stranger who needs help. Having a first aid kit in your vehicle allows you to deal with a range of issues short of rushing into the emergency room or calling the paramedics.

Emergency Kit

An emergency kit is a first-aid kit for your car. Later, we'll go into car preparation tips that,hopefully, will ensure you never have to resort to using your emergency kit.


Power Inverter

So in this age of gadgets what's the most important one for your road trip? Your mobile phone? Nope. iPad? Please. MP3 player? Uh-uh. Laptop? Nope. On the road, all these useful gadgets will depend on the humble power inverter - a gadget you plug into your car's cigarette liter or outlet. The power inverter will convert your vehicle's 12-vold direct current into alternating current to recharge the batteries of your mobile devices.

Flashlights and nightlights

Have a flashlight in the car to deal with the unsavory situation of having an after-sunset breakdown. Have another one in your bag or luggage for any other situation that calls for a comforting beam of light cutting through the darkness.

If you can't sleep in total darkness you can probably open your motel's bathroom light and keep the door slightly ajar. Alternatively, bring your own nightlight.

Mobile Phone

I was about to remind you not to forget your cell phone but I realized that if you were a mile from your destination and found out you've forgetten your phone, you'll probably turn back.

Since your going on a road trip, its worthwhile to note that holding a phone to your ear while driving is increasingly being penalized, not to mention downright dangerous - so get a hands-free kit. Or better still, have the discipline not to use your phone at all when driving.


Unless your happy with your cellphone camera, you'll probably have a dedicated camera. Whether you belong to the compact camera camp or the DSLR crowd, don't forget not to forget. For the enthusiast traveling with gear for the first time, there are luggage made exclusively for cameras and related gear .


Enough about you. Let's talk about your car. Here's a handy checklist to go through before your trip.


Make sure your car's fluids are topped-up.

  • Engine oil
  • Transmission
  • Radiator
  • Brake
  • Power Steering
  • Fuel
  • Windshield Washer

If your car has a manual transmission it doesn't need transmission fluid. If your car has an electrically-powered steering it doesn't need steering fluid. Engine oils and fuel are partnered with filters - so make sure these filters are in good shape. Give the hoses feeding these fluids a check. Once, a rat gnawed my radiator hose and I overheated on the road - my engine block was never the same.

Hoses and Belts

  • Fan Belts
  • Drive Belts
  • Timing Belts

Usually belts will tell you they're about to give you trouble by giving out a continuous high-pitched squeak that's impossible for you - and anyone else on the road - to ignore. Don't let it reach this point. Your car manual has recommended change schedules for your belts. If your car has got a chain-style belt, they don't have to be changed.


I have had the horrible experience of being foolish enough to travel with bald tires. There was a light rain on the mountains that day and my car slid off the road and fell down a - thankfully - gently sloped ravine. If I had the misfortune of falling down the other side of the mountain I wouldn't be writing this today.

The lesson is, don't take a road trip with bald tires. The tires that provide the motive force of the car will wear down quicker. So if you have a front-wheel drive vehicle you'll notice that your front tires show more wear than your rear tires. Rear-wheel drive cars and trucks will show more wear at the rear. Before your trip, consider swapping your rear tires to the front so that the the tires with less wear gets to bear the brunt of the trip.

Let's assume that you have a front-wheel drive vehicle, this is the most common kind since it's cheaper to manufacture. Let's further assume that your front tires are worn out and have to be replaced. Let's further assume that its a stretch for you moneywise to replace all four tires. The good news is that you don't have to. You just have to buy two new tires for the front wheels. If you have a front-wheel drive car the rear wheels won't be as worn and can still be used. Eventually, you'll wear out the rear wheels. When you get rid of them, move your current front tires to the rear and buy new tires for your front wheels. That way you're always buying new tires for the front wheels. Since the front wheels wear out faster you're pretty much keeping the wear levels on all four tires on balance.

Another thing to consider is tire inflation. My car has suggested inflation numbers posted on a discreet part of the driver's car door. Since these are manufacturer recommendations and I haven't changed the wheel and tire package from the factory I follow these numbers when I inflate my tires. Alternatively, there are inflation numbers from the tire manufacturer right on the tire. These numbers are the MAXIMUM inflation recommended for the tires. A good rule of thumb is to inflate your tires near this maximum in warm or hot climes and go a bit lower during winter. Going over the maximum risks a blowout.

May you never change a flat tire in your life. But just in case, your car manual will have a step-by-step guide on how to do just that. It's worthwhile to give it a cursory look before your trip. The first time I had to change a flat tire I was on my way to a date, it was pouring rain, it was early evening so I had to take my flashlight out. I had the car manual on hand and was referring to it constantly as I changed my tire. My date was shot, my clothes were wet - about the only good thing is that this happened in a parking lot and not in the open road. Don't be afraid of a tire change, you'll be able to hack it, just make sure you have a step-by-step guide handy, especially if you've never done it before. Oh yes, all of this will be for naught if your spare tire isn't in good condition so check it before your trip.


Start your car. Open all your lights including your hazard lights. Test your turn signals. Everything should be in good working order. Your lights don't only light your way, they also give important information to fellow motorists at night and during low visibility situations, if they are not working properly you are risking an accident. You can also get pulled over and get a ticket if you don't maintain your lights properly.


Test your car's windshield washer and wiper. If your wiper isn't wiping your windshield clear it's time to replace the blades. If the wiper isn't working get the mechanism fixed or replaced. Your wiper will be essential even if you never encounter a drop of rain, your windshield will accumulate a lot of detritus driving those long distances and maintaining good visibility on the road is critical.


If you haven't taken your brakes in for inspection for a while, do so now. They might be fine but an inspection from a trusted mechanic will give you peace of mind. Your brakes might need cleaning or the pads might need to be replaced - or maybe something more serious. Bottom line is that this is a part of your car that you don't want to have issues with on your trip - especially if you're going up and down mountains.

If your brakes are squeaking its definitely time to bring them in for service.

Air Filter

I neglected my vehicle's air filter for a couple of years. When I finally had them changed, my engine felt more powerful and my ride's fuel consumption numbers improved significantly.

Maybe your air filter doesn't have to be replaced yet or you have one of those filters that don't have to be replaced, in either case, consider having them cleaned before your trip.


Having your battery checked is a quick stop and will give you peace of mind.

With batteries ,its good policy not to stray too far from the warranty period. If you're at month 17 for with an 18-month warranty it's best to replace your battery before your trip.

Cargo Carriers

If you need more space consider attaching a cargo carrier to your vehicle. There are two distinct kinds: roof-mounted carriers and rear-mounted carriers.

Roof-Mounted Carriers

Roof-mounted carriers are installed on roof racks. If your vehicle doesn't have a roof rack, aftermarket roof racks are available. Typically, roof racks clamp into the "rain gutters" near your vehicle's roof - these are the raised metal features that keep the rain from car windows. Once you've got the racks in, you can mount a carrier. You can get a hardside carrier or a fabric carrier or just an open bar system . Irregardless of your choice, you now have more space AND a taller vehicle - so those car height advisories in parking areas and tunnels you used to ignore - you've got to read them now.

Here's more about roof-mounted cargo carriers.

Rear-Mounted Carriers

Rear-mounted cargo carriers install at the back of your vehicle, right behind the trunk or boot or rear hatch. The good news is they'll be able to help absorb impacts from the rear. The bad news is they'll be absorbing those impacts using your prized possessions. A rear-mount is the carrier to go for if you will be transporting taller items like bikes. Putting a bike on top of your vehicle could make it unmanageably tall.

Here's more about rear-mounted carriers - and some other related stuff.


Road Trip Luggage

Road trips are not as tough on luggage as air travel. If you're doing road trips exclusively, you can save some money by skipping luggage meant to survive the rigors of baggage handling. American Tourister is an affordable brand with good quality for road trips. If you have concerns about matching your luggage to your destination this luggage guide might help.

When Somebody's Packing Too Much

The tendency to overpack is a common one. Sometimes you wonder if someone is going on a road trip or immigrating. A good rule to impose to deal with overpacking is: You pack it, you lug it, AND no complaining.

A Handy Road Trip Luggage Strategy

Some road trips have multiple short stops in motels or hotels lasting for a couple of days or so. Lugging your suitcase in and out of a motel every few days can get old very quickly. The solution is to have a duffel or backpack in addition to your main bag. When you stop at a motel, load the smaller bag with just what you'll need for this leg of the trip, leave the big luggage in the car. The next day, use the smaller bag to lug your laundry back to the car. This simple strategy can be enhanced by using packing cubes to organize your daily wardrobe - just throw in a couple of packing tubes into your small bag and your set for a couple of days. No need to lug your entire bag into the motel or hotel. Once caveat: For security reasons it's a bad move to leave your stuff in your vehicle were morally-challenged people can see them and be tempted to smash your windows to get at your stuff. It's best to leave your stuff in the trunk or boot where no one can see it - out of sight, out of mind.



If we were to take a poll of the single most important food or drink to take in a road trip the hands down winner would be water. This doesn't seem to be such a big deal before you begin your trip but your body's need for basic hydration is easy to underestimate. Be sure to bring water. You will use it. Guaranteed.


There are road trip destinations with no food service, so you really have to bring your own. For places with lots of restaurants and diners, people still sometimes bring food primarily because the cost of eating out on road trips can add up to a a significant hit to the wallet. Sandwiches are extremely convenient for road trips. Check if your stops have microwaves ovens or a single burner so you can pack the appropriate food.


Single most important road trip accessory? The cooler. Invented in 1951 and an absolute road trip best seller ever since. There are different kinds of coolers but by far the most popular kind is the ones you can plug into your cars outlet or cigarette lighter . Add in an adaptor and you can plug the cooler into your hotel and motel outlet for maximum convenience.


I remember being a passenger and clocking long miles on the road with an unbroken pattern of green fields demarcated by electricity poles flying past the car window. Add in some very young kids and this could be the most hellish part of your road trip. During such times, you'll be glad that you brought some on-board entertainment.

Music is the first go-to entertainment option. Chances are your passengers would want to listen to their own tunes via headphones. And no Dad, your entire family isn't crazy for the 80's.

Audio books are also a popular choice.

And lets not forget about those wonderful apps for Andriod, iPhone or Windows phones.

With that, we come to the end of our road trip guide. May your journey be as wonderful as your destination!

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