Our Essential Picks For Spring Road Trips
Sleep Systems, Food Storage, Camp Furniture & More
Snow’s great, but after a long season, the cold can wear us down, especially if it’s not coming with a side of pow. During extended winters (thanks Phil) when we crave t-shirt temps and balmy breezes, there’s no better remedy than a short sabbatical to the south. That’s why come spring, you can usually catch us escaping the mountains for a week of desert sun via byways, highways, neon-lit diners, and lots of coffee stops—the classic American road trip.
We’ll leave the route to you, but after spending countless hours behind the wheel, we’ve perfected our list of road trip essentials. We’ve rounded up the camp furniture, electronics, sleep systems, food storage, and creature comforts we bring along on every trip. So, pack your bags, top off your tank, pop on your favorite playlist, and hit the road in search of sun.
For The Excursions
You might not be aiming for an extended expedition, so you can leave the big backpacks at home, but it’s not a true road trip unless you make some impromptu stops along the way. There are over 8,500 state parks in the U.S. alone, many of which fly under the radar, so keep your eyes peeled for interesting day trip spots to break up the monotony of the road.
Whether you’re sticking close to the car or heading far down a trail, it’s always good to pack a day bag in the 22-30L range. That’s enough space to stuff some snacks, water, headlamps, sunscreen, and other day hiking essentials.
Gearhead Tip: Snacks like trail mix, hearty veggies and fruits (think carrots, celery, apples), and energy bars double as great road and trail bites.
Power It Up
Battery packs, power banks, and even solar-powered chargers are perfect for keeping your phone, camera, and laptop powered on the pavement for a few days. If you’re sleeping in the car, we’ve found that a battery-powered fan is essential for stirring up that stale air. Finally, an LED lantern will keep you from using your car battery and car cabin well-lit during those late-night arrivals.
Gearhead Tip: Not all electronics are essentials, but there are a few that can make a long trip slightly more enjoyable. A good camp boombox can transform any site into a party.
Catch Some ZZZs
If you’re skipping hotels for roadside sleep stops, then finding a place to pull over for the night is one of the best (and sometimes worst) parts of road tripping. The idea that any pull-off, park campsite, or dusty forest road can be home for the night is exhilarating, but it’s only fun if you can actually get some shut-eye.
There are typically two methods of bedding down while on the road: sleeping in the car or setting up a tent. If you’ve got a big enough vehicle, then putting the seats down is a perfectly viable option for a makeshift bed. Make sure you bring something to sleep on, like our game-changing, half-foam/half-inflatable double camp bed (fits perfectly in a mid-sized SUV), inflatable pillows (to save space), and compressible two-person sleeping bags or insulated blankets. If you do it right, you won’t even notice a difference between this bed and the one at home.
If you’ve found yourself a nice off-road campsite, setting up a tent is a perfect way to give yourself a little more room to stretch out. Since you’re driving, there’s no reason to take ultralight equipment, so ball out a bit and aim for something roomy and comfy. Just like sleeping in the car, you’ll want to pack some individual air pads and sleeping bags. Pillows, in any capacity, are still a must.
Gearhead Tip: Can’t find a place to sleep? Almost all national forests allow free, overnight camping for up to 14 days. Double-check before you stop, but if you’re in a pickle, take a forest service road, and park in the woods.
Grub On The Go
You can’t go anywhere without a cooler—it’s the size that becomes the contentious point of conversation. If you’re not planning to cook along the way, a small-to-medium-size cooler for snacks will suit you fine (aim for the 14-20QT range). If you’re going to put the chef’s hat on yourself, you’ll need something bigger—think 30-50 quarts. You’ll also need something to cook on, and here nothing beats the classic two-burner camp stove. If you hate stopping for ice, you can always take a powered cooler. Last, but certainly not least, you’ll need water. Depending on where you’re going and how long you’ll be gone, consider bringing a considerable amount of H2O. Five gallons will go far, just remember to fill up between uses when you can.
You know how people say, “You packed everything and the kitchen sink!” as if it’s a bad thing? Well, what if we told you to actually pack a kitchen sink? If you’ve got the room, it’s so worth it. Additionally, camp kitchenware, such as pots and pans, bowls, cups, etc, are all nice-to-haves, but you can get away with bringing things from your kitchen as well.
Gearhead Tip: We polled the office to find the best road trip snack and didn’t even come close to a consensus. However, dried mangos, Chili Cheese Fritos, and peach tea all received nods of approval.
In Case Of Emergency
Flats, dead batteries, scrapes, bruises, broken fuses—it’s always safe to assume that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and Murphy seems to work overtime on road trips. Before you leave, make sure your car manual is in the glove box, your spare is aired, and you’ve got jumper cables and extra fuses. It’s also good to be prepared for non-mechanical emergencies as well, so have a first aid kit on board and keep it somewhere accessible.
Gearhead Tip: The U.S. has the largest road network in the world, with over 6.7 million kilometers of paved and unpaved roads. That’s more than all of the roads in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, the U.K., Canada, Russia, and Australia combined (only 6.5 million). There’s a lot of room to get lost. While phone GPS apps are mostly reliable, it never hurts to bring along an extra, old-fashioned map.
Phew … we’ve packed a lot, but there are still a few things we bring along to make the journey as fun as the destination. Camp furniture, smart storage, and a little entertainment can make the difference between being at home on the road, and just on the road.
In the last couple of years, camp furniture has stepped up its game in a big way. The sheer quality and quantity of foldable and packable chairs, loveseats, dining tables, showers, cots is staggering. There’s a good chance your home away from home might become more comfortable than home.
Packing smart also lets you store more, saves time, and is a surefire way to avoid where-did-I-pack-it headaches. Duffel bags are a classic go-to (try different colors for different types of gear), but there are other methods of organization such as cubes and crates, and even collapsible pantries for your camp kitchen.
Finally, cards and cribbage are classic off-the-grid options, but we also love Settlers of Catan and Sushi Go. While on the road, there’s no better way to pass the time than a good audiobook or podcast. Looking for binge-able podcasts? There are over 1,300 episodes of Stuff You Should Know—get started.
Gearhead Tip: There’s something magical about cruising down a country road, watching the dividing lines tick with the perfect playlist setting your soundtrack. If you’re looking for something to listen to, we’ve made an eclectic road trip playlist just for you.
Alex Moliski is a writer at Backcountry. When he’s not typing, he’s exploring the country, climbing, skiing, or backpacking somewhere remote. See more of his stories on Instagram @alexmoliski