I’ve made several long driving trips around the USA in the past 3 years, one in a camper van, the other staying in a wide range of hotels, from mom & pop ‘50s style motels to deluxe resorts. I totaled about 30,000 miles, and have visited every state except Alaska ( but soon).
I was inspired by writer/traveler Tom Keugler’s list of “8 things you MUST take on a trip.” But I thought 8 was a little skimpy. So here’s my ‘must’ list
- Before You Go: Navigation & Car Service
- Rand-McNally 50 States Map Book–GPS units can’t give you the big picture about where you’re going. Paper maps are especially useful when seeking the back roads, and have no idea that a state road parallels an Interstate, and goes through cool towns, historic sites, quirkey museums, parks, lakes, etc. Google’s not good at finding multiple alternative and scenic routes.
- Allstays trip planning software– This lists thousands of quiet, off-the-beaten-track camping spots that can cost just a few bucks a night (some even free) in awesome places. The $25/year fee is worth it, and you can try it for free.
- Rand McNally TripMaker software– I looked at a dozen trip planning software programs. This was by far the best, because it allows 25 stop points per trip (Google has just 10!) and features accurate dragging to change routes (something no other software has been able to manage). And it’s totally free!
- Good Sam Road Service Insurance— In case of a breakdown, dead battery, lockout, or flat tire, Good Sam is the only service that will take you to the nearest service center, no matter how far away at no extra charge. Costs a bit more annually, but reasonable.
- Lose the spare tire—If you have decent road service insurance, they’ll tow you to the nearest tire place to either repair or replace your tire. Who wants to change a tire in a 110 degree desert or a mountain pass emergency lane anyway? Let a pro handle it, while you catch up on your email or journal. Also, it frees up several cubic feet of storage in your vehicle—enough for a camping stove, hiking boots, and more.
- Gadgets & Stuff
- Laptop Computer or tablet- It will help guide with the recommended software, and let you read articles, reviews, advice, etc. easier than a phone- unless you do all your data on a phone, and have forgotten how a computer works.
- Small 12v DC to 120v AC electric converter. This will power or charge your laptop off your car battery, while driving, or not. Get one with a couple USB ports for fastest cellphone charging too. Absolute necessity. It does use your car’s battery, so don’t overuse if the motor isn’t running.
- Cellphone small backup battery– One battery the size of a candy bar gives you a few extra hours. A lifesaver.
- LED Flashlight– Modern LED flash lights are cheap, small and powerful, and are critical when in a dark campground, trail, or low-budget motel. Cheap– keep a couple on hand.
- Swiss Army Knife– a basic model with screwdrivers, 3” blade, cork screw and bottle opener is enough, and will get regular use.
- Wide-brimmed hat with a chin strap— These were designed for the sunny, windy West, where a freak 30 mph gust can blow your hat down a cliff or across the highway. Keeps the sun off your face and neck too. Think cowboy hat, but get high-tech rain-proof, washable and vented version.
- Lightweight rain jacket with hood– This can be stuffed in a small bag, but they can keep you warm and dry. Even in July, in many places the wind blows cold and fierce, and a windbreaker with a tightly corded hood is a life saver.
- Cottonelle packets– Cottonelle is one of the only flushable hand and tp wet wipes. They’re great in a tp emergency, or when you splash gas on your hands, eat a chili dog, or run into a friendly licking dog. Remove the wipes from the packet and put in a Ziploc bag to keep them from drying out.
- Suntan crème—The sunny West can give Easterners a big burn fast, even with a hat. Don’t fool around, use 50+.
- Meds—I have a tiny plastic bottle 1”x3” with a screw cap for 3-4 each of Advil, aspirin, antacids, and even an Imodium (learned this on a 14 hr. flight that ran completely out of toilet paper half-way through)—or whatever your body may need. Put it in your carry bag with phone, wallet, etc. for when you’re far from your suitcase or a drugstore.
- Tiny umbrella—6” versions take almost no space, but help with unexpected downpours.
- Rainex—This windshield treatment works miracles to help you see in the inevitable rainshowers. One application should last a month, so you may not even need to take it on a trip. (Be sure your windshield wipers are in excellent shape before hitting the road).
- Extra windshield washer fluid and Doobee—I take a whole gallon in my trunk. Bugs are the biggest problem—especially in humid sections of the country– along with dust, mud, and pollen. The Doobee is a plastic scrub pad that removes the toughest solidified bug proteins that cloths or paper towels can’t. Consider also a spray bottle of heavy duty bug remover, especially in more humid areas.
- Snacks & Drinks– Sometimes you’re far from food at mealtime, and having something to get you by is a big help. Don’t get something that goes gooey in heat. Trail mix is the best. You can even make your own and it lasts weeks without refrigeration.
- Any smart phone is a necessity. I have a Samsung Android, which is frequently slow and unpredictable, and changes settings randomly, but it is cheap! Get one with a compass (many cheap ones don’t).
- Google Maps- What all GPS units use, so why not just use your phone and know you’re always up to date. I had a better paid phone-based navigation apps, that provided 10 times the info of Google Maps. But it had an annual fee, so Google drove them out of business with its free, but inferior product. Like all Google products, their goal is to make money, so you’ll be deluged with ads getting in the way—instead of one annual low fee. I always scope out my route on a large paper map first, then let Google maps handle close-in guidance. Google maps are best in Interstate highway mixing bowl intersections in big cities like Dallas, Atlanta, and Denver.
- Mobil Hotspot- Most cell phones have this built-in, and allow you to use your computer to access the internet without a wi-fi connection. It can eat a lot of data, but road warriors shouldn’t worry about data use. Be sure to bump your data plan to at least 8Gb. Your cell connection is your lifeline, and if it costs another $20/month to use your computer just about anywhere, it’s a valid expense.
- Wi-fi calling- This allows you to make phone calls and texts without using cell data—if you can switch to an available wi-fi network. This means you probably won’t pay for calls and data. It’s a great feature in places with no cell service, that have wi-fi (most places these days). It can save many Gbs of data charges. Most phones include wi-fi calling, but it’s a little hidden. On an Android, go Settings>Advanced Calling>Wi-fi Calling. Turn the switch to Prefer Wi-Fi. My phone regularly turns off Wi-fi calling on its own. I suspect Verizon discourages it, because it makes a big dent in their income. So check the setting regularly, to save $$. Now, many cheapo motels and campgrounds have terrible wi-fi, so you may occasionally need to use cell data—another good reason to bump up your data plan during your travels.
- Compass—I discovered too late that my cheap Samsung phone didn’t include a compass. All road warriors should have a compass at their fingertips always, even a mechanical one. Too many times I’ve made a wrong turn on a lonesome highway, and discovered 50 miles later I was heading North, not South. Grrrr….
- Carry bag–
A practical carry bag is usually just big enough to carry a tablet computer (9”x12”x4”). It’s suitable for wallet, phone, keys, pens, notepad, batteries, small camera, water bottle, orange, energy bar, map, guides, flashlight, business cards, tiny umbrella, meds, comb, pocket knife, and other small items. It should have a wide strap to sling it across your shoulder. It’s good for carrying in restaurants, museums, shopping, bus tours, and short hikes. Unlike most bulky backpacks, you can set on a chair or table, or your lap, without taking much space, and it doesn’t look like you just stumbled in off the trail. On longer hikes, a small backpack is more comfortable, but I’ll often just stuff my carry bag into it, and still have all my organized necessities. I have an Eagle Creek that isn’t sold anymore. But you’ll find a good sub with a little digging.
Cellphone booster– These can cost hundreds of dollars, so I don’t use them, and they have limitations. Mainly used by truckers on long hauls where there can be huge gaps in cell service.
First Aid Kit—Though I have one stuffed away in my trunk, I use it less than once a decade. Stuff a few band aids in your carry pack instead. Anything else will probably require a trip to an Urgent Care Center.
I’m sure you have your own necessities. I’ve compiled this list from personal experiences where I’ve said… damn, I wish I brought my…