As families, couples and friend groups start to consider summer vacations, you may decide it’s time to finally take that long road trip you’ve been thinking about. Whether you’re dreaming about visiting the national parks, driving along the scenic coastline of California or going from one end of the country to another, it’s an exciting and memorable way to explore.
With nothing but the people you love, the open road and miles to go, a road trip sounds just about perfect right now. Not to mention, it’s often a more cost-effective way to travel since you can pack more of your own goods, avoid the stress (and fees!) of airports entirely and experience different budget-friendly accommodations along the way.
If you’re wondering how to plan a road trip that will create memories for years to come, make sure to plan ahead. We talked with experts for their best advice and ideas on how to have a successful and safe road trip.
Don’t go off the beaten path
While part of the joy of exploring Mother Nature is seeing new and beautiful views, if your road trip includes a hike, stay on the marked path. After all, you don’t need a jaunt to the emergency room with a fractured ankle to wreck your adventure. That’s why podiatrist Dr. Velimir Petkov suggests following the course.
“Avoid the temptation to hike off-trail and in unfamiliar or unmarked areas,” he warns. “You could get lost, injured or both.”
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If you intend to scale a mountain in search of great views of a waterfall, make sure you’re packed for the trek. A sturdy, waterproof and lightweight backpack like this one allows you to take first aid materials, water, snacks and other necessities.
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These are some of our favorite hiking boots out there, thanks to their incredible grip and lightweight nature. If you're planning on doing some exploring in nature, make sure you've got a good pair of hiking boots on hand.
In the morning, when you set out on your adventure, your temperature will likely be comfortable. As the sun reaches its highest point, you’ll start to sweat inside your car. And at night? Certain areas of the country experience a dramatic drop in degrees. That’s why car expert and CEO of eautolease.com Zoriy Birenboym recommends packing everything you need to stay comfortable, including clothing for different temperatures.
“You don’t want to be caught without the necessities and have to look for places in areas you’ve never been before,” he says. “Make sure this includes staying updated on what the weather will be in the areas you are traveling through. It may get cold at night even though it’s summer, so you may not think to pack a sweater or extra blankets, but if it’s 50 degrees you may wish you had.”
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This lightweight option features moisture-wicking material that’ll keep you fresh while battling triple-digit heat. It also has built-in UPF to protect you from UV radiation from the sun. It’s ideal for daywear.
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A cozy and simple cashmere-blend sweater will capture your body heat to keep you warm in colder temperatures. It’s ideal for sitting around the campfire in the woods or stargazing by the lake.
Make sure you get enough sleep
Not-so-fun fact: Many Americans struggle to get enough rest. From falling to staying asleep, sometimes, slumber isn’t easy to come by, yet adequate rest is mandatory before a long car ride, Petkov says. This will help to prevent accidents and ensure you’re keeping your eyes on the road — not falling back into your head.
“Do not drive while you are feeling sleepy,” Petkov says. “If you feel like you need rest, pull over and take a 30-minute power nap.” Petkov says that even if you did reap the benefits of seven to eight hours of sleep, a little coffee can never hurt.
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To keep your energy levels piqued, travel with coffee you can sip when needed. Reviewers love how long this thermos keeps hot drinks hot and how durable it is for everyday use. Ultimately, having a good travel mug you can take along with you will be key.
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Getting some sleep in your car doesn't have to be uncomfortable. If you need to stop for a short rest, an air mattress made for the car will help to get you some much-needed sleep. The Luno Air Mattress 2.0 inflates in a few minutes and can fit inside more than 1,800 vehicles.
Make as many reservations ahead as you can
As with any vacation, you want to make sure to plan, says Katie Key, president of Escape Campervans. This is true whether you’re going camping, checking in to a hotel, renting a vacation home or enjoying any other type of travel experience.
“Many state parks are urging people to make reservations so they can predict overcapacity, and many are limiting parking capacity to reduce crowding,” she says. You should check various websites, call ahead and ensure everything is in order before you fill up your tank and go.
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Have a question about the weather, road conditions or operation hours? Ask Alexa while you drive, with this tech editor-approved device. It connects through the Alexa app on your phone and plays through the car’s speaker. Alexa can play music, check the news, dial numbers, add to your to-do list, update your calendar and much more.
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When you're plotting out your road trip, keep yourself — and your belongings — organized with this trunk organizer. It's got space to store all of your important paperwork, including any maps, reservations, insurance and much more.
Pack a first aid kit
If you don’t have a first aid kit in your car, here’s your sign to get one. It should be part of your road trip packing list and a necessity in your car, in general. After all, you never know when you’ll experience a flat tire or a blunder that will leave you on the side of the road.
Whether you scrape your knees or have an allergy attack, Petkov says it can always come in handy, especially if you plan on camping, hiking or biking as part of your road trip.
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This kit has all the nuts and bolts and all the bells and whistles you need to treat common injuries or illnesses. You’ll find trauma pads, bandages, dressings, irrigation syringes, butterfly closures and many other hospital-quality supplies.
Consider this tiny yet mighty first aid kit if you don’t want a bulky pack. It comes with 45 essentials, including tweezers, thermometers, bandages, antibiotic cream and so on — all in a tube with a diameter of less than 2 inches. Plus, it’s waterproof!
No matter if you’re traveling with toddlers, kiddos or full-grown adults, no one is a happy camper when they’re hangry. When you’re in an unfamiliar ZIP code, it can be tricky to predict restaurant hours and availability, so having road trip snacks handy can avoid headaches, according to Terika L. Haynes, the CEO and founder of Dynamite Travel.
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Dr. Charles Park Richardson, president of TransWorld Med, says when you’re coming up with snack ideas, make sure to include nibbles that are packed with antioxidants to fight free radicals. No one wants to catch a cold while they’re on an exciting road trip! These include berries, pecans and dark chocolate. You can store a bit of everything in these dual-compartment, 6-ounce snack boxes. You can see our roundup of nutritionist-approved healthy snacks here.
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This snack mix includes nuts, dried mango, cranberries, pumpkin seeds and more. There’s even an antioxidant-loaded mix.
Bring your own linens and towels
Even if you aren’t camping, Haynes says it’s smart to include linens and towels in your road trip packing list. How come? You never know what you’ll find in roadside hotels or Airbnbs, and you may need an extra set to clean up messes or to take a power nap in your car. They don’t need to be fancy — just comfortable.
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Reviewers praise this towel set — which comes with two bath towels, two hand towels and four washcloths — for its softness and absorbency. The set comes in 14 different color options to best suit your style.
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Inexpensive yet comfortable, these soft sheets are ideal for travel. As soon as you return home, throw them into the wash and start planning your next vacay.
Protect your skin
You may not consider sun exposure while sitting in the car, but the rays can seep through open windows and cause you to burn — and UVA rays, which cause signs of premature aging, can go right throw window glass. And while there’s nothing that screams summer as much as roasting marshmallows or catching fireflies, mosquitoes are also drawn when we’re outdoors at night.
That’s why Bahar Schmidt, the founder of Eluxit travel agency, recommends going the extra mile to protect our skin with sunscreen and bug repellent alike.
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Pack a few bottles of this trusted sunscreen so the whole car can lather up throughout the trip. As a bonus, this waterproof formula will last you through dips in the lake or sea too. After testing, we dubbed this option the best mineral sunscreen out there, thanks to its light feel.
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To protect everyone from bug bites from bloodthirsty critters, buy this spray with DEET-free repellent that smells rather pleasantly of lemon.
Plan for detours — and be flexible
No matter how well you plan, the hard truth about going on a road trip is that there will be unpredictable events that you’ll need to figure out how to handle on the fly. While this is part of the excitement, it can also be stressful for type-A folks who like to control their travels.
To ease your worries and make the journey as smooth as possible, it’s essential to plan ahead for potential detours, recommends Harsh Patil, CEO of Xplor Earth.
“Map out the route ahead, but plan on additional time for unforeseen circumstances like inclement weather,” he recommends. “A time buffer gives one the freedom to experience the unexpected: amazing views, short hikes or to spend more time enjoying a meal in an interesting roadside town.”
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There’s nothing wrong with being old-fashioned and buying a physical book for your adventure. There are plenty of options, including this one that highlights all 62 national parks. With need-to-know information, helpful advice and actionable itineraries, you’ll find hidden gems and tips for exploring. Also, if you want to lean in to being flexible and letting the planet guide you, Patil suggests downloading online apps like Roadtrippers, which does a great job guiding you to hidden spots when on a road trip.
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On your road trip packing list, include a portable phone charger just to be safe. “In addition to the charging port in your vehicle, always carry a portable power bank/charger — a must these days as audio/video and GPS drains battery power quickly,” Patil says. This option won our title as the best overall portable charger and has the strength to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it’s super compact, so it won’t take up much room in your bags.
Be prepared to be offline
One of the reasons road trips are becoming more popular is because they permit us to largely disconnect from the digital world. With both remote work still commonplace and endless Netflix and Hulu shows at hand, it’s easy to feel like your senses are engaged 24/7. You may crave the serenity of nature, but you also might be shocked when you don’t have service for hours — particularly when you worry you may need it.
That’s why Prasun Choudhary, president of OYO Hotels, recommends being prepared. “If you find yourself on a road trip in remote areas, it can be difficult to predict what the cell coverage will look like,” he says. “Preparing for those instances means downloading Google Maps to your device or printing directions ahead of time as a backup. Take screenshots of any tickets and reservation confirmations just in case.”
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This mobile router can connect to your phone, laptop and tablet anywhere and everywhere you go. It can provide 5G speeds on up to 32 devices so all passengers can check in online. It also has a battery life of 13 hours, so you won’t need to charge it too frequently.
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Even if you think you've downloaded all the maps you may need on your phone, you never know when you might wind up somewhere unexpected. It's always a good idea to have a reliable paper map with you just in case there's no service or your phone runs out of power.
Bring your own pillow
Mark Sedenquist knows a thing or two about road trips. After all, he’s the publisher of roadtripamerica.com, and he’s spent 40 years and a half-million miles on the road in North America. One of his most essential tips? BYOP: Bring Your Own Pillow!
“Nothing improves a less-than-optimal motel bed better than a familiar pillow,” he says. While sure, it might take up space in your car, it’s worth it to get a better night’s sleep, take a stellar nap in your car or just feel some of the comforts of home.
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Try this breathable and packable mini pillow if you don’t have a beloved pillow (yet). It’s made with organic cotton for both comfort and support, and it’s environmentally friendly, which will make Mother Nature happy too.
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Find ways to stay entertained
Sure, on the very first day of your road trip, you may enjoy looking out the window at one beautiful site after another. But after a while, you may get bored as you go from point A to point B. Having entertainment is key to not only making the experience enjoyable but bearable, Choudhary says.
There are plenty of ways to do this — putting together a playlist, coming up with a list of travel games, downloading podcasts, packing road trip games and so on. Brainstorm with your travel companions ahead of time to figure out what will give you all the most joy on the road.
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Particularly if you have a kiddo joining you on your road trip, you need a way to keep them entertained. Pack this lap desk that features a built-in slot for smartphones or tablets, giving them room to color, snack or play with toys on their lap. It’s available in a plethora of designs, from cheeseburger and rainbow to unicorn and more.
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You can’t go wrong with the classic — and addictive — Bananagrams game for adults. You don’t need paper, pencils or other goods to create fun words and compete with your road trip counterparts. Plus, it comes with a cute banana-shaped pouch for easy storage.
Practice defensive driving skills
Sure, you know how to drive. But have you brushed up on your skills lately or made sure they’re ready for the open road? Sedenquist explains defensive driving is a package of skills, practices and habits that increase the odds of a safe and enjoyable road trip.
“Whether it’s a tornado, a nail in the road or a rambunctious dog in the back seat, drivers have to be ready for a huge range of variables,” he says. “Even the shortest road trip on a familiar route can present unexpected and potentially hazardous situations.”
Since adventure will find you no matter when you hit the road, defensive driving skills and safe driving practices can significantly increase the chances that the tales you bring back home won’t involve tow trucks and ambulances, he adds.
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Tom Vanderbilt’s investigative work offers insight into what makes us worse drivers than we think we are. After reading this, you’ll come out with a better understanding of the human nature behind driving — and you may even become a better driver yourself.
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