Road tripping is, hands-down, the best way to explore the United States. Whether you're national park-hopping through the Southwest, leaf-peeping in New England, or eating your way across the Deep South, the best way to do it is by taking to the road.
But road tripping in the US isn't necessarily like road tripping in other countries. Yes, the US has excellent highway systems and you can go just about anywhere by road; but distances are long, temperatures can be extreme, and you definitely want to be prepared.
I've written a lot about road trips on this site (and will continue to do so!), and thought it was time to share all my USA road trip must-haves with you.
USA road trip essentials
National Parks Pass
The US has 61 national parks, and an additional 358 national monuments, memorials, historic sites, and more that are run by the National Park Service. Some of these sites are free to visit, but many have entrance fees. Entrance fees for the more popular national parks can run $30+ per car, meaning that if you're planning to visit multiple national parks or other sites on a road trip, those entrance fees can add up quickly.
To save money, I recommend getting a National Parks Pass. The pass costs $80, but covers entry to any national park, monument, memorial, or other NPS site for 12 months. Meaning it can save you a LOT of money if you're planning an epic US road trip. I travel enough within the US that I usually end up buying a National Parks Pass every year.
You can buy a National Parks Pass at most national parks, or you can order one online before your road trip.
(And note that one pass covers up to 4 people in a car at once, so if you're traveling with a partner, friend, or small family, you only need one pass between you.)
Road trip essentials for the car
Consider keeping these things in your car during your US road trip:
1. Car phone mount
Stand-alone GPS devices are almost unnecessary in a day and age when nearly everyone owns a smartphone. If your car (or the car you're renting) doesn't have a built-in GPS, consider just using your phone for navigation instead of buying a separate device. For less than $15, you can pick up a car phone mount (I like this vent clip one, and this one that sticks to your windshield) and use your phone hands-free as a GPS.
2. A road atlas
I love maps in general, and love flipping through atlases when I'm traveling. But taking a physical set of maps with you on a US road trip is practical, too, just in case you find yourself in an area with poor cell signal (because yes, those definitely exist in lesser-populated parts of the US!). I like the Rand McNally road atlas.
3. Small bluetooth speaker
Speaking of areas where you might not get cell signal… you're also guaranteed to drive through areas where you won't get radio signal, either. If you keep some music on your phone, I recommend traveling with a small bluetooth speaker (I love the Anker SoundCore mini) so you can still play music or podcasts in the car.
4. A car charger and/or powerbank
We travel with so many digital devices these days – phones, cameras, tablets, speakers – and road tripping can often mean long hours in the car. To ensure that your phone doesn't die in the middle of a long driving day, be sure to travel with either a USB charger for your car, or an external powerbank. This 13,000 mAh Anker PowerCore powerbank is both small and affordable – I like it because you can tuck it into your bag and use it outside of your car, too.
5. A roadside emergency kit
You'll definitely be driving on long, empty stretches of road when road tripping in the US, so having a roadside emergency kit is a must-have. This AAA road kit comes complete with jumper cables, a flashlight, a first aid kit, and more. You may never need to use most of this, but it's better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
6. Reusable water bottle or hydration pack
Tap water across the US is, in general, safe to drink. So instead of spending money on single-use plastic water bottles, travel instead with a reusable water bottle that you can fill up each morning. I like the CamelBak Chute.
If you're planning to do a bit of hiking on your road trip, then a day pack with a hydration sleeve is a good investment. I like the Osprey Daylight Daypack, which you can add a hydration reservoir to.
7. Small cooler
For non-water drinks and snacks, I also like to travel with a small cooler on long road trips. When my sister and I drove Route 66, we filled our cooler with snacks, bread, lunchmeat, and cheese so we could have lunch on the go and save some money.
You could go with a simple flip-lid cooler, or spend more on a fancy thermoelectric cooler that plugs into your cigarette lighter and doesn't require ice. You also may want some slim ice packs to keep things cold.
8. Travel blanket
Lastly, it's not a bad idea to travel with a small blanket or two so no one needs to fight over the temperature in the car.
If you're not from the US
If you're traveling from abroad to do a road trip in the US, then there are a couple more things you might want to pack.
1. Portable wifi
The US doesn't offer many great options for short-term mobile service; it's not as easy to pick up a SIM card without a mobile contract here as it is in many other countries. You WILL find free wifi in most US hotels/motels and in many coffee shops and restaurants. But if you need more consistent coverage, then I recommend traveling with a portable wifi device.
I like the Skyroam Solis, and have used it as a portable wifi device in several countries. The Skyroam works off a mobile signal, and is SIM-free. You also only pay for the wifi you use, making it a fairly reasonable option. You can either rent or buy a Skyroam, with rentals starting at 8 Euro per day.
If you want to get a Skyroam for yourself, you can save 10% with the code ADBSKYROAM.
2. Travel insurance
If you're from the US and traveling in the US, you'll be covered by your regular health insurance. But if you're traveling from outside of the US, you'll want to purchase a travel insurance policy before leaving home. I never travel without travel insurance, because you never know what might happen on the road. I recommend World Nomads for basic and affordable travel insurance.
Road trip-friendly clothing
My biggest tip for packing is this: check the weather forecast for all the different regions you plan to visit before you leave. Most of the US experiences distinct seasons, but many people don't realize that it can get cold in the desert and the South in winter, or unbearably hot up north in the summer. Make sure you pack accordingly!
You can of course wear whatever you want to road trip through the US. But if you want some suggestions of items that I've used and loved over the years, here you go!
- Lightweight clothing you can layer – The easiest way to pack for temperature changes is to pack clothing you can layer. You don't necessarily need to live in zip-off hiking pants if you don't want to. On road trips, I usually pack a mix of breathable capris or shorts, comfy leggings, tshirts, and zip-up jackets.
- A dramatic maxi dress – And yes, I travel with dresses, too! My current favorite maxi dress is this one, which comes in a variety of fun patterns.
- A raincoat – You're likely to run into rain no matter what time of year you're traveling in the US. A good raincoat is therefore essential. I love my Columbia Arcadia jacket, and my husband has the men's version of the same coat.
- Walking sandals – I rarely travel anywhere these days without my Teva Verra sandals, which are excellent for walking and even light hiking.
- Good hiking boots – Hiking shoes/boots are also a good idea to pack, especially if you plan to visit national parks or otherwise do any hiking. I like my Merrell Moabs, and also my Kodiak Surrey II boots. My husband has a pair of Oboz that he loves.
- A good sun hat – You can get a sunburn any time of year, especially if you head out West where it's usually sunny. I always pack a sunhat these days. I like this feminine one, and this fedora-style one.
There are, of course, plenty of other things you could pack with you for your US road trip. But you should be well prepared if you pack all the things on this list!
READ NEXT: DOs and DON’Ts for Your First US Road Trip
Looking for some US road trip ideas?
Check out these detailed road trip itineraries!
- A Perfect 10-Day Southwest Road Trip Itinerary
- 12-Day Northern USA Road Trip Itinerary for Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas
- The Ultimate 10-Day Road Trip Itinerary for Oregon in Summer
And check out some of my favorite spots to visit on a US road trip:
- Yellowstone National Park: What to Do and See in 2 Days
- The Mighty 5: Utah’s Stunning National Parks
- White Sands: The Most Underrated National Monument?
- How to Spend 24 Hours in Asheville, North Carolina
- 9 Things to Do in New Orleans That Don’t Involve Bourbon Street
- 5 Awesome Things to do in Crystal River, Florida
Are you planning any US road trips this year? Are there other things you like to pack?
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