US Road Trip Packing List: All the Essentials to Drive Across the USA

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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.

US Highway 163 in Utah
US Highway 163 in Utah

USA road trip essentials

National Parks Pass

The US has 63 national parks, and an additional 350+ 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.

Angels Landing trail in Zion
Hiking the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park

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 or renting 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.

>> Buy one on Amazon.

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.

>> Buy one on Amazon.

Mouse's Tank Road in Valley of Fire State Park
Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada

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, AND be able to use it for music on picnics or hikes.

>> Buy one on Amazon.

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 (or both!). 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.

>> Buy one on Amazon.

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 roadside 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.

>> Buy one on Amazon.

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 too.

Badlands National Park
You definitely need to bring water to Badlands National Park!

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.

>> Buy one on Amazon.

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 Solis portable wifi hotspot, and have personally used it in several countries. The Solis works off a mobile signal, and is SIM-free. You also only pay for the wifi you use, making it a fairly reasonable option. Plus, you can use the device in any country you travel to, so it's a good long-term travel investment.

If you want to get a Solis for yourself, you can save 10% with the code ADBSKYROAM.

Mormon Row, Grand Teton National Park
Stay connected, even in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming

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!

Amanda at Yaki Point
You might not know this, but it snows at the Grand Canyon in winter!

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, both of which offer added sun protection.
Amanda at 12 South mural
Blending in in Nashville

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: 15 Biggest Mistakes People Make on a US Road Trip

Looking for some US road trip ideas?

Check out these detailed road trip itineraries!

And check out some of my favorite spots to visit on a US road trip:

Are you planning any US road trips this year? Are there other things you like to pack?

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"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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16 Comments on “US Road Trip Packing List: All the Essentials to Drive Across the USA

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  1. Great article on preparing for a USA road trip! Your comprehensive packing list is a game-changer, especially for those of us who tend to forget essential items.

    Hi Amanda
    My husband and I are discussing the need for a paper atlas. We are from the UK and are doing a three week road trip.
    San Francisco, Yosemite, LA, Joshua tree, grand canyon, page, las Vegas.n
    We both have phones and have a garmin in Sat nav. I have screen shot close up of areas we are heading too. My husband doesn’t think we need a map as well.
    Your thoughts please

      Hey there! I don’t think having a paper atlas is absolutely necessary if you’re going to have phones and a separate GPS, but I personally like physical maps! If you don’t think you’ll ever use a US atlas again, though, you could probably skip it.

    Thank you for this great article on taking a road trip I found this information very helpful.
    We are traveling to Portland for my Son’s wedding in August and plan on taking a road trip back to NY.
    After reading this I am so excited to begin this new adventure with taking road trips.
    Thank you again

    The longest road trip that I have been to was when we went to Disney in Florida! Having a road trip helps you clear your mind and de-stress.

    The National Parks Pass sounds like great value for money and a good reason to visit as many NPs as possible during a road trip 🙂

      Definitely! It almost always saves me money – including at memorials and monuments run by the NPS, too!

    I keep a 6 ft. long charger cable for my iPhone in the center armrest storage compartment of my car. The charger cable is sturdier than the Apple ones; I’ll plug it into the USB port to charge for the commute home. Having an extra long charger cable cord can be handy at times if the wall outlet is in an odd spot in the hotel room.

    The longest road trip that I have been to was when we went to Disney in Florida! Having a road trip helps you clear your mind and de-stress 🙂

    Amanda, Your insights on road tripping in the USA is such an intersting read. Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park is worth visiting, among others in Utah. The guide is useful.

      All of Utah is amazing – it’s one of my favorite states for roadtripping!

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