Family Road Trip Essentials: 17 BEST Items To Pack

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Family road trips can be the source of incredible family memories. But they can also be the source of incredible family (read: parental) stress…especially during the preparation phase when we often struggle to figure out what we really need to take with us on the trip du jour.

Now I realize there are many types of road-trip “packers” out there. Many of my friends fall into the “maximalist” camp…they aren’t sure what they should bring, so they end up packing EVERYTHING.

But the issue with that approach is that you end up bogged down with stuff that you undoubtedly will not use. That means less room in the car for people, which means more unruly, unhappy passengers.

The maximalist approach also means that if your road trip includes more than one stop, there’s a lot of hauling of the stuff involved. Too many suitcases means lots of trips in and out of lodges, hotels, tents, etc.

family sitting at Yosemite viewpoint overlooking bridalveil falls and Yosemite Valley in CaliforniaPin
less packing stress = more family road trip fun

And too many trips to and from the car can add up to more unhappy haulers, and potential back pain, which is not a fun way to start out on a family adventure.

So over years of planning, packing, re-thinking my packing, and editing the packing, I have come up with a smallish list of road trip essentials.

Because I would consider myself, a reformed packing maximalist who now would call myself a road trip minimalist. I now pride myself on taking the BARE minimum on road trips…we never find ourselves in want of anything, nor do we ever end up with the maximalist back pain or resentment of having brought too much stuff.

It’s been honed to the Goldilocks essentials. And even those essentials have been minimized so that they take up the least amount of weight and space in our luggage.

So if you’re planning to head out on any road trips in the near future, take a look at these items. And mark my words…less is more when it comes to packing for road trips. Having less stuff (but the RIGHT stuff) will significantly decrease your overall stress level, and way increase your enjoyment of the experience. I promise.

Favorite Essentials for Family Road Trips

family road trip essentials: our favorite gear, supplies and items to pack for an epic and stress-free family tripPin

SOURCES: EO Organic French Lavender Hand Sanitizer Spray | Cotopaxi Allpa Compartment Backpack | Murphy’s Naturals Mosquito Repellent Balm | Hairbrush/Dryer Combo Tool | Car Vacuum | UPF 50+ Packable Hat with Neck Flap | Family-Sized Yeti Water Bottle | Earth Breeze Laundry Detergent Sheets | Yes To Coconut Hydrating Face Wipes | Bars Over Bottles Shampoo and Conditioner Bars

These are tried and true items that my family owns, uses and loves. Many of these items aren’t particularly “sexy” per-say…laundry detergent sheets and travel deodorant, I’m looking at you. But they made this list for a reason.

Here’s why each of these products made our essentials shortlist…

1. Laundry Detergent Sheets

First off, not only do these laundry sheets work REALLY well (and are WAY better for the environment than a big ol plastic jug), they are 1 million times lighter and easier to travel with than traditional laundry detergents.

All you need is one sheet/load of laundry. No buying detergent in the laundromat, no more spilled liquid detergent or broken pods in your suitcases, and no more hauling way more clothing than you need to. Just pack a package of laundry sheets and plan to do a bit of laundry during your trip.

You’ll have a deck of cards with you, so just enjoy a couple rounds of Old Maid, Go Fish, Rummy or Sevens while your family finishes a couple loads of laundry.

2. Cotopaxi Allpa Travel Backpack

We’ve tried a lot of backpacks out, and this one is fantastic. Not only is the company and their mission truly admirable, but this product is amazing for family trips. It opens like a suitcase, and has multiple compartments inside to help keep gear organized for day hikes and adventures of all kinds.

3. Car Vacuum

I bought this item on a whim, thinking that it would probably end up being returned. But I can’t tell you how awesome this little car vacuum is! First of all, the price is incredible, and it is REALLY powerful! It plugs into your cigrarette lighter.

If you’re anything like me, then the messier the car gets during a road trip, the more I can feel my stress level inching higher. But this tool helps immensely. I can vacuum DURING a long drive. We just pass it around, and everyone vacuums their own area.

I even use this at home while I’m waiting for kids at field hockey or basketball practice. It stays in the car, and gets used on the fly whenever the car needs a little sprucing up.

Quickly let me just blast through bullet points on the rest:

  • BOB shampoo and conditioner bars are legit. WAY easier to pack (lighter, smaller, and won’t spill) than traditional bottles, last as long or longer than a full size plastic bottle of shampoo, and are much better for the environment.
  • Say YES to Coconut face wipes: these are a tired mama’s answer to makeup removal and face cleaning after a long day when you’re wiped out and can’t be bothered with the whole beauty routine.
  • EO organic hand sanitizer is a great product that is way less chemically, and smells much better IMO than typical sanitizing options.
  • The YETI 46 oz. water bottle is great to carry in the car, or out on a hike because it’s large enough that everyone can get some water from it, but only one sucker (lookin’ at you dad) has to carry it. It keeps water cold forever, too.
  • UPF 50 packable hat w/ neck flap: If you’re someone who burns easily, this hat is a life saver. It’s lightweight, and the neck flap is clutch for avoiding sunburn.
  • Murphy’s Mosquito Repellent Stick: We love this product because it’s not a liquid that can easily spill. The stick is very small, so it’s easy to pack, but one stick will last for a long, long time.
  • Hair Brush/Hair Dryer Combo: This tool saves me so much time. No need to pack the hair dryer + a brush + a straightener. This tool does the work of all three. Saves me at least 30 minutes every time I shower.

More Family Road Trip Essentials

family road trip essentials: our favorite gear, supplies and items to pack for an epic and stress-free family tripPin

SOURCES: Contigo Travel Coffee Mug | Pack & Leaf travel-size deodorant (no plastic) | Car Roof Weatherproof Travel Bag | Multi-Port Charger | National Parks Card Deck | Folding Cargo Car Carrier | Magnetic Car Phone Holder

Here’s why the items above made our list:

  • The Contigo Stainless Steel Coffee Mug: Compared to other brands, I’ve found this one fits consistently in cupholders in all kinds of vehicles, rentals and my own…and it keeps my coffee warm all day
  • Pack & Leaf travel-size deodorant: In my quest to minimize plastic use in our family, I’ve been trying lots of different deodorants. I like this Pack & Leaf one a lot because…it works! AND the 1oz. travel sized deodorant will last for months, and the size is perfect for packing. Sometimes, this product is hard to find in stock, in which case, I really like this brand also.
  • This weatherproof car roof carrier has gone across country and back on 2 different cars of ours, and always has worked like a charm. It can work with our without a roof rack, and carries a LOT of luggage. It’s kept our luggage dry, no matter the weather.
  • The need for many chargers in a small space is REAL when traveling with a family. We love this multi-port charger…there are several USB ports as well as USB-C port, too.
  • National Parks Card Deck: OK, you don’t NEED national park cards, but you’ll thank me for suggesting you always travel with a deck of cards. There will be plenty of times your family is waiting on…something…and pulling out a deck of cards has saved many arguments, and irritable looks from bored kids and teens
  • Folding Trailer Hitch Cargo Carrier with Weatherproof Bag: when going on extended trips, we always use BOTH the roof carrier AND this rear-mount cargo carrier. Together, you’ll be able to pack all your essentials without cramping everyone in the car. You’ll need a hitch to use this one, but if you have that, we highly recommend this product for sure.
  • Magnetic Car Phone Holder: After trying many types, brands over the years, this is the car phone mount we use in every vehicle, and take with us whenever we are renting a car, too. It works reliably in any vehicle we’ve ever tried it in.

And that wraps up our list of family road trip essentials! I hope that it will help you and your family as you plan and prepare for your next road trip, wherever that may take you!

Pin these road trip travel essentials for later! And if you found this article helpful, leave a comment on the pin. That helps others decide whether to use this information, too!

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About Heather Thibodeau

Heather Thibodeau is the founder and mom behind

She and her husband Dave (AKA Tib) are on a mission to travel to as many US national parks with their three kids in tow as they possibly can, doing their best to keep the little ones out in nature and off of screens in an increasingly digital world.

Heather has earned degrees in biology & chemistry from Virginia Tech (Go Hokies), and holds master's and doctorate degrees in physical therapy from Duke University (Go Blue Devils).

Heather is also the creative force behind The Heathered Nest where she shares her love of all things DIY and home decor.

Her work has been featured in Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful, Good Housekeeping, This Old House,, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and more.

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