We’ve all seen the photograph: a strip of pavement, hazy with heat, stretching endlessly to the horizon, flanked on either side by the American desert and backed by mountains. It’s an image that exists at the core of the American identity. It represents an urge, a compulsion — a feeling that’s existed since Lewis and Clark, since Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty — to hit the road and wander.
Yes, exploring the small towns and National Parks that dot the vast expanse of land between major airport hubs necessitates hopping in the car for a good old-fashioned road trip. It’s a big journey, one with its own set of necessities: jumper cables, extra toilet paper, a roll of duct tape. But you already know about those. What about the things that you don’t necessarily need, but will make those eight-hour stretches of highway breeze by with a little more ease? I gathered up those must-haves and took them for a 2,365-mile test ride from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to Dorset, Vermont, with a lot of pit stops in between.
Grovemade Stainless Steel Key Ring
A small detail, but an important one nonetheless. You need something to bundle and tote your keys, so it might as well be well designed and remarkably durable. And capable of cracking open a beer.
Böker Plus Multi Purpose Pen
It’s always handy to have a writing tool on the road. Track miles, mark maps, jot down ideas you have while watching the mile markers go by from the passenger’s seat. Boker’s titanium Multi Purpose Pen does a few other things, too — like shatter car windows in case of wreck or rescue with a built-in glass breaker, or disable would-be assailants (if you’re versed in any Kubotan techniques).
Stanley Classic Vacuum Mug
When hour eight ticks by and you’ve still got 400 miles between you and Chicago, look to that old standby: coffee. A good insulated thermos will beat a paper cup any day — it’ll keep your beverage warm until the next gas station and you can usually get a little more for your money when you opt for your own container over a paper cup. The Classic Vacuum Mug won’t ever spill, yet it will fit nicely in your cupholder.
EPIC Bar Snacks
The open road is abundant with sweet and salty options to cure snacking cravings, and while Pepperoni Pizza Combos are arguably delicious, they are also terrible for you. You’ll see the same junk food at every gas station and truck stop you come across, and none of it will actually give you any real energy. The best alternative is to simply pack a hearty supply before setting off. EPIC makes a variety savory grain- and soy-free protein bars and snacks that actually taste good. Smoked Salmon Maple Strips, Chicken Sriracha Bars and Uncured Bacon Bites are just a sampling of what you should stock up on.
Patagonia Provisions Meals
Along those same lines, truly nourishing meals can be tricky to come across if you are trying to maximize the time and distance you cover in a day. If you’re stopping in some interesting towns, then finding a local watering hole is a great way to get to know a place quickly. But the roughing-it method calls for a little more finesse, and thankfully Patagonia has gotten into the food game with rations of everything from Green Lentil Soup to wild-caught Black Pepper Salmon. My personal favorites were the Organic Red Raspberry Hot Cereal, which we doctored with some Vermont maple syrup and fresh fruit, and the Red Bean Chili, which needed no additions. The best part: all you need is some boiling water.
BioLite CampStove 2
And you can find that boiling water at truck stops and in hotel lobbies, but if you’ve opted to camp — which, let’s face it, you should, because it’s cheaper and will bring you to far more interesting environments — you’ll have to pack a stove. Biolite’s CampStove 2 is an efficient, smokeless, wood-burning machine that gives you feedback on how effective your fire is. It also has a built-in battery that receives power from the heat and can be used to charge your phone or any other device and power lighting accessories. (And yes, it boils water.)
If you’re going to go with Biolite, it’s in your best interest to pick up a KettlePot, too. The stainless steel pot holds up to a liter and a half of liquid, is constructed with collapsible, heat-resistant handles and has a BPA-free lid that allows for kettle-style pouring. It’s also designed to fit seamlessly with the scalloped edge on the top of the CampStove 2. Take things a step further and grab the CoffeePress for your morning cup.
MSR Alpine Nesting Bowl
You can always eat straight from the pot, but if you prefer a more civilized dining experience, grab some of couple of these simple and durable stainless steel bowls. They’re easy to clean after polishing off your salmon and grains, and a set will nest perfectly for easy packing.
Mizu Cutlery Set
Opinel No. 10 Corkscrew Knife
There’s no overstating the importance of a good pocket knife in any number of situations you’ll encounter on the road. Opinel’s No. 10 is equipped with a large, foldable locking blade that can handle DIY tasks and food prep (clean the blade between). It also has a built-in corkscrew, just in case.
Voila Instant Coffee
Cities and towns are littered with Starbucks, but the same can’t be said for the open road. If you want an alternative to watery gas station brew, fill your mug with hot water instead — they’ll have some for tea — and opt for instant coffee. A handful of companies are now making quality dissolvable coffee, and Voilà offers a selection of single-origin roasts sourced from locations around the world. These instant coffee packs earned the highest marks from our resident coffee aficionado, but if you want to see other options check out the guide he put together.
Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow
You know that feeling when you’re in the passenger seat. Your eyelids begin to sink, sleep takes over, your head drops, and then suddenly you’re awake again — but not for long, because that happens eight more times. You decide to lean up against the seatbelt, and window and if you aren’t woken by the vibration of the pavement channeling through the glass and into your skull, you’re sure to wake up with a nice crick in the neck. Just do yourself a favor and bring a compressible pillow that’s actually comfortable, too.
Rumpl Original Puffy Blanket
You should always have a solid blanket stored in your car. Rumpl’s Original Puffy is incredibly cozy and has a water-repelling and abrasion-resistant nylon outer shell. It’s perfect for the tent and for laying down the seats and crashing in the back. (Or for when a mouse gets stuck in your heater, rendering it useless due to the odor that blows through, and you just need to keep warm — yes, this happens.)
Saxx Quest 2.0 Boxers
Bunching and chafing is real, and your standard boxers aren’t going to cut it during a six-hour slog through South Dakota. The Quest 2.0 utilizes a moisture-wicking blend of nylon, spandex and polyester. The boxers were designed with the contours of the body in mind. And while Saxx’ proprietary Ballpark Pouch sounds hilarious, it’s unimaginably comfortable.
NEMO Equipment Helio Shower
Depending on how long and what kind of a trip you’re planning, you’ll either want this or you won’t. This packable 11-liter shower makes use of pressure applied through a foot pump to produce a stream of water strong enough to rinse all the soap out of your hair without running out of water. There’s no shame in embracing your own filth, but your copilot might want a say in the matter.
Hydrapak Expedition 8L Water Reservoir
We used to stock up on 89-cent gallons of water at the grocery store before undertaking a long drive, but then we discovered HydraPak’s eight-liter storage reservoir. It’s lightweight and flexible when empty, and comes with a handy lever-activated spout for filling water bottles.
Dr. Bronner’s Hand Sanitizer
Did you know that gas pump handles are among the most germ-infested objects in the human world? Yeah, and that roadside bathroom isn’t so clean either (and the chances of the soap dispenser being full are 50-50). Hand sanitizer is an easy thing to keep stashed in your rig’s center console. Dr. Bronner’s is an excellent alternative to the standard bottle of Purell — it’s made with certified-organic ingredients so it won’t be as harsh on your skin.
If a vagabond travels across the country and there is no photo evidence that he did so, did he actually make the trip? Your followers on Instagram will surely affirm the negative. Your cell phone’s tiny lens won’t be enough to take in the expansive landscapes you’ll be traveling through, so if you want to take your road trip documentation seriously, then invest in the real deal. We like the grainy feel of film for these types of adventures, and instead of recommending a specific camera here, we’ll direct you to our comprehensive guide on film cameras so that you can choose the one that best fits your style.
Filson Large Grab ‘n’ Go Tote
At this point, you’ve amassed a lot of gear, so it only makes sense to bring a good carry-all to cart it all from backseat to campsite (or Super 8). The Grab ‘n’ Go will wrap all the essentials in Scottish-milled, abrasion-resistant Tin Cloth. No digging through packs or duffels necessary.
I polled most of the crew here for their picks and then prodded for extra justification to back up their (incorrect) opinions. As it turns out, our choices aren’t all that dissimilar, but “agree to disagree’ all the same, right? Read the Story
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