How To Plan A Killer Road Trip! Part 4: Packing!

I am a minimalist. My philosophy when it comes to Stuff is “less is always more”. The less stuff you bring on your road trip the more room you’ll have in the car and the more room you have in the car, the more comfortable you’ll be and the less cramped and cranky you’ll feel.

The Flying Machine in Monument Valley

When I’m packing for a road trip, whether I’m heading out for the weekend or moving across the country, my goal is to fit everything in the trunk. Since I travel with two large dogs, I need to keep the back seat free. I also leave the front seat free for my copilot, be it Becky or Bowie.

The above photo was taken on the road from New Mexico to Montana, where I spent the summer housesitting in the Bitterroot Valley. Everything I own is in the trunk and the rooftop carrier and you can see Becky in the front seat and the dogs in the back. Fitting two people, two dogs, all my belongings and a friend’s suitcase in a 2-door VW was a challenge, but I made it work.

The Montana trip was the maiden voyage for the Sherpak Go! rooftop carrier and I was relieved to find it secure, waterproof and relatively hassle-free. If you have several hundred dollars to drop on a fancy Thule or Yakima carrier, go for it. I hear they’re great.

The soft-sided Sherpak Go! is a great alternative, however, if you’re looking for something a little less bulky (it folds up and fits in the trunk or under my bed when not in use) and more economical (around $100). Since the Flying Machine didn’t have roof rails, I passed the straps through the doors and trunk, which was perfectly secure, but water did drip in along the straps in heavy rain. The Raven (my new Subaru) has roof rails so the Sherpak works even better on my new ride.

The Raven on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah, Virginia

What you bring on your road trip will depend a lot on where you’re going, what you’ll be doing and what time of year it is. Since I always camp out and my main outside-the-car activity is hiking, I bring a tent, sleeping pad, two sleeping bags (one for me, one for the dogs), food kit and my daypack (the contents of which I’ll save for another post).

I actually have two tents: a very minimalist backpacking EMS Starlight tent (sadly discontinued) that I use when it’s just me and the dogs and a more spacious 4-person REI Hobitat tent for when I have company. Both are great tents – weatherproof, easy to assemble and not too bulky – that I would certainly recommend. If you have camping/ hiking gear questions, just ask!

All of my camping stuff (minus the big tent) fits into a plastic bin, which I keep in my trunk pretty much all the time. This way I’m less likely to forget something small, but essential like bug spray or a flashlight. The bin also keeps everything organized in one place so I don’t have lots of stuff floating around the car.

Plus, it gives me somewhere to put my sweet souvenir sticker collection!

A few other packing tips: always carry several gallons of water, at least one gallon for each person or dog in the car, per day. You can refill your water jugs at gas stations and rest stops and most campgrounds have potable water available, unless you’re in the desert (NM, AZ, UT, NV and southern CA).

Resist the urge to pack lots of extra stuff for “what-if” situations. For the car, I always carry a quart of oil and extra coolant and everything I need to change a tire (which I have done, by myself, on the side of a dirt road, in the middle of nowhere) and my AAA card. As for myself, I’ve stopped bringing lots of extra clothes and toiletries. In the event of catastrophic pants failure (which has never happened) or an urgent need for calamine lotion (which has) you can always pick up “what-if” things on the road.

As I write this post, I’m mentally packing for my weekend road trip to Colorado! Check back later today for my itinerary — I’m scheming up all kinds of adventures!

Previous How To Plan A Killer Road Trip Posts:

Roadtripping Rules

Part 1: Planning

Part 2: $$$

Part 3: Copilots

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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