Maybe you’re even considering skipping a whole month’s rent and taking it on the road in your less than RV/van status vehicle. Well, we have been there and these are a few things we learned and a few things we wouldn’t go out there without. This list focuses on those “boring” items to pack that you never think you are going to miss until you are out there and they seem like they will make or break a trip.
Inverter – a very convenient way to charge both a laptop and phones at the same time is through an inverter that plugs into the cigarette lighter. These are fairly inexpensive at around $30. The one we like to use is carried in store at Walmart. You can also find many varieties on Amazon for even less. We have had experience with the Walmart one going out occasionally, so recommend going with at least that caliber. But if you are on a very tight budget, go for the $10-12 ones you can find online.
Yeti Roadie Cooler – the perfect size for car travel. You may have to really squeeze the food in. Take fruits and vegetables out of the packaging and put in baggies with all the air squeezed out to make enough food for a couple days fit, but it will hold ice very well. Since we eat the Paleo diet, having all our meals with us and ready to be prepared on the road is very important. If you have any kind of diet you want to stick by, an excellent cooler really is a necessity.
Bug screens – a great Amazon only item. This is a sensational value at only $12! If you are sleeping in the car in the summer it is going to get hot. We’ve found the ideal temperature for sleeping in the car to be about 53 degrees. If it is close to 70 at night or higher, you will SWELTER in a car with the windows rolled up. And at those temps you will almost always have mosquitoes coinciding. Running the A/C is annoying and expensive. These cheap screens fit right over the window and work perfectly to solve this problem. They are stretchable nylon and fit most cars.
Pocket Juice – This handy portable and rechargeable device allows you to charge your phone without the car being on. It holds 4 full charges in between needing to be plugged in to charge itself. This is great if you want to watch Netflix or surf social media while winding down at a campsite or rest area. Your phone’s battery can drain faster than you’d think, especially if it is cold inside the car. We’ve gone to bed with 80% or more and woke up to a dead phone if the temps were around 30. Pro tip: sleep with your phone under your pillow to keep it warm.
Foam bed – nothing has made it easier to travel in a Subaru and feel at home than our makeshift bed made out of a foam mattress topper cut to size. We have traveled for nearly 2 years on this bed and it’s great to even pull out at friend’s houses if they don’t have guest bed, It fits in our tent too, so no need to bring sleeping pads!
After we cut the foam with an electric knife to fit the general size and shape of the back of the car, we wrapped it in an Allerease protector. These will not even allow dust mites in, and keep the foam from being infiltrated by any odor that gets into the car, protect from dust and stains, and really just make the foam bed last forever. Our newest project is going to be to double the thickness of the bed by cutting another one and adding it on top, all contained within the protector. With this approach, you can get up to 6 inches of foam and still have it be malleable enough to fold over and allow the back seat to be put back up during the day. We have found this is a great approach if you don’t want the car to be permanently built-out. The only potential downside of not having the bed on a wooden platform as seen in most builds is that there can be a slight slant to the backseat of a SUV, but for our Subaru which only has a 27” hatch height it would be like sleeping in a coffin if we elevated the bed on a platform.
A few other must haves:
Black out screen for window – a standard sun shade will do. If you end up at rest areas, you will need to block out the light to sleep. If you are needing it all blacked out, consider Reflectix cut to the size of your windows. We want to wrap ours up in a black fabric, as that silver can really not be stealth. Many people in the vanlife community swear by this material as a way to insulate against the cold and protect against the heat. They are expensive, so if you want to go the cheapest route, just make sure to get some sun shades for the side windows as well. If you are heading out on a budget car trip for one of the first times, you will end up at a rest area or parking lot at least once. Campsites are notoriously unavailable or unreachable due to terrain if you are planning on hitting first come first serve free and low cost sites. You will definitely want to block out the lights in parking areas overnight.
Squeegee – for wiping windows in the morning. I know this is a little gross, but most nights your breath will cause condensation on all the windows. Quickly take care of it with this. We keep it handy under the driver’s seat at all times.
Lap board – If there are two of you, the passenger can get some laptop work done on long drives. Also great for eating in the car.
Utensils – we like to have a set of regular utensils that we can wash and sanitize with wet ones, rather than relying on plastic ones.
Sunscreen and mosquito spray – don’t get caught buying this one on the road. One of the most overpriced items if you wait until you absolutely need it. Or you’ll end up at a trailhead and really just ending up hating that hike for one reason or the other.
Baggies – so vital when using a small cooler. We unpack all our perishable fruits and vegetables, as well as packaged meat into baggies we can squeeze into a bag to be airtight. Rotisserie chickens can be picked off the bone and baggied up to last for a couple of days too. We will use these to section off types of toiletries as well–and just so many other things. Gallon size work best in our travels. Make sure not to go cheap here or you will end up with the unfortunate “Walmart brand cooler water bag” incident, which is a great ruiner of tasty, expensive, and much labored over food. Hefty sliders are a good choice. And don’t be fooled by imitation slider bags. Target brand, Safeway brand, both have hit us with cooler water inside bagged food in the past.
Bpa free water bottles + gallon jugs – It gets hot in a car. Don’t pollute your body by using basic 24-pack waters or gallon jugs. Invest in some BPA free gallons to refill at the 25 cent water machines, or at the very least buy some BPA free little waters. Safeway 24-pack waters are now BPA free. And high end waters like Essentia are as well.
Laundry pods – don’t bring liquid detergent, just don’t. So many car mats met their end after this exploded at the top of the pass and we didn’t realize for hours–or days. We use All pods and they are great, free and clear, and not messy. We unbag them and put them in a hard container so they don’t get smashed.
A laundry bag – you’ll want to keep dirty clothes separated from what is still clean.
Blanket – in the winter we bring a nice comforter, and in the summer a light blanket. Shoulder seasons – sometimes both if we are traveling through a diverse set of climates. Early in our travels we used sleeping bags, but why…? Once we realized we wanted the road to be home, we could never bring a sleeping bag and treat it like we just going on a camping trip. Real quilts and blankets make it feel homey, and are just a no-brainer for us now despite their bulk.
A side note about our winter blanket – This blanket is warmer than our 30 degree sleeping bags. The sleeping bags only amplify one persons warmth and hey.. two bodies create a lot of heat! It is an awesome blanket to say the least. I wish I could find a link to it but we bought it years ago. The brand is Hotel Collection and we bought it from TJMaxx for $80. Money well spent.
Actual pillows – more bulk that might seem unnecessary at first glance. But we like to be really comfortable and to feel like we’re in a real bed as much as possible in the car. We take 4 pillows with us on our trips.
Shoes – sandals and regular running/hiking shoes – minimal shoes is the way to go. Shoes are bulky, just a few pairs take up as much space in a bag as nearly a week’s worth of clothes. We try to take only 2 pairs each on most trips–our Altras and a pair of casual sandals. We pack shower flip-flops separately in our gym bags. But that’s it usually. We don’t really go anywhere nice that often. We used to think we would and would bring so many shoes, especially on a trip that included Vegas. But we always ended up on the trail and at BLM land rather than at a casino and in a club. So maybe one pair of nice shoes…but that would be a special trip for us. Fighting with a “shoe bag” is one of our pet peeves. Since we use the shoes we bring so often, we usually just keep them loose on top of the pile of other travel bags.
Wet ones – great for cleaning everything from camp dishes to hands before you prep food to sanitizing your hands when you get in and out of the car–you might be surprised at how many sticky things you come in contact with in public… And spills in the car. One of our most used items.
Scissors – you will need these so much, cannot stress this enough.
Tape – can be like gold.
Our extras – these are expenses you may not want if you are just starting out with long-term car travel, but since we were able to get them lumped in with our Subaru’s financing, we have taken great advantage of their perks.
Thule “pod” – The rooftop pod goes on top of the car and fits over the racks of most SUVs and holds everything you don’t want to see all the time on your trip – tent, dirty clothes, backpacks, hiking gear…and the piano. That’s what we put up there.
Bike rack – no trip is really complete without the bikes! But they can be a pain. Getting in and out of the back hatch easily can be so valuable on a trip. We use a bike rack that inserts into the tow hitch and folds down so that the hatch will open easily. You can buy them for as few as 2 bikes or as many as 5.
Stay tuned for our complete pack list! Summer and winter version!