A road trip is an adventure. It doesn’t matter how far you go. But all adventures require a little planning (and one or two backup plans, in case things go sideways). We took our first testing road trip during far less complicated times than these. But with flying being so difficult and hotels sometimes out of the question, driving remains a relatively safe way to travel.
Our original trip, in 2016, included 60 hours of researching and testing gear to take on the open road. We packed all of our top contenders into a Honda Fit EX and headed out on a four-day jaunt to determine what’s nice to have, what’s great, and what’s absolutely essential for your next road trip. This year we’ve changed our perspective slightly to include social-distancing and camping picks, which should help you adhere to safe-travel guidelines, regardless of the state you’re in. We’ve also added several selections to take on hardier winter car trips.
After traveling for 1,500 miles, through four states and six national parks, we think we have a good grasp on what makes an excellent road trip. In addition to our own research and testing, we consulted with half a dozen engineers, mechanics, and other experts to bring you these picks. Our hope is that the recommendations in this guide will help you see more and explore farther down the road than you thought possible.
Below, you’ll find recommendations for: binoculars, coolers, emergency beacons, a first-aid kit, an ice scraper, inverters for your electronics, a multi-tool, phone mounts, a picnic blanket, a portable jump starter, ratchets and tie-down straps, a road atlas, stain remover, a stowable daypack, sun shades, sunglasses, tire-pressure gauges, a travel game, a travel pillow, water jugs, windshield water repellent, wipes, and so much more. Here are 55 items that will help you have a successful road trip, regardless of region or weather.
Even if you do have the best gear in the world, however, it’s always best to address small problems before they become emergencies. That’s why we asked Christopher Smith, a veteran automotive journalist with a penchant for restoring fixer-uppers, to help us put together some advice on how to prepare your car for a trip. (And he lives in South Dakota, where things are spread out, so he’s always prepared.) We cover everything from checking your tires and dipsticks to knowing what you should do if your car starts smelling like rotten eggs for seemingly no reason.
This guide isn’t specifically geared toward families, though almost all of the picks would be of use to a family traveling by car. We do have guides on infant car seats, the best travel car seats, booster car seats, cloth masks for kids, and water bottles for kids—all things that should come in handy on the road.
Stowing your gear
Being able to find what you need when you need it—whether it’s water, emergency lights, a change of clothes, or a granola bar—can be the difference between a short, easy stop that rejuvenates and a long, frustrating one that makes you question why you left home in the first place.
It all starts with packing. Don’t overthink it. I like to keep my items grouped: emergency gear in the back right of the trunk, water in the back left, spare batteries in the glove compartment along with the power inverter, and so on. After a few days, double-checking that everything is where it should be before heading off becomes a comforting ritual, and it helps mitigate the worry that you left … something … in the motel last night.
And don’t overpack. As with a bag, a well-packed car is one that has less than you think you want to bring but everything that you truly need. You don’t have to bring everything—just the things that are essential. Remember, you want to enjoy the drive. Not having to worry about countless items that someone might lose or misplace is a big step toward that enjoyment.
I spent many years working in rigging and rope access on offshore oil platforms, where I played with loads, angles, line pulls, and sheave-block friction percentages—in other words, I know a thing or two about strapping things down. You can find two common types of roof straps: ratchet straps, which have a mechanical lever and gear, and cam straps (sometimes called “lashing” or “loop” straps), which connect to themselves through a cam buckle. If I could choose only one type, I’d get ratchet straps because they’re easier to secure. More specifically, I’d get the Keeper Endless Loop Ratchet Tie-Down.
We spent several hours examining 22 strap options before landing on the Keeper product. Keeper is a reliable brand, and the ratchets are easy to tighten and loosen, thanks to their all-metal construction. (Cheaper ratchets are hard to release and prone to sticking or breaking due to their reliance on plastic parts.) At 13 feet long, these 1-inch straps are long enough for all but the most strenuous loads on the largest of vehicles, and their nylon webbing’s 400-pound working load limit and 1,200-pound break strength put them right in line with similarly priced straps. You could get something that’s heavier-duty or longer, but you’d be paying more for strength or length you don’t need.
On our trip, driving in a car without a roof rack, we used the Keepers to great success. The straps held a full water jug to the roof of our Honda for a few dozen miles through the backroads of Arizona with no issues. Other Wirecutter staffers have owned Keeper straps for years and vouch for their overall strength and durability.
If you prefer the simplicity of a cam strap or don’t need the extra force that a ratchet strap provides, we like the NRS 1″ HD Tie-Down Straps, which come in a variety of lengths. They’re pricier than more popular options, but the webbing is rated to a 1,500-pound breaking strength (the cam itself has a 2,000-pound breaking strength) and a 500-pound working load, in contrast with the 600-pound breaking strength and 200-pound working load of this best-selling Keeper set. Equipment of this grade may seem like overkill, but Wirecutter senior editor Mark Smirniotis has had several of the weaker cams fail on him when he was strapping loads to his Jeep. He noted in 2016 that of all the straps on Amazon with more than 25 user reviews, the NRS straps were the only ones that had no user reviews complaining of failed cams. NRS is primarily known as the premier kayaking- and rafting-accessory company, so the folks there probably know something about strapping awkwardly large loads onto cars.
For owners of compact cars who want to move long or oversize loads, like a kayak, we also like the Thule Quick Loop Strap. You secure these straps under the hood of your car (or the trunk, if you don’t have a hatchback) to create a set of forward anchor points to help stabilize the forward section of whatever it is you’re carrying. Judging from our testing, these straps are very quick to set up, and they can add a welcome level of versatility to tough packing situations.
- Always check the maximum load of your car’s anchor points, like the roof rack. Ratchet straps can apply a lot of force beyond just the weight of your belongings, so knowing your maximum load will help you avoid over-tensioning the straps.
- If the straps vibrate against the roof while you drive, adding a few twists in them can sometimes stop them from slicing the air.
- Don’t put knots in your straps, especially if you’re applying tension. Knots can cut through nylon with surprisingly little force. A knot will also significantly reduce the overall load your strap can handle.
- Never use bungee cords to hold anything down. They’re fine for stabilizing items but not for securing heavy loads.
In the driver’s seat
Driving can be fun, meditative, exhausting, and torturous. After five hours of driving through the desert, it can sometimes be all of those things at the same time.
To be honest, I don’t entirely understand the allure of driving. I got my license when I was 25. So driving has always felt more like a chore than anything else. Just another thing in a list of bizarre things I need to know about now but that will one day (and probably sooner than we expect) be obsolete.
A thousand little gadgets promise to make a long drive somehow easier. Most of them are useless and seemingly designed to distract you more than anything else. Try to avoid these items. The best gear is durable, unobtrusive, and easy to use—so you can keep your eyes (and your thoughts) on the road.
You will get bored—500 miles on cruise control with an automatic transmission can be a pretty dull time. Not always, of course, but sometimes it will be boring, and maybe that’s the point. In this frenetic age, that feeling is practically a luxury, and it’s essential to the trip. Revel in it.
It would be impossible for us to pick the best overall sunglasses, since your choice will ultimately depend on your personal style. We have picks for cheap sunglasses in a separate guide. But driving sunglasses are different because they’re designed to help you perform a specific task: driving safely. In that regard, Maui Jim makes the best sunglasses around, though they are something of an investment.
We compared a Maui Jim pair with more than 20 types of sunglasses, driving or otherwise, and found this pair to be the best of the bunch. The Maui Jim sunglasses had the clearest lenses, with no perceptible distortion, on the lightest frames we tested (0.6 ounces, or about half the weight of a wooden pencil). I’ve never encountered sunglasses that I can wear for hours on end without somehow hurting my nose, ears, or both. But during my trip there were a few afternoons when I had completely forgotten I was even wearing the Maui Jims—despite five-plus hours of driving with them on.
The clarity of the lenses was also a surprise. The Maui Jim lenses are so clear that it’s borderline unsettling the first time you try on these sunglasses. Thanks to the lenses’ exceptional clarity and polarization, everything—including the scenery around you and the road ahead—looks sharper through them.
As far as specific model recommendations go, I suggest scanning the offerings on the Maui Jim website and reading the fit descriptions to find something that matches your aesthetic sensibilities. Unlike companies that go by lens size only, Maui Jim lists face shape as part of its fit guidelines. That means you’re more likely to find what’s most comfortable for you on your first try. Just keep in mind that bigger lenses tend to be better because they offer more coverage.
Maui Jim glasses come with a two-year warranty. After checking with the company, we confirmed that it fulfills warranties on its sunglasses no matter where you buy them. However, Maui Jim will service only authentic lenses and frames that haven’t been modified in any way. You can tell whether the pair you have is genuine (and not a knockoff) by confirming that the Maui Jim logo is etched, not just painted onto the lens.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t use a phone at all while driving, and if you’ve got a copilot, you shouldn’t have to—you can delegate the phone-related tasks to them. But in reality, for many drivers, a phone is the source for navigation, information, messages, music, and (of course) phone calls. However, if you hold the phone in your hand as you drive—or look down at it in a cupholder or center-console bin—it can be a major distraction and safety risk. That’s why we recommend using a smartphone mount.
Whether it’s on a dashboard or windshield, this model is easy to set up, grips securely, and has a strong magnetic mount that supports most phones in any position.
I enjoy the simplicity of my phone with no accessories, so I like that the iOttie iTap Magnetic 2 mounts offer an attractively easy way to mount and unmount my phone with one hand. In our tests, the magnets in all three versions—dash/windshield, vent, and CD slot—were strong, supporting most of our phones vertically and horizontally over even the roughest terrain. Only the large, 6½-inch iPhone XS Max gave them some trouble when it was held horizontally; the mounts were solid with a 6-inch Google Pixel 2 XL.
To use the magnetic mount, you have to attach a small metal plate to the back of your phone or to the case. It’s safe for your phone, and we found this detail to be small, subtle, and attractive enough that we didn’t mind it. Often you can hide it entirely by attaching the plate to the inside of a phone’s case. But the plate could interfere with your ability to wirelessly charge your phone. If you want to be able to continue to use that function, consider the following options from our guide to wireless charging phone mounts.
This model delivered some of the quickest charging speeds and earned top results for stability. And with this one it’s easy to mount and unmount your phone.
This is the sturdiest vent-mounted model we tested, with fast charging speeds, a firm grip, and a quick way to attach and remove your phone.
The iOttie Easy One Touch Wireless 2—available as a dash and windshield mount or a vent and CD player mount—offers a convenient way to charge your phone in the car while also giving you easy access to audio controls, directions, messages, and more. In our tests, both models were among the quickest at charging our phones. The spring-loaded tension arms made attaching or removing a phone of any size very simple, and they held the phone steady while we drove. And both models offer a wide range of adjustability for positioning your phone where you can readily see it, regardless of the vehicle. iOttie also offers magnetic mounts (for both dashboard and vent) that are compatible with wireless charging.
Rain-repellent coatings and a snow brush
Rain and snow add stress to a road trip, and they also decrease your visibility and your reaction time in an emergency. Along with wipers, rain-repellent windshield coatings can help keep your windshield clear. If you want the most effective rain repellent, pick up the classic Rain-X spray bottle and commit to applying it once a month. If you simply want to give your windshield a boost, Aquapel is almost as effective and can last six times longer between applications—but it is very expensive.
Most auto-supply shops offer a huge variety of Rain-X products, including wiper blades, gels, and washer-fluid additives, but you should stick to the original formula in the 16-ounce spray bottle because it has the most reliably positive user reviews. Once applied, Rain-X forms a hydrophobic coating that causes water to bead up and quickly slide off your windshield. Most who have used Rain-X agree that it needs to be reapplied about once a month to maintain effectiveness. If your wiper blades start “chattering,” that probably means the coating is beginning to wear unevenly and it’s time to reapply.
If you can’t commit to applying Rain-X once a month, consider Aquapel. Instead of coating your windshield, it bonds to the glass chemically, and it should last for three to six months before you need to pull out another one-time-use sponge and reapply. YouTube user jwardell posted a 30-day comparison video that shows how Rain-X is more effective initially, but after a month Aquapel still works even after the Rain-X has all but worn off.
For either repellent, proper application is the key to getting the maximum benefit. You’ll need to start with an extremely clean windshield. Then clean it again just to be sure. Both of these repellents dry best in warm weather, out of direct sun. Even when perfectly applied, however, these substances have potential drawbacks. Some who have used them complain that the repellents cause noticeable haziness at night. Others report they had trouble getting windshield chips professionally filled after learning that the chemicals interfered with repair methods—though Aquapel’s site disputes such claims. Still, if you’re stuck in inclement weather on a road trip or a commute, either the original Rain-X spray or Aquapel can help increase visibility and decrease your stress levels.
The Hopkins tool combines a scraping blade and ice-crushing teeth to make quick work of thick or thin ice, and its plow-like bristle broom is the best we’ve tested—equally adept at shoveling snow off body panels and brushing it out from tight spots around mirrors and wipers. The Hopkins SubZero has a self-locking extension that’s easy to use when you want to fold the scraper away to make room in the trunk of your car. It’s of average size—39 inches folded up and 60 inches (5 feet) fully extended. But no other contender offers such a complete scraping-and-sweeping package with so few weaknesses.
Paper road atlas
With the advent of GPS units and smartphone navigation apps (both of which we recommend over the onboard navigation systems that might come with a car), the age of the paper road atlas would seem to be over. But don’t let anyone convince you of that. A road atlas is the heart of every road trip. It’s the inspiration.
Planning a road trip starts with imagining the places you could be next weekend, if you threw a few granola bars and some clothes into the backseat and left everything else behind. Of course, you could bring up Google Maps, look up the top-10 travel destinations near you, plan your exact route, and save a PDF to your digital device so you’d know exactly where to go and how to get there at each stage of your trip.
Or you could pull out a physical map and highlight a route. You might not know exactly what to expect when you get there, but you’ll definitely know that you can get there. And regardless of electronic-device failures, you will always have a map in hand.
For use in the car, we like the classic Rand McNally Road Atlas—just make sure to get an updated edition. Its oversize shape makes it simple to read and easy to spread out on the hood or in your lap, and the user-friendly design can’t be beat. This atlas’ arrangement of state and keyhole maps is the best for navigation.
As a test, we used the Rand McNally to complete the first leg of our trip, from Ventura to Joshua Tree, California, with no phones and no GPS, on roads we’d never driven before. The Rand McNally was simple, functional, and easy to follow. Most important, it was fun to use.
You can also sometimes find a variant of the Rand McNally Road Atlas with an attached Travel Guide. But what you get with the Travel Guide—including an exceedingly detailed list of Walmart locations, hotel recommendations, and simple landmark info—ends up being pretty shallow information compared with what you can find online.
We did read one complaint from somebody who began using that year’s map early: Some of the roads it listed as passable were still mid-construction at the time. If you’re buying a map in the middle of the year or later, you could play it safe and stick with the current year’s edition.
For most shorter trips, a smartphone can provide all the navigation assistance you need. But should your journey take you off the beaten path (and out of your coverage area), we suggest the Garmin DriveSmart 55. Like the best GPS models, the DriveSmart 55 can also connect to a smartphone via Bluetooth, which lets you send destinations to the device, get incoming messages onscreen, and receive extra trip and traffic info. The DriveSmart’s extensive points-of-interest database helps guide you to an area’s best sites and businesses through integrated Tripadvisor ratings, Foursquare listings, History network sites, and US National Park directories (something other brands’ models don’t offer). Similar to a smartphone, the DriveSmart 55 allows multi-touch gestures, such as pinching or spreading for easier zooming on a map. This feature is a clear step up from the resistive displays of less-expensive units, which allow only single-finger gestures and require you to tap on the plus and minus buttons to zoom in or out.
The DriveSmart 55 also provides helpful traffic info in many metro areas. It responds to voice commands as effectively as the best GPS units and (like other top models) includes free lifetime map updates—in contrast with the pricey updates you need to buy for many cars’ built-in nav systems.
Health and cleaning supplies
Road-trip and backpacking veterans know just how much better a shower can make an adventure after three days and a lot of smelly clothes. When taking a shower is not an option, or even if you just want to tidy up a bit after a long drive, body wipes can provide some much-needed relief.
We considered 22 brands and tested nine different body wipes, including some that were popular on Amazon and others that were recommended on the blogs of seasoned outdoorspeople.
Cheap, portable, and durable, the Sea to Summit Wilderness Wipes were the clear winners.
The wipes come in a resealable package, which helps keep them fresher for longer. You can find them in two sizes, XL (8 by 12 inches, in a pack of eight) and Compact (6 by 8 inches, in a pack of 12). On our trip, we preferred the XL wipes for their extra coverage and longer cleaning power. The fully compostable Wilderness Wipes were among the most lightly scented ones we tested, and the lack of alcohol left our skin feeling clean and moist.
Most disinfecting wipes are the same. Although we recommend Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, we advise getting any pack of wipes you can find that contains a disinfectant on the EPA’s List N (most have a bleach or quaternary ammonium base). During non-pandemic times, Clorox’s bleach-free wipes are usually sold in single canisters or in four-packs at a range of retailers. These wipes can eliminate the coronavirus on hard surfaces—countertops, door handles, and bathroom fixtures—in your home, vehicle, or motel room, but not on fabric or other soft materials.
Instead of bleach, which can damage car interiors, Lysol Max Cover Disinfectant Mist uses quaternary ammonium. It’s safe on hard surfaces and most fabrics, and it’s gentler on skin than bleach. It also produces fewer harsh fumes—which is good if you’re disinfecting the same space frequently. The Max Cover Mist eliminates the coronavirus on hard surfaces in 10 minutes, but on soft surfaces it only sanitizes (kills most but not all pathogens). The mist’s wide coverage should work well in cars and small spaces.
The slim elastic ear loops on this mask are gentler on ears than many thicker varieties. Cord stoppers, a nose-bridge wire, and a swimsuit-material-like outer layer mean this mask should mold easily to most faces. It has two-ply construction, and you can insert an additional layer (not included) into its filter pocket. But the fabric can feel hot with extended wear.
deal price includes shipping
This triple-layer poly-cotton mask is lingerie-material-light and easy to wear in and out of the car. It has cord stops on the ear loops, so you can easily get a good fit. To relieve ear pressure, you can loosen the loops or, even better, attach them to the enclosed hook, which joins them at the back of the head. An easy-access pocket accommodates a filter (not included).
The “best” cloth face mask is the one you’ll wear and not have to fuss with. Based on our research and testing, however, we do have a few recommendations for adjustable masks that we think will cover most faces comfortably and work well when worn properly. To help slow the spread of the coronavirus, any mask is better than no mask. We consulted a range of authorities—from fashion designers and textile experts to aerosol scientists and infectious-disease specialists—to zero in on the small but crucial design details that have an outsize impact on how a mask fits and feels, and, by extension, how it helps prevent person-to-person viral transmission. If you want to read more about selecting your own mask, check our full review here. For more information on respirator masks, here’s our review of those.
Our testing reveals that if you spend five hours a day in the car on a drive-thru-fueled cannonball run, there’s no way you’ll get to your final destination without having some kind of condiments disaster. I met my own inevitable conclusion outside an In-N-Out Burger on the last leg of our trip.
When the unavoidable happens, you’ll want something more than a napkin and ice water to clean up the mess. We recommend Shout Wipe & Go Instant Stain Remover Wipes. We tested them against other instant spot removers and assorted DIY methods to see how they handled wine, coffee, lipstick, and mustard stains.
In our tests, the Shout wipes easily outperformed the popular Tide to Go pen, and the Shout option was the only stain remover that erased almost all traces of lipstick on the collar of a shirt. These wipes also did pretty well on the ketchup I spilled.
The single-use towelettes won’t occupy much space in the car; you can throw a dozen into your glove compartment and barely notice they’re there. Plus, by using a single wipe per stain, you won’t risk depositing an old stain on another piece of clothing, as you might with reusable stain sticks.
An unfortunate side effect of following the advice to frequently wash your hands during this time: cracked and dry skin. Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion is thick enough to stay neat in your hand and thin enough to spread quickly and smoothly onto your skin. And unlike its competitors, this moisturizing lotion dries nicely without leaving a greasy film in its wake. And its neutral scent won’t follow you out of the bathroom or into your car.
Can a long road trip be comfortable? I didn’t think so. Long hours of sitting in one position, nights spent camping or sleeping in cheap motel beds, and breaks for indigestible fast food are a terrible combination. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
With a little planning and a few small luxuries, you can keep the enthusiasm of your trip alive. Skip the fast food, and instead pack your own snacks and water. Keep off the main highways, and pull over when the scenery strikes you (not when you’ve gone a certain number of miles). And stop for as long as you need. The cliché is unavoidable: It’s the journey that’s important, not the destination (though that should be good too!).
A good travel pillow is hard to find. You want something that won’t take up much space and can expand when it needs to. And, ideally, it will allow you to shape it for use as a shoulder or neck pillow when necessary—like when you’re on a plane or in the passenger seat of a car.
We found that the foam-filled Therm-A-Rest Compressible Pillow fit all of the criteria exceedingly well. During the day, it can fold in on itself (a drawstring holds it tight), which makes it easy to stow in a backpack or to toss into the backseat. When it’s in this tightly packed configuration, you can also use it as a shoulder and lumbar pillow. The Therm-A-Rest is a bit larger than your typical travel pillow when it’s packed down (about the size of a tissue box), but saving space is less of a priority when you’re driving instead of flying.
At night, the pillow unrolls and expands into a decent bed pillow, though side-sleepers with larger frames may say it has too little padding. But this is a travel pillow, of course, so it will never feel like your home pillow, which is all part of the fun somehow. I sleep on my side and back, and I found it exceptionally comfortable compared with camping pillows I’ve used in the past (although I did have to supplement it with a flannel shirt when I wanted to sleep on my side).
The Therm-A-Rest is well reviewed on Amazon and REI. And it’s available in a variety of colors and sizes, but we prefer the medium, for its mix of portability and support.
Silk sleeper wrap
Not all motels are created equal. Some are fantastic, with their bright neon signs truthfully advertising a cheap, clean, and convenient place to stay. But out there you can stumble across other motels—desperate, last-chance places you wouldn’t wish on anyone, and cursed by all of the bleary-eyed travelers who’ve been forced to stay in them for a night.
Sea to Summit’s Silk Stretch Mummy Liner is the best accessory to bring along for these situations. During long road trips, inclement weather, unexpected traffic, or poor planning (my personal downfall) may at some point prevent you from reaching your expected destination for the night and force you to stay somewhere you wish you didn’t have to. We can’t help you accept your fate, but we can make that night just a little easier to tolerate.
Lightweight and contoured, this mask fits comfortably and blocks light well for a wide variety of face shapes (though it’s best for those who sleep on their back). And the Nidra’s deep eyecups allow your eyes to flutter during sleep.
Not every bedroom on the road is as dark as some people would like. That’s why we recommend the Nidra Deep Rest Eye Mask. Its contoured eyecups rest over your eyes, giving them space to move, which makes this mask comfortable to sleep in—even when you’re sitting upright (as you might in the passenger side of a car). Although the mask is adjustable, with Velcro straps, restless sleepers may want to consider other options here. If the Nidra fits you well, its weightless feel can make you forget you’re wearing a mask at all as you continue to sleep in bright cars or poorly shuttered hotel rooms.
The Rumpl Down Puffy, which has a soft yet durable nylon shell that’s stuffed with water-repellent and sustainably sourced down, wards off the cold better, for the price, than the competition. It helps you to stay warm longer, inside or outside. So far in our testing, the Rumpl has survived four rounds in the washing machine without a snag (and it dried within an hour). And it was notably stain-resistant after encountering dirt, dew, and even coffee.
It’s not always easy to find a secluded spot on the side of the road. And if you do find a public bathroom that’s not out of commission, there are plenty of reasons why you might want to avoid it. The Tinkle Belle has a stable, rigid base and a flexible spout, which means it won’t collapse under you during use, as Wirecutter staff writer Nancy Redd learned while researching the topic. One of the longest and widest of all the single-piece reusable funnels Nancy tested, the Tinkle Belle makes less mess and is easy to use. The more coverage a funnel has, the lower the risk of leakage or spills. While you’re on the road, a simple rinse works fine for cleaning the Tinkle Belle. Although it’s larger than most funnels, the Tinkle Belle folds up for more-compact storage. For an additional $8, you get a matching case with your funnel.
Windshield protector and sun shade
If you’re traveling through a sunny area, a sunshade for your windshield is a worthwhile investment. We like the A1 Windshield Sun Shade, which we found to have the best combination of low cost, decent coverage, and ease of setup. Its pop-up design made it much simpler to install and stow than the accordion–style shades we tested.
It’s difficult to recommend just one sunshade for all cars because vehicles vary so much in size. But the A1 offers several sizing options, ranging from 59 by 19 inches to 69 by 36 inches (when fully expanded). Each of these size options can be compressed down to fit into a circular carrying case, which you can easily store on the door or underneath the seat. When you take the A1 sunshade out, the compressed plastic arcs inside the shade spring open to create a rectangular sunshade, which you can adjust to fit your car’s windshield. Amazon reviewers mention that the build quality is solid and that the metallic finish does a good job against the sun, particularly in hot Southern states like Florida and Texas. Several reviewers also recommend that you buy a size smaller than you think you need, however, to avoid excessive overhang.
Although we prefer the A1 shade’s popup design, it’s not completely foolproof. Even with the choice in sizes, you still might have difficulty arranging the two plastic circles (which provide rigidity) within the A1 into a shape that hugs both edges of the front window and that balances off the rear-view mirror. Gaps, loose corners, or overhangs are almost unavoidable. In the end, what you’re gaining in compactness and decent price, you’re losing in rigidity and reflective power. If you’re uncertain, measure before buying, or look into a custom shade like the WeatherTech, which is guaranteed to fit.
If maximum temperature reduction is your goal, invest in a custom-fitted WeatherTech SunShade. Thicker than the A1, the SunShade completely blacks out the windshield when you install it. It’s also very bulky—about the size of a yoga mat when rolled up—and difficult to store discreetly. But if you frequent sunny climates, it’s well worth the cost.
Passenger window UV protector/shade
We researched 14 shade models and tested two finalists before determining that the Britax EZ-Cling Window Shade is the best around. Available in a pack of two, it’s very effective and dead simple to install. The Mylar on the back provides some protection against UV rays, and it acts like a large sheet of cling film that seems drawn to your windows once you pull the shades out of the box; the black mesh on the inner surface blocks a good amount of sunlight while still allowing you to see through the shade. We like the EZ-Cling better than film-only shades because the EZ-Cling has a support ring of firmer material around its perimeter that makes it easier to install without getting wrinkles and bubbles. I have way more fun than I rightly should when I’m putting these things onto car windows.
Unlike similar models with suction cups, the Britax EZ-Cling doesn’t have any secondary or removable parts. Former Wirecutter senior editor Dan Frakes has used four other shades of various types over the past few years and has been dissatisfied with all of them. So he brought two EZ-Cling pairs for testing on a four-day road trip with his family. “They clung to the windows well,” Dan said. “They were a lot easier to install than both the suction-cup models and the flimsy film ones we’ve tried. We also removed them and reapplied them many times as our position relative to the sun changed, and it was easy to do so. Our only real complaint is that they’re small—they don’t cover an entire backseat window.” That kind of half-coverage won’t keep the sun off young children for too long, especially when the sun is low on the horizon.
Quick tip: Be sure to wipe your EZ-Clings with water when you first get them. A thin film protects the Mylar sheets during production, and it can leave a waxy residue on your car windows if you use the shades right out of the box without first wiping them down.
You could cross America with no plan at all and survive solely on fast food as your nourishment—without ever having to leave your car. But we don’t recommend that, especially during pandemic times. Packing your own snacks and bringing your own water is not only healthier but also safer—you never know when you might be stranded somewhere along the way.
We got stranded on our second day of driving, somewhere east of Joshua Tree, California, when we pulled off the side of the road onto a soft, sandy shoulder (we were new in this part of the country). The car’s dash thermometer read 105 degrees Fahrenheit. As we waited, I was thankful that Caleigh and I both had full water bottles, more water in the trunk, and plenty of food.
A highway patrol officer drove up, gave us a little lesson about sand, and pushed us out with no trouble. So things turned out fine. The beauty of a road trip is in the unexpected moments. You can be prepared for most of them by having a little food and water on hand.
This cooler is lightweight, sturdy, and easy to pack. With enough ice, it will keep contents cold for more than 24 hours without leaking or sweating. Its details, including stitching and superior insulating foam, set it apart from its competitors.
A cooler can carry everything from healthy snacks to emergency ice packs, so it’s one of those items that make long trips a lot more enjoyable. After several 500-mile days on the road, having a chilled container filled with cold drinks and body wipes is an incredible gift. We recommend bringing along our top pick for the best soft cooler, the Polar Bear 24-Pack Nylon Cooler.
The Polar Bear cooler is the best soft cooler we’ve tested at the price. (The price has gone up since our original testing, but we’re not sure if this is a permanent increase or related to stock issues due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It remains a good cooler at this price.) When the Polar Bear is open, it stands erect like a grocery bag, providing easy access for loading and unloading. The cooler zips closed with two YKK #8 zippers (YKK is the largest, and often considered the most reliable, zipper manufacturer in the world), and it folds down on either side, compressing into a rectangular brick. This shape allows for all sides of the closed bag to have equal insulation coverage—a feature many cheaper soft coolers lack.
The Polar Bear also held the most cans of any 24-pack cooler we tested, carrying 24 cans and 6 pounds of ice all at one time. However, when fully loaded, this cooler can weigh 24 to 26 pounds. Be sure to place your road-trip cooler somewhere accessible so you don’t have to lug it around too much.
Better insulated and less expensive than the competition, this cooler keeps ice for a week. And its well-designed drain port makes the Coleman easier to clean.
If you need extra insulation for longer hauls and don’t mind sacrificing a little extra space, we recommend the Coleman 70 Quart Coastal Xtreme Series Marine Cooler. Our testing shows that a hard cooler will almost always outperform a soft cooler in insulating ability (five-plus days, versus a soft cooler’s two-day average) and durability. So the hard cooler is a great pick for RVs, trailers, or boats. But hard coolers are also huge, so you might not have room for one if you’re carrying a bunch of other equipment.
The Hydro Flask Wide Mouth (20 ounces) is the most reliable, versatile bottle for road trips that we found. An insulated stainless steel bottle with a plastic cap, this model kept water cool for our entire 17-hour temperature test. It didn’t leak in any of our tests, keeping our bag and its contents dry. The mouth is wide enough that you can add ice cubes, and the Hydro Flask can adapt to many environments, including the car (it fits in a cupholder) and the gym (you can add a sport cap or silicone bumper). Our pick comes with the flex cap (a twist-off lid with a flexible carry handle), but we recommend picking up a straw lid.
Coffee and driving go hand in hand, and we think the Zojirushi SM-SA48 Stainless Steel Mug offers the best balance of heat (or cold) retention and versatility. Lighter and with a more-svelte lid design than that of its predecessor (and the competition), this Zojirushi mug is more pleasant to drink from, yet it retains its impressive insulating abilities. In testing, after a full eight hours and despite the mug’s slimmer design, coffee kept in the Zojirushi mug was 20 degrees hotter than coffee in the next mug down in our test group—just enough to make the difference between still-drinkable and lukewarm.
The 16-ounce Zojirushi mug is at the higher end of the price spectrum. But its well-designed exterior, one-handed usability, and foolproof locking mechanism are well worth the price. It will never, ever spill, regardless of how rough the road gets.
Edward Abbey wrote an entire book about being alone in the desert, long before portable screens, streaming music, and the best and worst of what instant entertainment can bring. He saw incredible things. But then again, Abbey wrote that book before he had kids.
Being in close proximity on a road trip can bond families and friends. Of course, a packed car could also become a pressure cooker. Some games, toys, and electronics can provide welcome relief.
Even more important, on our trip, every 100 miles the scenery around us changed drastically, and being able to charge our cameras allowed us to capture some incredible personal moments.
Lots of newer cars have USB ports capable of charging plenty of smaller gadgets. But to plug in bigger items, such as a computer, or certain items that have larger batteries, you’ll need an inverter to transform your car’s round-plug, 12-volt direct current (12V DC) outlet into a three-prong outlet with the same 120-volt alternating current (120V AC) you have in your home. After sending our three favorites, culled from a list of 18 top-rated inverters, to physicist Jim Shapiro for testing, we recommend the Bestek 300W Power Inverter for simple devices (like water boilers) and the Go Power GP-SW150-12 Pure Sine Wave Inverter for more-sensitive electronics (such as tablets or laptop computers). Not all inverters are equal, however, and you need to know what you’ll want to plug in before deciding which one to buy.
The Bestek unit—like every inverter that sells for less than $100—creates AC power, but in what’s called a “modified” sine wave. Shapiro examined this phenomenon using an oscilloscope. “Although the Bestek and similar units produce voltage at the same 60-hertz frequency as house voltage, the waveform has sharp corners, unlike the smooth, curvy sine-wave signal from your local power company,” Shapiro explained. “Those sharp corners give rise to higher frequency harmonics that are not friendly to electronic devices.”
However, because many electronics, including laptop computers, use power supplies to convert AC back into DC before delivering the power to your device, a higher-quality power supply can make the arrangement work—as user reviews attest. Shapiro was able to charge an iPad without any problems via the AC outlets on the inexpensive Bestek inverter. Charging a Dell Chromebook, on the other hand, caused some problems: “The screen flickered, and I noted that when I asked the computer to display the charging time left, that it oscillated between giving that time and ‘calculating,’ indicating that the software was having problems.”
While we were on the road, we realized that the Bestek’s dual USB ports and dual outlets offered a nice benefit, particularly for people traveling in an older car that didn’t have USB ports built in everywhere. You shouldn’t have issues charging USB devices because they charge off of DC voltage anyway. And though you can’t see them, safety features such as over-voltage and low-voltage shutdown are included as well.
If you do want to power a TV (for tailgating) or any other demanding piece of electronics during a road trip, the Go Power GP-SW150-12 Pure Sine Wave Inverter will serve you well. Though this device costs more than the Bestek, it’s one of the least expensive pure-sine-wave inverters available. Weighing 6 pounds and taking up as much space as a tissue box, it’s better suited to permanent mounting in a van than sitting between your seats in a sedan. In a compact car like the Honda Fit, it’s just too big and heavy to put anywhere. But if you need to plug in your gear, this is your best choice for 150 watts of pure sine wave power with overload and over-voltage/under-voltage protection, as well as a two-year warranty.
If your electronic gear doesn’t require AC—for instance, you’re charging smartphones or Bluetooth speakers more than laptops or TVs—you can save a few bucks and a lot of space by getting a car charger. Compared with the familiar USB-A port, the smaller USB-C port can charge most modern phones faster (if you’re using the right cable) and can even charge tablets and laptops. And the Nekteck PD 45W Type-C Car Charger provides the best of both worlds. When you’re using a USB-C–to–Lightning cable, the charger’s USB-C port can charge an iPhone about three times faster (at 18 watts) than the USB-A wall charger that comes in the box from Apple; your phone can charge from empty to roughly 50% in just half an hour (while you’re, say, sitting in traffic or running errands around town). This Nekteck charger’s 45-watt output and included USB-C–to–C cable also support the maximum charge rate on Android phones (such as the Samsung Galaxy S10), the 2018 iPad Pro, and even many laptops. And you can use the 12-watt USB-A port at the same time to charge a second phone or other device with any USB cable you already have.
The Besign BK01 offers great sound quality for music and good sound quality for phone calls. It also lets you pair two phones and access your voice assistant with the click of an easy-to-find button.
If your car lacks Bluetooth support—which you may want for wirelessly listening to music or connecting your phone calls over the cars stereo system—and you aren’t willing to swap out the stereo for a new one that has such a feature, your best option is a Bluetooth kit. You can check out our full guide for all the options—including an FM transmitter and a speakerphone. But the best and easiest way to add Bluetooth to most modern cars (with a line-in jack) is to get an aux kit. The Besign BK01 Bluetooth Car Kit provides good sound quality for music, clear-sounding voice audio for hands-free calls, and access to Siri or Google Assistant at the press of a button. It also allows you to connect two phones at once, so you and your passengers don’t have to duke it out for the aux cord.
iPad headrest mount
Depending on the length of your trip and the temperament of your backseat passengers, you may need to find a way to keep them occupied. Providing their favorite movies or TV shows on a tablet is an option. After testing six top tablet-mount contenders, we determined that Arkon’s Center Extension Car Headrest Tablet Mount is a great pick for viewing by multiple passengers, and LilGadgets’s CarBuddy Universal Headrest Tablet Mount is a good choice for just one set of eyes.
The CarBuddy mounts easily and reliably behind a front headrest, for viewing by a single rear passenger.
May be out of stock
Both mounts attach to the metal rods that support a front seat’s headrest. The Arkon model anchors with a pair of adjustable clamps that tighten around the rods; the tablet holster is located on the end of an extendable pole that you can move to a position between the front seats, where all three passengers in the backseat can view it.
The LilGadgets mount fits directly on the back of a head rest, and since it stays centered there, only one person can view the tablet. It mounts with adjustable claws that tighten into place around the headrest support rods; spring-loaded arms extend to hold two of the tablet’s four corners. This mount can support devices, in or out of cases, ranging from 7 inches to 11 inches, and you can turn the holder to the desired orientation. Mountek’s Reach works pretty well, but we don’t love it for kids because it uses magnets to hold the iPad in place, meaning the tablet is easier to remove. We didn’t like TFY’s Car Headrest Mount Holder, since it wobbles quite a bit, positions itself too high up, and doesn’t work with tablets in cases.
With a smartphone, showing a photo to hundreds of your followers is as easy as pressing the share button (and we have to admit that Instagram becomes oddly compelling on a road trip). But if you want to create something tangible, an instant-film camera can add a fun and welcome dose of analog charm to your digital world. Our new pick is the updated version of the Fujifilm Instax Mini 90, and it offers a better-quality photo on a slightly larger print.
Also, when your phone is serving as a radio, a map, a restaurant guide, and whatever else, you’ll appreciate having a dedicated tool that does one thing: take instant shots that look great.
After doing extensive research, we found the Fujifilm Instax Square SQ6 to be the best instant-film camera. This easy-to-use model takes better photos than most instant cameras, and if you want to put in more time and effort, the Instax has plenty of manual controls to fiddle around with, and it offers a built-in macro mode and additional exposure options. A tripod socket and self timer allow the photographer to join group shots, and everything is packed into a retro-cool body.
You can find countless travel games for all ages, from magnetic chess boards to Adult Mad Libs, and we’re not about to review them all here. (You know what kinds of games you like to play.) So instead we’ll tell you about the game we chose, Chat Pack: Fun Questions to Spark Conversations.
I am, as a rule, generally wary of anything designed to prompt conversation. But by day three of our trip, with 1,100 miles behind us and 400 miles ahead, my then girlfriend (now wife) reached for Chat Pack and told me it was time.
It’s hit or miss with Chat Pack. Some of the questions are oddly inspiring, if clunkily written: “What is one item you own that has virtually no monetary value but has such sentimental value that you would not sell it for $1,000?” So, what item do I have that has no value but remains precious? My grandmother’s wire glove stretchers. And that became an hour-long conversation.
Some of the questions were abrupt duds: “If rain could fall in any scent, what scent would you want it to be?” “Like rain,” we both answered. Who doesn’t love the smell of fresh rain? The feeling of camaraderie in the car was strong; we agreed that it was a dumb question. We were a young couple on an open road in full accordance with each other, and that’s not a moment you take lightly.
So get a Chat Pack. Your mileage may vary. But this pack helped us pass the time, and it takes up barely any space.
Make time in your trip for the detours. If there’s one bit of non-gear-related advice we can give, it’s that the complicated route always proves to be more interesting. There will be times in the car when a sort of tunnel vision can set in, and the destination becomes all-consuming. At my worst, as I pressed down on the accelerator, I found myself mentally calculating the time saved for every increase in miles per hour—as if the scenery I was flying past wasn’t what I’d come to see in the first place.
The first time we pulled over without a plan was on some Bureau of Land Management stretch east of Zion National Park in Utah. We were alone, on an outcropping overlooking a shallow canyon. Someone had built an impromptu fire pit. But somehow it wasn’t until we finished lunch that we realized there was no point in going any farther.
You can find many ways to plan a trip. But once in a while, take a risk and make a left when all the maps and devices are telling you to go right. You won’t know where you’ll end up—and that’s the whole point.
Binoculars might not be a necessity. But when you’re standing on the edge of a trail in Zion National Park and looking for nesting peregrine falcons, or lying at the edge of your campsite in Joshua Tree watching a pack of coyotes move under a full moon, will a good pair of binoculars come in handy? Yes. Yes they will.
The waterproof and lightweight Athlon Optics Midas ED binoculars boast a rugged shock-absorbing exterior. And this pair’s optical clarity and extra-wide field of view allow you to see more of the scene, more clearly and accurately. In fact, the professional ornithologist who tested binoculars for us said things looked every bit as good through the Athlons as they looked through his $2,500 Leica Ultravids.
And the Midas ED’s optics aren’t the only strong suit: These are exceptionally durable binoculars that easily withstood the humid, dusty, and hostile environment of the Mexican rain forest and harsh sun of the Californian desert. Also, their focus dial adjusts reliably and smoothly across a wide range of depths, making it easy to focus on what you’re trying to see, no matter where it is.
It’s always a good idea to have a bag on hand for spontaneous off-the-road excursions. But anything that’s going to take up space on a trip needs to be functional enough to hold cameras, snacks, jackets, maps, and souvenirs. And it needs to be durable enough to survive beach trips, sightseeing, picnics, and museum tours.
After researching dozens of packable daypacks across a spectrum of portability, features, and prices, and then packing, unpacking, loading, wearing, and drenching the top-rated finalists during multiple rounds of testing, we’re confident that the Patagonia Ultralight Black Hole Pack 20L is the best for most travelers. It matched or beat every other pack we tested for organization, ergonomics, design, and construction quality. If the Patagonia is unavailable or you want something more affordable—or if lightness, waterproofing, and portability are more important to you than comfort and organization—check out the alternative picks in our review of packable daypacks for travel.
There’s only so much time you can spend in a car without needing to pull over to pause, stretch your legs, and take in the scenery. We stopped dozens of times on our trip, and we were glad every time we were able to take a side road, pull out a blanket, and find a place to sit down and share some food.
After considering 44 picnic blankets and testing 13, we think the two-person Nemo Victory Blanket offers the best combination of comfort, durability, and compactness. With an acrylic flannel top and a padded waterproof polyurethane underlayer, the Victory is thick enough for you to lie on without feeling every stick and twig underneath you. This blanket’s woven flannel can withstand people walking, rolling, and jumping across it from time to time, and it feels better on the skin than fleece competitors. We even used the Victory Blanket as a tent pad for two nights.
Most convenient of all, when you’re done with your day in the sun, the Victory Blanket compresses neatly into a 14-by-6-inch roll, thanks to an attached flap with two sewn-on elastic bands. The two-person Victory Blanket measures 86 by 50 inches; it’s also available in an expansive 90-by-90-inch, four-person model, for about $40 more.
On most road trips you’ll be exposed to the sun, whether it’s your arm out the window or your legs and neck during a pit stop, so we recommend bringing some sunscreen along. After 60 hours of research and interviews, we recommend Coppertone SPF 70 sunscreen for everyday use. It’s water-resistant (not all sunscreens are) for up to 80 minutes, the maximum amount of time a sunscreen can claim to be, per FDA guidelines. For its SPF rating, it has a thin texture, making it among the easiest sunscreens to apply out of the ones we tested; this means you’re far more likely to use the dermatologist-recommended dose of 1 ounce per hour in the sun (if you’re wearing just a swimsuit). The one exception: your youngest passengers. Do not put sunscreen on an infant. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends keeping children who are younger than 6 months out of the sun entirely.
Just in case
Having an emergency kit in your car is a great idea for day-to-day driving, but it’s pretty much a necessity for long-distance road trips. That said, although buying a preassembled kit and being done with it is tempting, we haven’t found a great one yet. Even the most promising options suffer from having jumper cables that are too short, too thin, or both. Basically, if you want a good kit, you’ll have to make it yourself, and we’re here to help.
We spent hours researching and testing each of these essentials to ensure that they’ll be useful in case of an emergency, whether it’s your own or someone else’s.
On a desolate stretch of two-lane highway in northern Arizona, we were driving behind a rental camper van just as it had a rear-tire blowout after hitting a rumble strip. The couple driving the van couldn’t find their jack, didn’t know where the spare tire was, and had come to a stop just past a low dip in the road. It wasn’t a good scene. But it couldn’t have happened at a better time (for them, at least). And it gave us a great opportunity to put our emergency gear to the test!
It’s also wise to get a membership to a roadside assistance program. We don’t have a single best recommendation for everyone, since your options and needs vary depending on what car you have, how you use it, and where you live, but here’s a good guide by Popular Mechanics on what to look for in choosing a plan. Basically, make sure your plan fits your needs. For example, if you live in a city, 3 miles of free towing may be enough. But if you’re going on a road trip across the desert, paying for more range is worthwhile.
On the road, a first-aid kit is useful for keeping someone comfortable until people with real medical expertise can help. It’s much more important to have a basic kit with you—and to be sure that the bandages haven’t degraded and the disinfectants haven’t expired—than to have a 432-item, war-zone-worthy kit sitting at home.
We like the First Aid Only First Aid Essentials Kit. It lacks some of the higher-quality tools that we recommend for a wilderness first-aid kit, but it comes with plenty of bandages, alcohol prep pads, pain relievers, and equipment to treat up to four people’s minor cuts and scrapes on a weekend trip. (For an extensive list and comparison chart, see our full guide.)
After spending two years researching car shovels and testing five contenders, we found that the best one to keep in the trunk for an emergency is the Voilé Telepro Avalanche Shovel. (Since we tested, Voilé has updated its line of shovels. Its new model has a blue handle and two holes in the scoop, but otherwise it’s the same.)
The tool, popular with ski patrols and people clearing backcountry trails, has a solid metal scoop and a two-piece handle that clicks together to form a sturdy shovel. Our tester keeps the Voilé in her truck every winter, and it’s come in handy more times than she can count. Though the Voilé is too short to be a primary shovel, it’s perfect for any kind of fast shoveling. When not in use, the shovel breaks down into three pieces, which can be tucked neatly under a car seat or in the back.
Checking your car’s tire pressure (including that of the spare tire) is like flossing: It’s something we all should do but don’t. Proper inflation is vital: Too much, and you’ll feel every bump and have more difficulty stopping your car; too little, and your tires will wear faster. Worse, they’ll also overheat, which can separate treads and blow the tires, something we saw happen right in front of us in the middle of nowhere in Arizona. Don’t let that happen to you.
When we asked three different San Francisco Bay Area tire shops which gauge they used, they all pointed to the Accu-Gage 60 PSI with shock protector. After our testing, which included road-tripping with the tool ourselves, the Accu-Gage has emerged as our favorite tire gauge for several years running. It’s accurate and durable, and unlike a digital gauge, it has no battery to wear out. The Accu-Gage is available in several different configurations, but the performance is largely the same. We prefer a version with a hose attached and a straight chuck, because that design makes it easier to hold the gauge and check the tire pressure at the same time. The version we tested even comes with a removable rubber bumper in case you drop it.
If you prefer digital, get the Accutire MS-4021B. The digital readout is easier to decipher than an analog dial (though it rounds to the nearest 0.5 psi), and the device is cheap. But you do need to factor in the periodic cost of two watch batteries; according to owner reviews, they need replacing every six months. Other reviewers complain about the Accutire’s durability. Magazine reviewers say digital gauges are more precise than analog dial gauges—often showing one or two decimal points—but the professional mechanics we talked to all use analogs. As one tire mechanic said of digital gauges, “They’re consistent, but consistently inaccurate, usually off by a full pound when compared to our gauges.” If you can tolerate reading an analog dial, we’d go with the Accu-Gage.
Portable jump starter
In the past, we’ve avoided recommending jump-starter battery packs because the sealed lead-acid batteries (basically a small version of your car battery) were heavy, bulky, expensive, and a pain to store and keep charged. But newer models based on lithium ion batteries are small enough to fit in a glove box, capable of holding a charge far longer, and available for less than $100. They can also recharge your phone, tablet, and other devices in a pinch.
After researching 40 portable, lithium ion jump starters and testing 12 models, we recommend the Weego Jump Starter 22s as the best jump starter for most drivers. It delivers the most impressive combination of power, safety features, build quality, and value of any model in our test group. For an accessible price, the Weego has enough oomph to start most cars and midsize SUVs, and it has the capacity to do so time after time without needing a recharge (though you should plug it in every few months to top it off). Adding one to your car can save the day when a dead battery leaves you stranded. Instead of calling for roadside assistance or waiting for a good Samaritan to pass by with jumper cables, you can use a portable jump-starter pack; it has its own high-capacity battery that attaches to your car’s battery just as jumper cables do.
When you start your car, the starter motor pulls a lot of power from your car battery for a short amount of time. Once the internal combustion engine turns over, it sends power back to the depleted battery via the alternator. A battery can die for a number of reasons—lights left on all night, a failing alternator, or even just regular dissipation (after you haven’t driven your car for a few weeks). Aside from buying a new battery, generally you have two solutions to choose from. The first (and arguably better) option is to attach your battery to a trickle charger, which will safely and slowly charge your battery back up, typically over 12 hours or more. But when you’re on the side of the road, that method won’t help you. Jump starting your car (whether from another car or from a jump-starter pack) gives it enough juice in the first few seconds for your engine to take over and (if all goes well) charge your battery the rest of the way when you’re back on the road.
A portable jump starter is also easier to use than traditional jumper cables. And if you hook it up incorrectly, the PowerAll unit’s safety features, like reverse protection and audible alarms, will protect both you and your car. The clamps are sturdier than those on most other models, and they make a solid connection to a variety of battery-post shapes and sizes. The battery pack, clamps, and included wall and car chargers all fit in a handy plastic case, which you can easily stow under your seat or in your trunk until you need it.
If you’re a die-hard jumper-cable partisan, make sure the ones you get are long enough for most scenarios and thick enough to carry sufficient current to jump most vehicles.
After scrutinizing the specs of dozens of options and having an electrical engineer analyze three top-rated models, we’d recommend the AAA Heavy Duty 16-foot 6 Gauge Booster Cables. As this image illustrates, these cables are long and thick enough for most situations, and their 400-amp current rating means they can handle most vehicles (even trucks and SUVs). They also come with a surprisingly sturdy and convenient mesh storage bag.
One thing that sets the AAA cables apart from other cables we found on Amazon is that the 6-gauge description is accurate. For example, Capri sells a 4-gauge, 20-foot cable that reviewers say is closer to 8-gauge. That’s no good, because thinner cables can fail to deliver sufficient current to start trucks, SUVs, and other larger vehicles.
If you’re unfamiliar with how to use jumper cables, familiarize yourself. But lest you forget, AAA includes a handy diagram in the bag. The important thing to keep in mind: Do not attach the black clamp to the black post of the dead battery. Instead, clamp it to an unpainted metal surface under the hood. Also, don’t touch the exposed parts of the clamps together while the cables are hooked up to a battery; they will spark.
We’ve been testing headlamps since 2012, including 40 hours of research and testing in 2019 alone. For a road trip, we like the Petzl Actik Core because it’s rechargeable—unlike our top pick, the Black Diamond Spot 325—so you won’t ever get caught with a dead battery, as long as you have a USB car charger on hand. Its 450-lumen light is the brightest of all our picks. We didn’t like that it’s missing a flood feature (which is helpful for camping), and it has a lower-than-expected weatherproof rating.
Twice during our trip we pulled into our camping site late, and our headlamp was the first thing we reached for. Knowing it was always charged meant that we didn’t have to hunt for batteries or use our car lights and disturb neighboring campers.
Right out of the box, the Petzl Actik Core was easy to use. It has just one button and three brightness options: low (6 lumens), medium (100 lumens), and high (450 lumens). If you hold down the button for several seconds, the color turns to red; double-clicking lets you access the Strobe setting. Compared with some other rechargeable headlamps, which require complicated clicking configurations to get to the desired setting, we found this one to be simpler, though we lamented its lack of a flood beam. We also liked the double-button setup of the Black Diamond Spot 325 and Vitchelo V800 a bit better than the Actik Core’s single button.
To keep yourself safe while your car is parked on the side of the road, we suggest StonePoint LED Emergency Beacon flare alternatives.
We like the StonePoint set because, for the price of one high-intensity model like the PowerFlare, you get three separate lights that are all crushproof to 20,000 pounds, waterproof, magnetic, and easy to set up and turn on. The magnets are important because they let you mount the beacons on your car, which adds height; having a flare anywhere above the surface of the road greatly increases your visibility. By putting one on the road (preferably elevated on something and located about 100 feet before your car), another on the trunk, and another on the hood, you’ll create a very visible early warning for drivers.
Traditional magnesium flares will almost always be brighter and more visible. But their hazards—both to your health and to the environment around you—are substantial (read the health and environmental hazards section (PDF) for a breakdown of the risks and the potentially harmful chemicals involved). Combine that with the fact that you can mitigate any differences in visibility simply by elevating an electric flare, and you end up with a compelling argument against using traditional flares.
Of the three brands we tested, we couldn’t figure out how to open or turn on the Wagan. And the Smittybilt U.F.O., though tough, wasn’t very effective during the day and came only one to a package. Only the StonePoint beacons were easy to fill with batteries and get onto the road exactly when we needed them. They also happened to be the brightest flare alternatives we had with us.
I should take a moment here and repeat what the responding officer told us when he arrived on the scene. Regardless of what safety beacons you have laid out behind you, “Stay off the road, and when in doubt stay in your car.”
No emergency kit is complete without a multi-tool. Most minor situations—such as a loose Phillips-head screw or needing to create a rag for checking your oil—are easily fixed as long as you have the right tool. Multi-tools are small enough to carry in a jeans pocket or to attach to a belt, so you can take a set of useful tools almost anywhere. Our choice is the Leatherman Skeletool CX, which comes with pliers, a bit driver, a pocket clip, and a carabiner/bottle opener, in addition to a high-quality, 2.6-inch 154CM carbon-fiber stainless steel blade. The Skeletool stood out from the other 19 multi-tools we tested because it focuses on the functionality, ergonomics, and solid construction of a few essential tools, instead of cramming dozens of different tools into a single bulky body that makes it difficult to use. That means it’s easy to carry but still has just about everything you could possibly need (short of a hammer and a socket set) to make an emergency repair in the field and on the road.
If you can’t duct it, fuhgeddaboudit. We tested the hell out of 10 rolls of duct tape and chose Duck Max Strength above the competition for its perfect blend of attributes: high material strength, a strong adhesive, and superior overall flexibility (for easy wrapping around odd shapes and curved surfaces). Is it an absolute necessity on the road? No. But the moment you need to fix a ripped tent wall or a way to keep motel shades shut, you’ll be glad you packed some duct tape. It’ll even handle first-aid duties, when the right materials for the job are unavailable. Duct tape is, as any MacGyver fan will tell you, a very useful tool.
The general rule for water in an emergency is that one person needs one gallon of water for one day. Four to five gallons is a good amount to throw into your trunk—enough to get you through being stranded, even with a passenger. You should increase that estimate if you plan to go out in the middle of nowhere, or if your travels take you to a desert region or some other dry place. We found on our trip through the Southwest that we were refilling our water bottles a lot more than we were stopping for gas.
After researching 16 different types of water jugs, we recommend the Reliance 4-Gallon Aqua-Tainer for most situations. The Reliance has two standout features: a screw-on vent cap and a spigot cap that reverses in on itself when not in use. These features work together to prevent major spills. The screw-on vent cap won’t come undone, unlike the pull-top vents on some competitors, which tend to come undone and spill water as soon as you hit anything other than the smoothest roadways. Spigot caps can be a weakness for some jugs, too. When not in use, the Reliance’s spigot unscrews and drops into the jug itself, sealing up the whole canister nice and tight. We used the 4-Gallon Aqua-Tainer on our road trip. It can provide water for two people for two days, but for more people, consider the 7-Gallon Aqua-Tainer.
The Reliance Aqua-Tainer is made from BPA-free molded plastic. It’s easy to pack around in the trunk of a car—certainly easier than large, bladder-type jugs (like the MSR Dromedary Bag), which, though excellent for camp showers and good for a backpack, are too difficult to pack around in a trunk because of their non-rigid shape. The Aqua-Tainer’s hard sides also make it easier for dispensing water from, say, the roof of your car. But be sure to throw a shirt or towel under the Aqua-Tainer before setting it atop your car like this: We learned the hard way that the molded plastic edge can scratch your car’s paint job if you’re not careful.
Before investing in a jug, you should know that water kept in plastic bottles won’t harm you, even if left in a hot car. A 24-pack of Poland Spring is not environmentally kind, but it is safe for a brief trip. Avoid gallon jugs, since they’re typically made out of HDPE plastic, which punctures easily. (Such jugs also have caps that pop off easily.) We wouldn’t buy collapsible jugs, either, since they are prone to leaks and are unruly when pouring.
Preparing for a road trip
It takes only a few minutes to get your vehicle checked out for a proper road trip. When in doubt (or when preparing for a really long trip), see a mechanic first. There are plenty of potential mechanical troubles that a professional can identify—and that you’d rather learn about in their shop than on the side of a highway. Use these tips to determine—based on the age of your car and what you need done—where to go for help.
- Dealership service departments: newer vehicles covered by factory warranty, or when specialized service is required.
- Independent mechanics: general maintenance items such as brakes, steering, suspension, exhaust, and fluid changes.
- Quick oil/lube centers: oil changes only.
Getting word-of-mouth advice from family and friends remains a very good way to find reputable mechanics. Sites such as RepairPal and Yelp are also helpful. And don’t forget to check local Facebook community groups.
The vehicle inspection: six key areas
- Under the hood: Check the engine oil, transmission fluid, engine coolant, windshield wipers, washer fluid, and brake fluid.
- Tires: Check for proper inflation and good tread that doesn’t show uneven wear. For inflation, consult your owner’s manual to find your tires’ recommended PSI; don’t go by what’s printed on the side of your tire, which is the maximum PSI. For tread wear, stick a penny into the center (not the edge) of each tire’s treads, with Lincoln’s head facing down—if you can still see the top of Lincoln’s head, the tire is worn out. Also, if you have a spare tire, check it and make sure that a jack and a lug-nut wrench still accompany it. If you don’t have a spare, consider getting one from a dealer or a salvage yard. Or invest in an emergency roadside repair and inflation kit—like the Slime 40013 Smart Spair Emergency Tire Repair Kit—that includes sealant for small punctures as well as a small air compressor for re-inflating tires. At the very least, bring along a portable sealer product kit like Fix-A-Flat—but be aware that these products work only on very small punctures in the tread and could ultimately require you to replace your whole tire. So it’s really better to have a spare, if possible.
- Lights: Check all your bulbs, including the turn signals, headlights (high and low beam), brake lights, parking lamps, reverse lights, and license-plate lights.
- Smell test: You can sniff out potential problems in your car by paying attention to its odors.
- Sulfur/rotten-egg smell: You have trouble with your exhaust or emission system that could be dangerous. Get your car to a mechanic immediately.
- Sweet smell: This scent indicates an engine coolant leak; the smell could be strong when you’re using the heater, and accompanied by fogged-up glass. The coolant is toxic, and when it runs out, your engine will overheat.
- Burning carpet/paper smell: Your brakes are hot. Smelling this after you’ve used your brakes hard (such as after coming down a mountain) is not unusual. But if you smell this while you’re driving around normally, it means your brakes might be stuck, which is a serious problem.
- Musty/mildew smell: This odor is generally attributable to water getting stuck in the ductwork for your heating and air conditioning. It usually indicates that a drain plug is blocked, which you sometimes can fix just by running your fan on high for a few minutes.
- Burning rubber smell: Unless you’re doing burnouts, this smell can be caused by slipping engine belts or a tire rubbing. In these cases, the smell is usually accompanied by a noise, namely squealing (with belts) and grinding (with a tire rubbing).
- Noise test: Cars make lots of noises, and the following are some that should get your undivided attention.
- Clunking or rattling over bumps: This sound can indicate a variety of problems with the steering or suspension, but it often points to worn plastic or rubber bushings that allow contact between metal components. In extreme cases, these components can fail, causing major damage or even loss of control, if the vehicle is moving.
- Clicking or groaning sounds when turning: Clicking is a sign of imminent axle shaft failure on front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicles, so get to a mechanic immediately if you hear this sound. Groaning noises are less serious and occur because of a lack of lubrication in steering components or bushings.
- Loud humming that increases steadily with speed: This sound almost always points to a bad wheel bearing, especially if the noise gets louder or quieter when the car is turning.
- Grinding, squeaking, or squealing when stopping: Squeaking and squealing happen when the brake pads are worn and need replacing. Grinding means the pads are already gone and you’re pushing metal against metal when you stop.
- Feel test: The following are a few situations that should warrant a visit to the shop.
- Soft or spongy brake pedal: Brakes should be firm; a soft pedal means something is wrong. Either you have a mechanical problem or the brake fluid is leaking.
- Shimmies or vibrations: These sensations usually indicate a bent rim or that a tire is out of balance, but they can also be signs of loose steering or suspension parts.
Before heading out, check these commonly taken-for-granted aspects of road-tripping.
- Update your GPS system. Factory-installed GPS devices generally receive updates once a year and require CDs, SD cards, or USB thumb drives purchased from the manufacturer for installation through a dealership. Mobile third-party GPS units get updates throughout the year, and you can install the updates via most home PCs through a simple download from the GPS manufacturer’s website.
- Make sure you have maps or a paper atlas. Sometimes technology fails. Having a current map for backup is always a good idea.
- Make sure you’re covered by a roadside assistance program. Auto-club programs are the most common source of roadside assistance plans, with companies such as AAA and Good Sam offering coverage to members regardless of what vehicle they drive or its age. Most new cars, however, come with complimentary roadside assistance that lasts a certain number of miles or a certain number of years, whichever happens first. So check your owner’s manual (and read the fine print, since these plans can be very limited). Many auto insurance companies also provide vehicle-specific roadside assistance, usually for a monthly fee. Some credit card companies, such as American Express, offer a mix of complimentary and basic fee services, and even cell phone companies are now offering basic services to customers. Verizon’s roadside assistance plan costs $3 per month and covers any vehicle, as long as the phone is present. Most of these plans have limitations and plenty of fine print to study, so carefully review your coverage before hitting the road.
About your guides
Kit Dillon is a senior staff writer at Wirecutter. He was previously an app developer, oil derrick inspector, public-radio archivist, and sandwich shop owner. He has written for Popular Science, The Awl, and the New York Observer, among others. When called on, he can still make a mean sandwich.