The Packing List
For a 100-day Roadtrip across North America
After a few weeks on the road and 15000 kilometers, I got to think about the stuff I brought that was either essential, circumstantially useful, or dead weight.
This list is for a car roadtrip. You’ll have more than an ultralight backpack, be 90% as self-sufficient and as comfortable as you were at home, and drive the car you already have rather than a bus which can become pretty cumbersome through cities and mountains.
Backpackers would find most of the stuff wastefully redundant, while RV travellers might ask if I need disaster relief.
Most things in my over-packed car would fall under these categories:
Food and Cooking
Other (Tools, Safety Gear & Other)
Before I start, I suggest that you take a timelapse of you packing, so you know where things are in the car. It’s essential to stay organised on a trip like this, in a car packed with stuff on top of each other. You don’t want to take out all your stuff every time you’re looking for something. You also don’t want to go to into a mild panic because you can’t find your hard drive with 1.44TB of photos and videos after a 73-minute search.
I love trying local food and restaurants, but for cost and convenience reasons and, more importantly, the fact that nobody will prepare your food in the wilderness and national parks, making your own food is quite important.
The most useful things here are a propane stove and a pan. Whether it’s a portable one or a fancier version (with stove top, BBQ grill and embedded lighter), this is your quickest, most reliable and cheapest source of heat. Playing with campfire takes at least 1/2 hr and can only be done in very specific places. Since there isn’t always running water for washing, a non-stick pan makes that a bit easier.
Some people (me) often forget plates, utensil, salt, pepper or cooking oil. Don’t be like me. But you can always pillage some from fast food restaurants. Heat resistant and insulating tools like wooden chopsticks are really handy for playing with food over the campfire.
You can heat can food or water while driving, with an electric mug. It only costs $20, takes almost no effort other than plugging it in, but be prepared for two hours to cook a can of food.
If you do cook on a campfire, and you should because the smoky flavour and some cancer-inducing char taste awesome, grills and metal sticks are essential in less maintained campgrounds.
Aluminium pan and foil can be used to wrap and cook vegetables or sweet potato indirectly from the fire, or to cover the grill if it’s dirty.
You should always have some dry food available. Anything. Modern nutrition says carbs are bad, but that’s because they have too many nutrients. So much that they are the reason human civilisation became sedentary. Anyway, they become incredibly essential when you desperately need those calories for a boost in morale and glucose when hiking/getting lost in the middle of nowhere. You can eat it in the car, on hikes, or just because you’re bored. Always have some, but at the same time don’t pack your entire pantry like me and spend most of your time trying to eat up the content of your car to free up space. Most of the time, it’s not an apocalypse; try local fresh foods.
Just like food, sleeping is kind of important. Obviously, you can always book AirBnB + hotels, but that can get expensive and, unlike camping, you’re not “in the elements” as much. The few basics for camping are tent, sleeping bag and mattress.
Unless you’re going to extreme weather with heavy rain or winds, any tent will do. I’ve used a $20 Wal-Mart tent for years. The only feature that really matters on my current one is that it’s waterproof. But even in the cheaper one, water never drips in. It’s just that the walls are damp if you touch them.
A good sleeping bag is more important. Since I’m travelling through different climates and nights can be cold even in southern California, I got one that’s rated slightly below freezing but also has good ventilation. It’s also easier to pack up, which saves you precious seconds of crouching in the tent.
A regular $20 air mattress is sufficient, but a really good one does make a big difference. This one I have packs down to a very small roll, only takes 20 breathes to inflate, is cushioned enough that you can sleep on your side, and is insulated for freezing temperatures. It’s more comfortable than a couch or any cheap spring mattress in hotels.
I can also sleep in my car, pretty comfortably with the rear seats folded flat, just having enough length for my whole body, and the car insulating me from the weather.
Tarp can be useful too to create a rain shelter where you can walk, or protect your tent from heavy rain. I just rely on a good tent and rain jacket.
Sound insulation can be important especially if you’re staying at hostels, busy campground or campground with loud crows at 5am. I have up to 3 layers of sound insulation: foam earplug, silicone earplug and industrial earmuffs, OR noise-cancelling headphone, white noise and industrial earmuff. It’s good enough drown out all but the most ridiculously loud snoring.
The sun rises early in summer, or never sets if you’re really up North. Eyeshades will give you those extra few hours of desperately needed sleep, especially if you stay up at night playing with fire or watching the stars.
For hygiene, hand sanitiser and baby wipes are a lifesaver.
Put all these sleeping accessories in its own bag. I’ve spent the first few days having to get out of the tent every night, to find that one thing I missed from the car.
To deal with the cold, you’ll also want to have a hat. Although it’s a myth that we lose the majority of heat through our heads, it is also the only uncovered part of the body when in a sleeping bag. Bring more clothing to wear (obviously), but also to clog gaps in your sleeping bag around your neck. Have wool socks, and tech wear like compression pants/shirt. Emergency blankets will reflect heat back to you, but also accumulates all the condensation.
For more extreme weathers, have a down jacket, snow pants and double the mattress and sleeping bags.
Even for non-extreme weather, it still gets cold at night in the desert, in the mountains or next to the ocean. A warm jacket means you can stay out to watch the stars without having to sit inside the fire pit. This down hoodie is perfect, super light, super tiny when packed so you can bring it anywhere and super warm. The only problem is that it’s hard to clean. And that’s why you’ll want an easily cleanable shell jacket to do all the dirty work around the fire and food. You’ll also want a proper waterproof one.
With the temperature changes and your own heat changes, layering is crucial. Have a few mid and base layers to put under the shell.
Day to day stuff is more obvious but I still have some opinions on that.
- Bring a lot of underwear since you never know when is your next laundry.
- For socks, have some wool ones. It’s warm even when it’s wet from molten snow on Mount Rainier at 5 degrees, and you can really feel the difference in cushioning.
- Pants: jeans are great for everything. After all, they were designed for farmers to be durable and hides dirt. You should also have light hiking pants for wet conditions, or when you want to wear shorts but also don’t want to get stabbed by thorns and poison ivy.
- Top: synthetic is easier to dry, but cotton t-shirts are fine too. This is the most basic clothing item, you probably don’t need my advice here.
- Shoes: a good hiking shoe will have a much better grip, waterproofing and cushioning. Also, have water shoes.
- Gloves: for the cold, and for handling rough or hot stuff.
- Bug Screen: you’ll be happy to have it when being chased by swarms of black flies (not exaggerating), or you can always hide in your car or run like hell.
- Sunglasses and hat: if you’re like me though, boiling in the sun is part of the local experience.
Pack all the above in different mesh bags. It may seem redundant but trust me, it’s a lot more convenient than having to bring out a bag with all your clothing every time you need one, and you can store these bags in different small spaces around the car rather than a big suitcase.
The most common issue on the road is with tires. Make sure you have a jack, a spare and the lug wrench to remove the nuts. My car doesn’t come with a spare so I just a full-size winter tire & rim. Actually, having a full-size tire or two isn’t the worst idea if you have the space. The farther you are from civilisation, the rougher the road gets, and you might not want to drive hours on a speed-limited, bumpy and low-grip spare donut.
Haven’t used these recovery tracks yet, but I almost got stuck in mud a few times, partly (mainly) due to stupid route choices.
A 12V inverter will charge all your USB and 120V electronics. If your inventory of electronics is more than just a phone, you need this.
Depending on how far you’re going, make sure to resupply on tires, brakes, engine oil and air filter, octane booster if you need but can’t get 91 gas.
- LED lamps and batteries. Remember the batteries. A normal headlamp with red and white light is what you’ll use 90% of the time. You can also get a very bright torch to scare the ghost away or when you get sick of the dark and just want to be able to see around you, like back in civilisation.
- Basic tools like screwdrivers and pliers. If you’re going to wild campgrounds, have a saw for wood. And if you’re also lazy, get an electric reciprocating saw.
- Camera, things on the road are usually prettier than where you live
- Windex because bugs will cover your windshield
Safety & Wellness
- Basic medication: Tylenol/Advil, vitamins for since you’re not always eating all the food groups, zinc for when catching a cold, and Pepto Bismol
- First aid kit
- Typical hygiene stuff like toothbrush or towel that I shouldn’t need to tell you about
- Superglue: from patching an air mattress on freezing floor, to gluing a wound
- Bear mace
- Air horn (+Flare)
- Insect Repellent (preferably the Watkins insect lotion. Everybody in the northern, bug-infested, tundra uses this.
- Water filter
- Travel insurance
- Offline maps on the phone and battery bank when venturing in the woods
I probably missed a bunch of things, but then again I’m still alive. If there are experts out there, please teach us all.