Smooth Traveling: 7 Things You Need on a Road Trip
July 13, 2011 by Josh Sadlier
So you’re going on a road trip. Excellent choice! Road trips are good old-fashioned American fun, and there’s no better way to see the incredible natural beauty of this country firsthand. But don’t just pack your bags and head for the highway; read our handy list of road trip essentials first to help you take on the open road.
If you take a road trip of any significant length in the United States, you will likely encounter some seriously unpleasant truck-stop bathrooms. This will make you extraordinarily eager to wash your hands. Trouble is, the nastier the bathroom, the likelier its soap dispenser is to be empty or otherwise inadequate to the task―and remember, you’ll probably be eating some greasy fast food with those hands before long. So get yourself a bottle of antibacterial hand sanitizer before you hit the road. It’s cheap, it’s long-lasting, and trust us, you’ll be glad you brought it.
If your car doesn’t have an alarm system already, give some thought to the places along your route where you’ll be leaving the car unattended. Truck stops, roadside motels, and campsites can sometimes harbor unsavory characters, so if you expect to frequent them, having an alarm with a prominent warning light installed could be a smart preemptive move―especially since your car will probably be visibly packed to the gills with luggage and supplies. Depending on how attractive the car is to thieves, you might also want to pick up a steering-wheel lock like The Club. Anything to make would-be perps think twice.
Most new cars these days come with input jacks for portable mp3 players, and some even come with USB connections. If this describes your car’s stereo, good on you―just bring your device along and plug it in for hours of boredom-fighting audio. But if your car’s more than a few years old, chances are it lacks these features, so you’ll either have to have them added by a stereo shop―which can be expensive―or go with a jury-rigged solution like those FM transmitters that pipe your mp3s over the airwaves. Hey, whatever works. Just don’t go into your road trip thinking that burning a bunch of CDs is going to get the job done. Even if you manage to burn your whole collection, it’s no fun fumbling around for the next CD while you’re doing 70 on the highway. Having all your music at your fingertips is a new-millennium must for road trips. It’s well worth the extra investment.
Smartphones haven’t quite taken over the world yet, so we know there’s a chance that you’re still rocking a retro-chic flip phone or something. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a smartphone’s internet browser and apps can be a real boon in unfamiliar territory. Maps and directions? Every smartphone’s got those, so there’s no need to bother with an extra portable navigation system. Local restaurant reviews? Check out the Yelp app. And everything else is available online. Plus, there’s a bunch of apps out there that help you optimize your road-trip experience, whether you want to record your fuel economy, keep abreast of the weather, or avoid traffic jams. Older cars in particular will benefit from a smartphone’s feature set: this is by far the easiest way to turn a pre-digital-age vehicle into a technological tour de force.
Window glass does a pretty solid job of keeping the UV rays out, but it’s not perfect, and in any case, you’ll probably be spending a fair amount of time outside. So if your skin is sensitive and you aren’t already in the habit of putting on sunscreen every morning, it’s advisable to adopt this habit for the duration of your trip. Don't forget about protecting your car too. Get a sunshield for the windshield to minimize the chance of toasty seats and reduce damage to the dash.
Entertainment for the Kids
You know better than we do how best to settle your kids down, but here a few road-trip-specific suggestions. First, if you’ve got an SUV or minivan, and you don’t have a factory-installed rear-seat entertainment system, there are numerous available solutions on the aftermarket. You can have display screens mounted in the headrests, game systems with controllers, flip-down screens from the ceiling…you name it, they’ll install it. Definitely worth considering if these trips are going to become a family tradition. Portable video-game players and computers are other options, and of course there are old-school standbys like coloring books, word games, and playing cards. The goal is to get kids to look forward to sitting in the car for hours―feasible, for sure, but a wide range of offerings from the current media landscape will likely be required.
This is obvious, right? But if you care about quality, don’t just count on your phone to snap pictures. You might never take a trip like this again, so it’s best to bring a purpose-built digital camera for superior reproduction. Surprisingly robust pocket-cams can had for well under $200, and they offer decent video modes and the flexibility of integrated zoom lenses as well.