The Best Gear for Your Road Trip

To share this page via email, fill out the fields below:
Message Sent!
Oops! Please try again

A road trip should be an adventure, but all adventures require a little planning (and one or two backup plans in case things go sideways). This year, after spending 60 hours researching and testing gear for the open road, we packed all our top contenders into our pick for the best subcompact hatchback and headed out on a four-day jaunt to see what kind of gear is nice to have, what’s great, and what’s absolutely essential for your next road trip.

Last Updated: April 3, 2017
After testing the latest models from Garmin, we’ve updated our section on the best GPS unit below.
Expand Most Recent Updates
December 2, 2016: After spending more than 60 hours researching and testing eight car GPS models, we updated our section about the best GPS unit below.
August 17, 2015: For this year’s update, we put in an additional 60 hours of research and testing and headed out on a four-day, 1,500-mile excursion to four states and six national parks so that we could recommend the best gear for your next road trip. Plus, we spoke to veteran automotive journalist Christopher Smith, who gave us advice on how to prepare your car for the journey.
October 13, 2014: Added a note about Maui Jim's two-year warranty on our sunglasses pick.

Photo: Caleigh Waldman

Four states, 1,500 miles, and six national parks later, we think we have some answers. 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.

However, even if you do have the best gear in the world, catching small problems before they become emergencies is always the best policy. 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.

road trip driving away

And we’re off! Caleigh Waldman

Table of contents


road trip packing trunk

Caleigh Waldman

Being able to find what you need on the road when you need it—whether it’s water, emergency lights, a change of clothes, or a granola bar—can mean 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.

That 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, etc. After a few days, double-checking that everything is where it should be before heading off becomes a comforting ritual and 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 to bring. You don’t have to bring everything, just what’s essential. Remember, you want to enjoy the drive. Not worrying about countless items that someone might lose or misplace is a big step toward that enjoyment.

Cargo box

Yakima Skybox 16 Carbonite
Great aerodynamics, easy mounting and operation, and a lot of storage at a reasonable price.

A cargo box effectively allows you to double your trunk space by moving bulky items from your car to your roof. After gathering up as much intel as we could about rooftop cargo boxes from experts, retailers, manufacturers, customers, and outdoor-gear reviewer outlets, we’ve concluded that out of the 20 boxes we surveyed, the Yakima SkyBox 16 Carbonite ($480) offers the best combination of features, build quality, and value pricing for most users.

The low-drag aerodynamic design minimizes wind noise and reduces the impact on fuel economy. Its 16 cubic feet of space will tote skis, duffels, backpacks, sleeping bags and other camping gear, or any random (though fairly lightweight) stuff, and will do so securely—both in terms of solidly mounting to your roof rack and in resisting theft. If you don’t have a rack already, this REI buyer’s guide is a good place to start, but be sure to consult your car’s owner manual to see how much weight your roof can bear.

The SkyBox 16 is easy to use. Like most cargo boxes these days, it offers tool-free installation and sliding brackets for attachment to the crossbars, rather than one or two fixed spots, making perfect positioning a snap. Once installed, it allows easy access from either side of the car, and its tapered back end makes it less likely to interfere with your liftgate if you put it on a hatchback or station wagon. calls it the best all-around cargo box, writing that it “has all the qualities we look for in a good cargo box: space, aerodynamics, strength, rigidness and compact size. Yakima’s dedicated to making the SkyBox’s lid one of the most rigid on the market.” In a head-to-head review of five boxes, Outdoor Gear Lab gave the nearly identical (except for the glossy automotive paint job) SkyBox 16 Pro ($600) top marks because of a stiff lid that makes it easy to open and close with one hand, as well as a sleek shape that makes its presence almost unnoticeable at speeds under 70 miles per hour. Customers also love the SkyBox 16 Carbonite. Ken Klaes, general manager of ReRack, a Portland, Oregon–based cargo-box retailer and rental company, told us in an interview that the SkyBox “sells about as well as all other cargo boxes combined.”

If the 16-cubic-foot capacity is too generous for your needs, consider the 12-cubic-foot SkyBox 12 Carbonite. This box has all the features of the 16 but is 12 inches narrower (24 inches wide, versus the 16’s 36-inch width), allowing you to also toss a bike or kayak up there more easily. Similarly, Yakima sells 18- and 21-cubic-foot options for more money—be aware, however, that these boxes weigh more and can encourage overloading past your car rack’s weight limit, which might be lower than you expect. Klaes explained: “A rack designed to carry 150 pounds doesn’t forget that the box is there; the weight of the box itself (often 50-ish pounds) needs to be subtracted from the weight rating to give you a real capacity for the box.” —Eric Adams

Go back to the top

Roof straps

I spent many years working on offshore oil platforms in rigging and rope access, 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 $10 Keeper Endless Loop Ratchet Tie-Down.

Our research team 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 heavier-duty, or longer, but you would be paying more for strength you don’t need, or more excess strap to deal with, respectively.

On our trip, 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 members on the Wirecutter staff have owned Keeper straps for years and vouch for their overall strength and durability.

Go back to the top

NRS 1″ HD Tie-Down Straps
Simpler and cheaper than ratchet straps, with above-average strength ratings.

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. At about $9 each, 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 to the 600-pound breaking strength and 200-pound working load of this best-selling Keeper set. This grade of equipment seems like overkill, but Wirecutter researcher Mark Smirniotis has had several of the weaker cams fail on him when he was strapping loads to his Jeep. He noted that of all the straps on Amazon with more than 25 user reviews, the NRS straps are the only ones that have no user reviews complaining of failed cams (out of 75 total reviews at the time of this writing). 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.

Also great
Thule Quick Loop Strap 530
A fast way to add load-stabilizing anchor points to a small car.
For owners of compact cars who want to move long or oversized loads such as a kayak, we also like the Thule Quick Loop Strap 530. 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, they’re 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 anchor points, like your car 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 your 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 reduce, significantly, 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.

Go back to the top


Driving can be fun, meditative, exhausting, and torturous. After five hours 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 in a list of bizarre things I need to know now 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 things. The best gear is durable, unobtrusive, and easy to use—so you can keep your eyes (and your thoughts) on the road.

You will be bored—500 miles on cruise control with an automatic transmission is pretty dull. Not always, of course. Once, while driving, we came across a trailer on the side of the road where someone had built a sculpture out of glass bottles cascading into the desert. That was good. 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.

maui jim garmin power inverter

Caleigh Waldman

Radar detector

Driving exceedingly fast is never the safest way to get somewhere. If you do occasionally stray above the speed limit, a good radar detector can minimize the impact on your driving record and, consequently, your insurance rates. Our pick for the best radar detector, the Valentine One ($400), is a universal favorite among professional drivers and reviewers. It’s also the model that cross-country speed record-breakers Ed Bolian and Alex Roy use. It isn’t cheap, but you simply can’t get a reliably accurate detector for less. At least you won’t have to worry about it going out of date—its design hasn’t changed for 10 years, it easily outperforms its competitors, and its interface is user-friendly.

What really makes it stand out are the directional arrows on its interface that tell you where the radar signal is coming from (front, rear, or side). This information helps you suss out which signals you should pay attention to (the front ones), letting you ignore the rest. When you pair it with apps such as Waze (which both Bolian and Roy use as well), you’re prepared for a speed-trap-free ride. —Alexander George

Go back to the top


It would be impossible for us to pick the best overall sunglasses, since your choice will ultimately depend on your personal style. 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.

Maui Jim
The clearest driving sunglasses we’ve found, with no perceptible distortion.

Last year we compared a Maui Jim pair with $1,600 worth of sunglasses, driving or otherwise, and found that it was the best of the bunch. The Maui Jim sunglasses had the clearest lenses—with no perceptible distortion—on the lightest frames we tested, weighing a barely there 20.4 grams. 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 I had a few afternoons where, despite five-plus hours of driving with them on, I had completely forgotten I was even wearing the Maui Jims.

The clarity of the lenses was a surprise as well. They’re so clear that it’s borderline unsettling the first moment you try them on. Thanks to their exceptional clarity and polarization, everything, including the scenery around you and the road ahead, looks sharper with these lenses on.

rand mcnally road atlas maui jim sunglasses

Caleigh Waldman

Other people swear by Maui Jim sunglasses as well. Mike Shubic of the popular road-trip blog Mike’s Road Trip says that Maui Jim makes the best driving sunglasses. And Gear Patrol’s Amos Kwon calls the Maui Jim Kapalua the best sunglasses for track driving. Kwon writes that “they are quite possibly one of the lightest, most comfortable driving sunglasses you can find.”

As far as specific model recommendations go, I suggest looking through the offerings on the Maui Jim website and reading the fit descriptions to find something that matches your aesthetic sensibilities. Unlike other companies that go only by lens size, 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. —Michael Zhao

Go back to the top

Smartphone mount

I like the simplicity of my phone without accessories. As such, my immediate reaction to the TechMatte MagGrip CD Slot Car Mount (our new pick in our guide to the best smartphone car mount) was that it offered an attractively simple way to mount and unmount my phone with one hand without having to fight with tension arms or anything else. But I told myself I would never glue a magnet to the back of my phone. That was a lie.

TechMatte MagGrip CD Slot
This secure magnetic smartphone mount makes the best use of your car’s CD player.

After four days on the road, the convenience of the TechMatte mount was overwhelming. The simple tactile feel of the mount snatching up my phone and holding it right where I needed it was oddly thrilling, and a notable contrast to the hassle of tensioner bars and mounts that refuse to let go of your phone. We tested a bunch of those mounts—and the TechMatte beat them all.

Anyway, 1,500 miles later, I now have a small magnetic disc on the back of my phone.

In a recent survey of our readers, 90 percent of the respondents told us they had a CD player in their car—but on average they used it only 5.7 percent of the time. Why not put that slot to better use? With the MagGrip CD Slot Car Mount, rubberized wings fit into your car’s CD slot and spread apart as you turn a thumbscrew, until the hold is secure.

If you don’t have a CD player in your car (or if you prefer to use yours to play CDs), consider the TechMatte MagGrip Air Vent Car Mount ($9), which attaches directly to the air vent.

Go back to the top

Rain-repellent windshield coatings

Rain and snow don’t just add stress to a road trip but also decrease your visibility and your reaction time in an emergency. Along with your 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—in contrast to about $6 a year for Rain-X, Aquapel costs about $12 to $16 a year.

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 users agree on the need to reapply it about once a month to maintain effectiveness. If your wiper blades start “chattering,” that probably means the coating is starting to wear unevenly and it’s time to reapply.

Bonds to your windshield for up to half a year, but costs more than twice as much as Rain-X.

If you can’t commit to applying Rain-X once a month, check out Aquapel. Instead of coating your windshield, it bonds to the glass chemically and should last for three to six months before you’ll 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 at first but after a month Aquapel still works even after the Rain-X has all but worn off.

For either product, proper application is key to getting the maximum benefit. You’ll need to start with an extremely clean windshield. Then clean it again to make sure. Both products dry best in warm weather, out of direct sun. Even when perfectly applied, however, these substances have potential drawbacks. Some users complain that the products cause noticeable haziness at night. Others report trouble getting windshield chips professionally filled after learning that the chemicals interfered with repair methods, though Aquapel’s site refutes 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. —Mark Smirniotis

Go back to the top

Paper road atlas

With the advent of GPS units and smartphone navigation apps (both of which we recommend), the age of the paper road atlas would seem to be over. But don’t let anyone tell you 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 put a few granola bars and clothes in 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.

rand mcnally road atlas map

Caleigh Waldman

Or you could pull out a physical map and highlight a route. You might not know exactly what to expect when you’ll get there, but you’ll 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. Its oversized shape makes it easy to read and easy to spread out on the hood or in your lap, and its simple, user-friendly design can’t be beat. Its arrangement of state and keyhole maps is the best for navigation. The equally large Kappa North America Deluxe Road Atlas is hampered by perplexing map layouts and large boxes of text, while the Michelin 2016 Road Atlas is too small to give a big-picture sense of your location.

You’ll also find a variant of the Rand McNally Road Atlas with an attached Travel Guide, which might make sense for people who don’t own a smartphone or who fear that their smartphone might stop working just when they need to know where the nearest Walmart is. That’s actually what you get with the Travel Guide—an incredibly detailed list of Walmart locations, hotel recommendations, and simple landmark info, nationwide. In the age of Yelp, it ends up being pretty shallow information.

As a test, we used the Rand McNally map 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 been on before, being new to the area. The Rand McNally was simple, functional, and easy to follow. Most important, using it was fun.

We did read one complaint from somebody who began using the 2016 map early: Some of the roads it lists as passable may still be in the middle of construction. If you want to play it safe for the next six months, the nearly identical 2015 Rand McNally Road Atlas is still available. We used the 2016 map without a hitch, though.

Go back to the top

GPS unit

Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S
The Drive 51 LMT-S hits the sweet spot for affordability, features, and usability. It gives you everything you need for easy navigation without costly extras.

For most shorter trips, a smartphone can provide all the navigation assistance you’ll need. But should your journey take you off the beaten path (and out of your coverage area), we suggest the Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S (our pick for the best GPS device). For a reasonable price, you get Garmin’s highly rated interface, excellent navigation tools, and precise voice directions. Overall, it’s easier to use and more driver-friendly than similarly priced competing models. Plus, you have the ability to connect with your smartphone via Bluetooth to get extra trip info or to share your location so other people can track your progress. The Garmin Drive also includes free lifetime map updates, traffic alerts, and safety-oriented driver alerts.

On the morning of the second day of our trip, we learned just how important a dedicated GPS unit could be. We were heading west on route 89A past the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona, well outside cell phone coverage, when our low-gas light came on. Unsure of exactly where we were, how much gas we had left, or whether it made sense to turn back to the main road or to press on, we pulled over and switched on the Garmin. Seemingly from nowhere, the device pulled up a gas station less than 20 miles down the road. The Garmin didn’t come down from the front windshield after that.

Go back to the top

car gps garmin drive 50lmt

The Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S provides the best blend of usability, features, and value of any of the competition. Rik Paul


Can a long road trip be comfortable? I didn’t think so. Long hours sitting in one position, nights spent camping or 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 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 clichés are unavoidable. It’s the journey that’s important, not the destination (though that should be good too!).

leaning back honda

Sometimes a good place to lean is all you need to be comfortable. Caleigh Waldman

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 for $8, it’s very effective and dead simple to install. The UV-protective Mylar on the back 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 wrinkles and bubbles. I have way more fun than I rightly should putting these things onto car windows.

Unlike similar products with suction cups, the Britax EZ-Cling doesn’t have any secondary or removable parts. Wirecutter 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 pairs of EZ-Clings on a four-day road trip with his family for testing. “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 to the horizon. But EZ-Clings are $8—buy a few packs and double them up if you need to. We did, and it worked great (although smaller windows may not have enough area to support two shades).

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 a wipe-down.

Go back to the top

Travel pillow

A good travel pillow is difficult to find. You want something that won’t take up much space, can expand when it needs to, and, ideally, allows you to wedge it into shape for use as a shoulder/neck pillow when necessary, such as on a plane or in the passenger seat of a car.

We found that the foam-filled Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow fit all three 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. You can also use it in this tightly packed configuration as a shoulder and lumbar pillow. It’s a bit larger than your typical travel pillow when packed down (about the size of a tissue box), but saving space is less of a priority when you’re driving instead of flying.

thermarest pillow nemo victory folding blanket

Caleigh Waldman

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 home, 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 comes well reviewed on Amazon and REI with more than four stars on both sites across a combined 900-plus reviews. It comes in a variety of sizes and colors, too, but we prefer the medium for its mix of portability and support.

Go back to the top

Body wipes

Sea to Summit Wilderness Wipes
Not quite a shower but pretty darn close, and amazing after a sweaty day in the desert.

Road-trip and backpacking veterans know just how much better having access to 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 outdoors-people.

sea to summit wilderness wipes

Caleigh Waldman

Cheap, portable, and durable, the Sea to Summit Wilderness Wipes were the clear winners.

The wipes come in a resealable package, which helps to keep them fresher for longer. You can find them in two sizes, XL (8 by 12 inches, about $5 for eight) and Compact (6 by 8 inches, about $4 for 12). On our trip, we preferred the XL size for their extra body coverage and longer cleaning power. The fully compostable Wilderness Wipes were among the most lightly scented wipes we tested, and a lack of alcohol left our skin feeling clean and moist. They are, however, hard to find—REI was the only online retailer offering them as of this writing.

If you’re having trouble finding our top pick, we recommend Action Wipes (about $27 for a pack of 30). They’re a bit smaller (9 by 10 inches) than our top pick but almost identically thick and durable. Like Wilderness Wipes, Action Wipes come in resealable packaging. The company is also remarkably transparent about what it uses to make each wipe. Although they’re a bit stronger smelling than our top pick, they smell of tea tree and eucalyptus, which are hardly scents to complain about. All of the ingredients are plant-derived, the company doesn’t test on animals, and the wipes are alcohol-free.

Overall, both of these wipes are great products for freshening up, and you can’t go wrong with either of them.

Go back to the top

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 you can stumble across other motels out there—desperate, last-chance places you wouldn’t wish on anyone, and cursed by every one of the bleary-eyed travelers who have been forced to stay in them for a night.

highlander motel

The Highlander in Williams, Arizona is an example of one of the better motels we tried on the road. You probably won’t need a silk liner here. Caleigh Waldman

Sea to Summit’s Premium Silk Travel Liner (about $75) is the best accessory to bring along for these situations. On 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.

Go back to the top

Windshield protector sun shade

Effective sun protection fits a wide variety of windshields and stows easily.

If you’re traveling through a sunny area, a sunshade for your windshield is a worthwhile investment. We like the $15 X-Shade (not to be confused with this product of the same name), which we found to have the best combination of low cost, decent coverage, and ease of setup. This pop-up design was much easier to install and stow than the “z-fold”-style shades we tested.

The X-Shade comes compressed in a circular carrying case about 10 inches in diameter. When you take it out, the compressed plastic arcs that are inside the shade spring open to create a 60-by-31-inch rectangle, enough coverage for most small to midsize car and truck windshields (though you should measure before buying to make sure).

Recommending one sunshade for every car is difficult since vehicles vary so much in size. Still, user reviews of the X-Shade report success in models ranging from a Honda Civic to a Chevy Tahoe. That’s because it’s a little larger than your typical sunshade yet it can still compress a bit to squeeze into tighter spaces. Amazon reviewers mention that the build quality is solid and that the metallic finish does a good job against both the Arizona and Florida sun.

accordion screen

An accordion screen is bulky and difficult to set up, so unless you absolutely need one to fit your car or climate, you’re better off with one of our other picks. Caleigh Waldman

But the design is not foolproof. You might find difficulty arranging the two plastic circles within the X-Shade that give it rigidity into a shape that hugs both of the edges of the front window and balances off the rear view mirror. Gaps and loose corners are unavoidable. In the end, what you’re gaining in compactness and price, you’re losing in rigidity and reflective power.

Most users who complain about the X-Shade say they found it slightly too small for their car, a rare occurrence given that it’s reported to fit the Toyota Sequoia, a full-size, seven-passenger SUV. (Unfortunately, no larger sizes are available, but for most car owners, it’ll fit correctly.) If you’re uncertain, measure before buying, or look into a custom shade like the WeatherTech, which is guaranteed to fit.

WeatherTech TechShade
Custom built for your vehicle to ensure no sun gets in, even in the sunniest climates.
If maximum temperature reduction is your goal, invest in a custom-fitted WeatherTech TechShade ($50). Thicker than the X-Shade, the TechShade completely blacks out the windshield when you install it. It’s also very bulky—about the size of a stored yoga mat when rolled up—and difficult to store discreetly. But if you’re frequently in sunny climates, it’s well worth the cost.

Go back to the top


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. 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’re new in this part of the country). The car’s dash thermometer read 105 degrees. As we waited, I was thankful that both Caleigh and I 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.

tent desert

Sometimes a good view is all you need to feel refreshed. Most times, having drinks and snacks on hand helps. Kit Dillon


From healthy snacks to emergency ice packs, a cooler is 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 was an incredible gift. We brought along our top pick for best soft cooler, the AO Canvas Series 24-Pack Soft Cooler. It carried a quart of milk, a tub of hummus, and a variety of vegetables and other snacks for four days, though we did stop and refresh the freezer packs once on the second day.

ao canvas monarch binoculars fujifilm instax

Caleigh Waldman

The $60 AO Canvas Series cooler was one of the best-performing models out of the 15 we tested, creating only 8 cups of melt water from an initial 9 pounds of ice in 24 hours. Only two other other coolers outmatched it—and both of them cost more than $150.

The 24-pack cooler is small enough to fit easily in the trunk of a car or the footwell of the rear passenger seats (on our trip, it fit remarkably well in our compact hatchback either in the trunk or on the floor) yet is large enough to carry plenty of ice and food for a small family.

For me, a successful multi-day road trip hinges on finding and enjoying small temporary pleasures. On the second day of our trip, we woke up early in Joshua Tree, California, the temperature already climbing into the 90s. My girlfriend had cleverly put some of the body wipes we were testing into the chilled soft cooler overnight. Waking up after a five-hour drive with five more hours ahead of us and being able to wash with a cold cloth in the middle of the desert was a sweet relief.

Coleman 70 Qt. Xtreme Marine Cooler
Better insulated and less expensive than the competition, it keeps ice for a week, and its well-designed drain port makes the cooler easy for you to clean.
If you need extra insulation for longer hauls and don’t mind giving up a little extra space, we recommend the Coleman 70-Quart Xtreme Marine Cooler. Our testing shows that a hard cooler will almost always outperform a soft cooler in insulating ability (five days plus versus a soft cooler’s average of two days) and durability, which makes the hard cooler 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.

Go back to the top

desert valley

It pays to pull over, get off the road, and hike a trail if you can. Kit Dillon

Water bottles

We like the durability, light weight, and easy maintenance of a stainless steel bottle, and we recommend the 27-ounce Klean Kanteen Classic, which was our overall favorite after our evaluation of 54 water bottles. Its 2¾-inch-diameter base is wide enough to fit into a standard-size cup holder without wobbling, making it perfect for a road trip. We kept our Klean Kanteen in all of the various cup holders in our Honda Fit while driving across multiple types of terrain, without issue.

Nomader Collapsible Water Bottle
Great for travel, the Nomader can fold up and stow away when it’s empty.
Lightweight, collapsible water bottles that fold up when empty are great for road trips (or any trip) and can make all the difference in a car that’s stuffed to the gills. It’s also great as an emergency bottle if you need to bring just a little more water with you. Our favorite is the 22-ounce Nomader Collapsible Water Bottle. This leakproof water bottle holds a reasonable amount of water, and compared with all of the other collapsible bottles we tested, it provides a drinking experience that feels closest to sipping from a rigid bottle. While other folding and collapsible bottles become flaccid as they are drained, the Nomader’s firm plastic sleeve ensures that this bottle’s structure won’t collapse in your hand as you’re drinking from it. Plus, its wide mouth can accommodate ice cubes—something almost no other water bottle in our test group could do.


Seamus Bellamy

Also great
Klean Kanteen Wide Mouth Insulated with Loop Cap
The insulated Klean Kanteen will keep your water cold when the weather is warm.
An insulated bottle will keep your water cold on a hot, sunny day for many hours.  Our pick, the 20-ounce Klean Kanteen Insulated Wide, bested 15 other competitors because of its durability and excellent insulation. During testing it kept water cold for more than eight hours, with only  a 7.4-degree increase in overall temperature, bringing the chilled, 45-degree water to a still very drinkable 52.4 degrees. That level of performance—along with attractive design features such as a wide mouth perfect for dropping in ice cubes—helped it stand out from the crowd.

Go back to the top

route 66 tower

Caleigh Waldman

Travel mug

Coffee and driving go hand in hand, and we think the new Zojirushi Stainless Mug offers the best balance of heat (or cold) retention and versatility. With less weight and a more svelte lid design than that of its predecessor (and the competition), the new Zojirushi is more pleasurable 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 new Zojirushi Stainless Mug was 20 degrees hotter than it was in the next mug down in our test group—just enough to make the difference between drinkable and lukewarm.

The 16-ounce Zojirushi Stainless Mug costs $30, which puts it at the higher end of the spectrum. But its well-designed exterior, one-handed usability, and foolproof locking mechanism are well worth the price of admission. It will never, ever spill, regardless of how rough the road gets.

Go back to the top

Stain remover

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 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 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 they were the only stain remover that erased almost all traces of lipstick on the collar of a shirt. They did pretty well on the ketchup I spilled, as well.

shout stain remover wipes

Caleigh Waldman

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, using a single wipe per stain means you won’t risk depositing an old stain on another piece of clothing as you might with reusable stain sticks.

Go back to the top


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, Edward 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 can also become a pressure cooker. Some games, toys, and electronics can be a welcome relief.

Even more important, on our trip, every 100 miles the scenery around us changed drastically, and being able to charge our cameras let us capture some incredible personal moments every time we pulled over.

road trip winding road

Keep your eyes peeled, even if you’re not driving. The things you spot will probably be more interesting than whatever pops up on your phone. Caleigh Waldman

Power inverter

Bestek 300W MRI3011J2 Power Inverter
More-sensitive gadgets may not function correctly while using this DC-to-AC converter, but a smoother converter costs $100-plus.

If you plan to bring electronics on the road, you need a way to plug them into your car’s 12V electric system. After sending our three favorites culled from a list of 18 top-rated inverters to physicist Dr. Jim Shapiro for testing, we recommend the Bestek 300W MRI3011J2 Power Inverter (about $35) for simple devices such as water boilers, or the Go Power! GP-SW150-12 Pure Sine Wave Inverter (about $150) for more sensitive electronics like tablets or laptop computers. A power inverter transforms 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) that you have in your home. Not all inverters are equal, however, and you need to know what you’ll want to plug in before deciding which one to buy.
pure vs modified sine wave
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 on the road, our writer Kit Dillon noted that the Bestek’s dual USB ports and dual outlets offered a nice benefit, particularly so 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, its price of nearly $150 makes it one of the least expensive pure sine wave inverters on the market. 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. Kit said that “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, it’s 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. —MS

Go back to the top

USB car charger

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 our favorite car charger. We’ve recently updated our USB car charger guide, and our top pick is still the Scosche reVOLT dual USBC242M. You can find other 4.8-amp chargers that are physically smaller, such as Aukey’s CC-S1 Dual USB Car Charger, but there is such a thing as too small. We prefer the Scosche because it’s easier to remove than most competitors.

In our tests, the charger worked with every device we threw at it, charging phones, tablets, and other electronics at their full speeds. Newer iPads, for example, draw 2.4 amps, while Samsung’s Galaxy S5 draws 1.8 amps. For some reason compatibility with the S5 was an issue in the past, but Scosche has remedied that now.

One bonus feature of the Scosche (and a feature often overlooked in the bargain-brand USB chargers you can pick up next to a gas-station register) is the blue LED light that illuminates the two USB slots. It’s not so bright as to be distracting when you’re driving in the dark, but it is strong enough to let you see the ports when you need them. During our road trip, we had several moments, day and night, when this feature proved to be handy indeed. —Nick Guy

Go back to the top

road trip bonfire

Sometimes it’s good to leave electricity behind. Caleigh Waldman

Bluetooth kit

Anker SoundSync Drive
Audio quality is as good as or better than that of any other unit we tested, plus you get track-control buttons on the main unit.

If your current car lacks Bluetooth support, 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. Anker’s SoundSync Drive is our favorite because it offers great playback sound quality, the best microphone performance we’ve tested, and easy setup and use.—NG

Go back to the top

palms joshua tree road sign

“The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.” —Edward Abbey Caleigh Waldman

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. Giving them 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 ($30) is a great pick for viewing by multiple passengers, while LilGadgets’ CarBuddy Universal Headrest Tablet Mount ($20) is a good choice for just one set of eyes.

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 extendable holder can grasp most 9-inch to 12-inch tablets, in or out of a case and in any orientation. We liked this model better than the similar iKross Universal Headrest Mount Holder we tested, which held the iPad at an oblique angle that made it hard to view.

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. Infernal Innovations’ Mountster SR uses the same attachment system, but in our tests its tablet-holding arms didn’t stay locked in place. 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, as it wobbles quite a bit, positions itself too high up, and doesn’t work with tablets in cases. —NG

Go back to the top

utah road sign

Caleigh Waldman

Instant camera

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.

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.


The best instant film camera we’ve found after extensive research is the Fujifilm Instax Mini 50S (about $95). This easy-to-use model takes better photos than most instant cameras, and if you want to put more time and effort in, it has plenty of manual controls to fiddle around with. The Instax film it uses is still widely available, too.

fujifilm instax 50s

Caleigh Waldman

We chose to take the more full-featured Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic ($140) on the road with us. Like the 50S it’s ready to shoot instantly, but it also offers a built-in macro mode (the 50S uses an add-on lens, included in the box) and additional exposure options. The most noticeable difference, though, is its retro-cool body. Both the Mini 50S and the Mini 90 are great cameras, and we recommend either model for your next road trip.

Go back to the top

Travel game

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 girlfriend 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.

travel game chat pack

Caleigh Waldman

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 one another, and that’s not a moment you take lightly.

So get a Chat Pack. Your mileage may vary, but it helped us pass the time and takes up barely any space at all.

Go back to the top


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. You will have times in the car when a sort of tunnel vision can set in, and the destination becomes all-consuming. At my worst, I found myself mentally calculating the time saved for every increase in miles per hour as I pressed down the accelerator, as if the scenery I was flying past wasn’t what I had come to see in the first place.

The first time we pulled over without a plan was on some Bureau of Land Management land 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 every so often, take a risk and make a left when every map and device is telling you to go right. You won’t know where you’ll end up—and that’s the whole point.

river valley desert

If you have the time and the urge, take that unexpected exit. You never know where it might lead. Caleigh Waldman


Athlon Optics Midas ED
Amazingly affordable with great optics, these binoculars have comparable performance to many models that cost thousands more.

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 it will.


Hmm, what’s that over there? Photo: Caleigh Waldman

The waterproof and lightweight Athlon Optics Midas ED (about $250) boasts a rugged shock-absorbing exterior, and its optical clarity and extra-wide field of view lets you see more of the scene, more clearly and accurately. In fact, the professional ornithologist who tested binoculars for us said they looked every bit as good as his $2500 Leica Ultravids.

The Midas ED’s optics aren’t its only strong suit either: 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. And 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.

Go back to the top

Stowable tote/daypack

Having a bag on hand for spontaneous off-the-road excursions is a good idea. 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 durable enough to survive beach trips, sightseeing, picnics, and museum tours.

Patagonia Lightweight Travel Tote
Packable and convertible, with the padded straps and capacity you’d expect from a daypack.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $80.

patagonia lightweight tote

Caleigh Waldman

The Patagonia Lightweight Travel Tote remains our pick this year for its manageable size, hefty toting ability, and great adaptability. Last year we tested five top models by filling them with groceries, spraying them with water, and packing them with a typical workday load (ultrabook, DSLR camera, large sweatshirt, wallet, accessories bag, water bottle, and notebook). We also stress-tested them by loading them with 15 pounds of magazines and going for a walk. Although we originally researched and tested this bag for our guide to the best gear for travel, which focused on air travel, we think it’s perfectly suited for road trips as well—and it remains our favorite after our 1,500-mile journey.

Go back to the top

Folding blanket

You can spend only so much time 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 find a side road, pull out a blanket, and grab a place to sit down and share some food.

nemo victory folding blanket 2p

Together, the woven top and waterproof bottom of the NEMO Victory make it an excellent travel blanket for nearly every occasion. Kit Dillon

After considering 38 picnic blankets and testing seven, we think the two-person NEMO Victory Blanket offers the best combination of comfort, durability, and compactness. With a 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. Its woven flannel will 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 it as a tent pad for two nights.

road trip trunk packing

Caleigh Waldman

Most convenient of all, when you’re done with your day in the sun, it compresses neatly into a 14-by-6-inch roll thanks to an attached flap with two sewn-on elastic bands. The $50 two-person NEMO Victory Blanket measures 86 by 50 inches; the blanket is also available in an expansive 90-by-90-inch four-person model for $80 if you have a packed car.

Go back to the top


On most road trips you’ll be exposed to the sun, whether it’s an arm out the window or your legs and neck during a stretch and pit stop, so we recommend bringing some sunscreen along. After 25 hours of research and interviews, and plenty of summer days in the sun, we recommend NO-AD Sport SPF 50 sunscreen for everyday use. It’s cheap, effective, and easy to apply, which 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 exception: your youngest passengers. Do not put sunscreen on an infant. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends keeping children younger than six months out of the sun entirely.

Go back to the top


road trip first aid kit trunk group shot

Caleigh Waldman

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 after several hours of research. Even the most promising options suffer from 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 emergency essentials to ensure that they’ll be useful in case of an emergency, whether that’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 blow out 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). It gave us a great opportunity to put our emergency gear to the test!

Getting a membership to a roadside assistance program is also wise. 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 might be enough. But if you’re going on a road trip across the desert, paying for more range is worthwhile.

Duct tape

Duck Max Strength
Super-strong and sticky, flexible enough to wrap around corners, and easy to tear in a clean, straight line.

If you can’t duct it, fuh-geddaboudit. We tested the hell out of 10 rolls of duct tape and chose Duck Max Strength duct tape 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. It also tears in a nice straight line and lends itself to short-term roadside repairs on your gear as well as on the interior and exterior of your car. 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, an indispensible tool.

However, if you’re driving a car that’s likely to need more long-term fixes than your average vehicle, our reviewer Doug Mahoney recommends picking up a roll of Sticky Ass Tape. “It’s the tape to grab,” he told us, “if you’re looking for a semi-permanent patch for the hole in your gutter or the rusted-out spot in the truck bed.” Sticky Ass didn’t have the raw strength of some of the other tapes we looked at, but after six weeks a strip of Sticky Ass left outside on a piece of plywood was still 100 percent adhered.

The trade-off for all of that extreme weather durability is handling issues. The 13-mil Sticky Ass is tough to tear, and once you’ve torn a piece off, it’s extremely difficult to rip again into two smaller pieces.

Go back to the top

First aid kit

On the road, a first aid kit is useful for providing a way to keep someone comfortable until people with real medical expertise can help. It’s much more important to have a basic kit with you—along with the knowledge that none of the bandages have degraded and the disinfectants haven’t expired—than to have a 432-item, war-zone-worthy kit sitting at home.

We like Adventure Medical Kits’s Adventure First Aid 2.0. It’s designed to treat up to four people on a one-day outing and comes with everything a road-tripper needs. It covers all of the Red Cross’s recommendations—and supplements them with helpful bits such as a generous 10 yards of tape, moleskin for blisters, AfterBite Insect Relief, and even a small compass. (It has some 67 items inside, for those who are counting.) It comes in a 6-by-9-inch, zippered, soft-sided pack that’s compact enough to fit into a glove box but not so small that you can’t add, say, a couple of bottles of prescription medicines. It weighs just a pound, so you might even consider bringing it on day hikes.

amk first aid kit

Caleigh Waldman

Professional mountain-climbing guide and former Wirecutter contributor Cliff Agocs uses and endorses AMK first aid kits for work and play. He told us, “My favorite thing about Adventure Medical Kits is that they’re user-friendly. Each kit is compartmentalized and clearly labelled for specific injuries.” Band-Aids go with “wound care,” for example, and the Ace bandage goes with “sprains.”

“This makes it easy to find the tools and supplies that you’re looking for even in a stressful situation,” Agocs said. “It also makes it a no-brainer when it’s time to resupply your kit before a trip.” And that convenience makes all the difference when it comes to actually using the kit.

At about $20, it’s a great value. As of this writing, 80 Amazon users give the kit an average grade of 4.4 stars out of five, making it one of the best-reviewed kits priced at less than $30. Spending less means losing important tools; for example, the $14 Adventure First Aid 1.0 lacks a thermometer, scissors, and safety pins. Similarly, spending more gets you unnecessary supplies that you won’t use. —Eric Hansen

Go back to the top

Tire gauge

Accu-Gage 60 PSI
The favored tire gauge of all the professionals we interviewed.

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.

accugage 60 psi

Caleigh Waldman

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, so we figured it had to be good. And after our testing over four days on the road, it’s our favorite tire gauge for the second year in a row. It’s accurate and durable, and it has no battery to change, ever. The unit comes in a few configurations: with a short neck, with a hose, and with a hose with a right-angle chuck. Performance is largely the same. We preferred the hose attachment because it was easier to hold and check the tire pressure at the same time. The version we tested even comes with a removable rubber bumper (which you can purchase separately if you prefer a different model) in case you drop it.

If you prefer digital, get the Accutire MS-4021B. It’s a favorite of Car and Driver, Consumer Reports, and Popular Mechanics. 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 at about $13, but you have to factor in the periodic cost of two watch batteries (about $3 for 10)—according to user reviews, they need replacing every six months. Other reviewers complain about its durability. Magazine reviewers say that 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. —AG

Go back to the top

Jumper cables

AAA Heavy Duty 16-foot 6 Gauge Booster Cables
Long and durable enough for any situation, with a current rating that can handle SUVs.

Every car trunk should have a good set of jumper cables. Accidentally leave an interior light on or the headlights engaged when you park, and you’ll come back to a dead battery. As such, you need a solid set of cables that 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 buy the AAA Heavy Duty 16-foot 6 Gauge Booster Cables for about $25. As this image illustrates, they’re long enough 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.

aaa heavy duty 16 6 jumper cables

Caleigh Waldman

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.

Bad clamps on jumper cables can be annoying, unsafe, or both, but the AAA clamps stand out as both well designed and well made. As you can see in the picture below, they have a little extended portion for clamping on increasingly common side-post batteries as well as standard SAE or JIS posts. The side opposite the extension meets flush and can clamp onto vertical posts if necessary. Compare that with the more expensive Coleman 4-gauge, 20-foot model, which does not close flush on the side opposite to the extension. And the clamps on the popular and otherwise heavy-duty cables from FJC have rounded tips that can make getting a good connection to the battery posts difficult.

aaa heavy duty 16 6 jumper cables

The AAA cables have excellent clamps that feature an elongated side for compatibility with a wider variety of battery terminals. John Neff

Build quality is also excellent, according to our electrical engineering consultant William Gardiner. After examining all the cables up close, Gardiner told us that the connection between wire and clamp appeared more secure on the AAA cables, while the 20-foot 4-gauge set from Wilmar were attached so tightly that the cables were pinched, causing some individual strands to slip out of the bracket holding them together.

aaa cable vs wilmar jumper cable connection point

The connection point of the AAA cable (right) is more secure than that of the Wilmar (left). Caleigh Waldman

Some commenters wanted to know if the cables remained flexible in the cold, so I threw them into the freezer overnight. Taking them out more than 24 hours later, I didn’t notice any significant changes in flexibility.

A minor drawback of the AAA cable set is that—like the majority of jumpers at this price—the wiring is only copper-plated aluminum as opposed to pure copper. If you want pure copper cables, you’ll be spending about $60 for these 4-gauge, 20-foot DieHard Platinum cables from Sears. But that’s too expensive considering they’re rated only to 450 amps, just a slight gain over the AAA cables’ 400-amp rating.

Finally, 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 is not to 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. —MZ

Go back to the top

honda side of the road

Caleigh Waldman

Portable jump starter

Brightech SCORPION SCP02 Jump Starter
Solid clamps, high build quality, and good safety features, with enough power to start most cars or small SUVs.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $84.

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 putting six of the top-rated lithium ion jump-starter packs through testing, we concluded that the Brightech Scorpion SCP02 Jump Starter ($85) is what we’d keep in our cars. Its construction quality, safety features, and ability to jump-start most cars or small SUVs set it apart from the pack. Adding one to your car can save the day when a dead battery leaves you stranded. Instead of waiting for a Good Samaritan with jumper cables or calling roadside assistance, you can use a portable jump-starter pack, which has its own high-capacity battery that attaches to your car’s battery just as normal 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 not driving 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 that will safely and slowly charge your battery back up, typically over 12 hours or more. But 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 it the rest of the way when you’re back on the road.

William Gardiner

Our testing candidates with all included accessories. William Gardiner

We brought in electrical engineer William Gardiner to help us test the Anker Jump Starter Portable Charger A1501, the Bolt Power Portable Jump Starter G06, the Bracketron Road Boost XL BT2-699-2, the Brightech Scorpion SCP02 Jump Starter, the Cobra Electronics JumPack CPP 7500, and the Cyntur JumperPack Mini CTJSLI. Gardiner evaluated the build quality and ease of use of each unit, and also measured how much current flowed from the unit to the battery of a Nissan Juke while starting the car.

Over the course of three jump attempts on a Nissan Rogue crossover SUV, the Brightech Scorpion delivered an average of 115 cranking amps when tested on a 100-degree-Fahrenheit day—this amount of current is enough to jump-start most cars and small trucks, even when the battery is completely dead. It placed second only to the Bolt Power G06 in this regard. Whereas Gardiner praised the solid construction and design choices of the Scorpion, however, he believed that the G06 was cheaply made and that “it would break if dropped from any height.” Gardiner noted, as have some users, that the Scorpion’s clamps are well made and tightly tensioned for a good connection, unlike those some of the competition. It also has an alarm to alert you if you reverse the connections—a feature that should be on all jump packs, but isn’t. Even after repeated jumps in Gardiner’s tests, the charge indicator showed full, but once the Brightech Scorpion runs down you can recharge it from a wall outlet or a 12V car outlet. The unit also has a built-in flashlight, USB ports for charging gadgets from the battery, and a DC output with charging tips for many devices.

brightech scorpion

Testing the Brightech Scorpion. William Gardiner

Every jump pack has its limits, and at 200 cold cranking amps and 400-amp peak current, the Scorpion isn’t rated to start larger SUVs or trucks. Keep in mind too that a roadside assistance plan can be cheaper annually than the $85 price of the Scorpion. If you can budget for only one or the other, you need to weigh the wait for roadside assistance, not to mention limited service in remote areas, against the costs of a jump pack. But if you really want to be prepared in case your battery dies, the Brightech Scorpion SCP02 Jump Starter will give you the power you need in a surprisingly small package. —MS

Go back to the top

rock landscape

Caleigh Waldman


Black Diamond ReVolt
Rechargeable, with flood and spotlight settings and a red-light mode for in-car use.

To find the best headlamp for use on the road, we considered 32 new models and tested four that enjoyed top ratings on Amazon, with great specs and reputable warranties. In the end, the Black Diamond ReVolt had the best mix of features, usability, and light output for the price. It offers everything we like about the Black Diamond Spot, our top pick for most people, including a powerful spot beam with adjustable brightness, a wide floodlight for near-field use, and a night-vision-friendly red-light mode that won’t bother the driver. What’s different is that it includes a Micro-USB port that lets you recharge it, if you have rechargeable AAA batteries installed. This design means you won’t ever get caught with a dead battery so long as you have a USB car charger on hand. This headlamp can also use regular AAAs in a pinch. Although it costs about $20 more than the Spot, the inclusion of a set of rechargeable AAAs mitigates that somewhat.

Twice during our trip we pulled into our camping sites late, and the ReVolt 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.

We liked that the ReVolt’s 130-lumen main LED was bright enough to illuminate faraway objects (with its useful range falling off around 45 feet) but adjustable enough to feel usable in close quarters, such as while we were changing a tire or peeking under the car’s hood at night. The Pelican 2720 was by far the brightest unit we tested, putting a clear spotlight on objects 100 feet away. The focused beam, however, made it a bit unnerving to hike without some peripheral light to help us get a sense of our surroundings, and in an enclosed space, the light was uncomfortably bright for reading or for finding a misplaced item. The Princeton Tec Sync (about $25) was the least expensive of our test units, but its useful light fell off at around 25 feet and we were barely able to make out large objects at 100 feet. At that price, we prefer the Black Diamond Spot, which has the same features as the ReVolt in a cheaper, non-rechargeable package.

The ReVolt’s single-button adjustment control takes some getting used to, but it’s not so bad once you get the hang of it. We recommend reading the instructions, as the design isn’t very intuitive. We preferred the Princeton Tec Sync’s dedicated brightness-adjustment dial, but unfortunately that headlamp simply wasn’t bright enough. —MS

Go back to the top

Flare alternative

First Alert 9.1.1 LED Emergency Beacon
Crushproof and waterproof, with a magnet for car mounting. Much safer than traditional flares, too.

To keep yourself safe while your car is parked on the side of the road, we suggest First Alert 9.1.1 LED Emergency Beacon flare alternatives.

We like the First Alert 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.

flare alert 911 led emergency beacon

Caleigh Waldman

The First Alert beacons (under the FlareAlert name) performed admirably in the Evaluation of Chemical and Electrical Flares, a study commissioned by the Department of Justice in 2008. If you spend serious time on the road in harsh conditions, we suggest the higher-end pack (about $70) with 1-watt LEDs because they’re brighter.

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 of the above evaluation 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.

By chance, we were driving behind a rental camper van that had a tire blow out on a side road in Arizona. This unexpected moment allowed us to use our emergency gear in a hurry. If you’re going to have a blowout on the road, being trailed by a car with a trunk full of emergency gear under review is a big help.

Of the three brands we tested, we couldn’t figure how to open or turn on the Wagan, and the Smittybilt U.F.O., while tough, wasn’t very effective during the day and came only one to a package. Only the First Alert 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.”

Go back to the top


Leatherman New Wave
Everything you need in a pocket tool, with great build quality.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $85.

In our opinion, no emergency kit is complete without a multitool. They’re 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 New Wave (about $90), which, in the opinion of Sweethome senior editor and tool expert Harry Sawyers, offered the best mix of functionality, ergonomics, and solid construction of the more than two dozen multitools he considered.

The New Wave packs needle-nose pliers, regular pliers, wire cutters, hard-wire cutters, a 2.9-inch 420HC knife (HC stands for “high carbon,” which means the knife will hold an edge better), a serrated knife, a saw, spring-action scissors, a wood and metal file, a diamond-coated file, a large bit driver that flips between a flat head and Phillips head, a small bit driver with an eyeglass screwdriver, a medium fixed-blade flat screwdriver, an 8-inch/19-cm ruler, a bottle opener, a can opener, and a wire stripper. Short of a hammer, that’s just about everything you could possibly need to make an emergency repair in the field, on the road, or even around the house.

Go back to the top

Water jug

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.

reliance 4 gallon aquatainer

Caleigh Waldman

After researching 16 different types of water jugs, we’d get 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 as soon as you as hit anything but 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.

The Reliance Aqua-Tainer is made from BPA-free molded plastic, which is easy to pack around in the trunk of a car, certainly easier than large, bladder-type jugs like the MSR Dromedary Bag, which—while excellent for camp showers and easy to pack in a backpack—are simply too difficult to pack around in a car trunk because of their non-rigid shape. The Aqua-Tainer’s hard sides also make it easier to dispense 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 paint job if you’re not careful.

Before investing in a jug, know that water 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.

Go back to the top


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. 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.
road trip underhood

Your under-the-hood check should include (clockwise from top left): the engine oil, windshield washer fluid, engine coolant, and brake fluid. Caleigh Waldman

  • Tires: Check for proper inflation and good tread that doesn’t show uneven wear. For inflation, consult your owner 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, stick a penny into the center (not the edges) of your tires’ tread 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, such as the Slime 400013 Smart Spair Emergency Tire Repair Kit, that includes sealant for small punctures as well as a small air compressor for reinflating 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 at all possible.
tire penny test

Place a penny upside down in the center of your tires’ tread to check their depth; if you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, it’s time for new tires. Christopher Smith

  • Lights: Check all of 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 while 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 using your brakes hard (such as when coming down a mountain) is not unusual, but if you smell it while 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: Unless you’re doing burnouts, slipping engine belts or a tire rubbing can cause this smell. 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 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 stopping.
  • 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 a tire out of balance, but they can also be signs of loose steering or suspension parts.

Go back to the top

Pre-trip planning

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.
  • Maps or a paper atlas: Sometimes technology fails. Having a current map for backup is always a good idea.
  • 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 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 complementary 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.
road trip side of the road

Sometimes, though, the only way out of a situation is a bit of brute strength. Caleigh Waldman

Go back to the top

To share this page via email, fill out the fields below:
Message Sent!
Oops! Please try again

Originally published: August 17, 2015

We actively moderate the comments section to make it relevant and helpful for our readers, and to stay up to date with our latest picks. You can read our moderation policy FAQ here.