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.
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.
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.
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.
GearPatrol.com 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $20.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $23.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Before heading out, check these commonly taken-for-granted aspects of road-tripping.
Originally published: August 17, 2015