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Gearhead Diaries: My USA Road Trip Essentials

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I am a photographer and writer passionate about the outdoors, meaningful travel, and living deliberately. I hope to use my platform online to show the beauty and complexity of the world we live in, and to encourage genuine connection to the outdoors, culture, people and wildlife.

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I recently spent six weeks living out of my car, visiting the National Parks, and doing anything that sounded vaguely interesting or fun. Living out of your car isn’t as convenient or easy as having a heated house, running water, a kitchen, a bed or a bathroom that doesn’t require you to go outside. Anything that made my life more fun or convenient on the road was a huge bonus, and is definitely worth sharing.

Here are ten of my favorite road trip items.

1. National Parks Pass 

Considering that each national park costs between $10-30 per vehicle, at $80, this pass is definitely worth it if you plan on visiting a handful of the parks. Having the pass has also encouraged me to check out places I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, since it doesn’t cost me any more money. If you’re planning to road trip the US, this pass is great. ($79.99. Buy through the National Parks, or REI has them here.)

Lake Powell, Arizona. If I didn't have a parks pass, I wouldn't have gone, and would have missed this sunset.

Lake Powell, Arizona. If I didn’t have a parks pass, I wouldn’t have gone.

2. MSR Mugmate

I only buy coffee in cafes if I need to use wifi, so usually, this is my method for making it myself. It’s essentially a pour over, using a super durable filter. I get up, boil some water, and filter coffee into my Hydro Flask. I also use the Mugmate for backpacking trips. Get one! ($16.95 on Amazon)

coffeecoffeecoffeecoffee

Hello gorgeous.

3. Playlists & Podcasts

Listening to something great definitely improves a long driving day! I make playlists using Spotify and download them to my phone when I have wifi. I also love podcasts: specifically, I have loved Serial and This American Life. It was especially nice listening to podcasts because I was alone. They gave me something to think about, and often I learned something new.

It's helpful to have something good to listen to when you're seeing a whole lot of this.

It’s helpful to have something good to listen to when you’re seeing a whole lot of this.

4. Comfy Bedding and Pillow

Yes, seriously. You’re not backpacking, so bring a pillow and blankets. Bring five! Having a pillow is such a luxury item for me, and it makes a huge difference. Mountain Standard came out with a huge fleece blanket and it is excellent for naps, summits and just being really cozy. ($90 at Mountain Standard)

Being the coziest.

I also recommend using this blanket for staring at stuff. (Photo by Nate Luebbe)

5. Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Castile Soap 

Dr. Bronner’s is the soap I use for everything. It’s great for dishes, body soap, and even laundry soap in a pinch. (Multiple sizes available on Amazon)

It might not be necessary to own a 40oz bottle.

It might not be necessary to own a 40oz bottle, but I’m not ashamed.

6. Non-Adventure Shoes

When I wasn’t hiking, I wore sandals everywhere on this trip until it got too cold. Comfortable shoes that you can hang out, drive, and do some light hiking in are great to have! I alternated between the OluKai Hema and my Birkenstock clogs. Easy to slip on and off and super cozy with a thick pair of wool socks. In general, it’s awesome to have a pair of shoes that feel great and aren’t necessarily for hiking or climbing. (Hema sandals, $125 from OluKai)

These sandals have seen a lot of cool stuff.

7. Aqua-Tainer 7-gal Water Container

Never thought a huge water jug would make it onto any favorite-things post of mine. But here it is. Having water with you all the time is extremely convenient. You can fill up at many visitor’s centers or campgrounds every few days. I have been very surprised at how many people I’ve seen using plastic water bottles. Having a big water container means you can fill up your re-usable Nalgene or Hydro Flask at any time, and is way less wasteful. ($17.95 on Amazon)

Water is never a bad thing to have on hand.

8. Watch with Alarm 

I definitely don’t have service everywhere I go. Having a watch means I know I’m going to wake up on time (or at least that my alarm will go off!). Many folks I know have come to rely on their phones as a clock. Being able to turn off your phone and still know the time is great, especially in areas where you don’t have service anyway. I have a Timex– I found it on Amazon for $25 here.

Thanks to this watch, I never missed a sunrise! Thanks to cozy bed, sometimes I did.

9. Patagonia 90L Black Hole Duffel

It’s just a duffel, right? Yes, but it’s really durable. This is where I’ve been keeping all my clothes, and believe me, it truly is a black hole. I have never tried to organize it. I really like how big this bag is, and that it can handle all the dirt, dust and water I seem to always be spilling on it. ($149 from Patagonia, though you can sometimes find older colors on sale)

“organized mess”

10. Bureau of Land Management & National Forest Land

This land has been my best friend. You can camp on BLM or NFS land for free. It’s called dispersed camping, and most tourists don’t know about it. It means no toilets, no picnic table, and often no fires, so if you try dispersed camping, make sure you know how to Leave No Trace and camp responsibly. Local ranger stations are great places to ask for maps and to make sure you’ll be camping somewhere you are allowed to. Look up the area you are going to and ensure you know the regulations specific to that area.

Camped here for free!

$0 campsite!

Sure, not all of these things are pieces of “gear” necessarily, but each one of them has made my experience way better in some small (or big) way.

What would you consider essential for a road trip? What cool stuff do I not know about yet? Let me know!

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  1. lynne says:

    + 1 for podcasts! add RadioLab and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me to your list, too!

    (+1 to a lot on your list – I bought a parks pass summer 2014 and used the heck out of it!)

    • Thanks Lynne! I have to add those podcasts. I’m not doing a ton of driving now that I’m back… guess I need to plan another trip! I think the parks pass is such a great thing especially because once you have it, there’s no reason NOT to go. It definitely saved me a lot of money as well.

  2. Adam says:

    How about a cooler? Did you have a big expensive insulated cooler? Did you have to stop for ice often? Or did you just go without?

    • Totally. I had a cheap Coleman cooler– getting ice was sometimes a huge pain, but I always try to find block ice and that usually lasts for a couple of days unless it’s SUPER hot. In terms of cooler stuff, I know Yeti makes some really great cooler bags though I don’t own one myself!

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