How to Survive a Road Trip

Planning for a road trip can be overwhelming. It’s hard to anticipate what you’ll need along the way — and what will slow you down.

When you don’t have to pay fifty bucks to check your luggage, it’s tempting to just throw it all in the car. But, after a few trips, I learned that going this route leaves you with a car full of stuff, none of which is at arm’s length when you need it.

Even though I’m National Geographic’s Curious Traveler, I wouldn’t call myself a road trip expert (yet). But if I had to boil down what’s in my car to the top 10 essentials, here’s what would make the cut:

  1. Beach-ready outfit. Even if I’m miles from the nearest coast, I want to make sure I can take advantage of any body of water that crosses my path. A river, natural hot springs, Jacuzzi, pool, waterfall, you name it — they all require the same three things: a bikini, sarong, and flip flops. The sarong is the most versatile; it dries quickly and can go from beach towel, to dish towel, to skirt, to headscarf all in the same day. A definite must.
  2. Camera. Road trips are visual smorgasbords, and I want to capture it all. The Olympus mini PEN is tailor-made for trips: It’s small, but has interchangeable lenses that give your photos that professional edge.
  3. Little blue notebook. This little guy stays glued to my hand. I constantly use it jot down the juicy insider tips I learn from friendly folks along the way — a curious traveler’s bread and butter!
  4. iPhone. I like getting away from it all on the road, but I like to stay in touch, too — especially if it’s going to be a long haul. With Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest apps, my friends and family can see where I am in real time and vice versa. It’s also handy for planning and tracking my route, or even finding the closest gas station when I’m pushing empty. Heck, what doesn’t an iPhone do these days?
  5. Tent. My Big Agnes tent always comes with me. It’s my turtle shell: in five minutes I have a warm, dry makeshift home anywhere I want. It’s perfect for nights when I want to enjoy the natural world, or when I roll up somewhere and there’s no vacancy. My turtle shell will never turn me away!
  6. Head lamp. When you’re on a road trip, light is your best friend. Get a flat tire at night? Want to read in the tent? Want to deter would-be assailants by shining light in their eyes? Get a head lamp.
  7. Pepper spray. As a woman traveling alone, pepper spray is a necessary evil. I keep it with me as an extra precaution — though I’ve never had to use it, and hope I never will!
  8. Power snacks. Sometimes, I don’t want to stop for a full-blown meal when there are miles to cover, so I bring snacks. While it’s tempting to grab a Snickers bar, I know it will bring me crashing down quicker than I can say “Hungry? Why wait.” Instead I stock up on goodies like Rise bars and raw almonds.
  9. Mini library. I always bring a few books: a couple of old standbys for when I’m longing for something familiar and a few new ones that unfold alongside my own journey (Wildebeest in a Rainstorm is a recent favorite).
  10. Turkish nazar. I’m not superstitious, but it can’t hurt to have a talisman along for the ride. Even if it doesn’t actually ward off the “evil eye,” it makes for a nice companion after hours and hours in the car alone. It’s like having my very own Wilson (but his name is Mert).

Follow Shannon’s adventures on Twitter @CuriousTraveler and on Instagram @ShannonSwitzer


  1. Solweig Ahlander
    July 11, 2014, 6:51 am

    I will say WATER and salted nuts.
    In 1999 I decided to drive through the Mojave desert with my two teenagers. It was my first trip to the US alone after divorcing my husband. After realizing there were no gas stations, no small villages, no other cars – nothing at all for miles I started calculating in my head with the amount of water we had and i remembered forgetting to buy salted nuts or potato chips. I understood we would all die in a few hours if the rented car broke down. I did not tell my children but I was icecold inside although the desert heat by my own foolishness. Native people has taught us, while us making road trips to Turkey and Greece many years earlier, to always bring both water and salt while us visiting places as Olympia, Efes and Cappadocia in hot summers. Mojave desert was very much worse…

  2. 10 Thrifty Travel Trips | Jenn Was Here
    June 18, 2014, 11:20 am

    […] 4. Roadtrip – I love being on the road. Gives me time to contemplate and enjoy the scenery. But, factor in gas and mileage. Plan your destination and travel with a buddy. Here’s an interesting resource on road trips by The National Geographic. […]

  3. Jonam Indeke
    Kenya, Busia.
    June 15, 2014, 12:00 am

    A thoughtful list, and I hope water is somewhere as well.

  4. lawrence
    beijing china
    October 23, 2013, 11:51 pm

    I am now planning my road trip it’s a good suggestion, thank you!

  5. jodi johnson
    portland oregon
    July 29, 2013, 6:24 pm

    Also, remember to add the sleeping bag to your list!

  6. David Rodriguez
    July 20, 2013, 10:25 am

    Just a detail. Why carry a book when you have an iphone? Just carry ebooks!

    • Shannon Switzer
      July 20, 2013, 4:15 pm

      I can’t seem to let go of the real deal paper and ink book! Sometimes I just don’t want to be staring at a screen, and I love being able to trade them with other travelers once I’ve finished. But you’re right ebooks are probably more practical and take up less space.

  7. Bob Davis
    July 20, 2013, 7:20 am

    I’m doing a lap of Ausralia, have done around 26000 K’s since Jan this year.I like your list. One thing I have in the car next to my water bottle is a large fruit cake that you can purchase at any supermarket. You can eat just a small amount or pig out if you are hungy! Thanks! Bob

    • Shannon Switzer
      July 20, 2013, 4:16 pm

      Fruit cake…yum! Sounds like a great idea :) Continue enjoying your epic journey!

  8. eric crawford
    Bennington, VT
    July 19, 2013, 9:07 am

    Glad to see you are thinking about personal safety while traveling. While we all plan to enjoy the best, it never hurts to be prepared for the worst. As VP of the Mace Security International, the leading brand in self defense pepper sprays, I thank you for recommending the product to your travel enthusiast audience. If we can be a part of a future story or one of your trips please let us know. Mace…just in case!

  9. Charles Bury
    July 18, 2013, 8:48 pm

    Fun list, but… No sleeping bag? First on my list.
    Knife, but not Bowie size. Swiss army is good. Candle and gas lighter, not Zippo type. Towel. Sweater. Some well-hidden cash.
    Keep a fire extinguisher in your car at all times. Duct tape too. Walking stick if you’re an old fart.

    There’s more — ten items is not enough.

    C. B., a solo traveler for 50 years.

    • Shannon Switzer
      July 19, 2013, 3:23 pm

      Sleeping bag for sure…it was difficult to fit in the photo ;) I can tell you are a seasoned survivor…great list!

  10. Jill
    July 18, 2013, 3:48 pm

    Duct tape, good for so many things

  11. Dan & Linda
    July 18, 2013, 10:59 am

    Interesting thoughts about the tent. We almost never take one unless planning to camp. BUT, since we are given to serendipity on many of our road trips, this often leads to some late evening tension worrying about finding a place to stay for the night. Throwing a compact tent into the car might lend some needed peace of mind. It’s all about options.

    • Shannon Switzer
      July 18, 2013, 6:07 pm

      I agree! I’ve found it very handy…you know you’ll always have a place to sleep!

  12. Lou
    July 18, 2013, 10:31 am

    I’m sorry, while your list is has good essentials (sarong is a great one), and it is lighthearted and fun, is this really Nat Geo worthy?? Seems more at a People magazine level. Just saying…

    • Shannon Switzer
      July 18, 2013, 6:00 pm

      Hi Lou, thanks for your feedback! It was intended as a fun and lighthearted piece for travelers to who like to get a little off the beaten path. -Shannon

  13. Palitha Perera
    Sri Lanka
    July 18, 2013, 10:01 am

    How about adding a SWISS KNIFE to this list.

  14. Carlos
    July 18, 2013, 8:47 am

    En mis tiempos no se necesitaba i-phone para salir a acampar o en un buen trip. Hay muchas otras cosas necesarias sin duda la linterna está entre ellas.

  15. Iryanda
    Bandung, Indonesia
    March 17, 2013, 7:26 am

    Shannon, i just follow ur instagram and wondering one thing, what provider you usually used to travel ?? because sometimes it’s kinda hard to translate local providerlanguage (like in Thai or Japanesse) if we want to activate iPhone in case to upload our photos or using internet. Or you just wait for wi-fi connection? thanks!!

  16. praneet
    March 13, 2013, 4:41 pm

    Hey Shannon,

    I liked ur list!!
    Would really like to know from you how you got started with NG.

  17. Deenadayal
    December 31, 2012, 12:04 am

    Good. along with a water bottle also useful for travel.

  18. Deenadayal
    December 30, 2012, 11:57 pm

    good with a water botlte also.

  19. petros
    Rhodes Island-Hellas
    December 27, 2012, 9:03 am

    With only the bottom of this bicini(looks thong) u sure need a paper spay,or not?

  20. William Coleman
    Kirtland, OH
    December 15, 2012, 12:56 pm

    Must be nice to not need a closet full of meds, integrate numerous doctor apts, carry a first aid kit, not need a tampon, etc. At my age (71), I have to road trip with a 5th wheel to get by.

  21. Lisa Morris
    Kitchener, Ontario, Canada (eh!)
    November 10, 2012, 8:28 am

    Love the list! I’m a roadtrip junkie always looking for adventure, too :)
    I agree that the notebook, camera (not that one though), and iPhone are definitely the top three when traveling. Instagram shared to different social media also keeps my mum at ease, ha.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Shannon Switzer
      July 18, 2013, 6:05 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it Lisa! Agreed that social media is great for keeping parents at ease and feeling like part of the adventure.

  22. roozter
    November 9, 2012, 4:04 pm

    What tent do you have that pitches in five minutes??? I need that!!

  23. Dave
    November 9, 2012, 3:22 pm

    good list I may have to add to my packing list now

  24. jacqueline
    June 25, 2012, 8:02 pm

    Love it! that new olympus camera with the lenses looks perfect for fitting in my backpack! thanks for sharing!

  25. Max
    New Mexico
    June 24, 2012, 2:31 pm

    A “little blue notebook” seems dated in light of the IPhone which as you say, “Heck, what doesn’t an iPhone do these days?” It can record which makes writen composition a lot eaiser later? Just a personal observation- nonetheless, I like your article.

    • Shannon Switzer
      June 24, 2012, 2:34 pm

      Good point…guess I’m just old school. I love jotting hand written notes down with good old paper and ink!

  26. Ricardo Galan
    June 23, 2012, 11:58 pm


  27. Kara
    June 20, 2012, 11:06 pm

    Great list! Thanks for sharing your adventures with us!

  28. Freddy
    Hot humid Florida swamp
    June 19, 2012, 6:16 pm

    Your uncle Bear wants to know if the top to the bikini is on the list.

    • Shannon Switzer
      June 20, 2012, 1:02 pm

      Ha, YES. It’s definitely on the list. Just looked too cluttered in the photo!

  29. Tessa
    Carlsbad, Ca
    June 18, 2012, 4:26 pm

    I think your “essentials list” is perfect for a surfer/photojournalist traveling the pacific coast! I do most of my traveling in the mid-west, power snacks and good books are an ABSOLUTE MUST HAVE! I’ve been driving through Kansas/ Missouri/ Arkansas and the only thing that kept me going at 3 a.m. were snacks rich in protein to keep me awake. I agree with Michael, most rental cars nowadays come equipped with GPS, as do all smart phones… as for the comments which suggest bringing a Knife or a whiskey bottle? There are laws here in California which prohibit carrying those items in your vehicle called, “open container law” and “concealed weapon law” those people must be from a different country?

  30. Michael Rutherford
    June 18, 2012, 12:48 pm

    Shannon, my wife and I consider ourselves to be “road trip experts” we are on the road about 20 days out of each month. Your “top ten essentials” list is absolutely perfect because each person’s list is different. It depends on who you are, where you are, and what your traveling goals are. Things like “wire” or “a compass” aren’t necessary because; 1) It’s the year 2012, and 2) This is America.

  31. Lundin
    June 18, 2012, 12:04 pm


  32. Lauren
    June 18, 2012, 1:36 am

    Great list! I can attest to the usefulness of the sarong. You first gave me the suggestion back in OZ and from that day on I always bring it with me when I travel! You rock!!

  33. Shannon Switzer
    June 16, 2012, 12:54 pm

    This was a playful exercise…not a serious course in survival…just have some fun with it :)

  34. Not troll
    June 16, 2012, 10:54 am

    Of course flip flops and a talisman are much more important than waterbottle, lunchbox, batteries and charger, power adapters, laptop, compass, maps, swiss army knife, tent, mosquito net, raincoat, lenses and filters, and tripod…

  35. LS Zaitsev
    Guyane française
    June 14, 2012, 5:27 pm

    Who… this stuff is stupid for travelling, even in road trip…
    Iphone, yeah, but with energy embedded for one day, your road trip becomes … shopping trip to the supermarket, not more.

    Same think about all these electronic gadget (camera, etc). maybe with solar cells in your handbag …

    Sunglasses ? Knife ? Wire ? Bottle of whisky (spirit of the road trip !) ?

  36. Jeanice
    June 14, 2012, 10:44 am

    Say hello to Mert for me. Glad he is such good company

  37. Jenny
    June 14, 2012, 10:38 am

    Nice list! I love photos like that one! Can’t wait to hear about your next adventure!!

  38. Ben
    June 14, 2012, 3:38 am

    Mert, it is. I like the blue table!

  39. Michael
    June 14, 2012, 2:33 am

    Great List. I compiled one as well. A couple of our items overlap but I discuss all types of tricks and tips as well as gear essentials. Many are super cheap- just clever uses. I bet you will add 2 or 3 of them to your next packing job! Please let me know what you think.

    Happy travels!