Whether you’re winding your way up and down the California coast via Highway 1, getting your kicks on the historic Route 66, or taking in the stunning Appalachian scenery from the Blue Ridge Parkway, there’s nothing like hitting the open road.
Aside from a full tank of gas – or a fully charged electric – and a vehicle in tip-top condition, a successful journey doesn’t require too many bells and whistles. But there are a few things that can make those hours in the car more enjoyable, from reading material and navigational tools to food and beverage supplies to cozy blankets and pillows. Here are our picks for a smooth ride, all $300 or less.
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1. Lonely Planet's USA's Best Trips Travel Guide
First things first: some inspiration. Lonely Planet’s USA’s Best Trips outlines 52 itineraries in regions across the country, from New England to the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Northwest. Between the wanderlust-inducing photos, the handy route maps, and the insider tips (think: ideal places to stretch your legs, detours worth the extra travel time, and problematic spots to be avoided at all costs), you’ll be cruising down that highway worry-free.
Lonely Planet's USA's Best Trips, from $17.50; shop.lonelyplanet.com.
2. Airframe Wireless phone mount
Not only is it inconvenient – and dangerous! – to mess with your device when you’re behind the wheel, it’s also illegal in the 15 states (plus DC, Guam, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico) that have bans on hand-held cellphone use while driving. Kenu’s Airframe Wireless mount clips into your air vent, which keeps it both cool and at eye level, and it charges wirelessly, so you won’t have to worry about losing your map at a critical juncture.
Airframe Wireless phone mount, $60; kenu.com.
3. Maui Jim sunglasses
There aren't many things you could forget that would have you turning back toward home, but a quality pair of shades is surely one of them. Maui Jim’s lightweight frames come in styles from sporty to stylish, and the lenses themselves are a real difference-maker. Hyper-polarized and incredibly thin, they cut glare, enhance color and protect your eyes from UV rays – and they work with prescriptions, too.
Maui Jim Water Lily sunglasses, $280; mauijim.com.
4. Hydro Flask Soft Cooler Tote
Whether you’re driving cross-country or taking a quick day trip, the urge for provisions that don’t come from a drive-through is bound to strike sooner or later. Besides providing real estate for healthier, cheaper meals and BYO beverages, Hydro Flask’s 18-liter soft cooler tote is light and leakproof, comfortable to carry with an easy-access top, a removable, well-cushioned shoulder strap, and two small exterior pockets for bottle openers, utensils or napkins.
Hydro Flask 18L Soft Cooler Tote, $175; hydroflask.com.
5. Zojirushi stainless steel mug
For those addicted to their morning cup of joe – and those otherwise disinclined who might need a boost after a stretch of sleepless nights in unfamiliar beds – a caffeinated beverage is essential for long hours behind the wheel. Zojirushi’s 20-ounce stainless-steel thermos keeps cold drinks cold and hot drinks hot, and it has a spouted lid you can unlock one-handed for easy sipping sans spills. Plus, it’s compact, lightweight and fits in most cars’ cupholders without any trouble.
Zojirushi 20-ounce stainless steel mug, $28; amazon.com.
6. Proof water bottle
Yes, hydration is important, but you don’t want to down so much H2O that you’re stopping every half-hour. Proof’s 18-ounce vacuum bottle is just big enough, with a medical-grade stainless-steel interior, double-walled insulation to keep your water cold, and a neck that’s wide enough to accommodate regulation-size ice cubes for maximum frostiness. Lids are available in an array of eye-catching metallics, and the bottle’s tapered body is sleek, modern and slim enough for your car’s cupholder.
Proof 18-ounce vacuum bottle, $30; proofexists.com
7. Bathroom-finder apps
Speaking of liquid intake, locating a restroom shouldn't be a problem around urban centers and major highways, but they can be harder to come by once you venture further afield. Rather than relying on a fast-food joint to pop up in your hour of need, download a bathroom-finder app and plan your comfort breaks in advance. Flush Toilet Finder boasts 190,000 crowdsourced listings, Charmin’s Sit or Squat points you toward clean facilities, and Refuge Restrooms provides safe options for transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming travelers.
8. Elyptol Antimicrobial Hand Sanitizer
From grody gas pumps to dodgy public toilets, germs are lurking everywhere. Elyptol’s antimicrobial hand sanitizer gel relies on natural ingredients – ethanol to knock out bacteria and eucalyptus to keep skin healthy – to get the job done, and not only does the formula receive top marks from the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep guide, the company also claims a 99.9999% kill rate, a hospital-grade rating. (It comes in travel-friendly sizes too.)
Elyptol Antimicrobial Hand Sanitizer Gel, $4; amazon.com.
9. Kate’s Real Food energy bars
For those times when the cooler’s empty and there’s not a convenience store on the horizon, energy bars are a fail-safe alternative. Made with organic, kosher, non-GMO, gluten-free ingredients only, the energy bars from Kate’s Real Food offer serious fuel in just a few ounces. And with flavors like dark chocolate, cherry and almond; peanut butter, hemp and flax; and mango coconut, they don’t feel like punishment either.
Kate’s Real Food energy bars, $30 for 12; katesrealfood.com.
10. Cotopaxi Kusa 160 blanket
A packable blanket is great for picnics and backseat naps, but it’s also smart to have on hand in case of emergency – you never know when you’ll be stuck waiting for a tow truck on a cold night in the middle of nowhere. Cotopaxi’s Kusa 160 features cozy llama-poly insulation encased in durable ripstop nylon that, while not waterproof, can handle a little light rain. Available in full and queen sizes, it takes up next to no space when it’s rolled up and stored in the stuff sack that comes included.
Cotopaxi Kusa 160 blanket, $128; cotopaxi.com.
11. Cushion Lab Ergonomic Travel Neck Pillow
If you’re sharing the driving responsibilities, there’s nothing wrong with catching a little shut-eye when you’re in the passenger seat. Some travel neck pillows can feel like a straight-jacket, but Cushion Lab’s ergonomic memory-foam version offers differing levels of support, so you can spin it around to find the right fit for your particular sleep style. The pillowcase is removable and machine-washable, and the whole thing fits in a pouch the size of a coffee mug when it’s not in use.
Cushion Lab Ergonomic Travel Neck Pillow, $29; thecushionlab.com.
12. Chronicle Books Great Outdoors notebook set
Whether you’re the designated car-game scorekeeper or prone to journaling, doodling, or list-making, there’s nothing like good old-fashioned pen and paper to jot it all down. This Great Outdoors set from Chronicle Books comprises two slim volumes – 96 pages apiece, both lined and unlined – with beautifully embossed woodcut-style covers that reflect the scenery flashing by your window.
Great Outdoors notebook set, $13; chroniclebooks.com.
13. Lifeline AAA Traveler Road Kit
Nothing kills a trip buzz faster than thinking about all the ways things could go wrong, but complete denial isn’t really an option either. Cover your bases with Lifeline’s AAA Traveler Road Kit, which packs 10ft eight-gauge jumper cables, duct tape, a bungee cord, a screwdriver, an LED flashlight with batteries, a 45-piece first aid kit, and more into a tidy double-sided carrying case. Stash it in the trunk and hope you never to have to use it.
Lifeline AAA Traveler Road Kit, $39; amazon.com.