I spent most of August and September on the road, driving clear across the country and back (twice!) with numerous stops along the way. All the while, I basically lived out of my Subaru Outback—a fun albeit brief version of “vanlife” so to speak. The following ten items made up the base of my essential kit and helped to ensure the experience was enjoyable, not merely a slog of driving endless mile after mile.
1. Stanley Adventure Cooler: Carrying a cooler in your car for road trips is a no brainer. This is the one item that will save you from becoming desperate enough to pull into that scary Taco Time drive through, grabbing buffalo wings at a casino-based Denny’s, or worse yet, eating a gas station hot dog. I would regularly stop at grocery stores to stock up on fruit, veggies snacks, sandwich supplies, breakfast food, sparkling water and other drinks. One bag of ice would keep the cooler contents cold for almost two days.
2. Hoka Cliftons: Keeping up a regular exercise routine is the key to not going completely bonkers (and losing your fitness) on the road. Every day, I would make a concerted effort to get out and go for a run, hike, or mountain bike ride (I had the luxury of bringing my mountain bike with me both trips). In the mountains, this was easy. You can find a trailhead almost anywhere. But even if you are driving through the middle of nowhere Iowa, you have no excuse. I would regularly locate the high school in some small town, throw on my Hoka Cliftons, and run laps on the track. Although technically a road running shoe, the Cliftons perform great on trails as well (and endless days of tornado disaster cleanup duty). For Crossfit style workouts, simply head to the nearest town park.
3. MSR Reactor Stove: Across most of the “fly over states”, you will be hard pressed to find anything but gas station coffee. Absolutely nothing is worse than gas station coffee. I brought along my MSR stove so that I could quickly boil up some water at a rest stop in order to make a palatable cup of coffee to keep me going and alert.
4. Starbucks VIA:While you could get all fancy and bring a french press and portable bean grinder, I find Starbucks VIA are by far the easiest solution for quickly making coffee on the go and they actually taste OK. If you don’t want to bring a stove along, you can easily find hot water at gas stations and most of the time the clerk won’t charge you, especially if you bring your own mug (see below).
5. Stanley Classic Vacuum Mug: You need something to hold your coffee and keep it warm. As stated above, most of the time you can get free hot water at gas stations if you bring your own mug. Once I arrived at a town with a great local coffee shop, I would still use my Stanley mug for my triple shot latte each morning.
6. Smartphone:Your phone is good for so many things on the road: music; podcasts; audio books (Cheryl Strayed’s Wild saw me through the drive from California to Colorado); or Google maps for directions, to locate the nearest coffee shop, high school track, emergency calls, alarm clock; and fun apps. I often used the Roadtrippers app to find offbeat attractions along my route (Corn Palace, anyone?) and local diners.
7. Gargoyles Shindand:A good pair of sunglasses is critical, as you will be staring out the windshield all day. These classic aviator style sunglasses (aviator is the only way to go on road trips, right?) offer full UVA, UVB, and UVC protection, while the polarization that cuts down on glare from the cars around you and the mirror coating help to decrease eye fatigue.
8. Big Agnes Double Z Most of the time when driving between destinations, I slept (more like napped) in my car. Pulling over at a rest stop or a Walmart parking lot, I would simply climb in the back of the Subaru and catch a few hours of shuteye. The Double Z sleeping pad is extremely comfortable, with an internal stabilizer construction that distributes your weight evenly. I simply left it inflated in the back of the car, ready for a nap at any time.
9. Downlite Pillow:You are car camping so no need to forgo the pillow. This Downlite pillow is made from Nikwax treated hydrophobic down, so won’t lose its loft even if you spill your Slurpee or drool all over it.
10. Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed: Sleeping in the back of the car does not have to be an uncomfortable experience and the Backcountry Bed is hands down the most comfortable sleeping bag out there. Void of any annoying zippers, the bag uses a quilt type cover for easy in and out and makes you almost feel as though you are sleeping in a real bed. This bag is not only comfortable for car camping but is also a backcountry powerhouse—lightweight and extremely packable, I plan to bring this on many of my upcoming fall backpacking adventures.
If anyone has any tips for a curtain setup for the back of the Subaru, let me know. I saw many people using those foldable sun shields for a little privacy.