What should you pack for a long trip? 7 principles

 Weekend getaways in the Airstream are wonderful, but the ultimate dream for many people is taking off on a magnificent cross-country adventure for weeks or months.

Right now we're working on our three-month summer travel plan, so planning all the details has been a personal challenge lately. As many people do these days, we're going to be working and playing in the same trip, with scheduled stops in at least 11 states and 2 Canadian provinces. We'll encounter all kinds of weather and do many different things on land and water. And we're doing all of that in a 23-foot Globetrotter.

So how do we decide what we need on a long road trip—and avoid packing things that end up being a waste of space?

Here's how to figure it out: 

1. Build your "must have" list first

A great starting point is the stuff you absolutely must have. This includes medications and other health-related items, emergency tools, First Aid kit, pet necessities, etc. Cover those basics first.

From there, branch out to items you feel like you can't live without. This might include coffee, makeup kit, your Sibley bird guide, hiking boots, or any particularly bulky items – like bicycles. At this point, try to focus only on things you know you'll really use often. 

For remote workers like us, this includes the computers and accessories needed to get work done. Most remote working gear packs in a single backpack, so this isn't a huge space consumer for most people. (Plan to keep the valuable electronics in the Airstream, not the truck. They're easier to keep out of sight and harder to steal from the Airstream.)

There's no need to stock up on easily-obtained items, so you don't have to bring spare toothpaste. You might be accustomed to buying in bulk at home, but on a long road trip you'll be better off buying just what you need as you go. That will save space for a wider range of things.

2. Pack for your own travel style

Quite often new Airstreamers get sucked in by glamourous-sounding blog posts or videos where people are touting an idealistic vision of travel. Next thing you know, they're buying hotdog forks, cast iron skillets, hatchets, and hammocks. But keep in mind that these posts are often written by marketing folks, not real Airstream travelers. They don't know what you do.

For example, a hatchet and and folding shovel might sound like something campers need, but in reality cutting tree branches (even from downed trees) in a campground is prohibited nearly everywhere, and there's no need to dig trenches in an RV park. 

Look at your own travel style for guidance. If you're all about cooking over a campfire, then go ahead and get the stuff that makes that experience more enjoyable for you. If you're not sure, wait until you've got a few trips under your belt before you outfit your Airstream with stuff you may never use.

3. Pick a few focused activities for each trip 

Even on a long trip, you can't do everything. Be realistic about your ambitions on the road. If you value an activity that requires bulky equipment (like bicycling, kayaking, golfing) give that priority. Let the other things you "might" do fall to the bottom of your packing list, and bring them only if you find extra room.

Airstreamers are endlessly creative about how to pack a lot into a small space. You can do this too, by swapping bulky gear for small and light entertainment items that have big value. For example, you can get a lot of enjoyment out of something as small as a set of good binoculars, instead of a bulky telescope.

Movies on DVD, hiking boots, paperback books, a swimsuit, tennis racket, and a laptop or tablet are other examples of Airstream-friendly items that bring a lot of entertainment value.

You also can have a lot of fun downsizing your normal pastimes. Guitarists sometimes switch to ukuleles for fun evenings in the campsite with much easier packability. Divers might switch to snorkeling if diving isn't the point of the trip, and leave the tanks at home. Cyclists can rent bikes in tourist areas rather than always bringing their own—that's what we plan to do this summer.

In the same vein, avoid packing overly-ambitious projects. Maybe at home you've been meaning to get to that 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, read Anna Karenina, and knit a flag, but are you really going to get to those things on your vacation? You'll probably be distracted by all the great sights, museums, outdoor activities, and friends.

4. Bring more food than you think you'll need

I see this mistake often. People throw a few convenience foods into their refrigerator and figure "we'll hit the grocery store if we need anything else", or they plan to eat out for every meal, or they plan each meal rigidly and bring only what's needed.

The problem is that your trip won't always go to plan. Maybe your cookout becomes a rainout. Maybe somebody is sunburned and tired and doesn't want to go out or cook. Maybe you had to alter your destination at the last minute, or the good restaurant in town is closed and the only other option is at a very sketchy truck stop.

In my experience these things always seems to happen 20 miles from the nearest grocery store or restaurant. It's great to have a few reliable standbys in the pantry and the galley, including comfort foods for that dark and forbidding night when you really don't to go anywhere or work too hard.

This is especially important if you're gluten-free, non-dairy, or vegetarian, because grocery stores and restaurant options can be very limited in smaller towns. It's far better to get home with the fridge still packed half full of food that you didn't get to, than go hungry in the campground.

5. Pack clothes that can be combined for any weather 

As the Norwegians (and Swedes, Germans, and many others) say, "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes." When you travel you'll encounter all kinds of weather changes as a result of changing latitude, altitude (especially out west), and region. If you're on a long trip, you'll need to have a little something for every occasion.

Clothes and shoes will likely take up all of your bedroom storage space. So you'll want to consider carefully just how dressy you expect to be in your travels. Usually Airstreaming is a pretty casual affair, which makes packing a lot easier.

But no matter whether you expect to attend a luau or a graduation, you'll want a flexible wardrobe that can work in just about any weather—including southeastern swamp humidity, western desert aridity or a freak snow shower in Colorado. 

6. Don't overdo the tools

A few well-chosen tools to take care of urgent repairs is always a good idea, but you don't need to bring enough to rebuild the Airstream. All the tools you need to do 95% of common repairs on an Airstream will fit into a single small tool bag.

If you're interested in what we bring based on over 15 years of Airstream travel, check out "Tools For The Road" on our video page and also "Spare parts for Airstream trips: 21 tips".

7. Be prepared to boondock

You might not be ready to camp off-grid when you start, but you probably will be by the time you finish a long trip. Take this opportunity to practice boondocking.

The real beauty of boondocking is that it doesn't require any special equipment. It's just an easily-learned skill, and one that I guarantee will get you out of a jam someday.

You can get our top boondocking tips in these blogs:

"Gearing up to avoid the crowds"

"What I learned on my first boondocking trip"

By the way, in my opinion solar panels are essential for boondocking more than two days. Solar is easy to understand and use, so don't fear it! We take a portable solar charging kit that takes up hardly any space or weight capacity.

One bonus tip: a checklist

As you're packing, make a pre-departure checklist. Keep notes of the things you plan to pack and the steps you need to take to get your home ready. Break the pre-departure list into things you need to do weeks or days before departure (like stopping the mail and notifying the neighbors), and things you need to do the day before you depart (like filling the truck up with gas, checking air pressure in the tires, putting the water heater into vacation mode, and taking out the trash). 

A checklist like this will take a lot of stress out of the last days before you go. You won't have to worry about forgetting something important, and there won't be that awful "did I leave the stove on?" moment an hour after you leave home. 

2 comments

J K

J K

Just wanted to say how timely your recent post about packing for a long trip is for us. Although we have a 27FB Flying Cloud which we still love…and which is great for wintering somewhere warm in the winter…we’ve just taken delivery of an Interstate 19 which we hope to use on long trips. It’s going to be quite an adjustment.

Among the necessities already on board are your hose and surge protector. I’ve also, as you suggested, cut down the big grab bag of tools we’ve always carried in the truck to a smaller collection which is housed in a plastic storage box.

Georgia Eddy

Georgia Eddy

Lists! Lists! Lists! We’ve been camping and traveling for over 20 years and can’t stress enough the peace of mind having checklists brings. From what to bring (clothes and gear), menus, groceries, and on board pantry to arrival and departure check lists. And don’t just make that list, USE IT EVERY TIME! The lists in the newbie guide are a great starting point!

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