Road Trip Gear Essentials for (Mostly) Self-Contained Travel

Road Trip vanlife cross-country touring to the Rio Grande, Big Bend, Texas
Big Bend, Texas.Regina Nicolardi

If you’re thinking that the best bet for travel right now is by road, you’re not alone. Though total trip numbers are down, AAA predicts that 97 percent of summer travel in 2020 will be by vehicle. The next step, in terms of social-distancing measures to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus: traveling self-contained.

What is self-contained travel? The technical definition for many campgrounds and public lands usually includes language about toilet systems and permanently installed wastewater holding tanks. In other words, an RV. Many road-trippers have taken note. Sales of RVs have been soaring, especially among first-time owners, according to Reuters. If a self-contained unit is required for a particular campground, rolling up in your compact won’t cut it. But from a broader practical standpoint, self-contained travel means carrying everything you need—all your food, water, and lodging—within your set of wheels.

Even without an RV, if you have a van, truck, or roomy car fueled and provisioned, you can easily find the rest of the equipment needed for better self-sufficiency. Every vehicle situation provides its own set of needs, especially when it comes to sleeping accommodations. No matter your mode of choice, though, certain road-trip gear essentials can keep your next outing self-contained, steering clear of crowded gathering places for days at a time.



Stocking up on food and beverages, including the finer things in life—blocks of cheese and cold beer—is clutch to maintaining your distance from highly visited places, like grocery stores and bars, while trying to maintain your self-contained status. You can only pack as many perishables as your cooler can keep, so it’s best to invest in something that can hold it’s cold while taking up space. The Pelican 50 Quart Elite provides a durable cooler with long ice retention, and 1.5 cubic feet of storage volume (38 cans). To avoid the lake of floating debris that bags of ice inevitably provide, consider using a block of dry ice, which is colder, lasts longer, and just dissipates in a gaseous form. Even if you aren’t keeping perishables cold, your cooler acts as a sturdy food pantry that goes through less temperature fluctuation than the rest of your vehicle, thanks to its insulating qualities.

Pelican Camping Cooler
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Eating on the road or at camp doesn’t have to mean relegating yourself to peanut butter sandwiches or freeze-dried meals. A two-burner propane stove provides strong flames on a solid platform, all in a relatively packable form. The GSI Selkirk 540 features twin 10,000-Btu burners with capacity for two 10-inch pots, and a push-button ignition. This means you can simmer a sauce on one burner, while boiling noodles or sautéing vegetables on the other. (Not to dismiss the peanut butter; it’s still a staple travel ingredient that fits any meal.)

GSI Outdoors Selkirk Stove
GSI Outdoors
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Refillable propane tanks have a higher capacity than one-pound, single-use canisters, so you won’t have to guess whether you’ll be running out of fuel and swapping tanks mid-boil. The Ignik Gas Growler Deluxe is a 5-pound tank that combines long running capacity with a friendly geometry for packing in your car. It includes a hose for a direct hookup to your stove, and a protective carrying case for storage.

Ignik Gas Growler
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In order to avoid the urge to sit down at a restaurant or just order takeout, it’s best to make sure your kitchen set is capable of whipping up meals fit for a foodie, whether at camp or pulling off at a rest area for lunch. The Destination Kitchen Set from GSI has 24 pieces including utensils, a utility knife, cutting board, and even a cheese grater. Combine it with GSI’s Glacier Base Camp pots and pans and your kitchen is prepped.

GSI Destination Set of Kitchen Ware
GSI Outdoors
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Water Jug

Water is always a priority. Carry a minimum of five gallons to give you a few days before your next refill. Many parks and rest areas have potable water faucets. Supermarkets also have water stations outside that only cost a few dollars. Scepter’s 5-gallon jug is a go-to solution. You’ll notice the X indented on one side of the jug, and protruding on the other. This allows you to nest multiple Scepter containers to increase your capacity on the road.

Scepter Water Jug 20 L 5 Gallon
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If you have access to a clean freshwater source, a filtration system means you’ll have all the water you need while at camp. The GravityWorks 4.0L by Platypus is reliable and easy to use. The gravity-style filter provides a gallon of potable water on demand without the time and labor spent pumping at the stream.

Platypus Gravityworks water filter
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Solar Shower

The ability to clean yourself is clutch when it comes to staying self-contained. A solar shower like Nemo Equipment’s Helio is a pressurized solution that feels closer to the hot shower at home than a painfully cold bucket of river water—take your pick. Don’t forget: When it comes to gray water from showers or dishes, use a biodegradable soap like Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap, and follow best outdoor practices for the area you are traveling (Leave No Trace is a great resource beyond any additional local regulations).

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The five-gallon bucket is one of those items you doubt you need to pack, but inevitably use for everything. It is a stepladder, a side table, storage, and wash basin for dishes, to name a few. You can hit your favorite hardware store and sport their brand for less than $10, or pick up something more indestructible like the LoadOut bucket by Yeti.

YETI Loadout Bucket
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Our smartphones and other electronic devices are, for better or worse, part of our daily gear essentials. Best to keep them charged without constantly pulling from your vehicle battery. Goal Zero’s Yeti 200x Power Station scales in at five pounds, and under a foot in length. It provides 187 watt-hours of power from a full charge, which Goal Zero rates at approximately 20 recharges of your smartphone. To charge the power station itself, the Yeti 200x can be paired with a Goal Zero solar panel such as the Nomad 20. It can also be recharged from a wall outlet or from your vehicle’s power socket while you’re on the move.

GoalZero 200X power charger
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First Aid Kit

Carrying a first aid kit should go without saying. You should have the supplies to take care of small incidents on your own, and also what you need to treat more serious accidents until you can reach medical care. The Mountain Backpacker Kit from Adventure Medical Kits provides enough care supplies to treat one to two individuals for up to four days.

Adventure Medical Kits first aid kit
Adventure Medical Kits
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Tool Kit

Things break. If you want to travel self-contained you should have a set of tools to make basic repairs on your vehicle, camping gear, bikes, boats or anything else you are carrying. Craftsman’s 102-piece Mixed Tool Set is a good start for the basics: hammer, screwdrivers, wrenches, sockets and pliers.

Craftsman Took Kit
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No matter how rugged you try to go, sitting on logs and preparing meals on random surfaces gets old. It is worth packing a table and chairs to lounge out and make yourself at home anywhere. If possible, go with setup pieces that complement one another in size and packability. If you are looking for pieces that take up little packed space, but are sturdy for the long haul, check out the Helinox Table One Hard Top, and Helinox Chair One.

Helinox portable camp table
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Toilet System

Yep, there’s the rub.

It’s the question above all others with uncertainty on the availability of restrooms while traveling during the COVID-19 era: What to do when nature calls? If you are traveling without the luxury of an RV toilet with a holding tank, then perhaps the most convenient system are Clean Waste’s GO Anywhere Toilet Kits, also more popularly known as WAG (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) Bags. These are puncture-resistant plastic bags containing a gelling agent, deodorizer, and enzymes that break down human waste to the point they are safe to throw in a trash can after use. Pair these bags with Clean Waste’s GO Anywhere Portable Toilet. It sets up in your vehicle or tucks in the woods, and then folds up to the size of a briefcase. Even on their own, the bags deserve a spot on the podium for road trip gear of 2020, just after face mask and hand sanitizer.

Clean Waste GO
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