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Who doesn’t love a good road trip? There’s something special about the freedom of the open road, whether you’re traveling solo or with a bunch of friends in the back seat.
Wherever you’re going and whoever you’re going there with, there are several road trip essentials that need to be packed for any journey. These have changed a lot over the years — most of the things like paper maps and mix tapes that came along on my earliest cross-country drives wouldn’t make the cut now!
On the flip side, there’s a wide range of inexpensive gadgets and gear that will make for a better, safer, more enjoyable driving experience. Most don’t cost much, but they’ll all enhance your trip in one way or another.
These are eight of our current top road trip gadget picks right now.
Best for Powering Everything: Aikenuo 6 Port Car Adapter
We’re all traveling with more tech gear than ever before, and most of it needs to be charged from a USB port. If your vehicle isn’t outfitted with enough (or any) of them, it’s time to pick up a good multi-USB car charger. We like this Aikenuo adapter for a few reasons.
It’s well-priced, especially for a charger with six USB sockets — most of the competition tops out at four or five. It’s also nice to see a cable that’s over four foot long, since it lets you easily extend the charger into the back seat for passengers.
Best of all, four of the ports are QuickCharge 3-compatible, and the other two can still put out 2.4 amps each. Rated to 96W, it’s one of the few car chargers that can happily charge multiple phones and tablets at full speed.
If you need something slightly different, we recently checked out several more of the best wireless and USB car chargers. It’s also worth investing in some quality cables. Cheap ones tend to break quite quickly, and Anker has long been our preferred brand for charging cables of all kinds.
Make sure you get the right length for your requirements. Long cables are ideal for passengers who also need to charge their gear, while short ones are much better for powering your phone when it’s in a holder a few inches above the charger.
Best for Safety: SlimK Rechargeable LED Road Flares
Obviously nobody wants to have a breakdown, or be involved in a road accident. If the worst does happen, though, you’ll want to warn other drivers to slow down and take extra care.
In the past, this meant keeping a few magnesium flares in the car. They’re certainly bright, but also single-use and somewhat dangerous to both store and use. LED models have started to replace them, and this SlimK set is a good example.
Each of the three beacons has a magnetic base that lets you attach them to the hood, trunk, or roof of your vehicle. The higher they sit, the more visible they are to oncoming drivers. If you do choose to put them on the road, the flares are rated to withstand a 6000-pound vehicle driving over them.
One of the few models that’s rechargeable rather than requiring AAA batteries, this pack comes with both car and wall chargers for that purpose. A small storage bag keeps everything together and ready to use.
Best for Older Vehicles: Nulaxy Bluetooth Car FM and Aux Adapter
No road trip is complete without a soundtrack to accompany it. New cars come with a Bluetooth entertainment system to let you stream music from your phone, but older vehicles are anyone’s guess.
Some have an AUX socket that you let you plug in a 1/8″ cable, while others don’t even have that. This multi-purpose Nulaxy adapter ensures your favorite tunes will be coming along on your journey, even if your car is older than you are.
Plugging into the cigarette lighter, the Nulaxy acts as a Bluetooth receiver for your phone or tablet, and outputs sound via the AUX socket or the FM transmitter. Just tune the radio to an unused frequency, set the Nulaxy to the same frequency, and you’re good to go.
You don’t even have to use a phone or tablet at all, since the adapter can also play music from a USB stick or micro-SD card. There’s also a voltage meter to check the health of your car battery, a USB port for charging other devices, and the ability to make hands-free calls over Bluetooth.
Best for Watching Shows: Macally Headrest Tablet Holder
Keeping young kids entertained during long drives can be a challenge, especially when you’re entering hour five on the same endless highway. That’s where a tablet full of their favorite shows, and one of these holders to make those shows easier to watch, come in handy.
Headrest holders like these attach to the driver and/or passenger seats, and let you safely mount tablets or portable gaming devices like a Nintendo Switch for viewing by those in the back seat.
We like this Macally mount for its flexibility. While other models typically make you choose between placing the tablet behind one seat for a single passenger, or between both front seats for multiple viewers, this mount can handle both.
The mount clamps onto the headrest poles of most standard vehicles, with a rotatable section for attaching tablets like an iPad or Kindle Fire, smartphones, or other devices 4.5-10″ wide.
Best for Refreshments: K-Box 34 Quart Electric Cooler
Heading off for a bit of car camping? Just want to keep a supply of cold drinks and snacks to hand while you’re driving? Either way, a cooler is an essential part of any road trip.
If you don’t want to be messing around with melting ice packs all the time, go for this K-Box electric version instead. The dual-purpose cooler has inbuilt cables for both standard wall sockets and car cigarette lighters, which tuck away into a storage compartment when not in use.
The K-Box can maintain a constant temperature of 40F (4C), and comes in a variety of sizes. While most people use it to keep food and drinks cold, it can also keep things hot as well. Just flick a switch, and it’ll heat up to 130F (54C) to provide hot soup or coffee on those chilly winter trips.
There’s a partition inside to help keep things organized, and a sturdy locking handle for keeping everything secure as you move it around.
Best for Avoiding Breakdowns: NEXPEAK OBD2 Car Diagnostic Tool
Worried about that engine check light on the dashboard? Not convinced your battery is up to a cross-country road trip? Make sure you’ve got this Nexpeak diagnostic tool to hand.
Compatible with all ODB2-certified 12V vehicles manufactured after 1996 (that’s most petrol and diesel vehicles in the US), this tool plugs into the diagnostic port and gives you an immediate answer on the 2.8″ color screen.
Navigation is straightforward via the large membrane buttons on the front, which are usable even when you’re wearing gloves. The device can decipher the full range of generic and manufacturer-specific error codes, and can be updated online.
The Nexpeak also monitors the battery voltage when it’s performing its other diagnostics, and will alert you when it’s too high or low. Once you’ve discovered what the actual error is, you can also turn off the check light directly from the device.
Extras include a soft carry case, along with Windows software to let you load and print diagnostic history from the device.
Best for Mounting Your Phone: iOttie iTap 2 Smartphone Mounts
Whether you use your phone for navigation, playing music, or anything else on a road trip, if you’re the driver, you’ll need a mount for it. It’s increasingly common for using (or even touching) your phone to be illegal when you’re behind the wheel.
Even if it wasn’t, let’s face it, having your smartphone securely sitting somewhere around eye level is safer and more convenient than picking it up. There are thousands of smartphone vehicle mounts out there, but we prefer the simplicity of magnetic ones like the iOttie iTap 2 range.
The iTap 2 magnetic mounts are available in an impressive array of options, Whether you want to mount your phone on the dashboard, air vent, or the CD slot of the car stereo, there’s a model that does it, in both standard and wireless-charging versions.
After sticking one of the included magnetic plates to the back of your smartphone or case, you simply attach the mount to your vehicle and put your phone on it. The magnets are powerful enough to hold even large phones securely in place, while still letting you easily remove them when leaving the car.
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Best for Checking Tires: Accutire Digital Tire Pressure Gauge
If you’re anything like me, the only time you think about checking your tire pressure is about five minutes after you’ve pulled out of the gas station. Having the right air pressure in your tires is important on a road trip, though, both for safety, and reducing tire wear and gas usage.
This Accutire digital gauge lets you check tire pressures anywhere you like, making it a useful, inexpensive addition to your collection of road trip gadgets. Measuring to the nearest half-pound, and accurate to within 0.05 psi, the gauge has an auto-shutoff mechanism to prevent accidental tire deflation.
The LED display has a backlight so you can still read it in the dark, and the gauge ships with several replacement plastic valve caps for when you inevitably lose the ones you have.
It’s a simple, straightforward piece of equipment. You won’t need to use all the time, but when you do, you’ll be very glad you bought it.
Main image via RyanMcGuire, product images via respective manufacturers