Is there anything better than the great American road trip? Whether you’re driving across the country to start a new life in a new place (something we once did twice in just one year, moving from Maine to California and back again), or just driving upstate to explore some weird piece of local legend, you’ll need fuel in your belly to survive the trip.
Since you don’t want to waste time on long trips stopping for a proper meal, and since a heavy lunch can make you sleepy for the afternoon leg of your journey, it can make much more sense to snack for hours at a time, instead. In fact, some of our favorite snacks are the ones that we only seem to eat on long road trips. But don’t make the rookie mistake of eating Cheetos (and getting orange dust all over your steering wheel) or chocolate ANYTHING (which you’ll inevitably drop a piece of in your lap, which will then melt, leaving you with a hard-to-explain brown stain on your pants).
Here’s a highly scientific rundown of the 15 essential, driving-safe snacks you’ll need to fuel your journey:
15. Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme
Eating tacos while driving falls squarely into the “rookie move” category. All of those shards of iceberg lettuce exploding all over your lap and into the gap between your emergency brake and your seat? Big mistake. And have you ever tried to apply Taco Bell “Fire” Sauce to a 7-Layer Burrito, without taking your eyes off the highway stretching out in front of you? It’s nigh impossible. That’s what makes the Crunchwrap Supreme from Taco Bell the perfect road-trip snack. It’s highly portable, it contains all of the Taco Bell flavors you crave, and it doesn’t need to be augmented with additional sauces. Get it unwrapped, and you barely have to take your hands off the steering wheel.
14. Corn Nuts
This is one of those snacks that we NEVER eat, anywhere except the inside of the car, on a long road trip. You don’t take Corn Nuts to the beach, for example, and you don’t eat them during very important business meetings. They’re almost absurdly crunchy, salty, super corn-y, and come spiked with artificial seasonings, like Ranch and Nacho Cheese, to satisfy your MSG craving and keep the miles rolling by.
13. McDonald’s Hash Browns
Is there anything more perfect than a freshly-cooked hash brown from McDonald’s? Golden, crispy exterior, fluffy, starchy inside, with a liberal dose of salt? This one is a bit of a roll of the dice; when they’re good, they’re so, so good…but catch one that’s been sitting under the heat lamp for more than a few minutes, and you’re going to risk getting a soggy, sour oil sludge that’s going to upset your stomach for the rest of the day.
12. Granola Bars
Stick to the chewy kind, preferably dipped in chocolate and with lots of fruit and nuts and shit jammed in there. Keep the crunchy Nature Valleys to enjoy in your personal life, because not even the might of a self-service car wash vacuum cleaner will be able to get those crumbs out of your cracks.
11. Baby Carrots
Carrots have the second highest sugar content in the vegetable kingdom, are super crunchy and fun in your mouth, and are basically calorie-neutral, so you can eat literally 25 pounds of them without feeling bad about yourself.
10. Chick-fil-A and/or White Castle
Chick-fil-A and White Castle are both important stops to make on any road trip, if you happen to be traveling through a part of the country where they exist. First, their scarcity relative to your own home town makes them important places to try, should the opportunity present itself. Second (at least in the case of White Castle), the packaging of those tiny burgers makes eating a half a dozen of them in the car exceptionally easy. And finally, don’t overlook how quietly subversive eating at a chain like Chick-fil-A can be, especially when you can’t abide by their politics and some of your best friends are gay but godamnit their chicken is so good and you’re never going to be coming through here again and you’re only human and no one has to know.
9. Gigantic “Big Gulp” Sodas from 7-11
Not only is the sight of a gallon of soda hilarious (as with 7-11’s “Team Gulp,”) but some 7-11’s also have sophisticated fountain soda dispensers that have all kinds of built-in customization options, delivered via injectable flavor syrup. Finally, a Creme de Menthe Mountain Dew is within your grasp.
Reasons we love bananas: They come wrapped in their own festive packaging. They last a few days in the back seat, and are still delicious even past their prime. Throwing the peels out the window can result in hilarious pratfalls. And laughter is so important, you guys.
7. Orange Peanut Butter Crackers
We don’t know who first decided that neon orange, vaguely cheddar-flavored crackers would make sense, sandwiched around cheap, salty peanut butter. But brother, are we glad they did. These perfectly satisfy that sweet/salty urge, and land in your stomach like a ton of bricks, giving you plenty of fuel for the road ahead.
6. Weird Regional Gas Station Baked Goods
Gas stations in small towns will often have a small basket of cellophane-wrapped baked goods on the counter, next to the register. There usually isn’t any information about their origin, who made them, or their nutritional information. Peanut butter buckeyes, maple fudge, fresh peach hand pies, chocolate no-bake cookies? It doesn’t matter. They are going to be cheap and awesome. PROTIP: Don’t confuse this recommendation with a blanket endorsement for regional roadside finds. Start following those signs for osprey jerky, and you’re liable to drive miles out of your way, only to end up in some tourist trap trying to sell you overpriced child-labor moccasins or $5/gallon gasoline.
5. Anything Featured on Warm Hot Dog Rollers That Isn’t Hot Dogs
Jonathan Swift once said, “He was a bold man, that first ate an oyster.” It is in his spirit that we conduct ourselves, each time we encounter a dusty gas station roller-style hot dog warmer with a few token, overcooked hot dogs, pushed off to the side, and then row after row after row of every single thing man has conceived of shoving into a stale taquito. Buffalo chicken. Philly cheesesteak. BBQ pork. They are all greasy, they are all disgusting, they all taste identical to each other, in spite of the flavor described, and they are all a vital part of any serious road trip.
Pizza-flavored ANYTHING (other than pizza) is a road trip essential. Combos do them all one better. Portable, poppable, and long-lasting, you can either shovel these into your mouth by the handful (like a monster) or suck on ’em until you’ve got a salty, artificially-flavored cracker mash in your mouth that will be difficult to swallow. Win/win.
Oh, how we love gas station coffee. Watery, cheap, highly caffeinated, frighteningly hot, and with tons of fun mix-ins (“Yes, this is a medium amaretto-flavored 300 degree coffee with two containers of International Delights Irish Cream non-dairy creamer, a STOK caffeine booster, three packets of Splenda, and half a packet of powdered hot cocoa mix”), gas station coffee stays hot for hours and is drinkable in almost any condition (either yours, or the coffee’s).
2. Chocolate Covered Espresso Beans
If coffee is important road trip fuel, chocolate covered espresso beans are even better. Do you like the pleasant caffeinated buzz you get from drinking too much coffee? What if I told you that you could pair it with EATING some coffee too, and dipping it in sugar first? You won’t sleep until tomorrow, and you won’t even notice when you miss your exit and end up in the Catskills.
1. Beef Jerky
Beef jerky gets our number one spot for perfect road trip foods. Invented by pre-hispanic Indians hundreds of years ago, jerky combines all of the pleasures of “eating meat” with none of the need for pesky refrigeration. And unlike when it was packed into smallpox-infested wagons for year-long trips through the plains, we can now enjoy this treat with one hand, while hurtling along at deadly highway speeds. Progress!
Special thanks to Special Spork & Barrel Road Trip Consultant Nick Loiacano, for his contributions to this post.