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If you’re looking for an absolutely perfect combination, take the humble road trip and the unpretentious picnic and combine them for some outdoor magic. Road trips are definitely our favorite way to travel, but I have to admit that there are aspects of road trips that I don’t always love — driving too fast on the interstate, a sore tush from sitting in the car too long, and the copious amounts of junk food that seem to find their way into our bodies.
And you know what? Road trip picnics are answer to many of my complaints. Picnics force you to get outside. To slow down. To relax. And to chow down on some seriously good eats. I’ll be honest — every picnic date I’ve had with the hubs has been awesome and memorable, even when the food is mediocre.
So what are the ingredients for a perfect road trip picnic? Good food, obviously. Some basic picnic essentials for eating said food, and some extra touches to take your picnic to the next level. I consider myself a bit of an expert on picnics, and while the first one of the summer can be a little rough, by the middle of June, I’ve got my picnic groove on, and it is on point.
Let’s talk about planning a picnic that is both delicious and easy, from the essential supplies and the best picnic food to the perfect picnic basket and a few extra delights. I promise I won’t make it complicated, or expensive.
Where to Have Your Road Trip Picnic
There are millions of places that are suitable for your picnic, and if you’re on a road trip, simply check your map or your phone for parks or green spaces. We use the National Geographic Road Atlas: Adventure Edition because it’s super easy to find parks, but your GPS will also work. Here are a few ideas for where to have your next picnic.
- Rest areas – Some states are killin’ it with their awesome rest areas — looking at you, Pennsylvania and North Dakota. If you’re driving through a state that excels in rest area hospitality, this is a great choice for your next road trip picnic.
- State parks – Awesome, but will usually charge a daily fee.
- County and town parks – Super awesome, especially if you have kids with you. You’ll almost always find a playground. It’s fitting that I’m writing this from a small town park with huge shade trees and picnic tables!
- National forests – usually free with picnic areas and hiking trails.
- Beaches – Find a body of water on your map and look for a public beach.
- Wineries and breweries – If you can find a winery, vineyard, or brewery that doesn’t serve its own food, there’s a great chance that your picnic will be welcome. As an added bonus, you’ll be able to sample some local beverages with your meal. I’ll be honest – we’ve planned multi-day road trips around visits to wineries and breweries. It’s a great way to go if you love sampling local beverages!
Picnic Essentials for Your Next Road Trip
Once you have all of your picnic essentials, you will be able to whip up some food and head out for an impromptu outdoor meal whenever the mood strikes. When the weather is nice, keep your picnic supplies in an easy-to-reach spot so that you can grab them and go. Our picnic stuff lives in the mudroom during the summer, so that we never forget that eating outside is awesome. Here are some picnic essentials that we can’t live without.
- An easy-to-carry cooler – Backpack coolers vary wildly in price, and in durability. When researching ours, we found cheapos for less than $30 and others that cost more than $300. I know you get what you pay for, but I just can’t fork over $300 for a picnic cooler. We settled on this backpack cooler from Igloo, and it’s proven to be very durable so far. We’ve hiked with this cooler as well, and we found that it keeps drinks and food cold for a whole day on the trail.
- The best picnic knife – This large, folding knife from Lamson is our go-to knife for slicing bread and tomatoes, which we eat at almost every summer picnic. No matter where we go, people always ask about it. We’ve had the same one for 5+ years, and will definitely get another one when the time comes.
- A portable cutting board – You should have a designated picnic cutting board for all of your outdoor culinary adventures. We are not partial to a certain brand, as long as it fits in our backpack or picnic basket. This is what we’re currently using.
- A water-resistant blanket/tablecloth – Whatever you do, don’t get a picnic blanket made of fleece! They attract dirt, hair, and sand like nobody’s business! Instead, I’d recommend something lightweight and water-resistant. Something that you can use on the ground or on a picnic table. How about this number from Eno? It’s big enough for a family of four, water-resistant, and features LED lights around the edges. Okay, that might be a bit much, but I like the extra touch!
- Table cloth clips – Lifesavers! These tablecloth clips are a must-have for your picnic or camping trip! I’ve seen them in plastic and metal.
Planning a road trip? Check out these posts:
- Road Trip Essentials for Outdoor Families
- The Winter Road Trip Survival Guide
- Tips for Road Tripping on the Cheap
Little Extras to Make Your Picnic Special
For those of you who want to take your picnic to the next level, this is the non-essential list. Stuff that you definitely don’t need, but may not be able to resist.
- Insulated wine tumblers with lids – lightweight, unbreakable, portable, and BPA-free, and they come in three colors.
- Portable Bluetooth speaker – The UE Boom 3 delivers 360-degree sound for your outdoor picnic, plus it’s waterproof and comes in a variety of colors.
- Mosquito repellent lantern – Gives off a warm glow and repels insects — what more could you want? Provides 15 feet of mosquito protection, plus it’s lightweight and portable.
- The perfect picnic basket – Nobody really needs a picnic basket to have a picnic, but they can be fun. The perfect picnic basket has a good handle and is sturdy, but not bulky. We like this foldable, insulated basket from Sprucebaby, but if you want something more traditional, this woodchip basket has a red and white gingham liner.
Easy Food to Bring on a Picnic
I’m sorry to disappoint, but you won’t find terribly fancy picnic recipes here. When planning a picnic, we usually opt for fast over fancy, but easy food can still be delicious! Here are some of our favorite foods for outdoor eating, including the best picnic finger food, and some easy picnic desserts that will make everyone happy.
Drinks for Your Road Trip Picnic
Yes, you can bring some bottles of water – that’s usually what we do, but occasionally we make up a batch of lemonade or hibiscus ice tea and pour it into an insulated growler for a cold, refreshing drink. If the weather is on the cool side, we go a whole different route, with decadent drinks that warm even the coldest day. Our current favorite is peppermint hot chocolate. Sometimes we pack a nice bottle of wine or a couple of our favorite beers as well.
Easy Picnic Finger Food
Finger food makes up the bulk of our road trip picnics, many because they are so easy to prepare and pack. Here are some of our essential picnic finger foods that take only minutes to go from kitchen to picnic basket.
- A selection of olives
- A variety of different cheeses
- Sliced baguettes – Pick up a fresh baguette at your local bakery, or if you want to experiment with making the easiest baguettes ever, give yourself four hours, from start to finish.
- Hummus for dipping stuff in
- Sliced veggies – our favorites are carrots, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and celery
- Summer sausage
- Sliced fruit
- Little quiche bites – These quiche bites require some advance planning, but if you’ve got the time, they’re incredibly yummy, and you can use whatever meats, cheeses, and vegetables you have on hand. I love them with sundried tomatoes and pesto.
- Little quinoa patties – These quinoa patties have been a favorite of ours for years now. We bake them on a tray in the oven instead of frying them, and we serve them with honey mustard sauce. We also make them when we’re camping for a meatless dish that’s full of protein.
Cold Picnic Salads for Road Trips
Salads are a less common affair on our picnics, but when it’s high summer, there’s nothing easier to throw together. Here are a few of our favorites.
- Cold pasta with either spicy peanut sauce or pesto – Just depends on what we have on hand. The peanut sauce comes together really quick, but pesto depends on our garden…
- Panzanella – A salad made of toasted or grilled bread and some vegetables. Here’s our camping panzanella recipe, which features summer-ripe tomatoes, basil, peppers, cucumbers, and red onions. It’s incredible. I’m waiting to try out this spring panzanella too!
- Black bean and rice salad – This is another easy one, and we almost always have rice and beans on hand. Add some veggies and a lime dressing, and you’re ready to go.
Easy Picnic Desserts
I’ll be honest, we usually bring one of three things for our picnic desserts — dark chocolate, marshmallows for roasting, or Fig Newtons. Boring, aren’t we? I do, however, have three favorite cookie recipes, and when I’m on my baking game, which is rare, these are the cookies that I make:
- Chocolate Crackle Cookies – For rich, fudgy flavor.
- Chocolate Chip Cookies – These are the best, and not one of us can resist them.
- Giant Molasses Cookies – The coarse sugar on these is important. Everyone asks me for this recipe.
The most important ingredient for planning a picnic that is fun, easy, and memorable is not the food. It is you! Don’t worry about making it perfect, just be the catalyst to getting your family or your friends out there enjoying the outdoors and each other over some tasty picnic food. I don’t think we’ve ever regretting an outdoor meal, whether it’s in a beautiful spot or a roadside rest area.
What are your favorite foods to bring on a picnic? Drop us a comment and let us know.
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Our Favorite Resources for Road Trips and Outdoor Adventures
These are the resources we use for planning road trips, saving money while traveling, and shopping for outdoor gear.
Car Rentals: While we use our own car most often for road trips, we also enjoy flying into major airports and then renting a car for more regional road trips. We use Kayak to compare prices and find deals from dozens of car rental agencies at once.
Flights: We use Kayak or Skyscanner to search out flight deals. Money-saving tip: If you find yourself using the same airline over and over again (we are huge Southwest fans), consider joining their loyalty program and getting an airline credit card. With our Southwest Rewards Visa, we earn a few free flights each year.
Hotels: When it comes to lodging, we seek out small boutique hotels or quirky roadside motels. First, we search for hotels on TripAdvisor so we can read reviews from other travelers. Then, we use Booking.com to make reservations (they have the best prices, plus a flexible cancelation policy).
Camping: Camping is one of our favorite things to do on long road trips. It allows us to explore the outdoors, cook our own food, and save money. We use They Dyrt Pro to find campsites and read reviews before booking on Recreation.gov or state park websites.
Glamping and Vacation Rentals: For weekend getaways and shorter vacations, we love glamping (check out our glamping resource guide). We book glamping properties through Tentrr, Hipcamp, and Airbnb. For cabins and vacation rentals, we like to use VRBO (they have fewer fees and a better cancelation policy than Airbnb).
Guides and Maps: If we are visiting a new region, we usually invest in a Moon Travel Guide for the area. We pass them on to friends and family after our trip. If we are planning on hiking, we also purchase a Falcon guide in the Best Easy Day Hikes series.
Outdoor Gear: We are REI Co-Op members. It cost us $20 for a lifetime membership, but we get a yearly dividend based on our purchases, plus great deals and coupons throughout the year. REI also has a great return policy.
Check out our complete guide for planning a road trip on a budget