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 the 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 trip 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 road trip 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.
Here are some easy road trip picnic ideas to kick your driving vacation up a notch.
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.
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 an easy choice for your next road trip picnic.
- State parks – Awesome, but will often choose a fee for day use.
- 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 we never forget that eating outside is awesome.
Here are some road trip picnic essentials that we can’t live without.
- An easy-to-carry cooler – As I’m sure you know, coolers vary wildly in quality and price. For road trip picnics, you don’t need something fancy, but you want a cooler that will hold ice, keep your food cold, and will be sturdy and easy to carry. This 52-quart Igloo cooler is perfect for such occasions. It gets amazing reviews, isn’t too big, and has sturdy handles for carrying. The top doubles as a table and includes four self-draining cup holders.
- The best picnic knife – This large, folding knife from Miki 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, and it is one of our favorite things to gift friends who love road trip picnics as much as we do.
- A portable cutting board – You should have a designated picnic cutting board for all of your outdoor culinary adventures. This cutting board from MSR is lightweight and easy to clean.
- A water-resistant blanket/tablecloth – Keep this giant, sand-proof, waterproof picnic blanket in your car, and you’ll always be prepared and ready for impromptu road trip picnics! It’s also great for camping, beach days, sporting events, and emergencies. It folds up small and can be easily thrown in the washing machine after adventures.
- Table cloth clips – Lifesavers! These tablecloth clips are a must-have for your picnic or camping trip! Keep them in your picnic baskets for windy days.
Road Trip Picnic Ideas: the Non-Essentials
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 will make your road trip picnic more fun.
- Insulated wine tumblers with lids – are lightweight, unbreakable, portable, and BPA-free, and they come in three colors.
- Portable Mosquito Repeller – Provides 20 feet of mosquito protection, plus it’s lightweight and portable. DEET-free and scent-free, this little gadget has more than 1,000 five-star reviews!
- The perfect picnic basket – 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.
- A portable charcoal grill – Want to grill up the perfect barbecue chicken or burger to go with your road trip picnic? I love our Everdure Cube grill, which transports easily for quick barbecues. We use it for camping and road trip picnics.
Easy Road Trip Picnic Ideas: The Food
I’m sorry to disappoint, but you won’t find terribly fancy picnic recipes here.
When planning a road trip 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 hot 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, mainly 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. When making them at home, 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 quickly, 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
Here are our three favorite cookie recipes for roadside picnics. I made extra money selling these at a local farm stand for a few years, and they were a huge hit!
- 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 trip 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 regretted 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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Tara is a freelance writer and travel blogger with a passion for outdoor adventures. She is the co-author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes in Vermont and currently blogs at Back Road Ramblers and Vermont Explored, where she shares travel tips, adventure destinations, and vacation ideas for the wanderer in everyone.