Long-distance train rides can be a relaxing cross-country adventure — watching the landscape pass, meeting fellow travelers, playing cards, or reading in the observation car — or a long and uncomfortable ride. Your experience will depend on your mindset and how prepared you are before departing. A few important items can make all the difference on a long-distance train trip.
Here are some items you shouldn’t leave behind.
1. Functional Outerwear
I was riding the California Zephyr through parts of Colorado in the springtime. On this two-week trip, I would encounter freezing temperatures and a blizzard in Winter Park, moderate but still chilly weather in Glenwood Springs, and sunny days in the 70s in Grand Junction. Fortunately, I had packed for a variety of weather conditions.
Even on a long train ride, I prefer to pack only one piece of luggage with clothing. My solution to save space? Slip-on boots and a convertible down jacket that subs as a travel pillow.
Rather than packing snow boots, I wore my UGG boots on the train. Wearing them saved space in my bag plus provided comfy warmth while I was on the train — and made middle-of-the-night trips down the aisle easier, since the boots slip on quickly.
Just before departing, I purchased a TUMI puffer jacket. This wound up being my favorite travel accessory (and it still is!). I stayed warm in winter weather, but when I arrived in Grand Junction, the coat easily converted into a travel pillow that I attached to a handle on my luggage, saving valuable space inside my bag. On the train, I snuggled up with the down jacket as a blanket during the day; at night I converted it into a comfy pillow. (I’ll admit that it was pure indulgence to have a down pillow on the train.)
2. Food, Glorious Food
I always pack a cooler for long-distance train rides. Although I’ll dine once or twice in the cafe car or dining car, depending on how long the trip is, having fresh favorites in a cooler is the real treat for me. For some reason, I crave produce when I’m on a train ride, so I pack a bag with apples, bananas, oranges, or other fruit that travels well. I’ll also throw in some nut bars, bags of nuts, a bar of quality chocolate, and other nonperishable snack foods.
I include a few bottles of frozen water — these act as my coolant for the first day of the trip. Usually by the next morning when I pull out my bottled coffee drink (to hold me over until I’m awake enough to go get a hot coffee), the bottled water is melted and ready to drink. I pack plastic bags to refill with ice in the cafe car after my bottled water melts.
Inside the cooler, I create a custom charcuterie board of carrot sticks and hummus, gourmet meats and cheeses, olives, and pickled vegetables. These are items that I don’t normally eat at home, so it feels like a treat on the train. For breakfast, I’ll have a couple boiled eggs from the cooler. I pack napkins, cutlery, and a few paper plates as well.
If my first layover is in Chicago or Washington, I always head to Pret A Manger to refill my cooler with a baguette sandwich and a salad. They offer fresh-made salads, soups, and sandwiches, plus delicious organic coffee.
3. Comfortable Clothes
Comfort is key on a long train ride. I choose clothes that are comfortable enough to sleep in but stylish enough to spend a few hours at the train station or eating in the dining car.
For comfortable pants, I opt for Cindy Karen travel wear like the Cape Town slacks. My favorite travel shoes are Arcopedico’s Vegas walking shoes. They’re comfortable enough to wear all day, slip on and off without difficulty, and are easily packed into luggage.
4. Items For A Good Night’s Rest
If you’re not paying for a sleeper car, comfort should be a top priority when packing for your trip. In addition to the comfortable slip-on shoes and travel pillow that I mentioned earlier, I always pack an eye mask (even though the lights are dimmed at night, there are always some lights on so that passengers can find their way after dark), ear plugs (these come in handy if you’re sleeping near the sliding door between cars — passengers come through all night, and the opening and closing sounds can really prevent a good night’s rest), and either a blanket or sleeping bag.
I’ve found that whatever the temperature is outside, inside the train it’s the polar opposite. Bring a blanket no matter the season to be safe.
5. Personal Items
When I traveled from Kansas City to Hampton, Virginia, I spent more than 36 hours on the rails, including layovers in Chicago and D.C. Since I was in coach and didn’t have the option of a shower, I packed a bag with personal items like toothpaste, a toothbrush, face wipes (I bring plenty of these to use for cleanup after eating and to wash my hands), lotion, lip balm, and any prescriptions. I always bring a hat. Tenth Street sells packable hats that can be rolled and packed when not in use but retain their shape once unpacked.
Add a tablet loaded with movies, some art supplies, or a book you haven’t had a chance to read, and you’re all set to enjoy a long-distance train ride with comforts that will make the time even more memorable.
Want to see the country by train? Consider these eight great stops to make while riding Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, plus these seven Pacific Coast stops to make while riding the Coast Starlight.