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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at TCNJ chapter.

A Guide to Knowing the Essentials Every Commuter Should Have Handy

Whether you are driving twenty minutes or two hours to your campus, commuting takes quite a bit of time out of your day.  At the end of high school, everybody is handing out lists of things you should and should not bring to your dorm room and tips on how to make the best of living with a roommate for the first time.  Where is the advice column for commuter students?  As a senior chemistry major who has committed four years to taking my car with me on the college journey, I am here to shed some light on the top items I found to be necessary in making my home away from home a bit more manageable.  

The items included in this extensive list may help those living on campus as well but commuters may find it more useful since we are usually not given the leisure of heading home in between classes or when we leave that one important notebook behind.  I initially thought of this idea in terms of car essentials since you quickly learn how you should treat your vehicle as a micro-sized dorm room which contains everything you could possibly need.  While that idea was good enough to stand alone, I came to realize how the backpack, (yes, college students still use those backpacks popular movies mislead you into thinking you no longer need them), stuffed full of items I carry around all day, is just as imperative.  That being said, this big sister guide will include two main sections; the car essentials and the backpack ABC’s with some crossover items which may be included in both of the commuter safety blankets.

The Car Essentials

When reading through some of the following items, you may be thinking that these are no brainers.  However, when beginning your academic road trips for the first time, there may be some that just happen to slip your mind.  Trust me, I have certainly been there before.

  • All Textbooks and Extra Supplies

The most important part of going to college is to get a higher education right?  So why not bring that ideology into the car (or truck) as well.  One of the biggest tips I ever received was to keep every single one of my books, whether that be textbooks, notebooks, or binders, in my car even if my classes occur on different days.  Of course you need the books for the classes you have on that particular day, but how do the others fit into the picture?  There may be days where you have large breaks in your schedule and find yourself confused as to what to do during that time frame.  I love to take this time to complete the work I have in other classes, so having the books with me provided the opportunity to do so.  You will soon find yourself completing your work in a quicker manner and find more time when you finally get home to do something other than homework.  To go along with the books, another good idea would to have a little container full of spare pencils, pens, highlighters, colored pencils (those are not going away anytime soon), index cards, paper, etc.  This way if you are in the middle of a homework/studying session, you will not have to go searching for a pen when the ink dries in the first one.  While you can always keep your books in a cardboard box in the trunk, you may find this front seat organizer or this storage organizer to be a little more helpful.

  • Lap Desk for the Car

While I prefer to sit in the backseat and stretch my legs when I find myself doing homework in the car, the front seat may be your cup of tea (or trendy cup of coffee depending on your taste).  But what if the steering wheel gets in your way?  Try out this handy steering wheel desk I wish I found sooner.

  • Chargers Trail Mix

As we continue to traverse through a technology-driven world, the amount of devices we rely on to complete our work keeps on growing. From smartphones to tablets and computers, we may easily forget how they need to be charged until the warning light constantly blinks at you.  Keep the chargers for these devices in your car, both the wall chargers as well as the car chargers.  You never know when you will need to plug in.  If you do not have a car charger you may find this little gadget to be your fairy godmother!

  • Emergency Kit

This one is a good fit for all drivers regardless of where they are heading.  Emergency kits may be bought like this one or you may want to find a tin of your own where you can include any items you want to.  Be sure to have Band-Aids, ointment, wipes, ibuprofen, and other healthcare items.  Car essentials such as flashlights, jumper cables, multi-tools like Macgyver’s, and a battery powered radio for when reception signals are gone could be contained in the same kit or be found in a separate roadside emergency car kit.

  • Blanket/Pillow

Hey sometimes a nap is just what you need to continue your busy day!  Besides your car, where do you think would be a better place to get a little shut eye that is just as dependable?  In these situations or even when doing work in the car on a cold day, a blanket will quickly become your best friend.  A pillow will add that extra little bit of comfort to create blissful dreams.  I have to admit, I once took a nap in the back seat of my car which led a passerby to think I was a little child sitting in the car.  So if you do not want this to happen to you, the front seat might be the best place for counting sheep before the next class.

  • Clothes

There may be times when you choose to spend the night in a good friend’s dorm or you may accidentally spill something on you.  Without a closet full of clothes to resort back to, it is always helpful to have an extra set of comfy clothes waiting for you in your car.  The best option for these clothes would be something suitable for any occasion such as a nice pair of pants or leggings.

  • Raincoat, Umbrella, Rain boots

There have been countless times where I have found myself trapped in a random rainstorm on the walk back to my car and was dripping wet by the time I needed to get my keys out.  Keeping an umbrella in your car (and in your backpack too) will surely become a lifesaver when the storm clouds come rolling in.  I prefer to have an umbrella that folds in backwards in which the rain falls inward and is collected when the umbrella is closed.  This way, I am not bringing a ton of water into the vehicle and spending several minutes wiping down the seats with a microfiber towel even though I still keep a couple in the car just in case.  Weather can change at the drop of the hat so you will be grateful knowing you also have a raincoat and rain boots in the car.  It is always better to be more prepared than left without anything at all!

  • Ice Scraper

Picture this:  You are sitting in your final class of the day and as you stare out the window you notice large snowflakes falling down.  While you may be excited at the prospect of a possible snow day tomorrow, you quickly realize that you have to drive home in the snow and the excitement quickly turns to stress.  Unlike college residents, you do not have the option to make a quick trip back to your dorm and grab some hot chocolate.  As soon as your class is over, you rush out to the parking lot and by the time you are able to locate your car, your hair is full of snow and your fingers are freezing.  Your car is covered by a large coating of snow which could take a long time to remove with your hands especially when the snow keeps coming down, recovering the area you just cleaned.  The time it takes to do this most likely doubles if you have short arms like me.  After being stuck out in the snow for about 30 minutes in my first year at college, I resorted to this wonderful 2-in-1 ice scraper/brush which helps remove snow quickly and does not make me over reach across the roof of my car.  If the idea of keeping such a large item in your car does not sit well with you, be sure to at least have a mini version available to make sure you can see out your windows on the drive home.  The best part about this particular essential is that you do not need to keep it in your car all year long.  Just be sure to include it when the winter months start rolling in.

  • Lunchbox

The classic lunchbox from your elementary school days is not going away any time soon!  Without a meal plan or points to use on expensive school meals, you are going to need to bring food with you to make it throughout the day.  Who wants to start feeling light-headed in the middle of an exam or stuck in traffic on the way home?  I am assuming that most people do not like the sound of this.  You could either keep the lunchbox in your car or carry it around with you for those random hunger bursts on the walk in between classes.  Make yourself a sandwich or salad in the morning, grab a bunch of snacks, add a couple drinks, and you are all set to go.  When shopping for your perfect meal carrier, take a look at this option and do not forget ice packs and convenient stackable containers

  • Cash

While having a credit or debit card is convenient and allows for easier transactions, having some spare cash on you is also quite beneficial.  Keeping $10 to $25 in the car (or backpack as well) will make filling up on gas, browsing the clearance section at the bookstore, purchasing baked goods at a bake sale, or paying tolls a much easier activity. You never know when having a little cash will come in handy!


  • Car Insurance and Registration

While this is a must for each and every driver on the road, having a secure spot for it is just as important.  Perhaps this is your first time driving out on your own and the whole concept of insurance is unfamiliar.  Hopefully you will not get in an accident or anything of the sort but if you do you happen to have a fender bender in the parking lot, these documents are going to be crucial.  While you could just toss the papers in the glovebox, you may find this holder to be a better option.  Plus, you could keep your spare cash in here too!

  • Parking Permit

While most colleges have parking permits which stick to the window, some permits may be in paper form.  In this case, you may find it a little more difficult to keep it in the car.  Place this in the holder as well and you will be all set!  If you do not want to find yourself piling up on parking tickets, be sure to keep your pass updated and acceptable if your mode of transportation changes.

  • Map

I am just learning about this one too which would have been helpful on one particular day of college travels.  On my way home from school one day I kept seeing flashing lights and signs which read “Accident Ahead”.  I wound up having to take a predetermined detour to find my way back home.  Unfortunately, the detour was so far from my normal route that I was confused as to where I was.  My GPS would not turn on and my phone does not come equipped with such a feature.  If I was not able to call my parents for directions, I would have had to ask a random stranger for help.  If this were to happen to you, I would suggest consulting a map.

  • Masks, Rubber Gloves, & Hand Sanitizer 

While these items may have just recently joined the list of essentials, they are not less important than all the others.  In times like these, safety is more of a priority than ever.  Depending on what your class schedule looks like this semester and the next (remote vs. in-person), having a spare mask or two, some rubber gloves, and hand sanitizer in the car will provide you with a sense of security as you commute from one location to the next.  Perhaps you leave your mask at home in a rush to get to your 8:00 a.m. class on time and you remember it just as you are pulling into the parking lot.  Hey, at least you have an extra in the car!  Phew!  You just avoided a major issue!  Congratulations!  Rubber gloves come in handy if you have to touch a door to enter a building/classroom or if you have to stop at the mailbox or pharmacy on the way home.  Even when wearing gloves, it is always a good idea to clean your hands with some sanitizer before touching everything else in your car such as the steering wheel.  Hand sanitizer should be kept in the car regardless of the world outside!  Here is an adorable option for storing it in the car.  I also keep a plastic bag or a small reusable container on the passenger side where I can easily drop my dirty gloves into and throw away later.  I would also suggest keeping these items in the backpack too just in case.


The Backpack ABC’s

When stepping away from your car, your backpack becomes your go-to-source of anything you could need during the day.  If you plan your day out right, you may find time to take a walk back to your car to exchange some items for others, but if the rain is pouring down or there is a 10 minute walk to the car with only 15 minutes in-between classes you may not have this option.  This is where the backpack becomes your underrated hero.  Before I begin listing off the ABC’s of college commuter backpacking, we should search for the perfect backpack.  While there is a boat load of options out there, the ‘perfect’ backpack should be roomy, lightweight, and have a multitude of pockets while still matching your personality.  Here is just one option that could fit these needs but have fun shopping for yours!

  • Reusable Water Bottle 

The addition of a reusable water bottle to my backpack was one of the smartest choices I made in college (aside from the academic decisions of course).  I chose an extra-large water bottle so I would not have to worry about refilling it at the water fountains.  I simply fill it up at home in the morning, add at least 5 ice cubes, and enjoy ice cold water throughout the day.  If you get extra thirsty on those warm days, you can keep a second bottle in the car to refill up the first one or to quench the thirst on the drive home (at red lights to be safe).

  • Laptop & Charger & Case

Even when classes are in-person, most of the work you will be completing will require the use of a computer.  Keeping your laptop/tablet and the corresponding charger in a backpack will help you remember it while providing a storage place for easy access.  While most backpacks these days come with a special pocket for laptops or tablets, I recommend investing in a separate case like this one to add a heightened sense of protection to your devices.

  • Flash Drive

Let’s start this one out by mentioning how I have a little bag at home full of old flash drives.  These tiny little devices have come in handy more times than I could count.  While the general concept is known; flash drives are storage devices in which you can keep your files safe, there are multiple situations in college in particular where flash drives can become a mini hero.  Perhaps you are working on a project on your computer and need to present the same day.  Then your Wi-Fi is lost and you cannot submit your work.  If you save the file to the flash drive, you will be able to plug it into the computer in the classroom, open your project, and begin your presentation.  Maybe your computer stops working or stops charging and you need to quickly save all your files.  The flash drive is there to save the day!

  • Notebooks, Binders, Textbooks

Just like before, you are most likely going to find extra time in between your classes in which you get a head start or catch up on your work.  Try planning out which classes you expect to work on during these breaks and put all the materials you are going to need for them in your backpack.  Be sure to include everything you need for the classes you actually have that day as well.  Even if you prefer to take electronic notes, there may be some classes that require you to take physical notes so having an extra notebook is a must.  Besides, I have personally found that taking notes by hand helps me to remember the information more.

  • Pencil Case

This one may sound obvious but I have seen plenty of fellow students who just simply toss their pens into their bag and take off.  I have constantly been a fan of pencil cases and these are a few items I prefer to keep in them:

Pens (blue, black, red, and sometimes other colors too!)

Binder Clips and/or Paper Clips

Pencils w/a mini sharpener


Highlighters (multiple colors)


Sticky Notes


The best part about pencil cases is that you can include any supplies you want in them.

  • SOS Case

Just like the whole map in the car idea, I am just learning about something called the SOS case even though I have unknowingly done something very similar in the past.  Simply put, the SOS case is a roadside emergency kit for personal items.  The items included may be a natural addition to a purse or tote bag, but I have found that carrying them in my backpack makes life just a little bit easier.  The case could be a little make-up bag or a little tin box.  Here is an example of a case you can use to make your own.  You may think of some other items to include but here is what I usually add to mine:

Hand Sanitizer 





Gum and mints

Band-Aids and little ointment packets

Cough Drops


A mini brush

Travel Size deodorant

Face wipes

  • Wallet

Just like the spare cash in the car, tossing your wallet into your backpack will give you a place to keep loose coins, your license, your student ID, etc.

  • The Aforementioned Lunchbox

The lunchbox I introduced above will make the trip from class to class right alongside you.  Even if you do not keep the bag full of snacks in your backpack, I recommend carrying it around with you because you never know when those hunger spikes will arise!

  • Headphones

I know for me personally, I do my best work when listening to music and even have a different genre of music to listen to for different classes.  I also appreciate headphones for their ability to block out other people who may be conversing nearby.  You may also find yourself needing a pair for certain classes or when you just want to take a study break and watch “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”.  Here is one good and affordable option.

  • Sweaters, Hats, & Gloves

No matter how much time you have spent in your classrooms, you may never be able to predict the temperature.  I have had days where the first room I went to was way too warm and then the very next room was absolutely freezing!  The weather outside does not seem to affect the conditions inside so I made sure to have at least a sweatshirt in my bag that I could easily put on and take off depending on the situation.  I mentioned the inclusion of gloves for the days where the freezing room makes it difficult for your fingers to move or when the weather outside turns cold unexpectedly.  I love these gloves that have the option to free the fingers making it easier to type or use the phone.  A beanie hat may also be a nice touch to keep your head warm.  I prefer to be comfortable when learning and studying so these items are always found in my bag.

  • Index Cards

I am a big proponent of index cards and might be a little lost without them.  From study cards and quotation cards for a paper to preparing speeches for presentations, index cards are very versatile and can be used for a wide array of purposes.  I always try to keep a pack or a handful in my backpack just in case!

  • Planner

On my first day of Kindergarten, I was given a planner to use and have my mom sign every night.  From that day on, I have relied on planners and look forward to getting a new one every school year!  They allow me to keep track of everything I have to do and prevents me from easily becoming overwhelmed or stressed.  You will also be able to be more productive and find more time for other activities.


        If you have made it this far, thank you!  I hope this list helps you out on your commute to college!  Remember, these are purely suggestions and you get to choose what you take with you.  Perhaps you will even think of some new items to include.  Happy commuting!

Margaret Varrelmann is a Senior Chemistry major who loves writing and photography. She has a strong passion for softball and spending her time helping others.
Minji Kim

TCNJ '22

Minji is a senior English and Elementary Education major who is passionate about skincare, turtlenecks, and accurate book-to-movie adaptations.