This post is a spinoff of an article I wrote recently about winning car shows. In it, I mentioned the need to give your car a quick touch up at the actual event despite any detailing and prep work you might have done ahead of time. It got me thinking about what products you could use on the road to safely clean your car.
That led me to planning out this detailing travel kit. Those of us with a passion for keeping our vehicles neat and tidy can’t always turn that off just because we’re on a road trip or vacation. Being able to drive, explore, and experience new things around us while maintaining a beautiful car is a dream scenario for many of us. I believe that goal is attainable. But it’s going to take a lot more than a bottle of waterless wash and a towel.
Many of us Canadians like to escape the dark winter season by traveling down south to places like Florida. Flying is a popular option, but some people prefer to take the scenic route and drive the whole way. This creates a very interesting scenario for detailing enthusiasts.
The Perfect Storm
The road trip begins in our cold, salty winter climate (often in snowstorms and blizzards). Our vehicle can get absolutely trashed before we begin to see a positive change in the weather. After 20+ hours of driving, the endpoint has changed to a hot, humid climate. A filthy Canadian car really stands out among the locals, but that’s not the biggest problem. All of the road salt that has accumulated on the car is really corrosive even back home in the cold. Rust LOVES to form in warm, moist conditions though. Road salt + hot, humid weather – this is the perfect storm.
For, let’s call them “normal” people, a quick stop at an automatic car wash does the trick just fine. There’s just nothing quite like a proper hand wash for us detailing enthusiasts though. The thing is, even though we’re cleaning our cars in hotel parking lots, truck stops, and car show fields, we still need to wash them in a safe manner. We still need to avoid putting scratches and swirl marks into our paint. Unfortunately, that means the easy solutions like waterless washes, detail sprays, and California dusters are out.
On the other hand, we can’t just pack up our entire detailing setups before we hit the road. There’s no telling when and where we’ll have access to water and power, so our travel kit needs to be self-sufficient. Knowing what is and isn’t important is essential in packing for any type of traveling. Our travel detailing kit is no different. The key to an efficient detailing travel kit is to weed out any unnecessary items and use what we have for as many tasks as possible. More on that later.
Here’s What You Don’t Need:
The first thing we can cross off the list is a pressure washer and foam cannon. These are fun to use at home but they aren’t necessary on the road. Foam cannons in particular are just for show and do very little to help with cleaning duties. I will admit though, that really dirty vehicles need to be rinsed off with a strong water source before they can be washed safely. That’s where the self-serve coin-operated car washes come in.
I do this in the winter time here in Canada whenever it’s too cold to use the hose at home. Find a nearby coin-op car wash and use their pressure washer to rinse off any dirt, grime, mud, and road salt from your vehicle. You can even switch to their spot free water to avoid water spots afterward. Will this get your car completely clean? Not at all. But it does the heavy lifting ahead of time so that we can do a safe wash anywhere with our travel kit. Keep an eye out for one of these car washes when you get near your destination. If your car is only slightly dirty, you can skip this step entirely.
Other things you can leave at home are your clay bar, window cleaner, interior cleaner, and wheel brushes. It’s a good idea to build a great foundation for your car beforehand. That goes for both road trips and car shows. Do all of your decontamination, polishing, and protection at home with your usual products. Once you hit the road, the goal is to maintain your vehicle’s condition, not improve it. You won’t necessarily be able to perform your entire detailing regimen while traveling, but you’ll definitely have the nicest looking car at the family reunion.
What To Pack In Your Detailing Travel Kit
I would love to be able to fit everything in a small case or bag, but there just isn’t a perfectly safe way to wash a dirty car without a bucket of water. I’ve seen tiny kits that others have come up with online and love that they take up very little space. Trying to fit a bucket in with all of the other items we might be packing for the trip might be a nuisance, but it’s better than having to polish out a bunch of swirl marks when we get home.
The products I’ve assembled in this kit will work on any type of vehicle whether it’s wearing a wax, sealant, or ceramic coating. I’ve used all of these products for these uses and can confirm that they work. They might not be the best at the job, but I’m confident I could use them on the side of an empty highway and end up with a clean and shiny car. Here’s what you’ll need:
If space is at a premium, you might want to leave your usual 5 gallon bucket and its Grit Guard at home. We’ll be doing rinseless washes using the Garry Dean Method while we travel, so we won’t need more than 1 gallon of water. A smaller 2 gallon bucket will hold more than enough water to safely wash your car. Since we have to bring a bucket anyways, we might as well use it to store all of the products in the kit as well. As a bonus, you won’t have to worry about your products leaking or spilling by doing this.
1 Gallon Jug Of Water
You’ll need a gallon of water to perform a rinseless wash and unless you know you’ll be able to fill up your bucket at your destination, you’ll have to bring your own. These jugs carry just the right amount and have a sealable lid that will avoid any chances of spilling entirely. They can also be found at any grocery store along the way or you can just fill it back up at the hotel or the next time you’re near a water source.
Optimum No Rinse
I’m a huge fan of this product for rinseless washes because it’s cost effective and does an incredible job. Optimum No Rinse also has a bunch of other off-label uses which is why I’m including it in the kit. You’ll want a bottle of the solution itself for the water in your bucket as well as a pre-mixed spray bottle for other purposes. This spray bottle will replace your window cleaner, quick detailer, and interior cleaner. This versatile product is the sole reason we’re able to clean our car safely in the middle of nowhere. Make sure to get the blue one if your car is ceramic coated because the green version has wax in it.
A good sized stack of microfiber towels is going to replace nearly every tool you would use to clean your car including your wash mitt and wheel brushes. A good quality microfiber towel will grab onto dirt and can fit nearly anywhere. We’ll use these for both washing and drying the car as well as on the interior and windows. The more of these you can pack, the better. You’ll also want to bring a few older junk towels for your wheels and door jams. Make sure to pack a plastic shopping bag to store your used towels.
Driving in any kind of wet weather will likely remove any dressing you might have on your tires. You can bring a really small amount of this product with you because you shouldn’t need to apply it more than once or twice. Tire shine is like the lipstick of the detailing world. Sometimes adding a fresh layer to an otherwise dusty car is enough to make it look presentable again. You can either bring your usual dressing applicator along with you or use one of your junk microfiber towels to apply it to your tires. Whatever you use, you might want to keep it in a separate plastic bag though.
I like to use a water based dressing like this one because it’s quick to apply and doesn’t attract dirt.
New Car Scent
After many hours on the road, sometimes a few sprays of a nice fresh scent can be beneficial. Much like tire shine, an interior scent can fool us into thinking the interior feels cleaner than it is. Chemical Guys has a few different flavors of smells that they offer. I prefer the natural leather one.
12V Vacuum (optional)
If you really want to take things to the next level, vacuums that plug into your car’s 12v outlet like this one are really helpful. Of course, they don’t offer the same amount of power and suction as the one you use at home. But when you don’t have access to electricity, they might be the difference between removing all of the sand after a beach trip and having to shake your floor mats out and hope for the best. If you can afford the extra space, I highly recommend bringing one of these.
How To Use This Kit – My Traveling Detail Regimen
If your car is excessively dirty, you’ll want to start out with a quick rinse at a self serve car wash. If you think the car might dry off before you have a chance to finish washing it, make sure to hit it with their spot free water if that’s available. Spray as much dirt off your paint, wheels, and undercarriage as you can.
Next, it’s time for a rinseless wash. Apply 1 capful of Optimum No Rinse to 1 gallon of water, mix it up and throw some clean microfiber towels in the bucket.
Using your pre-mixed spray bottle, get a panel of your car wet with the solution. Grab one of the soaking towels, ring some of it out, then fold it into 4s. You’ll use this towel as your wash mitt. Once a side becomes dirty, flip or fold to a clean side. Once you run out of clean sides, ditch the towel and grab a fresh one from the bucket.
The reason we can do this without the risk of scratches or swirl marks or the need for a Grit Guard is because we’re never putting the dirt that’s been pulled off the car back into the bucket. All we’re doing is pulling clean towels out of the solution and discarding them when they’re dirty. It’s kind of like a one-way street.
Now grab a clean, dry towel and dry the panel off. You might not get great results until the towel has become slightly damp. You can speed up that process by getting the drying towel wet, then ringing all of the water out of it. Oddly enough, damp towels do a better job of drying than completely dry ones.
Work around your car one panel at a time, from the top to the bottom. If you’re concerned with not having enough towels, remember that glass is much harder to scratch than paint. So if you have to push the limits with a dirty towel, do so on your windows.
Once the body of your car is nice and clean, you’re bound to have some rinseless wash solution left over. That’s perfect because you still need to clean your wheels and door jams. You can treat these areas exactly like any other panel of your car by soaking them with your spray bottle and cleaning them with an old microfiber towel that you wouldn’t use on your paint. Just remember to never put these back in your bucket!
Last but not least, apply your tire dressing and use your spray bottle of rinseless wash to touch up any smudges or streaks left behind from the wash. At this point, your car should be looking fantastic. Before you empty out your bucket, make sure to refill your spray bottle for next time. No product goes to waste!
As for the interior, that’s pretty self-explanatory. If you’ve brought a vacuum, start with that. Then grab the drying towel you used for washing your car and your pre-mix spray bottle and wipe down the plastics in your interior. Optimum No Rinse is perfectly safe on these surfaces and will leave behind a very slight, natural-looking sheen.
Your drying towel is already saturated with a bit of this product, so you might as well save your fresh ones for the next wash. As long as it isn’t dirty, you can reuse this one for your interior. If you have leather seats, wipe them down too. To finish off, use a fresh towel and your pre-mix bottle as a window cleaner inside and out, then apply the interior scent of your choice.
You can repeat this process as many times as you want as long as you have enough towels, product, and keep refilling your water bottle. This is the safest way to clean your car on the road without the risk of creating swirl marks and scratches. I’ve been using Optimum No Rinse exclusively since polishing and ceramic coating my daily driven 4runner for over a year and a half, and the paint still looks great. If it can do that, it’ll be perfectly fine for your road trip or car show touch up.
Feel free to make adjustments as you see fit. You can save a lot of space by pouring your rinseless wash and your tire shine into much smaller bottles. The vacuum is totally optional as well. If you’re just starting out, you can purchase all 7 of these items on Amazon for around $100. Chances are, most DIY detailers will already own a lot of this stuff though. Hopefully this detailing travel kit helps you out or inspires you to create your own.