The Road takes place after some unknown apocalyptic event has nearly wiped out the earth. In this landscape everything is dead and burnt, the sun is blotted out by ash, all plants and animals are extinct, and most humans are either lone travelers or members of cannibalistic communes. The protagonists, a man and a boy, his young son, are never given names. The plot begins as they are traveling south down the road towards the coast, somewhere in the Southeastern United States. They plod along in the darkness with a shopping cart, two knapsacks, and a pistol. The man sometimes coughs up blood and the boy constantly asks for comfort and reassurance. They suffer from cold, exposure, and frequent starvation as they travel the road and search abandoned buildings for food. The man sometimes has good dreams about the past and his wife. His wife had killed herself, trying to escape what she felt was inevitable rape and murder.
The man and boy cross a mountain range, where they suffer through snowstorms. On the way observe a truck of “bad guys,” the gangs on the road who rape, murder, and eat other people. The man and boy accidentally encounter one of these strangers. The stranger lunges for the boy but the man shoots the stranger in the forehead. The man and boy then escape, with the boy wondering if they are still “good guys.” Soon afterward they run out of food and desperately search a big plantation house that is clearly inhabited. They find a basement full of human prisoners who are being kept as livestock. Horrified, the man and boy flee just as some “bad guys” return.
They keep traveling, following the man’s map. They are on the verge of starvation again when the man finds an apple orchard and a well. After that food runs out, and once again starving, they find a bomb shelter full of canned food and supplies. They stay there a few days and bathe, cut their hair, and stock up. They set off again and encounter an old man named Ely, who stays one night with them. After more travel and starvation they find a house with more canned food. They finally reach the coast, but are disappointed to find the ocean just as gray and lifeless as everything else. The man sees a wrecked boat offshore, and inside he finds more food and a flarepistol. They shoot the flarepistol off one night, feeling abandoned by the “good guys” and God.
One day the boy gets a fever, and the despairing man won’t leave his side. After the boy recovers, they explore the beach and return to find their cart and supplies stolen. They pursue the thief to the road, and the man threatens him with the pistol. The boy cries and pleads, but the man makes the thief strip naked and then takes back their cart, leaving the thief shivering in the road. The boy is upset by this, saying that they have killed the thief. They set off south on the road again, and as they are leaving a town someone shoots the man in the leg with an arrow. The man shoots his attacker with the flarepistol, but he is left with a limp and a bad wound.
The man and boy travel inland, and their progress grows more torturous as it gets colder. The man’s wound worsens, and he coughs up more and more blood. One night he realizes he cannot get up again. The man had planned on killing the boy if he himself were to die (to save the boy from the cruel world), but the man finds he cannot go through with this. He tells the boy to keep going south down the road, and to keep “carrying the fire.” He dies with the boy by his side.
The boys spends three days with the body of his father, then sets off alone, and immediately encounters a group of “good guys” – a man and woman with a little boy and girl. The boy chooses to trust them when they invite him to join their family, and they set off together. The book ends with a lyrical memory of the brook trout that once lived in the mountain streams.