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How to Pack a Small Car for a Big Trip

As passionate road-trippers, we’ve been known to live out of our little Pontiac Vibe for weeks, even months on end.

By: Tara Schatz + Save to a List

We choose to travel in a tiny car for many reasons—maneuverability, great gas mileage, and easy upkeep, just to name a few. And we’ve become experts at packing light.

Our experiences backpacking have really helped us learn to pack only the bare necessities for long road trips in a small car. When you’ve lived your life out of a backpack, a car trunk seems cavernous. Of course, that makes it tempting to pack more than you need, but in the end, tough decisions are made, and the car wins. So what do you have to pack for a long road trip in a small car? Well, that depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing, but I do have a few tips to share based on our own experiences packing a small car for a big trip.

How to Pack for a Road Trip in a Small Car

Our little car never disappoints! Photo by Tara Schatz.

Obviously, when you’re packing a small car for a long road trip, you don’t want to fill it with stuff you won’t use. Start by thinking about the season you’ll be traveling in, as well as how long you’ll be gone, and what you plan to do on your trip. Road tripping with kids and/or dogs will take extra considerations, of course. Our family is big on outdoor adventures, and we mainly travel in the summer, so our packing list usually reflects that.

Next, create a packing list, starting with supplies that your family can’t live without (clothes, food, and shelter), and moving on to items that may make your road trip more exciting and memorable (fishing poles, toys, games, books, and musical instruments).  Recruit your kids to make lists of their own. Even if you have to nix the idea of bringing along the pet iguana or the boogie board, at least their ideas were in the running.

If you truly think you will have more stuff then will fit into your car, consider buying, renting, or borrowing a car-top cargo carrier for extra gear.  Even though ours isn’t the most beautiful, I don’t think we could road trip in our small car without it. We use the cargo carrier to hold all of our bedding, backpacks, tents, and souvenirs, while our trunk stores the food, cooking supplies and clothing.

Packing a Small Car for Camping

Our trusty cargo box is also home to our sticker collection. Photo by Tara Schatz.

This packing list is for a months-long, cross-country road trip in a small car. It’s the road trip packing list that we used for a family of four on a summer trip. To save money, and because we love being outdoors, we planned to cook almost every meal outside and camp every night of the trip. Your packing list will be much different if you are driving from hotel to hotel and eating in restaurants.

  • Clothes – For each person, we pack underwear and socks for one week, a few pairs of shorts and t-shirts, bathing suit, one pair of pants, long underwear top and bottom, fleece pants, fleece pullover, windbreaker/raincoat, wool cap, gloves, hiking boots, sandals, and one dress (for me). Everyone’s clothing stash goes into a compression sack. We bring another compression sack for communal dirty laundry. The bags of clothes live in the trunk for easy access.
  • Camping/Hiking – a lightweight sleeping bag and pad for everyone, small pillows, two tents suitable for car-camping and backpacking- one for the kids, one for the grown-ups, internal frame backpacks for everyone in case we decide to do some backpacking, headlamps, a lantern, and rope for a clothesline, Crazy Creek camp chairs (they pack flat), and mosquito head nets. The camping gear lives in the cargo carrier, or as we like to say – “upstairs.”
  • The Kitchen – In our car, we are lucky enough to travel with a kitchen, a fridge, and a pantry (otherwise known as a duffel bag, cooler, and a big plastic tub). In the duffel bag, we keep a double-burner Coleman camp stove, a backpacking stove, lightweight MSR deep dish plates, travel mugs, silverware, backpacking cookware, cooking utensils, two collapsible buckets for dish-washing, biodegradable dish soap, microfiber dishcloths, a tablecloth, matches, and propane. You can read more about our camp kitchen inthis post.
  • The Fridge – Our little cooler usually contains our dairy products and vegetables, plus the snacks for the day, which we prep in the morning. We rarely use ice, so we have to eat things up pretty quickly. The cooler sits between the kids in the back seat so they can access snacks while we’re on the road.
  • The Pantry – The pantry is a big Rubbermaid tub. In it, we keep canned goods, snacks, bread, sturdy vegetables, our spice kit, coffee, refillable water bottles, and condiments. The pantry gets refilled about once a week, just like at home.
  • Car repair kit – Our emergency car repair kit contains motor oil, anti-freeze, washer fluid, a small air compressor for filling the tires with air, miscellaneous tools that I really didn’t pay attention to, because honestly, if it were up to me, I would just call AAA and hope for the best.
  • First Aid Kit – Because we like to travel off the beaten path, we always keep a well-stocked first aid kit on hand. You can read more about our first aid kit here.
  • Fun stuff – If there’s room, we pack toys and instruments, including a travel guitar, harmonica, various books and field guides, binoculars, an iPad with a keyboard for blogging, smartphones, a camera, colored pencils and journals, a backpacking hammock, Frisbee, football, swim goggles, card games, and dice.
  • Dog stuff – Our dogs travel with us all the time, and yes, they fit in our tiny car, even with kids. It just means we have to stop and stretch our legs a lot! Here’s our gear list for traveling with dogs.

Occasionally we get bored with our clothes or books and we have to stop at a used book or clothing store to trade them out. We don’t usually buy souvenirs, but we do collect stickers for our cargo box. Now every time I look at our cargo carrier, I want to hit the road again.

What are your must-have necessities for long road trips? Have you ever traveled across the country in a really small car? It’s an adventure, that’s for sure.

This article originally appeared on Back Road Ramblers. View the original article here. Cover photo by Jimmy Conover/Unsplash.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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