How to Pack Your Car for Camping (without needing a shoehorn}

Have you ever packed your car for camping and realized that you can’t find your picnic lunch because the cooler is buried under everything else?

open rear of car packed for camping

When we first started car camping, we didn’t know how to pack logically. We crammed everything in wherever it would fit. Then, when we would stop for lunch, we wouldn’t be able to get to what we needed. This meant we would have to unpack everything. We briefly considered a bigger car or a small trailer but realized that would not solve the problem of our lack of organization. We knew there had to be a better way out there and with practice we figured it out.

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Seriously, when it comes to packing your car for camping, a lot depends on what size car you are taking and how well you use that space. We don’t have a small car, nor do we have a large SUV. What we do have is a packing plan for the space we do have. And we have a method for making that happen. This is called Car Tetris and it’s a real thing amongst car camping enthusiasts.

Here is how we go about packing our car for camping in seven simple steps:

Step 1: Give yourself some time.

If possible, start the day before so you don’t feel rushed. There is nothing worse than being pressured to get everything packed so you can hit the road. That is always when we either forget something or the thing we are going to need first will be at the bottom of the pile.

It helps to know all the storage and cargo options in the car you are using. When our kid was younger, we utilized the back seat floorboards of our sedan to hold things we wanted to easily access such as a small cooler for roadside snacks. Now we tend to use a minivan for our travels, and we store less frequently used items in the under-floor storage areas. This is also a great place to hide valuables at the campsite. We also only have as many seats available as we have passengers in the van, allowing for more cargo storage.

Step 2: Don’t just throw stuff into the back of the vehicle.

We start by laying all our items out on the ground, including items normally kept inside the car. Then we make sure everything is there. This is where my camping checklists come in handy. Who wants to get to the campsite and realize the hammock was left at home? Not me!

Play a little Tetris on the ground to see what fits best where. We know that our standard totes can fit three high and two wide while still allowing room for us to maneuver around them. Since we have five main totes, this works perfectly. But in what order to we place those totes? This is when we need to think about where we are going, what time we will arrive, and which items we will want first.

Step 3: First in = last out.

If we are getting there around dinnertime (which is our typical time), we know we are going to want to get a fire going so that it will be ready to cook dinner as soon as we have our tent up. That means our camp kitchen can be blocked by the tent supplies which can be blocked by fire making supplies. Granted, this is our preference. Others don’t care about putting up the tent until after dinner, so they want their food and fire items to be last packed and first out.

For times in which we are not practicing our version of weekend warrior camping and can leisurely travel to our destination, we pack differently. Here’s one sample itinerary and how we would pack.

Itinerary

  • 8 AM – Leave home, hit the gas station on the way out of town.
  • 10 AM – Arrive at the campsite and get checked in.
  • 11 AM – Head over to the beach and picnic area for relaxation and lunch.
  • 2 PM – Back to the campsite to set up the tent and hammock.
  • 3 PM – Siesta time or quiet time or rest time – whatever you want to call it.
  • 4 PM – Start a fire so that we can cook dinner.
  • 6 PM – Dinner is done, how about dessert?
  • 8 PM – Time to roll into bed because tomorrow has more fun planned.

Remember, the first gear to go in should be the items you will need last. So, in this case, we would pack our sleeping gear first because we will pull it out last. Next up would be the camp kitchen and food supplies as we won’t want them until after we are back at the campsite. All the supplies we need to set up the tent go in next. Our bathing suits, towels, and supplies for the picnic lunch should be last in so they can be first out. We keep snacks and entertainment items in the passenger area with us for the drive.

Step 4: Think about shapes and weight.

Straight sided containers pack together more closely. We love our Ziploc Weathershield Totes for their shape and protection from wet and mold. However camping equipment tends to be awkwardly sized. Not all of it will fit into nice rectangular shaped totes. That’s when you leave gaps in-between your totes so you can slide in other gear such as those camping chairs, long handled pie irons, and other oddly shaped items.

Don’t forget to place heavier items on the bottom to keep items from collapsing under the weight. You also want these low so that sudden stops or sharp turns don’t cause them to slide forward and hit someone in the head. Who wants to stop by the ER on their way to the campsite? Not us!

Step 5: Fill in the gaps.

As you are packing, place items that you might want mid-trip in locations easy to reach without unpacking the entire car. These might include items for a roadside picnic or a quick change of clothes after something gets spilled. If you are bringing the family furry friend along, don’t forget to have some poop bags and the leash easily accessible. And we love to have our binoculars close to hand in case we spot something interesting along the way.

We love long leisurely travel days which include time for a picnic lunch and maybe some geocaching or a hike with the dog. If we aren’t scheduling in a lunch at some roadside attraction, I will make sure to have something tasty like a pressed picnic sandwich and some easy pasta salad readily available. Unfortunately, more often than not we are camping weekend warrior style in which we leave Friday night after work and have to be back Sunday afternoon. Oh well. At least we get to camp!

Step 6: Zippers on top.

I can’t tell you how long it took me to learn to place our bags with the opening positioned so that I could access the items inside without having to remove it from the car. Camping with a young one was educational in many ways. And when I needed to get to something quickly, ahem – some wipes and clean underwear – it was much more convenient when the zipper was pointing up rather than facing the floor of the car.

Now that the young one isn’t quite so young…we try to have everything accessible so that we or he can quickly get to it. If we pack correctly, he can actually get to certain important items while we are still driving down the road (like the snacks or batteries for the audiobook player). This has been a game changer. No longer do I feel the need to have my foot area completely packed with “important to reach” items.

Step 7: Take a picture.

It may be sound silly but, this way if it worked well, you have a guide to follow next time. And, if there are improvements to be made, you have a starting point. Either way, when it is time to pack for the trip home, you aren’t starting from scratch!

And there you have it, you have a car packed for a camping trip. Now go enjoy that next camping trip and send us any pictures you take of your fun. Tag us on Instagram @campinganswer so we can cheer you on!

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