The Right Way to Pack Your Car for a Weekend Trip
A good system will save you time before, during, and after your next getaway
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
While it’s tempting to just toss your gear and luggage in the back of your car and head off on a weekend adventure, deliberate packing is worth the effort. A properly loaded vehicle will ultimately save you precious time on a short trip. Here are the hacks I’ve gleaned over my decades of efficient escapes, plus some lessons from a few years I spent living out of my old truck.
Create a System
When my wife and I go car camping, I never have to ask where something is no matter which one of us packed our vehicle. She created a system a few years ago that has us placing two storage bins, a cooler, a camp stove, plus whatever other gear we bring into the back of our Honda Element like Tetris pieces. Everything has its exact spot, and we never deviate from the system over the course of the trip. That may sound obsessive, but constantly rummaging through your stuff to find that one thing you really need—headlamp, binoculars, your ditty bag—can eat up tons of time.
Bins can be easily transferred from the garage to your car trunk or the back of an SUV. Having them stocked and ready to go can shave an hour off your packing time. I like to keep one loaded with all my cooking, eating, and cleaning tools and another filled with nonperishable and dry food. Label the bins so you know what’s in each one, and you’re set.
Get Serious About Your Stacking
If you carelessly chuck equipment into your car, at best you’re looking at an annoying post-trip cleanup. At worst, you’ll have to replace gear that broke after getting crushed at the bottom of the pile. Stuff will shift around back there. Bins and coolers make an excellent foundation to build from, with stoves, drybags, and a backpack or duffel on top.
Keep Necessities Handy
The stuff you use most often or might need at a moment’s notice should always be easily accessible. I keep toilet paper and hand sanitizer at the top of my gear pile. Those are the last things I want to be wrestling to find in the wee hours of morning after my coffee does its magic. Same goes for snacks. While most of my food lives in a bin, I keep a selection of salty and sweet munchies stacked at the top.
Separate Clean from Dirty
Bring some extra trash bags so you can quarantine your funky clothing from your clean layers. Ditto keeping wet away from dry. I’ll usually put the clean or dry apparel back in its designated bin, then throw a garbage bag of dirty gear in a rooftop box, like the Yakima SkyBox 16 Carbonite ($529), which resides year-round on top of my Toyota Camry.
Don’t Slack Off
Entropy is real. A single dirty shirt thrown on top of your tidily packed trunk is all it takes to break down your system. Even if you’re tired at the end of the day or are just itching to hit the road, take five minutes to reorganize. It’ll make your whole trip run more smoothly and take some of the sting out of unpacking once you get back home.