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How to Pack a Small Car for a Big Trip

Tara Schatz | Oboz Ambassador

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Hitting the open road is a quintessential rite of passage, but these days it seems like it's either #vanlife or #nolife. While I don't begrudge anyone their Sprinter dreams, I am living evidence that you don't need a home on wheels to undertake the best road trip ever. My family's road trip car is a little Pontiac Vibe, which has taken our family of four all around the country several times, and is still going strong after 12 years and 200,000 miles.Small Car Big Trip 2

All images: Tara Schatz

We’ve been known to live out of our car for weeks, even months on end, and while big cars provide extra space, there are lots of advantages to road tripping in a small car. Little cars are maneuverable, they get great gas mileage, and they are easy to maintain. 

The secret to making it work is to become an expert 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.
Small Car Big Trip 5

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 your doing, but I do have a few tips to share based on our own experiences packing a small car for a big trip.

Packing for a Long Road Trip

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 to trailheads and hikes, 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.Small Car Big Trip 3

If you truly think you will have more stuff than 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.Small Car Big Trip 4

Packing a Small Car for Camping

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, wind-breaker/rain coat, 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 light-weight 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 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 dish cloths, a tablecloth, matches, and propane. You can read more about our camp kitchen in this post.
  • The Fridge – Our little cooler usually contains our dairy products and vegetables, plus the snacks for 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, crackers, bread, 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 – We did not have room for our dog on this particular road trip, but he does travel with us fairly often. Here’s our gear list for traveling with dogs.

Occasionally we get bored with our clothes or books and we have stop at a used book or clothing store to trade them in for some new stuff.  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.

Ambassador Tara Schatz lives in Bennington, VT, has section-hiked the AT and hikes to leave her responsibilities behind and find more adventures. Follow her on Instagram: @back.road.ramblers; Facebook: @backroadramblers; Twitter: @backroadramblrs; Website: 

Tara Schatz

Name: Tara Schatz

Hometown: Bennington, VT

Where I’ve Been: I’ve section-hiked the AT—though not all at once, hiked everywhere I could during a cross-country road trip from Vermont to Washington, and climbed and hiked many of the highest peaks in VT., NH., and NY.

Where to Next: Exploring the trails and peaks near my home, spending time with family, and raising puppies for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

Why I Hike: I love leaving my responsibilities behind and heading out on an adventure.

Find Me:

Instagram: @back.road.ramblers

Facebook: @backroadramblers

Twitter: @backroadramblrs


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