Beginner’s guide to packing your car and staying organized on road trips

car dashboard view of an open road

Packing your car for a road trip, and then keeping it organized so you can actually find things, is a massive game of Tetris.

Sometimes, things start getting messy. Your car quickly turns into that worst-case Tetris scenario where you’re running out of room and nothing really fits and you also can’t find anything you need. Basically the real-life version of this:

awful car tetris

We knew we had to get our acts together and stop shoving things in random places – we were headed to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks for a week-long road trip, much of which would be spent camping.

On our August camping trip, we were driving ourselves crazy after the first night. Clothes were everywhere, supplies were in random spots, and unpacking back home was a mess because we couldn’t grab all of our clothes or all of the cooking supplies at once to put away. And that was only two nights – now we were staring down a six-night road trip.

First, we laid some ground rules. We promised to abide by the car organization.

This means taking the extra minute to put things back where we got them from. I have a horrible habit of shoving my clothes in random spots when I’m changing, or just tossing things back in the closest car door because I’m “in a hurry” (on vacation? Who am I?) and don’t ~feel like~ putting things back where they belong.

This basic step made a HUGE difference.

We made sticking to the organization easier by keeping clothes, food, and other high-use items easy to get to.

diagram from above how to pack a car for camping road trip
We have a Subaru Forester and folded the entire back row of seats down to achieve this layout.

When you’re camping, you most often need to get to clothes, food, sleeping stuff, and supplies like sunscreen or bug spray. These should be the easiest things to access immediately upon opening a door or the trunk.

We used the pockets in each car door to store small items like sunscreen, bear spray, and binoculars.

To keep clothes easily accessible, we put each of our duffle bags by a rear door. We each packed a trash bag for dirty clothes to keep them contained. Our shoes all went into another duffle bag that we kept on the ground behind the driver’s seat. Headlamps were in our duffle bags as well.

On the left side of the trunk, we put all of our food and water along with our camp stove and skillet. Each meal’s supplies went in its own container. All the breakfast supplies went into one box, desserts and coffee supplies in another, and since lunch and dinner were pretty interchangeable, I stuck all of that food into one more box. I just used a fabric storage bin that we normally use for our mail, a leftover Amazon box, and a shoebox, so you don’t need to get fancy!

I also made sure that you could tell what something was by looking at it from the top so that we didn’t have to pull EVERYTHING out to find that one thing. Anything that I couldn’t immediately tell what it was got labeled on its lid.

I put all of our cooking/eating supplies – plates, spatulas, fire starters, etc – into a Trader Joe’s grocery bag, with each category of items in their own plastic bag. For example, everything we needed to start a fire went in its own plastic bag to make it easy to grab – fire starters, matches, and a lighter. The grocery bag didn’t quite fit in the food area, but we still wanted to be able to get to it easily, so it lived behind the passenger seat.

On the right side of the trunk, we put all of our camping gear. Our tent, rain fly (aka the cover that goes over your tent and keeps it dry), and stakes were all in their own bag. This went inside a larger duffle bag that also held the air mattress, pump, sleeping bag, camping chairs, and extra blankets. The nights you’re camping, this space in the car is obviously empty so it’s easy to fill it in with random crap, but do your best not to!

We used the dead zone in the middle of the car for things we needed to get to less often.

We have a Subaru Forester and long arms so, fortunately, we could reach any area of the car from a door. Still, it’s more difficult to reach into that middle dead space that we created.

This is where we put things we weren’t using every day, like hiking poles, backpacks, dirty clothes, and trash.

Were we perfect? No. But starting organized and committing to staying as organized as possible made a huge difference.

I certainly didn’t put my clothes back immediately, but before the end of the day, everything was where it should be. It was SO much easier to find things and six nights basically living out of the car (we were in hotels a few nights) went a million times better than our road trip a few years ago.

Once we got home, it was easy to triage the car and just grab dirty clothes, trash, and toiletries to get what we needed to get out immediately and go to bed. Hauling the rest out of the car the next day was also easier because we didn’t have a bunch of random tiny items on their own. And, putting everything away went faster since everything was categorized.

I’m working on the final step now – creating a very basic gear corner in our basement so when we’re packing next time, we don’t have to look in six different places for all of our gear and supplies.  Stay tuned!

Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.

5 thoughts on “Beginner’s guide to packing your car and staying organized on road trips

  1. Small cheap laundry baskets can be a good place to park loose clothes and other random stuff, especially those outer layers you remove as the day goes on but put on again in the evening.

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