8 Killer Tips to Pack a Car for the Best Holiday Road Trip

Best Tips To Pack A Car

Getting Ready For A Road Trip. Packing for a road trip is a lot like a game of Tetris. Photo: Jill Robbins

Yes, you can have it all and you can take it with you. 

No need to fear your precious Christmas vacation will become another chapter in the annals of the Griswolds. Instead, be the envy of everyone on the road, organized and able to see out the window.

Now, there are different kinds of packers. Pre-night packers, Day of the trip packers, and Pre-prepared packers who have their bags staged and ready to go a week ahead of time. Regardless of which kind of packer you are, the reality of cars, kids, and stuff can derail your plans, so tips to pack a car always come in handy.

1. Thoroughly check out your car before you start loading

This is especially important if you’re driving a rental car, but even if you’re hitting the road with your everyday ride, give it a look-see before you start packing. Scope out all the storage options. Many newer vehicles have nooks and crannies that can come in handy when you’re trying to make the fullest use of your space. Our minivan has storage under the rear seat floorboards, which is a great place to store things you want to take with you but that you won’t need access to during transit.

Even if you think you’re familiar with the space you’ve got to work with, do a walk-around anyway. Packing your car for a road trip is a different beast than loading things up for everyday errands.

2. Think about the size of your vehicle compared with the number of passengers

Now, this might sound like a no-brainer but hear me out. If you’re a group of four traveling in a minivan or a full-size SUV, odds are everyone will have plenty of space for their stuff unless you’ve got some serious over-packer issues. If you’re a family of five taking a week-long trip in a mid-sized or compact SUV, you’re going to have to be a little more conservative about the space each person uses. Consider space for everyone before they start packing the car.

Further Reading: 8 Road Trip Tips for your Next Family Road Trip

Packing For Camping Trip

Going camping in the 2018 Ford Expedition MAX. Photo: Erica Mueller

3. Make a plan on how you’re going to pack emergency items and presents

Things can get chaotic when you’re trying to pack your car for a road trip, especially if you’ve got a larger family, so make sure you make a plan to get those essentials in there. You never want to leave your emergency supplies behind, but this is something that can get lost in the shuffle when you’re worried about how to cram it all in there.

And, if you’re road-tripping during the holidays, odds are good you’re transporting presents, so make a plan for how you’re going to get those from point A to point B, that they don’t get squished and they aren’t visible to prying eyes…and make sure you don’t leave home without them!

4. Use soft-sided or flexible duffel bags

You might love your hard-sided rolling suitcase (believe me, I love mine) but it’s no bueno when you’re playing Tetris with your family’s luggage. The soft, squishy bags have more give and are easier to manipulate. That said if you are taking hard luggage or other inflexible containers (more about those in a minute) stack them on the bottom and pile the lighter, more flexible pieces on top.

Car Packing Tips For Road Trips A Girls Guide To Cars

Soft bags give you more flexibility. Lots of room in the 2019 Chevrolet Tahoe but you might be returning with more than you left with. Photo credit: Penny Giakos-Garduno

5. Consider using packing totes for certain items

If you have some space to play with, plastic packing totes can be your friend when packing your car for a road trip. We use them to pack toys, pool equipment, camp cookware, and hiking gear…all things that are a little bit outside the basic essentials we’d pack in our personal bags. It’s nice to be able to make a pit stop and easily find our hiking boots and trekking poles without pawing through a suitcase. A packing tote can also be a good option for presents if you’re taking those along.

Toyota Sequoia Trunk Space

Packed up, organized and ready to hit the road in a Toyota Sequoia.
Photo: Erica Mueller

6. Pack items you’ll need first closest to the door

If you’re doing a multi-leg road trip, you might want to consider breaking up your belongings into several smaller bags so you can take out only what you need when you make a pit stop. This is much better than dragging the whole kit and kaboodle into your hotel or vacation rental because you’re not sure where you packed what you need for that leg of the trip.

My family is going camping in Missouri this spring and we’re stopping for one night in Hot Springs Arkansas (mostly because driving the entire way to Missouri from Texas with two kids would be my complete undoing) so we’ll do small bags for our Arkansas stop and leave all gear in the car while we spend the night in a hotel.

7. Backseat bags

The backseat is important, especially when traveling with kids. If you keep the people in the backseat happy, you’ll have a happy (or at least a relatively quiet) trip. Make sure you equip your backseaters with entertainment, snacks, and…well, whatever they need to be happy on a trip.

Remember when I talked about thoroughly checking out your car before you start packing? Really check out your backseat space for places your kids (or whoever happens to be sitting back there) can store and hang stuff, including trash bags. This can keep the back seat from becoming a clutter bomb.

8. Snacks and other essentials

You can’t have a road trip without snacks, so make sure you have plenty. We relax the “not much eating” in our car when we’re on long road trips but we pick things that won’t make a permanent mess. Crumbs can always be vacuumed up, whereas mashed banana is more labor-intensive. You might want to consider making a “no stinky food” rule and maybe staying away from things like Cheetos or other things that stain fingers and upholstery.

Along with snacks, don’t forget to pack small trash bags, paper towels, wet wipes, and air fresheners or Febreze. Keep a caddy handy with these essentials in case you need to clean up a spill. If you use smaller trash bags or even grocery store plastic bags, you can toss them out each time you make a pit stop.

No matter where you’re going, being intentional about how you pack your car is going to set you up for success so you can really enjoy the ride!

These 8 Car Packing Tips For Holiday Road Trips Will Help You Plan The Best Possible Journey You Can Have



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Jill is the oldest mom with the youngest kids pretty much everywhere she goes. She has a 29-year-old daughter... More about Jill Robbins