Probably the biggest challenge for car campers is packing the car and safely fitting it all in, especially when children arrive on the scene. For many living in apartments and smaller properties, storage space for bulky camping gear can also be scarce.
Whether you are just starting out on your camping journey, or you are a pro, saving space is a good idea on many levels.
In summary, our top space saving ideas for camping include:
- planning well
- being mindful about everything you pack
- buy neatly stackable and compact when packed up gear
- only taking what you need
- resisting buying big when smaller or even miniature will do just fine
- utilising the available packing space but don't overload the vehicle
- utilising the car roof racks
- using soft and flexible bags and containers where possible.
And now for the detail:
Putting together a camping setup without a plan is like making a complicated dish without a recipe. It’s not going to turn out as you expected unless you really know what you are doing.
And that’s what this website is all about and why we feel that beginner campers and those new to family camping will gain the most benefit.
So, if after reading this you want to camp trailer free and are still struggling with where to start and what to buy, check out The Campus for our complete Camping Kickstart Program.
2: Every bit counts
Scrutinize everything you include in your camping setup in terms of size and packability (as well as weight and functionality). When you count individual cooking utensils, clothing, tools, toiletries and food items you could have over 200 items to pack.
You might not think that buying a compact little veggie peeler, spatula or pair of mini tongs will be one of the more useful space saving ideas for camping, but multiply that by 200 and there’s a massive difference right there. It won’t be too long before you are rejoicing at the smallest of space savings.
3: Buy easily stackable and packable
When shopping for your camping gear, always consider how an item will be packed in the car for travel. If you have limited space, choose space-saving items, such as stackable dinnerware and cookware, and flat or cylindrical items instead of those in a cube or ball shape. If you are having trouble locating easily stackable or packable items, check out our buying guide in The Campus for our notes and suggestions and any links we might have to easily sourced products online.
4: Take only what you need
You will (or should) have a checklist of what to take camping, but not everything needs to go on every camping trip. Considering such things as the weather forecast, trip length, planned activities and the available facilities, leave at home any bulky but unnecessary items.
5: Think camping before you buy
Consider whether items you are buying for your day-to-day life, such as raincoats, jackets, games, sporting equipment, folding chairs and tools, will have a camping use. If so, choose the compact or easily stackable / packable option to avoid the need to buy a second more compact version just for camping. You could even justify buying a better quality product knowing it will have that broader camping use.
Kitchen, bathroom and laundry
6: Plan your meals
A well-thought-out meal plan for your camp kitchen can help you to bring and/or buy the right quantities of food for your needs, enough to feed everyone but not so much that you will need to pack and transport the surplus food out.
7: Cook simple meals
The campsite isn’t the place to explore your inner MasterChef, unless it’s a challenge to make a delicious dish, from the ingredients at hand, at a casual pace and in a short amount of time so that the chef can re-join the camping fun ASAP.
So, come up with a list of simple, healthy and delicious recipes / dishes that everyone loves and, more importantly, that are compatible with your camp kitchen.
8: Cook with what you have
Especially in the lead-up to departure day, being creative with your camp cooking and using what you already have in your pantry and fridge can really reduce what you will need to pack and transport out. With a little lateral thinking, you will be amazed at what you can cook up.
9: Buy what you need when you need it
We can get carried away and buy or bring enough food for the whole week without allowing for the inevitable change of plans. Excess food not only clutters up your campsite, if not consumed, it needs to be packed and transported out.
If you are traveling in remote areas you might need an extra food supply in case you can't get to the store, but otherwise, buy only what you need for two to three days, or for the foreseeable timeframe.
10: Give preference to space efficient ingredients
You only need to compare the size of cornflakes and muesli boxes to see how much more space-efficient dense foods can be over ingredients containing a lot of air. Any food you plan to pack and transport should be in a compact form, such as muesli, dried fruit, dried legumes, nuts, flat crispbreads, Wheatbix, spaghetti or linguine pasta, rice, flour etc.
11: Give preference to space efficient packaging
Choose products with a more space-efficient packaging shape and, where possible, flexible packaging that can mold in and around other items to utilise small spaces.
These are not only useful space-saving camping tips, they will help you to reduce the clutter in your camp food pantry.
- Products packaged in bags are more space-efficient than those in cardboard, which can contain up to 30% fresh air and are inflexible to pack around other items.
- A drink / wine bottle with an hourglass or teardrop shape will take up more space than one with a more cylindrical shape. Better still, try cask wine and you can even ditch the cardboard container.
- Beer cans are much more space-efficient than bottles / stubbies.
- And so on ...
12: Decant into smaller refillable containers
Instead of packing the whole container of a product, decant or transfer the amount you will need for that particular trip into a suitably sized container or bag. That goes for items in your food pantry as well as for showering, the laundry and dishwashing.
13: Limit the size of your fridge or icebox
One of the largest items you will pack in your car for camping will be your icebox or fridge. It's solid, bulky, it takes prime position in the boot / trunk and it doesn't budge when space is tight. We can often get carried away with the size of our fridge and buy one that is far bigger than we really need.
14: Limit the size of your kitchenware container
Similarly, plastic containers are another unavoidably bulky item to be transported in the rear cargo area. When putting together your kitchen items, you don't really need a cooking stove with more than two burners, nor do you need more than one large pot and frying pan, unless you are cooking for a basketball team. With that there are thousands of possible recipes.
15: Collapsible products
Solid plastic containers, such as buckets, kitchen sinks, water containers, strainers and kettles, take up an enormous amount of space. You can make a huge difference by checking out the collapsible items on the market.
In our experience, collapsible water containers can still be bulky for transportation, however, for water storage, a collapsible bucket is a good alternative for use around camp. Using a lid can provide protection for drinking water.
The soft stuff
16: Consider hiking style bedding
Probably one of the most useful space-saving ideas when packing for camping is to avoid particularly bulky bedding and look at hiking stores. Hiking style bedding isn’t essential to our camping setup but it can really save you an enormous amount of car space if packing is a struggle.
Armed with good quality hiking gear and you can also leave the wheels behind and head off overnight exploring at any time. You can read more about this in our sleeping section. Bedding should also be stuffed tightly into bags to reduce its bulk.
17: Choose compact towels and tea towels
We don’t subscribe to the view that your beach and bath towels should be something akin to a microfiber hiking towel, but nor should they be big enough to wrap around your body numerous times. Keeping the size of your towels to that of a small regular towel and going for a thin option will save more space and be quicker to dry. Likewise, tea towels should also be of the smaller and thinner variety. You will find more on this in our bathroom section.
Entertainment and recreational items
18: Choose packable sporting and entertainment equipment
Sporting equipment is another area that can really consume a huge amount of car space. Bike helmets go hand in hand if you have bikes, but other bulky items should stay at home in favor of more compact and easier to pack items, such as inflatables, fishing rods and cricket bat / balls etc.
19: Games and entertainment
While camping and the great outdoors offers endless entertainment options, it’s nice to be able to sit back and relax around the campsite and let everyone do their own thing, whatever that might be.
Your space saving ideas for camping should therefore allow for some of the fun things. Within reason, try to include something for everyone:
- If there is a favorite board game, try to locate a compact version for camping.
- Bring a couple of packs of cards with card game instructions for endless family fun.
- If the kids enjoy drawing, bring along compact drawing pads and enough pens / pencils to keep them entertained, but maybe not the whole pencil case.
- Likewise, enough Lego but not the whole tub.
- Bring paperback instead of hardback books, or better still, go digital.
- And so on…
20: Lighting and devices
Modern technology really is working in our favor. If you are buying or upgrading any kind of potentially useful gadget or device for camping, go for the lighter and/or more compact version, even if it might be more expensive.
Around the campsite
Your furniture can really take up a lot of space in the car and should be considered carefully in terms of pack shape and size before you buy. We go into detail in terms of what to look for when buying furniture for camping in the Our setup section of the website and, as with anything you purchase for your camping setup, we encourage you to read through the relevant section. In summary though:
- Chairs that are quad folding are easier to pack than the bulkier flat folding chairs, and the more compact product the better. If you are tight for space, you will find particularly lightweight and compact hiking-style chairs on the market.
- Folding tables that have a space-efficient pack size tend to be quad or bi-folding. There are a couple of molded plastic picnic table and bench seats on the market as well but, as they don't fold, are bulky to transport and should be avoided if space is limited.
22: Utilise the roof racks
Your car roof really provides a huge amount of additional storage space for larger bulky items that won't fit inside your car, especially if they can be packed in a long rectangular shape. This includes tents that come in this shape, marquees / screen rooms, bedding packed in similarly shaped bags. Or alternatively, fit a roof box or bag to your car.
23: Use flexible baggage
Rigid and hard case baggage is more difficult to pack than soft baggage that can mold in and around other items to utilize small spaces. That goes for your larger clothing and bedding bags as well as smaller bags to hold tools, lighting, food and devices. Padded cooler style bags, especially those used to keep lunches cool, are especially useful for all but particularly fragile items to provide that added protection.
24: Utilise the available car storage spaces
Efficient use of all of the various car nooks and compartments can really help create a lot of extra storage space. Such as:
- Water bottle holders: If a 1 litre bottle fits there, don't waste the space with a 250 ml bottle.
- Pockets behind the front seats: Maps, tourist brochures, books and travel games for the kids
- Glove box: Torch / flash light, mini-first aid kit, sunscreen, a small packet of tissues, wipes
- Centre console: Smaller battery chargers, phone chargers, spare change for parking tickets and laundry etc.
25: Develop a car packing plan
Last but not least, if you are efficient in how you pack your car, you would be amazed at how much you can comfortably and safely carry. Our packing the car for camping article provides a general overview of how we pack our car, and for a more detailed look, go to our member portal, The Campus.
If you have any more space-saving ideas for camping, let us know. We'd love to hear from you.