Images of cars crammed and overloaded with camping gear are pretty cringe worthy. While the extreme ones are meant to amuse, others seem to be seriously suggesting it's OK to pack and load a car to within an inch of it's life.
When packing and loading your car for a camping trip, safety really needs to be top of mind. A car loaded without due consideration to safety matters can pose a significant risk to you and others on the road.
A poorly loaded car can also limit what you can take, cause damage to your car and in some cases even invalidate your insurance policy in case of an accident.
There are a lot of things to think about when packing the car for camping. Here are our packing tips:
1: Develop a plan or formula for packing your car
Take out the guess work by developing a plan for how you will pack your car for camping.
We have outlined below our formula which particularly focusses on camping trailer free for families.
We focus on families because more are living in urban areas and smaller properties with ever decreasing backyards (if indeed there is one) which are certainly not compatible with trailer or caravan ownership.
While we focus on families in this article, many of the tips will apply to any type of camper.
So, here is our "trailer-free" car packing formula for a family of 4 people, and if you would like to learn more about how to equip you and your family for camping trailer free, check out The Campus:
- Tent: Firstly the tent and some tent accessories go on the car roof, either placed in a roof box, bag or tray, or strapped directly to the roof racks.
- Bedding and clothing: Soft, padded items like bedding is transported in the rear passenger cabin with the remainder of the bedding as well as clothing transported on the car roof.
- Everything else: The rest of your camping equipment, including camp furniture, the various camp kitchen components, tools, lighting, electronics and incidentals is transported in the rear cargo area.
2: Develop a packing checklist
Every well organised camper will have a packing checklist. A checklist will not only make sure that you don't leave anything important behind. It will also help you determine in advance what you might not need for that particular trip so that you can cross it off the list.
If you don't have a packing checklist, you can download a copy of our editable checklist here. In this checklist you will find your camping essentials listed in the following categories:
- Tent and accessories
- Camping tool kit
- Power and fuel
- Camp lighting
- Camp kitchen, cooking utensils, cutlery and food supplies
- Camp stove
- Camp refrigeration
- Bathroom and laundry
- First aid kit and safety
- Camping furniture
- Sleeping bags and bedding
- Sleeping mats and pads
- Outdoor clothing
- Sports, games and entertainment
- War on camping waste essentials
General Car Packing Tips
3: Keep within the payload as well as the roof load limit of the car.
The weight of everything and everyone being transported by your car should not exceed the weight carrying capacity of your car. That goes for any accessories added to your car.
4: Make the best use of the available storage space.
Your car has numerous compartments to store and transport your gear, from the drink holders through to the large rear cargo / boot space. As well as that, car roof racks and tow / hitch bars are really valuable accessories to help you transport your gear. Decide what will go where to make the best use of the available space.
5: Leave plenty of space
Don't cram items in too tightly and leave unused storage space. You will rarely have as much time to pack on your return home as you did when you left. Especially when you are in a rush, the tighter you have packed your car, the harder it will be to re-pack.
If it's a tight fit, you are taking too much or you need to choose more compact items for your camping setup. That goes for packing any other bags or containers as well.
6: Balance your load
Balance your load as much as possible to evenly distribute the weight throughout the vehicle rather than in one place. This advice also applies to the car passengers - if the car load is at the limit and the rear cargo area is fully loaded, the heaviest passenger should be sitting in the front seat.
You should also avoid loading the heavier items on your roof racks in order to keep the centre of gravity of the car as low as possible for better stability on the road.
7: To bag or not to bag!
You will mostly be sold covers and bags for your chairs, furniture, separately purchased annex panels and other items. We tend to leave these bags at home unless the item comes in more than one piece that needs to be kept together.
Bags generally serve no purpose, and just take time to put on and remove when you are setting up and packing up your campsite. These bags also inevitably go missing just when you want them.
Car boot / trunk packing tips
8: Develop a packing plan
Develop a packing plan for your camping gear and stick to it. Take photos to act as a reminder for next time. This goes for other bags and containers as well.
9: Collect everything first
Collect everything together before packing the car (unless you know exactly where everything goes) and make sure there is nothing forgotten. It’s much harder to add things that go towards the rear once you have started loading, and loading items out of order can result in unusable space.
10: Fit a cargo barrier
Cargo barriers fitted to your car will prevent it from causing injury or worse in the event of a sudden stop. The barrier will also allow the safe loading of your cargo above the top of the rear seats.
Alternatively, a dual cab ute with a completely separate cargo tray will negate the need to fit a cargo barrier.
11: Pack heavy items in first
Pack heavy items in first and, as much as possible, place them low down and towards the middle and rear of the boot / trunk, against the back seat to help reduce the centre of gravity and the effect of weight on car handling.
12: Pack first used items last
Pack items last that you need first when you arrive at camp, such as ground sheets, tent pegs, guy ropes and hammers / mattocks.
14: Pack small items together
Transport multiple small loose items together in large canvas or other similar bags rather than individually in your car. These bags help to secure and contain your individual items together to reduce the number of potential missiles that could injure others in case of a sudden stop. They will also:
- Reduce the number of individual items to load
- Help to organise and transport your gear around the campsite
- Help protect your gear from the elements when transferred between the tent and the car
- Reduce the number of items to unload if you should need to access the spare tyre via the boot / trunk
- Be useful for gear storage at home
15: Use tie down points
Use any tie down points or luggage points your car might have to secure your items to reduce the chance they will move around in transit.
16: Clear the rear view
Keep part of the rear view clear if possible for the benefit of the driver. In packing the car, try to maintain a clear space through the centre of the rear cargo area to the back of the car.
As far as we know, blocking the driver’s rear view through to the back window with gear is not illegal if you have both left and right side rear vision mirrors in place, but it’s definitely something you should check with your local laws.
17: Take Photos
Take a few photos of your car boot / trunk in stages as you pack it as a reminder for the future.
Tips for transporting gear on the car roof
18: Mind load limits
Keep within the load limits of your car roof and roof racks for safety reasons and to avoid damaging your car.
19: Minimise roof load where possible
Minimise as much as possible the weight of your roof load. Storing heavy loads on your car roof alters the centre of gravity, performance and handling of your car, which you will need to pay particular attention to when you are driving, especially if you already have a high set car.
Store lightweight but bulky items on the roof where possible and reserve the rear cargo area for the heavier gear.
20: Know your weightlifting limits
Physically lifting heavy weights up to the height of your roof racks can really strain your back, even with the assistance of a separate stool, or accessories such as side steps or a roof access ladder fitted to your vehicle. Ensure that any individual item can be comfortably lifted to the height of your particular vehicle.
21: Balance your load
Balance your load so that it is spread and weighted evenly and is not sitting too far forward or too far back on the racks. To reduce the amount of drag the item will have on your car, you should place it no further forward than the beginning of the car roof.
22: Properly secure your load
Properly secure the load to your car roof so that, even in the event of a sudden stop, your items won't become loose, fall from your car and pose a serious risk to you and others on the road.
You should use suitable restraint equipment or straps that are rated appropriately for that load, and regularly check to see if your load has become loose or dislodged during your road trip, including after the first 10 or so kilometres and at each stop.
Elastic (bungee) cords are not recommended because the elasticity could stretch and loosen your load. Similarly, rope is not recommended because it is prone to slippage and doesn't have an official load rating
If possible, you should also get a second person to double check the fastenings before you leave.
23: Pay attention to height restricted areas
Although anything we suggest shouldn’t increase the height of your car by more than 40 cm above the roof rack, there may be low set structures such as garages, internal car parks and tree limbs.
To avoid accidents and damage to your car and the external structures, placing a sticker on your steering wheel denoting the height of your load will act as a reminder as you are driving.
24: Consider reducing your load limit for off-road conditions.
According to carsales.com.au in their article, you should discount your load limit by 1.5 to allow for the associated additional downward pressure of the gear on the roof when driving off-road. For example, if your roof load limit is 75 kg, your load should not exceed 50 kg (ie: 75 / 1.5).
25: And last but not least, drive safely!
There are inherent risks associated with driving a fully loaded car, no matter how considerate you have been to pack the car safely and within its legal limits.
A fully laden car will handle differently, require a longer distance to come to a stop, and in an accident will be a much greater risk to the safety of you and others on the road than an empty one.
No matter how late or rushed you feel you are, drive extra carefully and cautiously, even below the specified speed limit. As the saying goes, it's better to be safe than sorry.
Do you want to keep reading?
Our members only area, The Campus, is absolutely packed with all you need to know about packing and loading your car for camping. including:
- Packing your car for camping
- Loading the rear cargo area
- Securing gear to the roof racks
We also have tips and advice on packing for camping, how to set up and pack up your campsite, downloadable and editable packing and preparing for camping checklists, and lots more.