hacks, organization, road trips, Travel Tips

Packing a Small Car for a Big Trip

Packing a small car for a big trip

packing for a long road tirp - affiliate disclosure statement

We have a really small car!  As passionate road-trippers, we’ve been known to live out of our little Pontiac Vibe for weeks, even months on end. We choose to travel in a tiny car for many reasons -maneuverability, great gas mileage, and easy upkeep, just to name a few. And we’ve become experts at packing light.

Our experiences backpacking have really helped us learn to pack only the bare necessities for long road trips. 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. So what do you have to pack for a long-distance road trip? 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 in a small car

Before you Begin Packing

  • Think about the season you are traveling, how long you will be gone, and what you want to do on your trip. We are pretty big on outdoor adventures, and we mainly travel in the summer, so our packing list usually reflects that.
  • Create a packing list, starting with supplies that you can’t live without (clothes, food, and shelter), and moving on to items that will make your 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.
  • If you truly think you will have more stuff than will fit in your car, consider buying, renting, or borrowing a car-top cargo carrier for extra supplies. I Even though ours isn’t the most beautiful, I don’t think we could live without it. We use our cargo carrier to hold all of our bedding, backpacks, tents, and souvenirs, while the trunk is for food, cooking supplies, and clothing.

Packing for a Long Road Trip

packing for a long road trip in a small car

This packing list is for a months-long, cross-country car trip in the summer for a family who cooks every meal and spends every night camping. In other words, this is our packing list. Yours might be different, but I do find that for us, the basics are always the same.

  • Clothes – For each person – 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 dirty laundry.
  • 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, headlamps, a lantern, and rope for a clothesline, Crazy Creek camp chairs (they pack flat), and mosquito head-nets.
  • 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 kitchen, 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.
  • 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. travel guitar, harmonica, various books and field guides, binoculars, an iPad with a keyboard, swartphones, camera, colored pencils and journals, backpacking hammock, Frisbee, football, swim goggles, card games, and dice.

Occasionally we get bored with our clothes or books and we have stop at a used book or clothing store to trade them out. We don’t usually buy souvenirs, but we do collect stickers for our cargo box. Now every time I look at the box, I want to hit the road again.

What are your must-have necessities for long road trips? Have you ever traveled across the country in a really small car. It’s an adventure, that’s for sure.

Don't let a small car keep you from the road trip of your dreams. Here are some tried and true tips for packing for a long road trip in a small vehicle. You can do it!




  1. Great tips! On my last road trip down to New Orleans, we had to learn to pack super light. I always lay out all of my clothes that I think I need a few days before the trip and then I go through them again the night before and ask myself do I REALLY need this? By going through my clothes a few times I can really knock down the amount of baggage I need

    • On our very first road trip, I was amazed at how many clothes we brought. We ended up sending most of it home. Now it’s the food that takes up the most space. Thanks for commenting, Craig. I enjoyed reading your blog.

  2. Kelly

    I was quite excited to see that you travel with a Pontiac Vibe! I love mine for trips. I keep about half this list packed perpetually (car repair, first aid, roadside emergency).

    • Kelly,
      We LOVE our Vibe. When were looking for a car that could handle long-distance travel. We first looked for great gas mileage, and then we looked for trunk space. We also needed to fit really tall boys in the back seat. The Vibe exceeded our expectations and it’s still going strong with 200,000 miles.

  3. Hi Tara, I am putting a first aid kit together for my granddaughter’s girl scout troop. I would like to add a few things to your list, if I may. In mine I added moleskin, since it’s very inexpensive and you can cut the sizes you need. allergy chewables for children and non drowsy formula for older children/adults, water filtration bottle, arm sling or large bandana to make one, smelling salts, neosporin, and hospital emergency contact numbers.

  4. Kevan

    When you have limited space it really makes you think about what you need and what are really luxuries. It seems backwards, but by having less you actually have more freedom and you have some great tips. I love the kitchen. Hard to get more minimalist than that.

  5. Though we do not do too many long car trips. I can very well appreciate the benefits of a small car. As you mention, manoeuvrability, economy and also parking are great advantages. I really appreciate how you optimise space and make the most out of your car.
    Sandy N Vyjay recently posted…Planning a Last Minute Honeymoon Trip to The MaldivesMy Profile

  6. Wendy

    Great advice! I am currently planning a road trip with my mini cooper, not too much space 😉 but I love it for a road trip somehow. I figured if I can do a two week holiday with a carry on, this should also work.

  7. My family and I have to use these tips on our next road trip now as we are planning to bring a small car with us!

  8. Great tips. I should really have a car repair kit but figured I wouldn’t know how to use it anyway. Still, a good idea. 😉
    melody pittman recently posted…Hollywood Margaritaville Beach Resort, FloridaMy Profile

  9. I love road trips as well, and we’ve packed over and over again. I love that when you have multiple stops, you keep packing it the same way. Great tips.

  10. Carol Colborn

    Wow, you are great road trippers! We never had a kitchen in our car. Well, because there are just two of us and we just eat at truck stops. We simply carry snacks and drinks in a cooler. And camp for the night at cheap motels.

  11. Great list! You’ve done a great job packing so many essentials into a little car – the cooking equipment surprised me the most! We do have a car repair kit for road trips, but I have to admit that that’s my partners domain. I’m useless!

  12. I simply adore road trips. A car repair kit is a must, but as a solo female traveler -driver I would need help with it 😉

  13. I don’t do a lot of road trips but this is a great list for when I start to! I’ll have to keep these tips in mind as I tend to overpack for these types of things. Really helpful article!

  14. It’s amazing how many people don’t take a first aid kit! You just never know what could go wrong so it helps to be prepared.

    I always make sure to take some sort of water filtration device as well if I’m going camping, just one of those “life straws”.
    Steve recently posted…Leesa vs Tuft and NeedleMy Profile

    • That’s a good idea, Steve. I’m adding that to our packing list – you just never know.

  15. My RV is loaded down with way more stuff than what’s on your list. Some day I will have to “downsize” and give this a try.
    Jason recently posted…Best wireless rear view camera for travel trailer or 5th wheelMy Profile

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge

Theme by Anders Norén