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Road Trip Packing Hacks: Fitting Everything in a Small Car

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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. In my opinion, it’s one of the best road trip cars out there! 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, so we thought we’d share some of our favorite tips for how to pack a car for a road trip.

Our experiences backpacking have really helped us learn to pack only the bare necessities for long road trips in a small car. 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 road trip in a small car? Well, that depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing, but I do have a few tips to share based on our own experiences packing a small car for a big trip.

Benefits of Traveling in a Small Car

Small cars are easy and fun to drive!

There are obvious benefits to traveling in both a small and large car, so before you plan your road trip, decide what the most important factors are. For us, gas mileage and maneuverability are both very high on the list, and we’ve always been very comfortable traveling in a small car. Here are some of the benefits to small-car travel that you should consider before your next road trip.

  • Small cars get the best gas mileage. Our little Pontiac Vibe gets 33 miles per gallon, which is very reasonable. It allows us to stay on the road longer without spending a fortune.
  • Small cars are easier to park. Driving a small car allows you to fit in tight spots that would be tricky for a larger car, truck, or van. We find this very useful when visiting national parks during the busy season. Also, if you are not a pro at parallel parking, driving a small car makes it so much easier!
  • Small cars are easier to drive. I love the maneuverability of small cars, especially when driving in the city. They handle turns better, and are great for driving on narrow city streets.
  • Small cars are easier and more affordable to maintain and insure. Saving money for your next road trip just got a little easier.

How to Pack for a Road Trip in a Small Car

Our car is great for winter travel too!

Obviously, when you’re packing a small car for a long road trip, you don’t want to fill it with stuff you won’t use. Packing will require a bit of extra planning, but it will be so worth it!

Start by thinking about the season you’ll be traveling in, as well as how long you’ll be gone, and what you plan to do on your trip. Road tripping with kids and/or dogs will take extra consideration, of course. Our family is big on outdoor adventures, and we mainly travel in the summer, so our packing list usually reflects that.

Next, create a packing list, starting with supplies that your family can’t live without (clothes, food, and shelter), and moving on to items that may make your road 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.

Do you still have more stuff than will fit in your car? Invest in a car-top cargo carrier for your extra gear. Hard shells are way more durable than soft ones, even though they are more expensive. We got ours used, and can’t imagine traveling without it! We use the cargo carrier to hold all of our bedding, backpacks, tents, and souvenirs, while our trunk stores the food, cooking supplies, and clothing.

Packing a Small Car for a Camping Road Trip

This basic packing list is for a months-long, cross-country road trip in a small car. It’s the road trip packing list that we used for a family of four on our last big summer trip. To save money, and because we love being outdoors, we planned to cook almost every meal outside and camp every night of the trip. Your packing list will be much different if you are driving from hotel to hotel and eating in restaurants.

Here’s what we recommend for cramming all of your stuff into a small car and hitting the road:

  • Clothes – For each person, we pack underwear and socks for one week, a few pairs of shorts and t-shirts, one bathing suit, one pair of pants, long underwear top and bottom, fleece pants, fleece pullover, windbreaker/raincoat, wool cap, gloves, hiking boots, sandals, and one dress (for me). Everyone’s clothing stash goes into a compression sack, which means you don’t want to pack clothes that you will have to iron. We bring another compression sack for communal dirty laundry. The bags of clothes live in the trunk for easy access.
  • 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 in case we decide to do some backpacking, headlamps, a lantern, and rope for a clothesline, Crazy Creek camp chairs (because they pack flat), and mosquito head-nets. Most of this camping gear lives in the cargo carrier, or as we like to say – “upstairs.”
  • 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 a big plastic tub). In the duffel bag, 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 dishcloths, a tablecloth, matches, and propane. You can read our full packing list for our camp kitchen if you’re interested.
  • The Fridge – Our little cooler usually contains our dairy products and vegetables, plus the snacks for the 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 so they can access snacks while we’re on the road.
  • 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 road trip first aid kit if you’re interested.
  • Fun stuff – If there’s room, we pack toys and instruments, including a travel guitar, harmonica, various books and field guides, binoculars, an iPad with a keyboard for blogging, smartphones, a camera, colored pencils and journals, a backpacking hammock, Frisbee, football, swim goggles, card games, and dice.
  • Dog stuff – We did not have room for our dog on this particular road trip, but he does travel with us fairly often. Want to know what we pack for traveling with our pups? Check out: Does your Dog Deserve a Road Trip?

The thing about packing for a road trip is the list is pretty much the same whether you’re traveling for a long weekend or the whole summer. Get into the habit of packing light, and you’ll love traveling across the country in a compact car.

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.

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Our Favorite Resources for Road Trips and Outdoor Adventures

These are the resources we use for planning road trips, saving money while traveling, and shopping for outdoor gear. 

Car Rentals: While we use our own car most often for road trips, we also enjoy flying into major airports and then renting a car for more regional road trips. We use Kayak to compare prices and find deals from dozens of car rental agencies at once. 

Flights: We use Kayak or Skyscanner to search out flight deals. Money-saving tip: If you find yourself using the same airline over and over again (we are huge Southwest fans), consider joining their loyalty program and getting an airline credit card. With our Southwest Rewards Visa, we earn a few free flights each year. 

Hotels: When it comes to lodging, we seek out small boutique hotels or quirky roadside motels. First, we search for hotels on TripAdvisor so we can read reviews from other travelers. Then, we use Booking.com to make reservations (they have the best prices, plus a flexible cancelation policy).

Camping: Camping is one of our favorite things to do on long road trips. It allows us to explore the outdoors, cook our own food, and save money. We use They Dyrt Pro to find campsites and read reviews before booking on Recreation.gov or state park websites. 

Glamping and Vacation Rentals: For weekend getaways and shorter vacations, we love glamping (check out our glamping resource guide). We book glamping properties through Tentrr, Hipcamp, and Airbnb. For cabins and vacation rentals, we like to use VRBO (they have fewer fees and a better cancelation policy than Airbnb).

Guides and Maps: If we are visiting a new region, we usually invest in a Moon Travel Guide for the area. We pass them on to friends and family after our trip.  If we are planning on hiking, we also purchase a Falcon guide in the Best Easy Day Hikes series.

Outdoor Gear: We are REI Co-Op members. It cost us $20 for a lifetime membership, but we get a yearly dividend based on our purchases, plus great deals and coupons throughout the year. REI also has a great return policy.

Check out our complete guide for planning a road trip on a budget

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