The Best Way to Pack a Trunk

Turns out dad was packing the trunk wrong all along.

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Every parent must face the harsh reality that your car only has so much trunk space, and it’s your job to pack it. Remember when your dad packed and repacked and packed the car once again? Turns out he was doing it all wrong. Whether you’re rolling in a minivan or loading the family into a sedan, there are best practices when it comes to making the most of the space that you have — and keeping everyone comfortable on the ride.

So as not to foster a debate we went to the expert. Tamela Rich, author of Hit the Road and road trip expert grew up in Ohio and spent summers as a kid road-tripping with her family out to California. Now, as a world-traveling mother of two, she knows what it takes to pack up the trunk for a family trip. “I’ve been doing this forever,” she says. “And practice makes perfect when it comes to knowing how to pack up a car the right way.”

1. Get your bags in order first.

Whether you want to believe it or not, packing your trunk effectively starts with correctly packing your bags. The fewer bags you have, the fewer bags you have to deal with. “To get more into your trunk, you need to be able to get more in your bags in the first place,” Rich says. “I recommend getting compression bags to store clothes inside your suitcase — my personal favorite are the Sea to Summit compression bags.”

No time to compress? Roll your clothing (that keeps it wrinkle-free and allows you to pack more than folding would), pack shoes along the edges of your suitcase, and pack socks and other small clothing items into your shoes.

2. Soft bags are superior.

What should that one bag look like? Well, probably a duffel. “It’s better to pack in soft bags than hard bags,” Rich says. “Soft bags conform to the space of your trunk and allow you to get more stuff in a small trunk space.”

Going on a multi-day road trip before reaching your final destination? Rich then recommends that you use one duffel bag shared between your family to use as an overnighter, so you don’t have to drag the bigger bags in and out of the car when you’re checking into a hotel. “Pack everyone’s meds, pajamas, and toiletries into that single duffel and use that as your overnight bag together,” she says.

3. Give everyone a bag.

Not only should everyone have just one bag to pack, they should all be the same size. “When you give kids one bag you make them decide what’s important and what’s not,” says Rich. “This allows you to have uniformity in your trunk and also keeps that one person from hauling around 3 extra bags just because they can.”

4. Remember, the last bag in is the first bag out.

When the kids are fighting over which seat they get and your partner is reminding you for the 10th time not to forget the snacks, it is so tempting to just throw the bags into the trunk haphazardly. And although this may perceptively save you time—it’s really not going to at all.

“Last in, first out is your mantra,” Rich says. “Definitely put the things you’re going to need to get to first—whether it’s an overnight bag or extra snacks—in the trunk last. Put your clothes bags and gear in first. “This strategy keeps things organized so you aren’t ripping through everything trying to get to those extra snacks or the stick of deodorant.

5. Pack like you’re playing Tetris.

“If you have a spare tire in the trunk, pack one layer of bags around it, then continue to pack around it until the tops of the bags are level with the top of the tire—then start packing layers on top of the spare,” advises Rich. This brick-laying packing method not only keeps things organized, but also maximizes the space that you have.

6. Empty the car before you get packing.

Being able to get what you need into your car means taking out everything that you don’t need. Taking a summer road trip to the canyons of Utah? Take out the ice scraper stored for winter. The cooler or umbrella or soccer practice bag that you have just lying about—take it out. Anything unnecessary goes.

7. If you don’t need it now, ship it. If you can get it there, rent it.

Ship things to yourself that you’ll need only at your final destination. “This is such a life hack that people don’t think about,” Rich says. “You can ship yourself a box of diapers or buy them once you reach your destination.” Have any camping gear or sports equipment? Rich suggests renting from an outfitter upon arrival or trusting a shipping company to get it there before your arrival. “Get rid of anything that isn’t necessary to your time in the car so that you have plenty of space of what you do need in the car.” This helps make sure you don’t sacrifice the emergency flat kit for the kayak.

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