5 Tips for Packing the Car for a Road Trip

By: Meredith Bower
road trip
Juice, fruit, music and maps will entertain your travel companions.
Noel Hendrickson/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Ah, vacation. Whether you're heading to the beach or to the mountains, and whether your trip will take two hours or two days, you'll need to do some advance planning on how to pack up the car.

Thanks to improved automobile designs and the convenience of gadgets, today's road trips are generally more enjoyable than they used to be. Would the Griswold's trip to Wallyworld in the movie "Vacation" have been as hilariously miserable with GPS to navigate, and DVD players to entertain the kids?


Where you're headed and who's going on the trip will make a difference in how you pack. Babies require more equipment, and teenagers take up more room. Both age groups will be miserable on a car trip if you're not prepared.

Before you head out of town, consider these tips for packing the car.

5: How to Organize Your Luggage

Since the capacity and storage space varies from car to car, the general rule of thumb is to put the heaviest things as far forward and as close to the floor in the cargo area as possible. The goal is to keep the center of gravity low, reduce the weight over the wheels and prevent the car from becoming top-heavy.

In a car without a trunk, lighter items stored on top of the bulkier baggage should be secured so they don't fly forward in the case of a sudden stop. And don't pile your things to the ceiling. The driver should be able to see out of the rear window. Keep essential items (diapers, coats, change of clothes) within reach, and don't forget to take advantage of spaces under the seats [source: ConsumerReports.org].


Positioning people can be just as crucial. Passengers who are prone to carsickness need to be able to see out of the front window; and seat belt laws dictate who can sit in the front seat, as well as where to place car seats. Beyond that, consider who gets along best and who needs special assistance during the car ride.

4: In Case of Emergency

Let's just assume that before you head out on a road trip, you've already taken care of the preventative maintenance tasks, including changing the oil, checking the tires, replacing fluids and making sure the "check engine" and other warning lights are not illuminated.

Despite all your planning and preparation, "stuff happens" so it's best to be prepared. An emergency car care kit has the basics for addressing roadside emergencies, and many people find their cell phone and an auto club membership to be equally important. Don't forget your cell phone charger. (And by the way, your auto club membership can also get you discounts at hotels and attractions, and is useful for maps and trip planning.)


For those other accidents -- the ones that involve bodily fluids -- it never hurts to have a few plastic bags, a roll of paper towels, extra water and air freshener in the car.

The Boy Scouts Have it Right: Always be Prepared

You never know what you'll need and when, so experts recommend packing the basics in a roadside emergency kit, including:

  • First-aid kit
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Warning light, hazard triangles or flares
  • Tire gauge
  • Flashlight
  • Jumper cables
  • Auto club membership card

[source: ConsumerReports.org]

3: Snacks and Meals

road trip
Pack pillows, games and snacks to keep your kids comfortable and happy.
Noel Hendrickson/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

When the kids say they're hungry or thirsty, it's often code for "I'm bored." Be prepared with a collapsible cooler of healthy treats. That'll prevent you from making a pit stop for high-priced, salty or sugary snacks.

Bite size pieces of fruit, snack size bags of pretzels, animal crackers, and trail mix are nutritious and manageable choices. Choose bottled water and juice bags with straws for quenching thirst and reducing the chance of spills or dribbles. If you freeze the drinks in advance, they can help keep other beverages and food in the cooler chilly, and a melting drink takes longer to consume.


To avoid the question of where to stop and eat along the road, pack a picnic lunch. A meal prepared at home will be made just the way each person likes it, and a picnic spot, especially one with a playground, allows everyone to stretch and burn off steam before getting back on the road.

2: Gadgets for the Road

The key to a successful road trip is to keep everyone entertained, especially when kids are involved. The days of singing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" to keep everyone alert are over. Many minivans and SUVs come with built-in DVD players. But if yours doesn't, you can buy one with two monitors that attach to the headrests. And don't forget to pack the movies.

Handheld electronic games are also useful for passing the time, as are books on CD. If you're tight on space, consider loading up an iPad with movies, books and games. Chances are everyone will want to get their hands on this versatile gadget, which even has maps among its many apps.


1: Road Trip Games

Despite the DVDs, handheld games, music and snacks, it always feels like it takes forever to get there. When your passengers start to get antsy, it's the perfect time to pull out those games and activities that only work on a road trip, like the license plate game where players create words with the letters on a license plate. Depending on their age, your audience, who at first may be reluctant to participate, will probably join in on the fun of games like "I Spy," "20 Questions," and "The Picnic Game," which requires players to name in alphabetical order what they will bring on a picnic [source: Tellem]. The good news is that these engaging games don't take up valuable space in the car. They just require enthusiasm, imagination and brain power.

When the inevitable question "When are we going to get there?" arises, point to the GPS or hand out a map, so passengers can follow the route and answer that question for themselves.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Schaefer, David. "Five Tips for Choosing a Car Top Carrier." Roadtrip America. June 26, 2006. (May 20, 2010)http://www.roadtripamerica.com/Equipment/How-To-Choose-Car-Carriers.htm
  • Sullivan, Mark. "7 Great Costal Drives." Budget Travel. Sept. 21, 2009. (May 21, 2010).http://www.budgettravel.com/bt-dyn/content/article/2009/09/17/AR2009091703030.html
  • Tellem, Tori and Hardin, Dave. "Top 10 Road Trip Games, How To Survive Your Summer Vacation." Edmunds.com. 1995-2009. (May 20, 2010)http://www.edmunds.com/reviews/list/top10/121613/article.html
  • "How to safely pack your car for a road trip" Cars Blog. Consumer Reports.org. Aug. 30, 2007. (May 20, 2010)http://blogs.consumerreports.org/cars/2007/08/car-packing.html
  • "Roadside emergency kit: What to carry with you." ConsumerReports.org. April 2010. (May 20, 2010).http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/cars/tires-auto-parts/auto-parts/roadside-emergency-kit-what-to-carry-with-you-1105/overview/index.htm