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Packing the Car for a Road Trip

After trial and error (with emphasis on error) on many road trips, we finally have a method that seems to work. We’ll break down what gear you need, what goes in the car and where to put stuff to maximize accessibility. This is an actual photo of what we packed in a mini van for a ski trip, not including another snowboard, 4 pairs of skis and poles!


Unless, you have only a couple of people and a really large car, I would highly recommend a roof rack for your car. This you will fill with everything you need for your final destination. The goal is to not need to open it on stops if possible and to eliminate extra stuff from being in the car.

We have had two different styles and both worked well. We started with the Sherpak soft-sided roof rack. The reason we went with this one was that we had zero storage space in our garage and we could fold it up and store it in the basement. The benefit of it was the ability to shove things and reshape it to fit. The major down side was that the zipper was harder to shut in icy weather due to a combination of the stiffer material of the Sherpak and cold fingers. We used this rack until we started doing regular ski trips. We found it to be extremely durable, inexpensive, and saved us tons of space in the car. Click here to learn more about the roof racks that worked best for us.

At that point we upgraded to a Thule hard top roof rack. It goes on and off the car super easily and holds a lot of stuff! We bought the biggest they make and have eliminated the unwanted storing of all of the gear at our feet since having it. It has a lock on it which is great for overnight stops. When not in use we store it on top of some shelves in our garage. It is light enough that two of us can lift it off and put it on easily.

In addition to this we have a Thule bike rack with a ski attachment on it. The "ski attachment" literally clips into the bike rack as if it were a bike and holds all our skis and snowboards. This is perfect for a weekend trip somewhere where you want either bikes or skis and is also perfect for schlepping to the ski hill for a day trip. For a long ski trip, we use both this and the roof rack because clothes, helmets, boots and outerwear fill the roof rack.


If we are going to have an overnight stop we pack one duffle bag with everyone's pj’s, toiletries, swimsuit and a change of clothes. This is in the back of the car so we do not need to access the roof rack at our stop. Next to this we have food to get us through a couple days.

Each person brings a small “carry on” bag filled with everything they want for their car trip. This stays next to the person who packed it so there is motivation to not bring an excessive amount. The kids also bring a pillow which they keep next to them as well.

We try to free up as much inside space as possible.

Within reach of the front seat passenger, we have a cooler with a couple snacks and one full meal. The positioning of this is key to not need to stop when people are hungry. Also, close to the front passenger is a stack of cd’s (well now we just make sure everything is loaded on our phones), a couple surprises like a new game, or some licorice, napkins, Kleenexes and band aids.

Managing the accumulation of trash on the road trip is critical to keeping the car clean (or as clean as it can be with many people packed in a small space for hours on end) and more manageable. Each row of the car has a garbage bag and is charge of all of their trash the entire road trip. At each gas stop, the bags are emptied which in theory keeps the car from being totally trashed in a day!

We work hard to minimize stops, including the "I'm hungry" and "I'm thirsty" stops. We make sure everyone has an easily accessible water bottles and then two gallons of water in a convenient place available for refilling. Although it would make sense to not let people drink on a road trip (avoid excessive bathroom stops), it doesn’t work if you are going to higher altitudes so we encourage it. We refill all the bottles at every gas stop so having the gallon jugs handy saves tons of time, and money.


Use the random spaces in your car to your advantage. Our mini van used to have space under the back row of seats that could hold two 12X12 craft bins. In one we kept our portable cd players and in the other the kids brought Rainbow Loom supplies. Both of these provided hours of entertainment and were easy to grab when they wanted them but out of the way when they didn’t. We realized that the glove compartment of a rental car we had in Europe acted like a cooler when we were driving. It literally kept things ice cold! Each morning we placed our lunch items in there and they were nice and cool when we needed them. Be creative and remember the goal is to not have stuff laying around in the car.

As with personal packing, pack light. There is nothing worse than taking up space for something you never use or having things falling out of the back when you open it up. This will make your travels easier and less stressful, which is a goal for so many people I know.

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