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Packing for twenty days on the road in a Toyota Rav-4 requires some serious planning. The Rav-4 always has more than enough storage space around town. The monthly Costco haul? No problem. Black Friday shopping? Piece of cake. But packing enough clothing, footwear, food, and hiking equipment for 20 days away from home? The Rav-4’s size suddenly became a liability.

Not only did the trunk space suddenly seem small, but it was all we had to use. We opted against the car-top carrier in favor of better gas mileage, noise reduction, and appearing incognito by not announcing ourselves as tourists from a mile away. And while the trunk area could potentially be stacked to the ceiling, we wanted everything to fit under the closed cover both for safety (hiding all of our stuff) and for driver visibility so the back window was completely usable during the thousands of miles of interstate driving.

Our storage restrictions meant that we had to pack as minimally as possible. We did some things right and will definitely do some things differently next time. We’re still not experts on road trip packing, but have a few tips to share from our experience.

“Will It Fit?” Trunk Trial

A month before our departure date, I gathered our cooler, suitcase, and several bags and tubs of varying shapes and sizes to do a trial run. Like a puzzle, I figured out the best combination of bags and containers to maximize the trunk space. Once we knew which containers would fit, we could start planning what would go in each one.

What We Packed in the Trunk

So, here’s everything we packed in the trunk for the trip. Next week I’ll share our passenger compartment packing plan and activities we kept in the car for the long driving days.

Cooler / Our cooler held the refrigerated food, obviously. This included various snacks and breakfast foods, but mostly spare room for dinners we picked up along the way. We stopped at several Whole Foods markets over the three weeks, buying dinners from the takeaway area that weren’t eaten until later in the day or the next so half the cooler was saved for these meals.

Lesson Learned … This new cooler which we bought specifically for the trip ended up being too big and difficult to access. The trunk cover bar prevented the lid from opening in place so we had to completely remove the cooler from the trunk whenever we needed to remove anything from it. This was quite a hassle when we needed to access food from the cooler nearly every day for lunch on the road. It only came close to capacity with a fresh load of grocery dinners, so we would definitely use a smaller cooler next time for the frequently-accessed items and rethink dinner storage.

Plastic tub for food / A large storage tub held all of our food supply aside from the current day’s snacks which were up in the center console of the front seat. We packed snacks, bananas and breakfast food, peanut butter and other lunch fixings, and additional food supplies including gallon ziplock bag (there’s always a need for those!) and dish soap. Between the tub and the cooler, nearly half of the trunk space was consumed by food. Our priorities are pretty obvious!

Lesson Learned … Like the cooler, the tub was difficult to access. While we had plans each night to just take the bare necessities into the hotel room, we often found ourselves completely unloading the trunk in the parking lot every night just to access everything we needed. I’m still not sure what the solution will be (a side-access tub would be nice!), but we definitely need a better food packing strategy before the next road trip.

Breakfast bag / Uh, more food-related storage! We ate breakfast in our room every morning, so we had a dedicated bag with some bowls, utensils, and one day’s worth of dry breakfast food from the storage tub that we brought into the hotel room every night since the cooler and tub remained in the car.

Bread container / This bread container deserves its own special mention. We have two small boys who basically survive on carbohydrates. This plastic bread container kept the bread fresh and loaf-shaped! Knowing how the rest of trunk bags got thrown around, a loaf of soft bread wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Mom’s Suitcase and Toiletry Bag / The boys’ clothing and personal hygiene products were all stored in my bags. I packed all our clothing in labeled gallon ziplock bags to compress the air out and easily find clothing for the day. Temperatures changed drastically day to day so it was important to be able to easily find exactly the right type of clothing. A separate toiletry bag stored all of those essentials as well as phone and camera battery chargers.

Dad’s duffel bag / Jeff always packs his own clothing and supplies and is extremely minimal. He survived the entire trip on only 3-4 outfits that he washed in hotel rooms along the way and personal supplies that all fit in a small duffel bag.

Hiking backpacks / We all carry our own backpacks so four backpacks were added to the packing puzzle.

Hiking boot bag / A separate bag held all of our hiking boots so that we could easily grab one bag from the trunk the night before a hike or leave it in the car overnight if not.

Coats and winter accessories / We brought lightweight fleece coats for all, expecting to layer more clothing if the mercury dipped lower. While afternoon temperatures varied, almost every morning was cool so we wore these almost every day and just threw them on top of the trunk cover later in the day. Hats and gloves easily fit in small storage space molded into the trunk.

Lesson Learned … ALWAYS plan for any weather! We checked weather forecasts before leaving, but those can change drastically over the course of a long trip. One week in, our day at Sequoia National Park ended up being 20 degrees colder than forecasted. The day would have been much more enjoyable for all with heavier coats so we will always bring them from now on.

Miscellaneous / The rest of the trunk was filled with miscellaneous items: several gallons of water, extra oil and other car maintenance supplies, a few towels in case of spills or rain, and canvas shopping bags. Not only did we use the bags for grocery shopping as we had planned, but they came in very handy for Jasper’s growing herd of stuffed animals that he collected during the trip and insisted on bringing into hotel rooms every night. We learned that, packing several empty bags is always a good idea. You never know what else you’re going to need to carry along the way!

Aside from the food container access issues, our packing system worked quite well. Of course, everything didn’t stay so perfectly tessellated for long, but it all worked the best it could within the limitations of the trunk access.

Next week: Packing the cabin and in-flight entertainment