Seattle's Child

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pack a small car for camping

What you don't see in this photo is the canvas roof carrier. (Photos by Ellie White)

How to pack a small car for a camping trip — with kids

You don't need a huge vehicle. You do need to plan and think creatively.

You’re itching to get your family out on a camping trip, but you haven’t yet made that jump to a minivan or SUV (or you never plan to). You wonder: Is it possible to go family car camping in a small vehicle? After all, kids “stuff” can seem just endless sometimes. Can you possibly fit what you need for a successful trip?

Chances are, you can!

With some planning and creativity — and, I must admit, patience and stellar spatial skills (in our family, this is 100% my husband) — you can pack up your family and begin making memories in the great outdoors regardless of the size of your vehicle.

How to pack a small car for camping (with kids). Tips from people who have done it:

Create extra space

As new parents, we were fortunate enough to be a part of a parenting group filled with families willing and eager to try camping with our 3- to 6-month-old babies. We decided to be brave as well, and take our twins out into the forest on a group trip.

Bottles, carriers, car seats, diapers, clothes: We had a lot to fit into our Subaru Impreza for our family of four. We had never had a roof storage space before, but realized that we could really use some additional space outside of the car. Getting a hard plastic carrier, though, seemed like a bigger investment than I wanted to make at the time.

I searched around, and found a canvas roof carrier on Craigslist, which was much cheaper than a hard plastic carrier. We (again, 100% my husband) simply strap the bag to the roof side rails, and voila, we have extra, as-needed storage space on top of the car.

Create extra-extra space

As our twins have gotten older, we’ve needed to add even more items to our packing list — booster chairs, hiking backpacks, travel cribs — and our canvas roof carrier was maxed out.

With a huge container of bungee cords from previous moving and house projects, my husband decided to strap items on top of our car, around the canvas bag. Sure, we may look a little helter-skelter driving down the road with items strapped to our car, but this extra space is sometimes key to packing everything we want for a trip.

Important note: Be very careful about this. Unsecured loads are dangerous and illegal. If you can’t safely transport something atop your vehicle, don’t do it.


Coordinate with friends

When camping with a group, coordinate before you go because there are some camping items that can be easily shared. How many camp stoves does your group need? Which family will bring a canopy in case it rains? Would one or two large cooking pots be enough for all of the meals? What sort of dish-washing station would work for the whole group?
Avoid bringing extra items by planning ahead (though, in my experience, everyone brings their own coffee system!). This will save precious cargo space, and perhaps allow the group to bring a wider variety of items (such as beach toys, extra folding tables, inflatable rafts) than if everyone brought the basics.

Stuff sacks

When going car camping (versus backpacking), you have much more space for packing. After all, you’re not trying to condense everything you need into one backpack.
However, when packing a small car, you may consider using products used for backpacking in order to fit more items into your car.

Pre-kids, we mostly went backpacking instead of car camping. In order to fit more items into our backpack, we used stuff sacks, which are bags that compress soft items, such as sleeping bags or clothes.

Now, instead of filling stuff sacks for backpacking trips, we fill them with clothes and sleeping bags and put them in our car. This saves us a significant amount of space.

Think creatively when you pack a small car for camping

After packing for many camping trips, my husband found a better way to pack our travel cribs. Travel cribs usually pack up into a long rectangle shape, enclosed by the solid piece that makes up the bottom of the crib. He realized that if he took off the outside piece, he could more easily thread bungee cords through the crib legs. Unconventional? Yes. More efficient? Yes.

Look at what you want to bring on your trip. Could you pack things a bit differently to create more space? Perhaps you could take the tent out of its bag, pack the booster seat in pieces, or pack some cooking items in the nooks and crannies of your car rather than keeping everything in a large bin.

Maybe your car will look different from other cars, but who cares? If you’re able to achieve your goal of getting what you need out to your campsite, that’s all that matters.

Borrow or rent something bigger:

You may reach a point where you just need more space. In that case, consider borrowing or renting a car (we did this for one trip). You don’t need to buy a new car to go camping: Sometimes you just need to figure out how to use one temporarily.

To our fellow non-SUV and minivan camping families, happy adventuring this summer! May you fill all that you need into your car as you create memories with your little ones.

First published June 2022


More on camping in Seattle’s Child:

Camping with toddlers: Tips for planning, packing and having fun

Book these popular Washington State Park campsites soon

About the Author

Ellie White

Ellie had the privilege of growing up in our beautiful Pacific Northwest. She currently lives in the Green Lake neighborhood with her husband and twin toddlers.