Car Camping Packing Gone Bad


best-way-to-pack-for-car-campingThis year our family set out for a month long camping adventure to Idaho in our full size Ford E150 Club Wagon Van.  I explained to my wife and kids that even though we have a full size van, we still needed  to keep our gear to a minimum.  In other words, we were supposed to pack light.

We enjoy rolling into our destination and not having to set up camp.  Our van, theoretically, is a campsite on wheels.  Last year, because we were so under packed, we were able to roll in anywhere and go to sleep without having to shuffle gear around the van.  This year, setting up camp was horrendous because of the amount of extra stuff we packed.  Each night and morning, we moved piles from one place to another.

I spent a lot of time planning and building 2 new folding platform beds to give us more storage space under the beds.  My wife took full advantage of all the storage space on top of the beds by piling gear there.    With the exception of our bags of luggage and sleeping gear, the tops of the beds were off limits.  It was a like a circus act every evening and morning to move things off the beds and properly store the items in any available space.   I think my wife has a phobia of flat spaces.  She cannot stand to see any flat space unoccupied.

I had everything neatly packed and organized the night before we left.  The extra bed in the front of the van had nothing packed on top except for the foam pad that we sleep on.  I was very proud of the set up.  I had visions of my cool set up on the cover travel magazines.  I dreamed of camping websites interviewing me for my expertise in packing.  Fame and fortune were certain!

We were going to roll out of bed early the morning and leave immediately leave after I made my morning coffee.   My wife and kids had a few "extra items" to pack that took us over an hour to load up in the morning.  By the time we finished adding what seemed like a dozen bags and boxes, our van was busting at the seams.  We had bags of hard and soft cover books.  A DVD player for the kids.  My oldest son had an "extra" bag for his stuff.  The kids packed 7 of everything for clothing.  Extra shoes and sandals were jammed under the seats.  I brought along 5 soft cover novels that I knew I would never get around to reading.  It was a mess.   It took us over 3 hours to leave our home.

I bought the kids 2 inflatable rafts.  I carried an extra Coleman dual fuel camping lantern in addition to my LED lantern.  We brought along a heavy wood burning stove.   Two laptops were stowed away on top of the forbidden front platform bed.

My wife insisted on an extra Coleman 5 day cooler for snacks.  We had 2 forty liter storage bins filled with food.   She loves to  cook.   Often, we eat better on camping trips than we do at home. We could leave half the stuff at home and still have enough food to eat like royalty.   We all enjoy her cooking, and should not cannot complain. However, this year, because we have spent so much time packing and shuffling our gear, she has hardly had enough time to cook her famous gourmet meals.  The extra cooler sits with a block of ice with some snacks.  It is nice to have, but hardly worth the extra space.

I like to keep my car in top top running shape. I brought along 2 extra tool boxes that included a multimeter, hack saw, pressure gauges. dozen of wrenches, pipe wrenches, clamps, etc.  I never bothered to take out 80% of the tools that I could not use.

I bought a porta-pottie that has never left the box that it was packed in.  I planned on setting the porta-pottie up in the front next to the "dog house" engine cover in the front of the van.  My wife quickly claimed this real estate space with books and all kinds of other things.  My plan was to stealth camp  in Walmart parking lots when needed if we arrived late at night.  You never want to pee in public and mess up the place.  Porta potties can be used discreetly and easily cleaned and dumped the next morning.  We did not have enough room in our van to use it at night.

I was grumbling the entire first week about packing and repacking our stuff.  My wife reminded me that we would just have to live with it.  I am a minimalist and my wife likes her stuff.  I have to admit, I enjoy all the stuff she brings but hardly would miss any of it with the exception of the the cast iron griddle that I forbid her for years to bring.

My advice is-if only I would listen to it, is to take about half as much camping gear as you think that you will need.  Outside of sleeping and eating, you really do not need a bunch of junk for a successful camping trip.    We had piles of stuff that we either did not use or hardly used.

I have an entire kit the size of shoe box for making coffee.  I am so obsessed with coffee that I bring along green coffee beans and a small hot air popper to roast my coffee beans.  I have a manual coffee mill to grind my beans to perfection.  Next year, I will roast enough coffee at home to last least a month.

With all of this said, I think our trip could be twice as enjoyable with half the stuff.  Maybe I should remove all the power outlets and adapters from our vehicle.  I think our  electronic gadgets created more mess than anything.

Has this trip been fun?  Absolutely.  My wife has the packing dialed down a science.  We can deploy the bed and set up our camp in 15 minutes.  Packing up in the morning takes more or less the same amount of time.  Even if we had less stuff, getting the kids going in the morning is never fast.   Back home, it's an ordeal to get the kids going, eat breakfast and start their home schooling.  Usually after 3 hours, my wife is screaming at the boys who are still working on their breakfast dishes.  On our camping trip, we are working on eating lunch by 11 AM!

Here is some advice to myself and other campers-Go light and minimalist on family camping trips.  If you really need something and did not pack it, you can always buy it on the road at either a thrift store or Walmart.


  1. Hehehe………coffee; Stuff-acation. Familiar topics on my end too.
    Every year someone packs an awful lot of electronic games/gizmos and every night before we leave I unpack them with the same tired excuse: No power.
    It’s catching up with me now though and some sort of compromise is wanted. My “Princess” needs to take 15 books on our long camping trip and a Kindle would save A LOT of space. Methinks it’s time to invest in a solar energy system. Which prolly won’t solve the instant hot beverage problem but but camping near a Dunkin Donuts is soooooooo NE coast ish-ish:D;).

  2. Great reminder to all of us!

    I feel your pain. I recently bought a Chevy Conversion Van for road trips, camping at the beach, Vespa scooter events. I, like your wife, started out wanting all my toys and comforts. Super quick I realized what a pain on the back, and on the brain, it was to load, unload, move stuff again and again! This past week I finally rented a storage unit at a local storage place for all camping stuff. My van is now cleaned out and awaits my going to the storage place and carefully selecting ~the right~ stuff for any planned camping trip. Smartest move I made! Now I can wisely pick and choose what items are ~must haves~ and then add in a few ~nice to take along~ items…small fan, laptop, a few DVDs incase it rains. I take two camp stoves…a Trangia Stormcooker Cook set ~T-27~ and a basic 2 burner Coleman Propane Camp Stove. The Trangia is my back-up stove and it only measures 7″ x 7″. Other than bedding items, I pack my YETI 35, a small extra cooler for drinks/snacks, luggage, a folding camp chair w/side tray, the the Thetford Porta-Potti and very little else! Plenty of room, sleep well, very organized = Super Happy 🙂

    BTW, if you haven’t taken your Van to the Drive-In Movie, DO IT! It is a super fun evening and much more fun than being in a traditional car or truck! The kids will love it 🙂

    • We have wanted to go to a drive in movie and we always seem to miss the starting time or cannot find a good movie. Instead, we watch movies on our laptops and enjoy the flicks.

  3. …forgot, I do take my 1800 watts power source. It is a free-standing unit. I never use the on-board power inverter. With careful use, it lasts all weekend with power to spare.


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