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How to pack your car for camping

Adventures

PACKING YOUR CAR or four-wheel drive for a camping trip is a lot different to just throwing the groceries in the back for a short trip home from the shops. On an extended journey you’ll need a fridge or an ice box to keep food cold and fresh, and you’ll have clothes and bedding that you’ll need to keep dry and dust free. Then there are heavy items such as water, shovel, tools and other camping gear, all of which need to be properly secured so they don’t move around while you’re driving, especially in the event of an accident.

Whether you drive a sedan, hatchback, wagon, SUV or fully fledged off-roader, there are plenty of storage options available that will keep your gear where it’s meant to be, as well as improve access to said gear, making life on the road (or off it) more convenient and a lot more fun.

Sedans and hatches

A sedan or hatchback isn’t the ideal conveyance for those who want to head off on a camping trip, but that doesn’t exclude drivers of the humble ‘car’ from getting away for an outdoor adventure. Carefully packed, you can fit a surprising amount of gear into the boot of a car, and larger items can always be thrown up on the roof with a decent set of roof racks and a roof basket or roof pod.

There are a number of roof rack manufacturers that make gear suited to specific vehicle makes and models such as Yakima, Rola and Thule. Each have a variety of racks and storage systems to suit specific requirements, and Yakima also offers a roof bag called the Cargopak that can be fitted to vehicles without racks. It features a non-abrasive base to prevent it scratching your vehicle’s paint, but dusty conditions could seriously test its abilities in this regard.

With a set of racks you can carry all sorts of objects of different sizes, no matter what car you drive, and a roof basket adds versatility in that it allows you to easily carry and secure luggage, spare tyres, jerry cans, shovels and all manner of items that won’t fit (or you don’t want) inside the car with you. A roof basket can also be mated to a variety of weather-resistant cargo bags, allowing clothes, sleeping bags and the like up on the roof without fear of them getting dirty or wet.

The most secure option for carrying luggage on the roof of a car is a roof pod, such as Yakima’s Skybox range, which can be mated to a set of roof racks. Roof pods offer the ultimate protection against dust and water ingress and have the added benefit of being lockable, so you won’t have to worry about your gear being nicked when your car is unattended. They are also aerodynamically designed, so they will have minimal impact on fuel consumption and wind-noise levels.

Bear in mind that there’s a weight limit to what you can throw up on the roof of your car, based on the structural integrity of the roof itself as well as the impact that raising the centre of gravity can have on the car’s handling characteristics. Check your vehicle’s owner’s manual to ascertain the roof load limit, and make sure your racks are rated to carry the equivalent load.

Another luggage system available to owners of smaller vehicles is Thule’s Backspace, which fits to the company’s towbar-mounted bike carrier. It’s essentially a weatherproof cargo box that’s easier to access than a roof pod due to its location at the rear of the car, instead of up on the roof.

One of the great advantages of a sedan is that cargo carried in the boot is separated from vehicle occupants, so this is where you should stow all heavy items, hard objects and items with sharp edges. If you have a hatchback, make sure it has a cargo blind fitted at the very least and, ideally, ensure heavy items are secured to the vehicle’s cargo tie-down points (where fitted) using decent luggage straps.

Wagons and SUVs

If you drive a wagon or SUV, all of the roof carrying options already listed are available to you, but with a longer roof on your vehicle you can opt for a longer/larger roof basket, roof bag or roof pod, and can usually carry more weight. Again, check the owner’s manual for the roof weight limit of your vehicle.

With a larger cargo area than a sedan or a hatch, you obviously have more space inside the vehicle for gear, and most vehicles have 60/40 or 30/30/30 split/fold seat designs allowing more versatility when it comes to carrying cargo. It’s vitally important, however, that all heavy items carried in the cabin be secured to the vehicle’s cargo tie-down points. It should also be noted that while some vehicles have substantially strong tie-down points, others don’t, so you might have to look at an aftermarket alternative. Depending on your vehicle model and the tie-down points available for it, you may have to opt for a professional installation; your mechanic or local 4WD accessory outlet will be able to advise.

The best option for separating potentially dangerous cargo from vehicle occupants is to fit a cargo barrier. One of the best-known brands is Australian company Milford, which makes cargo barriers to suit a wide range of vehicles. Several models feature dual-position fitment, so they can be moved forwards in the vehicle when you need to fold down the rear seats for more cargo space, and they can be easily removed without tools. Other manufacturers of cargo barriers include Hayman Reese, Caddy Cargo Barriers, Autosafe Industries and more.

As well as keeping heavy items away from people, a cargo barrier allows you to utilise your cargo area right up to the roof; just remember to pack heavy items down low and light stuff up top. Cargo barriers are also good places to mount things like fire extinguishers and bags for small odds and ends.

The cargo area in most wagons and SUVs will be large enough to accommodate a decent-size icebox or a portable 12V fridge/freezer up to around 40L capacity. In this size range, most portable fridge-freezers can be simply plugged into your vehicle’s 12V power outlet, but a hard-wired installation will be more efficient and will eliminate the possibility of the power lead being accidentally knocked out. When looking at ice boxes and fridges, make sure there’s enough room in the back of your vehicle that you can open the lid to access chilled items, and when packing gear around fridges, always leave enough space for it to ‘breathe’ so that it can operate efficiently.

If you’re going to run a fridge, you may want to consider installing a dual battery system, with an auxiliary battery fitted either under the bonnet or in a portable battery box. This will allow you to run powered accessories such as a fridge off the auxiliary battery, ensuring there’s always enough charge in the vehicle’s starting battery to fire up the engine.

4WD Wagons

There’s a huge variety of accessories available to drivers of 4WD wagons that allow camping gear to be organised for safety and convenience. In addition to the roof-carrying equipment and cargo barriers already listed, one of the most popular set-ups is a cargo drawer system.

There are a wide variety of cargo drawer systems on the market with prices ranging from as little as $500 to more than $2500 and, as you’d expect, you get what you pay for. At a minimum, you should look for features such as a strong frame, double roller bearings for the drawers, sturdy catches, locks and handles, and a fully lined and carpeted finish. Some systems incorporate cargo tie-down points on their top surface and some even have a built-in fridge slide.

Cargo drawer systems are designed to suit specific vehicle models so they make the best use of the available space, and because the drawers can be fully extended, they make it easy to access items that would otherwise be hidden in the far reaches of the vehicle’s cargo area.

Some cargo drawer systems are modular units, so you can opt to fit different-size drawers side-by-side or stack them on top of each other. If you’re going to fit a fridge slide on top of a drawer, consider forking out a bit extra for a drop-down fridge slide, which will make access to chilled food and drinks much easier. A cage around the fridge is also a great option, as it ensures the fridge has plenty of ‘breathing’ space and allows you to pack gear in tight without fear of it falling behind the fridge when you pull on the fridge slide.

Up the front of the vehicle, you might want to consider replacing your vehicle’s centre console with a 12V cooler box, or fitting a roof console for gear such as your UHF radio, extra storage and additional map lights.

Keep it simple

There’s a lot of gear listed in this feature that will undoubtedly simplify the vehicle packing process and make access to your ‘stuff’ easier on your next camping adventure, but remember, you don’t need all of this equipment. Sensibly packed, you can safely carry everything you’ll need in just about any standard vehicle… but please, please, please, make sure heavy items are properly secured away from vehicle occupants and in a manner that they won’t affect other road users if something goes wrong.

4WD Utes

It’s little wonder that 4WD utes have become so popular in recent times. Not only can utes carry a lot more gear than wagons (bigger cargo area and greater payload), they are also equipped with all of the comfort, convenience and safety features that you’ll find in any other car.

Most drivers of 4WD utes who want to transform their vehicles into touring rigs will fit a canopy, and there are several models available. Some are quite basic and offer little more than a cover to protect your gear from the elements, while others are fully lined and kitted out with interior lighting, sliding or pop-up windows, window guards, roof racks and air vents, the latter providing positive air pressure in the cargo area to minimise the chance of dust ingress when driving on gravel roads. The ARB Ascent canopy goes a step further, providing one-touch window operation and compatibility with the vehicle’s remote central locking system.

As per 4WD wagons, utes can also be equipped with are cargo-drawer systems, fridge slides/cages, dual battery systems, roof consoles and more.

Water and fuel

On any camping trip you’re going to have to carry water and fuel, but if that’s an extended trip you might need to carry quite a lot of these essential fluids.

When it comes to water there are several options; bottled water, 5L, 10L and 20L containers, water bladders and underbody water tanks. If bottled or stored in larger containers or in a bladder, water will take up valuable cargo space that could otherwise be used for something else. One of the best water storage solutions, therefore, is an underbody water tank, usually made out of stainless steel and situated down near the chassis rails of a 4WD where the weight of the water won’t have a negative effect on the vehicle’s centre of gravity.

As for extra fuel, it’s best carried on the outside of the vehicle. There are several options for storing traditional 20L jerry cans, either in a special bracket at the rear of the vehicle or up on the roof rack. RotopaX manufactures a number of innovative modular fuel containers that can be mounted in various positions on the vehicle.

One of the best fuel storage solutions is to fit a long-range fuel tank, or an auxiliary tank to complement your vehicle’s standard fuel tank. These are commonly made from steel (The Long Ranger, Brown Davis, Long Range Automotive and Outback Accessories) or cross-linked polymer (ARB Frontier tank) and are designed to suit specific vehicle models. 

This article was originally published in the Sep-Oct 2016 issue of AG Outdoor.