Family Packing Hacks for Camping and Road Tripping

People often ask me how I fit everything into the car for camping road trips, so I decided to move away from haikus for a day and provide some tips and videos. Our recent trip had six people (five teens and me) and a dog, and yes, we did tent camping and cycling, as well as paddle boarding with our own paddle board!

First, we have an 8-passenger Honda Pilot, my favorite car ever. It has so many hidden spaces within to fit things like bread and a million cup holders. On top, we bought the largest version of Yakima’s cargo toppers. We would never be able to fit everything otherwise. And for this recent trip, rather than having a giant hard-sided cooler take up an entire seat, I bought a soft-sided cooler from Costco to fit in the middle row, on the floor.

 I also have a very strict packing list for each person and allow duffel bags only, plus one small backpack or personal bag.

That is truly the only way you can fit six bags, a camp stove, a camp bag, and a tent behind the back row of a Pilot.

Let’s talk about the camp bag. Many people use bins, but that would never fit if I want all three rows available for seating. These IKEA bags are indispensable. You can easily move the bag into different shapes, and it holds all you’ll need for cooking for a weekend or two weeks.

Cooking. Freeze-dried food and oatmeal is the way to go for at least half your meals, especially on a long road trip. They’re compact and can fit into a small canvas bag, with tea and coffee, that goes into the topper.

Buy the right brands: either Mountain House or Backpackers’ Pantry. My picky eaters refuse any other kind!

Now, the topper. Camping chairs are a necessary luxury. I make two of six be these tiny REI backpacking chairs. They’re pricey, but just like everything that’s pricey, they’re worth their weight in gold. We even brought them in our carryon luggage to Spain for a summer and used them every day!

In addition to these chairs, we have four “luxury” camping chairs, an inflatable paddle board, six sleeping pads, and six sleeping bags!

If you buy backpacking pads and bags, you could make this work!

Now my favorite part: bikes. I finally sucked it up and bought a five-bike rack. Then, if six of us go somewhere, we only have to rent one bike which can fit in the back of the car, still allowing six people to fit.

Ok, if I’ve held your attention so far, you either think I’m crazy or a genius for trying to cram all this into a car.

The equipment is expensive and some needs updating each year, but to me, the glory of being outdoors with family and friends makes it all worthwhile.

And you can get creative with your other meals. Did you know that you can fit seven hard-boiled eggs or sixteen uncooked eggs in a Nalgene?

We’ve cooked everything from fajitas to steak to quesadillas on our stove!

And everything fits. Even the dog.

Road Trip 2020 (Always Bring Bikes)

For every road trip, I have an itinerary. True, it isn’t based on plane or train tickets. We may not have a specific moment to be at an airport, but you can bet your ass that alarm IS going to wake you at 4:48 am if that is my plan for the day.

Years ago, it was a simple Word document with a table. It has morphed into a full spreadsheet on Google Sheets, shareable and so easy to punch in formulas for costs.

Costs. How much is this view worth? A million dollars for anyone who lives to see it as much as I do. So $35 for the entrance and $55 for the extra rental bike seems like an amazing deal if you ask me.

Arguments. I have five, yes FIVE, teenagers in my car. Mostly non-driving teens except for a small stint and ever-open road when I felt it safe enough for my permit-only fifteen-year-old to take the wheel. And I have to drive them everywhere for too many hours in the car, I have to wake their adolescent brains way too early for their underdeveloped prefontal cortexes, and I have to argue with them about all the things they don’t want to do because they haven’t read my itinerary that I shared two weeks ago.

But there are no arguments here.

Or here.

Or here.

It’s true they didn’t read it. They didn’t know that today’s plan, after removing the wheel from bike number five, positioning it in the back of the Pilot, after renting the sixth bike fifteen minutes early, after driving and stopping for pics and sucking in the perfection that is every other second of Montana… The parking lot 5.88 miles further up the Going to the Sun Road was already closed at 8:20 in the morning.

This is why you always bring bikes.

According to my itinerary, we were going to ride seven miles up the hill from Avalanche Creek. There’s a turquoise river, a climb, and views of the actual too-soon-to-be-melting glaciers.

But not everyone in my car is a cyclist like me, and getting to Avalanche Creek, upstream, took a lot out of them.

My itinerary today included this Trail of the Cedars, “not a real hike, it’s wheelchair accessible” is how I “sold” them on it.

So began, after the small cycle, the gasps. Trees so tall you can’t understand how they’re in Montana. A creek so pristinely protected you want to gulp it into your whole soul. And, more miraculous than anything you could lay your eyes upon, teens without cell service viably impressed, their joyous outbursts as beautiful as the scenery.

So energized were they that they agreed to another two miles up that sun road, took immeasurable moments to skip rocks in the river, to enthrall themselves in the imperfect beauty that is nature.

And my itinerary?

“Quedanse juntos. Me entiendes?”

I sent them back down the road, alone, my credit card in Mythili’s pocket. And goddamn it if I didn’t ride those seven miles and capture within my worldview this million-dollar pic of peaks made by glaciers.

And goddamn it if my teens put all those bikes on the rack without me asking, without watching my how-to video, adding in their Black Lives Matter proclamation to the world and all of white blood Montana.

And my itinerary? It didn’t include a fishing pole, kids pushing each other into the picture-perfect lake, or the road still being closed to cars.

It is just an idea, a well-researched idea to drop off the dog, pick up the extra bike, add a couple of kids, and have the time of your life.

I wish I could capture in a spreadsheet, in words, in pictures, what it feels like to have a perfect fumbled plan and ride down that mountain on two wheels after sweating up it, but the wind never stays too long. The sun sets.

My boy of few words described it best: “If this were in Honduras, it would be so filled with people you couldn’t see the shores.” When Riona asked me to translate, the words he didn’t say meant more: “You don’t even know how lucky you are.”

And there’s always another adventure tomorrow.