By Travel columnist
updated 5/2/2006 2:35:15 PM ET 2006-05-02T18:35:15

Packing your car trunk correctly can be important to the success of a road trip. Car trunks, like the cars themselves, come in all sizes and configurations, so there is no universally correct way to do it. Moreover, seasonal considerations (like snow and ice) can increase the need for special equipment. Even so, there are some general principles that are adaptable to every size and shape of trunk.

Compartmentalization is the key to finding what you need within seconds of opening the trunk. A variety of containers makes this possible. Road trip veterans usually work out some combination of clear Tupperware-style boxes, which are easy to see inside but tough to pack in odd-shaped spaces, along with small and large duffel bags, soft backpacks, cardboard boxes and commercially available trunk organizers.

After 30 years on the road, I’ve settled on one cardboard “banker’s box” with built-in handles, two small cloth duffels and a small clear, plastic toolbox. After filling the toolbox with my small tools (pliers, a wire cutter, screwdrivers, wire, a tire-pressure gauge, duct tape, electrician’s tape and extra fuses), I place the box on the right, rear side of the trunk space. Next to it, I place one of the duffel bags packed with my road clothes (coveralls, extra jackets, vest, rain gear, warm hats and mittens). To the right of the clothes duffel, I wedge in the second duffel stocked with emergency food supplies (canned food, trail mix and a can opener).

The banker’s box is my catchall. It goes in the right, front space of the trunk. First I reinforce the built-in handles with duct tape, then I fill the box with these items:

  • Safety and visibility supplies: reflective windshield cover (provides both heat and cold protection), signal mirror, flashlight, extra batteries, whistle, reflective “space blanket,” a six-pack of waterproof matches, two 18-inch bungee cords, two sets of 24-inch nylon webbing straps, two orange reflective vests, a pair of scissors, two all-purpose clips, a beach towel, a paper sack of assorted cloth rags, two candles, a magnesium (waterproof) fire starter, a flyswatter, an extra camera, a hand-held GPS device and cell phone chargers. I also carry a 6-foot nylon dog leash, which I have found to be surprisingly handy, even if I am not traveling with a dog. You never know when such an item might be useful for corralling another traveler’s critter.
  • Larger road tools and supplies: tow strap, tire chains, leather gloves, motor oil, a funnel in a plastic Ziploc-type bag, radiator coolant, windshield washer fluid, a roll of paper towels, a roll of toilet paper, some large plastic trash bags, a 25-foot medium-duty nylon rope, a can of Fix-A-Flat, a small air compressor or a Power Tank, a mallet with a soft rubber head, a folding shovel, an ice scraper, and a portable jump starter (not jumper cables).
  • First aid and medical supplies: First aid kit, spare eyeglasses, prescription medicines (and copies of prescriptions), sunscreen, lip balm and bug spray.
  • Teddy bear: It may sound corny, but a teddy bear or other comfort animal can provide needed solace in an emergency, especially (but not only) to kids. The rest of the time, he can be your road trip mascot.
  • Miscellaneous items: atlases, topographical maps, folding knife, sunglasses, camping equipment, lantern, book, deck of cards, personal travel pillow, a ready-to-grab fanny pack outfitted with first aid gear, water, tissues and matches.

Some of these items are too bulky for the box, so tuck them in wherever there is room. It’s also a good idea to carry a car blanket, which can be used for extra warmth or comfort or to assist an accident victim in an emergency, and a small cooler for fresh food and snacks. Some travelers carry a much more complete set of road trip gear, and you might find this outfit to be a better match for your road trip style.

There are four emergency items that must be placed where they can be grabbed as soon as the trunk door is lifted:

  • an X-shaped tire iron
  • a supply of bottled water
  • a fire extinguisher, and
  • a folding triangle reflector.

Always pack these in the same place at the front of the trunk so you will not lose valuable time searching for them in an emergency.

Ideally, your equipment, tools and emergency supplies should take up no more than half your trunk space, leaving the other half for your luggage. Soft-sided luggage or duffel bags are easier to pack than hard-sided suitcases, but with planning, either type of luggage can work. If you are purchasing luggage for your trip, keep the dimensions of your car’s trunk in mind when you go shopping and choose pieces that will not take up more than half the available space.

Once you’ve worked out an arrangement that works for your vehicle, keep using and improving it, and let your traveling companions know how the system works. A well-packed trunk behind you saves you time, keeps you safe and wards off aggravation — leaving you free to enjoy the road ahead.

Mark Sedenquist is the publisher of RoadTrip America, a Web site providing expert planning, advice and suggested itineraries for road trips. He's spent 30 years and a half-million miles on the road in North America. Also, visit Tripso's forums!

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