Packing for a Road Trip: How to Play Cargo Tetris

May 07, 2019 by Chris Teague

Road trips are fun, but loading and unloading your vehicle can be a drag. It’s easy to overestimate cargo space and wind up with suitcases in the back seat.

Packing a vehicle correctly is a science — or a puzzle. Each piece of gear or luggage needs to fit in its place without wasted space. Doing it correctly increases the amount you can stow. Cargo space may vary by vehicle, but the best packing techniques all echo a similar sentiment: Preparation is key. Here’s what to do to get started:

  • Clean out your vehicle: Excess junk takes up valuable cargo space.
  • Start early: Start packing a day or two before leaving to allow time for shuffling things around if needed.
  • Keep safety in mind: Don’t squeeze in that last bag if it will block sightlines or cover airbags or exits. Driver visibility and passenger are paramount.

Your vehicle type will dictate how you pack, especially if you’ve got a smaller crossover. These tips will help with vehicles from compact crossovers to full-size SUVs.


Cargo space is significantly different in a compact crossover depending on whether rear seats are up or down. Honda’s CR-V, for instance, offers 39.2 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats up, but 75.8 cubic feet when they’re down.

Packing for four people can be much tougher in compact crossovers than packing for only two. More space is needed for both seating and luggage. You’ll need to think strategically.

Pack large, heavy items like rolling suitcases on the bottom. This creates a solid base on which to place everything else. Putting the heaviest items on the bottom also reduces the risk of luggage sliding around during sudden movements or stops.

2020 Ford Escape hybrid

When packing a smaller SUV like the Ford Escape, place luggage on its side. But don’t stack it any higher than the rear seat back. (Photo: Alan Adler/

Pack other items on top until you reach the height of the second-row seatback. Stacking things any higher makes it more likely items will slide forward into the passenger area. Many crossovers have hooks in the cargo area on which to hang clothing or smaller bags.

Smaller items can be placed on either side of the pile of luggage, but be mindful of the windows. Don’t create a potential blind spot.


The added length of a midsize SUV like the Honda Passport broadens the approach to packing. Stow larger suitcases lengthwise, standing on their sides. They’ll sit taller than if loaded on their sides, but their narrow width allows more to be fitted next to each other.

Continue filing suitcases on their side until there’s no room between the wheel arches. Next, stack remaining small or soft items on top without blocking the rear window.


Three-row and full-size SUVs like the Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition have cargo areas of around 100 cubic feet with the rear seats down. Put those third-row seats up, however, and you’ll have about as much space as a compact crossover.

This means taking a similar approach to the steps outlined above for compact crossovers if all seats are raised. If the second and/or third rows are down, utilize the space in the same way as a midsize SUV.

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