How to Pack Your Car When Moving

Sometimes, moving day means loading up as much as will fit in your car. But believe it or not, there’s a right and a wrong way to pack a car when moving.

As a moving salesman, I saw it all the time.While in the homes and apartments of prospective customers, they’d point out things they planned on taking with them in their cars, including nightstands, bookcases, recliners, and dormitory refrigerators.

In many cases, they traveled across state lines, with families and pets, in relatively small cars.

In other words, there was no way that all that “stuff” would fit, and it was up to me to tell them lest they find out the hard way on the morning of the move.

Let’s talk about the best way to pack your car when moving, and some alternatives to using your car as a moving truck.

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Packing Tips – The Best Way to Load a Car

When it comes to moving efficiently, car space is just as valuable as truck space.

When packed correctly, even small 2-door hatchbacks can hold a surprising amount.

You definitely wouldn’t want to use one to move the contents of a 3-bedroom condo. Still, if you are driving to a new home in another state and waiting for the moving van to arrive days or weeks later, you’ll need to efficiently utilize a lot of space to ensure that you have everything you’ll need on your trip.

Deciding what to take and packing it correctly may seem like daunting tasks, but with a bit of planning and forethought, they’re easy.

The following moving tips for DIY car packing will help.

1. Decide What to Take With You in the Car

If you’re moving locally, you’ll be able to make multiple trips between your old and new homes.

However, on a long-distance move, you’ll only make one trip, so getting it right the first time is imperative.

Unless you have a 15-passenger van or a 4-door station wagon, the chances are that the space inside your personal vehicle is limited – hence you’ll need to prioritize.

First, you should never take furniture or other non-essential bulky and heavy items in your own car.

Sell, donate, or let the moving company handle them.

Instead, reserve your precious space for more important and valuable items.

When deciding what to take, consider –

  • How much car storage space is available
  • How long you’ll be on the road
  • What the weather will be like (you won’t need parkas in Phoenix in July)
  • Who you’ll be traveling with – kids, spouse, friend, dog, grandma
  • What they’ll need while traveling

During this phase, it’s helpful to make a list for each occupant.

You may find that your lists contain more items than can possibly fit in your car, but with a bit of finagling, you’ll be able to work them down to just basics and necessities.

2. Items You Should Take With You

Depending on your travel companions, you’ll typically want to take the following essential things in the car with you in an essentials box –

  • Change(s) of clothes
  • Medications and toiletries
  • Special items like baby formula and dog/cat food
  • Important documents like wills, insurance policies, passports, and birth certificates
  • Laptops, cellphones, chargers
  • Jewelry, precious metals, and valuable collections (coins and stamps)
  • Irreplaceable family heirlooms like photo albums
  • Guns – check out our Moving Guns Out of State guide
  • Perishables
  • Dangerous items that movers cannot move like propane tanks, paint, aerosols, ammunition, and fireworks

3. Clean Your Car’s Interior Before Packing

You know the dark space around and beneath your car seats?

Though they’re usually graveyards for french fries and loose change, they’re also perfect for storing essential items on a car trip – but you’ll want to give your own vehicle a thorough spring cleaning first.

For this, you may want to head to a car wash with powerful vacuums.

Remove floor mats, poke the suction nozzle into the tight spaces it’ll reach, and then clear the glove box of unnecessary items like old ketchup packets, expired insurance papers, and broken ice scrapers.

Then do the same with the trunk, and while you’re there, double check your car jack and make sure that you inflate the spare tire properly.

When in doubt, splurge for an air freshener.

Insider’s Tip

Sliding front seat frames often drip grease onto the carpet below, so wrap items you intend to store therein a plastic shopping bag first, or reserve those small spaces for things like tools, gloves, and First Aid kits.

4. Consider Using an Overhead Carrier or Trailer

No matter how efficient you are at packing, you may not be able to fit everything you’ll need inside the car.

When making multiple trips isn’t an option, consider other alternatives like overhead carriers and trailers to give yourself extra space.

You could buy a rigid and bulky rooftop carrier, but they’re expensive, cumbersome, and chances are you’d never use it more than a few times.

Instead, consider something like a U-Haul roof-top cargo carrier.

They’re affordable, weather-resistant, and fold flat for easy storage. Just keep in mind that they only work on vehicles with 4-way roof racks.

For even more security, storage space, and protection from the elements, you could also rent a trailer that could quadruple the space at your disposal.

On the downside, you’ll need a trailer hitch and an engine powerful enough to handle the extra weight, and towing a trailer can be dangerous, especially in cities, mountainous terrain, and wet and snowy weather.

Did You Know?

Since thieves often target vehicles in hotel parking lots, keeping items in car top roof racks overnight might not be a good idea, which means you’ll have to unload them at night and reload them again in the morning.

5. Save a Tree – Keep Cardboard Boxes to a Minimum

Unlike moving trucks that have flat floors and walls, your car’s interior has more curves, bulges, and hard-to-reach areas that make boxes inefficient “space eaters.”

A few small boxes of documents and/or electronics are OK, but smaller pliable parcels and bags of various sizes are much better for filling nooks and crannies.

When loading, place the largest, bulkiest and heavier items (like boxes) inside first, then fill the spaces around and above them with smaller items.

Wrapping clothes and pillows in new trash bags (garbage bags) is a great way to protect them, but to minimize their volume, even more, you may want to use “space saver” bags that you can suck the air out of with a vacuum cleaner.

6. Do a Dry Run

Making lists is a great way to prioritize what will go in the car, but there’s no better way to make sure everything will fit than by doing a dry run.

A few days before your move date, try putting everything inside your vehicle using the packing tips above and filling the trunk, back seats, and glove box to maximum capacity.

You may be thrilled to discover that everything fits with extra space left over, while on the other hand, you may have more downsizing to do. In that case, schedule a pick-up to donate your items. 

Either way, it’s better to know before moving day than at the 9th hour.

7. Pack Your Car Like a Pro

Once you’ve established that everything will fit in your vehicle, you’ll want to determine which items you’ll need to access regularly and which you won’t.

Since you probably won’t need your birth certificate or passport while on the road, pack these items first, keeping in mind that you want to use every inch of available space without compromising safety or comfort.

If you are traveling alone, fill the passenger footwell and seat with as many items as they’ll hold. Just don’t stack them so high that they’ll obstruct your view out the side or back window or topple over if you need to brake hard or make a quick lane change.

Leave the spaces near doors and hatchbacks open for the things you’ll need every day like clothes, medications, snacks, toiletries, and pet food.

Remember, items around doors and windows are more prone to theft, so make sure to lock up and park in well-lit areas as close to people and businesses as possible.

8. Make Sure Your Car is in Tip-Top Mechanical Condition

Making sure your car, truck, or van is in good shape is especially important if you’re embarking on a multi-day cross-country move or road trip.

Before heading out –

  • Check tires for abnormal wear, tears, and bulges
  • Ensure that you inflate your tires (including the spare) – you can find the recommended PSI on the sidewall.
  • Check the oil and coolant, top them off, or have them changed if they’re overdue.
  • Check the power steering fluid.
  • Buy a quart of oil and a gallon of antifreeze (coolant) to take with you for emergencies.
  • Check that you have a car jack and that it’s secured in the trunk
  • Make sure that your headlights, turn signals, and flashers work

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the most efficient way to pack a car?

Packing efficiently boils down to prioritizing what items you’re taking, loading bulky items first, and filling the open spaces around them with smaller items.

How do you move in just a car?

It is possible to move with just a car by making multiple trips, but for items like sofas, armoires, and appliances, you’ll need to hire professional movers or rent a moving truck or trailer.

How do I fit everything in my car?

If you’ve planned, prioritized, and packed correctly, you should be able to fit everything in your car before heading out to your new home or apartment.

What should I pack in the trunk of my car?

Trunks are perfect for bulky non-breakable items that aren’t particularly susceptible to temperature extremes like toys, bedding wrapped in trash bags, and suitcases full of clothes. If there are bottles of oil and antifreeze in the trunk, make sure you load them in such a way that they won’t spill.

What should I pack first?

It’s generally best to pack the items you won’t need every day first and save the spaces around doors for the things you’ll frequently need like medications, snacks, and clothes.

How should I pack breakables and other valuable items?

When moving fragile items like small electronics in a car, it’s best to wrap them in bubble wrap and pack them in a box like you would on a regular move.

Are vacuum storage bags worth it?

Honestly, you can use bags of any kind. New trash bags work just as well for a fraction of the cost.

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