Don’t we all dream of #Vanlife? While we long of someday having the luxurious headroom and space of a Sprinter van, for now we’ve learned to hack ever corner of our Subaru into the perfect adventure-mobile.

I’ll preface this by saying I have a serious type A personality. Clutter and disorganization stress me out. So when Eduardo and I made the goal to spend more time on the road, we knew we’d have to get creative to travel long term (while maintaining our sanity) in our car. Our Subaru Crosstrek is classified as what’s called a ‘compact crossover’, aka a small SUV. Over the past 2 years we’ve tweaked and retweaked, to really optimize the space we have inside and out. A couple notes about us so you can understand our adventure-mobile requirements:

  • We are both avid trail runners so expect lots of muddy/sweaty/stinky gear. It was important to compartmentalize our car as much as possible so everything doesn’t become a muddy/sweaty/stinky mess.
  • While traveling we tend to car camp (camp in a tent with our car nearby) as much as possible, preferably at National Forests or other public lands. That being said, because of wifi/work requirements we are usually completely off the grid for 3-4 days at a time max, so we can plan resupplies accordingly.
  • We wanted to avoid any big/permanent changes to the interior of the car (take out the back seats, etc), which might prevent us from an impromptu trip with friends.
  • We recently added a canoe and a puppy to our lives, so in additional to standard camping gear we needed to accommodate paddles, life jackets, dry bags, the canoe and another living being in our car set-up.

It’s worth reiterating - wet gear is the biggest challenge on this list. Especially during the shoulder seasons when it’s too cold for things to dry properly. We’ve definitely made some improvements over the years but still struggle with this one.

Here are some pictures from our current set-up. Read on for my favorite tips and tricks.

Packing the car

Putting together the puzzle.

Trunk close-up

Close up of our trunk. Where we store kitchen supplies, food, water, our clothes, etc. Everything has its proper home here.

Drying lines inside car

Drying lines inside the car. Bungees + carabiners make anything possible.
Stacking gear on the floor
Taking advantage of all available nooks to store gear, here on the floor behind the front passenger seat - our tents, camp chairs, canopy etc.

Cargo nets in car

Cargo nets are the best to keep miscellaneous things in place. We use them to stuff our backpacks and hydration packs. Also having the back seats down makes all this space accessible.

Dog bed inside car

Guess who takes up the most space in the car.

Plastic storage containers for wet gear

We separate our paddling gear in case it gets wet. Kuma gets her own bin of dogssentials.

Store electronics in glove compartment

Glove compartment is a great, easy-to-reach place to store chargers, headlamps and other electronics.
Back seat
Another view of the backseat. We actually have enough of an empty space to see decently out of the rearview mirror.

Car camping in Vermont

Why we do it all - car camping in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont.

Car camping in Charlevoix

Car camping in Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada.

Takeaways

A couple of my favorite pieces of gear and hacks:

  • Carefully measured plastic storage containers for everything. IKEA sells these awesome recycling bins that you can partially open even when stacked.
  • Bungee cords across the two ceiling handles in the back seat. Great for drying things. We also use bungee cords to keep bins and things from moving around too much when we travel on bumpy mountain roads. Never a bad idea to keep a bunch of extra bungee cords around.
  • Carabiners. Another essential like bungee cords. We have one anchored to the backseat and one to the trunk to easily attach our pup’s leash. Carabiners are also great to hang dry gear once you get to camp.
  • 7 gallon water container. We love this one from Reliance because it is narrow and packs well between our storage bins.
  • Rechargeable battery-powered shower head. I was skeptical at first when Eduardo bought this, but it has really made showering and washing dishes SO much easier. And we waste less water. We pair this with a collapsible bucket or drop it directly into our Reliance water container.
  • Dry bags can double as storage for wet/dirty clothes and gear, and also as a makeshift clothes washer.
  • Quick dry towels. We keep a designated one for muddy paws.

What did NOT work for us:

  • Expensive super hi-tech coolers. We had one for a while but ended up selling it because it took up a lot of space and was frankly overkill for our needs. Now we just use a $15, very basic collapsible cooler. It does require more intentional food planning in the summertime. Also definitely helps that we lean towards vegetarianism.
  • Solar shower. Too much of a pain to refill, close and store. We also had some condensation issues when storing it filled in the car.

And of course no makeover is complete without a good “before” picture:

Bad car organization

"Before"