How to Pack an SUV for Family Camping Trips

Camping sounds fun — until you realize how much preparation goes into getting your vehicle ready for the weekend. Having already paid for your site and told the kids, you’re pot-committed, and canceling your plans will take a miracle. C’est la vie, as they say in Canada France. Time to get a move on.

While we can’t physically be there to help you pack your SUV, we do have some tips to get you through the ordeal. Follow the sage advice below, and you might just discover that loading your vehicle for camping is *slightly* less aggravating this time ‘round.

20 Tips for Loading Your SUV for Camping

1. Checklists are your friend

If you’ve ever gone camping, you know there’s nothing more demoralizing than coming to the realization that you forgot the tent after you’ve already parked at the campsite. At that point, the only solution is to either have a large SUV you can sleep in, drive back home, or go pay hundreds of dollars for a new tent at a store. 

Avoid that scenario at all costs. Prepare like a pro by creating two checklists: One for everything you need to buy and organize before your trip (which can be completed weeks in advance), and another that you’ll mark off as you load the vehicle. You can never be too prepared when it comes to loading an SUV for camping.

2. Know your cargo volume

Before you buy a new piece of camping equipment, ensure your SUV has enough cargo space to store it. This will prevent you from transforming into a cussing MacGyver, only to be forced to leave your new toy in the garage. 

The best SUV for camping is always one that has the right amount of cargo volume for your whole family. A small family of three can make due with a small crossover, like the HR-V or CR-V, while a full-size family of four or five will want the extra space of a full-size SUV like the Honda Pilot. Choose wisely.

2021 Honda SUV Cargo Volume

2021 Honda ModelCargo Volume*
HR-V LX (AWD)23.2 cu ft/57.6 cu ft
CR-V LX 39.2 cu ft/75.8 cu ft
CR-V Hybrid EX 33.2 cu ft/68.7 cu ft
Passport Sport50.5 cu ft/100.7 cu ft
Pilot LX18.5 cu ft/55.9 cu ft/109.0 cu ft

3. Know your payload 

The same logic above applies to payload limits. If you go over your payload, you’re potentially putting extra pressure on your suspension, damaging your tires and brakes, and making it more difficult for you to control the vehicle. 

Although it’s unlikely that your passengers and camping gear will go over your SUV’s payload, there’s really no reason to risk it. Simply double-check by reviewing your owner’s manual or the certification label (“Tire and Loading Information”) on the driver’s door jamb to find its payload capacity or curb weight and GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating).

Honda SUV Payload - Door Jamb

For example, the door jamb in the 2021 Honda HR-V LX with AWD indicates that its maximum payload is 850 pounds (see above). 

If your vehicle doesn’t have its payload listed in the door jamb, you’ll have to do some math. To get an estimated payload amount, you can subtract your vehicle’s curb weight from its GVWR (GVWR – Curb Weight = Payload). 

4. Balance weight

It may seem simple to load the left side with the heaviest items, doing so is seriously bad for your suspension. Evenly distribute your items inside your SUV by weight, taking into account passengers. For instance, if the right side of the vehicle has two riders, and the left side has just yourself, the left side should hold one or two extra heavy items. 

5. Heavy items go toward the front

Putting the heaviest items closest to the center of your vehicle is best, as that’s the strongest part of the frame. Heavier items also have less room to move around if they’re sandwiched between front seats and other gear. 

6. Flat items go on the bottom

Fold-up tables and boards should be packed first. They’ll act as a slightly raised floor for your other gear. 

7. First-use items go last (back)

The items you need in an emergency or to start setting up your campsite should be loaded last. This allows you to grab them right away. These items may include: 

  • Tent
  • Tarps
  • First-aid
  • Clothing
  • Firewood
  • Bugspray
  • Sunscreen

8. Soft items squeeze into (almost) anywhere

Blankets, pillows, and duffel bags full of clothes can be squished into the awkward nooks and crannies that remain. This includes the area between the door and seats, the floor, and any recessed parts of the cargo area. Don’t forget the spare tire’s home; you may be able to stuff a couple small, soft items there, too. 

2021 Honda Passport Trunk

Another great place to store some loose items is in Honda Passport’s built-in underfloor storage area. It’s perfect for bike helmets, water bottles, and other smaller items or bags.

9. Tie-downs can help

If your SUV has any tie-down anchors in the back, use them to protect your vehicle and passengers from shifting camping gear. 

10. Secure rear bike racks well

Any rear bike rack, whether fastened by hitch or with tethers, should be very securely installed. Bikes should also be checked for snugness; this includes its pedals, kickstands, handles, and tires. Lock the bike tires from rotating, which will also prevent pedals and handlebars from scratching your paint or breaking a window. 

11. Roof racks are great investments

Honda Pilot Roock Rack

When you don’t have enough room inside, you can always move on up. Buy an SUV roof rack with a cargo box for extra storage space. 

You can order any Honda SUV camping accessories, including CR-V cargo boxes and roof rails, at a Honda dealer near you. If you’re from Dayton, contact Miami Valley Honda Dealers for a quote.

12. Stay alert for low-height areas

If you do have a roof rack installed, especially if you opt for a bike attachment, don’t forget about it! Low-hang overpasses and bridges can pose a problem, as can garages (seriously, watch out!).

13. Keep your rearview vision clear

Driving without a clear sight behind you is a safety hazard. An overstuffed SUV makes it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to view your blind-spots. A newer SUV like the popular Honda CR-V, with its Blind Spot Information System, can help you out in this department, but it’s still unwise to drive if you can’t see the road at all angles. 

14. Invest in an SUV camping tent

Did you know that you can buy a tent that’s specifically made for your SUV? Many automakers have tent accessories that can be installed just as easily as a normal tent. 

Honda CR-V Tent Attachment

If you need to buy a Honda tent attachment for your SUV in Dayton, pick up the phone and call any of our Miami Valley Honda Dealers for a quote. We can have your Pilot or Honda CR-V tent ordered and shipped to our store before your next camp-out.

15. Ditch the tent and get hammocks

If you really want to save space, leave the tent at home and invest in some camping hammocks. They’re super portable, easier to set up, and kinda nifty, all things considered. 

16. Put a tarp under everything, especially coolers

You’ve got your cooler filled up with ice and loaded in the back, in between the hatchet and firewood. But that tight turn you took repositioned the hatchet — right on top of your cooler’s spigot. Now you’ve got a problem, and you won’t know it until you start unpacking.  

A leaking cooler can ruin your vehicle’s upholstery. Stains, smells, mold are all potential problems if too much water seeps into the fabric. So, put a tarp down before you load up cooler and camping items. 

Or, better yet, just bust out that built-in vehicle cooler with a drain plug. Oh, you don’t have one of those? Then now’s your chance to get your hands on a Honda Ridgeline. With its in-bed trunk, you can store all your camp food, plus ice, plus a few other things, without having to worry about bringing a tarp or a separate cooler at all. It’s the ultimate camping accessory, and you don’t even have to buy anything extra — aside from the Ridgeline, of course. 

17. Consider food that doesn’t need to be on ice

Your cooler takes enough space as it is. When planning your meals, try to choose foods that don’t need to be chilled, like baked potatoes, PBJs, granola, fruits, anything in a can. Use ice packs for the items that need to be refrigerated, then fill the rest of your cooler with everything else. You’d be amazed at how much room ice takes up.

Then buy ice at the campground or a store nearby your site.

18. Unroll sleeping bags

Sleeping bags can take up a lot more space than you anticipate. If you unroll and lay them flat on the floor, you might actually save some room. 

19. If at first you don’t succeed, try again

Failure is always an option. If you start to realize that you’ve pinned yourself in a corner — like forgetting the folding table until you’re 85% done packing — it’s time to bite the bullet and take a mulligan. Start all over, this time without forgetting to put the table in first. 

20. Take a photo for future-you

Once you’re satisfied with your work (good job!) and how everything’s organized, take a photo. Snap one wide-angle. Snap one up close. Snap one with all the doors open, from each side, from above. Heck, take a few glamor shots for your own amusement. Use those photos next summer to remind yourself how it’s done. 

Pat yourself on the back and hit the showers. 

2021 Honda Passport Roof Racks

Get Ready for Camping Season by Visiting Your Miami Valley Honda Dealers 

Whether you need to order a Honda Pilot tent, a roof rack for a Passport, or buy the best small SUV for camping in Ohio, we’re the place to shop. Visit any of our Honda dealerships near Dayton for great summer deals on Honda SUVs and accessories. 

Miami Valley Honda Dealers has locations throughout SE Ohio, including Dayton, Springfield, Beavercreek, Tipp City, and Richmong (Indiana).


Cargo volume based on SAE J1100 cargo volume measurement standard plus, where applicable, floor space between seating rows and seats in their forward-most and upright position.