How much can I fit in my car?
July 30, 2020 11:48 AM   Subscribe

I’m moving cross country, and am looking to hear your tips and tricks for fitting as much as possible into my Nissan Sentra

I’ve eyeballed my trunk and have previously used it to cart around about 10 smallish boxes full of books. I am indeed moving about 10 smallish boxes of books, but I’m not sure if that’s the best use of the space. If you’ve moved, and driven your car while doing so, what did you bring? How did you pack it?

Some relevant info; I’ll be shipping whatever I can’t get into the car with movers. I’m not bringing furniture, just clothes, household goods, art, etc. My space in the car itself is fairly minimal and limited to the footwells in the back seat as I’ll have three pet carriers on the back seats, and a co-passenger up front.

I’m trying to do this move on a dime, so my main goal here is to get as much in there as possible. Thanks in advance!
posted by nancynickerson to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Put everything squishy (clothes, linens) in garbage bags. Don't overstuff them, you want to to be able to mold them into every space possible. You can also use anything fabric to wrap your breakables.

If space is running low, mail the books using media mail.

If you have plants, I usually put them on the floor behind the seats, wrapped up loosely in shopping bags.
posted by veery at 11:59 AM on July 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'd recommend getting one of these waterproof bags that can be strapped to the roof of your car without a rack or any permanent hardware, and just cramming it full.

Also, it might be worth investing $20-30 in vacuum packing bags from Amazon and putting your clothes, towels, sheets, blankets, pillows and comforter in them. They can be vacuumed down to a mostly flat rectangle shape using a normal household vacuum, saving a lot of space. Then you could stack them in your trunk or put them in the bag on the roof.
posted by zdravo at 12:01 PM on July 30, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I’ll have three pet carriers on the back seats

Consider whether you can put these carriers on a level layer of stuff on the seats (e.g. having rigid suitcases or boxes that extend from the rear seat to the front seat and over the footwells).
posted by kdar at 12:10 PM on July 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you plan on switching off drivers, make sure the front seats are positioned far enough back so that both people are comfortable in both spots. My co-pilot ended up driving the whole way because we had packed the back passenger side so full that there was no room for their taller knees in the front passenger seat with the seat moved up to the position that I had been comfortable sitting in.
posted by alygator at 12:17 PM on July 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

I would double check the maximum carrying weight of the car (says the guy who overloaded a subaru once and ended up stranded in wyoming for two weeks waiting for replacement parts) and do not exceed that weight (unless you're just driving across town or something). I would also distribute the books equally throughout the floor of the vehicle. if you toss them all in the trunk, you can fuck your rear suspension.

Media mail is really shockingly inexpensive for moving books clocking in at $2.80 a pound. Shipping books instead of other things is almost always cheaper. Save your car for more fragile, less heavy items.
posted by furnace.heart at 12:33 PM on July 30, 2020 [10 favorites]

Yeah, shipping the books via USPS Media Mail will certainly be the cheapest option for getting them cross-country. Save your car space for breakable things you want to keep. (And note that fabric goods can be used as packing material for such things!)
posted by asperity at 12:34 PM on July 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Pack your car as if you are going camping. What will you need with you for the first 2-3 days if the movers don't show up on time? Essentials for sleeping, eating and cleaning will all come in handy. Ask me how I know.
posted by platinum at 12:41 PM on July 30, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Rooftop stuff really affects mileage. A cartop carrier isn't too bad, post on freecycle looking for one.
Know where the spare tire, other car essentials are before you pack.
There should be room under pets for a layer, possibly topped with plywood for stability. Maybe a layer behind pets. Scrap plywood is easy to acquire.
You know this, but pare down severely.
posted by theora55 at 12:55 PM on July 30, 2020

If you do ship the books via media mail, make sure the boxes ONLY contain books and not journals, pads of paper, etc. Some post office locations can be very strict about this, others don’t care. I once had a post office refuse to ship my box media mail because it had a couple of blank notebooks in it.
posted by mekily at 1:02 PM on July 30, 2020

Consider how long you‘ll be travelling. If it’s just a few hrs play Tetris and be done. If it’s a few days you have to really think through what has to be accessible and what can stay tucked in until you unpack at your destination. For a multi day trip you, the animals and some food (for you and the animals), clothing and toiletries will be packed and unpacked multiple times. You do not want to unpack half the other stuff to get at them.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:07 PM on July 30, 2020

Best answer: You might consider using a clothes-hanging bar over the carriers. That way you're using the space, not tempted to stack anything heavy on the carriers, and it'll provide shade from the windows. If you'll be traveling with overnight stays (or just overnight drives where you'd like a fresh-up), hang your change of clothes closest to one of the passenger doors, with a grocery bag for critical toiletries (and masks and gloves).
posted by Lyn Never at 1:16 PM on July 30, 2020

niche but true: if you've packed up spices from your kitchen, DON'T leave them in your car for a while in hot weather once you get where you going because you don't need them right away. The stink will haunt you.

When you pack, keep the shapes of your car's spaces in mind. For instance there can be a layer of squishy bags in the footwells of the backseat; but only if they're the right size and shape. Those go in first; but make sure they're things that you won't need right away, because they'll have a bunch of stuff on top of them and will be hard to get to.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:21 PM on July 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't neglect the space above and between the pet carriers. I agree with people saying to pack some stuff, then put a layer of plywood down, and then put the pet carriers on top of that. I would go even further, though (assuming your pets are not Great Danes) and put another sheet of plywood on top so you can layer some more on. I would keep the stuff on top fairly light, obviously, because you're going to need to take it off frequently to let the pets out. But it would be a good spot for some clothes in trash bags. Likewise, soft goods in between will actually serve a benefit: they'll provide a bumper in case of collisions between the carriers. The shelf behind your backseat headrests is also space that can be pretty useful but is often neglected.

You'll want to be careful not to block your rearview mirror, though. Speaking from experience, that can come in handy on a long drive. So yes, stack stack stack, but as you're stacking, get in your driver's seat every once in a while to check the view. I once moved from Columbus, Ohio to St. Louis with my rearview mirror blocked, and considering that my right side mirror was broken as well, I, uh, wish I would have thought of this then. It was suboptimal.

If you're really trying to pack stuff in, make your passenger carry something on their lap and at their feet. You'll probably get a little pushback, but, I nearly always carry a backpack at my feet when I'm in the passenger seat. It's not like I'm cramming stuff in; just a little bag with stuff I access frequently. It frees up maybe half a cubic foot to pack something else.

If there's another way to move your books (the movers, Media Mail, whatever), do that. Books are irregularly shaped, so there's bound to be some unused space in your book boxes. You could theoretically fill in that space with small housewares, but that brings up the other trouble with boxes of books: they're heavy. Adding even more stuff to the box is just going to make it heavier and harder to move. Let someone else carry that stuff. Use the space you've got for soft and malleable items like clothing, bedding, towels, etc. The flexibility of these items will fill the negative space so that you use the space you do have more efficiently.

Speaking of clothing, bedding, and towels, it's not a bad idea to invest in some vacuum storage bags. They're cheap and they save a ton of space.

If you're carrying any liquids, put them in plastic zip bags first in case they leak or explode.

Remember to account for trash. If you're driving cross-country, you're inevitably going to eat and drink in the car. Make sure that you don't pack so full that there's nowhere to throw your garbage until your next stop. Making your passenger hold it is not really what I had in mind above, although if they don't mind, it could go at their feet.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:21 PM on July 30, 2020

Response by poster: So much great info here! Thanks to all. It would never have occurred to me to utilize space above/below the pet carriers. I’m definitely going to ship most books Media Mail and focus on my fragile items and “squishy” things for packing the car.

Alygator, thank you for pointing out the height issue for both drivers! My friend who is coming along is indeed taller than me and I would NOT have considered that!

Wish me luck; I’m less than thrilled to be schlepping two cats and a dog across the county (though I’ve got that aspect all sorted with prescriptions from the vet and pet friendly hotels), but it’ll be an adventure!
posted by nancynickerson at 6:22 PM on July 30, 2020

Driving across the country in an underpowered compact car with two people and three pets means you absolutely want to think about weight and aerodynamics. I wouldn’t put anything on the roof of a Sentra for that long a drive, and you want to be well below maximum weight. You have mountain passes and summer desert heat to contend with in a car that is simply not very stout or powerful to begin with, out on blazing fast roads surrounded by big trucks, often at higher altitudes where engines lose power. We don’t know your Sentra’s age or condition, but get it checked out and fully serviced; make sure your tires and brakes are good, etc. Weight and drag put strain on the drivetrain, tires, brakes, cooling system, and suspension. Depending on your route there are stretches I’d be a bit nervous about doing in a Sentra with just a bit of weight, especially if anything on the car was not quite in spec. A breakdown in summer on long stretches of any cross-country routes could be an expensive disaster, the more so with three pets and all your worldly possessions.

In other words it may be penny wise and pound foolish to save money by carrying your own stuff. Just the supplies for a cross country trip with three pets and two people would pretty much pack a Sentra.

I’ve driven plenty of Sentras. I’m not knocking them in particular. Any compact economy car is gonna be a bit of hell on a 2500 mile drive on roads where traffic is moving at 85mph. And I’ve driven cross-country (and around its vast middle) quite a few times, via each major route, sometimes in beater vehicles that had no business being out there. Ask me about three days on the Michigan UP in relentless rain with a bedraggled dog no hotel would let us in with until we wound up at a truly nasty and dangerous place, while awaiting an alternator from Tennessee for a shitbox Saturn, following an expensive tow from 30 miles out of town.

It would have been worth $2000 to avoid that experience. Easy. Should have just bought a new beater car in Escanaba, ditched the Saturn, and moved on.
posted by spitbull at 7:30 PM on July 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

Also with 5 mammals traveling cross country in August, you need to pack a substantial supply of water. In the event of a breakdown along many hundreds of miles it might save your life. I would think 5 gallons at a minimum.

Your AC will be working hard, and sucking more power and mileage than you may be used to, especially when you are at altitude or have long upgrades. Recommend getting its compression checked and refrigerant recharged. Inspect all belts and hoses too.

A small engine and transmission have to work closer to its maximum capacity to maintain the same speed as a larger one. So you’ll be running at the limits of your drivetrain for many hours at a time in high heat that adds further stress. Weight and drag add to that.
posted by spitbull at 7:56 PM on July 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I had a friend who moved from Connecticut to Alaska and back two times a year by small car. His secret was not to use boxes for a lot of stuff - instead, he'd use bags that he could squish in. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe he just shoved his stuff in - I seem to remember him finding places for socks against the windows ...
posted by jb at 8:26 PM on July 30, 2020

And sorry to pepper the thread but I can’t stress enough how much August heat matters as a safety factor. Make sure your car is equipped with a properly inflated spare tire, jack, and lug wrench and that you know how to check your tire inflation (every day at least on that trip) and change a tire. There are places you could wait a long time for a tow truck. Carry a large umbrella in case you do have to work outside the car in the blazing sun or pouring rain. Carry a $40 lithium car battery charger so you can jump start yourself, and again know how to use it. A gallon of the correct coolant and a quart of the correct oil, and know how to check both levels. Sunscreen.

Get fresh wiper blades. And consider a RainX treatment right before you leave. Summer rain storms can really swamp you in a small car on western interstates

If you haven’t done so in a couple of years you’ll get big preventative bang for the buck by flushing and refilling your cooling system and replacing the coolant hoses. That system works especially hard at high speeds in high heat. Change your air intake filter too. For $10 it may give you a little edge at high altitudes if it’s been a while.

And if you don’t have them already, window sunshades, the food quality kind, for the passenger and front side windows, and a full shade scene for the front windshield. If you’re stuck in afternoon heat for any amount of time, again a potential lifesaver.
posted by spitbull at 8:30 PM on July 30, 2020

“good quality kind”
“shade screen”
posted by spitbull at 8:36 PM on July 30, 2020

One thing to be aware of: state troopers love reasons to pull you over. You’ve got out of state plates. Depending on your visible identity you might be targeted. The small car says you’re not rich, which also makes you a target. And a car stuffed to the rafters such that visibility out the rear is inhibited provides ... probable cause for a stop even if you’re not speeding.

Needless to say, no political bumper stickers.
posted by spitbull at 8:41 PM on July 30, 2020

Are you able to keep all your devices charged in the car, or do you need a multiport adaptor? Do you have the extended (100 mile tow) AAA coverage?
Also while the movers may guarantee a week, they may actually take a month or so. If you have anything that you can't buy at your destination that you will need after a week or two, try to bring it. If you are transporting desktop computers, maybe remove the HD after a backup.
posted by Sophont at 1:29 AM on July 31, 2020

A last thought to add. With a full car and at high speeds in high heat, you’ll burn gas faster than you might be used to driving the unladen car around town by yourself. Make sure you are conservative about estimating remaining mileage before you need refueling. Gauges are often inaccurate, so set your trip odometer every time you refuel and get a sense of what your real mileage is over the first few tanks. Never get below 1/4 tank remaining on western interstates in summer heat. (Or ever really.)
posted by spitbull at 10:51 AM on July 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

I moved from Iowa to British Columbia in a beater Cavalier, back in the day. Lots of ~week roadtrips across N. America too.

Media mail your books. I did, no regrets. The (Canadian-side) postie even helped me carry the boxes inside once they arrived. Relatively little money very well spent. It did take a month or two, but the border probably delayed. Now, perhaps covid.

If you see a "Last Gas for X miles," take it seriously and top the tanks up no matter what. Top up water, empty the urine bottles. Cats or dogs or other? Most will need letting out. If cats or other, is there litter/ bedding in the carriers and do you have enough (or can you buy more at gas stations)?

Wide mouth gatorade bottles are good, just make sure you can "pinch off" your urine or relieve yourself frequently enough that you don't overflow the bottle.

Get yourself a bag of plastic shopping bags for waste. You know how laundered pantyhose are wound up for storage? Similar idea. Grab one of the bottom corners of a bag between your index and middle fingers of your off hand. Make a fist with your other handaround the bag so your thumb and forefinger touch the back of your off hand fore/middle fingers. Slide your fist up the bag to compact it while wrapping them not-quite-tightly around your fore/middle fingers. Stuff the straps (possibly folded, to make them bulkier - they'll expand a bit more and make the plastic rosette more robust) into the middle where your fore/middle fingers are and withdraw the fingers. You should end up with a plastic rosette that should hold its shape fairly well but be easy to open up.

Any solid waste that you generate, especially moist or food/ residue waste, goes into one which is easy to drop off whenever you gas up. In a pinch, truckers use them for personal solid waste. Just make sure there aren't any holes at the bottom of the bags when used for this purpose, especially if personal solid waste isn't solely solid.

Keep a big thing of wet wipes handy up front. (I like Huggies natural care these days; negligible residue and the cloth is cotton and pretty absorbent [don't get Pampers brand; hydrophobic plastic-type cloth that doesn't "pick up" anything] - you can get them in soft bricks of 56 with a solid plastic airtight opening). Handy as hell, especially if you have to resort to a trucker special.

A roll (you should be able to buy them at gas stations/ truck stops) of good paper towels would be prudent for spills/ general use. I appreciated the heck out of them, wetted with drinking water, throughout. But largely replaced by commercial wet wipes.

Check your wiper fluid. I ran out on a really dusty single lane no passing road for hours, once. Ended up wetting a paper towel with drinking water and wiping a small clear spot from the driver window while rolling to pear through before I could pull over and top up with... drinking water. Not ideal.

But yes, drinking water. If you have a radiator problem, that can be a lifesaver until you limp into the next gas station.

Make sure all the mirrors are visible for both drivers.

Fuel economy between open windows and AC is usually a wash or favours AC, use AC.

Are you crossing the rockies? That was harrowing in an underpowered overladen car. Definitely would not have made it if I had books with me, instead of being media mattered.

There are dedicated "slow" lanes every so often, but take every opportunity to "gun it" to build up momentum in case there's another steep incline around the corner. You should have fuel injection instead of a carburetor so it shouldn't be as bad as it was back in the day.

"Doing it on a dime"
Do you have planned stops - ie., you know someones along the way that you can spend the night at, or pre-booked motel rooms?

If any of your planned stops are anywhere away from an Interstate - I'd highly recommend having at least $100 in cash (in 20s and smaller denominations). If you end up having to resort to using that cash, top it back up the next time you get.

I've done long distance roadtrips, and the timing can be uncertain - compounding as distance increases. It helps now with email/ text and that you have a co-pilot. I've held up friends for hours or arrived waaay late (early was fine, I needed the break). Didn't bother with motel reservations and planned the day's duration to end close to enough motels (or changed plans situationally, then spent the evening reformulating target endpoints) that I ought to be able to get a room. These days, consider covid. And pets.

I wouldn't sleep in the car - with another person. Especially not with three pets. The driver the next day is going to be a hazard on the road. If you do, crack the window even if it feels/ expected to be too cold.
posted by porpoise at 7:19 PM on July 31, 2020

Response by poster: For future small car having, pet parent, moving long distance folks, here is what worked/didn't for me/my co-pilot!

a) the trunk of a nissan sentra, and I presume most sedans, is MUCH larger than you might think. I packed a great deal of items; linens, pet supplies, small kitchen appliances, shoes, two small suitcases full of clothes, a small television, and some more stuff I'm forgetting, all in the trunk. To give you an idea of volume: I have yet to unpack several boxes in my new place because everything truly essential made it into the trunk.
b) the backseat of a nissan sentra, and I presume most sedans, is much smaller than you might think! Utilizing the space under and in between/over the pet carriers was crucial. Underneath I put a narrow/long tupperware container full of books. In the footwells I fit another two small suitcases. In between and above the pet carriers I stuffed in pillows and blankets, which was useful in that it made things dark and maybe a bit more calming for them? Which brings us to:
c) I needed more animal sedatives than I had. Next time, I will practice on them with the medicine WELL in advance. The vet had given me enough to go up in dosage if needed, but doing so left us with not enough for the entirety of our trip.
d)despite our best efforts, we continuously lost shit in the car, most notably our phones/wallets/snacks/other immediate usage stuff. Next time I plan on having one tote bag that everything we might conceivably want while driving/stopping for gas goes in.

While we were prepared for a flat tire/overheating/running out of gas, what we were not prepared for was the latch on the trunk breaking at 2am in a McDonald's parking lot in the middle of nowhere Arizona. Luckily, I had bungee cord in my emergency kit, and it also came in handy when my dog got carsick all over his leash in New Mexico AND when a suitcase zipper broke. Bring bungee cord!

Thanks again to everyone for your help; it was a great trip, even amidst a pandemic/while toting many small animals across state lines!
posted by nancynickerson at 8:59 AM on October 26, 2020

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