The Golden Rules of Packing

There is a science to packing a 4×4 or overlanding/camping vehicle, though the principles are very simple. camping vehicle, though the principles are very simple. Once you’ve gone through the motions a few times, or you’ve been on the road long enough to perfect your own system, it becomes second nature, even when you change vehicles. Angus Boswell gives some valuable advice.

Weight distribution

When you are carrying your world with you, which means all the clothes, and cooking, sleeping and other leisure gear you need for comfort, the total mass of extras is often at or near the vehicle’s maximum carrying capacity, or GVM (Gross Vehicle Mass), which includes passengers. Remember to add in the weight of all those aftermarket accessories when calculating your load. The rule is: don’t just keep adding stuff because it’s a nice-to-have. Rather spread it all out before you start packing, delete what you can, and place the heaviest items first, as low down as possible. Next, keep all those heavy items as close as feasible to the centre of the vehicle – this will keep the centre of gravity low, and prevent pitching and wandering off-road.

Keep it Inboard of the axles- the lever effect

Think of your vehicle’s axles as the fulcrum points on a playground swing. The more weight you add outboard of the axles, the heavier the load on the suspension. The engineers amongst us will be able to calculate exactly the effect of the same given load/weight as distance from the fulcrum increases, while anyone who has used a long lever to lift a heavy object will get the drift. It’s why one must beef up the front suspension when you add an aftermarket bullbar and winch. When packing, push the heavier items as far forward as you can in the bakkie’s load bin or SUV’s boots pace. Only pack the lighter items further towards the rear. You will reap the benefits of less bouncing around on bumps and washboard roads, apart from saving your shock absorbers and rear suspension from potential damage.

It’s not on top, It’s inside

Vehicles are designed to carry a certain mass on top, usually under 90kg, not just because of the limitations of roof strength, but because weight up high raises the ideal centre of gravity. This will adversely affect handling. Think of making a sudden avoidance manoeuvre to avoid striking an animal or a pothole, and how extra weight up top is likely to unsettle any vehicle, upping the danger of a rollover. So, while roof racks are brilliant to keep messy things like stacks of wood or jerry cans of fuel out of the interior, it pays to keep tight control over what goes up on top. Invest in a waterproof duffel bag or aerodynamic box to carry bulky mattresses or light bedding, but don’t be tempted to carry loads of heavy stuff – especially if you already have a rooftop tent and awning stuck up there. Lastly, adding weight and bulk up top will substantially increase fuel consumption; not so much at slow off-roading speeds, but certainly when cruising at the speed limit. Don’t do it.


It helps to create a modular system for camping and cooking gear using equalsized containers, which can be nested together, and ideally placed on a sliding tray to improve access. Drawer systems, with internal dividers, fulfill most of this function, but permanently take up space which may not suit everyone’s needs. Be sure to label each box, or develop a colour-coding system so you know what each one contains: recovery gear in

one, cutlery and crockery in another, food in yet another. Then the trick is to stick to the system, so it works every time. You can use cheapie plastic boxes, but they usually don’t last with all the bumping and rattling. Rather go for quality, and keep them small and easy to manhandle. It’s not necessary to make them all military-grade aluminium or Pelican-style cases. The traditional plastic ammo box is a standard here, though I find they are a bit shallow. A version with a taller lid is available. Front Runner has improved on the basic design with their Wolf Pack Pro, which features sturdier lid catches. All of these are stackable (though you can’t mix and match the types), plus they are largely dust- and waterproof, and can be lined or fitted with dividers to prevent sensitive or delicate items from shifting around inside.

You can also maximise the use of space inside your load area by adding a mezzanine level, basically a dividing rack to separate some of the frequently used or awkwardly shaped items from the boxes and bags below. You can make one yourself from plywood covered in carpet to reduce rattling, or buy one from one of our quality local manufacturers. It’s a great way to separate the ground cover, chairs and tables you may typically carry (see more packing hacks from our touring expert, George van Deventer, at the end of this article).

Last in, First out

When you stop for a picnic on the road, load up a fresh stock of groceries, or park up for the night, access is king. The rule is simple: the things you use the most must be easily accessible. The cutlery box or drawer should be close, the fridge must be able to slide in and out unimpeded, and you should be able to get to the food box without hassle and find what you are looking for. Likewise with the chairs, tables, braai kit or awnings that come out first when setting up camp. Everyone has their own system, and the more time you spend on the road, the more refined it gets.

Go soft and aggregate

More passengers add complication and radically multiply the number of bags that have to be fitted into the available space. Invest in soft duffel bags which can be moulded to awkwardly shaped spaces, and encourage all passengers to aggregate their many bags containing shoes, cameras, various clothes, and such sundries into one. Try and ditch the hard cases when it comes to personal effects. Make use of the vehicle’s stash spaces and storage behind or under the seats, but keep tabs on what goes where – things like wallets, sunglasses, maps, or camera gear should have their own defined place.


Vehicle manufacturers should use overland trips to test the durability of their plastics and the wear index of any covering, be it vinyl, leather or paint. All the packed items in or on the vehicle jostle together on corrugated roads and a few big bumps will rearrange all that careful packing. Three hours of this will totally destroy the paint job on a load bin, or make deep rubbing patches on internal plastics. I have tried laying down thin rubber sheets, and old blankets or towels, to keep boxes and bags away from the vehicle’s soft spots. The same goes for storage boxes and fridges. Make compartments inside using dividers ideally, and try to keep them full so there is less movement. Separate the glass/delicate items using expanded foam, or even wrap things like wine bottles in bubble wrap. Try to avoid glass in the first place, and repack things into plastic containers which can take more of a pounding. A red wine accident makes a brutal mess…

Tie it down

Internal fastening eyes in SUVs and on bakkies are there for a purpose. Keep them accessible when packing, and cinch everything down using tie-downs or ratchet straps. Stretchy bungy cords allow too much movement, though will work in a pinch. Have as election of straps available of different lengths, as packing needs change in the course of any trip. This will make a big difference to the amount of bouncing that is transferred from the road to your camping gear, and it will prevent a nasty accident when you have to stop suddenly and are nearly decapitated by a flying Wolf Pack.

Choose wisely

Each trip demands a slightly different set of camping gear. Decide exactly what will be needed. It will be different for a weekend away compared to a months-long overland epic. Buy the best equipment you can afford at any time, but keep an eye on the weight to utility ratio. Most overlanders take too much initially, and find they actually use far fewer items than imagined. If equipment is heavy, or clumsy to set up, invariably it will stay stowed.

Just take less

Weigh is the enemy. Repeat: weight is the enemy. This is perhaps the most important rule of packing. Take less, cull the extras, and be ruthless about what you actually need. Use a nylon spare tent if you don’t need a heavy canvas one. Leave the shower behind if there will be ablutions. Don’t take two spare gas bottles if one will suffice on a weekend. No matter how much you want to boast about the latest purchases, or want to be the guy with everything that opens and shuts, resist the urge. Fight to cut the clutter your travel companions want to haul along – before you are having a garage sale on the roadside, or before your suspension is on the point of collapse. When camping you are meant to be going for the simple life. Keep it that way and make do with less.

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