How to Pack Like a Pro

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Just when you thought you’d gotten the hardest part out the way by finally making a decision on which of the many hundreds of vans on offer was going to suit you and the family, along comes an even bigger challenge: how do I pack it? With a recent police blitz in Victoria finding that more than half the caravans they pulled over were overweight, there is obviously a need for some weight loss tips for our little (and not so little) cabooses.

Simplistically, there are two figures you need to know: your Tare which is what you van weighs completely empty without any optional extras, and your ATM which is the most your van can weigh fully kitted out and loaded. The difference between these two figures is what you have to play with when packing; your “payload”. But before you get too excited, this payload figure also has to include the weight of things like your gas bottles, water in your tanks (remembering each litre of water weighs 1kg) and any dealer fitted extras (air conditioner, awning, TV). Often this doesn’t leave a lot spare for those slightly essential items like clothes, food, toys and beer (not necessarily in that order).

Red range rover driving in the outback

So how can you possibly squeeze all of life’s essentials into the few kilograms of payload you have left? If a couple of grey nomads were struggling to stay underweight, what hope have you got with all the gear that seems to go along with having kids? Take heart, not all those caravans that were pulled over were overweight, so it is possible. It just takes the right mind set and some clever packing ideas.

Let’s start with the mindset part. The first thing to get into your head around is that you are camping. The essence of camping is realising just how little you really need to get by. ‘Making do’ seems to be a lost art amongst today’s consumer driven society, so get back to basics, be adaptable and flexible and make the best with what you have.

Mr Google will cough up endless packing checklists for you, but there’s no one that’s going to suit every van and every family. You need to make your own, and it will be an ever-evolving document as you encounter new and innovative packing and equipment ideas on your travels. But this should get you started.


Clothes all packed up in a caravan

No rocket science here; it’s all about layers. The colder it is, the more layers you put on. A set of thermal underwear doesn’t take up much space but makes the world of difference if the weather turns cold on you. A light rain jacket not only keeps you dry, but can also be a great windbreaker. The bottom line in clothing hygiene is clean socks and jocks each day (and no boys, turning your jocks back to front and then inside out doesn’t mean you can get four wears out of one pair – yuck!).  If you’re out camping odds are that the kids are going to look just as grubby five minutes after you let them loose as they did at the end of the previous day. Embrace it. Really, has anyone ever come up to you whilst you were camping to say that t-shirt your child is wearing looks suspiciously like the same one they had on yesterday?

Packing cells are ideal for keeping socks, underwear and accessories such as beanies, gloves and scarves together. They are soft, zip-up containers that come in different sizes and you can jam all these items into them, keeping them together and then just throw the whole thing into the drawer / cupboard.

Don’t skimp though, even on a short trip it’s worth covering the spectrum of weather from hot to cold, so no matter what Mother Nature throws at you, you can still enjoy your holiday. A good motto to live by is, ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing’.


young boy playing with toys in the dirty

Have you ever stopped to think that your grandparents managed to grow up into intelligent, functional human beings without the benefit of cupboards full of plastic toys? The best way to address the packing problem with toys is… don’t pack any. OK, maybe that’s a bit mean, but be selective. Have a few outdoor toys that pack high value for their size and weight: tennis balls; a cricket set; a blow-up ball; bucket and spade; or a frisbee are good choices.

But really, I do appreciate that kids love their ‘stuff’ and it makes sense to take a small selection of their things along. For us, each child has their own box that lives on the back seat next to them, in which they can put whatever they want to bring along to play with – with just a little adult guidance. Toy cars, some plastic figurines (army men, Littlest Pets, Polly Pocket – whatever is currently taking their fancy), a small bag of Lego, favourite doll, a couple of books, and so on. I would then have a craft box with paper, pencils, sticky tape, glue, scissors etc for general art as well as diary keeping. If the weather turns bad, it’s worth its weight in gold.

The main thing the kids need to pack is their imagination. Some may need a little jump-start with this. Just remember some of those things you did as a kid and show them how. Collect rocks or leaves or flowers. Find the perfect walking stick. Turn over rocks and see what’s under them. Dig in the sand. Skim stones. Climb a tree. Show them why it’s called the great outdoors.


birthday celebrations on a camping chair

It doesn’t have to all be practical. If you are going to be away on a significant date like Christmas a birthday or Easter, a little splurge in the packing department will pay big dividends. Nothing will spoil a child’s day quicker than not celebrating an event that they expect to. A bit of tinsel, a few balloons and streamers, some small chocolate eggs – they don’t take up much room and can go a long way to making sure that a special day is still special, even though you are away on holiday.


boy doing activities in the back of the car

A well stocked first aid kit, taking in to consideration how remote and extreme you plan to travel, is a must. At the very least insect repellent, sunscreen, Band-Aids, anti-itch cream, Panadol and an ice pack will cover you for the typical misfortunes encountered by exploring children. Keep these in one container (doesn’t have to be fancy, a plastic box will do) in an easily accessible location.


sandwiches on a pan being grilled

Food is very much a personal preference thing. Some people are happy to live on tins of baked beans for a week, others expect gourmet every night. When you are on holidays, the cook of the house is meant to be having a holiday too, so plan ahead and take a few shortcuts. My philosophy is that camping isn’t the time to express your inner Master Chef. It’s about quick, nutritious, filling meals.

Plan your meals and take only exactly what you need to make each one. Nothing is worst than packing food at the start of a trip, and unpacking the exact same things at the end because you haven’t used them – what a waste of space and weight.

Pre-prepare a few meals and freeze them (or vacuum pack if you only have a fridge). Ready prepared (especially homemade) means less scraps, packaging and waste, which means less weight. I’m a big fan of frozen veggies when we’re camping – they stay fresh, there’s no peelings / scraps and they are already cut up. Throw in a packet of sauce and boil some pasta or rice and you’re done. What is there not to like?


Pots and pans

At home you might have different bowls for soup and cereal and dessert, but you don’t need that while you’re camping. One bowl can serve for all three and what’s in it will taste exactly the same. In fact, it will taste even better because you’re eating it while you’re camping, seasoned with fresh air and a touch of wood smoke.

Lightweight and stackable are the golden rules here, with unbreakable a close second. My personal favourite is my stackable Snow Peak cook set, which has three pots, a colander and a frypan that stack into a single unit like Russian dolls, with the largest pot being 6.6L – big enough for the hungriest family.

Rather than a frypan, consider a chef pan.  A short handle on either side rather than one long handle that sticks out like on a frypan makes them much more compact to pack.  You can still fry in them like a frypan, but they are deeper so also good for simmering. A 32cm will also fit four pieces of bread for pan-toasted melted cheese sandwiches.

At the risk of sounding like a pleb, you can get some very nice plastic wine glasses nowadays. Glass is a risk for both breaking during transit and makes an awful mess if dropped outdoors, not to mention being dangerous underfoot. And, have you got your smelling salts ready? After extensive research I’ve come to the conclusion that wine tastes just as good no matter the shape of the glass you drink it out of – so pack only one plastic glass per person. Though if you’re not convinced, I’d be more than happy to conduct further research, if someone will supply the wine!


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