Making It All Fit

By: Jeff Reynolds - 7/2000

Upper row, left to right: kitchen sack, stoves, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pads, roll-up table, sleeping bag. Lower row: clothes 1, clothes 2, welding kit, long tool box, ratchets/sockets sack, pliers/screwdrivers bag, wrench bag.

For more than 50 years, 4 wheelers have been facing the problem of limited cargo space. If you own a large four-wheel drive SUV, wagon, or pickup, storage space is not usually problematic. Of course, the larger machines are hampered by their size during off-highway travel. If you wheel in a smaller 4 wheel drive, you will relate to the topic of this article, namely, "making it all fit."

The Jeep MB, CJ, YJ, and TJ are not capacious machines. Originally designed for wartime conditions as a four wheel drive, all terrain reconnaissance car; small and light; rugged, maneuverable and low of profile; the postwar civilian Jeep has evolved with ever-improving technology and creature comforts, but little evolution in basic size or off pavement purpose.

Starting with the very small 4 wheel drives, off road aficionados have not been able to take everything we want on trips to their favorite jeeping or camping spots. When it was just you and a friend, or a pair of consenting adults, it was possible to pare down and make everything fit in the trusty jeep. One thing led to another, and we became a family. With children, the cargo space requirements of a conveyance climb rapidly. Combine adults and children in a jeep and space is at a premium. Here are some tried and true solutions, and a few you may not have considered, along the bumpy road to making it all fit.

The Big Picture

The solution to the space problem boils down to getting a grip on three general concepts.

  1. Reducing the size and weight of your cargo.
  2. Expanding your storage space.
  3. Packing more efficiently.

The best of all worlds is to do some of all three.

Reducing Size And Weight Of Equipment ... Taking A Cue From Backpackers

The first tent we owned was a 10'x14' canvas behemoth weighing 74 pounds! Our off-highway domicile included "slumber party" bags that worked well in a narrow temperature band that somehow always eluded us. They were bulky and difficult to store. The kitchen included a 2-burner white gas folding stove, a gallon can of white gas, a large folding metal camp table, bulky folding lawn chairs, a huge 2-mantle gas lantern, old suitcases for our clothes, and cardboard boxes holding large heavy kitchen utensils and food. Even with capable 4X4 wagons of the era (a V8-powered Willys Utility wagon and an FJ-55 Land Cruiser, in my case), I found that with two young children, we needed more space than a wagon could provide. What to do? The next step was a large roof rack that covered the entire top of the jeep. We somehow got all that heavy and bulky stuff up there. But I now needed overload springs on the rear, and that tarp on the roof covering all that stuff flapped continually at highway speeds. It was also difficult to remove articles from the roof rack without major unloading. The rack was top heavy, and acted like a windbreak, diminishing mpg's significantly. A V-8 engine transplant was now necessary to pull all that weight.

Then we thought we needed more space: a trailer to the rescue, and a bigger gas tank to feed that now larger engine pulling the trailer and loaded roof rack. Where would this all end?

The beginning of the end came when a friend asked me to backpack with him. I started reading about equipment and techniques, and discovered the joys of weight loss. From that time on, I kept a wary eye on paring down the size and weight of all equipment I took off-roading. Eventually, most of the clothing, camping and cooking equipment I used in backpacking found its way into my Jeep. It became a pattern to transfer the backpacking technology to jeeping. Imagine you had to carry all that stuff on your back. That quickly puts everything into perspective. Here are some ideas...

Expanding Your Carrying Power
Our trailer behind my CJ8.


When the Department of Defense commissioned the original Jeeps, the bids included a call for Jeep-compatible trailers to increase the cargo capacity. Tens of thousands of Bantam Jeep trailers were built and issued and seemed to always be in tow behind the wartime MB's.

The most successful off-road trailers are probably actual Jeep trailers that were made for the military. The three best known versions are the MBT, made by Bantam in WW II; the M-100 after 1950; and M-416, in use during the Viet Nam War and towed behind the Jeeps of the era. All three styles were metal, including a parking brake and pintle hook, with wheels, tires, and track to match the jeep. These were not lightweight, but were bulletproof and could stand up to abuse. The former plethora of salvaged trailers at auction has ended, and they are getting harder to find. Expect to pay $300-800 for a good one. You will need a tarp for a cover.

Pintle hooks allow a greater freedom of movement between the trailer and tow vehicle than do balls.

Jeepers have tried many styles of trailers for general and off-pavement use. I built several Jeep trailers starting with just an axle, and there are desirable features to or look for:

Try to get a trailer with the same lug bolt pattern as your jeep so your spare will fit both jeep and trailer. I've had both the MBT and M-416 and also a Toyota jeep trailer that had 6 bolt wheel pattern and a track that matched the width of the Land Cruiser. The Cruiser version was made by Con Ferr, and had a pair of hinged tops. When closed they sealed the box from dust and water. It had four 5-gallon can holders on the sides. The original trailer springs broke in Baja, and I replaced them with genuine CJ springs and added shocks. It was lighter than the military versions, a plus. Even with the annoying clanking you get with the pintle hook, I recommend them for their sturdiness and trail-ability. There is also a new style of ball hitch that has a 360-degree pivot that looks promising. We have even changed the M-416 to a spring-over-axle configuration, for even better off-road ability. This also matches the sprung-over Jeeps' hitch elevation and clearance.

There are some great 'trailer jocks' out there, who can pull those things anywhere, backwards or forwards, over the worst terrain. For the rest of us mere mortals, trailers are a pain to maneuver off road. So, only consider one if you really need the space and have the trailering technique to match your mountains. Overall, your best bet is to park it in camp and do your extreme trail riding without it. One last admonition: these trailers are rather heavy and will impede your progress on the highway and off-road. Before you decide you must have one, borrow a friend's for a test tow. As much as I liked these trailers, they all had the same nickname: "Al B. Tross".

Roof Racks

Roof racks have that tough, off-road, 'Safari' look. For hard core jeeping, roof racks are not a panacea. I don't recommend them at all. The tendency is to get more roof rack than you need. You don't need a rack that is the same size as your roof, although, in hot weather, some folks appreciate the shade it affords if it has a solid or add-on plywood floor. The problem is that roof racks, by design, make it possible to store the heavy and bulky up top. This can raise your center of gravity, a liability on tough trails. On a trip to the Ershim, a trail known for its tight clearances through rocks and trees, we were coming out on the North end at Kaiser Pass. A Land Cruiser with a tremendous roof rack was just entering the gauntlet of tight clearances. The rig must have been piled 9 feet high! The driver boasted his V-8 could take him anywhere. I always wonder how far he got before his big V-8 helped deposit his roof bound load right on the ground, like a pull off load. Another time at the 'drop-off' in the Anza-Borrego, two college kids had all their goods tied down in a great bundle on the after market roof rack of a small foreign SUV. It was so top heavy that they decided to unload the entire roof rack and drag everything by hand down the precipice, and then reload at the bottom. Good thinking, as I'm sure they would have gotten out of control on that steep incline. If you feel you must have a roof rack, get as little roof rack as you can get away with, with a low profile, or maybe no side sills at all.

Roof Sacks

Years ago, I purchased a large vinyl bag with tabs to tie on the roof of your jeep. It was 4 x 5 feet, and 18" high. It had heavy-duty zippers that opened most of the bag. This proved to be a very good solution to storage. Sleeping bags, tents, pads, clothes, and other soft and light items stored well on the roof, even without much of a roof rack. The weight saving, compared to a full metal roof rack, was substantial. If it covers the entire roof, it serves as a 'tropical top' in the summer months. The down side is that the sack does not handle low hanging trees well, and is still a wind break on the highway. I even use this sack IN the jeep during the summer when the top is off. It covers the entire rear floor area of my CJ-8. It's dust proof, waterproof, theft deterring, and if tied down keeps your load from being hurled at you in a collision or roll over.

Trail Racks

This rack is loaded with gear but still stays up out of the way.

Racks that go to the rear and above the spare tire of the jeep have found their way into our storage options. They are a welcome cargo solution for small jeeps with owners expecting to navigate hard core trails, like the Rubicon or Ershim. The clearance on bottom, sides and top is very good. Wherever your jeep can go, the rear rack will follow without a whimper and with a great ramp departure angle to boot. Some down sides are poor visibility through the rear view mirror, high unladen weight, and high center of gravity of the load. If creatively packed, they can be very useful. You can also strap bags and bolt other equipment on and around the edges of the trail racks making them even more efficient.

Bag It !

One of the best space saving and weight reducing concepts is the use of various sized heavy vinyl or canvas bags and stuff sacks to store and separate your cargo. Stuff sacks have drawstrings; are lightweight and mold easily to any shape. If they are waterproof and dust proof, that's even better.

My recovery bag contains all the basics.

These are items packed in their own bags:

Boonie Boxes

Boxes are efficient only if filled to capacity, which they usually aren't. They are a poor use of space, so I use as few boxes as possible. I have one or two plastic storage boxes with twin folding lids for heavy spare jeep parts and other hard goods. I make sure to store a full load in each box to keep the contents from rattling and shifting around.

Plywood Second Floor

Years ago, when I drove a Land Cruiser FJ-40, I used a custom-cut piece of 1/2" plywood to fit over the rear fender wells and the entire rear area to facilitate 2 levels of storage. There were some well placed wooden 2x2 legs to hinder any deflection. After folding and moving the front seat forward, there were 2 hinged sections that folded over the seats, further expanding the flat area. We could unpack the top layer of cargo (on the top level of the plywood) and sleep 2 adults and a child inside the jeep. If you had a trailer or rack, you would have to unpack even less. If you packed the heavy items on the lower level, and kept your bedroom items on the upper level, you would have to move even less cargo outside before retiring. Occasionally, on long trips, we would fold the passenger side forward, and the passenger could sleep, fully prone, while the driver drove.

Plywood Compartments

For keeping cargo separate in the back of my CJ8, I use a pair of 3/8" plywood separators bolted to the inside flat vertical part of the fender wells. They run vertically from the front bulkhead to the tailgate at the same elevation as the edges of the tub. A tonneau cover snaps over the rear, and can be unsnapped to get just what I need. The separators keep things in place and prevents things from rolling around.

Rear Seat

Never take a rear seat unless you really need it. If you have a third person, consider a rear seat for only one person. It only needs to be about 18-24" wide and, of course, you'll need a seat belt set for this seat. You can locate the right one at an auto dismantler. This gains much storage space over the conventional full width seat. On a Land Cruiser FJ-55 wagon I once owned, we actually had a small 3rd seat that bolted in and had its own seat belts, and we drove to the trailhead for a long backpacking trip with 4 adults and 4 children with their loaded backpacks in the trailer.

Extra Engine Fuel

Do not carry extra gasoline inside the jeep. The best solution is to not have to carry any gas cans, but have a big enough gas tank to do any trip. If you do have the need for extra fuel cans, be sure they are secured in a high position for highway travel, in case you are hit by another vehicle. Anytime you have extra fuel cans, carry 2 fire extinguishers onboard. Also carry a fuel siphon hose for emergency transfer of fuel.


Anything that is not packed in a bag should be securely strapped, bolted, or otherwise attached to the Jeep. The bags can then be bungie corded into position. A 'web' style bungie works well over the cargo inside the jeep. I have been in a couple accidents, including a few rollovers, and can only admonish you to tie your stuff down before it is inevitably hurled at you during a collision. It's just good discipline.

Where's The Kitchen?

The kitchen rucksack contains everything but the stoves.

I use 2 small stoves for jeep camping. One is an old but very efficient MSR white gas stove that produces a lot of BTU's in a hurry and has a folding windscreen. Its one demerit is its poor simmering ability. The other stove is a one-burner stove that just screws on to a propane bottle and sits on a plastic base. It puts out less heat than the MSR, but simmers beautifully. It's a very compact rig, about 1/4 the size of a Coleman 2 burner, and much more flexible. Both of these stoves reside in a nylon stuff sack.

A set of nesting cook pots is a good idea. I have an aluminum set that comes in its own sack. If we go with a larger group, I put in another larger pot that fits snugly over the sacked set. Again, compactness is paramount. We use Lexan reusable forks, knives, and spoons, and a variety of other lightweight utensils. Large plastic 'microwave' cups with handles are great as they hold about 22 oz. and are lightweight. Some entire meals are consumed out of them with a spoon. Insulated plastic cups are fine, especially in cool weather. We use aluminum pie tins as plates. They stack well and hold all that runny food. Take what you need, but not much more. Except for the stoves, the entire kitchen hides in a nylon rucksack -- a sort of small backpack with a thick bottom.

If you don't have a large tailgate, a small table civilizes things a bit. Recently I started using a wood-slatted plastic-covered roll-up table. It unrolls like a tank tread, with aluminum struts and legs that screw in. At the ready, it's 42" long; rolled up to 7" X 24", it stores in its own sack.

Folding lawn chairs come in many varieties. I have a pair just for camping that fold very flat, less than 2" across, and work well in soft sand. The top of the cooler also doubles as a good seat.


It may save space to make and freeze some meals ahead of time, reducing the amount of packaging. Consider menus that don't require a lot of preparation or many pots and pans.


Cans or plastic are the best containers for beverages in the outback; they are unbreakable and can easily be recycled.


Each member of your party needs a gallon a day. I've found that the most successful containers are either one-gallon jugs with screw-on lids, or tall and narrow 6-gallon plastic cans with a spigot, an air purge vent, and the ability to lay on their sides.


If tent camping, take only the size tent you need. Nylon tents have come a long way, and models that set up easily are the ones to get. High tech air mattresses are desired over bulky roll up foam. Choose a sleeping bag that is compact and insulative enough to keep you comfortable inside the tent. Tent camping requires less insulation than you would need if sleeping without a tent. Down will compact to a fraction of its fluffed up size.

How To Pack

Some basics are:

Packing Lists

Jefe's Lightweight car-camping, jeeping, and traveling list, as of 6-99. Items marked with an asterisk (*) are optional.