August 14, 2003

Packing It All In

Hands up if you used to watch Doctor Who in your youth. If you happen to remember that old TV show you may also recall the good Doctor’s primary form of travel – the Tardis. Used for time and space travel, the Tardis was an interesting way to get around… shaped like a regular telephone booth on the outside, the Tardis was deceptively large and spacious on the inside with room for the Doctor, his fellow adventurers and lots of funky 1960s technology. It was always amusing to see all the people and gear disappearing into this phone booth that looked like it should only fit a single occupant.

Those of us who drive Suzukis are well acquainted with that feeling, especially when packing for a weekend or longer. There always seems to be so much stuff that needs to be taken, it’s often difficult to imagine how it can all fit in, yet somehow we seem to manage it. In this article, I’d like to look at some of the tips and tricks you can use to fit more gear into your beloved Japanese Tardis.

When Donna and I first joined the club with our SWB Sierra, we did a lot of trips, long and short, and we had the packing down to a fine art. Provided you only have two people, Sierras make fine vehicles for both short and long trips. With the back seats removed, you can fit an awful lot of gear in if you pack carefully, but then of course you’re usually only packing gear for two people.

When we rejoined the club with kids we decided that we were more interested in the longer touring style trips, and that a Vitara would make an excellent vehicle for these sorts of outings. In the last year we’ve done trips to the High Country, Swans Crossing, Corner Country, Fraser Island, and have some other big trips planned too.

There are lots of good reasons to go 4WD touring in a Zook… They are capable, reliable and economical. I personally prefer to drive smaller cars – I like the performance you get from the good power-to-weight ratio. I like the light, nimble agility, both on the road and in the bush. They are cheaper to buy, register and insure and are generally easier on fuel, tyres and most other consumables. But most of all they are just a lot of fun to drive… there’s just something about Zooks that I like. With all these positives about Zook-based touring the only real downside is the space issue. For me, I’m not interested in solving the space issue by getting a bigger car; I’m interested in solving the space issue through clever packing, creative thinking and well designed gear, so we can fit in all the stuff we need without losing all those other great Zook advantages.

Let’s start with the obvious. The first thing to do is to look at the sorts of strategies used by other Zooksters. How will you pack it all into the vehicle? Will you use some form of extra storage like a roof basket or roof pod? Will you tow a trailer? This is one of the great advantages of belonging to the Club – you get to check out what other people do and see how these various strategies could work for you. How suitable each of these options are will depend on what you drive, where you plan to go, and your own personal preference.

The second thing to do is to make a realistic appraisal of the sorts of trips you plan to do and the amount of gear you will need to take… things like tents and sleeping gear, chairs, tables and cooking gear. Whenever you shop for this stuff don’t just be concerned with the assembled product but also with how it packs down. You’d be amazed at the variation in size with these articles, especially tents.

Space, the final frontier

I asked a few club members for their advice in packing and got a lot of great suggestions, but they could probably be summarised in one sentence - ‘Look for every bit of unused space in your car and fill it creatively’. There are actually lots of little nooks and crannies around the inside of your Zook and unless you actively look for them, you can easily miss them. On top of that, think about the extra space that can be gained by placing some things outside the car, on the roof under the bonnet or even on external barwork.

David Rossiter sent me a couple of photos of his car fully packed before he and Liz headed off on a High Country trip, and it’s a good example of using all the available space. As well as filling the inside of the car, the customised swingout tyre-carrier at the back enabled extra fuel, water and tools to be carried. Under-bonnet space was utilised for the air compressor. They were also carrying a fridge full of food, clothes, cooking gear, navigation and mapping gear, cameras, Drizabones – and of course David and Liz had to fit in there somewhere as well.

On the Rossiter’s most recent jaunt to the High Country they also added a length of plumber’s pipe to the roof to carry poles, pegs and ropes so they could take a large awning tarp.

Hemmi Voges offers some excellent advice for utilising every bit of space. “Remember to use the space under the seats - Det & I store all sorts of things under there! When going away we use the back of the front seats too - I made up a series of pockets for maps, torches & writing bits for kids etc. It worked a treat on the big trips. Det also made up a storage shelf above for the radio and other handy gear,” she says.

“Utilizing the space between the bullbar and the car body for that fishing rod in a fixed tube is a handy idea. The shovel attached to the spare wheel is always good too. Zip-up plastic bags are great and squash up to nothing and they're see-thru! I also use cloth bags made out of stretchy material with drawstrings… great for storing those bits and pieces that may rattle too, labelling them with texta saves forgetting what's in them.”

Buzz Walker adds his thoughts to the space issue. “Further to Hemmi’s comment about the underseat space, this is a good spot to put the air and watertight plastic container with the First Aid kit, so it's always easily accessible. A big torch is also handy, plus the jumper leads (just in case) and maybe a cloth bag with a snatch strap and two shackles.” Buzz points out that if you leave all this equipment in the car all the time, then you’ll never forget it!

False Positives

Another very useful modification is the simple addition of a rear tray or false floor, or if you really want to get serious, you can build a complete shelving unit into the back section of the car.

John Kemp describes how, in planning for a recent Fraser island trip, he removed the back seats and made up a barrier which attached to the roll cage just in front of the seats. “This gave me a lot more room to comfortably fit a couple of milk crates (1 with recovery gear, spares, tools, and the other with stove, pots, plates, cups, etc).This left plenty of room between the back door for esky, folding table and chairs, with the tent, airbeds, etc sitting nicely lengthways between the crates and wheel arches.
Adding a false floor can make a huge difference to the way you pack the back of your Zook. If you combine this with some suitably sized plastic crates which slide neatly under the false floor, it makes packing, unpacking and accessing gear during quick stops far easier. Of course, most of these false floor solutions tend to be custom built, as everyone will have a slightly different idea of how the jigsaw puzzle in the back of the car needs to be put together. The height of the false floor needs to take account of the size boxes you wish to slide under it, and don’t forget to allow for the height of the rear wheel arches.

Marcus Wilson’s Vitara has a very useful two drawer storage system in the back, which forms the basis of an extended false floor system. It also houses part of his new doof-doof stereo system, and these wooden enclosures can also make excellent bass boxes if you have that type of sound system. The extra rear floor space also fits a BBQ quite well apparently!

My old Sierra had an asymmetrical false floor which could fit a set of packed plastic crates under it, but it also extended across the top of the passenger side wheel arch to give a much wider flat area on top. The driver’s side didn’t extend out, enabling tall equipment like a foldup table to stand upright, making it easy to grab for a quick lunch stop. It also provided a great acoustic chamber for my subwoofers, which were mounted along the front panel.

There are also some nice commercially available false floors with beautifully designed roll-out drawers. Burnie Morgan has one in the back of his GV and swears by it, although he points out they are not cheap to buy. However, they do come fully carpeted and finished, with heavy duty rollers, lock points, etc.

Grant Vella uses a similar system in his work vehicles. “I have a set of commercially built roll out draws in my work ute. We have 3 vehicles in the fleet fitted out the same. They are in constant use all day (our guys visit 8-12 customers per day) and have not missed a beat. Yes, they did cost $1400 each, but are a dream to work with.” says Grant.

Shelf Life

The logical extension of the false floor concept is to create a complete shelving system, customised to fit not only the car, but the particular way you pack. Because these can be built from scratch they can be designed to suit your fridge, your tent, your boxes, so packing truly does become like a well designed jigsaw puzzle. The most impressive one I saw was built by Tim Steele to fit into the back of his Vitara wagon. A marvel of engineering, it was created using Capral Aluminium’s Qubelock System. Qubelock is a collection of high impact plastic corner pieces in a variety of shapes which are designed to work with standard lengths of square aluminium piping – just cut to length and join together with the corner pieces to form whatever shapes you like.

Tim and Leah’s shelving system was designed to fit into their Vitara without the back seat installed, and has storage space for water, recovery gear, camping and cooking gear, as well as rollout drawers for food and fridge. Says Tim, “With that storage system Leah & I were able to pack a whole bunch of other stuff in the back of the Vitara. More than we needed sometimes... I remember Chris's comment on the Victorian High Country Trip – ‘What else have you got in there?!’ That storage system was the best thing since sliced bread. Took me bloody ages to build, but made camping life a whole lot easier.”

With the arrival of little Holly, they sold the unit to James and Amy who now use it in the back of their LWB Vitara. James says, “The storage system is second to none. Load safety has improved 100%. I would suggest a storage system to anyone that goes camping or 4WDing as much as we do.”

For the sort of trips we like to do, fitting as much gear as we need for two adults and two kids raises some interesting challenges. It requires putting more gear in, while having less space to do it with. With the inspiration of Mr Steele’s aluminium masterpiece, I decided to see what could be made to fit the back of our Vitara while still leaving the back seat in place. First step was to measure all the non-negotiable equipment such as the fridge and other camping gear. Our fridge, a 35 litre Waeco, was too long to fit lengthways into the back of the car, which is the normal way fridges are installed. With a bit of creative thinking, the plan was to create a rollout tray that held the fridge sideways instead.

After a couple of quick design sketches, it was off to Capral to buy the bits. I borrowed a dropsaw from a good mate so the cuts would be neat and clean and in a couple of hours had a finished product.

The good things about it are the snug fit and three tiered shelves. The back and sides of a Vitara body slope inwards slightly so you need to account for these subtle shape changes in the design by varying the size of the shelves. Slab sided 4WDs like Sierra’s won’t have this problem. It becomes an important consideration in being able to fit and remove the unit from the car… the back door is actually smaller than the inside space, so you need to be a bit clever in the way it’s designed or you can end up wasting space rather than saving it.

A good storage unit will hold everything in place and won’t rattle. We also have a cargo barrier installed to keep us safe from flying gas bottles and axes, so whenever we use the storage unit we just cable tie it to the mesh of the cargo barrier. The barrier doesn’t support any of the storage unit’s weight, but cable tying it into place stops it from moving or rattling.

Rattle and Hum

Speaking of rattling, a well packed Zook should experience very little of it. If you pack well and think about what items are likely to be resting up against other items, you can try to avoid obvious rattles and shakes. Cooking pots and billys are a good example; to save space try to buy pots that fit neatly inside each other, but to avoid rattles try laying a teatowel between them when you pack.

I was amazed at just how quiet the storage unit keep things. Even on rough corrugated roads at high speeds, there is almost zero rattle coming from the back of the car. If you are anything like me, that is a very important feature! I’ve been known to pull over and repack the car because of a minor rattle in the back. I really hate them. Apparently I’m not alone. Says Tim Steele, “We’ve found when packing plates, billys, camp ovens etc, (things that rattle), it's a good idea to place pieces of paper towel in between, or teatowels. Stops the rattles. Leah hates rattles.”

Buzz has more tips for keeping things quiet in the back of the car…”Don't forget packaging! It’s very important to prevent things rubbing together and wearing holes in themselves. If the Corn Flakes box is hard up against a billy handle it will rub through very quickly, and the flakes will go everywhere. The same goes for plastic bottles of oil or tomato sauce. Glass should always be wrapped to prevent breakages. Use pillows, blankets and other soft items to pack between bins and boxes to prevent rubbing of hard surfaces.”

Similarly, there will always be a certain amount of soft stuff you take with you – pillows, bags, parkas, etc – and these make useful padding which can be stuffed into all those hard to reach places, providing not only storage for the soft stuff but also helping to support and protect some of the other gear. Soft stuff is useful to pack against the windows too, as it can’t scratch the glass, or worse yet, the window tinting film. Constant vibrations on Outback roads can do quite some damage if you have things resting up against the glass.

Beware of flying objects

With the car fully loaded, it can be quite dangerous if you are involved in an accident or the unthinkable should happen and you roll the vehicle. Everything in the back becomes a missile, and if Murphy’s Law holds true, these missiles will be stopped by your cranium. That can hurt.

I’ve already mentioned cargo barriers, and although I think they seem quite expensive for what is essentially a piece of metal mesh on a frame, I highly recommend them. Not only are they much safer, but they really do assist in helping pack more in, as you can pack all the way to the roof.

As an alternative, Buzz again has a suggestion. “I added ratchet strap anchor points to my old Vitara. One set on the wheel arch near the rear door and the other set on the downward curve of the wheel arch below the seat height. These were simply D-handles bolted through the metal skin of the vehicle with spring washers and nylock nuts to retain them. Cost me about $10 plus $30 for two inexpensive straps. This is partly why I didn't get brained when I rolled last Christmas. Only a few things shifted.” Good advice Buzz.

Lighten Up

Roof racks and/or a roof carry basket can be helpful for carrying a whole lot of extra stuff, especially the light, yet bulky stuff like sleeping mats and bags, clothes and even tents.

In our roof basket we fit the tent ( a big one) 4 sleeping bags, 4 sleeping mats, 2 tables, 3 or 4 clothes bags, foldup chairs and other assorted stuff. To keep it dry we use a Bushranger Rack Sack which is quite water and dust proof. We moved the Rola roof racks back as far as they go so the basket can be packed by standing on the rear tailgate or rear wheels.

Having the load on top seems to make almost no difference to the balance of the car. It drives just as well with the load on or off, but I still try to keep the weight on the roof to a minimum, mainly to reduce the stress on the actual roof structure. By the time you add road vibration and wind resistance, you can be adding more stress than just the weight of the load.

Roof bars also provide a useful way to carry long items like tent poles, or even tents. Some tents fold down into long packages and are ideally carried on the roof.

Shop Around

When you buy camping gear, think about how it works in with your back-of-car jigsaw puzzle. Look at the spaces you have available and shop accordingly. There are lots of very cool items on the market which fold down to some amazingly small sizes if you consciously go looking for them. The trick is to buy items which fit your packing plan and not just whatever brand or style the particular shop sells. Be choosy!

It’s also worth looking in the bushwalking sections of the camping stores too, because in many ways we have similar sorts of space and weight restrictions, and you can often find good ideas from products designed for bushwalkers.

Finally, speaking of weight restrictions, if you do a lot of serious camping and touring you will probably be quite loaded up. I used to pull into the weighbridge at Marulan every now and then on trips just to see how much the Sierra weighed fully laden and it was always surprising! The Sierra has a tare weight of about 800kg, so the weighbridge guys were always amused when it weighed in at well over 1500kg. Obviously, all that extra weight can stress the suspension components fairly heavily so if you plan to do a bit of touring then upgrading the suspension with stronger and more robust components is a good idea. The extra weight can also make your Zook handle differently too, so just be aware of it as you throw it into unsuspecting corners.

When it comes to packing it all in, there are tons of good space-saving ideas out there if you keep your eyes open and use your imagination. Many of the best ideas will be gleaned from seeing how others do it, and that’s one of the great advantages of being in a club. Many of the ideas in this article were gathered from other club members, and in fact there are a few more I couldn’t fit in but are worth knowing, so you might like to browse over to the website forum and take a peek. To those who contributed, thank you.

There is so much expertise and experience in this club that if you simply ask for ideas you’ll get more than you know what to do with.

Chris Betcher
August 2003
CB2801 And DBZ00K

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