Surfing in Baja means miles of rutted, bumpy roads--a great test for the VertiRack. Photo credit: Katie Botwin

Space-Saving Racks & Packing Hacks for Road Trippers

From $500 racks to $2 hooks, here are some van life organization and gear-hauling essentials for your next adventure — tried and tested.

Staying organized on a road trip can be chaotic at best. Without organizational systems in place, your beloved adventure rig will likely become an unlivable pigsty, and your otherwise dreamy road trip may deteriorate into cruel, hellish reality.

A few simple packing hacks will help with the small stuff. But the real gear savior will be a dialed rack setup for your bulky toys. By sidestepping stress, you’re free to let the good times roll (and shred).

My girlfriend and I recently acquired a 2006 Chevy Express AWD, converted it into our dream adventure van, and took off on a surf trip from Canada to Mexico. After living together in a 60-square-foot box for several months and dealing with wet wetsuits, overflowing gear, and organizational mayhem, we’ve figured a few things out. The following racks — and a few packing hacks — worked wonders for us on our surf odyssey.

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Stretching the legs after putting serious miles down the winding “Ruta 1” in Baja. Photo credit: Katie Botwin

Best Racks for Van Life

Fact: Racks are rad. Not only do they make your rig look more badass, but they also allow you to store your gear outside of your vehicle, freeing up living space. I used two racks on my adventure van: a bike rack on the back and a board rack along the side.

While I wholly recommend the VertiRack and Küat rack, there are numerous options on the market. Consider your gear needs when evaluating the best option for your setup.

VertiRack Surfboard & SUP Racks: The Solution Surfers Have Been Waiting For

VertiRack isn’t a surf company. It builds ladder racks for contractors out of Pennsylvania. However, surfers kept pestering VertiRack for a board-friendly design and the brand eventually obliged, filling a gap in the market.

VertiRacks for surfboards

The resultant surfboard and SUP racks now come in several options. You can opt for a one- or two-board design, with either a bolt-through mount (you’ll have to drill holes into the wall of your vehicle) or a roof-track mount (you attach the rack to a van’s C-rails). While those are the two main mounting options, VertiRack actually custom built a “Franken-rack” using a set of awning clamps for us. This allowed us to secure the rack directly to our rain gutter and forgo poking holes in the walls.

Fabricated from stainless steel and aluminum, the construction proves notably sturdy. The stout support arms adjust up and down the main beams, as do the straps, so you can get a completely customizable fit to your board(s).

We’ve driven 75 mph on California highways and dealt with Baja backroads that threatened to leave us stranded. But we never had any problems with the rack shifting or had boards fly off into the road. And because the support beams are aluminum, the rack remains relatively lightweight and as low-profile as you can ask for lashing surfboards to the side of a van.

Tips for Using Van Life Racks

That said, I still recommend exercising caution when driving at high speeds with two boards. A sudden gust of wind can catch the top board and tug the van into the next lane.

KanuLocks

And though VertiRack’s stretchy straps cinch down tight to keep boards in place, they don’t actually lock. So it would be easy for a thief to walk up and relieve you of those precious surfboards. I recommend using Kanulocks, lockable tiedowns with two steel cables hidden inside the straps. They won’t stand up to a bike thief’s bolt cutters, but they can’t be breached by a knife or scissors.

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We always lock up boards with Kanulock straps. Photo credit: Katie Botwin

Küat Racks NV 2.0: A Rack Worth Its Weight in Bikes

We outfitted our van with a Küat Racks NV 2.0, far and away the best bike rack I’ve ever used. Aesthetically, the NV 2.0 is peerless — how many other racks have sleek, aerodynamic curves and anodized orange accents? But that industry-leading style isn’t why I fell in love with the NV 2.0.

The platform rack design forgoes the need to remove a tire, and it takes a matter of seconds to lift your bike into place. Just snap the ratcheting arm down over the front tire, slip the strap between the spokes of the back tire, lock it up, and hit the road. It’s worth noting that cable locks hide inside the rack itself (they won’t deter a serious thief, but they’re a welcome defense).

Additionally, the hitch rack’s tire cradle is adjustable. It fits both my girlfriend’s skinny road bike tires and my 27.5+ mountain bike tires. In fact, the NV 2.0 fits tires from 20 to 29 inches and can even accommodate fatbikes, using a separate $10 kit.

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With the Küat NV 2.0, we brought our bikes up to British Columbia. Photo credit: Katie Botwin

Plus, the NV 2.0 is a shapeshifter. It pivots up and down, allowing you to fold up the rack when not in use, drop it flat when you’re hauling bikes, and angle it farther from the trunk when accessing other gear.

While this feature is handy, if you have two bikes on the rack and press the lever, the platform drops almost dangerously fast. So make sure you’re standing out of the way unless you want a handlebar to the forehead!

Küat Pivot: Heavy-Duty Hinge for Van Lifers

While the NV 2.0 rack offers a solid, standalone option for many cars, SUVs, and trucks, it doesn’t offer the clearance we need to swing out our van’s rear doors. Thankfully, though, Küat prepared for this plight with the Pivot, a lifesaving accessory that extends off of your hitch and connects to the bike rack.

Essentially, this overbuilt built hinge swings out 90 degrees. This grants full access to the rear of the vehicle — perfect for truck beds and cargo vans alike. For safety’s sake, the Pivot locks by both a toggle clamp and a safety pin, ensuring it doesn’t swing out while you’re driving.

Installation is a breeze aside from lifting the bulky accessory into place and lining it up with the hitch. Keep in mind that the Pivot is heavy, as it’s built to be compatible with Küat’s four-bike version of the NV 2.0 and can handle up to 250 pounds.

Kuat NV 2.0 bike rack

Drawbacks

There are a few things to note with the Küat rack and other hitch-mounted bike haulers. Despite cranking the Pivot’s anti-rattle hitch pin, it still tends to wobble on bumpy backroads.

Plus, the whole setup puts significant weight over the rear bumper. For our overloaded van, attaching the Küat Pivot, NV 2.0, and two bikes was a significant addition. What’s more, the Pivot drops below your hitch, eating valuable inches off your rear clearance.

In fact, during use, we slammed the bottom of the rack into dips on a couple occasions. This was enough of a concern that we actually left the rack in California when we went surfing down Mexico’s rutted coastal roads.

But for those who have decent suspension or aren’t carrying a full load, this will likely not be an issue.

Van Life Packing Hacks to Stay Organized

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See-through plastic drawers make the most sense for wetsuit and gear storage. Photo credit: Katie Botwin

Less Is More

When you’re on the road, you’ll be surprised by how little you really use. Whenever you have doubles of something — be it rain jackets, headphones, or anything else — you’ll end up relying on a single favorite and forgetting the backup.

Be strategic about what you pack. It can help to lay out all of your gear and clothes and then get rid of doubles. This will free up space in your vehicle and make the trip more comfortable.

Clear Plastic Bins

Initially, we planned to install wooden drawers throughout our van, but we instead opted for plastic bins. No, clear plastic bins don’t look great, but they do allow you to see exactly where your gear is. Plus, they’re perfect for hauling wet wetsuits and dirty gear.

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Our kitchen setup. Notice the bins, plastic drawers, and metal mesh food storage containers. Lighter than drawers and to easier see everything. Photo credit: Katie Botwin

In our “gear garage” (aka trunk), we use a Tetris-like system of 10 plastic bins of varying sizes to store everything from fly fishing gear to climbing essentials. One visit to the store will go a long way.

Access Is Everything

Just because you bring something along on a road trip doesn’t mean you’ll need it regularly. For instance, both jumper cables and a toothbrush are crucial to a road trip, but you don’t need to use jumper cables twice a day (at least I hope not).

Pack the vehicle so that everyday items are always within reach and infrequently utilized gear is stashed out of sight.

Hooks

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Hooks are incredibly useful when road tripping. Photo credit: Katie Botwin

Hanging stuff is a revelation, and hooks, straps, and bungees are a road tripper’s best friend. Get creative about hanging gear or you’re bound to waste valuable vertical space.

Attach hooks to the walls, and pretty soon you’ll be hanging your hats, dirty socks, wet boardshorts, and more.

Get Going and Figure It Out

This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are plenty of racks that may be more tuned to your specific needs, not to mention packing hacks that you won’t discover until the inevitable trial and error of life on the road.

Hopefully, though, these ideas start your gears turning so that you can dial your rig for the next road trip.