Keys to smart car packing

Whether you are going on a road trip, moving to a new house, or need to pick up your student from college, it's important to keep driving safety in mind when packing up your vehicle.

Not all SUVs and minivans are created equal

Just because you own an SUV or minivan doesn't mean it can be loaded to the roof. Load capacity, which is the maximum amount of passenger and cargo weight that a vehicle is designed to handle, varies greatly from vehicle to vehicle, even within a model range. Load capacity can range from 900 lbs. or so for small SUVs like the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3 and up to 1,600 lbs. for full-size body-on-frame SUVs like the Chevrolet Suburban and Ford Expedition.

Load capacity is calculated by subtracting the vehicle's curb weight (the empty weight of the vehicle) from the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR, which is the maximum permissible weight the vehicle can carry; not to be confused with GCWR or GAWR). Remember, load capacity includes passengers as well as cargo. If you have an SUV with a load capacity of 1,000 lbs., and you put five 190-lb. adults inside, you can only carry 50 lbs. of luggage. Complicating things is the fact that curb weight generally includes only half a tank of fuel. Gasoline weighs about 6 lbs. per gallon, so if our theoretical SUV has a 15-gallon tank, filling up would leave up with just 5 pounds of carrying capacity.

Put the heaviest items up front

Make sure the heaviest items are put as far forward in the cargo area as possible, and keep them on the floor. In all vehicles, and SUVs in particular, it is important to keep the heaviest items towards the center of the vehicle. This reduces the potential adverse effect on handling that could be caused by the cargo weight; a significant load at the back shifts weight off of the front wheels, which can impact steering and braking. Packing heavy items on the floor helps keep the overall center of gravity lower, reducing the likelihood of a rollover.

Secure loose items

To prevent cargo from flying around during a sudden stop, smaller items should be packed into boxes and larger items should be strapped down using the car's cargo anchors. Make sure items from the cargo section will not strike passengers in an emergency situation. Refrain from loading large items—or even small, loose items—on top of your cargo pile, as these can become dangerous projectiles in a panic stop or a crash.

Rear visibility is important

Make sure that you don't stack your belongings so high that you can't see out. An obscured rear window makes driving difficult and creates considerable risk when reversing. Without rearward visibility, there is no telling what you might run in to—even a child.

Keep essentials handy

Make sure your roadside emergency kit, cell phone, and maps are readily accessible, just in case. Be aware that you may need to unload the cargo area to gain access to a spare tire.

Tire maintenance and pressure is important

Visually inspect your tires before preparing for a trip. Make sure there are no sidewall bulges and there is no indication of tread damage or extreme wear, such as chunked tread, exposed steel belts, punctures, or sidewall cuts. Confirm the tires are properly inflated; the recommended inflation pressure usually can be found on the driver's side doorjamb, inside of the fuel-filler door, or in the owner's manual. Be sure to use these inflation pressure numbers, not the maximum pressure figure on the tire sidewall. Your car may recommend different tire pressures for high speeds or heavy loads. (See our guides to early warning signs of tire failure and tire buying advice and ratings.)

Copyright © 2005-2015 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.