After endless trips to stores to stock up on back-to-school supplies and dorm essentials, you’re ready to send your child off to college. Of course, it never looks like a lot of stuff until you try to fit it in a car.

College necessities don’t just include clothes and toiletries, but bigger items such as computers, electronics, furniture, and small appliances. The challenge is to pack your car safely in a way that doesn’t interfere with visibility and secures all items so they don’t become dangerous projectiles.

How to Pack up Your Car

1. Prioritize what you bring. While it is tempting to bring everything your child thinks he/she might need, focus on the things that can't be readily acquired near school. Plan for a trip to the grocery store and mall to handle the stuff that truly doesn’t need to come from home and may be too bulky to take. You also don’t need to bring the whole wardrobe, just enough for the season—swapping lighter clothes for winter coats and sweaters during Thanksgiving break.

2. Yes, there are limits. Just because you have an SUV or minivan doesn’t mean you should pack it to the roof. Check the vehicle’s load capacity specified in the owner’s manual; too much cargo can impact the handling, steering, tires, and fuel economy. Check the car’s tires before you hit the road to make sure the cargo hasn’t affected the pressure level.

3. 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 toward the center of the vehicle. This reduces the potential adverse effect on handling that could be caused by the cargo weight; significant weight at the back could compress the rear springs and reduce the weight over the front wheels, impacting steering and braking. Further, this strategy helps keep the overall center of gravity lower, reducing the likelihood of a rollover.

4. Secure loose items. To prevent cargo from flying around during a sudden stop, pack smaller items into boxes and strap down larger ones using the car's cargo anchors. Secure these items in the cargo section to prevent them from striking passengers in an emergency situation. Refrain from loading large items—or even small, loose items—on the top of your cargo pile, as these can become dangerous projectiles in a panic stop, evasive maneuver, or a crash.

5. Rear visibility is important. Make sure that you don't stack belongings so high that you can't see out. An obscured rear window makes driving difficult and creates a high risk when backing up.

6. Keep essential items handy. Pack a roadside emergency kit, which should have a few basic items such as a first aid kit, fire extinguisher, flares, and a flashlight. See our report on emergency kits for more information on what to keep with you. A portable GPS navigation system or smartphone navigation app will also help you plan your trip, look for alternative routes, monitor traffic, and find gas stations and food along the way. And don't forget those charge cords!

7. Maximize space. Use an overhead carrier if the interior space of the car is too crammed. Just be aware that roof racks reduce fuel economy by about five percent. Take them off when not using them.

Cell Phones and Driving

Use a cell phone only in an emergency and not while driving. If you don't have a hands-free system and you need to make a call, pull over to a safe location. 

Car-Packing Tips for Heading Back to School
An obscured rear window makes driving difficult and creates a high risk when backing up.

How to Pack Your Car Like a Pro

Ever feel like you just don’t have enough cargo space in your car? 'Consumer 101' TV show host, Jack Rico, gets safe car-packing tips for maximizing space from Consumer Reports expert, Jen Stockberger.