You have a small vehicle and more people and gear than it can carry. What do you do? What options are there?

In an ideal world the average family (mom, dad, 2 kids plus the dog and the cat), should have a fullsize 4x4 pickup with extended or club cab or SUV with seating for 4, room for a dog and cat carrier and all the gear everyone will need. For many of us we have a small or midsize vehicle that doesn't have enough room for everyone and everything. In this case an older vehicle that runs well but needs work could be a goal for us to get, but this ins't always possible for a variety of reasons.

Because there are many people out there who simply can't get another vehicle or have to make due while we save up the money to get that next vehicle, I am going to go over some of the options out there to get everyone and everything to where we need to be when we have to leave our homes due to an emergency.

First I am going to go over the options available to get more cargo space in your vehicle. Then I am going to talk about different vehicles, from a small Chevy/Geo Metro to other more common midsize cars.

For a very good article on small and midsize vehicle loading and trailer towing see Blackstar's article here. He goes over some technical issues that I do not deal with in this article such as load and towing capacity, and how to increase load capacity.

Car Top Carriers and Baskets
The first option is a car top carrier. These come in a variety of sizes and styles. Even the smallest car can be fitted with fabric carrier if all you want is to store bulky but light items like sleeping bags and some clothes. Total weight should be kept to about 50 pounds (100 max), otherwise you run the risk of damaging the roof of your car.

Soft / Fabric Car Top Carrier

The next option is a hard carrier. Again you have to make sure that your vehicle can withstand the weight of the carrier and the gear inside. There are a number of different designs for hard carriers. If you check with the manufacturers of these hard carriers you may find that your vehicle is not listed as being compatible, check your owners manual for the maximum weight you can put on your roof. In some cases you will only find rates for roof racks. The first picture below is of a hard carrier. The second picture below shows a small car with a hard carrier and bike rack on roof racks, this setup is probably not suggested by either the car or carrier manufactures but the owner is obviously comfortable with the setup.

Hard Car Top Carrier

The next option is a basic open carrier or basket. This provides the most flexability in loading gear on the roof of your vehicle. You will need tarps or some other method to keep your gear dry. You could also use a fabric carrier with the open carrier.

Open Carrier or Basket

That concludes carriers, baskets and roof racks that can be used on the roof of your car. Keep in mind that each of these will impact the gas mileage you will get. These can be used on any size vehicle if the proper precautions are observed.

Hitch Platforms and Trailers
The next option that can be used on any vehicle is a cargo platform that mounts on a trailer hitch. You will need a trailer hitch for these, which may be difficult to find for your vehicle. You may be able to find a local welder or custom hitch manufacturer whoc an adapt an existing hitch or create a custom hitch for you. With these platforms you can take between 300 and 500 pounds gear on the back of your vehicle. You will need to put your gear in containers or build a custom enclosure for these basic platforms in order to keep your gear clean and dry. There are enclosed cargo platforms available, but they usually cost quite a bit more. Below are two pictures of cargo platforms, the first is the platform itself the second is a platform mounted on a SUV. These platforms are usually about 4 feet wide, so they will fit on any vehicle with a receiver style trailer hitch.

Hitch Cargo Platform

The next option is to have a trailer. These come in many shapes and sizes. There are small open utility trailers in sizes from 4 feet by 8 feet, 6 feet by 8 feet to much larger, enclosed trailers in the same sizes and small trailers that can be towed by a motorcycle (basically a hard car top carrier on wheels). Each trailer has different advantages and limitations. For a Chevy/Geo Metro a motorcycle trailer will give you more room and impact performance the least. I have seen a Chevy Metro pulling a small 4x8 trailer with a couple of lawn mowers and landscaping equipment, it wasn't pretty but it could be done. Always check your owners manual for the maximum towing capacity of your vehicle, you may have to call the manufacturer or a mechanic if it is not listed in the owners manual. Below are pictures of different styles of trailers.

Motorcycle Trailer

4x8 Utility Trailer

6x8 Utility Trailer

Enclosed Cargo Trailer

There are options out there that do not require you to get a bigger vehicle or spend a lot of money as demonstrated above. Prices range from about $50 for a soft fabric car top carrier to about $1000 for carriers, roof racks, trailer hitch and a small trailer with each option being a seperate cost that can be bought over a period of time as finances allow.

You can used one or more of these options to get more cargo room to take your gear. A car top carrier and a hitch platform or small trailer will give you quite a bit of extra room for gear and leave your vehicle for people and pets.

If you can't fit your family and pets in your small vehicle then you have to consider if you have the right vehicle to even think about using it to bug out in. You may want to consider trading your vehicle in for a small hatchback, station wagon, mini van or small SUV.

If in the future you do purchace a larger vehicle, be it a pickup or SUV, you can always move the cargo carriers, hitch platform or trailer to the new vehicle.

A Note On Small Vehicles
There are many small vehicles out there, with the smallest being a Chevy/Geo Metro. I've driven two Metros, an automatic and a manual. I found that the automatic had serious power issues. The manual was much easier to drive, I could keep it at 50 miles per hour going up to the Eisenhowed Tunnel from the west when heading back to Denver where the automatic would barely do 8 miles per hour. The ability to change gears manually makes a big difference in these small cars.

Depending on the manuafacturer of your vehicle or your own physical limits, a manual transmission may not be an option. In this case you want something that has an engine as close to 2 litres as possible, or a real horsepower rating of at least 100. Metros were rated as about 95 horsepower, in actual conditions (fan, alternator, etc) they had closer to a 65 horsepower rating. Power steering, alternator, fan and AC can all impact the actual horsepower rating of your vehicle. You don't need a sports car, but you do need a good base to use. Being able to shift the gears yourself can greatly improve the ability of your car to get up and go or maintain speed, plus you can also downshift on hills to take some of the stress off of your brakes.

Hatchbacks and station wagons are better in small cars than a 2 door coupe or 4 door sedan with trunk. This is due to having more cargo capacity, which means more gear or the ability to put the dog and cat in carriers behind the back seat.

Most station wagons, even the smallest are usually designed to have items carried on the roof even if the weight limit is low. The roof and pillars are often capable of carrying more than a sedan or coupe. Most modern cars, even mid and fullsize suggest a maximum roof rack weight of 100 pounds. Older cars are rated for more, in some cases as much as 220 pounds.

Final Comments
If you are considering trading in your current small car for a small station wagon you might want to consider a Subaru station wagon, a Volvo 240/245 wagon or Ford Escort wagon. All are fairly common with parts easy to find. The Volvo 240/245 wagons had a 20 year run from 1973 to 1993 with most parts interchangable, these can often be found for under $1000 and will run for ever with very basic maintenance.

Keep your eye out for those $500 steals that come along every now and then. I've seen well running pickups, SUVs and station wagons that required little cosmetic or mechanical work.