Living in a small space, especially one the size of most American bathrooms, combined with the fact that the small space isn’t standing still all the time, well, storage can be complicated. It isn’t a matter of where to put things, but how, why, and will it fall down and hit someone in the head while the vehicle is banging down the road.
Brent has a great motto when it comes to parts and pieces in our trailer. He explains that it is just like living in a house, "but the parts and pieces are smaller, harder to find and tougher to fix." He’s very right. Screws, nails, pipes, fuses, parts, pieces, all the detritus that can fill up a junk drawer are often smaller than usual and seriously harder to find, but they are a necessary part of trailer life. So we tend to buy plenty of them when we shop. The problem is where to store them.
The keys to storing things in a recreational vehicle (RV) are:
- Keep it small.
- Keep less of them, when possible.
- Pad and protect it.
- Buy unbreakable.
- Keep it from moving around.
- Keep it from flying around.
- It should have more than one use.
Let’s look at some specifics on storage in a motor home, trailer, or other home on the road.
I’m Looking Over Your Shoulder!
Brent and I had to learn very quickly to get over any hard feelings we had about looking over each other’s shoulder. This "checks and balance" system is not done to annoy the other person. It is the best way to ensure that every task associated with preparing the RV for moving is accomplished, checked, and verified by both parties. All it takes is one forgotten item, like a raised TV antenna, forgotten satellite dish, or stove pilot light left on to cause a major, and expensive, disaster. It doesn’t hurt to be redundant.
As we each accomplish our task, we do a form of verbal check list. We call out the accomplished task to the other person. It lets the other person know the item has been checked, and it reminds them that it needs to be checked again. We both take turns walking around the inside and outside of the trailer and truck, looking over and under, because two pairs of eyes may catch something that was missed. We pull out from the campsite and stop to walk back and inspect the site to see if some item, a hose, rug, water filter, or any other item has been left behind. Before we get back in the truck, we walk around the outside of the truck and trailer again, calling out what we just checked, just to make sure. We’ve caught many a forgotten item this way.
- Keep It Small and Keep Less of Them
- We love Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club, and all the places where we can save money buying bulk. The only problem is where to store the bulk when we buy them. When possible, keep your purchases small and buy less of them, or get really creative about storing what you do buy. We will often shop with friends we meet along the way, dividing up the bulky spoils. We also think twice about every purchase we make. There are times when a 32 pack of batteries do come in handy on the road, but can we live without a 24 roll pack of toilet paper? Sometimes the bulk purchases aren’t as handy when you are trying to store 24 rolls of toilet paper. Smaller packs of bulky items make wiser purchases when space is at a premium.
- Pad and Protect It
- Computers, printers, scanners, pots, pans, all kinds of things inside your RV can go bump during the drive. Fragile things can break, but items like pots and pans can wear against each other, scratching off non-stick surfaces and denting thinner items. Put thin layers of fabric, bubble wrap, foam, or some form of protective layer between all things that can bounce or rub against each other. Desktop computers, scanners, and printers are fairly solid items, but the insides are fragile and don’t hold up very well to bouncing, like a modern laptop can. Delicate equipment should be stored or wrapped with shock-absorbing materials as much as possible. Strap these down and pad them well before the vehicle moves to insure their long life.
- Buy Unbreakable
- Brent is a gourmet cook and he loves serving his lovely meals on real plates and drinking from nice glassware. So we invested in the legendary unbreakable dishware from Corelle. On a vicious trip across Louisiana on Highway 10, we discovered that our Corelle dishes were breakable after all. They may be hard to break, but when they do break, fine sliver of glass go everywhere and it is very difficult to clean out of a rug. After a second trip across Louisiana on Highway 20, losing more dishes, we began a year long search for decent plastic dishes. We finally found some nice green plates, but they are made from a plastic that couldn’t be microwaved, which we discovered by accident when one shattered in the microwave. New plastics and dishware are available that are more unbreakable than what we had, but do take care to read the instructions and to use or not use these items in the microwave. And take care going across Louisianaa.
Be aware that many common grocery products that once only came in a glass jar are now available in plastic. Ketchup, mayonnaise, salad dressings, drinks, and more come in plastic, which rides in a bouncing refrigerator much better than clanging glass. Do take care to put up the restraining brackets inside of your RV fridge before moving the vehicle, and carefully pad any breakables inside the fridge so they won’t bash against each other.
- Keep It from Moving and Flying Around
- If you have ever ridden in a motor home, with a view into the back of the vehicle while it is moving, you will see some serious shaking going on. Anything not tied down, strapped down, or inside something, can fly through the air, potentially injuring the occupants inside, or doing damage to the vehicle. We heard a story about one traveler who forgot to tied down their bookshelf and the books went flying as one mass through the trailer window, breaking glass. It happened in a campground, but imagine the potential damage if this had happened on a highway with glass and books flying at another vehicle! Make sure all bookshelves are designed to hold the books securely when traveling. All little knickknacks and odds and ends are packed up or bolted down in some way. We use a removable putty to "stick" our small knickknacks to shelves, designed for use in homes in frequent earthquake zones. For a more solid fix, we also use heavy double stick tape to "glue" things in place. Make sure that anything that can move around or fly through the air is locked down.
- It Should Have More Than One Use
- We seriously consider every item we bring into our trailer for its potential for multiple uses. We use the same containers for the microwave as storage for food. Solid plates can act as cutting boards. Do you need four kitchen knives when one small and one large knife will cut just about everything? Do you need a fax, scanner, printer, and copier if you have a mobile office? Or can you buy one machine that does all of these? But these process can get even simpler. We will often use toilet paper to pad shampoo and other toiletries in our bathroom to keep them from tipping over and rolling around. We have two down sleeping bags which we zip together and cover with a duvet to keep us warm in the winter. In summer, we roll up the sleeping bags and put them in pillow cases for large pillows which serve as back rests when working in bed or on the floor. The duvet cover is just heavy enough to keep us warm as a bedspread during the cool nights. Consider all the ways you can make multiple uses out of every item to maximize its value and justify a place in your RV.
Where to Store It
As small as RVs are, they tend to have a lot more space in them than first appears. Ingenious modern RV designers have come up with clever ways to store food, clothing, and other items in small spaces. If you aren’t lucky enough to have one of the modern RVs, then you have to find your storage space elsewhere inside the vehicle.
As you plan for where to store things, consider what should be stored where. The first thing to consider is the movement of the vehicle, or the measure of "bounce". The front of a vehicle has a medium amount of bounce, usually because the driver can control it, if he or she is paying attention. The center of the RV is usually the most steady, since it is the least flexible point. Over the wheels will be sturdy, but suffer from any jars when the wheels impact. The back of the RV, though, is usually where all vibration and bouncing is found, and the last place you want anything fragile.
Make a list of all the items and types of items you want to store. Consider and measure their size. Measure their height, width, and depth so you have a basic understanding of what size of container you will need. Then consider the type of container you need. Are you storing liquids with the potential of breaking or leaking, like shampoo or food? Then maybe these should be stored in sealed containers. Clothing and cloth items don’t need closed containers unless moths or other invasive dust, damp, and bugs are a problem, so you can use more open containers. For most storage containers in an RV, seriously consider having a lid on your containers. It makes the containers stackable and keeps things inside them during the move.
As you plan, also consider easy access. How frequently are you going to need to get inside the containers and take things out or put things away? Put more commonly used containers closer to where you can easily access them.
To begin your storage planning techniques, get out graph paper, a floor plan of your motor home or trailer (if available), paper, pencil, hammer, and measuring tape. Draw the layout of your RV from the floor plan on the graph paper, listing the measurements of all the available spaces. Measure the height, width, and depth of all cupboards, shelves, and little holes you have everywhere. As you are measuring, pay attention to hidden spaces, space that might be available but isn’t for some reason. We’ll talk more about hidden spaces in a moment. Measure everything and then start planning.
Common Storage Area Tips and Tricks
Let’s look at some of the common storage areas in your recreational vehicle. Each RV will be different, with some built to be resistent to change while others can be stripped down and rebuilt to customized requirements. We will look at the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and outside storage areas, and then take a look for some hidden storage spaces that might be lurking in your RV.
The bedroom is often a haven for storage opportunities. It hosts closet space and storage space under the bed.
Measure the space under the bed carefully to maximize its storage potential. Measure the height and width and depth of the area and then calculate some averages. If the bed area is 60 inches across, then you could get two 30 inch wide containers in there, or three 20 inch containers. How high could these be? If the space is 24 inches high, you could get one container to fill the space or two stacked containers at about 12 inches each. So the containers you might want to consider range from 30×24 inches or maybe 20×12 inches. These are just estimates, and you also have to consider length, but these give you good guides to start hunting for.
But wait! What is going to go INSIDE those containers? The point of having good containers is to put something inside, so what can you store in these? A 20×12 inch container would hold smaller items but a 30×24 container could hold bigger items. Like what? What do you want to keep under your bed?
Is the bed easy to access? If so, then consider putting your least used items in the very back, and the more necessary items near to the front of the bed area.
Good things for storing under the bed include large items that won’t fit elsewhere, rarely used seasonal camping gear, seasonal clothing and shoes, files and papers, infrequently used computer supplies (paper, ink, etc.), and extra items kept for occasional use such as extra blankets and pillows for the infrequent guest or changing seasons.
When considering the bedroom closets, take a good look at your clothing choices when you are traveling. Do you need hanging space? Will you be wearing dresses and suits that require hanging? Or do you wear comfortable clothing that works just fine being folded and sitting on a shelf or in a drawer? If you are like the majority of RVers, you prefer comfort over fashion. Do you need all that hanging space? Consider redesigning it and putting in lightweight shelf units with open wire sliding drawers. Put containers in the bottom of the closet to hold shoes and other small clothing items. Maximize every inch of the closet to hold your travel gear and odds and ends and give up on the clothing rod.
In our trailer, we had two small hanging closets on either side of the bed, and then a huge hanging closet in the hall opposite the bathroom with three compartments. Since Brent had one suit and nice shirt and I had two dresses for teaching and formal wear, we didn’t need all the hanging space. We turned the hall closet into a pantry on one side and drawers for our clothing on the other, turning useless space into maximized space. Consider carefully what you travel with and how you want to store it, and look around for alternative uses for traditional storage spaces.
Keep It Together
When planning your storage techniques, remember to store like items together. Keep maps all in one place. Keep camping gear and outdoor gear all together, near each other for easy access. Keep winter clothing separate from summer clothing if you live and travel during the different seasons. Keep all the tools together in the same place, and placed where you will use them the most, usually outside, so put them in an outside compartment. Just keep a small screwdriver and wrench set in the kitchen area for the needs you have for inside the RV. Keep related items together when possible for convenience and speedy access.
The bathroom area in an RV is usually small, with barely room to move let alone store things. To begin in the bathroom, start with simple things. Do you really need two different shampoos for two people? Instead of one shampoo and one conditioner, why not buy a combination shampoo and conditioner? Find ways to consolidate and minimize your toiletries when there is little space to store them.
In the space you do have, measure carefully to see what goes where and how things will fit. If you have little cubby holes for soap, shampoo, and other bottle items, measure the space and measure the items and compare them. What will fit where without tipping or falling out when the vehicle is in motion? Also measure for containers, to see what size would fit where. Not all RV bathrooms are the same, so you have to measure carefully to maximize container space.
Outside Storage Areas
Before we get to the kitchen, look around at the other spaces in your RV. Where can you store things and how? What about the storage areas outside? Some motor homes feature huge basement storage areas, excellent for camping gear, grills, and even bicycles, but not handy for food or clothing items. Think about the container sizes that would fill the space and what you will store in the outside compartments. Generally, you will want to store tools, water filters, hoses, barbeque grills, charcoal, and picnic items closer to where you will use them, which is outside.
If you will be sitting still for a while, a 5th wheel skirt for fifth wheel trailers hides a multitude of junk under the cover of the overhanging 5th wheel area. Bicycles, storage boxes, barbeque, and all kinds of things can be hidden out of sight and stored there.
Think about these items. Tools can get greasy and they tend to spread themselves all over, so get a strong plastic tool box to keep them all neat and organized. Measure your largest and smallest items and find a tool box that will store these properly while still being easily accessed. Measure the compartment you will store the tool box in to make sure it will fit in there neatly.
Most outdoor equipment tends to be dirty and messy, so consider storing like and related items together in plastic containers to keep the dirt and wet in the box and not in your recreational vehicle. Our water filter and hoses drip water, no matter how much we drain them. Stored in their own plastic container, the water was kept from doing further damage inside the trailer.
All camping and picnicking gear we kept together in its own plastic container, too. This made the process of moving the equipment to the car or picnic table much quicker. We choose to use removable lids so we could use them as something to sit on or use it as a tray to bring food out from the trailer to the picnic table. Multiple use items always score big in our trailer life.
Keep seasonal shoes in outside compartments, especially boots and heavy weather gear, so they are accessible when you need them, but out of the way when you don’t.
Generally the kitchen and living areas are combined, but most of the storage space found in a recreational vehicle outside of the bedroom is in the kitchen area. Some RVs feature bench seats and couches with storage underneath, but let’s concentrate on the kitchen area. This is the area where storage planning is the most important, since it is the area that usually stores the most stuff, unless you eat out all the time.
The kitchen is the place where the most breakage can occur. It also tends to be the heaviest in weight load, so take care with every item you add to the kitchen to save weight.
Keep the heaviest items like pots and pans closest to the floor to minimize the falling distance if they should come out of the cupboard. Check the restraining latches on all cupboard doors frequently to ensure they are still sturdy. Any breakable items like coffee mugs, glasses, wine glasses, and such should be set in a position where they won’t roll around if tipped, and well protected if very fragile. Store plates flat and not on their ends to prevent shattering if suddenly bounced, and put bubble wrap or thin foam between the plates if you do decide on glass. Line shelves and cupboards with sticky or "skid resistant" rubber shelf liner found in RV and marine stores which also acts as a protective surface pad. Cut or buy some pre-cut to use as place mats to keep plates and glasses from sliding when parked on an uneven surface.
Measure inside all cupboard spaces. Look under the sink and draw a diagram of the space around and between the pipes and hoses, since you can often fill that space with a perfect sized container, not wasting even the smallest and most unusually shaped space.
Group all like items together, such as cooking pots and pans, kitchenware, cleaning supplies, etc. and measure them to reevaluate where you will store things and which things could go into containers for more compact storage. Do the same with all the food stuff.
We found our storage space was maximized when we took all of our dry goods out of their original packaging and put it inside plastic air tight containers. Cereal, flour, sugar, salt, pasta, and other dry goods are often packaged inefficiently. Get rid of the useless space by keeping each in its own container. If the containers are transparent, you can better keep track of what you need to refill, too. We choose stackable food containers again to maximize the use of the height within the cupboards.
Kitchens in RVs are often awkwardly shaped, with deeply recessed corners that are hard to access, and cupboards built in corners or at odd angles with wasted space in behind pipes and equipment. Look in every nook and cranny for possible storage space, taking care to protect loose wires or heating elements and such. You never know when you might find a spot to put that one odd shaped item in an odd shaped hole.
As you go through the RV with your measuring tape, check the floor plans and your graph paper layout against reality of what is there. There are little storage spaces waiting to be found. Some are there for a reason, but some are just waiting to be exploited.
Our trailer layout featured two steps up to the hallway which hosted the bathroom. The height was required for the small outdoor basement storage area under the shower and bathroom. In planning for taking our cat along with us, we considered putting a hole in the wall below the bathroom into the storage area for the litter box. We decided do this after I discovered a wonderful little storage spot for our toilet paper. Our shower enclosure featured a seat. The bathroom cupboards along the floor opened up into the empty space under the seat of the toilet. I thought this long rectangle would be a perfect place to store our rolls of toilet paper, but I didn’t think the idea out all the way. I shoved the toilet paper in, each successive roll pushing the last one back in further and deeper. The rolls came out easily, until it got down to the last two. I had to lay on my stomach and shove my arm down the long narrow hole but I couldn’t reach the last roll. It was time make a door. With a hammer, I tapped on the outer wall, testing for supports, beams, and open spaces. I traced the area with a pencil and cut out two holes. One for access to the area under the toilet (and the lodged toilet paper) and the other to the basement area. Brent designed a cupboard door to put over the two holes with a cat door in the lower half for Toshi to come and go as he pleased to his litter box. It worked wonderfully. We added another cupboard door and hole next to it, underneath the shower, to store our winter boots in, keeping them in the basement area and out of the main trailer.
For months I stared at a narrow spot above the refrigerator. I knew there was wasted space there. Brent explained that it was a space for releasing the heat from the refrigerator. I did some research and found that the majority of the heat was released through the back air vents to the outside and not upward. Again with a hammer I tapped and tested, and finally punched in the thin plywood sheet blocking the 10 inch space above the fridge. Sure enough, little or no heat from the fridge and we put in a brace to hold the VCR and car CD player and radio. Very convenient "found" hidden space.
Under the stove, there was a huge empty space that held a small inverter that changed the 12v power to 110v. It hummed all the time, which was annoying, and it didn’t require all that space. When Brent rewired the entire trailer to accommodate the new generator, the inverter was moved to the generator compartment and a huge storage space was opened up. He made a new door to match the cabinets and we had a new storage space.
With your hammer and pencil, tap on walls and areas you think could be viable wasted space. Lightly mark the areas where there are beams or studs, or potential wires or pipes. Carefully study any floor plans you have, tracing electrical, water, and heat lines. Make sure the wall you will be cutting into isn’t a support wall, as an opening might weaken it. If you are familiar with building construction or engineering, you might be able to reinforce it, but take care not to weaken a good structure. If in doubt, ask a dealer specializing in your RV model. When you are ready to punch a hole, start small (so you can easily cover it up if it turns out to be used space) and use a flashlight to search inside to make sure the space is viable. Who knows, you might find yourself with some found hidden spaces, too.
Most RVs are designed with thin and inexpensive (okay – cheap) laminated composite and press woods. These tend to fall apart when cutting or drilling, so move slowly. Cover all raw edges with protective molding and be prepared to build or buy cupboard doors to close your new spaces, if necessary. If you are a real do-it-yourself person, choose lightweight woods such as pine or mahogany instead of woods like oak or walnut which are heavy.
The area under the sink, especially with sinks wedged at an angle in the corner of the trailer, feature a lot of wasted space. Consider building sliding drawers or swing out shelves to bring things forward from the deeper recesses.
A Trip to a Container Store
When you are done with all your measurements, calculations, and inspections for hidden spaces, it’s time for a visit to your friendly nearby container store. Usually these are giant hardware and home repair centers, but there are also stores that specialize in nothing but containers and storage solutions. Camping and sporting goods stores also offer storage items specifically for RVs and life on the road. Get their catalogs, search their web sites, and research thoroughly to find your different options for each storage area and item. From here on, you are the Sherlock Holmes space and storage detective in charge. It will be a little bit of trial and error, but over time you will come up with your own unique solutions.
Here are a few last storage tips and tricks, do’s and don’t:
- Choose plastic over cardboard containers – cardboard gets damp, wears out, and gives up easily.
- Where there is the potential for bugs and dust, use air tight containers.
- Label all containers if you can’t see what is inside, and then label those, too, so you know what should be in it if it is empty.
- Keep a "plan" and inventory of where you store which types of items to help you find things if you carry a lot of stuff. (The inventory will help your insurance, too.)
- Keep outside stuff in outside compartments.
- Keep inside stuff inside, when possible.
- Keep all wet stuff, water filters, hoses, mats and outside rugs in plastic containers when possible to avoid spreading the wet and muck around.
- Separate all electrical items (cords, lamps, batteries, cables, etc.) from all wet items (hoses, water filters, etc.)
- Keep maps and guides close to the driving area.
- Get a book, get rid of a book (or one in for every two out if you are really a book lover).
- If it is loose, broken, out, or in need of some repair or maintenance, do it immediately, especially door and cupboard latches and hinges. Don’t wait. Don’t procrastinate. Do it now. They will hurt you later.
We are always willing to hear your tips and tricks for life on the road so post your comment below to let us know what hidden spaces and great tricks for storage you’ve discovered.