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In a sense, our cars are the most public rooms we occupy. They go wherever we go, often with passengers. And most of us spend significant time in our cars every day — perhaps running late, or with a lot on our minds. Encountering annoyances here, from rattling glove boxes to buried CDs, can generate a larger-than-usual amount of stress. By contrast, creating a comfortable environment that supports ease of movement frees up a lot of energy. Here’s how I helped EL’s fitness editor Jen Sinkler get her chaotic vehicle under control.

Life in the Fast Lane

cluttered car“I pretty much live in my car,” Jen explained on the morning of our meeting, pointing to the layers of clothes, shoes and athletic gear entangled in her back seat and trunk. The winter jackets, discarded coffee cups and energy-bar wrappers reinforced her point.

Jen has a perfectly nice home, so her statement wasn’t literal. Still, it was clear that she needs her car to support the way she lives and works, which involves long days away from home and frequent trips from gym to gym.

These facts shaped our mission: to create an environment in Jen’s car that supports how she uses it. Doing this is critical, whether you’re routinely toting athletic gear or a family of five.

In structuring car environments, the most important element is ease. It should be painless to find and grab whatever you’re looking for, and everything you require while driving should be within safe and easy reach.

It had been two years since Jen’s car had been thoroughly cleaned, so we started by emptying everything but the gas tank. We placed items into bins by category: shoes, clothes, gear and so on. Once the car was cleared, we vacuumed and wiped down all the surfaces. (If your vacuum cleaner isn’t ideal for this task, use one at a DIY carwash or take your car to a detailer.)

Next, we sorted the bins on card tables we’d set up in the driveway. This gave us a solid work surface and spared our backs from too much ground-level bending and reaching. While separating goods into “house,” “trash,” “recycle” and “return-to-car” bags, we also made a list of items to replace, like the dead flashlight.

Jen was psyched to rediscover a missing Fleetwood Mac CD and relieved to put the kettlebells in their waiting bin: They would finally stop thudding around like a dead body in her trunk.

Poetry in Motion

Incorporating solid structural elements like hard plastic bins and soft-sided bags does a lot to keep a car neat on an ongoing basis. Otherwise, loose items (like the defunct GPS system we found at the bottom of Jen’s trunk) tend to get sifted down to the bottom of piles where they can be lost for months. Containers keep things from rolling around and getting misplaced. They also make it easier to notice when things are out of season or otherwise due to be removed.

Since Jen clearly had to do a fair bit of refueling while on the go, I hung a flip-top trash sack over the back of the passenger seat, within easy reach, for wrappers and cups. (If you have a car-trash sack with a Velcro closure, cover the Velcro with a piece of tape so you don’t have to struggle to open the bag while driving.)

I placed a net bag over the back of the driver’s seat to hold extra jackets, scarves and gym clothes, so even when things do get a little cluttered, those items won’t wind up crumpled and dirty on the floor. I also put bins in the glove compartment to keep Jen’s lip balm, tire gauge and other loose items grouped by type to make everything easier to find by feel. Registration and insurance cards went in a fresh envelope on top.

With the help of a color-coded bag system (humans recognize color before words), we conquered the trunk. Jen chose a red soft-sided bag for the emergency kit, packing it with necessities like de-icer, maps, blanket and lighter. Sports-related gear like extra shoes, socks, straps and cones went into a green bag that reminded Jen of playing outside. Finally, she designated a yellow “bag bag,” for canvas grocery sacks, cleanup-after-the-dog bags and so on.

All three bins were placed in a larger duffel so they could be pulled out en masse when Jen needed her trunk for luggage. (This and other “modular hauler” systems are available from Mountainsmith.) The kettlebells went in their own bin with the battling rope and other gear tucked neatly behind it.

Suddenly, Jen’s vehicle looked clean, organized, well-stocked and ready for anything. Road trip, anyone?

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