I was excited about the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro press loaner I got to drive recently for a number of reasons. One of them is the fact that it was a TRUCK. I’ve always viewed the pickup truck as this remarkably practical vehicle with unlimited space — room for anything and everything you could want to bring with you — since you just throw it all in the back! But is that really the case? Is the pickup easier to pack and better for going places than an SUV? I did a little experiment to find out.
At this stage of my life, the primary benefit I’m looking for in any "utility vehicle" is to be able to load it up with gear and go off on an adventure for the weekend. These trips are the whole reason I bought my 1999 Toyota Land Cruiser — a large SUV, by most accounts. I’ve removed the third-row seats to maximize cargo capacity, and it isn’t too difficult to pack, but the cargo area always feels a bit cramped once everything is loaded up.
With a healthy dose of "the grass is always greener" bias, I couldn’t help but expect the Tacoma, with its 5-foot bed (the only bed length available on the TRD Pro) to be infinitely easier to load up. So I test-packed each one, back-to-back, with all of my stuff to see if my suspicions were true.
Here’s what all of that ‘stuff’ consisted of:
(4) 56-quart Plano Sportsman trunks
(2) 40-liter duffel bags
(1) Seven gallon water container
(1) Five gallon plastic gas container
(2) Camp chairs
(1) Folding aluminum camp table
(1) 35L Cooler
(1) 50L Cooler
(2) Sleeping bags
(2) Sleeping pads
(1) Cocker Spaniel
(1) Golden Retriever
First up was the Land Cruiser, which I feel like I’ve packed about 100 times. Three of the sportsman trunks go against the second row seat, while the fourth sits on top of one of the others. Still up against the second row, the bulkier cooler then sits atop the other two bins, with the smaller one sitting on the floor up against the lift gate. Both are easily accessible from the cargo area, which is of utmost importance. The water jug fits in nicely to the left of the lower cooler, and the "soft stuff," like the duffel bags, camp chairs, sleeping bags and tent can all be wedged in along the sides.
Since I really don’t want a gas can on the inside of the vehicle, that either gets left at home, or strapped to the roof.
Finally, the dogs get to occupy the second row, although if friends are coming along, the dogs can fit in among all of the other stuff in the back. This only happens in a pinch, though, and could be made much safer by a pet barrier that fits above the second row.
Next was the Tacoma. The first thing I learned here was that a 5-foot bed really isn’t all that big. Like in the Land Cruiser, three of the bins lined up nicely in the back of the bed against the cab — but due to the shallow depth of the bed and my desire to maintain my rearward visibility, the fourth had to go in front of the other three, taking up valuable horizontal space. The water jug fit nicely alongside the fourth bin. Next came the coolers, one of which fit sideways against the side of the bed, and the other against the tailgate; both of which, crucially, were still easily accessible. The camp chairs and table fit in nicely in the remaining space along the sides of the bed, while the sleeping bags, mattress pads and tent all align nicely on top of the bins against the back window, where they’ll be secured by a ratchet strap or bungee cord. The duffel bags get jammed in between larger items wherever they’ll fit, and the gas can fits in to a remaining bit of space against the tailgate, where it’s outside of the vehicle.
The dogs again occupy the second row, but this precludes more than one friend from coming along, as there’s no enclosed cargo area for the dogs to occupy otherwise.
What I failed to consider about the pickup was the lack of vertical space. With an SUV, you have the ability to stack things on top of each other and against the sides of the vehicle. In the truck, I had to keep everything flat and below the top of the bed in order to maintain visibility, and make sure nothing was going to fly out at highway speed.
A truck bed can be nice because it’s outside. This way things like garbage and gas cans and other dirty items can be transported outside of the vehicle.
On the other hand, though, soft items like duffel bags and towels and pillows are all susceptible to weather and wind and dust — and, even on the nicest of days, tractor trailer exhaust as you drive down the highway.
A truck requires you to invest in some more equipment like ratchet straps, bungee cords, a tonneau cover or a bed cap. With my Land Cruiser, I’m able to pile everything inside — and as long as I still have some rearward visibility, I can make it work. With a truck bed, you need something to help secure and protect your load.
In the end, the enclosed cargo area of the Land Cruiser was overall easier to pack and offered more peace of mind on the highway. I think this came down to the fact that the Tacoma’s 5-foot bed filled up a lot faster than I expected, while its lack of depth meant no stacking. This meant the space filled up even faster. Once on the road, I was still inclined to get out and check every 100 miles or so to make sure the cargo was still secured.
While the SUV wins this round, a bed cap would have been a total game changer for the Tacoma — and it would’ve helped it to an easy victory. The combination a simple truck bed and an enclosed cargo area would provide the best of both worlds.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for a while, helping Germans design cars for Americans. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.