Have you ever wondered what your neighbors are carrying around in their car's trunk or SUV's cargo hold? I decided to find out -- by asking 100 strangers in a department store parking lot.

In Pictures: See More Trunk Junk

THE MISSION: To uncover the secret contents of the average American trunk and cargo hold.

THE STAKEOUT: I spent two weekend afternoons at the Empire Center in Burbank, Calif., with my camera and notebook, approaching shoppers as they arrived or departed. I identified myself as a reporter for AOL Autos, and asked if I could see what they had in their trunk, and maybe take a picture. I hoped that I'd be able to see a trend in trunks.

THE RAW DATA: My decidedly unscientific study yielded some interesting results. First of all, I discovered that even in a big city (Burbank is a suburb of Los Angeles), people are exceedingly nice if you are respectful and forthright. About 80% of the people I approached were kind, open and helpful, and gladly opened their trunks for a glance. The 20% who refused were either in a rush, guarded or shy -- but they were still remarkably polite.

The second surprising thing was that the vast majority of trunks and cargo holds were clean and uncluttered. I really expected to discover overstuffed trunks, full of cast-off items and flea market finds. But even the most fully-used storage areas were tidy and organized.

Not surprisingly, people with small children tended to have the most crowded trunks and cargo holds. Strollers, playpens, toys and diapers take up a lot of space, but most families have discovered that clean, organized trunks make getting to your kids' supplies much easier and more efficient.

Another trend I noticed was that athletic folks tend to use their car's trunk as a portable gym locker. I saw a lot of gym bags, sports equipment and sneakers. On a hot day, this was a bit of a mixed blessing; baked sneakers have a decidedly pungent odor. No one seemed to have a good solution to this problem. I would put a cabin air freshener, like the Little Tree, in my trunk if I regularly carried my tennis shoes.

For the non-athletic, the most common item I saw was the collapsible chair. One family had an entire beach setup in their trunk: four collapsible chairs, a beach blanket, a sun umbrella and an empty cooler, all neatly tucked against the back wall. They said that they always wanted to be ready for a beach day, should the opportunity arise.

Some people were extremely proud of their trunks. One woman bragged that her brother taught her how to organize her tools, and that she had taken the organization to the next level. She had multiple storage boxes in her neat, clean trunk, each with a different set of useful items.

A few families were downright sheepish about the state of their cargo holds. They apologized in advance before opening the trunk, and said that they were in the middle of a project that had foiled their attempts at organization and cleanliness. I have to take them at their word; I'm not making a return trip to that hot parking lot to follow up.

Ed. Note: During the production of this story one of our co-workers felt she could contribute a great trunk image. A quick call to her sister, who is a veterinary student at a local university, resulted in what is the most surprising piece of "trunk junk" we've seen. You'll notice that in the image to the right, amongst a few well organized carry bags and nonchalantly poised on top of a case of soda, is a sheep skull. Had she snapped the photo a day earlier ... the entire sheep would have been posing for us.

THE CONCLUSION: After two days pounding the asphalt, I'm pleased to report that I actually uncovered some useful information and some fun trivia. Here's a summary:

There are good reasons for keeping your trunk as empty as possible:

  1. Less junk in the trunk equals less weight, and less weight can mean greater fuel efficiency.

  2. Under certain circumstances, shifting content in your trunk can adversely affect handling.

  3. An empty trunk provides space for that roadside find or warehouse store bargain. How else are you going to get that pallet of pickled asparagus spears back to your garage?

Here are a few tips that I picked up from the best (and worst) of trunks:

  1. Use boxes or containers in your trunk to keep your emergency kit organized and all together.

  2. Purge non-essential items from your trunk on a regular basis.

  3. Vacuum your cargo space whenever you wash your car so that whatever you put in your trunk doesn't get dirty and dusty.

  4. Keep a few reusable shopping bags in your trunk so that you always have them when you get to the store.

  5. Be sure to carry a few essential tools -- screwdrivers, wrench, tire-changing tools, a rubber mallet, etc. -- for emergency repair.

  6. A cargo net or bungee cords will help keep your boxes and other items from rolling around in the trunk during hard cornering.

Last, but not least, here's a list of the oddest items that I saw in any trunk:

1. A machete, an axe and a hammer, wrapped in a colorful sheet (I didn't ask any questions).

2. A pair of old-school quad roller skates.

3. An ice scraper (odd because the temperature was 97 degrees in the shade) -- and we never get frost in Southern California.

4. A tube of Butt Paste -- a highly useful concoction that combats diaper rash.

5. Nothing. I can guarantee that this is the one thing you'll never find in my trunk.

In Pictures: See More Trunk Junk

Read More on AOL Autos:

- Detroit's Pushes for Better Interiors

- 10 Ways to Save on Gas

- High Quality Small Cars

Share This Photo X