You don’t need to lug a bunch of gear around on your back to enjoy the outdoors and sleep out under the stars. It can be just as fun to load up your car, hit the road, and go car camping. This is a great option for beginners as well as those who don’t like to rough it. To help you get started, this guide outlines some helpful car camping tips. We’ll cover how to plan a car camping trip, how to find campsites, what to pack, safety, cooking, packing, staying comfortable, and much more. Hopefully, this guide helps you stay safe, save money, and have fun while car camping.
What is Car Camping?
Everyone has their own definition of car camping. For most campers, car camping means loading all of your gear up in your car, driving to a designated campsite, and setting up camp next to your vehicle. Most car campers sleep in a tent. There will be a flat clearing or tent pad where you can pitch your tent near your vehicle. You could sleep in a rooftop tent or even inside of your vehicle while car camping. For some campers, car camping might mean sleeping in a camper, van, or an RV.
When car camping, you’re not loading your gear into a backpack and hiking into camp. You drive right into your campsite. For this reason, the weight and size of your camping gear don’t really matter. You are only limited by what your vehicle can carry. This allows you to bring bulky sporting goods, food and cooking gear, and luxury items. For example, while car camping you could pack a bicycle, kayak, barbecue, cooler full of food and drinks, chair, cot, two-burner stove, cast iron pan, pillow and blanket, air mattress, firewood, etc.
Most car campers stay in a campground. This could be at a national park, state park, or a privately owned campground. You can also disperse camp on public lands in many countries. For example, in the U.S, you can camp on some Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. Laws as to where you can and can’t camp vary.
Some campgrounds offer more amenities than others. Most basic campgrounds offer restrooms, fire pits, picnic benches, and trash cans. More fully featured campgrounds might offer electricity, running water, showers with hot water, a small general store, barbecues, WiFi, a laundromat, a kitchen, a restaurant, a common area, equipment rentals, and more. Primitive campgrounds might only offer a flat spot to park and pitch a tent and an outhouse.
Some campgrounds offer a number of different types of sites as well. For example, they may have full-hookup RV campsites with water, power, and hookup as well as basic campsites for tent campers. Generally, the more amenities a campsite offers, the more they charge.
Table of Contents
- Why Car Camping
- How to Plan a Car Camping Trip
- How to Choose a Campground
- Gear to Pack for Car Camping
- Cooking Gear and tips for Car Camping
- Clothing to Pack for Car Camping
- How to Chose a Campsite and Park
- Legal Considerations, Permits, and Rules
- Staying Safe While Car Camping
- Things to Do While Car Camping
Why Car Camping?
There are plenty of reasons to go car camping. For many, the main appeal is that car camping an easy and comfortable way to enjoy the outdoors. You don’t have to rough it too much. You can drive directly to your campsite to set up. There is no need to carry a heavy backpack or pack specialty gear. Very little planning is required. Regardless of where you live, there are plenty of nearby public lands and campgrounds where you can go car camping. You can also pack comfortable gear such as a big tent, cots or air mattress, and all of the blankets and pillows that you need. If you pack a camp stove and cooler, you can eat great too.
Car camping is also a safe way for beginners to get into camping. Maybe you don’t have the skills or experience necessary to plan a big backpacking trip. Because you’re sleeping right next to your car, you can simply drive home if something goes wrong. It’s also easy to leave if you’re not having fun. Car camping is a perfect introduction for those who are new to camping. When you’re ready for more of a challenge, you can pick a more remote site or take day trips and use your camp as a base.
Car camping is also affordable. You also don’t need a bunch of expensive ultralight gear. You can use the gear you already have around home. For example, you can use blankets instead of sleeping bags. The affordability makes car camping is a great option for road trippers as well as those who are trying to get an early start on a hike. Instead of paying for an expensive hotel, you can often find a car camping site near your destination and camp for free or at least very cheaply.
In addition, car camping also offers a great opportunity to try out different outdoor activities. For example, you can pack all of your favorite sporting goods, set up camp, and spend your days hiking, cycling, kayaking, climbing, fishing, and more. You don’t have to stick to one activity.
How to Plan a Car Camping Trip
To get the most out of your car camping trip, you’ll want to do a bit of planning before you hit the road. Spending some time planning your trip out will help you avoid unpleasant surprises and score the best campsites on the dates that you want. For example, imagine arriving at the campground and finding out that it’s fully booked. You can avoid this if you plan ahead. Planning can also help to ensure that you pack the proper gear. Luckily planning a car camping trip is a pretty quick and easy process.
While planning your car camping trip, you’ll want to:
- Decide how many nights you want to camp- Are you just going for an overnighter or staying all weekend? Maybe you’re going on a month-long expedition. The length of your trip will determine how much gear and what kind of gear you need to pack. More on that later.
- Choose your dates- Look at you and your companions’ schedules and try to choose dates that work for everyone.
- Check the weather- If you’re planning your camping trip just a few days in advance, be sure to check the extended forecast. If it’s going to rain, consider postponing your trip. If you can’t postpone, you’ll want to pack all of your rain gear.
- Choose a campground- Search for campgrounds near your destination. Read reviews. Look at photos. Check which amenities they offer. I’ll talk more in-depth about choosing a campground in the next section.
- Check the reservation process of the campsite- Can you just show up and pick a site or do you need a reservation? If you’re camping during the off-season, you probably don’t need a reservation. During the busy season, it’s best to reserve a site. Popular campgrounds can fill up months in advance.
- Check to see if you need any permits- To camp in some campgrounds, you’ll need to pay for a permit in addition to paying the campsite fee. In some places, you’ll also need a permit to have a campfire.
- Check prices- You’ll want to check the prices of the campsite and any permits you’ll need to make sure you don’t go over budget. Campsite prices vary widely. You’ll also want to think about the price of gas, food, and any gear you need to buy. Camping is a cheap vacation but prices can add up if you’re not careful.
- Make a reservation for your campsite- Campgrounds in national parks, at beaches, and near popular tourist attractions can fill up months in advance during the busy summer season and during holidays. If you’re planning to visit during a busy time of year, you’ll need to plan ahead. Check the date that reservations open and make your booking as soon as far in advance as possible. Most campgrounds allow you to make reservations online these days.
- Make a list of things you need to pack- Think about the climate and temperatures you’re likely to experience to help you decide which types of clothing you’ll need. Consider your shelter, mattress or sleeping pad, insulation, what you’re going to eat, how you’re going to cook, etc.
- Make sure your vehicle is up for the trip- Fill the tank up with gas, check all of your vehicle’s fluids, and check the tire pressure. Your vehicle needs to be in good working condition. This is particularly important if you’re car camping somewhere remote.
- Plan for emergencies- It’s a good idea to carry extra food and water and an emergency blanket just in case something goes wrong.
How to Choose a Campground
There are a wide range of campground options available to car campers. When choosing a campground, you’ll want to spend some time researching. Look at the campground’s location on a map. Look at photos. Read reviews. See what amenities they offer. Check their pricing. You’ll also want to think about your personal preferences and needs. Consider the amenities you desire, your budget, accessibility requirements, the location, etc.
In this section, I’ll list some important considerations when choosing a campsite. I’ll also outline the different types of campgrounds where you can car camp including paid campgrounds, dispersed campgrounds, and wild campsites.
A few of the important considerations when choosing a campground include:
- The campsite location- Think about where you want to camp. Do you prefer to camp near civilization or in the middle of nowhere? Think about the kind of environment you prefer. Do you want to camp in the mountains, near the beach, in the desert, in the forest, or on a lake? Depending on where you live, you might be less than a day’s drive from multiple climate zones. It’s also important to think about how you’ll get there. Some campsites are more difficult to drive to than others.
- The amenities you need- Some campgrounds only offer a flat surface to park and pitch your tent. Others offer water, electricity, restrooms, showers, picnic tables, fire pits, WiFi, etc. Some sites offer full-hookup. You don’t want to stay in a luxury campground if you want to rough it. You’ll just end up paying for amenities you don’t need. If you prefer a ‘glamping’ experience, you may not be happy in a primitive site.
- The type of vehicle you drive and your driving ability- You’ll want to make sure you can access the campsite with your vehicle. Some campsites are accessible with any car. Some backcountry campsites are only accessible with a 4×4 or all wheel drive vehicle. Others cannot be accessed by larger vehicles like vans, RVs, and campers. Some campsites may not be accessible during the winter due to heavy snow. You may need some off-road driving experience to access some remote sites.
- The number of people you’re camping with- Some sites can only accommodate one small vehicle with 1-4 campers. Large campsites can accommodate a group with multiple tents, RVs, and cars.
- Your budget- If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll want to look for a free campsite. Paid campgrounds can cost anywhere from $10-$50 per night depending on the location and number of amenities they offer. Be sure to check the price before you arrive so you’re not surprised. You might also want to consider the cost of fuel if you plan to drive to a far away campground.
- How far you want to drive- Before you choose a campground, you should check the distance and drive time. If you’re only going to camp for a weekend, you probably don’t want to drive 800 miles. If you want to stay close to home, chances are, there is a campground less than 20 miles away. When going on a long road trip, you may want to make sure all of the campgrounds you plan to stay at are within a days drive apart.
- Crowds/Other campers- Do you prefer a social experience or do you prefer solitude? Some campgrounds are simply a large field where everyone camps right next to one another. These are common in Europe. These can be social and fun but can also get noisy and crowded. Some campgrounds are more spread out. Everyone keeps to themselves. When dispersed camping, you may be the only person for miles.
Paid campsites can be owned and managed by a government agency or a private owner. They charge a fee to cover the cost of operation, amenities, upkeep, and to make a profit. You’ll usually have to make a reservation to stay in a paid site. Sometimes you can just show up.
The amenities offered at paid sites vary. Basic paid campsites will have outhouses, fire pits, and a picnic table. Campsites in more developed areas might have nicer amenities such as hot showers, potable water, flush toilets, electricity, trash cans, and more. Privately owned campsites often offer even more amenities including full-hookup, a restaurant, WiFi, dishwashing stations, and more.
You can find paid campgrounds by doing a Google search for campsites near your destination. Most private campgrounds have their own website where you can make a booking. If you plan to camp in a national park, you can find campsites and book on the park’s website. If you’re planning to camp on federal or state land in the US, you can find campsites and make reservations through Reserve America. The process is as easy as booking a hotel room.
When you arrive at a paid campsite, you’ll have to pay a camping fee if you didn’t already pay when making your reservation. The amount of the fee depends on the location and how many amenities the site offers. Exactly how you pay depends on the campground. Sometimes you have to fill out a small form and drop your payment into a box near the entrance. At many national parks, you can pay in person at a ranger station. Oftentimes you can pay online in advance with a credit card or debit card.
During busy the busy summer season, you will usually need to reserve a campsite in advance. Sites fill up quickly these days. Usually, making a reservation a week or so in advance is fine. At some particularly busy campsites, you may need to make reservations months in advance. You’ll generally be asked to pay upfront when you make the reservation.
You’ll also want to make sure you have the proper permit if required. Some parks require that you have a permit in addition to paying the campsite fee. Sometimes you have to pay an entrance fee in addition to the campground fee. For example, you’ll have to pay a fee to enter most national parks. This fee does not include your camping fee.
If you want to avoid crowds and save some money, dispersed camping is an excellent option for car campers. Dispersed campsites are remote campsites that are located on public lands. These campsites are usually free. In some cases, a permit is required to access the land but there is no charge for camping.
These wild places are not actively managed by a host. This means they do not have any amenities. There are no bathrooms, fire pits, benches, trash cans, or tent pads. You’ll need to bring everything you need to sustain yourself during your trip. You’ll also need to pack out all of your trash and waste when you leave.
To stay in a dispersed campsite, you simply drive out into the forest, desert, or mountains and choose your own spot to camp. Sometimes you may stay at a spot where other people have camped before and sometimes your site will be completely untouched.
You can find dispersed campsites in many parts of the world. In the United States, dispersed camping is legal in many national forests and on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, and in some state parks. In Canada, you can often camp on Crown Land. Many other countries also allow free camping on public lands. For example, many European countries have ‘freedom to roam’ laws that allow for public use of land for recreational purposes including car camping.
Before your trip, you’ll want to do some research to make sure you’re camping legally. The rules of dispersed camping vary by location. To find dispersed sites, visit the website for the national forest, state park, or public land you plan to visit. The rules and regulations will be laid out on the website.
If you decide to camp in a dispersed campsite, be sure to follow the rules and practice leave no trace principles. This is important because these sites are not managed. There is nobody to clean up after you. You’ll want to be careful not to leave trash or cause damage to the area so others can enjoy the site in the future and so you don’t cause environmental damage.
Because there are no bathrooms, you’ll have to bring a camp toilet or learn how to go outside with minimal impact. Sometimes you are required to haul all of your waste out. We’ll talk more about leave no trace later on in this guide.
Wild or Stealth Campsites
You don’t have to stay in a designated camping area to go car camping. You can simply park somewhere and camp. For example, you could car camp in a parking lot, at a trailhead, or on a residential street. This is often called stealth camping, wild camping, or free camping.
This is a nice option if you can’t make it to your destination in one day. You can find a place to car camp for free for the night then continue on with your journey the next morning. You don’t have to pay for a hotel or find a campground. This also works well for those who want to get an early start the next morning. You’ll sometimes spot car campers who spent the night at a trailhead for this reason. It’s important to remember that if you decide to camp this way, you’ll have to sleep inside of your vehicle in most cases.
When stealth camping in your car, you’ll want to be as discreet as possible. This is particularly important if you’re camping somewhere you may not be welcome, like a residential street for example. Try not to let anyone see you climb into the back of your vehicle. Cover the windows so people can’t see you as they walk by and so light can’t escape. Try not to make too much noise or shake the vehicle as you move around. You’ll also want to arrive late and leave early. Ideally, after 11 pm and before 6 am. Stealth camping works best if you drive a normal-looking vehicle that doesn’t draw much attention. SUVs and minivans work well.
The legality of stealth camping varies. Some businesses or cities allow people to sleep in their vehicles in parking lots or on the streets. For example, many Walmart locations allow you to camp in their parking lot. In some jurisdictions, sleeping in your vehicle is illegal and can result in a fine. Keep this in mind if you decide to stealth camp.
An excellent resource for finding free and legal car campsites is freecampsites.net. The site includes a map, GPS coordinates, reviews, photos, and a list of amenities of many free campsites around the world. The iOverlander app is another excellent resource for free campsites around the world. These resources list a mix of public campsites, private campsites, and simply hidden places that you can camp for the night.
If you’re camping somewhere that is questionable or potentially illegal, you’ll want to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. For example, if you’re camping on a residential street or in a business’s parking lot, a security guard, police officer, or resident could approach you and ask you to leave. If you get a knock on your vehicle in the middle of the night and someone asks you to leave, you should. Avoid confrontation.
How to Drive to Your Campsite
Navigating to paid campgrounds is easy. They are accessible by road. You can simply plug the destination into your GPS and drive there. It’s a good idea to carry a paper map as well just in case. It can also help to download an offline map of the area to your phone. This way, you can check the map if you lose cell service. I use Maps.me for this. Google Maps also offers this function.
You will want to consider road conditions when choosing a campground. To reach some remote campgrounds, you may have to drive on sketchy mountain roads, unpaved roads, and poorly kept roads. While driving in the mountains, you may encounter poor weather including snow or thick fog. Conditions can get somewhat treacherous. If you plan to stay in a remote campground, you’ll want to make sure you feel comfortable driving in these conditions. If you’re not a confident driver, consider choosing another campground that is easier to reach.
Getting to remote disperse campsites can be a bit more challenging. Roads crossing public lands are often poorly maintained and poorly marked. In most cases, there are no signs at all. A decent dirt road can degrade into an off-road trail after a few miles. Sometimes you’ll unexpectedly encounter a locked gate blocking the road. It can take some trial and error to reach your destination. Sometimes you may have to do a bit of off-roading to get to your campsite.
Not all vehicles are capable of reaching all campsites. Sometimes you’ll need a four-wheel drive. It also takes some skill to drive off-road safely and to avoid damaging your vehicle. You’ll want to make sure you have the proper tools to recover your vehicle if you get stuck in mud or sand.
Before choosing a campground, whether it’s a paid site or disperse site, it’s a good idea to check the driving conditions. Use satellite view on Google Earth to check whether a road is paved or unpaved. Read some reviews of the campground to see if anyone had trouble driving in. Another excellent resource is OnX OffRoad. This app can help you determine the difficulty of driving different roads. It can also recommend what type of vehicle you’ll need for driving different types of roads. The app works offline as well so you can use it when you lose cell service.
How to Pack for Car Camping
The beauty of car camping is that the weight and bulk of your gear don’t really matter. Because you’re not going to be carrying your gear on your back, you can pack whatever you want. You don’t need to use expensive and minimalist ultralight gear. This allows you to use cheaper and more comfortable camping gear while car camping.
You can save a good amount of money by using budget gear. For example, instead of spending $500 on an ultralight tent, you can use a $50 tent from Walmart or Amazon. Coleman offers a nice range of budget tents. Instead of buying a $300 ultralight down sleeping bag, you can buy a heavy and bulky synthetic model for $40.
Cheap camping gear works just as well as expensive gear to keep you warm and dry. The only difference is that it’s heavier and bulkier because it’s made from cheaper materials. Cheap gear is usually just as durable as the expensive stuff.
While car camping, you can also pack camping gear that is more comfort oriented. For example, if there are two of you camping together, you might want to use a 4 person tent instead of a 2 person tent. This gives you plenty of extra space to move around, change clothes, or just hang out. You might also pack an extra thick inflatable mattress instead of a thin foam sleeping pad. You might want to pack a sleeping bag with a slightly warmer temperature rating than you need. If you expect temperatures down to 40, you might pack a sleeping bag with a temperature rating down to 32. This way, you’ll stay toasty warm.
While car camping, you can also go ahead and pack some luxury items. Pack extra blankets, cots, full-sized pillows, a cooler full of food and drinks, camp chairs, your favorite cast iron pan, a 2 burner stove, books, etc. As long as there is space in your car, you can bring it.
In this section, I’ll list the things you’ll need to pack for a car camping trip. I’ll also list some luxury items you might want to bring to improve your comfort.
Your Car Camping Sleep System
- Tent/Shelter- Your shelter protects you from the rain and bugs. Most car campers sleep in a tent. Consider packing a larger tent than you need to give yourself some extra space to move around. You could also sleep in a hammock, rooftop tent, or inside of your vehicle.
- Sleeping pad or mattress- Your sleeping pad serves two purposes. First, it provides a soft and supportive surface to sleep on. More importantly, it provides insulation from the cold ground. A sleeping pad is necessary because your sleeping bag can’t insulate the underside of your body. This is because the insulation is compressed under your bodyweight. Your sleeping pad prevents your body heat from transferring into the ground. Sleeping pad warmth is measured in R-value. The higher the R-value the warmer the pad. You’ll want to make sure your sleeping pad is warm enough for the weather conditions you plan to camp in. For car camping, choose the thickest and most comfortable mattress or sleeping pad you can find. Many car campers use a thick inflatable mattress or a cheap foam pad. If you use an inflatable mattress, you’ll need to pack some kind of pump. Self-inflating sleeping pads are also a popular choice for car camping. For more comfort, you could also sleep on a cot. You can also use an inflatable or foam sleeping pad that is made for hiking.
- Sleeping bag/Bedding- A sleeping bag or camping quilt will work well. For car camping, you can save money by using a synthetic sleeping bag rather than down. Synthetic bags are just as warm as down. The difference is that they are heavier and bulkier. For more info, check out my guide to synthetic vs down insulation. If you plan to use a thick inflatable mattress, you could use sheets and a comforter. This gives you more freedom of motion while you sleep. Whatever type of bedding you choose, be sure to pack some extra blankets just in case you get cold. This is particularly important if you use a cheap sleeping bag from a big box store. Sometimes the temperature ratings on these are inaccurate. Manufacturers sometimes overstate the ratings. Synthetic insulation can also degrade over time and lose some of its loft and warmth. If you use a higher-end sleeping bag from a reputable brand, you can be more confident in the comfort rating.
- A pillow- Most car campers bring a full-sized pillow from their bed at home. When car camping, you don’t have to suffer with a small camp pillow.
Other Car Camping Gear to Pack
- A lantern, headlamp, or flashlight- You’ll need a light source at night. This comes in handy if you have to walk to the bathroom or find a piece of gear after dark. You want to avoid using your car’s lights too often so you don’t run the battery down. Some car campers set up LED string lights to light up their entire campsite at night. These can add a nice ambiance.
- Camp chairs- Many campsites include a picnic bench. These aren’t too comfortable to sit on for long periods of time. A folding camp chair gives you a portable and comfortable place to sit for hours.
- A table- If your site doesn’t have a picnic table, you may want to bring a plastic folding table like a card table. This gives you a convenient place to set up your kitchen and to eat.
- Something to charge your electronics with- When your car isn’t running, you can’t charge your phone, camera, laptop, tablet, etc. because you’ll drain the battery. There are a few options for charging. The best option is probably solar. You could pack a small solar charger to power small electronics like your phone and camera. If you camp often, you could also install a solar system to your vehicle and mount solar panels on the roof. These can create enough electricity to power an electric cooler as well as all of your devices. Another option is to bring a large portable battery like the Jackery Portable Power Station. You could also use a gas-powered generator. If you plan to use a generator, make sure they are permitted where you plan to camp. Some campgrounds limit generator use because they are noisy.
- Toiletries- You’ll want to pack your toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, hand sanitizer, contact lenses and solution, deodorant, first aid kit, any medications you need to take, bug bite cream, antibiotic ointment, etc. For more help, check out my toiletry packing guide.
- Insect repellent- If you’re camping in a buggy area, you’ll need to bring some bug spray. This is particularly important during the summer when mosquitoes and ticks are out. These insects can carry a number of harmful diseases. Look for insect repellent with DEET or picaridin. These are the most effective chemicals for repelling mosquitoes. I like this Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent. Another option is to pack an area insect repellent like this Thermacell Patio Shield Mosquito Repeller. You can set this up on your picnic table to keep the bugs away while you eat and hang out. It creates a 15 foot protected zone. Each replaceable cartridge lasts 12 hours.
- Sunblock- While car camping, you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors in the sun. It’s a good idea to wear sunblock to protect your skin from damage.
- A camp shower- One of the worst parts of camping is not being able to clean yourself after a long sweaty day of hiking. If you’re staying in a campground that doesn’t offer showers, a great option is to bring a camp shower. These are either heated by the sun or powered with electricity from your vehicle’s battery.
- A bug tent/screen canopy- These large shelters provide protection from bugs, the sun, and rain. They are tall enough for you to walk and stand under. The main benefit of picking one of these is that you won’t be bothered by mosquitoes or bees while you eat. You’ll also have a dry place to hang out if it rains. You can set your screen tent up with your table and chairs inside to create a comfortable outdoor living area. You can also pitch this shelter over the picnic bench if your site has one. This Coleman Screened Canopy Tent would work well. If you just need protection from the rain, you can use a big tarp. Tie it to trees and your vehicle to create a dry area where you can hang out.
- A hammock- Hang your hammock between two trees or between your vehicle and a tree. This gives you a comfortable place to lay down and relax during the day.
- Entertainment- Download some movies, music, eBooks, podcasts, games, or TV shows to your laptop, tablet, or phone before you leave home. You probably won’t have WiFi at your campsite. You might not even have a cell connection if you’re camping somewhere remote. Also consider packing a book or two if you like to read.
- A full tank of gas- Be sure to fill up your car before you leave town. The last thing you want is to end up on a remote road driving with your gas light on hoping you can make it back to civilization.
- Water- Weight isn’t an issue while car camping so you might as well bring plenty of water. Start your trip with plenty of full water bottles. Consider bringing a couple of 1 gallon jugs as well. Having plenty of water brings peace of mind. Some car campers bring a 5 gallon jug with a hand pump. You can use this to refill your bottles and even wash up.
Cooking Gear for Car Camping
The beauty of car camping is that you’re not limited to dehydrated camp meals and pre-prepared foods. You can bring a full kitchen and cook all of your favorite recipes right at camp. My favorite part of car camping is cooking and enjoying freshly cooked meals.
While packing for your trip, it’s a good idea to gather all of your cooking gear and store it together in a bag or bucket. That way, it’s all in one place when you’re ready to cook. You can easily find what you need without having to dig through all of your gear.
What to pack in your car camping cooking kit:
- Camp stove- For car camping, a 2 burner gas stove is ideal. Having 2 burners allows you to cook more complex meals than a single burner. You can use one burner to reheat food or keep food warm while cooking a second dish. Ideally, your camp stove should allow you to control the heat setting. This allows you to cook a wider variety of dishes. Lower end stoves sometimes only have a high and off settings. These make it easy to burn your food. I like the Coleman Gas Camping Stove. If you like, you could also bring a barbecue. Many campgrounds also have built in barbecues or a grill over part of the fire pit where you can cook. Even if you plan to cook over a fire or barbeque, it’s a good idea to bring a camp stove. It can come in handy when you want to heat something up quickly or make some coffee or tea in the morning.
- A cooler or fridge- A well insulated cooler can keep your cold foods cold for 1-2 days. Dry ice can help keep your food cold longer. Many campgrounds also sell ice. To help your food stay cold even longer, it can help to freeze it before you leave home and pack it tightly. Try to minimize the number of times you open your cooler and how long you leave it open. You might also consider using separate coolers for food and drinks. You open your drinks cooler more often so it can warm up faster. It’s also a good idea to use ice packs in your food cooler so your food doesn’t get wet. Electric coolers are also available. You can run these off of a large portable battery or a gas generator. A big battery should allow you to run your cooler for up to 3 days. If you have electricity at your campsite, you can keep your electric cooler running indefinitely.
- A pot and pan- You don’t need to buy specialty camp cookwear. You can just bring a couple of old pots and pans from home. Many car campers also like cooking in cast iron pans. These cook evenly and hold heat well.
- Plates, bowls, and cups- You can bring these from home, buy a set of camp dishes, or use disposables. I like to use dishes and cups that are designed for camping because they are durable and don’t produce waste like disposables. The drawback is that they are annoying to clean.
- Fuel- Most camp stoves use propane. Bring an extra fuel canister in case one runs out.
- A cutting board- For prepping food. You could also just use one of your plates as a cutting board.
- A sharp knife- For cutting veggies and meat.
- A meat thermometer- This can help you determine whether or not your meat is cooked through. These come in handy when you’re cooking in the dark.
- Silverware- You can just bring regular silverware from home or you can buy camp cutlery. You could also use disposable utensils.
- Other utensils- Depending on what you plan to cook, you might need tongs, a spatula, a wooden spoon, a ladle, etc. You can use the same ones you use at home or buy models that are designed for camping.
- A portable wash basin- You don’t absolutely need one of these but they do make washing dishes a lot easier. You can simply fill the basin with soapy water, wash your dishes, then rinse them off with fresh water. If you don’t have enough clean water to spare, you can boil some water from a lake or river to wash with. I like these Tiawudi Collapsible Sinks. Some luxury campgrounds also have a dish washing station.
- A camp oven- If you want to go all out, you can bring an oven and bake fresh breads, pies, cakes, or pastries. Imagine baking fresh corn bread, cinnamon rolls, or french bread at camp. This would make you pretty popular.
- Spices and oil- You’ll want to bring something to flavor your food with. You should at least pack some salt, pepper. Better yet, pack your favorite spices, seasonings, and your favorite hot sauce. You’ll also want to bring some oil or butter to grease your pans with to prevent food from sticking.
- A coffee maker- One of my favorite parts of camping is enjoying a fresh cup of coffee on a cool morning. If you’re a coffee drinking, you can pack whatever type of coffee maker you prefer. The simplest option is a pour over drip coffee maker. You could also bring a percolator or french press. I like the Stanley Adventure All-in-One. This is a french press coffee maker that can also be used to make tea, boil water, and heat up soup.
- Water- Make sure you bring plenty of water to cook and clean with if you’re staying in a campground that doesn’t have running water. You can also filter or boil water from a lake or river.
Plan Your Meals in Advance
Find some camping recipes you enjoy. You can cook pretty much anything with a fully stocked car camping kitchen. For some inspiration, check out this great list of camp recipes.
Before you leave home consider trying to plan out all of your meals. This way, you avoid packing excess food that you don’t need. You’ll create less food waste as well. For example, if you’re car camping for a weekend, you’ll probably need 2 breakfasts, 2-3 lunches, and 2 dinners. You’ll also want to pack some snacks to eat between meals while you’re out hiking. Write out a list of the ingredients you’ll need and the amounts. This can help you pack the proper amount of food.
Also, keep in mind that you can usually restock pretty easily while car camping. Just drive to the nearest town and you’re bound to find a grocery store or convenience store. Some campgrounds also have a small shop that sells food. If you’re camping somewhere remote, you’ll want to carry a bit of extra food just to be safe.
Consider Prepping Your Food at Home
If you don’t feel like packing a full kitchen with you, you can prep some of your food at home. For example, you could wash and chop all of your veggies and you could portion out servings of meat. You might even make sauces or marinades at home. You can then seal all of the pre-prepared and portioned foods in separate baggies or plastic containers. This is kind of how restaurants cook.
This way, everything is ready to cook when you get to camp. This saves you a great deal of time. It’s much easier and more convenient to do the tedious prep work in your home kitchen rather than on a picnic bench. You also won’t have to pack as much cooking equipment. By cooking everything at your campsite, you still get to enjoy fresh food.
Practice Safe Food Handling
While cooking at your campsite it can be difficult to keep everything as hygienic as you’d like. It’s easy to accidentally cross-contaminate vegetables with raw meat. The reason is that you don’t have a sink nearby where you can wash your hands, knife, and cutting board as you cook. You probably don’t have multiple utensils to use to cook with. If you’re not careful, you could end up with food poisoning.
In addition, your hands may not be as clean as you’d like. Some campgrounds don’t have running water. There is nowhere to properly wash your hands after you use the restroom.
The solution is to wash your hands as best as you can. Particularly when they are visibly dirty. Wash them in a lake or river if you must. You should also bring dish soap so you can wash your cooking equipment. Make sure the soap you use is environmentally friendly. Also, bring hand sanitizer and use it often.
Clothing for Car Camping
The best kind of clothing to wear while car camping is activewear, sportswear, or clothing that is designed for hiking and camping. Ideally, you want to choose clothes that are made from stretchy, breathable, quick-drying, and moisture-wicking fabrics. Your camping clothing should be durable as well. Basically, you want to choose clothing that is comfortable to move around in and lounge around in.
Synthetic fabrics and wool work are perfect fabrics for car camping trips. These types of clothing offer freedom of movement. They are also comfortable to wear while hiking and relaxing at camp. In addition, these fabrics can provide some insulation when wet. Merino wool is a particularly popular fabric for hiking and camping because it is odor resistant. Most campers wear the same clothing for multiple days.
You should try to avoid cotton. The reason is that it takes forever to dry after it gets wet. Cotton also doesn’t provide any insulation when it’s wet. This can be dangerous in cold conditions. This is what the saying ‘cotton kills’ means.
Exactly which clothing and how much clothing you need to pack for your car camping trip depends on the climate of your destination and how long you’re camping. In warm summer weather, shorts and T-shirts are fine during the day. You’ll want to bring something warm to wear during the chilly evenings and mornings. Chances are it will be colder than you expect. Even mild weather can feel chilly when you’re sitting around camp and not being active.
In cold or wet weather, you’ll want to layer up. Wear a quick-drying and sweat-wicking base layer against your skin, a warm mid-layer, and a waterproof and windproof outer layer to warm and dry. If you expect extreme cold or snow, you’ll need a heavy insulated jacket or parka. You can remove or add a layer if you get too hot or too cold. It’s always a good idea to bring some extra clothes just in case.
For an average car camping trip, you might want to pack:
- A long-sleeved shirt- for protection from the sun and some warmth
- Long pants- These can provide protection from bugs
- A rain jacket or poncho- even if you don’t expect rain, you should pack one just in case.
- Socks- wool socks are ideal if you plan to hike
- Underwear- synthetic underwear are ideal
- Long underwear- These provide a warm base layer. They are also nice to sleep in
- A hat- for sun protection. In cold weather pack a knit hat
- A sweater- Fleece or wool are best because they dry quickly and provide warmth while wet
- An insulated jacket- Down puffer jackets are popular because they are warm and lightweight
- Gloves- These are nice for setting up and taking down a cold, wet tent
- A swimsuit- if you plan to go swimming
Before leaving home, it’s a good idea to check the forecast and pack accordingly. Look at the nighttime low temperature. Also, look for rain. Regardless of the weather, you should always pack some kind of jacket and rain gear, even if you expect warm and sunny weather. Oftentimes the weather forecast is wrong and it’s colder or rainier than expected. It’s best to be prepared. The extra weight and bulk of a jacket don’t matter when car camping.
Choosing a Campsite and Parking Your Vehicle
At many campgrounds, you can choose from any of the available campsites. They are first come first serve. Some sites are better than others. At some campgrounds, you can reserve a specific site. In this section, I’ll share a few tips to help you choose the best campsite.
- Park in the shade- Your car interior will get hot when parked in direct sunlight, even if it’s not particularly hot outside. When choosing a campsite, look for a nice shade tree to park under. The benefit of parking in the shade is that your gear will stay cooler in your car. Your cooler will keep your food cold longer. You can also sit in your car in the shade.
- Consider the location of the restrooms when choosing a site- You don’t want to camp right next to the bathrooms. At the same time, you don’t want to have to walk half a mile every time you need to go. You also don’t want a constant stream of people walking by our campsite while walking to and from the bathroom.
- Look for dead trees or branches that could fall on you- You want to make sure there is nothing that could fall on you in the night. This is particularly important if you expect high winds or snow.
- Consider where rainwater will run- Look for trenches formed by running water. Look for dips where puddles could form. You want to avoid camping in these areas if you expect rain. While camping in Mt. Rainier National Park, I set up my tent in a low spot without thinking about it. During the night a storm rolled in and I ended up waking up in a puddle. I learned my lesson about campsite selection that night.
- Check the ground conditions- Make sure the site has a flat spot where you can pitch your tent. You don’t want to sleep on an incline. You also don’t want a hard root or rock under you. Also, try to choose a site with soft ground that you can easily pound stakes into. Make sure there are no thorns that could puncture your inflatable sleeping pad or mattress. Some campgrounds have tent pads so you don’t have to worry about this.
- Consider condensation- If you’re camping in a humid area, condensation inside of your tent can be a problem. Condensation occurs when warm air inside of your tent contacts the cold tent walls. The air inside of the tent is heated and humidified by your breath, sweat, and body heat. The outside air cools the tent walls. Water vapor condenses into liquid water on the inside walls of your tent. When you rub up against the tent walls, you and your gear get wet. You can reduce condensation by improving ventilation. You should also try to set up camp away from any body of water elevated above the surrounding area. For more tips, check out my guide to avoiding condensation while camping.
- Consider other campers- Try not to crowd other campers or take up more than your fair share of space. In large campgrounds with designated sites, this usually isn’t an issue. There is plenty of room to spread out. In small campgrounds that are essentially just a field or parking lot, you may need to be a bit more conscious about how much space you’re taking up. You may also want to avoid camping near large groups as they can get noisy.
Tips for Sleeping Inside of your Vehicle
Some car campers choose to sleep inside of their vehicle instead of in a tent. The following tips will help you sleep comfortably inside of your car:
- Sleep with your head toward the front of the vehicle- This gives you more space for your arms and shoulders because the wheel wells won’t be in your way.
- If you have to park on an incline, point the front of the vehicle up the hill- This way, your head is elevated above your heart while you sleep.
- Crack a window to increase ventilation- Breathing and sweating inside of your vehicle all night increases the humidity. This moisture can condense on your windows and fog them up. To avoid this, open your windows or sunroof a couple of inches to allow for some airflow. Install some car window screens to keep bugs out. To further reduce condensation, you can place a moisture absorber in your vehicle.
- Cover your windows- This gives you some privacy so people can’t look in at you while you sleep. It will also keep the car a bit darker so you can sleep in later. Covering your windows can also help the car stay a bit cooler by reflecting light back outside instead allowing the light to come in and heat the car up like a greenhouse.
Legal Considerations and Rules for Car Camping
These days, camping is fairly regulated. You can’t just go out into the woods and camp whatever you want. There are permits, laws, and regulations to deal with. You have to follow the rules to avoid fines and to stay safe.
A few rules and regulations you’ll want to follow while car camping include:
- Make sure you have the right permit or pass– If you’re camping in a national park or state park, you may need to pay for a park entry pass in addition to your campsite fee. To camp on some federal land, you may need to get a permit. For example, non-Canadian residents need a permit to camp on Canadian Crown Land while Canadian citizens enjoy free camping. Usually, you’re required to display your permit or pass on your dashboard or hanging from your rearview mirror to prove that you’ve paid. If you don’t have the proper permit, you could get a ticket or fine. The amount of the fine will vary by location.
- Check for alcohol restrictions- Some campgrounds or parks restrict alcohol consumption. Sometimes you are only allowed to drink at your campsite. Sometimes alcohol is prohibited. For example, some beach campgrounds prohibit alcohol. You may want to check the rules if you plan to have a party.
- Check cooking restrictions- When there is a high risk of fire, camp stove use can be restricted. Sometimes all open flames are banned. Sometimes only wood and charcoal stoves are banned while propane and gas stoves are permitted. If you plan to cook at camp, you’ll want to check for any restrictions before your trip.
- Campfire restrictions- During the dry season, campfires are often prohibited to reduce the risk of wildfires. In some campgrounds, you need a campfire permit in order to have a campfire. You’ll get this permit from the local land managers. If you plan to have a campfire, you’ll want to check for any restrictions. You can also ask at the campground.
- Firewood- Oftentimes it is illegal to collect firewood. In some places, it is illegal to bring firewood from somewhere. The reason is that it could be contaminated with some kind of invasive species. It’s best to buy firewood at the campground if you plan to have a fire.
- Follow the campsite rules- Campsites have all sorts of rules you need to follow. Most are common sense. For example, some campgrounds have quiet times. Usually between 11 pm and 6 am. You may also need to keep your dogs on a leash if you bring them with you. Usually, the rules will be posted at the campground entrance or on their website.
Follow Leave No Trace Principles While Car Camping
While car camping, it’s important to practice the 7 principles of Leave No Trace. These guidelines, created by The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, are designed to help humans reduce their impact on the environment while enjoying the outdoors. If we take care to keep the environment natural and healthy, we can continue enjoying it for years to come.
For car campers, Leave No Trace includes:
- Pack out all garbage- Either take it home with you or find a waste bin. Most campgrounds, visitors centers, trailheads, and gas stations, have garbage cans so there is no reason to leave trash sitting around at your campsite when you leave.
- Drive, walk, and camp in designated areas only- Driving and hiking off-trail can cause damage to plant life and animal habitats. It can also make the environment look less natural. For example, nobody wants to see tire tread marks passing through an otherwise pristine field. Try to drive, camp, and walk on durable surfaces to avoid causing any damage. Try to pitch your tent in a clearing to avoid causing damage to plant life.
- Leave the environment how you found it- Don’t build improvised shelters, dig holes, carve into trees, pick flowers, or take souvenirs from the environment. If you move rocks or branches to create a flat place to camp, move them back to where you found them before you leave. You want to leave your campsite looking completely natural.
- Minimize the impact of your campfire- Try to build your fire in an existing fire pit. Only burn small pieces of deadwood from downed trees or driftwood. Collect wood from a large area. Better yet, buy firewood locally. Don’t bring firewood from home. Burn all wood to white ash. Keep the area looking as natural as possible.
- Be respectful toward wildlife- If you spot an animal, try not to disturb it. If you want to take photos, do it from a distance. Don’t get too close, make sudden movements, or make loud noises.
- Leave the campsite in the condition you found it- If you moved the picnic bench, move it back to where it belongs. If you used the dishwashing station, leave it clean for the next camper. At your campsite, don’t dig trenches for water runoff or nail anything to trees.
These days, it’s more important than ever to practice leave no trace simply because there are so many people camping. If one person litters or damages some vegetation, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. If everyone does it, we can cause some serious damage to the environment. Try your best to leave no trace while car camping.
Staying Safe While Car Camping
Car camping is a pretty safe outdoor activity. If you get too cold or if someone gets injured, you can just hop in the car and drive back into town. There is not really a risk of getting lost because you’ll always be near a road. After all, you have to drive there. Having said this, there are a few precautions you’ll want to take in order to stay safe.
In this section, I’ll outline a few car camping safety tips. For more in-depth info, check out my guide: Is Camping Safe? Avoiding Wild Animals, Insects, and Injury.
Never Store Food in Your Car While Camping in Bear Country
Bears are capable of breaking a car window to get to the food inside. Large bears are even strong enough to tear car doors open. If you’re camping in bear country, always use proper food storage techniques.
Store all of your food, toiletries, fuel, and anything else with an odor in a secure way so that bears can’t access them. Most campsites in bear country will have built-in bear lockers or a bear hang. To use the bear hang, you will have to bring a dry bag. If the campsite doesn’t have any food storage options, you can use a bear canister or pack your food in odor-resistant bear bags and leave them in your car.
While camping in bear country, you should never eat or store food in your tent. Ideally, you should cook and eat 100 feet away from your tent. You should also keep your food stored at all times when you’re not cooking or eating. Try to keep the campsite clean of food waste to avoid attracting bears. These tips will also help keep away critters like ants, bees, mice, etc.
For more in-depth info on bears, check out my bear safety tips for campers.
If there are no bears where you’re camping, the most convenient place to store your food will probably be in your car. Make sure you seal all open containers up so they don’t stink up your vehicle or attract pests.
Pack a First Aid Kit
It’s easy to sustain minor injuries while car camping. For example, maybe you brush up against a branch and get a scratch. Maybe you burn yourself on the campfire. Bug bites and stings are common as well. Depending on the season and your destination, you’re likely to encounter mosquitoes, bees, spiders, and ticks.
It’s important to have a first aid kit so you can treat these minor injuries. You can buy a pre-made first aid kit or put one together yourself. I like this First Aid Only 299 Pieces All-Purpose First Aid Emergency Kit.
If you want to put together your own first aid kit, be sure to pack bandages, gauze, medical tape, bug spray, antiseptic wipes, antibiotic ointment, and burn cream.
Pack Some Emergency Gear
When car camping, you should always prepare for the worst. It’s a good idea to pack some emergency blankets. Basic mylar emergency blankets are cheap, compact, and can help you survive a cold night if you get stranded. These Swiss Safe Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets would work well.
You should also keep a fire extinguisher inside of your vehicle. This will come in handy if your car catches on fire or, more likely if your campfire gets out of hand.
It’s also a good idea to pack some extra food and water just in case.
Pack Some Tools and Spares for Your Vehicle
When car camping, you should at least carry the required tools and equipment to change a flat tire. You’ll need a spare tire, jack, and tire iron. Your car should already have all of these. It’s a good idea to check the air pressure in your spare before you leave home. You’ll also want to make sure somebody in your group knows how to change a tire.
If you plan to drive far into the backwoods where you’re unlikely to encounter any other people, it’s a good idea to have two full-sized spare tires. You should also consider packing a tire repair kit and a pump. Oftentimes you can easily repair a flat with a tire plug.
You should also bring a portable jump starter so you can start your car if the battery goes dead. It’s pretty easy to accidentally drain your battery while car camping. For example, if you accidentally leave your dome light on too long or charge a device with your car off, you can drain your battery quickly. A battery-powered jump starter will allow you to get your car started, even if the battery goes dead. This NOCO Boost HD UltraSafe Lithium Jump Starter Box would work well.
If you need to drive off-road to get to your campsite, you should also carry some recovery equipment. For hardcore off-road driving, you’ll probably want a winch and traction pads. A shovel can come in handy as well.
If you car camp often, you might also consider adding a roadside assistance program to your insurance plan. If you get stranded or your vehicle needs to be towed hundreds of miles, you can just call your insurance company and they’ll help you out. This brings peace of mind. AAA is a popular choice for campers in the US.
Some Things to Do While Car Camping
Car camping opens the door for loads of outdoor activities. A few things to do while car camping include:
- Go for a hike or walk- Look up some hikes near where you’re camping. A great resource for this is AllTrails. You could also simply take a walk around the campground or along a nearby river or lake.
- Go mountain biking- If you have a bike rack on your car, you can bring your bike with you and go for a ride. Many hiking trails double as mountain biking trails. You can also use your bike for transportation around camp. Check out my cycling guides for some ideas.
- Go fishing- Pack your fishing pole and tackle and throw a line in the water. Remember to buy a fishing permit so you don’t get a tine.
- Cook a meal- Pack a camp stove, a frying pan, and a cooler full of your favorite fresh foods and go to town. Check out this list of camp meals for some inspiration.
- Kayaking/canoeing- Explore a nearby stream, river, or lake. If your car isn’t large enough to haul a boat, inflatables are also an option. You could also use a small trailer.
- Relax- You don’t have to do anything at all while camping. You can simply relax. Sit your chair out by a lake or river and enjoy the view. Work on your tan. Hang a hammock in the trees and take a nap in the shade.
- Swim- If you’re camping near a body of water, you might as well take a dip. This is a great way to cool off during the summer.
- Go boating- A boat opens up even more opportunities for adventure. Go fishing, sailing, water skiing, jet skiing, tubing, snorkeling, or just sightseeing.
- Take photos- Photograph the mountains, rivers, plants, and animals. You could simply use your phone or you could pack your camera if you’re into photography.
- Make art- If you’re an artist, you may want to pack your art supplies with you while camping. This might mean packing a sketchpad and pencils or paint and a canvas. Draw or paint a landscape. If you’re a musician, you might bring your favorite musical instrument.
- Stargaze- One of the best parts of camping is viewing the night sky without light pollution. One of my favorite memories is seeing the Milky Way for the first time while camping in the desert in Namibia. If you’re into astronomy, consider packing a telescope for an even better stargazing experience.
- Go foraging- Many plants, roots, nuts, and fungi are safe to eat. You can harvest these and cook them up at camp or bring them home to use later. If you go foraging, you’ll need to be 100% sure that the items you’re harvesting are safe to eat. A local foraging book can help you identify edible plants in the region you’re camping in. You’ll also want to make sure you’re not harvesting anything illegally or over harvesting. For some help getting started, check out this great guide.
Final Thoughts About Car Camping
Car camping is an easy, comfortable, affordable, and low-risk way to get out and enjoy nature. You can bring most of the comforts of home with you. If you’re on a tight budget, you can almost always find a free place to camp. In a worst-case scenario, if you have to bail for whatever reason, it’s easy to pack up and drive home. This makes car camping a great choice for those who are just getting into outdoor recreation.
One of my favorite aspects of car camping is the fact that it gives you the opportunity to see more in less time. For example, if you’re visiting a national park you can camp at a different site every night. You can drive between different trailheads, scenic lookouts, and attractions. You don’t have to hike for days on end or stay in the same place for your whole vacation. Your car gives you a bit more freedom.
Do you car camp? Share your tips and experience in the comments below!
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