Some car campers decide not to bother with a tent and instead set up a sleeping area inside of their vehicle. With a few small modifications, you can comfortably sleep in a car, SUV, van, or even in the bed of a pickup truck. Whether you’re overlanding, road tripping, or just car camping, sleeping in your car offers a comfortable and simple alternative to a tent. That said, there are some drawbacks. Some campers prefer sleeping in a ground tent or rooftop tent. To help you decide, this guide lists the pros and cons of sleeping in a car vs sleeping in a tent. We’ll cover comfort, costs, warmth, setup, safety, and more.
For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to define ‘car camping’ as actually sleeping inside of the vehicle. Some people define car camping as camping at a site where you can drive up and pitch your tent next to your car. For this guide, tent camping means sleeping in a tent, either next to your car or at a site you hike or bike to.
Table of Contents
- Sleeping in a Car Pros and Cons
- Tent Camping Pros and Cons
- Car Camping Tips
- Choosing a Vehicle for Camping
Pros of Sleeping in a Car
- Sleeping in a car is warmer- Vehicles have built-in insulation that traps some heat inside. When the sun goes down, your car interior won’t cool off as fast as the inside of a tent. The insulation also traps some of your body heat as you sleep. For these reasons, the inside of a car remains a few degrees higher than the outside air temperature. Most tents don’t have insulation so the inside and outside air temperature are about the same. Being made from solid material, cars also protect you from the wind. You don’t have to deal with a windchill factor when sleeping in your car. Tents, on the other hand, can get drafty. In addition, your car raises you off of the cold ground when you sleep. The car’s floor provides insulation. You lose less body heat to the ground this way. Of course, if you get too cold, you can always turn your car on and turn on the heater.
- Cheaper- All you really need to camp in your vehicle is a sleeping pad and sleeping bag. If you’re on a tight budget, you could just throw an old mattress or a foam pad in the back and bring a blanket and pillow. Chances are, you already have these things sitting around your house. You don’t need to spend any money on camping gear if you don’t want to.
- Sleeping in a car is safer than a tent- You can lock yourself in your vehicle when you go to sleep at night. This makes it much harder for dangerous people to get to you during the night. This is nice when you’re camping in a populated area. If you sense danger, you can climb into the driver’s seat and drive out of camp without having to go outside. You also don’t have to worry about getting run over in the night by a drunk driver in a busy campground. Your vehicle also provides protection from wild animals. Mountain lions and bears can’t easily get to you in your car. That said, you aren’t 100% safe in your car. Bears have been known to break car windows and even tear car doors open to get to food inside. While sleeping in your car, you’ll still want to stash your food as well as anything with an odor outside of your vehicle in a bearproof canister or locker or hang it from a bear pole or in a tree. For more tips, check out my guide to bear safety. Your car does provide protection from poisonous animals like snakes, scorpions, and spiders as well as disease-carrying creatures like mosquitoes and ticks. They can’t get to you in your car as long as you keep your doors and windows closed or covered with bug netting.
- Faster and easier to set up camp- The only setup you need to do is lay your sleeping pad and sleeping bag out in the back of your vehicle. You only have to do this once because you can leave your bed set up when you drive from one camp to the next. There is basically no setup when you arrive at a new camp. You can just park and crawl into bed. When you sleep in your car, you don’t have to deal with the hassle of pitching and packing up a tent and rolling and unrolling your sleeping bag every day. This saves you 10-15 minutes per day. For this reason, sleeping in your car is a great choice for overlanders or road trippers who move to a different camp every day. It’s also nice when you arrive late at night or if you have to get an early start in the morning.
- Easier to find a campsite- Wherever you can park, you can camp. All you need is a flat patch of ground. It doesn’t matter if the ground is muddy, rocky, wet, lumpy, or covered in snow or vegetation. Because you’re raised off the ground, you don’t need to worry about puddles forming or water flowing into camp if it rains. You can also camp on solid surfaces like asphalt or rock because you don’t have to deal with pounding stakes into the ground. If you can drive there, you can camp there.
- You can stealth camp in your car- You can camp in a vehicle on city streets, in residential areas, and in parking lots. For example, many car campers like to park overnight in Walmart parking lots while traveling. You can’t really pitch a tent in these places unless you’re well hidden. In order to stealth camp in your car, you’ll want to be discreet. Particularly if you’re camping somewhere that you may not be welcome. Try not to let anyone see you climb into the back of your vehicle. Cover your windows so nobody can see you sleeping as they walk by. Make sure you don’t make too much noise, move around too much, or allow light to escape. You should also show up late and leave early. This type of camping works best if you have a normal-looking vehicle that doesn’t draw any attention. Stealth camping in your car can save you a nice chunk of money because you don’t have to pay for a campground or hotel when you’re in a city. For more tips, check out this great guide to stealth camping in a vehicle.
- Sleeping in your car can be more comfortable- When sleeping in your car, you can set up a nice thick foam, spring, or air mattress in the back. The mattress weight doesn’t matter because you don’t have to pack it up or move it every day. If you camp often, you can get a comfortable 3″-12” thick memory foam, gel topped, or air mattresses that provides plenty of back support. You can use a larger mattress as well. Smaller vehicles can fit a twin mattress (38” wide). Larger vehicles can fit a full size (53” wide) or even queen mattress (60” wide). To compare, most tent sleeping pads measure just 20” wide and 1-2.5” thick. Some campers also build a platform to elevate the mattress off of the floor of the vehicle. This leaves storage space underneath. Because you don’t have to pack up your bedding every time you move camp, you can use regular sheets, blankets, and full-sized pillows instead of a sleeping bag when you sleep in your car. This allows you more freedom of motion in your sleep. Because it is insulated, your car will also trap some heat, keeping you warmer. You won’t lose as much heat to the wind or drafts either.
- Fewer critters can get in your car- Because your vehicle sits off the ground, annoying critters like ants, ticks, mice, slugs, snakes, scorpions, and spiders can’t get in as easily. As long as you keep the doors and windows shut, you shouldn’t have to deal with any bugs or pests in your car. You might also want to consider making or buying some bug netting window covers to keep bugs out while your windows are open. These Car Window Shades for Insects Protection (#ad) would work well.
- Quieter– Your car provides some soundproofing. This is nice when you’re camping in a noisy area like near a highway or in a crowded campground. You won’t have to listen to road noise or loud campers while you’re trying to sleep. The car can block some forest sounds as well. You won’t be woken up by loud bird calls in the morning. The drawback is that the vehicle blocks pleasant sounds like the sound of a rushing river. If you open your windows, you can still hear the sounds of the outdoors.
- Cars have electricity- Cars have built-in lighting. You can also charge small electronic devices like your phone with the cigarette lighter plug. There is also a radio and sound system you can listen to for entertainment. If you need to power larger devices, you can also install an inverter in your vehicle. Of course, if you decide to use your car’s electricity, you’ll want to be careful not to drain your battery. You may need to run the vehicle to keep the battery charged. It’s also a good idea to carry a jump starter in case you accidentally run your battery too low. Some campers install a solar system in their vehicle for even more power. Solar allows you to run your laptop, a fan, small refrigerator, lights, and more. For more info, check out this guide to installing a solar system in a vehicle. If you drive an electric vehicle or hybrid, you may be able to install a higher wattage inverter and use electricity from the large battery. If you want electricity in a tent, you would have to bring a portable power station or generator.
- Weatherproof- A vehicle is completely waterproof and windproof. The inside stays dry in even the heaviest rainstorm. You don’t have to worry about a heavy snow load caving your roof in. A car roof can support hundreds of pounds. A vehicle can also withstand much heavier winds than a tent. A car could survive 100mph gusts. No tent would survive this. A vehicle is a 4 season camping shelter.
- Condensation isn’t as bad in vehicles- Condensation occurs when warm humid air contacts a cold surface. While sleeping in your car, warm air from your breath and sweat rises until it hits the cold windows. When the warm, humid air hits the cold windows, the moisture in the air condenses into liquid water and your windows fog up. Condensation is a problem both in cars and tents. Luckily, condensation is easier to deal with in a car. To reduce condensation buildup during the night, you can crack a window or even install a small fan. This allows for ventilation so moisture can escape. In the morning, you can turn on your defrost. This essentially functions as a dehumidifier. It helps to dissipate excess moisture in the car. You can also place a moisture absorber in your vehicle. This Barska Safe Moisture Absorber (#ad) would work well. There is usually less condensation buildup in your car to deal with because moisture from the environment can’t as easily enter your vehicle while you sleep.
- You can carry more gear in your car- When car camping, you don’t have to think about the weight of your gear because you’re not going to carry it around on your body. You can bring a cooler full of your favorite foods and drinks. If you like to cook, you can bring a multi-burner camp stove, cast iron pans, and all of the cooking utensils you need. You’ll definitely eat better when car camping. If you’re into sports, you can pack all of your favorite sporting goods. Bring a bicycle, football, kayak, and fishing gear. You can also pack all of the entertainment you need. Bring your laptop and all of the books you want. There is plenty of space for emergency gear as well. Bring your first aid kit and all of the survival gear you need. Weight isn’t a factor. When tent camping, chances are you’re going to hike to your campsite. You can’t carry as much stuff.
- Dryer- You’re less likely to track water or snow inside of your vehicle as you enter and exit. As mentioned above, there is also less condensation to deal with. If the inside of your vehicle does get damp, you can easily get rid of it by running your vehicle’s defrost. This can help dry your gear off as well.
- Cleaner- Because your vehicle sits above ground level, it stays cleaner inside. The wind can’t as easily blow dust or debris inside. Rain can’t splash mud inside. You can also store all of your gear inside of the vehicle where it stays clean and dry. Also, you don’t have to deal with packing up and storing a wet and dirty tent that is covered in mud and debris.
- You can take a nap in your car- If you’re on a long road trip, you can pull into a rest stop and lay down for a few minutes and get some rest. During the hottest part of the day, you can take a siesta. You’re probably not going to pitch your tent just to take a nap.
Cons of Camping in your Car
- A bed takes up a lot of valuable cargo space- When you sleep in your vehicle, you won’t have space to haul as much gear because your bed takes up most of the floor space. A tent, on the other hand, packs down to almost nothing. There are several solutions to this. The best option is to install a roof rack and cargo carrier to haul gear that won’t fit inside. You can strap bulky items to the rack. The drawback is that carrying gear on your roof reduces your fuel efficiency and handling. Some campers build a platform for their bed with storage cabinets underneath. This allows you to use the space you have more efficiently. Another option is to roll your sleeping pad and bedding up during the day. When you sleep at night, you can store some gear outside.
- A car has less living space than a tent- Most vehicles can accommodate one or two people comfortably. Any more than that and it would get pretty cramped. For this reason, sleeping in your car isn’t really an option for a family. Also, you can’t get up and walk around in your vehicle. Tents are available in much larger sizes. Some tents can accommodate 8+ people. Some tents are large enough to stand up and walk around inside. If you need more living space while car camping, you can install an awning on the side of your vehicle. This gives you a dry place where you can cook, eat, and hang out. You could also use a tarp.
- Some vehicles aren’t large enough to sleep in comfortably- In order to sleep comfortably, you need a vehicle that you can lay completely flat and stretch out in. For taller campers, you might need a larger vehicle like an SUV, van, or truck to comfortably camp in. You’ll probably have to remove or fold down the rear seats to make space to sleep. Smaller people may be able to sleep comfortably in a standard car. Some cars are designed so you can put the rear seats down. This creates a nice flat area where you can sleep. Hatchbacks or station wagons work better than sedans. If you drive a coupe or compact car, you probably can’t sleep in it. Before you go camping, test out your vehicle to make sure that it is large enough to comfortably sleep in. If you don’t quite fit, it can help to sleep at a diagonal. If you can’t lay flat, you probably won’t get a good night of sleep. In this case, you’re better off using a tent.
- Some campgrounds don’t allow you to sleep in your car- Some campgrounds only allow you to sleep in your vehicle if it’s a motorhome or RV. These rules are often put in place to prevent homeless people or those who live in their vehicles from staying there long term. In this case, you’ll have to find a different campground or bring a tent with you.
- Less privacy- People can see in your car windows. This can be an issue if you stealth camp or camp in busy campgrounds. The solution is to cover the windows with a curtain or some kind of insert. To make your own, check out this guide. You can also buy purpose-made privacy shades for your vehicle. If you’re camping in your car with another person, there really is no privacy.
- There is a negative stigma to sleeping in your car- Some people automatically assume that you’re a bum or homeless if they see you sleeping in your vehicle. You could get shooed away from some businesses if someone notices you. Someone may even call the police on you. If you stealth camp in your car often enough, eventually you’ll park somewhere you’re not supposed to and you’ll get kicked out in the middle of the night. Of course, this isn’t a problem if you only stay in designated campgrounds or public lands where it is legal to camp.
- You could get fined- In recent years, some cities have passed laws making it illegal to sleep in a vehicle within the city limits. For example, San Diego recently made it illegal to sleep in your vehicle between 9 pm and 6 am. They may issue fines to anyone found sleeping in their vehicle overnight. For some info on where it is legal and illegal to sleep in your car, check out this great guide.
- Harder to clean- Over time, you will track dirt and debris into your vehicle when you camp. Debris can fall into crevices, making it hard to remove. You’ll need to vacuum your car out frequently when you camp in it. You’re also likely to drive on dusty or muddy dirt roads. In forested areas, tree sap can drip on your car. The outside of your vehicle will get dirty as well. You’ll have to wash your car more often when you use it for camping. Tents get dirty as well but they are much easier to clean.
- Car camping can be more expensive- Vehicles obviously cost much more than tents. A reliable car costs several thousand dollars. You also have to pay for insurance, gas, maintenance, and depreciation. If you want to rent a vehicle to go camping with, you’ll spend $30-$50 per day. To go tent camping, on the other hand, all you need is a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. You can buy all of these for just a couple of hundred dollars.
- Sleeping in a car isn’t as adventurous or outdoorsy as sleeping in a tent- Some diehard outdoors enthusiasts might not even consider sleeping in a vehicle to be camping. You’re basically indoors when you’re in a vehicle.
Sleeping in a Tent Pros
- More living space- Tents are available in large sizes. Some models can accommodate 8 or more people. Some models are tall enough to stand up and walk around inside. These large tents are a great choice for people who want to sleep in the same space as their kids and pets. You can fit your whole family in a large tent. You could also set up living quarters inside with a table, chairs, cots, and other luxury camping items. Some tents even allow you to install a small wood stove to heat the tent. When sleeping in your car, you can’t get up and move around too much. There isn’t much space for luxuries unless you drive a large van.
- More privacy- If you’re camping with multiple people, you can each bring your own tent. This gives you a private space where you can sleep, change your clothes, clean yourself, and just get away from everyone else for a while. You can also close all of the windows and doors of your tent so nobody can see you. When sleeping in a car, there is very little privacy.
- More versatile- You don’t need a car to go tent camping. You can use your tent when hiking, bicycle touring, motorcycle touring, hunting, or traveling. You can also go car camping with any vehicle when you use a tent. It doesn’t matter if the vehicle is too small to sleep in. For example, maybe you want to take a road trip in a 2 seat sports car. If you sleep in a tent, you can.
- You can haul more gear when you camp in a tent- A small tent takes up hardly any space when packed up. For example, the average two-person tent packs down to about 18” x 6”. A large 8 person tent packs down to around 30” x 12”. This will fit in any car trunk. This leaves you more room to carry gear inside of your vehicle. You’ll have plenty of space for bulky gear like a bicycle, cooler, small boat, surfboard, etc. When you sleep in the car, your bed takes up most of the space.
- You can camp away from your vehicle- When you use a tent, you are free to separate yourself from your vehicle. This can come in handy in several situations. For example, maybe you want to park your car at a trailhead and hike to a wilderness campground or disperse camp off-trail. You can pack your tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad into your backpack and go hiking. You can also park your vehicle in a secure parking lot then camp at a hostel or campground. This can come in handy while overlanding internationally. You can also wild camp. Park your vehicle somewhere safe then find a hidden spot in the bushes to camp. You’re not stuck with your vehicle when you use a tent.
- You can camp with more people- You can load up your car with a bunch of friends or family and their gear and all go camping together. There is plenty of room for multiple tents and sleeping bags in the trunk of a car. When you sleep in the car, on the other hand, there isn’t much room for passengers because your bed takes up most of the available space.
- Tents are easier to clean- You can just turn your tent inside out and just shake it out when it gets dirty inside. Once in a while, you might want to spot clean with a cloth and some mild detergent.
- Tent camping can be cheaper- You don’t need to own a vehicle to go tent camping. You can access many camping areas by public transport, with a bicycle, or on foot. All you need is a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. Budget tents start around $30. You can buy a decent sleeping bag for $100. A foam sleeping pad costs around $20. With $150 worth of gear, you can start camping.
- More connected to the outdoors- When you sleep in a tent, you can feel the breeze, hear the birds, and smell the fresh air. You are outside. When you sleep in a car, you’re much less connected to the environment.
Sleeping in a Tent Cons
- Tents are a hassle to set up and take down- On average, a tent takes 5-10 minutes to pitch. Well-designed backpacking tents can be set up in around 2 minutes. You have to lay out a footprint, put together the poles, pound stakes, pitch the tent and rainfly, and secure and tension the guy lines. Pounding stakes, in particular, can be a challenge if you’re camping on hard ground. After setting up the tent, you have to set up your sleeping pad and sleeping bag inside. In the morning, you have to tear everything down and roll your bedding up. You have to do this every time you move camp. This process becomes tedious if you’re traveling long term and pitching your tent in a different campsite every night. When you camp in your car, you can leave your bed set up at all times.
- Harder to find a campsite in some cases- Finding a suitable campsite can be time-consuming. You need to look for a flat spot without humps, rocks, water, or thorns. You need to look for signs of flowing water and depressions in the ground to make sure that you won’t end up sleeping in a puddle if it rains. The ground needs to be soft enough that you can pound stakes. Otherwise, you need rocks or trees nearby that you can secure guy lines to. You also need to look for a spot without too much humidity. This means avoiding camping near bodies of water and low elevation sites. In my travels, I’ve regularly spent over an hour hunting for a suitable tent campsite. When you sleep in your car, all you need is a flat spot to park.
- Condensation is worse in tents- Your breath, sweat, and body heat make the air inside the tent warm and humid. Warm humid air in the tent contacts the cold tent walls and condenses. If the condensation gets bad enough, water can drip down on your sleeping bag and get you wet. You and your gear can also get wet by rubbing against the wet tent walls. Unfortunately, condensation is an issue in pretty much every tent. You’ll deal with more condensation in your tent than in a car. The reason is that moisture in the ground can evaporate into your rainfly then condense. You don’t have to deal with this in a car. For more info, check out my guide to reducing condensation in tents.
- Sleeping in a tent is more dangerous- When you sleep in a tent, you’re more exposed to wild animals like bears and mountain lions. It is incredibly rare for an animal to attack you in a tent, but it does happen on occasion. The best way to avoid this is to properly store your food and anything with an odor outside of your tent. Poisonous creatures like spiders and scorpions can more easily get to you when you sleep in a tent. They can just crawl in. One of my biggest fears while sleeping in a tent is people. Every once in a while, a tent gets run over and someone gets killed by a drunk driver while tent camping. In some parts of the world, you have to worry about robbers or people who are up to no good. You’re more exposed in a tent.
- More expensive- You need to buy a tent. Budget one-person tents start at around $30. Mid-range tents go for around $100-$150. High-end ultralight backpacking tents cost around $250-$600. Large multi-person tents and yurts can cost upwards of $1000. If you camp frequently, you’ll need to buy a new tent every 5 years or so. Zippers wear. Holes and leaks form. Tents wear out. If you already own a vehicle, you don’t really need to buy anything to camp in it.
- It’s easier to get wet in a tent- Water can blow or splash under your tent’s rainfly and into your tent during a storm. Water can also seep through some tent floor materials. This happens when pressure from your body weight pushes water through the fabric. This usually happens slowly over the course of a night. It’s also easy to track moisture in as you enter and exit your tent. Particularly if it’s raining outside. Some water always gets in when you open the door.
- Colder- Tents don’t provide much in the way of insulation. Your body heat escapes through the thin fabric walls. Wind can blow through your tent’s vents and remove more heat. You have to deal with a wind chill factor. The cold ground sucks heat from your body if your sleeping pad is too thin. When camping in a tent, you’ll want to make sure you have a good sleeping pad with a high enough R-value so you stay warm. For more info, check out my guide to inflatable and foam sleeping pads. You’ll also need a warm sleeping bag. Vehicles, on the other hand, provide a bit of insulation and protection from the wind.
- Tents can be uncomfortable and inconsistent- Once in a while, you’ll pitch your tent in a bad spot. Maybe you didn’t realize that there was a rock, root, or hump where you placed your tent. Maybe you accidentally pitched it on an incline. It could be that an unexpected rainstorm floods your campsite. Whatever the case, you’ll get a poor night of sleep when you pick a bad campsite. As a result, your sleep will be a bit less consistent. When you sleep in your car, you always have a flat and dry surface to sleep on. Tent sleeping pads can also be pretty uncomfortable. They are thin and narrow. That said, modern inflatable sleeping pads are pretty comfortable. When you sleep in a tent, you’re also limited to using a sleeping bag or quilt.
- More critters to deal with- Mice, ticks, ants, spiders, slugs, and other critters can climb into your tent when you open the door. Being raised off the ground, critters can’t climb into your vehicle as easily.
- Can’t camp in heavy winds- The average tent is designed to handle a max wind speed of around 15-30 mph. Wind speeds over 30 mph can cause your tent to tear or even blow away if it’s not properly staked down. A vehicle can withstand much stronger winds in excess of 100 mph.
- Dirtier- Your tent and the gear inside will get dirty. Particularly if you’re camping during or after a rainstorm. Rain splashes mud onto the sides of your tent. Your tent footprint collects dirt and debris from the ground. As you enter your tent, you’ll track some mud inside. After tearing down your muddy tent, you’ll have to put it inside of your clean vehicle. Tent camping is dirty at times.
Car Camping Tips
Car camping works more or less the same as tent camping with a few minor differences. In this section, I’ll outline a few tips to make sleeping in your car a bit smoother and more comfortable.
- Make sure you’re camping legally- There are plenty of free places that you can camp in your car. For example, dispersed camping is legal in many National Forests and on most BLM land. Freecampsites.net is another excellent resource for finding free and legal places to camp in your car. ioverlander.com is a great resource for finding camping all over the world. If you’re camping at a paid campsite, make sure you have the proper permit. Some parks require that you have a permit in addition to a campsite fee.
- If you’re camping somewhere that is questionable or potentially illegal, be ready to leave at a moment’s notice- For example, if you’re camping in a parking lot or on a residential street, someone could approach you to inform you that you can’t camp there. This could be a security guard or police officer. It could even be an angry resident hat lives nearby. If you get a knock on your vehicle in the night and somebody asks you to leave, you should probably leave. Avoid confrontation. If you’re not certain of the legality of your campsite, arrive late and leave early. Preferably after 11 pm and before 6 am.
- Park in the shade- Your car can get hot when parked in direct sunlight, even if it’s not particularly hot out. When choosing your campsite, look for a nice shade tree to park under. This is particularly important if you drive a dark-colored vehicle.
- Sleep with your head toward the front of the vehicle- This gives your arms and shoulders more space because the wheel wells won’t be in your way.
- If you must park on an incline, point the front of the vehicle toward the higher elevation- This way, your head is elevated above your feet when you sleep.
- Bring a comfortable mattress and bedding- Your mattress and bedding determine your comfort. When you sleep in your car, the weight and bulk of these items don’t matter. Splurge on a thick, supportive, and comfortable air or foam mattress. Bring all of the blankets and pillows you want. You can put together a sleeping area as comfortable as your bed at home.
- Bring a lantern, headlamp, or flashlight- When your car isn’t running, you should limit the use of the interior lights so you don’t drain your battery.
- Keep an eye on your fuel level- Fill up your tank before your trip. If you’re traveling somewhere remote, refuel often. Try to keep your tank above 1/2. To be safe, you may consider carrying some extra fuel in a gas can.
- Bring something to charge your electronics with– When your car isn’t running, you can’t charge your phone, laptop, or camera from the car because you’ll drain your battery. You have a few options for charging. The most popular is solar. You can buy a portable solar charger like the BigBlue 3 (#ad) or install a solar system on your vehicle and mount panels on the roof. You could also bring a portable power station like the Jackery Explorer 240 (#ad). These are large batteries that you can use to charge smaller devices or even run appliances off of. Another option is a gas generator. These work well but are noisy.
- Bring some entertainment- Download some movies, TV shows, podcasts, games, etc. to your phone or laptop before you leave home. Chances are, you won’t have WiFi at your campsite. You may or may not have a mobile data connection.
- Bring plenty of water- Weight isn’t an issue when car camping so you might as well bring plenty of water. This brings peace of mind. Some car campers secure a 5-gallon jug with a pump in the back of their vehicle. You can use this to refill water bottles and even wash up.
- Crack a window for ventilation- Breathing and sweating all night increases the humidity inside of your vehicle. Damp clothing and gear can add to the problem. Yous should hang any wet items outside. The moisture can condense on the windows and fog them up. To avoid this, open a couple of your windows or your sunroof a couple of inches to create some ventilation. Make sure they aren’t open too wide so a person or animal can’t get in. To keep insects out, consider cutting some bug netting and attaching it to your window openings. You can also place a moisture absorber to help reduce condensation.
- Cover your windows- There are several reasons you may want to do this. First, it prevents people from looking in at you while you sleep. Cars don’t provide much privacy. Covering your windows also blocks out light. You’ll be able to go to sleep earlier or sleep in later if your car stays dark. It can also help to keep your car cooler by reflecting light back outside instead of absorbing it like a greenhouse. There are a couple of ways to go about covering your windows. You can use some bungees or cordage to hang some curtains over your windows. This gives the car a bedroom-like feel. Another option is to make or buy your own custom window covers. Check out this cool guide for instructions.
- Pack some luxury items- The beauty of car camping is that the weight of your gear doesn’t really matter. You don’t have to go ultralight. Pack extra blankets, a full-sized pillow, a thick mattress, a camp chair, binoculars, a coffee maker, a cooler, a folding table, your laptop, and whatever else you think you might want to use. Set up your bed with sheets and a nice down blanket instead of a sleeping bag. If you like to cook, pack a stove, pots and pans, knives, and a cooler full of your favorite foods and drinks.
- Never store food in your car while camping in bear country- Bears are strong enough to break car windows and even tear doors open to get to your food inside if they’re hungry. Always use proper food storage techniques when camping in bear country. Store all food as well as anything that has an odor in a bear canister, bear box, or bear hang. Consider bringing a dry bag and some rope in case you have to hang your food.
- Bring some tools and emergency equipment- You should at least have the proper tools for changing a flat tire including a spare, jack, and tire iron. you may also consider bringing a tire repair kit and pump. In addition, you should carry a portable jump starter in case you drain your car’s battery. If you plan to drive off-road, you’ll want some recover equipment like traction pads or a winch. Of course, you should always bring a small first aid kit as well. I like the First Aid Only 298 Piece All-Purpose First Aid Kit (#ad). Emergency blankets can also come in handy if the weather is colder than you expected. You should also mount a fire extinguisher inside of your vehicle. This can come in handy if your car catches fire or if your campfire gets out of hand.
- Bring a camp shower- One of the worst parts of camping is not being able to clean yourself after a long, sweaty day of hiking, biking, or boating. One solution is to take a camp shower. These are either heated by the sun or powered with electricity from your car. You can also build your own DIY shower. As an alternative, you can pack some wet wipes to clean yourself off with. Of course, if you’re camping near a lake and the weather is nice, you could just take a dip.
- Consider bringing a tent or hammock- You may find yourself wanting to camp away from your vehicle at some point. For example, maybe you want to camp at a hike in only campground. If you bring a tent, you have the option. A small tent or hammock and tarp takes up hardly any space.
The Best Vehicles to Camp In
You can sleep in pretty much any vehicle. Some are more comfortable than others. The best vehicle for camping depends on a number of factors including the length of your trip, what kind of terrain you plan to cover, your budget, your height, how much gear you need to carry, and which country you’re camping in.
In this section, I’ll outline a few of the most popular categories of vehicles for camping and list a few pros and cons of each. I’ll also list a couple of popular vehicle models to consider.
SUVs and Crossovers
These are the most popular types of vehicles for camping. You can fold the back seats down or remove them and create a roomy sleeping area. You can fit a full or queen-sized bed in the back of a large SUV. You’ll also have a good amount of space left over for gear. A major benefit of most SUVs is that they have the off-road capability. Most models are either all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD or 4X4). These systems give you more traction, allowing you to reach camping spots that 2 wheel drive vehicles couldn’t. For example, you can drive through mud or snow without getting stuck. SUVs also tend to be durable and reliable. One drawback is that SUVs have poor fuel efficiency. Many models only get 15-20 mpg. They are also pretty expensive.
Some popular SUVs for camping include the Toyota 4Runer, Toyota Land Cruiser, Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Cherokee, Chevy Suburban, Chevy Tahoe, Subaru Ascent, Subaru Forester, Honda Element, Nissan Xterra, Mitsubishi Montero, and Isuzu Trooper.
Hatchbacks and Station Wagons
Most hatchbacks and station wagons allow you to fold down the back seats to create a flat sleeping area. These vehicles have less interior space than SUVs but more space than standard sedans. You may feel somewhat cramped on a long trip but comfortable enough for overnighters and weekend trips. Hatchbacks and wagons are available in both 2 wheel drive and all-wheel drive options. They don’t have as much ground clearance as taller vehicles like SUVs so they don’t perform quite as well off-road. Wagons offer excellent gas mileage. Many models get 30-40 mpg on the highway. Hybrid models offer even better fuel economy.
The Subaru Outback, Toyota Prius, Volkswagen Golf, and Mini Countrymen are popular hatchback options for car camping.
If you remove the rear seats, minivans offer a massive amount of space. Most models have more interior volume than similar-sized SUVs. There is plenty of space for a twin or full-sized bed and all of your gear. Minivans also offer lots of headroom. You can sit up and move around inside. Some campers go all out and build a small kitchen, raised bed, and storage space in their minivan. Check out this article for some minivan camper inspiration. Fuel economy is also decent for the amount of space that you get. Most models get around 20 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. Some models offer AWD. As an added benefit, used minivans are cheap and parts availability is excellent.
The Toyota Sienna, Dodge Grand Caravan, and Ford Transit Connect are popular minivan options. If you’re looking for something a bit larger, the Chevy Astro or GMC Safari are popular options.
If you install a canopy, the bed of a pickup can offer a spacious sleeping area. This works best with full-sized pickups with a bed that is at least 6 feet long. Another benefit of pickups is that they offer excellent off-road capability. Pretty much every model is available in both 2 wheel drive and 4 wheel drive versions. This allows you to travel further off-road to reach campsites that 2WD cars can’t reach. Pickups are also known for their durability. They can take a beating. One major drawback is the fact that you can’t move from the driver’s seat to the sleeping area without going outside. This makes stealth camping a bit more challenging. Canopies also lack insulation. It will take some work to build a comfortable living space in the bed. Fuel economy is also poor on large models. Many trucks only get 15mpg on the highway.
Some popular pickups for camping include the Ford F-150, Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma, and Toyota Tundra.
Sedans aren’t ideal for camping but they can work for short trips. Many standard cars allow you to fold down the rear seats so you can sleep with your legs in the trunk. This usually isn’t very comfortable because the sleeping surface may not be perfectly flat. It can work fine for short trips and shorter campers. The biggest benefit of sedans is the gas mileage. Many modern cars get 30-40mpg on the highway. Hybrids can do even better. Sedans are also cheaper to buy than larger vehicles like trucks and SUVs. You can buy a reliable used car for a few thousand dollars.
A few popular sedans for camping include the Toyota Corolla, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Subaru Legacy, and Hyundai Sonata.
Full-Sized Vans, Camper Vans, or Conversion Vans
These are the most comfortable vehicles to camp in. Vans are ideal for those who camp often or those who plan to camp long term. Many people even live out of a fan full-time these days. You can fit all of the comforts of home inside including a large bed, kitchen, bathroom, plenty of storage space, and more. You can buy a professionally built camper van or start with a full-sized van and build your own. The drawback to these large vans is that gas mileage is poor. Many models only get 10-15mpg. For some inspiration, check out this list of camper van builds.
A few popular vans include Dodge/Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit, Dodge Promaster, Volkswagen Bus, Ford Econoline (E-Series), Chevy Express/ GMC Savanah, and old conversion vans from Ford, Chevy, and Dodge.
For more info, check out my guide to the pros and cons of van camping.
Coupe, compact car, or 2 seat sports car
If you drive one of these, you’re probably better off camping in a tent. There just isn’t enough space to lay down and get a comfortable night of sleep. If you’re only camping for one night, you could just put the seat back as far as it will go and sleep in the seat.
Considerations When Choosing a Vehicle to Camp In
The best camping vehicle for you depends on how you’re going to use it. While choosing a vehicle, you’ll want to consider:
- How long you plan to camp– If you’re traveling long term, you’ll want some luxuries. You may consider building storage cabinetry, a raised sleeping platform, and even install a countertop with a sink and cooking area. You’ll also want to have space to sit up and move around a bit. You’ll need a larger vehicle like a van or SUV for this. If you’re a minimalist or you’re just camping overnight every once in a while, you can simply sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor of your vehicle. Pretty much any vehicle will do.
- The type of terrain you plan to travel on- If you only drive on-road and stay in designated campgrounds, a 2 wheel drive vehicle is fine. 2 wheel drive is simpler to maintain and get better gas mileage. If you plan to drive off-road or in the snow, you might want to consider choosing a vehicle with AWD or 4WD. If you’re planning to drive off-road to camp, you may want to bring a winch or traction pads to help you recover your vehicle if you get stuck.
- How much gear you need to carry- If you want to carry bulky items like a boat, bicycle, surfboard, etc. you’ll need a large vehicle. You’ll need a large heavy-duty vehicle if you plan to pull a trailer.
- Reliability- If you plan to drive to remote campgrounds, you need a reliable vehicle. You don’t want to get stranded. It’s also important to carry 1-2 spare tires, a jack, a tire repair kit, and some tools. You’ll also want to stay on top of regular maintenance. Newer, lower mileage vehicles are also more reliable than older, high mileage vehicles.
- The country or countries you plan to camp in- If you’re planning to drive your vehicle to another country, you may want to consider parts availability. Some vehicles aren’t sold everywhere. Parts can be hard to find. Some brands have large dealer networks, making parts easier to find. You’ll also want to consider the technology in your vehicle. Simpler vehicles are easier to work on. Modern luxury vehicles have lots of electronics that can be difficult to repair.
- Your height- Before your trip, set up your bed in the back of your vehicle to test it out. If you find that it’s too cramped, not long enough, or you can’t lay completely flat, you’ll probably want to sleep in a tent instead.
- Your budget- If you’re on a tight budget, you’re better off with a used vehicle. Larger vehicles like SUVs, pickup trucks, and full-sized vans cost more than sedans, station wagons, and minivans.
Final Thoughts About Sleeping in your Car Vs Tent
Sleeping in your car while overlanding or road tripping offers an excellent alternative to sleeping in a tent. Particularly if you’re traveling long term or if you’re in a hurry. It is much faster and easier to set up camp when you sleep in your car because you can leave your bed set up. Many people also find sleeping in a car to be warmer and more comfortable than a tent.
Having said that, sleeping in a tent also has its benefits. Tents offer much more space and privacy. They also offer more versatility and give you the ability to sleep away from your vehicle. Whichever shelter option you decide to go with, I hope this guide has helped you decide.
Do you prefer sleeping in your car or a tent when camping? Share your tips and experience in the comments below!