The Ultimate Guide to Car Camping

What is Car Camping?


Car camping means just what it says, and yet, it so much more. This is because car camping is the new and instant perfect gateway. It is the affordable and relaxing break that everyone needs after a stressful week at work. 

Think about the excitement of getting in your car and spending the weekend on the open road. This can be anywhere the mood strikes you – without spending a lot of money – and without making reservations. Car camping is about heeding the call of adventure and googling local campsites as you drive. 

The absolute beauty of car camping is that it can be whatever you want it to be. That’s the whole point. So use your imagination. Create a picture in your head of all the things you imagine spending the perfect weekend out-of-doors will be. 

Reasons to Go Car Camping

  • Long Weekend/Road Trip/Lake Trip
  • Outdoor Concert/Festival/Theme Park
  • Historical Sites/State & National Parks
  • Discovering a Part of America
  • Creating a New Adventure
  • Stress-relieving Staycation

Buying Your Car Camping Essentials

There are some things you will need to buy to enjoy car camping, but you will want to spend as little as possible. One mistake people make about going camping is they spend too much money on equipment. Then they never use it again.

These are the people you need to find online. Purchasing their brand-new and highly discounted gear will make your car camping experience awesome.

Pro Camping Tip: Look for these used items online.

  • Tents
  • Air Mattresses
  • Backpacks
  • Sleeping Bags
  • Rain Ponchos
  • Coolers
  • Plastic Bins
  • Lawn Chairs
  • Outdoor Kitchen Set Up
  • Portable Barbeque

Also, talk to your friends, family, and neighbors. They may have camping equipment and kitchen utensils they’ll give to you just to get rid of them.  

In the case of buying used campers, this is probably premature, but talk to the seller anyway. People who are selling campers may have other camping equipment they will just give to you. 

Garage sales are another place where you can find camping equipment for almost nothing. Buy and old tent with holes in it and a set of superhero sleeping bags for $10. If you use them once and throw them away, it doesn’t matter. It is just part of the fun of car camping. 

The best things to buy at garage sales are cooking utensils, pots and pans, and plastic storage bins. (More about plastic storage bins later.) You don’t want to take new kitchenware on a camping trip and ruin it on an open fire. 

If you ruin an old pot or a pan boiling water on an open fire, it doesn’t matter. Always keep in mind – everything about car camping should be stress-free.  

Other Essentials for Car Camping

  • Aluminum Foil
  • Plastic Ziploc Bags
  • First Aid Kit
  • Toilet Paper
  • Electronic Device Charger
  • Flashlights/Lanterns
  • Jumper Cables
  • Insect Repellant
  • Rubber Mallet
  • Small Hacksaw
  • Rain Ponchos
  • Backpack for Toiletries
  • Bottled Water

Pro Camping Tips: 

  • A first aid kit can save a car camping trip, as you may be far from medical facilities. Make sure the kit you buy is new and fully stocked.
  • Individual headlamps or solar-powered lanterns are imperative to see when it gets dark. You will be surprised at how dark it can get when you are out in the country. One flashlight won’t cut it.
  • Bring a solar-powered device charger. Don’t drain your car battery by charging devices. You will be very sorry if your car doesn’t start. Also, take jumper cables.


What is Car Camping without the Right Car?

The kind of car you own or possibly rent will greatly affect your car camping experience. Many of the larger SUVs are especially accommodating for overnight sleeping. Although, if you don’t have an SUV, it really doesn’t matter. 

If you are just going for a few days, any car can be made to be comfortable. If your car is too cramped, you can always take a tent. It still counts as car camping!

Campers, the kinds that attach to the back of your car, are also an option. Campers can be expensive, so always look at a used one first. However, before you go out and look at campers, you should do a trial run with just your car. Then you can decide on your commitment level, and look into campers as an option later on. 

Pro Camping Tips:   

  • Some local police and sheriffs don’t appreciate people sleeping overnight in their cars. This may include Wal-Mart parking lots, truck stops, rest areas, and tourist spots (like the beach). Sleeping overnight in your car in these places may be breaking the law. Always check first before you settle in for the night, so you won’t be disturbed later.
  • There are nationwide online camping networks that list free camping sites where car camping is welcome. These sites will give you up-to-date information and tips.
  • There are 3 different types of campsites. This includes primitive, standard, and premium. As the names imply, they have different levels of comfort like electricity and restrooms. Decide your comfort level before you go. You will have a much better experience.

What is Car Camping When You Sleep in a Tent?

Sleeping in a tent in the great outdoors is your car-camping bonus room! Having a tent is a great way to add space to your car camping adventure. While car camping can mean sleeping in your car, it is always good to have a tent with you. 

A tent opens up many possibilities. 

For example, some campgrounds won’t just let you sleep in your car. If they do, the families around you will wonder why you are sleeping in your car. They may even ask you. This is why it is a good idea to buy a cheap tent at a garage sale or online. Just set it up next to your car and pretend like you are going to use it.  

Some outdoor enthusiasts define real camping as backpacking to your campsite with everything you need to set up camp. This includes carrying your tent along with your sleeping bag. 

This is also why so many backpacking novices only go camping once. 

When you go car camping, backpacking and sleeping in a tent become optional camping activities. Then you can go backpacking because you want to – or watch DVDs in your tent all day. 

So you don’t have to sleep in a tent overnight just because you bring it. You can use a tent for storing your sleeping bag or bedding, for changing clothes, or a place to take a nap. You can also bring a canopy tent (one without sides). Use it for a dining room, a place to relax, or in case it rains.

Pro Camping Tip:

  • Never store food in your tent overnight, even in a cooler. You will attract hungry animals that will do anything to get at it.

Sleeping Bag Arrangements

The first thing to do about a sleeping bag is not to think you have to buy an expensive one. This is because a sleeping bag can be more of a hindrance than anything. A zipped-up sleeping bag can even be uncomfortable to sleep in. 

All you really need to get a good night’s sleep is an air mattress, a pillow, and a blanket or comforter. This is much like you would need to be comfortable if you were sleeping in your living room at home. A t-shirt and flannel sweatpants are perfect for sleepwear.

What Is Car Camping Without Fresh Coffee?

It will be the worst experience of your life – and you will never hear the end of it. Make sure you have coffee and a way to make it. Even though you can drive to buy coffee, don’t expect it to be drinkable. If you are in the middle of nowhere, your idea of a good cup of coffee may not be what the locals are serving.

The best thing to do about coffee is to buy a French press. To make coffee, all you need is the French press, fresh coffee grinds, and some hot water. Practice making coffee in the French press before you go car camping and you will be everyone’s hero.   

What is Car Camping Food?

Food for car camping is anything you want it to be, but should mainly be comfort food. Examples of foods to avoid would be “eat what you catch,” and new recipes you want to try outdoors. You also don’t want to drive around endlessly, only to find the fast-food you can get anywhere. 

Taking a chance on the local diner is a risk, and too much junk food gets boring. 

The best thing to do is to bring a compact two-burner propane stove. This is cheap enough to buy new, and you can also use it at home if you lose power. With a two-burner propane stove, you can make almost anything, especially with old pots and pans. 

You will also have hot water for coffee and tea.  

Cooking simple hot meals that you already know how to make is easy and satisfying. More than that, it is a reliable way to enjoy some variety between eating processed snacks and eating out. Camping foods like hot dogs and s’mores may bring back fond memories and are fun for children.  

Packing Your Car for Car Camping

The most comforting thing about car camping is that you can take whatever you want, but be careful. If you take too many things, you won’t have room to sleep. You also won’t be comfortable enough to enjoy yourself if there is no room in the car. 

The next thing to do will be to gather everything together and see how much room it takes up. Keep in mind how many people will also be in the car. 

Pro Camping Tips: 

  • Pack everything in clear plastic bins, including clothes. Plastic bins take up much less space in a car than suitcases. They are square and stackable, so you can see what is in them right away.
  • If you really want to enjoy your first car camping experience, consider a trial run. Pick a local campground or a public lake where you can camp. Pack the car and go spend the night. This will let you get comfortable with the experience and let you see what you forgot to pack. If you need to, you can always drive home. This is better than being somewhere strange and looking for a motel in the middle of the night.

If your dry run goes as planned, then you are ready for the real thing!

It’s Time to Set up Camp

Once you have arrived at a campsite, it’s time to set up camp. If you are sleeping in your car, this may simply mean stretching your legs. Or, you may want to set up a tent and start dinner. 

At any rate, it’s time to get your bearings.

If you are at a campground, you can find out where the restrooms are and if there are other amenities like Wi-Fi. You can also talk to your fellow campers about some common sense rules. Like not running the car battery down or designating a place for the car keys so they don’t get lost. You should also have a system for checking in and who is responsible for what at the campsite. 

Pro Camping Tips:

  • You will also want to make your car a little more private. There are many camping hacks to prevent people from looking in your car windows while you sleep. One of them is to use binder clips to attach bedsheets to the weather stripping on the windows. Premade car shades are very inexpensive and also an option.
  • Make sure your gas tank is always full. Do not get stranded in the middle-of-nowhere without any gas.
  • Have a weather contingency plan. If it rains or gets cold, you may need to have somewhere to go.

Final Pro Camping Tip: Leave your attitude about what you think camping is at home. This is not the camping trip your parents made you take where you were forced to enjoy nature. 

Car camping is purely for relaxation. 

If someone’s idea of relaxing is being on the internet the whole time, let them. They will come back next time – and you want everyone to come back. Keep in mind that car camping is an experience for everyone to enjoy in their own way.   

Related article: The Best Portable Garages for Camping.

Sam Brooks

Hi, my name is Sam Brooks and I'm a huge hiking, fishing and camping enthusiast. I bring my dog Max as often as I can because he also loves the great outdoors. Although I consider myself a private person, I really want to share my passion and knowledge with the readers here at

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