Car camping is an amazing way to travel the country and experience the great outdoors. You can sleep under the stars in Nevada or west Texas, see breathtaking landscapes in Utah, and embark on an epic adventure all without needing to commit to full-time vanlife.
If you’re eager to hit the road but unsure where to begin, we’ve got you covered. We put together the ultimate car camping guide, complete with safety tips, cooking recommendations, and how to create your home-away-from-home in your own vehicle:
The Best Car Camping Bed for a Dreamy Sleep
If you’re used to backpacking, car camping feels positively luxurious. The sky’s the limit when it comes to making your sleeping area comfortable and cozy. All of that extra room means that you can bring your cushiest air mattress, plenty of blankets, and even a few pillows. Having all the fixins to get really comfy (and stay warm) at night is one of the best parts about car camping.
- Make sure your car is well equipped: If you’re planning on sleeping inside your car as opposed to pitching a tent outside, figure out your bed arrangement before you jet off. First of all, make sure that your sleeping surface is well-suited to your car. A super thick air mattress, for example, might put you so close to the ceiling that you can’t sit up. Test out different arrangements to make sure that you’ll be comfortable.
- Bring enough blankets: Although those balmy summer nights rarely require a pile of quilts to stay warm, that’s not the case during spring, autumn, or at higher elevations. Also bring one more blanket than you think you’ll need, or an extra sleeping bag.
- Choose your location wisely: Make sure to choose a place to sleep where you won’t be disturbed. A popular app that many travellers use is The Dyrt, which helps locate the best camping spots in your area.
- Sleep with your head elevated: If you end up parking somewhere that isn’t flat, make sure to arrange yourself so that your head is at the highest part of the vehicle. This not only is more comfortable in general but also helps keep you from getting sick.
- Double-check you have all the parts: Before throwing your tent into your car, first, double-check that you have all the components. Arriving at your campsite only to discover that you forgot the tent pegs is NOT a good feeling.
- Bring more blankets than you need: Take advantage of all the space that your car offers by bringing extra blankets and pillows. If it ends up being warmer than you expected, use them underneath your sleeping surface for some added cushion.
- Test your air mattress: If you’re bringing an air mattress or blow-up sleeping pad, check to make sure it doesn’t have any holes before your trip. It’s annoying to have to blow it up each night only to end up on the ground in the morning.
Safety and Security on the Road
A solid safety plan is vital, especially if you are camping alone! Although I prefer not to dwell on all the things that could go wrong while travelling, it’s good to be prepared for anything. With proper preparedness, you can focus on savouring your adventures instead of worrying.
- Download offline maps: On your phone, download an offline map of the area for the area. Maps.me is the best app for that. These comprehensive maps work even when you don’t have cell service.
- Bring a paper map: Having an offline map is great but have a backup paper map as extra protection against getting lost in the wilderness.
- Share your live location with loved ones: Going somewhere with phone signal? Share your live location with one or two people you trust. That way, someone always knows where you are, especially if you’re traveling solo. If you’re headed somewhere more remote, know exactly where you plan to be and give someone that info. Tell your circle when you plan on being back so they know to check in on you if you’re overdue.
- Keep your phone charged: Even if you know you won’t have a signal, always have a plan (and a backup plan) for how you will keep your phone charged while you’re camping. Bring a fully charged power bank with you, as well as a charging cord that plugs into your car.
- Invest in a satellite communicator: One of these devices is a must for anyone who enjoys disappearing into the backcountry. If you spend a lot of time hiking, backpacking, climbing, or simply car camping in remote areas, consider investing in a sat-communicator like the Garmin inReach Mini. This allows you to text without service or send an SOS signal.
- Bring an extra set of car keys: Trust me, you do not want to get locked out of your vehicle while you’re enjoying your camping trip in the great outdoors. To avoid this, make a copy of your car keys and keep them in a safe place, separate from the original set. This can be in a pocket of your tent, in the wheel well of your car, or just in a separate bag.
- Consider how you’ll keep your valuables safe: Travelling with a passport, camera, laptop, or drone? Think about how you’ll keep these items safe and secure during your road trip. Ideally, you will just keep these items with you at all times… But doesn’t hurt to have a small car-sized security box.
How to Get Some Privacy While Car Camping
The best way to get privacy while car camping is simply to find locations not frequented by other travelers, like the Black Rock Desert where I camped completely alone. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible! So for those crowded campgrounds (or for our stealth-campers out there), here are a couple of suggestions that will make your car camping setup a bit more private:
- Make a privacy shade: If you’re planning to sleep in your car, consider making a DIY window shade (or several) for privacy. All you need is some mesh material and suction cups. Cut the material to the size of your window(s) and secure the suction cups at each corner. Then, you can put up your shade whenever you want some privacy.
- Use a wind tarp: If you are tent camping, you can set up a wind tarp a few feet outside the door of your tent to create an extra barrier between your door and passersby. A shade tarp also works great if you can set it up directly in front of your door.
- Hang towels over the windows: Did you forget to make a DIY window shade before your road trip began? It happens. Roll down your window enough to drape a towel over the glass, then roll the window back up. This keeps the towel in place and is a humble (but effective) shade.
The Nitty-Gritty of Keeping Clean
For many people, being dirty and grubby while traveling can easily put them in a bad mood. Personal hygiene is one of the biggest concerns of people who want to get out into nature. And while getting a little dirty (and smelly) is practically unavoidable, you can minimize the damage. Here are a few tips:
- Baby-wipe showers: If you’re planning on being far removed from modern amenities, you might be wondering how you’ll be able to shower. The easy answer is… you won’t. If you have a stream or spring nearby that you can take a dip in, though, great! Just avoid bringing soap and whatnot into the water, as they can pollute it. 100% biodegradable or bust! Opt for some baby wipes instead, or bring zero-waste cloth wipes.
- Check nearby campsites for showers: If you don’t want to stay at a campsite but need to get clean, see if any nearby campsites will let you buy a shower. Some will charge a small fee to let non-campers use their facilities, so look into this option ahead of time.
- Passing through a town? Shower at the local gym: Gyms and rec centres have showers, which you can usually pay to use for a reduced fee. If you’re driving through a town, this is a great way to score a hot shower.
- Bring a small shovel and plenty of TP: In case you find yourself in the wilderness with no bathroom nearby, pack a small trowel so you can dig a hole. According to LNT guidelines, “catholes” should be 6-8 inches deep and at least 200 feet away from any body of water. You must pack out your toilet paper- do not just throw it in the hole! Bring a designated “used TP” bag and dispose of it once you’re back in civilization.
- Period preparation: Try using a menstrual cup or period-proof underwear like Thinx instead of traditional period products. Not only are they both low-waste options but I find they are more comfortable overall.
Your Car Camping Kitchen
Whether you’re car camping for the weekend or embarking on an epic multi-day road trip, you are going to have a much better time if you’re properly fed. And yes, it is possible to eat well while you’re on the road! Properly outfitting your car camping kitchen and having adequate food is even more important if you’re heading to a remote location. If not, you’re doomed to be hangry and potentially dehydrated your entire trip. Here are a couple of ways to make sure you won’t go hungry:
- Have a way to cook your meals: Relying on gas station food, cooking over a campground’s firepit, or eating wraps exclusively gets old really fast. If you want to upgrade your car camping experience, you need to have a way to cook. Although a small backpacking stove will do the trick, the best set-up is a portable 2-burner propane stove. These are less expensive to run than backpacking stoves and you can cook two things at once.
- Bring cutlery and cooking tools: Planning on cooking? Don’t forget a pot, small pan, cutting board, and cutlery. Salt and pepper aren’t a bad idea either. Opting for camping-specific equipment can help you save on space, like this lightweight pan with foldable handle.
- Think about keeping things cool, especially in summer: Things spoil quickly in the heat of summer. An easy solution is bringing a cooler, whereas the pro-car-camping option is a 12 V mini fridge that plugs into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter.
- Bring non perishables: Even if you do have a cooler or 12 V fridge, it’s best to stock up on non-perishables. There’s only so much room in your cooler/ fridge. Keep plenty of dried, freeze-dried, canned, or vacuum-sealed foods on hand, especially if you’re going off-grid for awhile. You can even find powdered foods, like potatoes, which just need water to rehydrate them. REI has a great selection of camping foods that don’t require refrigeration.
- Try your food first: Imagine getting to your campsite, cracking open one of your newly bought meals, and discovering that it tastes horrible. Test out a couple different brands before your trip or test your recipes at home before you head out. If you need some guidance, check out our camping food ranking to see which meals we recommend.
- Plan your meals: Eat your perishable foods (like veggies, meats, and cheeses) first, since these will go bad long before anything non-perishable.
- Water! Having your vehicle with you means you should have plenty of room to bring more than enough water. This is one of the most important things, not only for cooking but also safety!
Finding a Place to Park
Location is often one of the most important aspects of car camping. Where you choose to park for the night and wake up in the morning can be one of the highlights of your entire trip. If you’re looking for somewhere beautiful to experience sunrise, consider the surrounding landscape and geographical features. Alternatively, prioritise safety if you just need somewhere to sleep.
- Consider how far you want to be: There are plenty of places in the US on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and (even in national parks) where you can get very far away from civilization, campsites, and other people. Just remember, freedom camping is generally NOT allowed in national, state, or provincial parks. If you want to camp in those parts of the great outdoors, you need to pay for a campsite.
- Know if you can get there: Some BLM lands do no have paved roads. Investigate beforehand to determine if your vehicle will be able to make it there or not. You don’t want to risk your car getting stuck somewhere in the wilderness with no cell signal to call for help.
- Do your research: Check if you need any special permits to camp where you’re headed, as some places require them. Also see if there are any fire bans in effect, which are put these in place to reduce the risk of forest fires. Fire bans are extremely common during the summer months.
- Check in with the rangers: It is completely legal to camp on BLM land, however, it’s never a bad idea to ask the local ranger station for advice on where to camp.
- Arrive during the day: Try to arrive in the daytime whenever possible. You’ll be able to see where you’re going more easily and avoid pitching your tent in the dark.
- Think about the view: Unless you’re arriving late and leaving early, where you’re camping and what you can see from your spot makes a big impact. Is there a beautiful mountain view? Are you staying beside a lake? If you’re planning on spending time in a specific location, make sure you love it.
- Beware of mosquitoes: It’s amazing how quickly mosquitoes can ruin a location. Don’t park beside swamps or still water during peak mosquito season.
We have a great car camping packing list with everything you might need to bring with you. Here are a couple extra tidbits to help you level up your packing:
- Light source: Bring a Luci lantern or string lights that are either USB, solar powered, or battery-powered. This makes a big difference at night and saves you from fumbling around in the dark using your phone’s flashlight. I also recommend having a headlamp for nighttime trips to the bathroom.
- Power source: Maybe you have an adapter to charge your phone in your car but do you really want to be starting your car every time you need to charge up? Consider investing in a solar charger that you can easily prop up on the roof of your vehicle during the day. At night, you’ll be able to charge your phone or bluetooth speaker much more easily.
- Suitable clothing: You should you keep the weather in mind while packing, as well as the types of activities that you will be doing. Nobody wants to get to a gorgeous lakeside campsite and realize they left their swimsuit at home. Bring plenty of light layers that you can take on and off as the temperature changes. Don’t forget to bring a rain jacket and waterproof shoes as well, in case it’s wet.
- Fun activities: If you’re travelling with a friend, a deck of cards or small board game goes a long way on those cosy campfire nights! I never embark on a car camping trip without a book and journal.
Leave No Trace
If you want to enjoy the great outdoors, it’s your responsibility to keep them great. That means clean, pristine, and undamaged. You should educate yourself on the 7 Leave No Trace Principles and follow them 100%. Camping without leaving a trace is absolutely possible and necessary for the longevity of these beautiful places.
- Avoid making trash in the first place: Before getting into how to avoid leaving trash behind, first consider how to avoid making any. There are plenty of reusable options for straws, cutlery, storage bags, you name it. Now that #zerowaste has really taken off, companies are starting to catch on and create reusable alternatives to single-use items. Stock up on these before you head out.
- Pack it in, pack it out: This is a common LNT phrase that is quite simple to understand. Whatever you bring with you, take it with you when you leave. Keep any trash in a separate bag so you can easily transport it out of the backcountry and properly dispose of it later. Do not bury your organic food scraps as animals may try to dig it up. Pack it all out, including your TP!
- Do your business according to LNT principles: If you gotta go, dig a cathole 6-8 inches deep and 200 feet from any water source. Cover it with dirt after you’re done.
- Be careful where you pitch your tent: Tents should be pitched on a durable surface like a designated campsite, rock, gravel, snow, or dry grass. You need to be at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
- Check your campsite: Don’t forget to check and double-check your campsite for anything else you might have accidentally left behind.
- Follow fire safe protocols: Never make a fire during a fire ban. If campfires are permitted, keep them small and within established fire rings or pans.
Car camping allows for more freedom and the ability to bring along much more than you could if you were backpacking. Let us know what your expert tips are for making the best car camping setup!
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