What is car camping exactly?
Put simply, it is when you load up all of your adventure gear in the car, drive up to a camping site and pitch a tent close by.
We know that car camping doesn’t offer the same benefits as remote backpacking sites (killer vistas, solitude, actually making you exercise) but what it doesn’t have it makes up for in comfort and convenience.
At the end of the day, it is a stellar option for those short-lived weekend escapes where you can’t afford (or you are just honestly feeling too lazy) to hike ten miles into a site.
Now that you know what car camping is, here are the best tips to keep in mind before you hit the road.
– Updated 2/9/2020
What Car Camping Is And What You Need To Bring
Table of Contents
Suitable Car Types For Car Camping
Orchestrating a successful car camping adventure starts with your biggest tool— your car. SUVs are a fine pick because you can probably fold down extra rear seats to accommodate more gear.
Trucks with a flat bed are also a great option, because you can pull out the trunk and use it as a miniature kitchen/gear station, and the simple rectangle bed makes it easy to organize and selectively grab items out of the back.
It isn’t impossible to use a small car like a Prius as a car camping vehicle, but often your gear ends up in a jumbled mess because you have to stack and squish to jam everything in there. But in the end, the ecologist in me is sad to say that bigger is better.
Now, here are the type of things to bring on a car camping trip.
Bring Luxury Items
This is your rare opportunity to bring everything that wouldn’t fit into your backpack!
- Extra firewood
- Two jet boils (so your coffee won’t have to taste like ramen)
- An extra propane grill or stove
- Extra thick sleeping pads
- Full sized pillows
- More jugs of water (or hydration packs)
- Extra soft toilet paper
- That hipster oil lamp you have.
Pack it all!
Bring a Cooler
Also, there’s no need to subsist on trail mix the whole time. Go ahead and bring a big cooler that’ll keep your beer cold all weekend. It’ll also allow you to refrigerate bratwurst, bacon, and eggs to cook more yummy home-style meals.
- Related: The 6 Best Coolers For Car Camping
If you are wondering what size cooler to bring, that depends on the size of your group and the duration of your weekend getaway. A three day trip with two people can get away with a small container.
But if you are rounding up all your college friends or plan on staging a family reunion you might want to opt for a heavy hitter. We like this Yeti Tundra Cooler.
Use Roof Top Cargo Storage
Have you ever wondered, “What are those big bags that strap to your car for camping called?” If so, no worries, haha. A lot of people wonder that. Those bags are roof top cargo bags.
No matter what car you have, it’s worth investing in a lightweight car top cargo bag like this Keeper Waterproof Roof Top Cargo Bag, so you can stash some gear above (out of sight, out of mind).
But if you plan on hitting the road often, you can spend a little extra dough on a more permanent hard shell storage unit such as the Apex Roof Cargo Box Storage Carrier. But take care to remember that you need roof racks to tie these suckers down.
Install a Roof Rack System
Regardless of which type of rooftop carrier you opt for, you are going to want to install sliding cross bars to stabilize the load. If you haven’t installed a roof rack cross bars before, it is easier than you would think. This video walks you through the simple process:
If you can’t check out the video, here’s a little summary: open up the clamps on the bar, space them evenly on top of the car running parallel to your roof racks, and simply tighten the screws and clamps til the cross bars are secure, then attach your cargo bag. Viola! I told you it was easy.
If you’re not sure which bars to get, the CargoLoc Roof Top Cross Bars are a fantastic choice.
Although, if you don’t want to install crossbars (or you simply lack a roof rack), you may want to look into a rear-mounted cargo carrier. Here’s the one we like: Rage Powersports Cargo Hitch Carrier.
Get a Spacious Tent
With those lightweight backpacking tents you end up getting packed in like sardines. So this is your opportunity to stretch out! Get a tent that is a little bigger than your needs and give yourself a little room to spread out.
- Related: The 6 Best Car Camping Tents
- Related: The Best 4 Person Tent For Camping & Backpacking
Why? Because it can be as large and as heavy as you want since you won’t be hauling the tent up a freaking mountain.
You might want to choose an easy up tent (no tent poles required) and are made of heavy duty materials and offer excellent shelter from wind and rain.
Check out our review of the 6 Best Camping Tents. Then check out our articles on how to keep your tent cool (when you’re in hot weather), and how to keep your tent warm (when you’re in cold weather).
Get Organized with Storage Containers
Hit your nearest Walmart hard and pick up some storage containers to pack everything up into hyper specific containers.
You don’t want to be rummaging blindly through bins and piles of stuff when you’re hungry or it starts to rain.
Like one for sleeping gear (pillows, blankets, sleeping pads and bags) another for all kitchen gear and food, then another for backpacks, hiking boots, and jackets.
Speaking from experience don’t pack away your headlamp, keep that in the glove box so you can avoid tearing apart these bins in the dark by the clumsy light of your iPhone.
An Exhaustive Car Camping Checklist
To make everything a tad easier I’m just going to list off every piece of gear you should throw in the car.
Feel free to print out this page, and use this as a checklist of what to bring for your next adventure so you don’t leave behind the important stuff like silverware (which I manage to leave behind every single time).
- Sleeping Bags
- Sleeping Pads
- Extra Blankies
- Comfy fold-out chairs
Equipment and Tools
- Garbage Bags
- Music Player
- Water Purifier
- Portable Heater (this is great for keeping your tent warm on cold nights!)
- Water Bottles
- Tableware (plates, bowles, utensils, etc.)
- Cutting board
- Aluminum Foil
- Coffee Maker
- Coffee Drip Cup
- Coffee Filters
- Dish rag
- Peanut Butter
- Spices (salt, pepper, paprika)
- Breakfast (eggs, oatmeal, bananas!)
- Dinner (meats, veggies, rice, fancy ramen)
- AND PLENTY OF WATER!
The Final Word
Phew! Now you know exactly what car camping is. Make sure to pack plenty of food, keep it all organized in bins and car top storage, spring for a luxurious tent and prepare for the easiest, pain free camping experience of your life.