Have you ever felt the urge to just pack your bags, hit the road, and get lost in the great outdoors? If so, car camping might just be the thing for you. It’s all about enjoying nature without entirely giving up on some convenient and basic comforts, like your trusty vehicle. In this blog post, we’ll delve deep into what is car camping and provide you with some practical tips to make your car camping experience one to remember.
What is Car Camping?
Car camping is a form of camping where you drive your car or SUV to a campsite and sleep in or near your vehicle. Unlike backpacking, where you hike to a remote campsite with just a backpack, car camping allows you to bring more gear and supplies since everything can be loaded into your car. For those new to camping or who want more comfort and amenities while enjoying the outdoors, car camping is a great way to get started.
Car camping provides an accessible and convenient way to camp while still enjoying nature and the outdoors. Here are some of the main benefits of car camping:
- More Comfort: You can bring items like air mattresses, cots, thick sleeping pads, camp chairs, and other furniture to make your campsite more comfortable. This type of camping often feels more like “glamping.”
- Easy to Pack: With your vehicle right at your campsite, you can pack as much gear, food, and other items as your car can hold. There is no need to pare down or carry a heavy backpack.
- Quick Setup: Once you arrive at your campsite, setup is faster and easier since you don’t have to hike anything in. Just park, unpack your gear from the car, and start setting up your tent and camp.
- Access to Amenities: Many car camping sites have amenities like restrooms, showers, picnic tables, fire rings, and sometimes Wi-Fi and power hookups. This allows for easier camping.
- Great for Beginners: For those new to camping, car camping is an easy way to start without having to invest in a ton of specialized lightweight backpacking gear. Car camping has a more gentle learning curve.
- Fun for Families and Groups: The ability to bring more gear and supplies makes car camping ideal for families, groups, and those who want more room to spread out at camp.
Getting Started with Car Camping
If you’re interested in trying car camping, there are a few key things you’ll need to get started: gear, a vehicle, a place to camp, and some safety tips. Use this guide to help plan for your first car camping trip.
Car Camping Gear Essentials
While you don’t need specialized lightweight backpacking equipment, there are some essentials to bring on your car camping trip:
- Tent: A 3- to 4-person tent or larger works well for car camping, so you have room to move around and store gear inside. Dome-style tents and cabin-style tents are popular options.
- Sleeping bags and pads: You’ll want sleeping bags rated for the expected weather and insulated sleeping pads for comfort and warmth when sleeping on the ground. Inflatable sleeping pads or cots are common for car camping.
Food & Water
- Camp stove and fuel: A portable camp stove allows you to cook meals at your campsite. Propane-fueled stoves are easy to use.
- Cooler: A cooler keeps your food and drinks cold. Hard-sided models work best, and you can supplement with ice.
- Water bottles and hydration packs: Bring plenty of water and ways to transport and drink it. Hydration packs with bladders are convenient for hiking and activities away from camp.
- Camp chairs – Portable chairs provide comfortable seating around the fire or at your site.
- Headlamps, lanterns – Illumination at night when you don’t want to run the car. Battery-powered or rechargeable models are best.
- First aid kit – A basic kit with bandages, medicines, ointments, etc. to treat minor injuries and ailments.
- Multi-tool or pocket knife – Helpful for minor repairs, cutting rope, opening packages, etc.
- Sun protection – Such as hats, sunglasses, sun shirts, and sunscreen
- Insect repellent – Keep bugs away from your campsite.
- Extra blankets – For added comfort and staying warm at night.
Choosing a Car Camping Vehicle
When car camping, your vehicle acts as your basecamp and transports all of your camping gear to the site. When selecting a vehicle, consider these factors:
- Type of vehicle – SUVs, crossovers, mini-vans, hatchbacks, station wagons, and pickup trucks all work well for car camping and have good cargo space. Sedans can work but are more limited on space.
- Gas mileage – Look at the MPG rating if you’ll be driving far. Crossovers and mini-vans can balance cargo room and efficiency.
- Ground clearance – If driving on rougher dirt roads, higher ground clearance helps.
- AWD/4WD – Useful if you’ll be on unpaved, muddy roads, but not always necessary.
- Roof racks – Adding roof racks, cargo bins, or rooftop tents can expand your storage.
- Size of group – Make sure to pick a vehicle that has enough room for all your passengers and gear.
No matter what you choose, picking any car with adequate cargo space will work!
Finding a Car Camping Location
There are many places you can go car camping, including:
- National and state parks: These parks have drive-in campgrounds specifically designated for car camping with well-developed sites and amenities. Reservations are often required.
- Public lands: Public lands like national forests and BLM land have free dispersed camping where you can camp outside of designated campgrounds if you’re okay with minimal facilities.
- Private campgrounds: Privately owned campground parks are found across the country and range from rustic to luxury glamping sites with pools, stores, and activities.
- Free camping: Options like staying in parking lots overnight or at highway truck stops and rest areas Check municipal codes first.
- Backcountry – If your vehicle has higher ground clearance, you can look for forest service roads and 4×4 trails that access backcountry campsites. Dispersed camping along these rough roads is an option.
No matter where you go, always research camping regulations, required permits, and where camping is allowed before choosing a spot to camp. Practice Leave No Trace ethics when car camping on public lands.
Safety Tips for Car Camping
Exercise some additional safety precautions when car camping:
- Let someone know your trip details, including your camp location, in case of an emergency.
- Check in with park rangers & visitor centers so they are aware of your plans while camping on public lands.
- Stay visible, and don’t park your car hidden from view if camping in unauthorized locations.
- Be bear-aware and safely store all food and scented items if camping in bear country.
- Watch weather reports and avoid camping in flash flood zones and drainages during monsoon season.
- Have emergency supplies like a first aid kit, extra water, a flashlight, blankets, and jumper cables.
- Watch your step when getting in and out of your car at night, and use a headlamp.
- Mind exhaust pipes when running your car, and don’t park over dry grass.
Setting Up For a Car Camping Trip
Once you arrive at your car camping destination, it’s time to set up your campsite and get settled in. Here are some tips for unpacking and getting set up:
Packing Your Car
When loading the car, think about what you’ll need at the campsite versus items that can stay packed in the car. Organize gear so you can access items efficiently.
- Gear for campsite – Tent, sleeping bags/pads, camp chairs, stove, grill, tables, food, cooler, lighting, etc. Load last so it’s accessible.
- Clothing/personal items – Things you may want at camp like jackets, closed-toed shoes, toiletries, and electronics to keep charged.
- Emergency items – First aid kit, flashlights, tire chains, jumper cables, tools, spare tire, etc. Ideally pack where accessible.
- Overflow items – Firewood, bikes, kayaks, or other large gear may need to be strapped on top if it doesn’t fit inside.
Setting Up Your Campsite
Look for a flat, high, and dry tent site that’s protected from the wind if possible. Clear the area of sticks, rocks, and debris before setting up:
- Position your car so you have easy access to the rear for unpacking. Don’t fully block roads or trails.
- Set up your tent and arrange sleeping bags/pads inside before unpacking other items.
- Use a camping table and prep area for your camp stove, food, and cooking.
- Set up camp chairs in a circle or around your fire ring if building a campfire.
- Position coolers in the shade and organize drinking water and food for easy access.
Camping Meals and Cooking Gear
One of the fun parts about car camping is eating well while camping. With your car nearby, you can bring fresh ingredients, perishable foods, and even cook elaborate meals on a camp stove. Here are some car camping cooking tips:
- Bring a dual-burner propane stove for boiling water and cooking hot meals.
- Cookware like pots, pans, kettles, plates, utensils, cups, paper towels, dish soap, etc.
- Store food in a cooler with ice, and consider bringing a separate dry food box.
- Pre-make foil packet meals with veggies, meat, and spices you can toss on the grill or stove.
- Plan out all meals and ingredients. Pre-cut produce at home for easier cooking in camp.
- Bring lighter fluid and matches to start a campfire for grilling food over the open flame.
- Foil, skewers, and grill grates allow you to cook directly over your fire.
- Bring a cutting board, knife, utensils, spices, cooking oil/butter, salt/pepper, ziplock bags.
Things to Do While Car Camping
Once you’re set up, there’s plenty of fun to be had camping from your car. Here are some car camping trip activities:
- Go hiking, fishing, paddling, swimming, mountain biking
- Play traditional camping games like cornhole, ladder ball, or bocce ball
- Do arts, crafts, or journaling; the campsite provides scenic inspiration
- Try photography, painting, writing, or other creative hobbies
- Play music around the campfire; bring guitars, harmonicas, etc.
- Go birdwatching and wildlife viewing early in the morning
- Take relaxing walks through beautiful natural areas nearby
- Identify plants, trees, constellations, and other features around you
- Sit by a lake or stream and skip rocks or write
- Look for shooting stars and interesting night skies
- Download a stargazing app and try to identify planets and constellations
- Bring binoculars or a telescope to enhance nighttime sky viewing
- Take long-exposure photos of the stars and Milky Way with a tripod
- Get cozy in a camp chair or blanket and gaze upwards
- Enjoy the sights and sounds of nature at night, like owls and coyotes
Staying Comfortable in Your Car
Don’t want to pitch a tent? You can also sleep right in your car/SUV when car camping:
- Recline the seats fully to create a flat sleeping surface
- Use a mattress, sleeping pad, or inflatable camping mattress for comfort
- Block windows with curtains or sunshades for privacy and darkness
- Run the car periodically if it’s cold out for heat, but don’t idle overnight
- Purchase an SUV air mattress or tent specifically sized for SUV and minivan rear cargo areas
- Bring blankets, pillows, eye masks, ear plugs, and comfort items to create a cozy car sleeping space
Conclusion and Final Thoughts
Remember, car camping is less about the destination and more about the journey and the experience. It allows you to enjoy the great outdoors with some additional comfort and flexibility.
Embrace the spontaneity that car camping offers – take impromptu turns, find hidden trails and views, and relish the freedom of the open road. Whether it’s your first time trying out car camping or you’re a seasoned pro, we hope these tips will make your next car camping adventure a memorable one.
Now, it’s time for you to hit the road and embrace the adventure that awaits! Happy car camping!
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir
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Frequently Asked Questions
Can I camp in my car anywhere?
While some areas allow dispersed camping, it’s essential to check local regulations and choose designated campsites.
What gear do I need for my first car camping trip?
Basic gear includes a tent, sleeping bag, cooking utensils, and essentials like clothing and personal items.
How do I stay safe while car camping?
Prioritize safety with a well-equipped first aid kit, knowledge of local wildlife, and adherence to camping regulations.
Is car camping only for beginners?
No, car camping caters to a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts, providing comfort and convenience for all experience levels.