Car Camping Tips for a Safe, Fun and Low-Cost Trip
Outdoor activities can seem daunting. Maybe the idea of carrying a heavy pack into the woods and sleeping on the ground isn’t your idea of a good time — and all of that lightweight backpacking gear can be prohibitively expensive. But you don’t need to hike out into the deep wilderness to enjoy nature: your own car can be the perfect place to stargaze and experience the natural world around you. Car camping is a much more affordable, comfortable way to get outdoors. Whether you’re planning for a road trip and want to avoid the expense and hassle of setting up at a campsite every night, or need to get an early start on a hike the next morning, getting comfortable in your car is an awesome option.
The idea of car camping might conjure up images of big vans and SUVs decked out with fully fledged beds and string lights, but even smaller cars can be outfitted for a comfortable night’s sleep. Putting down the front seats or sleeping horizontally with some additional setup can help — YouTube and Instagram are treasure troves of advice from master campers about fitting in whatever space you have. However, whatever your setup, make sure to test it out at home before you head out — you don’t want to find yourself in the wilderness at night unable to fit in your car.
Finding a Spot
Before heading out, do some research on where exactly you’ll stay, especially if you’re spending multiple nights on the road. Apps like AllStays, Hipcamp, The Dyrt and Campendium are great resources for finding a campsite for cars and tents alike. For federal campgrounds, check out recreation.gov.
Some established campsites will allow campers to drive their car right up to their site. Official campgrounds also tend to offer amenities like bathrooms and running water, but you’ll usually need to book well in advance of your trip and pay a fee. If you want a more remote, cost-friendly experience, dispersed campsites are your best bet for car camping. Most national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands (and some state parks) allow dispersed camping, but check their individual websites before making any plans. U.S. Forest Service roads are also usually open for overnight camping and parking. Once you get to your destination, find a flat, shady spot to park and set up camp, making sure you’re not blocking the road or trail for other visitors. If you’re bringing your dog, you’ll also want to make sure they’re permitted to go off-leash.
What to Pack
Besides food and sleeping necessities, you’ll need some other essentials before getting out for the night. REI’s Camping Essentials Checklist is a great place to start. A roofbag for storing gear is helpful, if possible, as it’ll free up more space inside the car for comfortable sleeping.
Regardless of whether you’re sleeping in a tent or in a car, having warm, comfortable clothing is key. In general, it’s best to avoid cotton in favor of wool or breathable, synthetic fabrics that wick moisture away from the body. Because temperatures in the mountains tend to drop significantly after sundown, make sure to bring plenty of layers. Even if the idea of a jacket, hat and wool socks feels unfathomable on a hot summer day, you’ll need them to stay warm at night. A pair of camp shoes — any kind of sandals or slip-ons with traction — can make your evening much more comfortable, especially if you’ve been in hiking boots all day. Chairs and a small table for eating will also make your campsite an enjoyable place to spend the evening.
You don’t want to have to run your car at the campsite in order to charge your phone or provide light for the campsite, so come prepared with portable (or solar-powered) chargers and plenty of lighting options like lanterns, flashlights and headlamps. A couple of extra plastic bags can go a long way, too, for storing trash and recycling. To keep everything organized in the car — clothing, non-perishable snacks, toiletries, etc. — pack into transparent plastic bins for easy access.
Cooking / Water
One of the best parts of car camping is getting to keep all of your food in the car, and not having to worry about securing it from bears and other wildlife. Pack a cooler to keep inside the car with all perishable food items. Storing it in the footwell of the front seat overnight gives you some extra space in the back.
If you want to skip cooking altogether, bring takeout for the first night, and easy things to eat for breakfast in the morning. Otherwise, plan out your meals and pack accordingly. Pre-made foods like sandwiches and salads are great, but if you want to do any cooking, consider buying (or borrowing) a small camp stove to cook simple meals. Easy meals that only require boiling water to prepare — like ramen noodles, oatmeal, and dehydrated meals — require minimal prep and supplies. Consider preparing certain elements of the meal (like rice, cooked veggies, etc.) at home and just heating them up upon arrival to cut down on dishes and prep time.
Bringing enough water is a must, too. Having a filter to collect water from natural sources is great, but if you’re heading out for just a night, you can probably bring all the water you need with you. Plan for at least two liters of drinking water per day per person, and also consider what else you’ll need water for: cleaning dishes, cooking and washing up. Keep water in large jugs, or invest in a few packable water bladders or cubes that can be compressed and put away, saving precious space in your car during the night.
Setting Up a Sleep System
When setting up your sleep system for the night, ventilation is perhaps the most important concern. Cars get stuffy with all of the windows up, and they’ll fog up during the night (especially if multiple people are sharing the space). Since it’s unsafe to sleep with the car on and the windows rolled up, you’ll need to get airflow in another way. Keep a window or the sunroof cracked just wide enough so critters aren’t able to get inside. Opening two windows across from one another can create a nice cross-breeze, too. In the summer, however, mosquitoes might find their way in, and you’ll wake up covered in itchy bites. Make a DIY screen for your windows by taking a piece of mesh and using painters tape to secure it to the inside of the car around the edges of the window (you can use the same tactic for hanging curtains to keep out the bright morning sun). Many outdoor shops also sell stretchable screens to pull over windows.
With proper ventilation set up, it’s time to build a cozy bed. Some hardcore car campers will build a platform to fit in the back of their car for sleeping, but this certainly isn’t vital for car camping. If your car has a large trunk and a second row of seats that can be lowered — like an SUV — it’s a little easier to set up, but custom inflatable car mattresses can fit right into a typical sedan and extend the sleeping space over the footwells of the back seat. In a trunk, you have the freedom of using camping mats of all temperature grades and weights; since you don’t have to worry about protecting your body from the cold ground, even an air mattress can work (that is, if you have a way of pumping it up without an outlet). Remember, however, that a car is just as cold as a tent. Bring temperature-graded sleeping bags and insulated blankets, as well as extra comforters and pillows.
Most importantly, never sleep in a car with the engine on and the windows rolled up, which can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s also a good idea to keep all food inside the car to prevent bears and other wildlife from visiting your campsite.
Whether camping in a tent or in your car, fire safety is very important. About 85% of all wildfires are caused by humans, and campfires can impact the ecosystems surrounding your campsite. First, check if campfires are even allowed in the area, and if there’s an existing fire pit, always use that before building a new one. Before breaking out the s’mores and campfire songs, read more about wilderness fire safety here.
As always, follow the rules of Leave No Trace whenever entering a natural space. This means leaving the spot the same (or better) than you find it but disposing of all waste properly, respecting wildlife and minimizing your impact whenever possible. Check out our camping guide for Leave No Trace information and general safety tips while camping, car-side or otherwise.