What is car camping?

On the Road 4 min read

For people who want to get out and enjoy the outdoors but want to keep some of the comforts of home, car camping provides the best of both worlds. Instead of backpacking into a remote campsite and carrying all your supplies, with car camping, you can drive up to your campsite and pitch your tent right next to your vehicle. You can even sleep in your car, truck, or SUV if the configuration is suitable. Car camping is a great way for beginning campers to get accustomed to sleeping outside and enjoying all that nature offers.

Car camping is popular for many reasons. It’s much easier to bring your kids or your dog along since you can drive right up to the campsite. You don’t have to be an expert on the outdoors to enjoy a car camping setup – you can reserve a spot at a campground with lots of amenities and you can bring many everyday items with you instead of purchasing special lightweight gear. And you can likely find a campground that’s not too far away, so you can go for just a night or two over a weekend without making it into an elaborate vacation.

Car camping essentials

To make the most of your car camping experience, you need the right gear. This doesn’t mean you have to break the bank by buying lots of new equipment, however. Lots of what you’ll end up bringing are items you likely already have. You might need to invest in a tent or sleeping bags if you don’t own them, but there are plenty of budget-friendly choices that will keep you warm, dry, and comfortable. Here are some ideas for car camping essentials to get you on your way:

  • Find a tent that makes sense for you. It’s up to you to figure out how big and fancy you want your tent to be. One important factor is size — tents are generally sized in terms of how many adults can sleep in them. You might want a larger tent for the sake of comfort, though. While younger kids may not take up a lot of space, they might move around a lot while they try to get to sleep (and might need to get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night).
  • Choose your sleeping bags wisely. There’s no shortage of options when it comes to sleeping bags, but if you’re going to be car camping, you may not need the most expensive choices. Select one that’s comfortable and has a reasonable temperature rating to keep you warm for your camping conditions. You can always supplement a sleeping bag by bringing extra blankets from home.
  • Get something to use as a sleeping pad. Since you’ll be driving right up to the campsite in your vehicle, you could bring a bulky memory foam pad. Or you can opt for a camping-specific pad that’s suitable to use in your tent, in the bed of a pickup, or almost anywhere. Just remember to bring something that you won’t mind getting dusty or dirty. There are also inflatable air mattresses that could work, though they might take up more room in your tent.
  • Bring what you need for a great meal. You’ll have room to bring creature comforts like a portable stove, plates, cups, and silverware; a couple of pots and pans; and even a cooler for food and drinks. You don’t have to subsist on trail mix and freeze-dried meals, which can be expensive. You can also cook food over your campfire if you have the right equipment — and if you’re planning to just roast hot dogs and marshmallows over the flames, a long stick should do the trick!
  • Pack sensible clothes and toiletries. In general, less is more when it comes to your wardrobe in the woods. Bring items on your car camping packing list that are suitable for the season, but you don’t need to overpack. Dressing in layers can help you regulate your temperature, so you aren’t too hot or cold. Make sure you bring essential toiletries from home, and any medications you need, plus outdoor musts such as insect repellent and sunscreen.
  • Ensure your comfort. Bring foldable chairs, so you have somewhere to sit aside from a campsite picnic table or a random log. Have some blankets on hand in case it gets chilly. You might want to bring a portable charger if you want a handy way to power an air compressor to inflate an air mattress or to charge your mobile devices. It’s good to have a cell phone in case of emergency, but if you’re in a remote area, remember that your service might be spotty.

Car camping checklist

When you’re ready to head out, make sure you have everything you need to be comfortable. Your preferences will vary, but here’s a car camping checklist you can start with:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag/pad/pillow
  • Cooking stove and fuel
  • Cooking implements and utensils
  • Trash bags, paper towels
  • Everyday clothes (think layering), including shoes
  • Rainproof clothes and hiking boots
  • Headlamp/flashlight/lantern
  • Duct tape
  • Extra rope
  • First aid kit
  • Toiletries
  • Shower tote and sandals
  • Insect repellent
  • Sunscreen

How to get started car camping

You’ve got lots of choices when it comes to finding a spot to go camping. It’s easy to book a reservation online, though it’s best to do it early if you can — particularly for busy weekend times and holidays. Through Recreation.gov, you can search thousands of public locations around the country or close to home.

You can also focus on the nation’s state parks, many of which are short drives from big cities, or find a county or regional park that offers camping. There are plenty of private campgrounds to pick from, but you may want to contact them directly to learn about availability. Regardless of how far you plan to drive, you can learn more about auto insurance before you hit the road.

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