The Ultimate Guide to Car Camping

The Ultimate Guide to Car Camping

The Ultimate Guide to Car Camping


Whether you’re planning to share a favorite outdoor hobby with your child or just looking to get them in the fresh air, it’s hard to beat the memories you can make on a car camping trip. Getting in the outdoors creates quality time you just can’t get at home.

Before you can start roasting marshmallows and hot dogs over an open fire, you’ll need a few things before you get started. Here are some things to think about to make your next camping trip as smooth as possible for you and your fellow campers:

The Best Car Camping Gear For A Camping Trip

Let’s start with the essentials: what do I need to prepare? The longer the car camping trip, the more gear you might need to pack. Whether you’re going out on your first trial trip or spending a few days at a campsite, you will need the following checklist of camping essentials:

  • A vehicle with plenty of cargo space (Otherwise, a rain-proof tent)
  • Sleeping bags and sleeping pads
  • First aid kit (If you don’t have one, create your own)
  • Flashlights
  • Spare Batteries
  • Rain Gear (Coats, ponchos)
  • Food and snacks (Such as granola bars and trail mix)
  • Plenty of water and water containers
  • Food
  • Camping stove and fuel
  • Camping lantern and fuel
  • Bug spray
  • A cooler
  • A bottle of sunscreen
  • Tarp
  • Whistles
  • Extra clothes

If that’s not enough, here’s our backpacking and camping checklist, from the bare minimum to everyday essentials. It’s important to note that weather is incredibly unpredictable, so be sure to bring the rainy day essentials just in case. Even if the days ahead look to be clear, it’s better to be prepared than not.

Keep in mind that if you’re traveling with family members and maybe even friends, you may need to bring multiples of everything on the above checklist. If you’re bringing your family along, consider giving your child a list and letting them pack a few items a well. This gives them a piece of responsibility for the trip. It also teaches them what is important to bring on a camping trip. If you have picky eaters, you might want to make a meal plan with a few choice foods to ensure happy campers. If you have a child who can’t seem to sit still, you might consider a few fun activities to keep them occupied. It may even be important to have them bring a few toys to keep them entertained throughout the trip.

Choose A Car Built for Car Camping

Before you head off and start loading up a shopping cart with camping gear, think about whether you have the right vehicle for your adventurous needs. Whether you are planning on car camping, tent camping, or towing a trailer, there’s a lot to think about. For intermediate campers looking to take this into consideration of their next car purchase, look for a car that prioritizes fuel efficiency, comfort, all-wheel drive, and cargo space.

Fuel Efficiency Matters

Who wants to spend all their trip money on stopping to buy gas every other hour? When it comes to camping, you need to go out of your way to make a round trip when a gas station may not always be nearby. Additionally, it’s not a good use of time or money when you have to travel long distances. It can be downright dangerous to not prioritize fuel efficiency — nobody wants to get stuck on the campgrounds.

Being Comfortable on Long Drives

You’ll want a vehicle that is incredibly spacious and equipped with comfortable seats. Though you may not notice it for shorter drives, your family will thank you on the drive to a campground.

For the longer drives, consider some classic family road games like Padiddle or the License Plate Game to help pass the time for kids and adults alike. You may even opt for more high-tech solutions. If you can find a car with great speaker systems, it’ll really enhance the family listening. If you have teenage children, have everyone take turns playing a song of choice.

Run Through Any Terrain With All-Wheel Drive

Another important aspect of camping is the terrain you are able to cross to get to a campsite. Whether you are car camping or in a tent just a few feet from your car, the terrain you’ll be traveling on during your adventure isn’t going to be as smooth as the streets. You need something with four- or all-wheel drive.

Look for vehicles with either four- or all-wheel drive for managing rougher terrain. Also, pay close attention to the amount of ground clearance to help you avoid a variety of road and off-road hazards. Combining that with the ability to climb over uneven road and handle wet ramps, you can rest and ride easily knowing that you have a reliable vehicle for all sorts of terrain. You won’t have to worry about getting stuck driving into your campground at night, or have trouble escaping muddy terrain.

The Importance of Cargo Space

When it comes to car camping, you can’t underestimate the importance of ample cargo space. It may even be the first thing you look for in a car meant for car camping. It helps with more than just storing extra clothes, blankets and tent gear. In your cargo space, you’ll need to store your cooler, emergency supplies, spare shoes, and souvenirs. The longer you’ve been away, the more you’ll want (and need) to bring back for friends, family and mantle.

It’s important to remember that more cargo space is vital to camping with groups too — whether you’re with your family or with your best friends, the more space in your car, the more you can pack for the road. Though it’s a bit unconventional, all that cargo space can provide enough space to slot a sleeping platform in. If car camping is your plan, you may want to take the time prior to your trip to build one. It can be challenging, yes, but it can be incredibly useful when you have it along for the ride. This way you can sleep comfortably without giving up your entire storage place. However, it may be difficult and rather uncomfortable with a significant other, kids, and a dog.

Find the best campsite

Once the gear and car are in order, finding a campsite is the last big decision you need to make. Though it will take a lot of research, it will also be the most fun for you. Thankfully, there’s an abundance of national parks, campgrounds, scenic sites, and gorgeous drives for you to choose from. Take the time to explore these options — compare campsites side-by-side to see which ones have your needs.

For many campsites, you’ll need to book a reservation in advance. Sometimes they’re free or nearly free, but you still need to take the time to find someplace nice. Campground space is limited, especially on weekends. This may even affect your parking if you’re car camping. You can essentially set up shop anywhere you can park, truly. Whether that’s a giant parking lot (Walmarts are a great option), a grassy field, or in a specifically designated area of a campground, be sure to research where you can park your vehicle ahead of time. You don’t want to get to a chosen campsite just to find out you can’t camp the way you imagined. Pulling off on the side of the road isn’t a bright idea either — your makeshift camping trip could get interrupted by unexpected visitors. Here’s a list of car camping sites you should add to your list.

Think about everything you’ll need to answer the question of just how much “roughing it” you’d like to do. If you’re new to camping, try and pick something just outside the city in case of emergencies. Plenty of state and national parks and organized campgrounds have such amenities as running water, showers, toilets and cooking grills that make camping just a little simpler for the less experienced camper or for families with young children. If you’d like to do a little hiking or explore a neighboring town, look for campgrounds with those amenities available. For veteran campers, a remote campsite may work if you plan on spending your time in and around the site.

Make a Camping Game Plan

Once you find a campground, it’s time to chalk up the itinerary. Think about when you want to arrive, how long it will take to set up camp and prepare food, etc. Perhaps go as far as planning in hiking or fishing too. Have a few activity ideas ready for days ahead to help you refine what to bring.

Don’t exhaust yourself planning every minute of your trip, but be sure to stay organized! If you’re bringing family with you, children to return items to one place to keep essentials always easy to find. This is especially important when car camping and space is limited. Instruct them on proper safety habits, like carrying a whistle and flashlight in case they get separated from you. Point out important landmarks from your campsite to help your child memorize your site’s location.

What are you waiting for? After reading this guide, you’re ready to get out there and camp!

Ian Campbell Ian Campbell is the founder of Love the Backcountry and a long time lover of adventure travel. When not writing about the backcountry, he can typically be found hiking, backpacking and camping in the mountains and looking to lay his head beneath as many trees as he can find.