All the Gear You Need for Car CampingPublished on 04/06/2023 · 7 min readMake sure you pack all the essentials on your next camping trip with this gear guide for car camping from Camping and Hiking Expert Nicole O.!
Photo by Victor Larracuente
As a lifelong outdoors enthusiast, I’ve taken my fair share of car camping trips all throughout this country. In that time, I’ve developed a handy shortlist of some of the top items to bring along on the adventure. So in this guide, we’ll be discussing everything you may need to pack to make sure your next car camping trip goes off without a hitch. Plus, gear recommendations to help get you out the door and into the great outdoors sooner. While each suggestion is not essential for a successful car camping experience, our list of recommendations include:
- Sleeping Bag
- Sleeping Pad
- Cooking Tools
- Small Essentials
- Change of Clothes
As always, feel free to reach out to a Curated Camping & Hiking Expert, who can build you a customized car-camping checklist to suit your needs. Now let’s get started!
I’d venture to guess that the first thing that pops into your head when you think of camping is a tent. Though if you prefer sleeping inside your car, you won’t need it.
For those who do plan to sleep outdoors, you'll need to take into account a few key factors to find an appropriate tent for your needs. These include: the number of people who will be sleeping in the tent, how much room you’d ideally like between sleepers, and the weather you'll be encountering on your trip.
Personally, I use a small two-person tent that doubles as a backpacking tent. When I’m solo, it provides me with extra room. Although, it’s also roomy enough to share with a friend. If you prefer extra space, it’s wise to “size up” a tent for one or two more people than you plan on having.
Sleeping bags are essential to keeping you warm and cozy at night. They work best when you select the right size for you and temperature rating for the weather you’ll be encountering.
Though I own multiple sleeping bags, I also use a dedicated car camping bag in order to give my backpacking sleeping bag a rest. These are typically quite cheap, made from softer materials, and feature a rectangular cut. Plus, if you're camping with a partner, many manufacturers offer double sleeping bags and models that can be zipped together for added insulation at night—as long as their zippers are compatible.
- Single: Kelty Galactic 30 Degree
- Double: Marmot Idlewild Double Sleeping Bag
On my very first backpacking trip, I thought I would be fine sleeping on the ground. That’s a mistake I never have repeated and never will!
A sleeping pad insulates your body from the cold ground beneath you. No matter how cozy your campsite is, or warm your sleeping bag is, without a sleeping pad, the ground will suck the warmth out of you all night long.
A sleeping pad's ability to insulate your body is rated by its R-value. A value of 1 works well for warm, summer nights; 5+ will prepare you for a freezing, winter night. And if you have extra space in your tent, some campers prefer to use an air mattress instead.
Apart from a sufficient supply of food (and importantly, snacks), depending on what you’ll be eating, you’ll need to bring a few other pieces of equipment to prepare, serve, and dispose of it.
Some campgrounds offer amenities like grillsites. If not, a simple propane camp stove works wonders. If you’d like to go fancy instead, a stove with multiple burners will allow you to make chef-inspired meals.
Further, be sure to pack dining utensils (especially the versatile “spork”), hand sanitizer, pots, pans, and a mug or thermos for your morning coffee. If you're bringing fresh food, or cooking a more complicated dish, you may need a cutting board, knife, paper towels, tongs, or other cooking utensils.
An ice-filled cooler keeps your beverages cold and allows you to pack fresh food without worrying about it spoiling. Take it from me, cold fruit and drinks are effective at keeping morale high on a hot day.
While you can safely bet a developed campground will feature spigots with potable water, be sure to check ahead of time. Just in case, I always bring a few gallons of jug water to refill my Nalgene with.
By simply throwing a few trash bags in your car, you can keep your campsite clean and easy to manage. However, note that certain campsites (Yosemite, notably) require food and trash to be stored in bear canisters away from your car.
Depending on your environment, bug spray may be crucial to keeping you free from bites and itches. Similarly, it’s never a bad idea to pack sunscreen—no matter the time of year.
A quality first-aid kit is also a sound idea. Since it could be useful at any moment, I keep my kit in my car at all times. Though it’s even more crucial on a camping trip, where there’s a chance you may find yourself far from help should an issue arise.
If you’re traveling off the beaten path, it’s important to bring a way to charge your devices, such as phones, headlamps/lanterns, and, in remote areas, a satellite phone. Certain campgrounds offer outlets located at each campsite, or, more commonly, an outlet located in the main bathroom area. In that case, a charging block with multiple ports is useful for charging all of your devices at once.
When camping in areas that do not offer access to a steady electricity source, you’re left with a few options. On shorter trips, you can use your car's auxiliary power outlet to charge small devices while driving to and from trailheads. For longer trips, try an already-charged battery pack. Or, why not use a solar charger?
While not necessary, camp furniture can help make your trip more enjoyable. Camp chairs are great for eating, chilling, and just enjoying the view, and camp tables give space to organize when cooking for multiple people. Meanwhile, a sun shade protects against extreme heat and solar exposure in hot areas. And string lights are always a nice touch to make your campsite really pop.
- Camp Chair: Kelty Lowdown Chair
- Camp Table: Crazy Creek Roll Up Table
- Sun Shade: Eureka! Nobugzone Screen
- String Lights: Biolite Sitelight String
Change of Clothes
When compared with backpacking, the major perk of car camping is the ability to carry more supplies and items. So, use that extra space to pack the layers and clothes for the temperatures and conditions you may encounter on your trip.
I recommend a pair of hiking shoes or boots for the daytime, and a pair of "camp shoes", like slippers or sandals, for more low-key activities—like finding the toilet in the dark. Further, packing a reliable rain jacket (and rain pants) can safeguard against living to tell the tale of a wet, miserable tent assembly. Plus, a pair of wool socks and gloves to sleep in are priceless on a chilly night.
Essentials include a toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo, soap, and conditioner (for our glampers), and a shower caddy to carry it all to and from the bathrooms. And while it’s easy to do, don’t forget shower shoes and a towel. While certain campsites rent out these materials, you will always save money by bringing your own.
When the campground doesn't feature showers, a pack of baby wipes helps to keep some semblance of hygiene going. Plus, I always pack a roll of toilet paper with me—just in case.
Chat With a Real Expert
Car camping is one of the fastest and easiest ways to spend a night under the stars, but that doesn’t mean it can be done without a checklist. If you still have questions about what supplies you’ll need to pack for your specific camping trip, reach out to a Curated Camping & Hiking Expert. We offer free, customized gear recommendations, and love helping to spread our passion for the outdoors.